Team VA's Wonderings

Tuesday, October 31, 2006

I hope you've some time to spare.....

....this is a long one.

Before I start on what can only be described as an Odyssey (and a posting about as long), I have a request. Does anyone know how I can get an Indiana Jones style map on here-the one with the red line covering the globe, so I can track progress (and hum the theme tune). Any comments welcome. Ta.

Day 1
So after my last post, I wandered back to the hotel where there was no one about-I’d had visions of some sort of mass meet-up, but the hotel didn’t really have the right sort of communal area. Plenty of time to get know everyone once we get on the truck, so wasn’t bothered. Had a long chat with Roger, who’s a nice bloke. He’s retired and basically traveling when the Canadian winter comes. Can’t argue with that-he did a similar sort of tour in Oz. He also seems to have a much better idea of the itinerary and what’s going on than me. A couple of times I am forced to go ‘Oh, yeah’, when he gives me some new information. Can’t help but notice his bag is half the size of mine.

Take my first malaria pill, have mad dreams, listen to Roger’s snoring and get little sleep. So it is that I will start the Cape Town to Nairobi leg having totally failed to get a decent amount of rest. This had been my plan for 2 months. Not much of a project manager in my own life!

Day 2
For the most part what follows was either written as I went along, or worked up from notes taken on the day or day after. Therefore my impressions of individuals are likely to change, but the idea is to reflect how things were at the time.

The big exception follows: I wrote this one week in. I could never have picked up this many names in a day or two.

Dramatis personae (with apologies for spelling errors)
Roger You’ve already met. Going through to Nairobi.

Oliver Swiss guy a couple of years older than me. Initially a little quiet, but warmed up substantially. Explained his early taciturnity by saying that I was talking so much he had no chance. Top guy.

Milly Scouse bird (hi Milly). Good value. Only other Brit. Only other drinker of any substance. A combination that has reinforced the English stereotype to the others. At least we haven’t started any fights or football chants yet. Going through to Nairobi.

Alex and Jessica German girls, mid twenties. Alex’s English is much better than she thinks, but is a little quiet. Jessica seems formidable. Warming to both of them.

Zachi and Corinne Swiss/Israeli married couple. She’s just qualified as a doctor, which has come in useful. He’s very funny. Very nice.

Hennie and Heirwig Austrian couple: she’s a laugh, his English is a bit limited. Seem nice, probably the people I know least well.

Mya Slovenian girl. Pretty good laugh. Psychologist, which scares me a bit. Am I paranoid Mya?

Didi Danish girl, traveling at the moment, supposed to be going back to a bit of school then uni. Clearly wants to keep traveling. Going through to Nairobi.

Geede Danish lady, English teacher. Done a lot of traveling.

Reine Belgian. Sounds like he runs a Londis. Class.

Frank and Sabina German couple, don’t know her so well. He makes me laugh.

Calisto Our guide. Nice guy. Works very hard.

Eddie (renamed from Edmo). He drives the fastest truck of safari guys in Africa. Top, top bloke.

As you can see, we’re quite lucky to be mainly conversing in English-this could have been a German language trip.

Another time, I may try and find movie characters to fit each one, but I’m on the clock here. Time is money and all. Basically, a good group. If the second leg is as good, will be very lucky.

Lambert's bay
Truck travelling distance 300 km
At breakfast I decide to be sociable and head for German girls table (taking Roger with me); conversation is a bit stilted and for the second time I begin wondering if I am doing the right thing. For the second time, I realise in no time, this was a dumb response. Meet some more folk at the welcome meeting, few laughs and we’re on the truck. I’m up for this.

Half way up the stairs onto the bus, the prettiest girl asks me sit with her at the front (Mya). Great seat, great companion-we spend a lot of the journey chatting. This also gives a massive Billy Bragg earworm with the ‘prettiest girl in school’ line from ‘Mother of the Bride’. It hard to see how it gets much better than this.

Slight bit of tent share politics ensues as we get off at the waterfront in Cape Town to get supplies. Oliver very earnestly asks me to share a tent with him-he hasn’t liked the look of the other 2 single guys as roomies. This makes me very uncomfortable as Roger is assuming that I will share with him, so I prevaricate. Later I end up sharing with Oliver-the irony being was the prize for Roger is a single tent-Reine has paid a single supplement. Gedde has done the same, so Milly also has a tent to herself. The 3 of us become tent buddies, putting the tents up and down in a tag team stylee. [1 week in and Oliver and I have managed 5 tents as our record for being dragged in to help. We must be very nice guys.]

I get very overexcited by the truck-it has hidey holes all over the place including one for firewood. It would make a great kid’s toy, if scaled down and made of plastic. Lunch amazing-lots of salad and fruit.

Tents are good: we get a demo on how to put them up. Although they are not too modern, the mechanics are and 5-10 mins is enough to put them up. Roomy inside. I can even get my bag in.

Essentially this is a short day and there’s not much in Lambert’s bay. Saw goats cows sheep and the still exciting ostrich on the drive. It’s been a warm up to learn lunch drills, tent erection, meet everyone and give out the safe keys.

There are two keys for ‘our’ safe; Calisto does not keep one. Somehow I end up with both (I’m not sure who thinks I am the man for the job). I have hell’s own job getting rid of the other key-everyone claims ineptitude-I’m told how ditzy people are, how many keys they’ve lost and so on. Eventually, Frank steps up: good work from the big man.

I'm also somehow in charge of the cooler (I’m sitting near it): having been self-christened the cooler king, I wait for someone else to see fit to call me Hilts. No one does, but I’m Steve McQueen in my head and that’s good enough for me.

