Friday, August 17, 2007

New York City

As I am wont to do, I sneezed from the bright sunlight when I went out to do some shopping this morning. Someone walking by on the sidewalk said,"Bless you." New York City!


After a 3 day journey, we're safely home.

Monday, August 13, 2007

we miss/we will miss

After 3 months abroad, we have mixed feelings about leaving South Africa. We've seen so many breathtaking parts of the country and met so many inspiring people. It might be hard to imagine this, but, we've reached vacation saturation. We're ready to return to our normal lives, be reachable, get back into routines and work towards our various goals.

We're looking forward to:
Having friends again
Continuity in our daily lives
Driving on the right side of the road
Toilets with water in them
Some different clothes
Comfort foods: bagels, takeout coffee, sandwiches, hamburgers
Cooking for ourselves
Indoor heat
Our bed

We will miss:
The very warm and engaging people
The mellow pace of life
The cost of living
The lack of automobile traffic
Reading Afrikaans translations(so similar to English, and yet so silly)
Foods: boerivors, fresh fruit, rusks, biltong, warm milk with coffee, nougat, cheap wine
The lack of fast food

We hope to keep with us:
Lessons in hospitality
Perspective on Africa's social issues
The pace of life
Wine knowledge
Ability to spend a lot of time together and still enjoy each other's company(most of the time)

Sunday, August 12, 2007

Taking Table Mountain by Storm

Well, today is our last day in Cape Town and South Africa. While we're both ready to get home (and wish we didn't have two more nights away, one on the plane and one in London), we have really been charmed by Cape Town and its environs.

Our favorite, and I wouldn't have expected this, was wine country. We went up to Stellenbosch for just one night, but got very lucky with the weather. Stellenbosch has 180 wineries and is only a 45 minute drive from the very center of Cape Town. What an amenity for people who live here! Our cozy little boutique hotel in town ran us a princely $90, breakfast included. The wine tastings were really fun, and Meghan and I found that we like the relaxed pace of sitting over a quarter glass of wine, picking it apart, figuring out the flavors and characteristics and just talking. We bought a wine-tasting guide and marveled over the vocabulary that the industry has chosen for itself (quaffable pencil shavings!). We started at Boschendal, famed more for its scenery than its wine. We had a pleasant tasting with local cheeses, then had lunch at the cafe. I had a bobotie that was really top notch. Mostly, we just soaked in the natural beauty of a glorious day in beautiful country. Saw a malachite sunbird, managed to identify the chirping crowd that followed us around as swee waxbills (!). Just slowed way, way down. And it's not like we were super-stressed to begin with.

Then, we tried and failed to go to tastings at a couple of other vineyards like Tokai and Thelema, but they were closed as last Thursday was a public holiday. Women's Day as it turned out. We ended up making it to Rustenberg at closing time, but they let us in after some deliberation. The hospitality, wine, and setting were all top notch. Their Brampton cabernet sauvignon is probably one of the best deals around.

We had dinner in Stellenbosch at a place called Fishmonger, which came highly recommended and didn't disappoint. Really great food and service. I'm not ready to take back my slandering of South African restaurants from a few posts ago, but this was a very good experience. The seafood here is really fantastic and reasonably priced. With one exception: prawns. South Africans seem enthralled with prawns, the bigger the better, but compared to the quality of the calamari or fish down here, the prawns/shrimp seem overpriced and are often overcooked. The problem, I think, is that South Africans can't afford their own prawns and lobsters. We have frozen South African lobster tail freely available in the States, and I've heard that a lot of the best seafood goes straight to Japan, so globalization has forced your average South African to compete with everyone from a Minnesota family to a Tokyo businessman for the bounty of their own seas. I've always thought of shrimp and lobster as overrated anyway. At Fishmonger, my favorite dish was the squid heads sauteed in butter. Delish.

At the end of a trip this long, your reserves of wonderment are pretty low. We had an idyllic couple of days in wine country, and if we were still harried New Yorkers as we'll soon be again, we would've tried to extend our time there at all costs. But we're tired of travel and just want to be in one place for a while, have what we do one day impact upon the next day, be with our friends, be in our own space.

Yesterday, we climbed Table Mountain, an unremitting slog of 700 meters to the top, and a cable car down. It was beautiful, though. The cableway had been closed due to wind for a few weeks and so the top was a madhouse, but we're glad to have done it.

