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 the late but eternally respected 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 were 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!

Sunday, September 11, 2016

A spectacular end - and a spectacular beginning

With thanks to Adventure World for this tailor-made holiday.

Through the gauze of the mosquito nets draped over the bed, I watched the sun rise over the river on our last morning at the Royal Zambezi Lodge, curtains moving gently in the breeze, birds hopping over the thatched roof, doves murmuring, hippos grunting from the water. A couple of fishing canoes headed upriver, sending ripples through the sun's reflection on the water. When they'd gone, I had my shower outside on the deck in plenty of solar-heated hot water, with a distant audience of hippos. It was a lovely way to begin the day, even if it was a bit of a sad one. It's been such fun here.
The sun was so red today because there are a lot of bushfires burning - each night on our game drives we've watched a line of fire slowly moving along the escarpment - and the air is full of smoke, as well as dust. Both are especially bad because of the extra-dry conditions, though they're pretty much a constant feature in Africa, and when we finally met up again with pilot Rajith (there were, we were now unsurprised to find, elephants in the road holding us up and even a big bull wandering across the airstrip) he complained of poor visibility.
Even so, I could see the lodge and its reserve, the nearby National Park where we had so much fun bumping along through the bush spotting the wildlife, the tributary we crossed each day where we'd seen elephants, baboons, antelopes and herons in and by the water, and of course the great Zambezi itself.
Then we flew back to Joburg, and on to Durban, and hired a car to drive into the city. This was the end of our Adventure World-sponsored part of the trip, but they arranged one last treat for us: a night at the Oyster Box Hotel, the third South African Red Carnation property, and the most theatrical. Our introduction began with white-uniformed doormen in turban and pith helmet, continued with marble, orchids, curving staircase, mirrors and chandeliers, and ended with a shuttered room where robes were laid out on the comfortable bed and we fell asleep to the sound of breaking waves.

Saturday, September 10, 2016

So many spots!

With thanks to Adventure World for this tailor-made holiday.
Game drives are so yesterday! Today I tried different ways to experience the African bush. Up (again) at 5am – yes, it’s a holiday, but no, at game reserve lodges no-one sleeps in, that’s what afternoons are for – I went out with super-guide Chris for a nature walk. It sounds very tame, but please note that we were accompanied by Maybin, a camou-clad guard armed with a rifle, and there were serious instructions about keeping safe in case of a confrontation.

The big animals were not our focus this morning and, apart from being trumpeted at by a stroppy elephant we drove past, we saw none on our walk, fortunately – Maybin’s instruction is to shoot to kill if an aggressive animal approaches within 5 metres (which seems pretty close to me). The closest encounter we had, as it happens, was with an antlion which, despite the name, is the small larvae of a kind of fly. Having done a lifetime’s preparation for Africa courtesy of David Attenborough, I was able to score points with Chris for being able to identify the antlion, the hippo skull we came across and the calcium-white hyaena droppings – but I still learned a lot too.
Elephant dung infusions as a cure for asthma, for example, doves using ant-sprayed formic acid to rid themselves of fleas, leopards at risk of attack by baboons during the day, but vice versa at night… Chris knows so much, and is keen to share. So it wasn’t an eventful outing, but it was fascinating.
Once back at the lodge, though, things got exciting. Wandering along from our suite towards the main building for lunch, we had to take a side entrance because there was an elephant and her calf in the way. The resort is unfenced, and this sort of thing is not unusual. Today the eles took their time poking about right outside the building – at one stage it looked possible they might enter – feeding on grass and leaves. The mother even stepped very delicately over the railings to stand on the path, the better to reach seedpods in the tree over it. This was a bitter inconvenience: she was blocking the way to the bar where we’d planned to have a beer. Tch!
But a waiter went the long way round to fetch the drinks for us, and we settled down to our lunch on the deck as the elephants began to move off. Then, a shout and a clatter of breaking crockery: we rushed to see, and it was an unsuspecting waiter, bringing a tray of desserts from the kitchen, being surprised by the eles at close quarters and not unnaturally taking fright. The real tragedy was the waste of the pudding portions – it was quite the best lemon meringue pie I’ve ever tasted.