By the end of the day I already seem to have the class clown role. Milly is treating me with similar contempt to Zoe

We have dinner out, I’m pleased there are 5 veggies-tho the others eat fish. At dinner, I forget to take my malaria pill until the table is clear, so I take it with no water in a suicide attempt. Heimlich manoeuvre was narrowly avoided!

There may not have been much in Lambert’s bay, but I’ve had a great day. I'm going to enjoy this

Day 3
500 Km
We head to Orange river-the border between Namibia and SA. I get a hot shower at 6 am and then have the ‘I’ve lost the safe key’ panic-it was in a safe place. Resolve for the thousandth time in my life never to put things in ‘safe places’ as you can never find them again.

I am getting so cheerful, grinning so much and am so overexcited about everything I am becoming Parker from Friends. May be bugging myself soon. Not yet though. After last night’s fiasco, I am pleased to find a malaria buddy to help me remember to take the pills.

We reach an amazing camp site, which just a left turn before the border bridge. The volleyball court is overlooked by showers, the wc has an open roof and this is the view from the bar.

We have a camp fire, no singing and a great stir fry. Tomorrow is an early rise and we have the first disquiet in the ranks-Jessica has a ‘I'm sorry I'm on holiday’ moment. As everyone expects she is up at the mentioned time, as it gets too hot to stay in the tent. I think it sounds worse than it is, lost in translation a little. I cringe anyway.

After dinner we have star gazing (the sky is amazing here and part moons look like smiley faces; the moon seems rotated 90 degrees or so). The other main activity involves making me the butt of jokes-I get accused of being pissed on 2 beers and from London, aside from that it’s all very good natured!

Last to bed.

Day 4
160 km
I get up 5.45 to watch sunrise over the mountains, which arrives 6.10 and is spectacular. Across the river in Namibia it was even more striking. There is so much life about-especially this early. There are little birds in camp, large flocks over river, some skimming, fish jumping, all accompanied by a bird and insect chorus. I reflect on how this contrasts with traditional media views of Africa.

Bit of breakfast before we go canoeing. Nimrod the dog comes to join us, but Eddie chases him off with a brush.

I’m told we can take cameras on the canoe trip, but decide not to after Hermanus. Nice, gentle paddle through the mountains. At one stage we watch an iguana swimming across from Namibia to SA-I didn’t even know they swam (I’m canoeing with Milly and we initially the iguana is a stick). We also see an impressive bright red bird-no one knows anything about birds it transpires. Milly say we need to get a book on African birds, good call I reckon. I think I recognise a crane. Really good way to spend a morning.

I even manage to get rid of the safe key for the duration of the trip.

I have already got zebra feet (stripes of tan and white on feet, which match the straps on my action sandals). This freaked me out in Benicassim in July; now I don’t care.

Today is a border day, and after canoeing the guys went for a fax while we chilled (and I treated the sunburn on the old legs). We get delayed to 4, then get a new fax with the correct vehicle reg on it (the initial reason for the delay). We need 2 more faxes at border-there’s a funny line on one copy and a fuzzy number on another. Guards are clearly being difficult and pedantic, couple of folk get a little uptight. Most people and shrug and utter the ‘this is Africa’ mantra.

The delays mean we miss fish river canyon at sunset, but we see kudu, ostrich, springbok and maybe a zebra on the way (pretty dark at that point). For the first time tent erection is in the dark (the van’s lights try to floodlight our site). I’m getting on well with Oliver, who's having a good laugh at the Germans (he’s a Swiss German speaker, not a German speaker he tells me). There’s mention that we should look out for scorpions (cue wind of change earworm) and we head for dinner, where I get informed that we’ll be getting up for sunrise the next two days. So that’ll be a hat trick for me; only slightly regretful at this morning’s early start.

For dinner I have the greatest couscous ever cooked (only veggie option, which I order with a heavy heart): it bears no resemblance to sawdust. I didn’t know it was possible to do that with couscous. Perhaps the tree blossom falling in my food is causing it. I lose it totally after a couple of beers, as I’m a touch tired. This is not good as when we return the camp 4 or 5 tents have blown over or made their way out of camp. We resecure the tent and put the lid on to keep out the pony amount of rain that arrives. We are treated to thunder and lightning in the distance later

When I clean my teeth, I fail to take the wind into account when spitting out the toothpaste and it goes all over Alex. It had been a long day.

Day 5
560 km
I’m still awake at 2-the wind and the rebuilding excitement keep me up.

The alarm rings at 5 to go to fish river canyon, which is now 25km in wrong direction. There must be something in the malaria pills-I’m cheery and energetic packing up camp.

See mountain zebra on the way, which confirms that I had seen one last night. Lot of ostrich activity too.

Early start is so worth it-we are stood to the canyon's east as the sun rose and I am sure this view is better than the sunset would have been.

Me, Jimmy White, Milly, Geede and Mya. It's a bit windy.

We walk a couple of km in the cool to the breakfast Calisto has prepared. Helpers group 3 (Didi, Mya, Oliver and myself) swing into action: each day a group helps with a small amount of the communal chores. We deviously created our group the previous night-not sure why really.

On the drive we see 1 waterhole with water, likewise 1 river, but most rivers are dry-no mud, just rocks, sand and dust.

We have a shopping stop and I buy more sunscreen-my legs still under wraps after kayaking.

Tomorrow is another dawn start-this time for sunrise on the dunes. Then there’s an optional walking tour. Stamina may be in question by day 40.

Physical conditioning is made worse by staying in the bar with Milly till past closing time. Last to bed again.

