Friday 27 September 2013


I live a life of variety, I'm pleased to say. Just when things are getting a bit boring, fabulous trips like the African one pop up into my inbox. I've been going back through my blog posts, and discovered that dodgy internet connections in the bush left out the text in some of them. I've put in better photos, too: so if you're interested, you could pop back and do some catching up.

Thursday 26 September 2013

First world problems

I don't know if this is going to last, but travelling around rural South Africa and going into schools and communities has given me some perspective on things that loom a bit too large for so many people in our world. My pinot noir on the plane last night didn't come till I was halfway through my boeuf bourgignon, and it was too cold; and my seat on the long Joburg-Sydney leg would recline only a couple of inches. But that was nothing, having just seen the thin reed mats that poor people sleep on, on the ground, and having stood in the dormitory of a school bush camp hearing how the kids had to be shown how to use a bed, how to flush a toilet, how not to scald themselves in a shower. And how these same kids had to get up really early in the morning at home to carry water - a 25 litre jerry-can weighs 25kg, remember - before walking up to 15km to school. And then the same again at the end of the day.
The people tutting with irritation over the slightly messy organisation for boarding the Auckland flight should get over themselves. It's not "shocking", having to wait 10 minutes to get onto a plane. What's really shocking is children wearing their shoes undone because they're far too small, but it's a matter of pride not to go barefoot to school. It's shocking that there are so many child-headed households because the parents have died of Aids, and these kids can't go to school at all because they have to look after their younger siblings.

And everybody in New Zealand today, cast into gloom by the failure to win the America's Cup after such a long and emotionally-gruelling struggle, should remember that actually it's just a race for rich men's toys; and that even though Team NZ pushed themselves to the limit, it's all pretty trivial really when you consider facts like 95% unemployment, like an elephant being killed every 15 minutes, like rhino horns being hacked off with axes while the animals are still alive, left to bleed to death. So cheer up! In Africa, things are so much worse!*
*"The floggings will continue until morale improves."

Tuesday 24 September 2013

Time to make a difference

They have some classy stuff in the shops at Joburg airport: lovely jewellery, clothes, carvings and household items (also plastic vuvuzelas, natch - and I saw some bought. What larks ahead!) overwhelmingly adorned with elephant, zebra, giraffe and lion. You have to look for the rhino.

Pretty much like real life, then. Except for us on this trip, with our exclusive focus and contacts: we were literally up close and personal with these 50 million year-old prehistoric creatures, big and little, black and white, and it was such a privilege. I come from an elephant home, thanks to one chance soft toy 22 years ago (go, Ditty!) but I'm a rhino convert now.

They're so massive, so odd-looking, so totally harmless if you leave them alone. All they want to do is eat grass or leaves and get on with producing their ridiculously cute babies (I glimpsed a 10-day old black calf - totally adorable). But through an evil combination of greed, ignorance and ruthlessness, they could all soon be gone. And that would be inexpressibly sad.

Monday 23 September 2013

Salani kahle

I've never sat on the loo before, stroking a cat balanced on the rim of the basin, while watching monkeys leap along the wall outside. This trip has been crammed full of close and astonishing animal encounters, far surpassing my expectations in that respect, and for that reason alone I would love to come again.

Even more, though, it's been the people. We've been so lucky to enjoy the unlimited hospitality of the Hedges family, all of them so friendly, intelligent, knowledgeable and passionate about their country with all its faults and difficulties. South Africa is a country of huge resources and potential, hampered by its government but kept going by the will of its people, and everyone we've met has had in common a determination to make things better. It'll take time, but it will happen.

The rhino issue is the perfect symbol: a unique and very special animal, threatened by greed and corruption, but inspiring wonderful and varied effort from all sorts of people, from all over the world, united in the cause. They must succeed, and we all must help:


There are a lot of gaps to fill in once I'm home, thanks to dodgy Internet connections in the bush, tch, appalling. It's our last full day in Africa after two nights spent at the very elegant &Beyond Rock Lodge at Phinda - private plunge pool, sherry decanter in the room, oodles of delicious food at frequent intervals and super-enthusiastic ranger Matt partnered by spotter extraordinaire Joel. (Not, of course, that there was time to get into the pool or even sip the sherry.)