Overall, Cape Town has been a real eye-opener for us. It's far more integrated, far more safe, and at least as beautiful as any other place we've been in South Africa. We're very grateful to our friend Elaine for the use of her apartment in Sea Point, a part of town where you can relax and walk around and just generally feel human for a bit. We're a bit bummed that our trip to Robben Island got cancelled due to high seas, but we've seen enough to keep us dreaming about South Africa for a long, long time... and we have to save something for next time, don't we.

Thursday, August 09, 2007

5 hour drive, 3 hour boat ride, 30 second shark sighting

Several people, when we mentioned Cape Town, had excitedly queried whether or not we planned to go shark diving. Apparently, the coast of South Africa is the only place in the world where you can reliably see Great White Sharks year round, and particularly during the SAfrican winter. As they are nomadic beasts, it is impossible to keep them alive in captivity and hard to predict where you might find them in the ocean, unless of course you have an island of Cape Fur Seals who go swimming/fishing every morning. Yum! As I have an irrational fear of sharks, that I was hopeful to overcome, and am willing to try anything once, I was game.
The process of shark diving is simple enough. You pay admission to one of 10 boats in Gamsbaai and catch a ride out to shark territory. They suit you up with a full wet suit, dump some bait into the water, and wait for a sharks. Then you climb into a cage, submerged in the water, and watch the shark swim by, if you're lucky, at very close range.

Day of dive: We woke at 6am to tackle the 2.5 hour drive to Gamsbaii for the boat's departure time of 9am. When we arrived we met other tourists who had spent their lifetimes obsessed with great white sharks and we were reassured that this was the place and the company to be diving with. It was a gorgeous day, blue skies, temperature in the 60's, and the water looked calm, almost flat. Twelve tourists and our 3 guides piled into a boat and headed out to sea. As the boat pulled away from the dock and started to go over the 15 ft lumpy swells that were not visible from shore, all I could think to myself was "don't puke, it will be over soon enough." And the 3 hour struggle to maintain my breakfast and my dignity began. Arriving at "shark territory"(which is anywhere in this bay with more than 8 feet of water), we suited up, dumped our chum, tethered the tuna head, and waited. We learned from the guides that there's quite a bit to learn about tides, currents, boat shadow, chum, etc to increase your chance of attracting a great white, yet these sharks are incredible hunters. Our skipper's knowledge might have increased our chances of seeing a shark by only 10%. The sightings are merely a matter of luck. Also, the mature, and therefore massive sharks, don't bother scavenging for someone else's leftovers, so we should only expect the younger, smaller sharks.
After 30 minutes a great white arrived. It was awesome. About 10 feet long, grayish, scars on its face, and graceful. I was the first one into the cage and I was terrified. I could see my legs dangling below me, little fish all around, and I knew there was a shark circling. I also realized that despite the shock of the f-f-f-freezing water, the cold water and company of fish were far preferable to the above-board stomach turning, rocking of the boat. Rich got in the cage moments later and we caught sight of this shark twice as it powerfully glided by. After about 30 minutes in the water I realized that I could no longer feel my extremities and would have to resume the above-board discomfort.
The highlight of the day came when a shark, unnoticed by any of us, emerged from the depths, broke the surface of the water and displayed 12 feet of silvery grey muscle. This shark was 10 feet from all of us, it tore the tuna head and the rope from the boat with a thrash, and disappeared as quickly as it had appeared. That was the one moment that we'd all spent so much time, effort, and discomfort to see.
Shortly thereafter we headed for shore and embarked on our soggy journey back to Cape Town. I walked away from this experience intending to leave any future shark chasing to Natural Geographic, planning to watch it in high-def from the comfort of my sofa.

Sunday, August 05, 2007

More Otter Trail

Also: hiking poles. I'd have been lost without them. They prevented at least half a dozen falls onto sharp rocks that could've had grave results. They also made hiking with a pack much much easier.

Other than the hospitality shown us by our Afrikaans cabinmates, the first three days were pretty unremarkable. The walks were not stunningly difficult, though the views were stunning. The scenery was dramatic and the pounding of the waves against the rocks was a constant source of awe. The weather varied from sun to wind and rain. We hiked some in the rain, some in the dark, mostly in the forest. The centerpiece of the Otter Trail is the Bloukrans River crossing on Day Four, so I'm just going to skip to that.