Day 6-Near death experience
Up 4.45, leave at 5.10 for sunrise at the sand dunes.
If anyone ever suggests a pleasant stroll up a sand dune to you, then prepare. Get oxygen and a paramedic helicopter on stand by. Have an early night. Stay off the booze.

I have done none of these things. I find this very hard work-I’m not alone, but watching Geede bound up the damn when she’s 48 next week isn’t great for my mental shape.

Dune 45 is a 120m high dune-I am later told that walking along the apex of the dune is not the way to climb. In fact it was bloody murder and apparently equivalent to climbing 3 times the height on a hill (which isn’t that much). Resolve again to get in shape and review my decision to follow the training programme of the Ultimate Olympian.

Sunrise is special tho (not least as I can drink water and get my breath back). I end up coughing every time I laugh for the rest of the day. Find a great technique for running back down the dune, which is lots of fun and brings me to my scrambled egg breakfast.

The walking tour is taken by Bushman Boesman, who is barefoot and Namibia’s answer to Steve Irwin. Some highlights include him finding and showing us a trapdoor spider’s home, catching a lizard (partly with his hat), showing us how much life there is in the desert, explaining that the current green areas are rare due to high rains, which seeds can last years without. He shows us trees that have been dead for 800 years (I later discover we are camping under 800 year old trees), plans with roots 50-80 metres DEEP, the fruit that gemsbok (oryx) eat: he refuses to open it at as it would be a waste and take it away from the gemsbok. He tells us human’s walking won’t harm the animals, but 4x4 are very damaging. He leaves everything as he finds it, is most impressive, walks amazingly fast and should have his own TV show.

He also told us that we can sand dive down the last dune. This may have been mistake for me, after I bellyflop and slide down 100m there’s not a lot of skin left on those sunburnt legs. When I the photo of yours truly covered in sand off Milly, then I will post it here.

My legs are such a mess that I ask Corinne to look at, she assures me that they are not going to go septic and she won’t need to amputate. She gave me some stuff and cleaned me up. Am really grateful.

We do a sunset canyon visit, which is a bit lame (partly as I am now a zombie). Saw a snake, Milly pokes at with a stick. I left. We found out later it was harmless.

For dinner we millie bob, which is a maize porridge and African staple. You eat it with your hands and it’s good.

Stay up chatting with Milly. Last to bed again, despite feeling near collapse in the canyon. Maybe I’ll sleep on the bus tomorrow, yeah right.

Think we saw an antelope on the way back-there had been one about the bar earlier.

Day 7
388 km
I watch some squirrels after breakfast, before getting on the truck. It’s been nice to spend 2 nights on the same sight and now we head to Swakopmund for two nights in a lodge, rather than under canvass.

My leg is much better and no longer looks like it’s going septic. May be able to wear shorts before the week is out.

I move to back of truck, which keeps everyone happy until Oliver points out the increase in noise level. Despite recent tiredness have a determination to sort out a night out for tonight. There’s not in Swako in my opinion (it’s an adrenalin, adventure activity kind of place and as I’ve decided to bail on sand boarding, I’m not now sure what to do). I’ll get my washing done, maybe blog, and charge up the electrics. Realsie with some disappointment that I’ve had no more malaria dreams-Milly dreamt Roger was dioing brain surgery on her. Need Mya to look at that.

Ain't i-pod swappin great. Tip of the day-go to I-tunes and download Weird Al Yankovic's ‘I bought it on e-bay’, a song of our times-hilarious and on the money. It will be my first download when I get back-and I just discovered I don't have ring of fire by Johnny Cash. I also want a t-shirt with the ‘I bid on Shatner’s toupee’ line.

As we approach Swapokmund, I was musing on overrlanding. A quick bit of sums says we've covered about 2000 km in a week, some roads have rocked us in an Alton Towers style and you do sometimes see a car's dust cloud before the car itself-not a movie fabrication. That's a lot of time on the bus, but I think it's given me some important perspectives. Most obviously the vastness of the area and the small number of people and human settlements. I won't pretend to understand the geography, but it's been fascinating to watch it evolve over the miles on the road, rather than fly between destinations and be merely struck by the contrasts. A great way to see a place and get a sense of it, if you have the time.

On the other hand, we only had an hour or so at fish river canyon, which can be a drawback. 4 of us go to Nairobi-we have time, the other 12 return to their jobs-I wonder how equivalent their experience is? When travelling while I was employed, delays and missed opportunities frustrated me greatly-I felt somehow up against the clock, even away from work. This could just be me, but my Jedi powers have sensed similar disturbances in the force around the others. I feel my whole perspective has changed-although I’m not getting much sleep, my attitude is chilled. I’m more interested in other people, more reflective on my experiences, have made more effort to involve myself in the group, have looked to involve others more rather than being obsessed with self-reliance and I’m enjoying my role as class clown. Perhaps most importantly, I’m living in the now, which I’ve not been very good at in the past.

I think this is all good.

Oh, and we've crossed the tropic of Capricorn-group photos are a problem as I haven't used the self timer on my camera and none are on my camera. Hopefully I can get one off Oliver.

We watch some Flamingo friends at lunch and it is the best lunch so far, it marked the first appearance of avocado.

We go to the adventure activities and are shown a 10 minute DVD of what’s available. Looks a bit touristy and the saleswoman is awful, but a couple of lunatics are going sky diving. I’ll be quad biking tomorrow after much group hand wringing. Looks a little lame, but most of us are going. Bit sanitised and touristy for me, but may be able to spice it up as I did snowmobiling a few years back.

Zachi wanted to paintball.

