Monday, October 10, 2016

Traveller, beware! Or not.

You would think that, in a city of just 1.5 million, it wouldn't be hugely unusual to see a photo of someone I know in our local newspaper - but I can't actually remember it ever happening before. Now it has, though. And you know who it turned out to be? Only a man I met on the Amazon River in Peru. How bizarre is that?

Somewhat belatedly, the NZ Herald has published a story about a pirate invasion of a riverboat in which a couple of Kiwis were amongst the guests threatened with violence back in July. It all ended well - if you can call losing all your money, valuables and electronica, and the abortion of the cruise, ending well. Nobody died; though Denis, I'm sorry to say, got whacked a few times.

What makes this an especially fascinating connection for me is that the riverboat was one owned by Delfin, the company I cruised with, on the same route that I did, out of Iquitos. This attack absolutely could have happened on my cruise, which is a possibility I never gave a moment's thought to (despite one of New Zealand's great modern heroes, Sir Peter Blake, being killed by pirates on the same river near Manaus). I did know, of course, that Iquitos is a dodgy city, and was happy to be under escort all the time I was there; but once I was on board the Delfin II, this sort of danger didn't occur to me once. I was much more concerned about piranhas and tarantulas, quite honestly.
Ignorance is such bliss. I did actually know, before we arrived recently at the lovely Fugitives' Drift lodge in South Africa for what was assuredly one of the highlights of the whole visit, that David Rattray, the original owner and founder of the operation, had been murdered there by intruders armed with guns. That was more than 9 years ago, though; and when we arrived, it was to razor wire fencing around the grounds, and a 24-hour guard on the gate so, as far as I thought about it, which was fleetingly, I felt perfectly safe. 

What I didn't know, until I got back home, was that another esteemed guide, Robert Gerrard, who had worked there for 20 years, had been horribly attacked by armed invaders in his home nearby in February this year. He never recovered from his injuries, and died in hospital the day after we arrived at the lodge. Of course, nobody mentioned it, although the staff must all have been shocked and sad.

So, what conclusions are to be drawn here? Nothing new. Risky places have that reputation for a reason. Most of the time you're lucky, sometimes you're not. Bad stuff can happen anywhere. Not going to these places means missing out on things you'll remember forever, for all the right reasons. Keep your fingers crossed - but keep travelling,

Sunday, September 25, 2016

DC doing the decent thing, finally

I see the Smithsonian is opening its new branch on the National Mall in DC: the - you might well think - long overdue National Museum of African-American Culture and History. Never mind, they've done it now; and it's not as though it's a subject the city has completely ignored, as I discovered in 2014 at the Library of Congress. That Civil Rights exhibition (which displayed the above arrest warrant for Rosa Parks) has now ended, though, so it's good to see the subject properly addressed with what looks like typical Smithsonian thoroughness and respect. I'm already planning to give it plenty of time when I'm back there next year.
Having just been in South Africa, and earlier this year in Louisiana, it's a topic that feels very relevant - the photo above was taken in the fascinatingly eclectic Village Museum in Matjiesfontein ('bracelet', though?) - and I'm already prepared for a different take on the concept of museum guilt, which I felt, if only by proxy, in the Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg. Certainly, it seems that the struggle for universal civil rights and equality is as current and urgent as it has ever been, all around the world, even here in relatively inoffensive New Zealand. Rosa and Nelson would be so disappointed in us.

Friday, September 16, 2016

Africa, à la Adventure World

                      With thanks to Adventure World for this tailor-made holiday.
This morning began with another yummy (French toast today) sociable breakfast – conversation topics included rank v platoon firing in battle, and how to do the two-handed finger snap used so effectively yesterday by Mphiwa – and then we said goodbye to the cheerful staff at Fugitives’ Drift. We drove our (freshly-washed) rental car the four hours back to Durban, past traditional villages and gradually bigger towns like Babanango, Melmoth and Ballito, finishing up back at the King Shaka Airport to begin our long journey home.