The focus shifted from animals to people: the hard lives of the locals, and the inspiring work of others trying to help them to make a difference to their own circumstances. Marvellous people. We went into communities, actual houses and were treated with courtesy and generosity by people who had so little.

And then of course there were more animals: a walk through the bush tracking giraffe, and a rather too close encounter in the Kombi with an irritated rhino, who approached, snorting, to within 2 metres of where I was sitting at the open door. No photo of that, unfortunately. I was somewhat preoccupied.

Saturday 21 September 2013


It's not a word I use often, but it's perfect for today's finale. First there was walking to within 30 metres of a black rhino - that would be the more aggressive of the two varieties. Then there was the standing in the open back of a pickup, in a pool of blood from a freshly-shot impala, watching two cheetahs just 10m away crunching on another as we watched from inside their enclosure.

Then, driving away, we stopped to inspect a pride of five lions as they watched us equally closely - still in the back of the pickup, still with the blood and the impala.

And finally, on tonight's game drive here at &Beyond's Phinda, there were four hungry cheetah, a mother and three male cubs, looking gaunt. We were sad, but as we followed them, bouncing off-road in the Land Cruiser, they found a herd of nyala (small antelope) and as we watched, they ran down a young one, the mother hampered by her useless sons, and finally killed it and filled their stomachs. Hooray! But not so good for the nyala, of course...

Friday 20 September 2013

A rhino sucked my toes

Yes, really. A cute little year-old white rhino baby, orphaned by poachers and being raised with two others in Umfolosi Reserve for eventual release into a game reserve - she sucked my toes after inhaling a trough of milk formula. Such a dear little thing, she made noises like a whale. Apparently her wailing when she was found was heartbreaking to hear.

And then we spent the night in fancy tents on a solid floor with a lovely bed and bathroom and all, but went to bed disappointed nonetheless because the promised hyenas didn't show up at our customary braai; though a bush pig did. There was cause for celebration because a lone elephant in a river completed our Big Five: lion, leopard, rhino, buffalo and elephant.

Today we drove to Phinda, a really classy lodge near Hluhluwe, to Rock Lodge built on the cliff. It's all varnished wood, high ceilings, thoughtful touches and views from everywhere including the loo and the shower. Outside there's a plunge pool that we would dearly have loved to er, plunge into on this 45 degree day, but there was no time. We were out on another game drive with Joel the spotter on the front of the vehicle and Matt driving. As well as all the usual suspects we saw a cheetah with two grown cubs, crocodiles and a couple of porcupines.

It's been lovely, but so busy, and tomorrow we're up at 5.30am again to go and find black rhino. Good night!

Thursday 19 September 2013

Coffee! Internet!

Three days in the bush and everyone's head down in the Wimpy having ordered burgers and coffee, catching up with the world on their phones. As am I! It's been brilliant: the 2.5m black mamba didn't show at the campsite, no one got charged by a rhino, and we ate and slept really well at the bush camp.

We've seen giraffe, rhino, zebra, several sorts of antelope, warthog (only amateurs add the -s) and so many birds, but no insects: perfect. We've done game drives, visited a lovely lodge with thatched chalets, had a braai and campfires, and there's been plenty of beer and wine and general jollity to balance all the learning. We walked to within 50m of five rhino and visited a school bush camp to study spoor with the kids.
Yesterday I spent an hour and a half in the back of a helicopter swooping low over the bush veldt looking for rhino, checking the fence line, maintaining a warning presence. Then it landed at the lodge to drop me off for a swim in the pool. As you do! And today we called at a school where shy but eager kids were given a rhino picture to colour for a competition. I've seen more rhino than these guys - it's vital to spread the word and get them on board.

We got educated too: bare rooms, pencil stumps, threadbare uniforms, no idea what a frisbee is, and half a dozen hit on the hand with an 80cm rubber stick for daring to call out hello to us - by a fat woman with gold teeth, French tips and lots of bling. Not exactly Mr Chips. I wonder if the kids will ever see the books and stationery I left for them?