Zachi used to be in the Israeli army.

For 6 years.

Zachi commanded 250 men.

He spent time in Lebanon.

He’s paint balled before.

He said it was fun.

He shot his wife in the arse.

From 2 metres.

By accident.

No one else wanted to go paintballing.

My safe job ends in tears after our visit to the adventure activity centre-we had to clear the truck out, so it can be cleaned tomorrow. In handing back everyone's stuff, I was viciously assaulted by Milly after she thought I had pretended to be unable to find her stuff in the safe. Her document wallet was the same size as the safe and it looked like the safe wall to me. Further safe woes ensued when I locked all of Oliver and my stuff in our hotel safe, before I changed the combination. So, we’re locked out of it. I’m told this can be fixed tomorrow.

That really is enough for now!

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Wot no photos?

Er, no. Difficult to take photos when you break your camera. It seems that sea kayaking didn't agree with my camera (I may have had a touch of the sun when I though it was a good idea to take my recently fixed camera with me). I then had to find if anyone in Hermanus could fix it (they couldn't), buy a new one, try and charge its rechargeable battery before I had to go on my boat trip (and fail). So, no photos. Though I did buy some very nice postcards, which are better than anything I would have taken.

So, you'll just have to rely on the word of Poll to describe the magic of Whales (that's Whales, with an H, Zoe).

Early start on Sunday morning to get the BazBus to Hermanus: the BazBus runs 4 or 5 routes around SA, I was on the Cape Town to Port Elizabeth one. That takes about 14 hours to go all the way (no Sting gags, thank you very much), but the idea is that you hop on and off at the place you need. I got off (along with the other 6 on the bus) to be collected by the Hermanus Backpapers hostel shuttle, which took us all back to probably the best hostel I've ever stayed in. Brightly painted, murals of whales, unable to do enough for you, regular Brais, breakfast and more help and maps than you could shake a stick out marked this place out as a winner (and well worth the extra 10 rand (75-80p) compared to my last one).

4 of us from the Bazbus got together and did a quick turn round to head out for a walk along the coast road (where you can watch the whales from) and then sea kayaking. Hermanus has one the world's 3 whale sanctuaries, where no boats are allowed. Of course a Kayak is not a boat, so into the sanctuary we went with about 8 other folk.

The other two wanted their own kayak-Anne and I had sussed out that sharing a boat would be less work. It's fair to say we were destined for the naughty step from then. Our control of the kayak was of Ultimate Olympian standard. Dirk was our leader and we were supposed to stay pretty close to him; not 80m away watching a whale. Of course that was preferable to us being anywhere near the others-if you watch Olympic kayaking, I reckon they look where they're going. We just paddled one way, while looking at the whales somewhere else, and had the inevitable up close and personal encounters. We were a little unlucky when a wave took us crashing into Andy (another BazBusser), but I guess we maybe should have left more margin for error. It's safe to say we made no new friends in the world of Kayak.

It was rather special. Every so often Dirk would gather the group so he could talk to us; no one listened, we were watching the whales! At various times we were 20-30 metres away from the whales (one occasion it was a mother and calf); in fact we drifted so close (and the whales moved towards us), that we had to move back a few times in case the whales got playful and sank us! We also had groups of seals swimming round the kayaks and playing.

First sunburn-inevitable really. Our control of the kayak was such that plenty of the sea washed over my legs to get rid of the sun tan lotion. Worth it though. And I discovered a new After Sun product-mousse with Aloe Vera-a winner for all of you burn as easily as I do.

After that we took a walk along the coast (more whales), grabbed some dinner (first pizza of the trip) and a few local brews. Only slight downer was the cars going round and round in circles on the TV; this slightly depressed Marion (the german), apparently some bloke called Schumacher was supposed to win. (My apathy for F1 is well known, but even I know enough to recognise that the SA TV was broadcasting with ITV's commentary, which seemed weird).

So despite camera problems, I was buzzing on Monday morning. After running round Hermanus' camera emporia, I headed off to to do my whale watching bost trip. Which was awesome (imagine back to front baseball cap). It was genuinely jaw dropping, did you see that, I'm never going to forget this stuff.

Within 10 mins wew were within 50 metres of a whale, which is very strange and hard to describe. It inspires a combination of cathedral like quiet, knowing glances to your neighbour, massive smiles and a kind of spiritual serenity. Or more simply, it is awesome dude. To add a touch of the surreal, we had a small dog running round both decks of the boat-I never did see how he got upstairs. Somehow the dog seemed to epitomise the group excitement.

This was all small beer to what happened later. We powered across the bay, and then turned off the engines as we approached 3 whales: the rules are that we have to keep a certain distance (I forget what, but the whales are so big that you can still see them really well). However, once the engines are off, if the whales decide to approach us, that's fine. They can get as close as they like-it's their choice. They choose to come close. Pretty soon there were 8 around the boat: these were Southern 'Right' Whales (so named about 100 years ago as they were 'right' for hunting. The average Southern Right is 45 tonnes, or 10 large African elephants in real money. And with those 45 tonnes, they breach.

Breaching is when the whale shoots vertically out of the water (about half to two thirds of it's body length), then crashes back into the sea. Sometimes they throw in a twist for good measure. No one knows why they do this. There are many theories-to 'scratch' the itch caused by the barnacles attached to them; to help them shed skin. I like to think they do it because they can. It looks like fun!

I had seen a few whales breach from a distance, then one of the ones near us started breaching. It breached 3 or 4 times consecutively, each time getting closer to the boat. Skipper said if the whale had done one more, then it would splashed us-something that had only happened once before to him. It was quite a sight, power and grace combining majestically.