So, after rising at 3:30 on the fourth day with the intent of making it to the mouth of the Bloukrans River in advance of low tide, Meghan and I got out at 4:20 and hiked in the dark for a couple of hours, kept company by a full moon that set as the sun started to lighten the eastern sky. The full moon meant that we were to cross the river at a spring low tide. This was always a very good thing in our planning of the trail, as the Bloukrans is wide and we'd heard that people who'd crossed at a neap low tide--when the difference between high and low is at its nadir--had sometimes had to swim the river. We are both strong swimmers and were prepared for this eventuality if something went wrong and we didn't make it by low tide, though we didn't relish the prospect as our previous river crossings had familiarized us with just how numbingly cold the water in Tsitsikamma Park is. (Tsitsikamma means "place of much water"... We were about to figure out that sometimes it'dd too much water.)

The hike in the morning was really challenging for the first six kilometers or so, with lots of rock scrambling and a couple of slogs through the aforementioned thigh-deep sea scum. I use the word scum rather than foam simply to indicate its disgustingness. It smelled powerfully of seaweed, or rather the sea. Whatever taste it is that makes oysters appealling (if they appeal to you), multiply that by ten. Not off-smelling, but not pleasant. My hiking boots still smell like the catch of the day... yesterday. I cannot, however impugn the experience too much, as I was wearing shorts and the sensation of cool foam against my legs was actually rather delicious. I'm thinking of waterproofing our apartment when we get back and renting a foam machine.

We made it to the overlook above the Bloukrans just minutes after the official low tide of 9:36am. Our Afrikaans hosts, one of whom had injured himself, had arrived twenty minutes earlier and looked grim about the prospect of crossing. The river mouth is daunting. A hundred yards wide, and you have to cross it at an angle to reach a slipway between two swaths of jagged rocks, or go directly across and then scramble along the rocks to where the slipway joins the trail. The waves out at sea were measuring 20 feet or more on their faces. They came rolling up the river mouth carrying lots of debris and driftwood, including some pieces bobbing around that were thicker than telephone poles and about ten to fifteen feet long. The river itself was pretty sedate and pretty low, given the rain we'd had. It was simply a matter of the surges that rolled up the river every fifteen seconds or so.

Meghan was undaunted. She'd made up her mind. We were going to try. Our fellow hikers asked us incredulously if we were going to cross. I said repeatedly that we were going to try. We got down to the rocky shore and proceeded to get all our stuff into the thick plastic survival bags we'd bought just for this purpose. The others looked worried, tried to talk us out of it. I started to take their side. It looked dangerous and was getting more dangerous by the minute. This was not the time to hurry. It was time to make a considered decision. Meghan was adamant. We'd hiked four days to get to this damn river and we were going to cross it. In the end, it was Piet who urged us to cross halfway without our packs, just to assess the conditions, then come back for the packs. We made it five feet. A couple of ice-cold waves smacked us near the shore and we immediately burst out laughing. It was insane to even think about, but we needed the shock of water to bring us to our senses. I'm glad it was the first five feet that convinced us that crossing was dangerous, rather than five feet in the middle, or a five-foot log carried by a five-foot wave. We were never going to cross that river. I'm very glad, though, to have tried. We, at least, had put our feet in the water.

The other group of hikers who came along shortly after our foray took one look at the river mouth and immediately went for the escape route. Meghan and I changed out of our wet, cold clothes and followed the other hikers. Tsitsikamma has 12 (or in this case 13) hikers leaving every day, including Christmas, on the Otter Trail and they've really got their act together as far as the escape routes go. The escape route itself was brutal. Eight hundred meters at about a forty-five degree angle. At that point, we decided we'd had enough. The rest of the hikers got picked up by a ranger and brought to a trailhead directly above the next hut. There was one more day's hiking. They wanted to finish the trail, but for us, the spell had been broken. Getting a lift from one place to another was cheating. Nature had won. We weren't in the mood to ask for a rematch. We decided instead to go back to Storms River Mouth at the start of the trail, where they have lovely chalets overlooking the ocean. We checked into one of the "honeymoon" chalets, which had a living room and kitchen, but we were mostly interested in the hot shower and clean sheets. We had an early dinner. (The concept of a restaurant was at that point stunning to me... A place where you tell them what you want and they just bring it to you? Genius!) And we hit those clean white sheets with no regrets, waking up twelve hours later to a beautiful day and a full breakfast.

