Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Parting Thoughts on South Africa

Beyond a scribble on a map, I wish to round off these writings from Southern Africa with a look back to my first entry (http://walter82.blogspot.com/2008/09/long-haul-to-southern-africa.html). In this I alluded to a lengthy conversation with a South African I met on my first night. He painted an apocalyptic picture of South Africa's future. Crime, corruption and disease combining to bring the country to its knees. Flight of people and capital. Implosion.

At the time my reaction was as follows:

"I really did not know what to make of all of this. So for now I make no comment. I have 6 weeks ahead of me to explore, debate and learn. I hope I find his predictions way off the mark."

Throughout this trip these predictions have rumbled around and about my brain. As I spiralled around from Zambia, into Malawi, down Mozambique and eventually into South Africa itself I raised this subject with many I met and added context with readings about the region.

It is painful to admit that the majority opinion rested not far from that found on the first night. Rife corruption choking up systems of business and politics. Despite solid economic growth, crippling economic problems. An unemployment rate somewhere between 20 and 40% (depending on the method of calculation). Massive problems of inequality only partially tempered by the rise of an affluent black middle-class. Large sectors of the population feel let down. Their expectations have not been met and frustration is simmering. A crime profile as frightening as any place on earth. It seemed everyone I met knew a friend, family member or colleague who had been a victim of violent crime.

Then comes AIDS. In comparative success stories like Mozambique, this devastation is wreaking havoc, wiping out the most productive parts of the population. On the brink of meaningful, long-lasting development, countries are cruelly pulled back. In South Africa, a country on a different stratosphere of development to its neighbours, this scourge threatens to push it economically and politically over the edge. The unfathomable incompetence of Mbeki in this regard has only confounded the problem. Despite the best efforts of many, in a country with such a difficult past and of such social and monied extremes, the balance is delicate.

Unfortunately, it seems plausible that the combination of complicating factors could destroy this balance and tip the country backwards, fast. To what ends how can one predict, but the ruins of Zimbabwe are bone-chillingly near.

So what for hope. South Africa has come along way from its divisive past. For many it is a miracle that it has come this far. It is the economic power-house of Africa, the doorway to the region. This is not merely a statistical fact. On crossing from surrounding countries, the level of infrastructure and modernity shifts seismically. It has a head start.

Alongside the millions who have little, there are many who have much. The sight of just how much and the stern character of many who have it suggest numbers will stay, however circumstances develop (in reality, many could not leave even if they had the desire). South Africa needs the skills and knowledge of these people for all to develop, but if the politics turn sour and the country further divides on racial lines, havoc is on the horizon. If neither side budge, South Africa walks the line of conflict.

In this regard Mandela has been a shinging light. I am in awe of his lack of spite and sheer bravery. The message of reconciliation from someone of such stature and who had sacrificed so much was and is glue that helped South Africa come this far. Alas he has long relinquished the reigns and can not live for ever. If his ideals die with him hope fades.

I freely admit I have had but a thin introduction to this complex arena and am not in a position to give a valued opinion. But, none the less, my opinion this is.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Cape Town Revisited

Marvelling at the city basking below as cloud gently sifts across the mountain. Losing the plot after dark in kick-arse rock bars. Climbing Lion’s Head with a killer hangover, the veils of a headache clearing just in time for an eternal moment – perched out on the rock ledge, staring at the vast Atlantic as it crashes into the Seven Apostles.

I choose to add nothing further to my farewell thoughts on this wonderful city (http://walter82.blogspot.com/2008/10/cape-town.html), but a photo or few never went amiss.

An end to a great journey shared with great friends - memories that last a life time.

"Good shit eh?"
video

Saturday, December 13, 2008

The Klein Karoo - Big Birds, Little Beasts and a Sex Shop

A nip back along the coast to George, inland, up and across the Outeniqua Mountains. A beautiful winding pass. Rugged peaks that divide the coast from the hinterland. Geological features which act as a buffer from the oceanic rain and in doing so define the region. To the south, the green, lush Garden Route. To the north, the semi-desert Klein Karoo.
video
After an hour gawping at the passing mountains, the scenery opened up and before us was a wide open plain, backed by far off hills. Reddy-orange earth with scattered greenery. The occasional small hut and then…..a big bird….two big birds….tonnes of big birds. On to Oudtshoorn, the heart of the Klein Karoo and home to the world’s largest ostrich population.