Sunday 15 September 2013

Serendipity at iSimangaloso

We thought we'd done well here at this World Heritage wetlands game park which 20 years ago was pine forest. We'd seen two of the Big Five plus all sorts of antelope, warthogs, monkeys, hippo, lots of birds and even a humpback whale - but then we saw the trucks. And the helicopter.

Game Capture trucks, three of them, rangers and workers, guns and radios. They were after 4 rhino, to be moved up north to keep a balance, and we were allowed to watch. The chopper hovered and swooped, chasing the big rhino bull to direct it near the road, the vet hanging out the open door ready to fire the dart.

He did, the rhino ran, still being directed, finally staggering and then collapsing. It was all go: the truck roared up, the container was positioned and the rhino righted (it takes 8 men to roll a rhino). Paperwork was done, leaning on the rhino's broad back, he was roped, blindfolded, tagged, notched, antidoted, the tip of his precious horn sawn off to fit in the crate. Cattle prods got him to lurch suddenly to his feet and into the crate, the doors were slammed and that was that.
It was a smooth operation, but traumatic for him, even doped up on opium - he was shuddering throughout - and also for us, watching, literally connecting with him (a rhino feels even more solid than it looks), especially seeing his horn sawn. So much like what poachers would do (reason for the armed guard - thousands of rands' worth in just that tip). And he was being sent up north, closer to Mozambique. Where the poaching is rampant.

Saturday 14 September 2013

This is why you have to sign waivers...

"Don't eat the tourists, Juba," Meshack kept saying at Emdoneni, the cheetahencounter place, once we were all in the enclosure ready to "hug and pet" them. We'd done the African wild cats, just like Alice back home, and the caracals with their tufted ears, and been enchanted by how they all purred and leaned in for ear scratchies. Then we went to meet the cheetahs.

Moyah was lovely, rolling sensuously and loving being stroked (the black spots softer than the yellow fur) but then, just like a cat, suddenly had enough and stalked off. So we went to Juba, below, who nuzzled the ladies and licked them with his raspy tongue - but then it was the turn of the big Afrikaans man with the warts, who none of the other cats had warmed to.
He patted the cheetah a bit nervously and it was fine until suddenly Juba batted at his face and, cheetahs' claws being unretractable (second useful cheetah fact of the day) his skin was punctured, and the blood flowed freely. He was lucky though, because as he leaned forward to get up, Juba had another go, but didn't connect. It would have been easy as for the jugular to be slashed.

Back outside, Meshack said 15-20 tourists had had "accidents" in the last year. Waivers, eh. 

Friday 13 September 2013


I could have been in Takapuna. Pavement cafes, coffee, pampered pugs, relaxed people in shorts and tshirts, palm trees....

But also razor wire on top of walls, an old black lady with a stool and big jar of lollies, another in a mob cap with a huge basket of laundry. Interesting.

And inspiring, to meet fired-up people organising the Dtours Rally 2014 through amazing country, to raise amongst other things awareness about rhino poaching. Great stuff.

Thursday 12 September 2013


It's a long, long way from Auckland to Durban - especially when you go via Antarctica, which was a surprise. But there it was below us, miles and miles of ice. Shows why a globe is a better guide than a map.

We also managed, the six of us, to lose all of our luggage, thanks to the combined efforts of Air New Zealand, Qantas and South African Airways - stage by stage, they disappeared till, by Durban, there was nothing of ours on the carousel. But we have faith they will reappear.*

So instead of seeing our bags, the first thing I saw at Johannesburg airport was this sign, which was a perfect welcome for the purpose of this trip. Before rhinos though, there will be cheetahs...
*UPDATE: As indeed they did - most the same day, one three days later, one four days later, one six days later, and the last one never. It was picked up at Joburg airport on the way back to NZ, 12 days later. None of which was what we were led to expect from the many ensuing long phone calls...

Saturday 7 September 2013

"... their spear points gleaming..."