One of the other whales was floating around on his back, waving his snooker table sized flippers about and showing off his white belly-I think he wanted someone to scratch it. Another was playing with a seal. Another was blowing hard and you could see both blowholes clearly. Another was curious about the boat.

By this stage, I had got onto the top deck of the boat (boat took about 40 folk and ten at a time could go upstairs). I heard gasp from nehind me and there was a whale 10m from the boat, as he submerged the skipper called out that we would probably go under the boat. So I looked over my railing. Then in the water I could see him; for something like 5 or 10 seconds before he broke the surface right in front of me. Most impressive.

I wasn't that upset about the photos-having no camera made me fully involved in the moment, rather than waiting to get the shot. Many other people were trying to get photos and spent a lot of time looking through a viewfinder, but because of the delay with digital cameras it seemed hardly anyone got anything good. I felt I had been very lucky to have seen so much on the trip-it was two hours. The two days seemed like weeks. And we fished a Rugby ball out the water on the way back to shore.

When I described my experience later to a couple in the BazBus, they were a little crestfallen-they decided to go at 9 rather than 12 when I went-they hadn't seen quite as much.

Only slight downer-on returning to Cape Town and the Cat and Moose, Mauro told me he had eaten my remaining goat's cheese: the bit about me coming back had been lost in transalation. Not to worry. The 2 days had been a massive highlight. Even if England can't play one day cricket.

The whole experience of Hermanus reaffirmed my boycott of things from Japan, which I started when they manipulated the International Whaling again this summer.

I will need to concentrate on that a bit more, as soon after I looked at my new digital camera.

Which is a Fuji.


I've checked into the place we're all staying tonight before heading off on safari. Another Rikki's dash across town (with my so overweight bag). I've only met one of the guys on the trip so far-Roger the retired guy from Canada, who seems quite nice. I wonder if the fact I'm sharing a room with him tonight means I'm the second oldest! Hopefully there'll be some party folk in the other 17.

I really have no idea when I will next get to a PC. So, till the next PC, take care of yourself.

PS PC I am using doesn't have word, so no spell/typing checker.

Saturday, October 21, 2006

I love you, I love you, I love you

It’s 3 a.m. (eternal). We’ve had a few drinks (no more). The courtyard is packed. I look up and can see the stars. A random barman is wandering round pouring tequila down punters’ throats. None of this justifies what I was doing.

Dancing to Natasha Bedingfield. Bloody B&Q music, which has been earworming me all day-like this lot was last week. I may already have taken too far the fact that no one knows me out here, which gives you certain latitude and liberty. I will have to use this better in future. A good spontaneous night last night, live band, bit of Prodigy and falafel on the way home.

Since it was too late to disturb the dorm and find my alarm clock, I had to keep waking up and working out if it was safe to go back to sleep again until I decided it wasn’t and got up for today’s wine tour.

But what to wear? On a wine tour?

(You may need to click on this to see it large enough-it’s the Usual Suspects taking over the cocktail bar on my leaving bash). Seeing as Emma isn’t here, this was the next best thing (and I knew I’d never hear the last of it, were I to tour vineyards without her). This t-shirt proves to be the ultimate conversation starter-everyone asked me about it, everyone thought it was cool. I found it a little odd-not because it isn’t an awesome t-shirt, but not one person said one thing about my top when I wore my Jimmy White t-shirt! What is wrong with people?

Wine trip was ace-another good bunch of people and one of the places did goat’s cheese too (that’ll be dinner then). This was combined with some cycling and some dozing in the minibus. Lunch was in a pretty breathtaking spot.

Yesterday’s visit to the slave museum provided me with a new experience. I’m used to travelling and being embarrassed by what the British did and the mess they left behind; this time my Dutch heritage was equally at fault. The Dutch started the slave trade to the Cape-they imported slaves so as to keep good relations with the locals, which was good of them. Until they screwed the locals over that is.

Slaves were a commodity, so the 20-30% death rate that happened in transportation was seen as an acceptable level of wastage-a bit like the leaks in Thames Water’s pipes. The Dutch got white convicts to the do the dirty work-when inverted crucifixion or similar was needed to ‘provide an example’. It was pretty gruesome stuff, and very hard to understand how anyone could behave in such a way.

The museum also had a temporary exhibition on the struggle to end segregation in US schools. One of the building blocks to end the apartheid of the Southern States-battles that were fought 20 or more years after the Second World War. A war fought for the 4 freedoms. The idea of the issue being in ‘just’ the deep South is a bit of a myth; there were a LOT of states. Texas and Florida included, which surprised me.

As the process was legal, the states had to offer a defence. The two that most revolted me were: slavery had left blacks so far behind white kids that educational integration was in no one’s interest. Their approach to education was ‘separate but equal’-the accompanying photos of one gleaming school and one broken down barn/school told another story.

I leave you with the director of schools, in a county with 30 buses to take white kids to school and no buses for the black kids-‘We don’t have any money for a bus for your nigger kids’.

I was pretty chatty today and last night, but was most subdued on the township visit. If you come here (as I think you are all but morally obliged to do when in SA), it is hard to know what to say to the people who live here. It is so far removed from my experience and imagination that it deadened me.