BIG BIRD, LITTLE BRAIN

As was becoming habit, we skidded into our destination with barely a minute to spare. We were just in time to join the last ostrich farm tour of the day. One word for the experience – silly.
From having these distinctly unintelligent birds (each of their eyes is apparently bigger than their brains) feeding out our hands with marked ferocity, to standing on eggs, looking at pickled bird bits and of course ostrich racing. The latter of these was the main draw. Comedy genius - jumping on the back of one of the birds and chaotically riding (or more accurately being ridden) around until you’re chucked head over heels in one of an array of directions that invariably leads to a rude embrace of hard earth. Hysterics all round and the birds barely seemed to notice. video
An ostrich race later, where the pro’s showed us how it should be done, we piled off to find our picturesque little hostel.
All hippified with a wonderful sunset vista, we watched the sun sink into the east. Electric-blue sky set off by ripples of cloud burning with the majesty and likeness of fire.
To cap off an action-packed day we took advantage of our sterling at one of the best ostrich restaurants in the world – Jemima’s (http://www.jemimas.com/home.php). Tender, succulent red meat. Great wine, fascinating decor and good company. Two very nice English girls came with us and, with polo playing routes, added to the strange feeling of being rather prim and proper for a night. If you are ever in this part of the world make sure you check this place out.

LITTLE MAMMAL, BIG BRAIN

As the sun had set, it was these same girls who had convinced us to join them before sunrise on a unique safari. I say convinced us, but really mean convinced Bassett, Rupert and myself. Dingo was not amused with the proposition…
You may have seen the long running BBC nature programme, Meekat Manner. This is based around a joint UK/SA research project in the Kalahari into the habits of the meerkat. One of the founders of this enterprise was the meerkat man himself Mr Grant M.Mc Ilrath. A while back he broke away and set up a new project based around his controversial research techniques. The result is Meekat Magic.
The Meerkat Man
In case you have never seen one of these creatures, they are small carnivores about a foot high, closely related to the mongoose and somewhat resembling prairie dogs. Living in groups, they are famous for their communal behaviour, one always standing high on his hind-legs scouring the sky and terrain for danger while the rest forage.

Arriving before first light to see the little furry things emerge shivering from a burrow, Grant spent the next 3 or so hours sharing more information that you may ever care to know about his obsession while we followed the Meerkats around on their morning chores. Perhaps the last hour would have gone better with a touch of coffee, but a fascinating experience.

What is most remarkable is no-one believed him that these animals were here. Farmers who had raised birds on this land for generations had never seen one. He was laughed at. Not-deterred, he kept on his search with the confidence given by years of research into Meerkats. Bloody minded no doubt - this was the sort of place they should and he was going to find them!
Find them he did and over a slow process (I believe it took 2 years or so), starting with watching them from hide’s half a mile away, he managed to get closer and closer until he was standing right next to a group of creatures which no-one round here had seen, let alone managed to approach. To them he was just part of the scenery. An animal posing no threat and since we were with him we must be fine. If ever they became concerned, with a series of hand-gestures or clicks he laid them at ease. Not communicating so much, as making the sort of noises and movements they had learned to associate with him. Ah…that’s him….he does all those strange things and is harmless.

He showed us how the local animals rely on each other for protection. It makes sense really, the more pairs of eyes and ears the safer everyone is. Rodents, birds, deer, they recognise the alarm calls of each other and act accordingly. With their trigger-finger senses, meerkats are at the core of this neighbourhood watch scheme.
With the meerkat comfortable with us, it follows that the other animals were relaxed with our presence. I mean if those uber careful little meerkats don’t mind those odd bipedal things then they must be fine. To my amazement I saw this theory working with my own eyes as a springbok, which on any other occasion would have fled from our presence before we had even noticed it, grazed in our vicinity with seeming indifference. An experience that left me dumb-founded in my sleep-depraved twilight daze.

Meekat Magic is unique and has its critics. Unlike other projects, they do not touch, tag, dissect or have any other direct contact with the animals. Others have doubted what you can gain from such hands-off research, but, as we had witnessed firsthand, the ability to watch and not interfere reaps rewards.