Only five more sleeps before I head off to the Dark Continent, so naturally I have 'Men of Harlech' on repeat in my head. Why this particular earworm? Because I'm going to Zululand, of course. What, still no wiser? Tch. Clearly you're not British, then, accustomed to the Christmas tradition of showing the 1964 movie Zulu on television - the one with a very young Michael Caine and a climactic scene where the besieged British regiment sings a version of the song to drown out the chants of the approaching Zulu warriors before the final stage of the Battle of Rorke's Drift. Never seen it? It's a classic! And the battle is worth knowing about, too - eleven Victoria Crosses were awarded to the defenders.

I went to Harlech a few years ago, and had a nose through its classic storybook castle, sturdy and four-square up on the hill above the town, with towers and turrets and battlements, multiple portcullises and a drawbridge. There was a siege here too - in fact five of them - but the best-known was back in the 15th century during the Wars of the Roses, that lasted all of seven years, and was the inspiration for the song. The one the Welsh remember most fondly though is when Owain Glyndywr held off the British from the castle they'd built, for five long years.

Now it's a quiet place, and when I was there the loudest noise was the cawing of the resident crows and the tapping of the lanyards on the flagpoles, though some distant shouting from the playing fields of the high school below gave some idea of how it must have been during its various battles. Though we saw rather too many Welsh castles on that trip, I liked Harlech and have no trouble distinguishing it from all the others. Not everyone was impressed though: there was a fat Brummy couple wandering around at the same time, and he said to her, in that whiny accent, "I'm a bit disappointed in this, Wilma. I thought it was going to be a proper castle, but it's just a ruin."

It's much more than a ruin. It's also a bit suggestive.

Friday 6 September 2013

What a laugh, eh?

I'm still mopping up Canada/Alaska material - no, on the contrary, I'm squeezing out the last unused bits, turning them into uncommissioned stories that I will have to send out alone into the world to make their fortune (actually, mine, and for 'fortune' read 'pittance'). It's Vancouver I've been focused on today, specifically the Art Wheelers bike tour I did, that for about 3 hours took me around the city's main streets, cul-de-sacs, sea wall and parks, discovering all manner of interesting artworks, and hearing a bit about their creators and their history.

It was what I believe is called an eclectic collection, including deliberately gob-smacking works like the lovely LightShed, a baby boathouse that looks like silvered wood but is actually cast aluminium, perfect in every tiny detail; and the rock Inukshuk that was the symbol of the Winter Olympics. But there were also fascinating sneaky things like four circular platforms with benches and potted trees on them, that revolve v-e-r-y slowly, disconcerting those who've sat down for a quiet read of the paper; and even manhole covers beautifully cast in a native design of tadpoles. In between there were all sorts of things, some of them interactive, some of them buildings, some of them street art. It was a lot of fun, and interesting, and a very pleasant way to spend a sunny afternoon.

I was intrigued, though, by the familiar look of an installation of 14 bronze larger-than-life Chinese men, in different positions but all identical and all laughing. It was A-maze-ing Laughter by Yue Minjun, and I'd never seen it before, but I knew the face. Today, I've made the connection: at the Beijing Dirt Market in 2009, I saw a painting of these laughing men hanging at one of the stalls. I can still envisage the place clearly (helped by all the disgusting hoiking and spitting that was going on all around my thankfully shoe-shod feet - it was an early morning market) with all its huge variety of stuff laid out. Chairman Mao ornaments, ivory (tch) carvings, heavy shiny furniture, beautiful paint brushes, porcelain and pottery, statues and fabrics...

There is a huge Chinese population in Vancouver, about 30% of the total, so really it shouldn't be surprising to come across a connection like this. But we were in China on a Silversea cruise in 2009, and why were we in Canada in 2013? Yup, Silversea cruise.

Wednesday 4 September 2013

Natural selection, thwarted

The news has been full of a Kiwi named Ryan who got himself into a bit of bother in the Top End recently, stranded on an island off the Western Australia coast north-west of Kununurra. He thought he'd have himself an adventure and got dropped off there with some supplies and a kayak, but though he reckoned to have done some research he hadn't, oddly, factored in the crocs.