I could talk about the vicious circle of new housing/owners renting out new housing and living in another of these in the garden/more people coming in from the country and putting up more of this housing (shack is an offensive term). I could talk about the renewal projects (sponsored by Microsoft and Steffi Graf) and the hope and community spirit; the fact it didn’t feel dangerous; the self-regulation of crime (vigilante justice); the odd juxtaposition of the above and housing I’m more familiar with; my feeling of where do the government and the NGOs start (it’s not like me, not to at least think I have a solution). I could talk about the light relief of the visit to the traditional doctor:

I could, but it would end up as a trite piece of GCSE geography coursework. Probably a C grade. So, I’ll try and describe the last two things I saw, without any attempt at analysis.

This is the outside of Vicky’s B&B in the township.

This is the inside.

She has a web site and a business that involves the community. There is a pub in a similar style across the street. The rooms are not spacious, but they are clean and look comfortable. There is a PC, 2 TVs and a stereo in the front room. Many people from around the world have stayed here.

These are the kids at the crèche.

About 50 are here during the day. They sang a song about the days of the week, months of the year and seasons. They did this with enthusiasm as they danced around. They followed up with ‘if you’re happy and you know it’ (which everyone knew and joined in). They finished with a very powerful song, which I can’t detail the words of: the substance of it was my body is mine, if anyone touches me and I don’t like it, I have the right to say no. The first and last songs were part of the educational programme.

Thursday, October 19, 2006

Hey Rikki, you’re so fine….

I discovered Rikki’s yesterday: they’re basically executive Rickshaws, which can seat to about 6, have a roof, a kind of gate at the back and race round Cape Town picking people up and dropping them off. You ring them up, they tell you how long it’ll be (so far no more than 5 mins) and they take you door to door for a fixed price, which seems to be at least 70% less than a cab. I’m setting up Rikki’s Oxford on my return. I’d get a photo, but they’re there and gone in a blur.

Oh, and I visited Robben Island and went up Table Mountain-as I was a little worried I might miss out on one or both, this was a good day. And the weather was glorious.

I don’t think you can or should say you enjoyed going to Robben Island; I am pleased I went though. Of course, the trip was not without its lighter moments. 10 minutes after the boat set sail, I suddenly remembered Zoë’s advice. She’d told me (in black and white) that the trip could be rough and to watch what I ate before going: it was then I realised I could come to regret bolting my late country breakfast (top combo of scrambled eggs, mushies, halloumi and toast) in order to the make the boat. Fortunately, the old Dutch sea legs (and some pretty calm seas) avoided any Mr Creosote eruptions. It was to prove a day for forgetting things.

Robben island is an experience that’s difficult to put into words: to say it was sobering sounds glib and doesn’t convey the emotional impact. I think the impression I am left with at the moment is that of awe at the dignity of those who went through a truly foul incarceration: I am sure it is something I will reflect on as time goes on and my response will find greater breadth.

Sparks guided us round the prison-he had spent 7 years in Robben for his ANC involvement. There were no beds, no windows and just 3 blankets each (1 to sleep on, 1 for a pillow and 1 to sleep under); conditions were poor and worse if you were black; 80 men shared 3 showers; petty regulations seem designed to provide an excuse to put you in solitary; the labour was cruel and pointless-in the lime ‘mine’ (no lime was needed) the reflection of the sun on the lime damaged inmates eyesight and the dust their lungs as they moved the lime from one side of the quarry to the other. The following day they would move it back again. The damage to Mandela’s eyes was such that no one taking his photo is allowed to use a flash. Through all this, it seems they kept their spirit and their politics.

He described how many of the guards had returned to the Island and they were now friends; many political prisoners were well educated (unlike the guards) and they helped guards to university degrees while still incarcerated-a beginning of the reconciliation process, even before the end of apartheid; the dignity of the prisoners in their ‘reunion’ photos brought a tear to the eye. He even finished with a joke-‘Thank you, you are now released’; it was poignant if you were there.

He seemed totally devoid of resentment. I was repeatedly left thinking ‘would I have been able to do the same?’. I’d like to think so, but until tested I could not be sure-it’s a test Sparks should not have sat, and one I hope I don’t have to.

One of the biggest shocks was how beautiful the island is and the amazing view of Cape Town and the mountains. As we sailed back to the mainland, we were accompanied by a number of dolphins; it was horror and beauty in some kind of ying and yang relationship. I shall need time to properly process it.

As I said it was a glorious day, and my first chance to get up table mountain. Time was tight, but another call to Rikkis and I was hurtling up to the lower cable station. So, I buy my ticket to go up table mountain, and only 10m from the top of the cable car, which is revolving as we ascend, and I look down into the sudden abyss, do I remember that I am scared of heights. Very scared. And as I step out of the cable car I realise that I am now over 1000m in the air and it’s a lot windier than at the bottom. I reflected on the complete lunatic that was 50m below me, climbing up.

Then I see the bridge

There were several like this, which I had to go across. I was having a good time.

With trembling legs I took the photos (often using rocks to get a stable position) and did my best to fully enjoy the amazing 360 degree view. I got the obligatory ‘John looking pale and disorientated up something high’ photo, which I know will please Statue John.

This shot should have marked the debut of the Jimmy White t-shirt Luke so kindly bought me, but it was a bit chilly in the wind, so Jimmy hid under my top, while I forced a grin. Then, I went to the café for a chocolate brownie to steady the nerves and reflect that Sydney Harbour Bridge should be the next time I have to subject myself to the fear.

I remember on England’s last tour to SA, Sky made David Gower go down a zip line head first off Table Mountain. I found a new respect for him yesterday-a definite first after all that bloody wafting outside off stump (apologies to non-cricket fans). It’d be worth a scan of You Tube to see it again.