I shall not bore any more with explanation, but if you’re interested please check out http://www.meerkatmagic.com/ - a sight full of insight.

The reward of the morning was such that Dingo’s frown had inverted well before we headed back to town for some strong coffee and a fry-up.

THE END OF A LONG ROAD

Yet again we were in a rush. Multiple hundreds of km in front of us and only a few hours to cover it – the car was due back and Thursday night out in Cape Town was calling!
On leaving the rumoured to be inbred Oudtshoorn, the road stretched to the horizon across the wide arid plain. Leaning back in our seats we ate up the road as the music played loud on repeat. Past ostriches and many a live tortoise (and a dead one after an incident involving our bumper, a shell and a driver who shall remain nameless). An isolated shack in the distance with large red letting on its side. “RONNIE’S SEX SHOP” came into focus. Just two nights before a local lass had told me about this place. In the middle of nowhere a far from overrun bar owner had painted this sign on his large white-washed wall nearest the road. It acted as a beacon for weary passers by with even the slightest sense of humour (or sexual curiosity). He lay the place open to those who came. They drank, maid merry and left a little part of themselves behind. From the scribbles over every wall, to bank-notes, hats, cards, the occasional bit of porn and, most commonly, bras and pants that now hanged from the rafters.
A compelling combination of unintrusive welcome. The owner an appropriately laid back bearded man who, depending on the customer, was happy to chat or stare contently into the distance. A moment in time etched on my memory. Perched on a bar stool with beer hand, searching the ever-dangling memorabilia as Bassett produced contemplative melodies from the old piano, the likes of which I did not know he had it in him. Beautiful......but as ever time was running.
Through crumbling hills and out into wine country. Taking wrong directions in pretty little towns and escaping through the vineyards. Except for a comedy incident with a leak this proved to be an uneventfully enjoyable journey
Then more mountains, this time steeper and starker. Straight through another impressive feat of South African engineering and back on the plain with our goal insight. Table Mountain loomed and we were settled under its eaves barely half an hour late....a thousand or so km on the clock and only one hub cap missing!

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Hurtling Down the Garden Route

Why live life on the edge when you can JUMP OFF IT
A J Hackett

There is a bungee, a very BIG bungee, nestled on the quaint garden coast of the Cape. Over the last few years I have picked up a penchant for jumping off things, so, right from the first murmurings of planning, I had earmarked the jump off Bloukrans Bridge for this trip – the highest bridge in Africa!
Spot the jumper! On arriving in Cape Town I soon discovered an obstacle to this ambition, namely how bloody huge this country is. A short distance on the map turned out to be over a thousand kms round trip. There was only one thing for it…….a road trip!

THE GARDEN ROUTE IN A DAY

It is so nice when everything comes together and that is exactly what happened on bumping into Rupert the day before our planned departure. He not only had a car (rented for peanuts), but the will for an adventure.

Well after the crack of dawn we jumped into our oddly shaped Fiat Multipla and hit the road with one aim – to jump that day. Six hours to cover 550km – no worries.

We were so unconcerned that we stopped off for the most part of an hour at the first service station we came across, satisfying glutinous urges after the comparative (but still minimal) privation of the last 5 weeks – my word the South Africans do carbs and protein well, which goes some way to explain why the Afrikaans guys are so HUGE! Taking shifts between Dingo, Rupert and myself (other Dave lazed back in the surprising comfort of the bubble car) we made our way out of the big city, up into the mountains and across the cape. Stunning views looking back over the city and before us into the rugged valleys. As we passed from Anglo region to Afrikaans – indicated by an increase in comedy signs – our procrastination became clear. We were running late and there was only one thing for it. Foot down and away...
We hammered away to the coast across sweeping tilled lands. There we found one picturesque town after another, racing our way between them through lush forest and wetland. Up and down the green valleys of the Garden Route (N2). A unique narrow strip of land which resembles much of northern Europe. Mountains to its back hoard the rain from the hinterland and create a climate and scenery quite unlike anywhere else in this part of the world.

