Africa

Monkey assault (The lost South African post)

Early this morning a troop of Vervet monkeys penetrated the perimeter of camp. Swinging through the trees, running on the tin roofs and launching onto the tarp like a trampoline, making an incredible noise.

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They drive Chuck, the camp dog, crazy; he runs around chasing them with absolutely no hope of catching one.  They run amok: making a mess, stealing food and generally make a nuisance of themselves.

I love the monkeys, but the camp staff and dog, not so much.

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Spot the monkeys.

 

Categories: South Africa - October 2013 | Tags: , | 1 Comment

Langa

To the Western eye, the Langa township near Cape Town is visually shocking, with tiny tin shacks housing large families, rows of communal toilets with no running water, (the buckets are picked up daily, most of the time), people everywhere. Langa’s population is about 60,000 people in just over a square mile.

The townships have an undeserved reputation of violence, poverty, and despair. Despite the chaos, Langa has a strong sense of community, one that I have rarely seen, the kind of community that America has lost, (a third of Americans know none of their neighbors).

During Apartheid the people of Langa had to rely on each other to survive the racist government and because of this, neighbors looks out for neighbors, adults look after all the kids on the ‘street’. As a community, against a history of repression and violence, the people of Langa have come out on the other side of Apartheid, a little dazed, hungry for change and incredibly un-bitter from the decades of repression.

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shanty town

We booked a tour with one of the few tour groups based in the township of Langa, where the  tour  profits go back into the community. We were with our friends, Jamie, Lucy and their three children, Hamish 9, Talia 11 and Holly 13. We met our guide Richard ,and piled in the mini van. He gave us a history of the townships and his own personal history growing up there. He said people always ask him what is it like to grow up and live in the townships. “When it is all you know, it’s hard to explain how you live; you have to see it and experience it.” I knew the only way to understand the township was to see it for myself. Plus the townships were said to be dangerous, forbidden territory, (which is clearly our favorite kind). Off we went.

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Laundry day in Langa.

Our first stop was a communal living building. A two-story brick building beside other identical buildings on a dirt road with clothes hanging in the courtyard above random debris on the ground. We walked in the open door to the communal kitchen area; small dingy, two tables, some plastic chairs, a hot plate, a sink.People wandered in and out: a woman was boiling water on the hot plate, a man strolled in and sat down, his shirt riding well above his large exposed belly. We all said hello, he said ‘hi’ back, and looked amused or maybe annoyed; I couldn’t tell. He watched us look around; I could not have felt any more uncomfortable and we could not looked anymore out of place.

Richard takes his tours into people’s actual houses, but explains to the residents that we are not here to see what you don’t have but to understand how you live, how we are interested in your neighborhood: your community.  It was true, but you couldn’t help thinking, “Could I live like this?”… And the answer came quickly, NO.

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The kitchen.

Richard looked around and said “let’s go check out one of the bedrooms.” We walked through an open doorway into a small room about 10 x 10 ft. With two concrete slabs for beds modified into bunk beds, this tiny space could apparently house a family of four. There were bags and boxes filled with personal property squirreled away in corners, under handmade shelves. It was intense, to walk into someone’s private space; there is nothing more intimate than to see how people live.

The doors have no locks, personal items are out in the open, people are constantly in and out.  But there is less crime than you think; everyone knows each other, there is not much to steal, there are no gangs. Langa is basically self-policed.

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The Bedroom.

It was Sunday and we stopped at a church service that apparently ran all morning.  The service was being held in a large warehouse style church; new construction with a tin roof. Not only was the main hall full but also the adjacent buildings and rooms attached were packed, everyone watching the service on closed circuit TV.  There were hundreds of people attending; standing room only. The community was out in force.

There were four singers on the stage belting out gospel, accompanied by a band:  drums, electric and bass guitars. They were rocking some power gospel and everyone was on their feet.  Mothers with babies on their hips, dancing and singing.

Outside in the dirt lot around the buildings they were setting up tables for a craft and bake sale, Sunday School was getting ready to start. Church is apparently an all-day, big affair on Sundays in the townships.

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Sunday Worship.