They're not called 'salt-water crocodiles' for nothing; but when he set off on his little 2.5m kayak, he was still surprised to find himself shadowed as he paddled by a 6m croc. Not unnaturally, he panicked somewhat and made a smart beeline back to the island instead of continuing to battle the current to cover the 4km across to the mainland. And then was stranded there for a fortnight with dwindling supplies and water, constantly observed by the monster croc, until he was fortuitously rescued by a passing boatie. Could have ended very differently.
Really, he must have been so dim. You can't go anywhere in the Top End without hearing all about the crocs, even if you don't see them - which you will, because they're everywhere. On warning signs, in regular headlines in the NT News, and in, er, person, basking on river banks and beaches in all their prehistoric, scaly glory. I couldn't tell you how many I've seen, on the Daly River particularly in the Territory, lurking in the water or mouths agape on the bank. They're horribly fascinating, especially when you've seen how lightning-fast they can move despite their size. And when you know that they will patiently stalk prey, like Ryan, for weeks if necessary, until the time is right. And what's even more frightening? That they are intelligent enough to recognise patterns of behaviour, so you're advised not to follow a routine that they can plan an attack around.

Which is all very well, until you get eaten when you turn up one day for the first time in your life at a viewpoint where other tourists have stopped before you and thus trained the local croc. Or, you know, you're dim like Ryan.

Tuesday 3 September 2013

Just the bear facts, ma'am

"Ahh," she sighed as she sank into the chair next to mine out on the sunny balcony. "I love this weather. It encourages me to get out and go for a long walk, and then at night I sleep like a bear."

"Well actually," I had to reply, "I've had something to do with bears lately and in fact they don't sleep all winter. They get up every hour or so for a stretch, and even when they're sleeping they tense a different muscle on each exhalation. It's so in spring they don't emerge all weak and feeble," I added helpfully, keen that she should appreciate this wonder of nature.

Travelling does this to you, you know. You learn things, have preconceptions swept away, find new fascinations, and you can't help sharing them with innocent people back home who thought they were just indulging in a bit of phatic communion. (It makes it worse, if you were already a teacher.) It gets returned travellers a bad name, even now that slideshows with actual slides are a thing of the past - not being trapped in a darkened room, it's easier to wriggle out of viewing all of someone's holiday snaps if they're on a phone or tablet. Not so simple though to retreat from a lecture that's all about the eye-contact.

And the other disadvantage - though really it's a good thing - is that forever after, having visited a place, you have a vested interest in its welfare, so when it pops up on the TV news as the location for some event, you take it all personally. Usually, unfortunately, it's a natural disaster, like the wildfires at Yosemite right now, and having been there, walked through those woods, delightedly spied on the wildlife and admired the splendid scenery, you're affected. It's a connection, and that's good, but it's also sad to be able to imagine so easily how something so special is being destroyed. I hope it rains there soon.

Sunday 1 September 2013

Spring has sprung...

... and where better to enjoy the first day of spring than at the beach? Muriwai Beach, in fact, a surf beach on the west coast with long rollers, black sand and cliffs where gannets nest. "Nest" is pushing it a bit: what they actually make is a scrape on top of a low mount of dirt softened by bits of grass glued in place with guano. Not exactly 5-star, but it works for the gannets, who have been gradually expanding their nesting area over the years - nice change, to hear that.

That's a gannet at the top of this blog, by the way, photographed right at this spot as it glided just overhead. Everybody had cameras there, of course, snapping away at each other as well as, the ones with big lenses, at the birds - but there was one couple (and I'll leave it to you to guess their nationality) who marched up to the best lookout and then spent a good five minutes photographing each other. He was in charge, demanding that she take and re-take his photo as he stood not smiling at her but gazing seriously off at an angle into the mid-distance, until finally he was satisfied with his portrait. But still he wanted a phone pic to supplement the big Canon ones. Then he deigned to snap off a couple at her, before they slung their stuff back over their shoulders and, he striding ahead and she scuttling behind, they walked away.

Without even glancing once at the gannet colony, the waves breaking at the base of the cliffs or the shiny blue sea stretching off towards the horizon. All this fabulous nature - and they didn't even look at it! Perhaps though it was a good thing, because if they'd spent any time at all watching the paired birds delicately rattling their beaks, twining their necks together and carefully grooming each other's heads, clearly delighted to be together again after the long winter apart, they (she) might have got a bit envious of such a loving, life-long and equal partnership.


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