I dare not think how many speeding tickets were picked up, or of the poor old bearded man Rupert scared half-to-death with his questionable driving.
The clouds set in as we pressed on through rain and mist. There were little fishing villages and nature trails. In the bigger towns, shopping mauls infested by pick-ups. And you know what, as we past through these towns we barely saw a black African. Sadly, economic division holds strong.
The final stretch. Booming along at 100mph along skiddy windy roads, we were nearly there. Despite a detour down a collapsing road we had made it the bridge for 5pm. As we approached realisation hit that we were actually going to do this. I could feel my stomach turn at the thought of throwing myself off the bridge and down.....down some 700ft, waiting for that cord to bite...we egged each other on.

But alas, it was not to be. The rain and mist were so bad they had closed for the day. We stared at the wide-spanning bridge and deep canyon below. We would have to wait until the morning. Gutting, but all the better for added suspense (and doubts).

THE JUMP(s)

Some beer, pool, chat and sleep later - we were back... and here's the evidence...
That moment when you perch on the edge. Your brain can not compute what is about to happen. The endorphins rush, adrenaline peaks. A strange smile comes over my face and I jump. Arms spread out wide you hurtle downwards at break-neck speed. No time to think, mind-blowing sensory-overload. Hard earth rushing towards you. The bungee bites and you decelerate. Then comes a stretch and the bounce. The gentle sensation of sprung into the air, swimming with your arms and shouting with delight. In short - I f*****g love it!!
In fact we loved it so much we hogged the platform for a good hour and a half doing 8 jumps in total. The safety guys were great lads. As the music pumped they let us do forward, backward with chest harness and, last but by no-means least, running jumps. There is no buzz quite like grabbing the chord clipped to your chest, taking a run up and legging it off the edge into oblivion. A veritable road-runner moment as you hang in mid-air before plummeting southbound with an exalted yell!
For a better understanding of what its like, check out a great video at :
And/or Rupert's expression:
We had taken on what the Guinness Book of Records says is the highest commercial bungee jump in the world. Though the Guinness Book is wrong (depending on how you measure it, different jumps have a better claim to this including the Golden Eye Bungee I have done off the Vedasco damn in Switzerland), it was every bit as good as I’d hoped and well worth a 1100km plus round trip. Still pumped we jumped back in the bubble and took out the map…..foot down to the Klein Karoo!

A Belated Counter

From this morning I've added a counter to the blog - pity it does not include any hits from the past 3 years, but...better late than never!

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

A spot of Great White fishing!

You often hear it said that the line between fear and fun is thin. Taking this a step further, there is often no line at all.

After falling out of bed at dawn and a drowsy journey across the cape, we arrived at Gansbaai. Nestled near the most-southerly point in Africa, this little town is the Mecca of Great White watching. Most mornings a number of white little boats brave the channel towards Dyer Island to search for the most fearsome predator alive today. We had booked a ticket to be on one such boat...

Grey cold drizzle. Far flung from the baking conditions we had encountered thus far – this was like a late November day in Bognor. Our expectations were further dampened by news of low water vizability. As we headed out on the choppy waters our fingers were firmly crossed.
As with many things about this creature, the exact reasons why it is where it is when it is are not fully known. For some reason they do not spot the same sharks repeatedly. They seem to glide in for a day or two and then head back out to the oceanic expanse. What is clear, is that a colony of approx 50,000 Cape Fur Seals make quite an incentive for their presence.

Very tasty (and not my picture)!!

We had chosen White Shark Ecoventures (http://www.white-shark-diving.com/ - highly recommended), for their reputation as not only a very safe outfit, but vitally educational. This proved to be more than sales hype. Our Guide Hansie, a giant of a South African man, imbued us with knowledge. He was clearly passionate about the sharks and wished to dispel many of the misunderstandings men hold in relation to them. We were relying on his expertise as, even in such a perfect place to find Great Whites, sometimes you have to wait days for even a glimpse - and we only had one.
Unlike a particularly crazy South African who works nearby, this expedition involved a cage (said crazy man free-dives with Great White’s and has been known to attempt to hypnotise them – apparently if you touch a shark on the right place on its nose it suffers sensory overload and rolls on its back). I had expected a big sturdy thing with plenty of spare rails on which to rest your limbs away from sharp teeth. What was dangled over the side was a not so sturdy looking cage which squeezed in about 5 people and required placing of feet on the outer bars – feet dangling out as appetizers. Still, there have been no reported injuries with this company. Tragically there had been some recent fatalities on another boat, but these involved the dislodging of the cage in a storm and consequent drowning – a travesty, but not of great concern here in increasingly flat waters.