Good night last night-in brief Mauro and I hit some bars, found a Danish Begbie (totally shocking man, swore like a trooper, complete psycho in the merchant navy), lost Begbie, met Charlie from Oxford (she’d been travelling for 10 months and I was the first Oxford person she’d found) and I finally got more than Hi out of Kirstin from our hostel-I could barely get a word in, once I’d started her off-so I’m quite pleased she goes home tomorrow and I can return to being the noisiest person about. My rightful position. I’m sure many of you will agree.

I’m trying to work out how much the shadow of apartheid hangs over everything in SA, and how much it is my reaction to SA. The national gallery has no ambiguity: about half the exhibits have an explicit link. For me, the best was the simplest-a photo called The Kiss of a naked couple, one black, one white.

After the gallery, I went the SA museum, which was a little bit like a weak Natural History museum. I got the ticket that included the planetarium: it was interesting, but they should market planetaria to insomniacs. Staying awake was a struggle as the music, commentary and stars soothed me deeper into my reclining chair.

I had a quality afternoon tea at the pricey Mount Nelson hotel. When I say pricey, tea cost the same as 2 nights accommodation at the Cat and Moose. There was method in this flashing of the cash-the food was a buffet, and even without Alan’s big plate, I filled my boots (well sandals) and dinner is not going to be needed after the mix of cakes, sandwiches and fruit salad that I saw off.

Tea was also notable for the most random moment I’ve had so far. A very nice young lady came up to ask me ‘I don’t suppose you’re an amazingly famous writer?’. Sadly (inexplicably), it turned out that it wasn’t a line; though, I took it as a sign (for some future artistic career). Tea was accompanied by a pianist, it was class and the last time I shall do something like that for a long time. As I left, the new arrivals looked perturbed at the sight of me in shorts and action sandals.

Tomorrow, it’s the slavery museum and township visit (I will be escorted, so there’s no John McClaine in Die Hard 3 possibilities). A possibly harrowing day, which I will try to balance with the relaxation of Saturday’s wine and cycling tour before heading out for 2 days in Hermanus searching for Whales. After that it’s Major Plank time (I’m pretty sure that’s PG Wodehouse’s Great White Hunter), as I voyage to Kenya (and presumably go quiet for quite a while).

And finally, imagine living in a beer advert. I hope they get a supply of the sponsor’s product.

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

P P P Pick up a Penguin

I was told not to blog too much and to chill-advice I seem to be ignoring so far. The main reason for this post is to help me remember what I’ve been up to-I can envisage my memory dimming quickly. So that I don’t spend all evening on here, this won’t be my normal careful polished prose, but more stream of consciousness. I doubt anyone will notice the difference.

Cape Town may not be the best place to arrive on a Sunday; of course if you’ve not slept on the flight and are sensible, the fact that it is mostly shut may well appeal. I was eager to get on with it and initially a little disappointed. The tablecloth (of cloud) has covered Table Mountain since I arrive and the 50km per hour wind would have kept the cable car shut anyway, so my immediate plan was foiled; my backup plan was Robben island. Couldn’t do that either (lack of boats and too much politics it seems), but I did manage to book a ticket for tomorrow (hopefully they’ll be sailing tomorrow-the weather was too bad today). The Cape is apparently one of the windiest places on earth-no apparently about it, it’s wreaking havoc with my hair!

Fearing a washout, I went to the very good tourist info office, stocked up on leaflets (while England lost 4 wickets), booked yesterday’s trip round to Cape point and went on a tour of the city-taking in the waterfront and the castle as well as a getting a general feel for things. I also discovered a secret Dutch plot to take back the Cape-they are everywhere. The guy I chatted to at the castle played it cool, but I could see the plan. Why else scope out the military installations? This led to my first regret-I should have brought my Dutch football shirt with me. Oh and chic, when said in a SA accent, sounds anything but.

Returning to the Cat & Moose (my hostel), I dropped the gear and headed off for provisions. This provided my first ‘Royale with Cheese’ moment-turns out that Woolworths SA is an M&S style food store. So it was humus, avocado and tomato for dinner rather than the fizzy shoelaces I was hoping for.

So, first day on tour, after no sleep in 2 days, my brilliant plan was waking up at 7.30 for the daytrippers tour to the Cape. It was more than well worth it.

When the bus arrived and only Thabo (my very cool guide was in it), I began to fear the worst; when he said one more pickup after the German couple joined me, I thought it was going to be very compact and bijou. However when the school trip from Reunion Island (French speaking near Madagascar I discovered) and we met up with the other bus, it was a full on posse that headed off for Hout bay and the seals of Duiker island. The other bus had an American lady, plus girls my age from Rome, Switzerland and London (outskirts, so pleasant enough). After an unfortunate grafitti incident from one of the Kids at the Cape of Good Hope, it ended up being two camps-us and the islanders. Briony was the first Brit I met and she announced herself by proclaiming in a loud voice ‘you should be ashamed of yourself’ at the patently non-English speaking Reunion teenager, while the other bus’ guide supervised his cleaning attempts. She couldn’t have been from anywhere else.

As we arrived in Hout Bay, Thabo pointed out the replica of Lichtenstein castle that a German had secretly built his wife over the bay as a surprise for his wife: she didn’t like it, yours now for 32 million rand.

The trip to see the seals tested the old Dutch sea legs a bit, but was well worth it. Glad we did this first, as it was quickly overshadowed by the African penguins on Boulder’s beach. I guess they floated off on a chunk of ice, I just loved it. They have a colony on the beach, and I have the evidence….

I was still glowing from the penguin encounter when we entered the Cape of Good Hope nature reserve and set down to a picnic lunch. Straight after lunch it was the activity part of the day-hike up to Cape Point (no one took the funicular) and then the far more wild hike along 4 km or so of cliff top to the Cape of Good Hope. Great stuff and pretty wild with the wind battering you.

