Sunday, September 28, 2014

Nothing happened

Washington DC is a stately city. Stately, neat, distinguished, interesting and handsome - if a little short on the lived-in character that seems to come more easily to cities that aren't capitals (always excepting places like London, Paris and Rome). There's a lot to see, so to whine along the Mall by Segway was a smart idea - as well as, naturally, fun. Also naturally, the American way was exhaustively thorough and indemnifying, compared with the light-hearted and superficial (though perfectly adequate) briefing we got just over a week ago in Durban.

Eventually, however, we got mounted and were whirring along the pavement, stopping at various points of interest, like some of the Smithsonian museums, and beneath the Capitol, before taking the Presidential route of the cycleway along the middle of Pennsylvania Avenue. We saw the White House from across a meadow and then stopped at the Lincoln Memorial, where Abe sat dignified and impressive looking over the Reflecting Pool to the Washington Monument obelisk and the Capitol beyond.
It was a good introduction, necessarily superficial, but fun - and so was the next thing. Today was the last game of the baseball season, between the Washington Nationals and the Miami Marlins. The stadium was awash with red for the local team, over 35,000 people contributing to the friendly, family atmosphere. There were cheerleaders, a bald eagle mascot, titivators with rakes to comb the gravel, and a belting version of the national anthem sung to an audience standing with their hands to their hearts; plus plenty of beer and food, and a Mighty Wurlitzer commentary on the action.

Though baseball is a closed book to me, rounders and softball at school helped a bit, and so did the man sitting next to me, who explained how it was history being made before my eyes. The row of zeroes on the scoreboard to me looked a bit disappointing, but apparently it was a rare thing to see the  away team prevented from scoring any runs at all, and as the ninth innings began the crowd was on its feet willing pitcher Zimmerman to make the record books. Two strikes, then the third pitch connected and the ball soared over the diamond - and dropped straight into the hands of the mid-fielder. It was a joyous moment, the crowd roared with delight, and I understood how nothing could actually be quite something.

Saturday, September 27, 2014

Close encounter

You'll have to forgive the several photographic failures of this shot - slightly blurred, not centred, tail cut off - and instead appreciate that it got taken at all. This lion, looking straight at me in a very appraising sort of way, was as close as he looks. In fact, closer: after I clicked the shutter, he passed right by where I was sitting in the open Landy, less than two metres from me. And while that's not rare in the usual run of things at Phinda Private Game Reserve in South Africa, this is a newly-acquired lion and still an unknown quantity.

He was so close that had he decided that I was worth investigating as prey (something that vehicles and their contents generally aren't) our ranger Bruce in the driver's seat right in front of me would have had no time to get his gun out and instead would have had to face the lion down, trying to look big, and yelling at him. Apparently this does happen, occasionally - "It's why you sign a disclaimer," we were told cheerfully, afterwards.

But this time our close encounter was simply thrilling, and a perfect way to end our too-short stay at Phinda, itself the perfect finish to our rhino crusade to Zululand. This last early-morning game drive was followed by 3 hours on the road to Durban airport, an hour to Joburg, 11 hours to Sydney, and a bit over two hours back to Auckland and home. Plus all the bits in between, that's a long journey, but so very worth it, in every way, and one I'd make again anytime. Africa.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Handing over

"It's a simulation - but it's real." This afternoon we stood on a windy hilltop and watched the ZAP-Wing aerial surveillance team show us what they do when poachers are spotted within the reserve. It was short and sharp, just like the real thing, but without the danger of sudden death on both sides - something park rangers live with every day and especially every night. Lawrence was blunt: "We shoot to kill."

Every speaker at this first World Youth Rhino Summit has been absorbing and inspiring in very different ways: Dr William Fowlds, Kingsley Holgate, Paula Kahumbu, Peter Moll, even little Jules Murray, aged 11 and responsible for raising R100,000 for the cause.

And then there was Dr Ian Player, who rescued the white rhino from certain extinction more than 50 years ago. He's now old and frail, but still able to hold 300 people spellbound with his passion, conviction and inspiration. Today he passed the baton to the young people. They will carry it.

Monday, September 22, 2014


This is what it's all about. Imposing, independent, ageless: white rhino in the national park surrounding our campsite conference at Imfelozi in KZN, South Africa. There are 300 people here from countries as far apart as New Zealand, England, Sweden, the US and Vietnam, half of them students aged around 17.

For two intense days they're here to hear inspiring speeches, learn about the war against poaching, its causes and effects, and to come up with ideas to help the cause. "Let our voices be heard" is the slogan, and the aim is that these kids will go home fired up and impassioned to use every means at their disposal to save the rhino from the extinction that is looming.