We next drove through the township, by the dilapidated train station and down the ‘high street’; the main shopping area. Most of the shops we’re in converted/modified shipping containers or small shacks. Hand-made signs hung, stating the nature of the business. The tiny ‘shops’ all specialized in a product or service that you would find all over the world: meat stands, fruit stands and bakeries.

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Dr Kaama

But there were also some shops that you don’t often see in Seattle or anywhere else. Doctors, listing the ailments they could cure (including bad luck!) and the sheep head shop?!

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Half cooked sheep heads lined up for sale.

The townships are complicated, not something you learn by reading about  in a tour book or a newspaper; it’s a place you have to experience first-hand to get any clue. If you have read about what they endured over the past few decades, you would think these communities would be beaten down.

But nothing could be further from the truth. You see it time and time again, communities coming together in times of crisis or tragedy. In the case of Langa, they were under the thumb of a brutal, racist government for decades and whilst many are still poor in financial terms, they came together as an unmovable, vibrant force to become victorious as a strong Community.

“When people are determined they can overcome anything.” – Nelson Mandela

 

Categories: South Africa - October 2013 | Tags: , | Leave a comment

Road warrior

We are 4000 kilometers into our South African road trip with our ultimate goal: Cape Town. Mostly driving on pothole-filled one-lane roads, driving over ten thousand foot passes, bumping down rural dirt roads at twilight; With the human GPS, Helen, the navigator; three maps on her lap, directing the way.

We are unstoppable.

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Sunrise

 

However driving in South Africa has been challenging to say the least. Here’s a shortlist:

Time: We have had to cover a lot of ground on most days; so up and out early in order to be at our accommodations by sunset. We drove hard all day with quick stops at sights along the way. For two days straight, I’ve had lunch behind the wheel, driving through the rolling hillside at speed.

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lunch on the run. A bag of Kudu biltong = Antelope jerky. Yummy!

Rules: They drive on the left here. Steering wheel on the right, shifter in the left hand; Constantly reminding myself “stay left”.

Our trusted steed: a Nissan 4×4 pick-up has been great but is woefully underpowered. I have literally had it floored half the time, downshifting and pushing the RPM’s to the red line. She is going to be happy to see the back of me when I turn her back into the rental office.

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Sani Pass

Trucks: logging trucks, mining trucks, overloaded sugar trucks dumping sugar cane all over the road and they all move SLOW! You have to pass them on these funky one lane roads, timing it just right as to avoid the oncoming traffic. Super sketchy.

Mini van taxis: driving without rhyme or reason, unloading passengers in the middle of the road, like clowns out of a clown car.

Road construction: everywhere. Detouring us down farm roads. Delaying progress and generally winding us up.

People: everywhere. Walking on the side of the road, crossing the road, groups of children no older than five walking right next to the asphalt.

Animals and Livestock: everywhere. Goats, sheep, chickens, cows, monkeys (yes, monkeys). Animals all over the place, grazing on the side of the road, running across the road, sitting in the middle of the road. Cows are the worst, you definitely don’t want to hit one of those: damn cows cross the road slower than a Seattle pedestrian.

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Scary baboons on the road

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Elephants in the road ? good thing they are in the rear view mirror.

 

The roads: suck. Potholes, zero shoulder, non-existent traffic signs. And signs that say ‘high carjacking area for 2 km’: simple translation: don’t stop for anything.

 

 

Crooked cops, I hate ’em. The other day, I passed two trucks in a no-passing zone at a speed almost doubling the limit. Halfway through this maneuver, Helen screams, “police cars!”. On the other side of the road there are policemen pulling over cars coming in the opposite direction. Nothing I can do at this late stage but floor it and hope for the best. We hold our breath for few kilometers and they don’t come after us. It’s a good thing, it would have taken a massive bribe to get out of that one.

This all may sound like a nightmare but I have been loving it, a true road trip adventure. All of these dangers and annoyances are behind me because now I drive like a true South African; fast, reckless and with a total disregard for anything that resembles a traffic law. Passing multiple vehicles without hesitation, missing the rear end of cows by a foot; I don’t even get off the gas for chickens anymore. I’m sure my friends will find this hard to believe for I drive like an old lady in the states, but it is true. I have regressed to my days driving a cab in Boston.

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Damn cows!