Most of this trip was organised for us by Adventure World: partly as a prize I won, and partly as a demonstration of what they do, for me to write about. What do they do? Well, as much or as little as you want, right up to "Everything, please". They have a wide range of group tours that they run throughout the year to many countries all around the world. Or you can go bespoke, as we did. Having decided it was Africa we wanted to go to, we made an appointment with their African specialist at their office in Auckland (you can also work with them through a travel agent), and had a chat about the sort of things we wanted to do and see. It was pretty vague: Cape Town, glamping, a train, and wildlife, especially plenty of elephants, all to be fitted into about a couple of weeks. We could, of course, have been much more specific.
We were emailed gradually more definite itineraries for our feedback, and when it was all finalised, we went in again to pick up the hard copy with its booklet of vouchers, and to ask any last questions. Everything had been organised: flights, accommodation, activities, transfers, and we even had some help putting together our personal travel at the end. And then we were away.

It all worked beautifully, almost. There was one hiccup with a missing transfer, which was handled very efficiently by the company Adventure World was working with in South Africa, with prompt action and reassurance from Marlene back in New Zealand. All the rest of the flights, pick-ups, hotels and so on went perfectly, which is very reassuring in a place like Africa: it's a bit of an edgy destination and not somewhere I’m brave enough now to tackle completely on my own. I certainly noticed a big increase in nervousness when we were finding our own way around, driving ourselves and feeling much more vulnerable.

And the places we went! Hotels that weren’t just fancy, but full of personality; private city tours; the fabulous other world of the Rovos Rail experience; the foray into Zambia to fly in our own little plane to Royal Zambezi Lodge for truly unforgettable wildlife encounters including a surfeit of elephants… it was all brilliant. And so, so easy. Don’t believe those stupid TV ads that sneer at travel agents and tell you to do it all yourself much more efficiently, and cheaply, on the internet. I’ve done that too, recently, and it’s been a nightmare, honestly. Do yourself a favour and leave it to the professionals, like Adventure World: you’ll be glad you did.
PS: All this, and responsible tourism too!

Thursday, September 15, 2016

Isandlwana: black, white and red

No complaints about waking in a very comfy bed to the murmurings of doves, being brought tea and oatcakes with the wake-up call and then having freshly-cooked sweetcorn fritters for breakfast. It was an excellent start to a day of more fascinating historical stories. The first event described took place earlier on the same day as the1879 Rorke's Drift battle we learned about yesterday, and it was far more bloody.
Our guide was Mphiwa, whose grandfather and great-grandfather fought at Isandlwana, which was one of the greatest colonial defeats that Britain has ever suffered: bolshily invading Zululand on their commander's own initiative, 1,300 soldiers were overwhelmed by 25,000 (that's TWENTY-FIVE THOUSAND) Zulu warriors, armed with a few dodgy muskets but mostly just oxhide shields, assegais - stabbing spears - and a whole lot of courage. The casualties were huge on both sides since, despite being so massively outnumbered, the British did have the advantage of rifles and cannons, though they were hampered by being totally unprepared.
Mphiwa took us to a hill overlooking the battlefield, a wide undulating plain surrounding the distinctive small mesa called Isandlwana, and described how his people crept up on the troops camping below. Though the battle occurred in January, when the grass is lush and taller than a man, and we were there in the burnt brown dryness of September, we could picture the rows of soldiers' tents, helped by distant views of the many cairns of white-painted stones that now mark their burial places.
Then Mphiwa sat us on chairs in the shade of a tree down on the battlefield itself and told - acted out - the battle, from both sides, from beginning to end, sound effects included. It was marvellous, and the personal connection he had with events really added a whole extra dimension, bringing the Welsh contingent to tears, again.
After lunch, some of us went on a short walking tour to visit the sites and hear the story of both the loss (and later retrieval) of the regiment's Queen's Colours in the Buffalo River, and the nearby graves of Lts Melville and Coghill, who were trying to rescue it, and a vestige of honour, from the dreadful defeat. They both received the first posthumous VCs ever awarded.
And that wound up our visit to Fugitives' Drift. I would have liked a longer walk, and especially to go horse-riding through the Lodge's game reserve, but time ran out. We sat that evening under a sky that should have been starry but was dominated by a full moon, toasting our toes around the fire pit before another delicious, chatty and entertaining dinner, and a peaceful night that brought an end to our last full day in Africa.