A minor aside. There are two main reasons why I find viewing animals in the wild so exhilarating. Firstly, the beauty of seeing things in their natural context - that unique feeling of privilege where you are the guest. Secondly, the uncertainty - the "hunt". Not knowing, or having much control over the variables of what, where, when and how. That was just the feeling I had as we waited, gently rocking on the subsiding waves. Scouring the grey-green depths for shadow, a fin, a fish.

And still we waited….. Just as I set my mind for a day of grasping at shadows as I stared at the sea-birds floating on the wind…..a sighting. In a rush of excitement and confusion, half of us dived down to the hold to put on whatever wet suit we could find and grab a mask and snorkel. With shining keenness and the significant effort necessitated by an overly-tight cold water wet-suit, I found myself "ready" first and jumped into the cage. Barely noticing the freezing cold water, I stuck my head down and stared all around. Where was she. Jerking my head from left to right, eyes peeled for a glimpse…. Then there she was, a 3.5m beast, with a particularly sharp end up front. A shrill shiver down the spine. Following in behind were Dave and Dave. Taking down huge gulps of breath, sinking down the cage and clinging to the bars as we carefully watched her path. Within a meter one minute, gone the next. No real aggression, she was in inquisitive mode.
video
When my turn was over I hauled myself out the water and up to the top deck for an aerial view. The crew had a tuna head on a line and were literally fishing for the giant. A controversial means of attraction (for fear of the sharks associating humans with food), by regulation the crew can only use so much in a day. The line is thrown out, little fish surround it until, whoosh, they split, the Great White attacks and the line is moved just in time. This was a reccie. When testing out new prey, Great White’s attack with increasing ferocity. The shark circles beneath and then rises vertically to meet its prey. At first, as here, just fast enough to break the surface of the water. With each attempt it speeds up, until in full attack mode a Great White can launch its full weight from the water, momentarily free of its watery confine. At up to and just over 2 tonnes in weight I find this a truly petrifying contemplation.

The Great White caught the bait on the second occasion and I remember thinking how oddly peaceful this first encounter had been, almost serene. This was soon to change….
Mask on, back in the water and buzzing. A new shark, and this time I was going to see him coming. Thanks to years of underwater-hockey my lung capacity is not bad (though not what it once was), so I could hold myself at the bottom of the cage for up to a minute at a time scouring the depth. I caught him out of the corner of my eye. To our back and below, he circled around and then surged vertically towards the bait. An awe inspiring sight. As the bait was dragged away he came crashing into the cage -serenity my arse. He dived back down and then resumed his attack. My foot was gaining purchase on the lower outer bar (as this was the only way of keeping yourself under the water). I saw him come with a flick of his powerful tail and the next thing I knew his terrifying jaws bit the cage where my foot had been but an instant before. Sometimes one has to thank those innate gut reactions….though a small scar could have been quite cool…maybe the loss of a toenail…

Our guide explained that even if the cage had not been there, it is unlikely that the shark would have eaten us. They have precise sensors in their jaws which tell them the content of what they are eating. Barring a few Americans, us humans have far less fat than an average seal, the shark’s favourite food. All those bones and straggly bits that make up our bodies would use up as many calories to digest (they swallow hole!) then they would provide in sustenance. This is an explanation why a not insignificant amount of people survive Great White attacks. Don’t believe all this tripe about fighting them off – they are up to 6 metres long with more teeth than a chainsaw – they take a bite, don’t fancy the taste and spit you out.

video
The next dive was almost comical. Bassett and I were in the corner of the cage as a particularly large one was doing the whole attack the tuna-head thing. The long and the short of it was that he ended up full-out head-butting the cage right where Dave was. Mouth open, teeth glinting, this was something out of a horror movie. Just in time he propelled himself back into me and I daresay we shared a moment…of terrorful fun ("terrorful" being a new word according to spell-check)! Feelings of desperation as you huddle up as far as possible from the outer bars. On the one hand, if you don’t hold on you can be bashed into the side, on the other, you hold on and lose some flesh – even a brush against the shark’s course side would rip off the skin.