 

Categories: South Africa - October 2013 | Tags: | Leave a comment

Sani Pass

On this night we were staying atop the ten thousand foot Sani Pass in the country of Lesotho. Two major problems with this. First, it’s a 30 km rugged, steep 4×4 only, one lane dirt road with tight switchbacks. Second we had to cross the South African border and it closes at six pm, and we were running late, as usual.

The rural road was good for once as we approached the mountains and I was on it, flying 120 km/hr easy, the border can’t be far now. Suddenly, Helen screams “Dirt road! ” Without any warning the road goes from paved to rutted gravel road. We hit it hard, kicking up dirt and rocks; I luckily regained control as we passed some bewildered locals on the side of the road, in front of some abandoned building: random. I felt bad as they got dusted from all the dirt I was kicking up.

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Dirt road!

The road was bad from the beginning but we made it to the border crossing with time to spare. The pressure was off now we just had to get to the top and the Lesotho border by dark. The road clinged to the steep valley wall as we climbed. One side of the road was rock wall, the other side was a vertical cliff. I never got the truck out of second gear low, it was full-on. The twilight sun sent long shadows down the valley as we ascended slowly. Towards the top the switchbacks started, turns so tight you had to perform a three point turn maneuver to make it, doing everything possible to keep traction and not spin the wheels.

I was loving it, Helen not so much.

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Switchbacks

 

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The Pass.

We reached the top with the sun barely above the horizon. The Lesotho border is not your typical border crossing; a remnant of a fence with no gate. We walked into the border post to see a handful of guys in sweats eating some sort of maize porridge out of a crock pot; they were super nice, stamped our passports and that was it.

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Lesotho border post

We were staying at the Sani Pass hotel next door to the border. It had a few traditional huts for accommodation, with a small restaurant/pub. It’s claim to fame is being the highest pub in Africa; Funky place, friendly local staff. It’s cold at that elevation even in Africa, the pub and huts were heated with stoves that you fed with huge chunks of raw coal, with no lights after ten pm when they turned the generator off.

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Kids at play by. local rondeval huts, Lesotho

As we ate dinner, a thick fog crept up the valley and engulfed the barren landscape around the hotel. After a few beers at the pub we went back to the rondeval hut. I loaded up the stove to keep us warm for the evening and we were in bed when the generator turned off. With the odd smell of burnt coal in the air, I faded off to sleep dreaming of driving back down the pass the following morning.

Categories: South Africa - October 2013 | Tags: , , | Leave a comment

I don’t like this

I think I’m getting this driving in South Africa down. On a narrow road with no shoulder, I was behind a truck followed by a couple of overloaded pick-ups and a few cars all going about half the speed limit. The first straight stretch of road, with a car coming head-on far in the distance, I passed them all in one shot, with Helen clutching the side of her seat repeating with increasing alarm in her voice “I don’t like this” .

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Categories: South Africa - October 2013 | Tags: | 1 Comment

Bad Lieutenant

The truck in front of me stopped as did I. He pulled out, I stopped again making sure we were on the right road and there were cows all over the road. I took a left, twenty yards later a police man signaled me to pull over. He asked for my license which I handed over. He than in an annoyed manner and in great detail how to stop for a stop  sign. “Your wheels must come to a full stop, can not roll at all….” on and on he went. He ended this with “Christopher what am I supposed to do about this.” This was odd and raised a red flag, I think I know where he is going with this. ” Are you sure? I thought I came to a stop.” Again the long explanation of how to stop at a stop sign. He than cranked up the intimidation and said angrily “why did you not stop you must have seen me, why did you not stop! what should I do about this Christopher.” He was sketchy eyes darting around the car, I was playing with fire.

I politely apologized and said “I did not see you and I thought I had come to a complete stop with all the cows in the road and the truck that stopped in front of me.” He curtly responded “you did not stop, what am to do.” I was getting increasingly annoyed, but realized this was  a battle I was not going to win. “Christopher what am I supposed to do about this.” I did not respond and looked away. I really did not want to give in to this douche bag. “You did not stop! What am I supposed to do about this Christopher” calling his bluff I looked him in the eye. “You gotta do what you gotta do…right?”