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

"I came up here to build a bridge"

Rain overnight washed away the hyaena spoor. We woke to a fresh new day, the liquid notes of the well-named gorgeous bush shrike, repeated pleas of "Good Lord deliver us" from the fiery-necked nightjar, a gentle tapping from a woodpecker and, as always, the soothing murmuring of doves. 
We packed up, carefully pulling the lift-type gate across the kitchen doorway, then closing the wire mesh door, pushing the bolt across and finally fixing the metal clip onto the bolt - there are vervet monkeys and baboons here, nimble, quick, opportunistic and dextrous, and never to be trusted. They were sitting in the trees all around, watching us, just waiting for their chance. They'd already been into Shelley's tent yesterday, slipping through a gap in the zip and going through her bag, helping themselves to a box of macarons I'd given her. There were only tiny crumbs left.
There was more wildlife on the way back out of the reserve: elephants, of course, impala, kudu, zebra, giraffes... And then we were back in civilisation again, on the road. There was litter everywhere, traffic, people walking along the edge of the motorway, eucalyptus plantations, rivers, smaller roads mostly good but with random huge potholes, big open country of dry, bare hillsides. 
It looked empty, but closer to the increasingly traditional villages of compounds with round, thatched huts, there were herders watching over sheep, goats, and Brangus cattle (Brahman and Angus cross). Schoolkids in uniform got out of class to go and fill water containers at the bore pump, people were digging, washing clothes, chatting, sitting. We saw distinctive mesas, and then, happily, encountered a Landrover with a familiar name on it, and followed it to our destination: Fugitives' Drift Lodge.
We came here for one reason: the movie 'Zulu'. During my time in the UK (and since, I believe) this 1964 film ("Introducing Michael Caine" the opening credits announce) was played on TV on Christmas Day year after year. It was a ritual. And so it felt meant, since we were in the general area, to come and visit the location of the movie's central action: the Battle of Rorke's Drift. It's no accident that 80% of the area's visitors are Brits - including, during our stay, a sizeable contingent of Welsh people. In fact, of the dozen or so staying along with us, only one, an American, had never seen the movie. So, after a pleasant lunch in the Guest Lodge dining room hosted by Doug Rattray, one of the sons of the lamented David whose intense interest in the Anglo-Zulu War led to this operation, we were driven to the actual site of this 1879 battle and shown around by his older brother Andrew. 
'Shown around' is a feeble way to describe the experience. Really, it was a performance: 90 minutes of narration, quotation, description, opinion. Pretty much a tour de force, and irresistibly emotional, especially for the Welsh contingent (there's a strong Welsh connection). Perhaps finishing with the famous quote from Laurence Binyon's poem was a shade manipulative - but that's just me being cynical. There's no doubt that, despite having told the story what must be hundreds of times, the Rattrays are sincere in their recounting of this impressive battle. If you're not familiar with it, the bare facts are these: 139 British soldiers, many of them sick, held off an attack by 4,000 Zulu warriors, earning 11 Victoria Crosses in the process. Even without all the dramatic licence indulged in by the movie, it was a fantastic achievement.
Standing on the very spot where it all happened, lines of stones in the grass marking out the barricades built of biscuit boxes and mealie bags, walking around the (rebuilt - the original was burnt down in the battle) hospital and the commissary store, now a church, listening to the impassioned account of the story as the sun began to set... I'm so glad we made the effort to go.
Add in gorgeous accommodation, excellent service, delicious food and interesting over-dinner chat with the other guests and lodge hosts, and you have a brilliant package.