What an experience!! Everything said we saw 4-5 sharks ranging from 2.5 to 4m long. We came back to shore with the biggest smiles imaginable. The sun had even come out in salutation.
I know this sounds like blaady…bladddy…blah…..but when you see the colossal creatures this close you do gain more respect for them and understand better the importance in protecting them. They are simply immense and it would be an unforgivable loss to lose them. I though still find it hard to "like" them. It is that emotionless look in their eye akin to snakes and crocs which, combined with their remarkable efficiency at killing things, makes them a thing of nightmares. A psychological phenomenon that should be our problem and not theirs.

A "Right" Bonus

I can not go without mentioning the Southern Right Whales (named so because they were the "Right" whales to catch) we saw on they way back to Cape Town. In and around Hermanus, hundreds of these many-tonne mammals come to raise there calves in the protective shallow waters. To stand by the wavecrashed rugged shore and watch mother and calf going about their way was….well just one of those moments.

Saturday, December 06, 2008

The Return of the Phantom

...in tribute to Koala!

A Tale of Three Cities

1. MAPUTO

Another day on a bus from the north and, via a lightning storm (http://walter82.blogspot.com/2008/10/stormin-to-maputo.html), we entered the capital of Mozambique.

We saw a large sprawling city with a strange mixture of shanty and post-Stalinist architecture. Having a first walk around after dark, the atmosphere of the city was hard to gauge. Warnings of troublesome police and the odd mugging can’t help but tint your perspective. Better to start from the next day. A city of colour - jaccaranda, fire trees and murals. People walk with attitude and are welcoming.
A multitude of rich 4x4’s and new looking banks aside damp-sodden poverty. A real feeling of South America.
Streets celebrating revolutionary heroes from near and far bring us down to the sea. A comparably prosperous promenade runs adjacent to the green depths and up to embassy land.
We take the other direction, through streets with a bit more edge round into the historical centre. Here and there rotting Portuguese relics. A grand market spilling over with produce, a tiny fort, a church and many a decorated facade.
Stopping in elegant, yet slightly decrepid street side cafes for a top cup of coffee. Viewing a local art gallery complete with haunting carved images from 25 years of war and perusing Indian goods shops – for some reason I did not expect to see so many south-Asians in Mozambique, it never being part of the British Empire, yet there are many and as industrious as in neighboring countries.
A proper crazy night out round the docks. While searching for the infinite variety of the world, some things seem the same where ever you go. A port. Exuberant excess of alcohol, expolitation of women, pimps and sailors. Some surreal moments and unlooked for concern in the guise of a clueless Aussie girl not knowing what she is getting herself into. Then utter comedy as a young one of companions, shameless in the best of senses, takes over the dance floor in a bar of excess.
Back to our backpacks, matchsticks in the eye-lids time and way from this city and its wonderful vibe. A bus and away.....

2. JOHANNESBURG

What I remember of the journey to the Mozambique border seems little different from that of the past however many thousands of kilometers. Thick greenery, thatched hut and people. A long line at the border and then everything changed. Through the mists of sleep deprevation poured a landscape somewhat like Salisbury plain, but somehow stetched. Gone the Africa we had come to know, we were travelling through wide well-tendered fields, marked out by neat fences. Large barns, church steeples and pretty little towns.
Back into a deep sleep and then the big city.
Jo’berg, Jo’ey... whatever you want to call it. Here was the industrial and financial heartland of Africa. For all the news of hijackings, murder and riots, I was taken aback but its sheer scale. A true metropolis of high-rises, fly-overs, huge malls and development as far as the eye can see. A place of severe contrast and significance – impossible to ignore. Large segregated suburbs of the rich, with their lush gardens, pools and privelege. Townships of millions. Areas so bad that hijacking cars is old news – now they hijack apartment buildings. We were in and out of there in a flash. A partial regret as it is undoubtedly a place of interest, but for the one week I had left perhaps a little too interesting - if you know what I mean.
Our plane took off as the sun-set over the arid plains. An image of the vastness of this country and continent.

3. CAPE TOWN
It was Saturday at 9pm. We had touched down in just one of “those” places. The ones you dream of going to, the ones your bug desires. Table mountain was hidden in the dark as we raced towards Long Street. Dave, Dave and I had made it down to the tip of Africa, but there was no time to linger on Zambia, Malawi, Mozambique, the people we had met and experiences we had been given...we were just in time to hit the town... and what a town Cape Town is!