He cocked his head and walked back to his patrol car. He came back with a clipboard and begin filling it out with my info asked a few more questions about where we were going etc. I told him we were staying in Kruger National Park this evening. He finished filling out the information and flipped to the ticket book. Tapping his pen on the blank ticket. “This ticket is going to cost you a lot of money.” He paused waiting for a response, none came. “And you will have to go to the court in Hoedspruit to pay it.” Checkmate!

I don’t know if it was BS but if we had to go back to Hoedspruit (over 50 km away ) and pay the ticket at some backwoods court, we would never be back in time to get into Kruger Park which closes its gate at six and our accommodation within and he knew it. Helen responded “please don’t make us go back to Hoedspruit”. He responded ” Ok, well you can pay half of it now.” Bravo, well-played Bad Lieutenant. Helen asked how much? “400 rand.” 40 dollars. Helen reluctantly pulled out the money saying “if we pay you this that will be the end of it- Yes?.” He confirmed quickly, “yes.” She started to hand over the cash but stopped, “you give us back the license, then I’ll give you the money.” He gave me the license, Helen gave him the money. As we drove away, I stated the obvious, “we just paid a bribe.” Helen “yup.”

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Busted

Categories: South Africa - October 2013 | Tags: , , | Leave a comment

Big Five

We had seen four of the big five in Balule Nature Reserve and then spotted a white rhino late in the day at Kruger National Park. The big five animals are lion, elephant, cape buffalo, leopard, rhino. The term comes from when big game hunters came to Africa to hunt. Now tourists come just to shoot them on their cameras in the wild. People become obsessed about seeing them, even considering their trip unsuccessful if they don’t spot them.

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I want to see everything, not just the big 5, including birds; I have to admit I am a closeted bird watcher and can’t believe how many new birds I have seen; I have positively identified well over a hundred. Helen calls me a ‘twitcher’, a derogatory British term for bird watcher! I don’t care, I love birds.

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Yellow bill hornbill on termite hill

 

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Marshall Eagle takes flight

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Hello gorgeous. Lappet-faced Vulture

Categories: South Africa - October 2013 | Tags: , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Hangover

After a great night of a fantastic bush dinner and lots of drinks finally everyone was off to bed, but the host of camp Joe, invited me for one last nightcap. He poured me a large shot of Jaegermeister, liquor of the devil. I know better, I can’t handle liquor like I used to, but I have to relearn this lesson every year or so.

I woke up to the usually quiet Richard (the tracker) pounding on our door “are you coming on the game drive, or what??!!” It was already after six, we were late for the morning game drive; he must have tried to get us up a few times already. “We will be there in a minute.” I hopped out of bed and staggered, I had a crushing headache and it felt like a nuclear meltdown in my stomach. I chugged a glass of water to put out the fire in my belly, it stayed down for about a minute. Helen was also not at her best either, and now after seeing my condition, said “let’s not go”. I refused, not wanting to miss our last game drive in this area. We got dressed in a hurry; thankfully it was only us on the drive and we weren’t holding anyone else up.

I can’t think of anything worse for a hangover than getting up at six am and going on a three-hour bumpy off-road ride under the African sun. Halfway through the drive we stopped for a coffee break. There was no way I could drink coffee, all I could muster was to grab a bottle of water and lay in the dirt.

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After the break I was doing ok-ish; it was worth the pain as we saw a large herd of Cape Buffalo, huge animals with massive horns. We had not seen buffalo before, it was magical as they moved slowly around us in the Land Rover, apparently totally unconcerned with us, or my condition.

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Elephant-Palooza

In our week in the bush, we have literally seen hundreds of elephants. Elephants everywhere, in the water, on the road, fighting, with babies, knocking over trees with ease.

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We’ve seen so many, now we only stop for something like baby elephants chasing warthogs!

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Leopard

Out to find a leopard this morning. After some hunting around, we found the carcass of a young kudu dragged under some bushes. It was a fresh kill and the predator that caused this should still be close by.

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We drove off-road through the underbrush, over fallen trees, making our own path in the bush. Behind a rock was a long black and orange spotted tail, we approached to within six feet of a male leopard with a full belly laying in the brush, clearly in a food coma, relaxing and not paying any attention to us at all.

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