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Elephant jam

We're used to it now - being inconvenienced by elephants literally in the road. It happened all the time during our three days in Zambia, and it was a feature today. The first was such a big bull, that would be unnerving enough, but he was also in musth, dripping a testosterone-rich oily secretion from ducts near his eyes. When this happens, they're very unpredictable and dangerous, so we backed up and warned other drivers who approached. Eventually, he moved off enough for people to dart nervously past, and we continued our drive through the reserve.
Thankfully, still, there were rhinos, since this is where they were rescued from near-oblivion back in the 1960s thanks, in large part, to Dr Ian Player. From here they were transported to establish herds all over Africa. It was a hugely successful effort - but now, of course, poaching to supply the ever-growing Chinese and Vietnamese demand for their (useless) horn has got their numbers plummeting. This particular park is now being targeted by poachers who are finding their previous main hunting-ground, Kruger, too well guarded these days. Poachers get their intel from wherever they can, even Facebook, so I'm not posting any photos or saying any more about them. It's sadly absolutely no exaggeration to say that their extinction is looming.
We were heading for Hilltop across the road in adjoining Hluhluwe National Park, but we didn't get there - there was too much happening. A lion hunt, for a start. Alerted by other vehicles parked along the road, we stopped and grabbed the binocs, and spotted three lionesses in the scrubby bush, creeping so slowly and cautiously up on three giraffes feeding beyond. It was a bold choice, especially since there was a herd of impala and some zebras near them, which are excellent look-outs, as well as a few hefty buffalo, which aren't shy about standing up for themselves. The lions, without appearing to communicate, were the essence of patience, easing themselves closer to the giraffes, which were so blissfully unaware of the danger that one of them actually sat down.
Of course I'd now like to go on and describe the horribly gripping drama of the kill - but we didn't have as much patience as the big cats and, after watching for about an hour, drove on to find more action elsewhere, leaving them to it (when we passed the site again, much later, all giraffes were still present and correct, the lions still, presumably, hungry). 
We found zebras, cute and Mohicaned, if not quite as striking as the Cape mountain variety that stole our hearts a week ago. And birds, and warthogs, and then more elephants, a big bunch of them on the road, drinking from a drain that ran under it, feeding on trees.They eat the bark, as well as the leaves, said Shelley (who knows everything about African wildlife and is the most excellent guide). They roll bits of branch around in their mouths and then spit out the wood. They were indulging in a bit of in-herd argy-bargy and in no hurry at all to clear the road for all the cars lined up in both directions.
And then, eventually, we got back to the tent again and had another braai, Shelley's powerful torch at hand to keep shining into the surrounding undergrowth as the boerewors cooked. With good reason, it turned out, not one but three hyaenas prowling beneath the deck as we ate, hoping for leftovers. 
They're much more appealing than you would think (no thanks to Disney for that) with furry round ears, big eyes and hairy feet - but "Stick your hand or foot down through that railing, and that would be that," Shelley said. "Their jaws are incredibly powerful." When they'd given up and gone to try their luck at another tent, some prettily spotted genets turned up - much less the stuff of nightmares.

Monday, September 12, 2016

From elaborate to simple

Well! What a fabulous surprise this morning! I knew we must have been close to the beach, from the sound of breaking waves all night, but to push back the shutters and be presented with a sight like this was literally jaw-dropping.
Mind you, the whole of the Oyster Box Hotel, which is a Durban institution, is like that. As I've said before, Red Carnation doesn't do restrained, and there's decoration everywhere, most of it specifically chosen by owner Bea Tollman - pretty amazing, considering all the other 16 RC properties get the same personal attention and she's not a young woman any more. After being thoroughly overwhelmed by the extensive breakfast choice and weakly having only fruit and pastry (I know! What a waste!) - with also, for form's sake, an eponymous oyster - I toured the hotel from top to bottom, and there was no expense or attention spared anywhere. Even Skabenga, the pampered resident (and, frankly, snootily superior) cat, has had a children's book written about him. The whole place is gorgeous.
It was quite a contrast, to drive from there to, since we had a couple of hours to fill and I've already been to Durban's Waterfront, Ghandi's house at Inanda. What, you didn't associate Ghandi with South Africa? Actually, I'd forgotten, too, but he spent 21 formative years here and it's where he did a lot of thinking, and sharing of the Satyagraha philosophy he developed (with, I was diverted to see, some input from good ol' John Ruskin, a familiar name from Eng I back in the 70s). 
I was impressed by what I saw and read there. The house (a reconstruction: the original ironically burnt down during an apartheid riot) is part of a Heritage Trail that we didn't have time for the rest of. It's also right in the middle of the Phoenix Settlement of ramshackle tin houses and girls doing the washing in plastic tubs beside the road, cheerfully wringing out sheets. Hard work.
Then we drove for several hours to start the personal part of this trip: a private visit with my friend Shelley to the iMfolozi Game Reserve, where we stayed in tents at Mpila. Since the Big Five live in this reserve (everyone who comes here gets told the story about the man who was seized by a leopard when he went to check his braai, and scalped) these tents are obviously substantial affairs with proper floors and roofs, and built above the ground. As we arrived, there was a fountain of soil erupting from underneath one tent, followed by four rapidly exiting warthogs who had clearly been planning to spend the night there too. And later we had an excellent grandstand view of the hyaena that came to investigate if there were any left-overs from our own braai that night. Good start!


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