Returning to my table, I was advised that an opportunistic vervet monkey had just laid hands on my meatball, and that I should start again with a fresh plate. Talk about novelty hazards. Though, of course, here it’s just par for the course.
After all that drama, we had a quiet afternoon of what's officially known here as DNA time - Doing Nothing at All - although, with a herd of elephants grazing in front of and sometimes literally right below our suite and pool, it was far from dull.
Later, we tried something a bit different: a canoe trip along the river. Being Royal Zambezi, that turned out to be a lot less effort than it sounded. After a quick buzz down the river in a motorboat, we transferred to the Canadian canoes to sit in padded comfort while Chris paddled us gently downstream. We passed crocodiles sunning themselves on the bank, mouths agape; hippos in and out of the water; elephant families coming down to drink and bathe; monkeys and baboons leaping about in and under the trees; a suspicious buffalo staring at us; five skittish zebra; lots of beautiful brightly-coloured birds; and yesterday’s two lions again, lying in the grass studying the baby elephants with deep interest. Add to that peaceful quiet, lapping water, birdsong… glorious.
And then, believe it or not, it got even better. We left the canoe and got into the LandCruiser that met us, and Chris took us bumping and swaying along rough tracks through the bush to find something special for our last game drive here. Elephants got in the way of the best spots for our sundowner, but thanks to having to drive on – and, of course, Chris’s tracking skills and the sharp eyes of spotter Jimmy – we suddenly found ourselves just a few metres from a magnificent leopard lying beside a log in all his spotted glory.


Of course I had the wrong lens on my camera, the wrong settings dialled and my hands covered in mosquito repellent – but I saw him perfectly as he rose and unhurriedly crossed in front of us to disappear into the bushes, and I did grab an ok photo for proof. And after him there were genets and civet cats, a final dinner on the lantern-lit deck by the fire-pit with frogs and hippos providing the soundtrack, and chocolate mousse for dessert. What a great day.

Friday, September 9, 2016

Dogs: 7 - Cats: 2

With thanks to Adventure World for this tailor-made holiday.
That was today’s score and it was a marvel. On our morning game drive with Chris, I said I would love to see the endangered and iconic African wild dog, an animal with impressive social skills and one I'd never encountered before – so that's what he delivered to us, just like that. At first there were only a few, loping along, looking for prey; but leaving them and working on information from other rangers and tracks in the dust, Chris found us something quite unusual. It was a lone female, lying panting in the shade of a bush, recovering from the exertion of having just chased down and killed, solo, an impala, which lay on the dried mud. Wild dogs hunt together, so it was quite an achievement for this one to have succeeded alone. She rewarded herself with a snack on impala guts before loping off to fetch the others back for their share.
They came running, and as we watched from the LandCruiser from a few metres’ distance, they dispatched the impala in only six minutes. Pretty impressive work for just seven dogs. There was eager whimpering but no fighting as they ate, and when all the soft bits were gone they each dragged bones into the shade to lie down and crunch on. Then they trotted busily off again, back to the den where 13 pups awaited with their baby-sitter for their (regurgitated) shares of the meal.
video
Witnessing all that was a triumph, and near impossible to top – but Chris did manage to find us two lions that evening. One of them had recently swum across the Zambezi from Zimbabwe on the other shore, two kilometres away, to settle in the reserve – amazing, especially considering the river’s full of crocodiles. They were magnificent, regal animals, and when they looked us full in the eyes from about seven metres away, we felt very insignificant.
On the way back in the dark, after our gin and tonics drunk as the big, red African sun dropped down below the escarpment, we almost became the meat in an elephant sandwich. Eles rule wherever they go, and humans tiptoe around them. So when they’re standing in the middle of the road browsing on a tree in front of you, what you do is sit in your vehicle and wait patiently for them to move on, fervently hoping that the crashing in the bush you can hear isn’t another one about to emerge on the road behind you and take exception to your being in the way.

The night finished with a surprise: the promised porcupine site we were expecting turned out to be a bush dinner for all the guests: we saw lights and fire, and were presented with deck chairs around a fire, a bar, a long table all set and lit by lanterns, and a 3-course dinner waiting. Well done, Royal Zambezi – that was a delightful surprise, delicious, and entertaining. What an excellent day!

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