One day in, it's looking good. The kids are serious, aware of the responsibility - but having fun, too. Until you've sat by a campfire under a black African sky and watched young Zulu dancers stamping and jumping with astonishing energy, whistling, singing and ululating, you really haven't lived.

Saturday, September 20, 2014

The Longest Thursday

So, what else would you do, after a Thursday that lasted 31 hours, pillow to pillow, and included 18 hours in the air, except pootle into Durban on your recovery day to skim along the beachfront on a Segway, swerving around the monkeys?

Just hours before our arrival, it was 42 degrees here and even the locals were drooping and complaining - but then a southerly front arrived and the temperature dropped 20 degrees. The same thing happened on my last visit here, exactly a year ago. They need the rain, but we're hoping for more typical weather when we head inland to the game reserve on Saturday for the conference.

So Friday's been all about fighting sleep patterns and adjusting to Africa again - people walking along the motorway, razor wire and electric fences, paying 'protectors' in the car parks, a housekeeper, a braai. And seeing old friends, smiling faces, flashes of white teeth, bright colours, exotic birds.

It's good to be back. I'm so looking forward to the animals, especially, of course, the rhino - the reason why we're all here.

Friday, September 12, 2014

In a bit of a whirl, here...

It's a confusing time right now. I'm reviewing Thailand and Kakadu to decide whether I've written enough stories about them, so that I can go back to June and catch up on some UK material - the Forest of Bowland, for example, or maybe Lindisfarne. Meanwhile, another bit of my brain is thinking about what I need to pack for South Africa next week, and how I can avoid overlapping with stuff I need to take to the US on the day after I return from Johannesburg, because I don't want to be lying awake for those precious few hours in my own bed listening to the washing machine whirring away. It's all a bit much, especially on top of also trying to organise tradesmen - and the Council - to sort things in the house and garden so that we can sell it as soon as we get home. Too much mental activity altogether. It would be a relief to go outside and just dig clay for a few hours (don't ask). Except that now it's raining.
Occasional messages are arriving from the Firstborn, currently cruising in the Galapagos Islands, consistently raving; "Holy moley! This place is AMAAAAZING!!!" along with pics of iguanas and tortoises. Of course she's having a wonderful time. It is an amazing place, and she's got the luxury of 10 days there to explore it all, twice as long as I had, sigh. The Baby, meanwhile, is disporting herself (well, actually, working) on a billionaire's yacht in Italy, where I've hardly been at all, though I've been trying to get back there. It's very frustrating, having got an actual commission for a story, and not to be able to persuade an airline to take me there. What's that? Buy a ticket, you say? Have you NO understanding of how this travel writing thing works?! There has to be some compensation for being paid peanuts.
And finally there's Scotland in the news, about to decide whether to vote Aye or Nay, so I'm remembering being there in June (getting sunburnt!) and seeing the posters and the badges everywhere. Meantime the All Blacks are being talked about because they're playing South Africa here tomorrow and, though I'm so not a follower of them, I've been preceding them a bit this year, to Newcastle's stadium where they're playing in the RWC next year, and to Chicago where they've got a game at Wrigley Field against the US in November. Somebody in Chicago actually offered yesterday to set me up with an AB interview. Puh-leese! (But I'm not above using them to try to sell a story...)

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Somewhat different from hedgehogs and possums...

So that's all right then. The elephants will be "deterred". No reference to the "lion, buffalo, black and white rhino, cheetah and leopard" that were proudly listed a couple of paragraphs above this, or the fact that the big cats are still small enough to slip underneath a 2m-high wire.

And you know what? It really is all right. This is what going on safari should be like: lying in your tent at night listening to the rustles outside and wondering whether that's the wind doing it, or a stealthy paw. It'll be exciting, and so what if it's not restful? I can sleep soundly at home.
Bayete camp is part of Phinda Private Game Reserve, but it's not one of the fancy, upmarket lodges like Rock Lodge where I stayed last time, with a sherry decanter on the coffee table, a yoga kit in a bag and a private plunge pool out on the deck. This tented camp is for staff and private guests, and I'll be staying there with the three students from NZ who I'll be chaperoning at the first World Youth Rhino Summit in South Africa next week, after the conference has finished.

The summit is going to be intense and interesting and inspiring, and I'm really looking forward to it. Young people from all around the world will be there to discuss the threat to rhino survival, and come up with ideas to save them. We'll be meeting some of the people on the front line of this war, and going out to see the objects of all this effort, peacefully grazing on the veldt as they have for 50 million years. If we're the last generation to see that sight, well, 'shame' is too trivial a word.


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