After that a nice uphill cycle for half an hour or so back up; the Reunion island kids weren’t too good at sticking to the right side of the road! It was too chilly for the baboons to venture out of their caves, but we stop the bikes to admire the ostrich that was 10 feet away by the beach. After that lot, I was very surprised not to fall asleep in the bus on the way back.

On the drive back Thabo succinctly summarised the divide that now exists in South Africa-‘to our left the blacks are going home from work; on our right the whites are going home from work’. No longer a legal segregation, the divide is financial-the pavement was on our left, the other lane of hurtling cars on our right. I’m not sure how fast that will change when income tax is 14% when you earn over about 100 quid a week, with NO higher rate. Thabo was paying tax, which was good, and was positive about the direction of the country and that’s a great deal more important than what I think.

Heading off to Woolworths for more supplies, I bumped into the girls from the other bus, abandoned the supermarket and grabbed some dinner with them-a veggie stir fry (with rice) that was so good I didn’t eat again until 3.30 this afternoon.

Back at the hostel I bumped into my dorm mate Mauro, who’s from Chile and here learning English, and on heading to bed we were surprised to discover Josh (who looks like a dark haired Jesus) has moved in. Only the top bunks left now.

Speaking of Josh-Mac have you watched Road Trip yet?

Before this costs me a fortune-today I visited the botanical gardens, the world of birds (very confused about how I feel about aviaries, though given that a lot of the birds were rescued and I saw a golden phoenix, I have them the benefit of the doubt) and started to sort my trip to Hermanus (for whale watching). Highlight? Walking with the tortoises and wallabies.

No sunburn-yet.

Friday, October 13, 2006

Going Soft

So I fly out tomorrow. With the expected mixture of trepidation, excitement and (largely self-inflicted) total exhaustion.

One of my big problems has been trying to decide which books to take with me. Really, I want to have a mobile library trailing round after me. Of course, there were a few no brainers-the 2006 version of Wisden, Animal Farm and A long walk to Freedom. Oh, and Making Waves-the ultimate guide to being a man in the modern world.

I’m still not sure how this blog will develop. Partly it will depend upon how often I can get to a PC and how bothered I can be. It will also be affected whose advice I follow: Statue John and the Ultimate Olympian are both Johns, and so when they speak, one should listen. But what’s a boy to do when one tells you to blog loads and the other threatens you with physical violence if you post more than once a month. (I believe/hope that the latter advice was to stop me sitting in internet cafes blogging and make me get out and do something more interesting instead-a very ‘Why don’t you’ way of looking at things).

I’ve had a lot of emotional moments amidst the chaos of the few weeks since I left work. I have had some time for reflection though, which has mostly been focused on the people who I won’t be seeing in the next few months. You lot.

The last thing I want to do is sound like an outtake from Oprah, but I have had so many special moments since the beginning of September. I’ve seen people I haven’t seen in ages and none of those meetings were anything less than wonderful. I’ve laughed and I’ve cried (happily I haven’t hurled). And simply everyone has been so kind-I’ve had nights out, advice on what to see, invitations to dinner, numbers for friends of yours who for some reason want to put me up or look after me, boozy lunches and more new t-shirts than you can shake a stick at. I plan to model all of the t-shirt collection in various spots around the world and post them right here as a treat for you all: I expect Vogue and Vanity Fair will link to the blog for this fashion exclusive.

I’d like to thank each and every one of you, but as I still have to pack here are just a few of you lovely, lovely people.

I shall be thinking about you. Have no fear.

Thursday, October 05, 2006

Away we go

After a very patient and kind lesson on the art of blogging from Statue John, my first post has arrived. Since I'm still in Oxford and the idea of this blog is to give me somewhere to bore my friends with tales of my travels, I don't have much to say. Those who have been following my lack of organisational progress will be unsurprised that I've still no plan for Cape Town. Which is my first stop. Next Saturday. Still, something to do tomorrow.

In case there is someone, somewhere, who's managed to escape my itinerary-here's a quick reminder of what you're in store for:
  • October 14-fly to Cape Town, 10 days in and around Cape Town, bit of whale watching, bit of avoiding going in a cage near sharks.
  • Oct 24-masive overland safari to Nairobi, via Vic falls, Lake Malawi and an awful lot of wildlife. There won’t be any snakes-I’ve been told they’re all going on holiday.
  • Dec 3 Fly Nairobi to Jo’burg, then onto Perth next day. Expect to be in Australia for months; I don't have too much fixed up, although I understand there may be some cricket going on. So first thing on arrival is to desperately try and get tickets for the Perth Test.
  • Dec 19 Fly Perth-Melbourne.
    Xmas lunch with the Barmy Army-that should be a quality post.
    Go to the MCG-in case anyone else turns up.
  • Dec 30 Fly Melbourne-Sydney.
    Pop along to the SCG-expect it will be quite quiet.
  • End of Jan-Melbourne. Australian Open tennis-shall be trying to catch Federer and the mighty Badghatis at least. Definitely going to some night matches at the Rod Laver.
  • And then the rest of Oz! I expect I’ll learn to Scuba dive.
  • New Zealand
  • Samoa/Cook Islands/Fiji kind of thing. Bit of writing on the beach.
  • South America
    Too far in the future for a proper plan-definitely want to go to Easter Island, the Amazon, Machu Picchu and Galapgos.
As you can see, there's a definite potential for shambles. And standing by statues.

Next time, I'll try and master photos.