Saturday, August 04, 2007

Rich's Impressions from the Otter Trail

First: ouch. Before setting out, if anyone had told me that I'd have a hard time hiking 26 miles in five days, I would've scoffed at the idea. Pack or no pack, I figured I'd be fresh as a daisy every morning except the last, which would come after a ten mile hike and a river crossing. But the Otter is not very playful. We didn't have time or energy to sit around watching birds or otters or any of the hundred or so dolphins. This was hard hiking. I've hiked 15 miles a day for three days in a row in Patagonia. I've gone to the bottom of the Grand Canyon and back in a day. The Otter Trail is not to be scoffed at.

Second: if it's going to be even a little bit chilly, it's hard to overpack on instant coffee/tea/soup. We budgeted our food weight pretty tightly, but there were many times I wanted a cup of something warm and a nice little break, but couldn't do so without robbing myself a few days hence of the same pleasure. Next time, plenty of this kind of stuff.

Third: Bring one book. I brought four, including my South African bird book. The rain we had on the trail made that and my binoculars pretty useless. I really thought I'd have a lot more time to read, but quickly found that backpacking offers a mix of strenuous exercise, lots of sleep, and huge amounts of futzing (a.k.a faffing). Add to those the fact that there's tremendous natural beauty about and you really need to be disciplined to get an hour's reading in. This dictum extends to traveling in general. I brought a half-dozen books on this trip and have been lugging them all around. I should've brought two, max.

Fourth: Tides. The Otter Trail is principally ( at the time we did it at least) a race against the tide. River crossing at the coast is very dependent on the tides. Over the first few days, we rushed a few times to make it to a river crossing at low tide only to get there and be greeted with a knee-deep river and some gentle surges coming up the river from the crashing waves a couple hundred yards away. At that point, it's easy to wonder why you got up early and busted your hump to get there when it was obviously an easy crossing. Several times, though, the group that came after us had a difficult crossing only an hour later. Meghan and I stopped on the far shore a couple of times and watched an easy crossing turn into a daunting one within the space of forty minutes or so. This made timing pretty important, which brings me to my two last points.

Fifth: If you're planning on doing the Otter Trail, the estimated hiking times are very low, bordering on irresponsibly so. Leave plenty of extra time for steep ascents, rock scrambling, unforeseen obstacles (such as thigh-deep sea-scum), and such niceties as eating and drinking. It took us five hours on the last day to get to the Bloukrans river mouth, the most significant crossing. This had been estimated at four hours, and the whole day's hike at six hours.

Sixth: Faffing. On the last day, we rose at 3:30am and were out the door by 4:20, but only got to the river at about 9:45, right around low tide. Every day, we left about a half hour after we'd intended, and our companions, who were five people, took up to an hour of faffing to get ready. I'm convinced that the bigger a group is, the harder it is to get it going, and that's because there's a bunch of permission-to-faff being passed from person to person. You look over and say to yourself, "Jim's not even got his shoes on yet, so I have time to repack my pack so the snacks are on top." Then Jim gets his shoes on, looks over at you and says to himself, "Rich isn't even packed yet, so I have time to..." The more people, the more this gets passed around and the harder it is to get going. I thought again and again of getting an army up and going in the morning. There's a reason for that strict discipline. Without it, half the day would be taken up in getting ready for it.

Phew. I was going to tell some stories from the actual crossing, but I'm beat! I'll just echo Meghan's sentiments that our South African cabin-mates really showed the best of their country and culture. A nicer group of people, you'll never meet.

Tuesday, July 31, 2007

The Otter Trail

The Otter Trail, as it was pitched to me, would be a 42 kilometre backpacking trip along the rocky, pristine coast of the Eastern Cape Province. A 4 day, 5 night affair, it would entail walking between 2 and 7 hours a day, and bunking in enclosed bunk houses with running water, bathrooms and mattresses provided. Hmm. Sounds easy. Later, I was warned that the trail was strenuous, but questioned how hiking less than 10 kilometres per day could be strenuous, and continued planning the trip.

We arrived in Knyzne, to a friend Gertie’s seaside home, a day early to prep for the trip. My daydream of leisurely watching otters play in the surf was abruptly burst when Rich called up a weather forecast. Five days of rain, with wind up to 50mph, high of 60 degrees. We thought of walking along unsheltered rocky coastline and cancelled the trip immediately. Then Gertie pointed out that while the forecast was grim, the local forecast as not often correct, and that we could start the trip, and bail at any point if we were miserable. Fair enough. After all, we’d been planning this trip for quite a while. In fact, most people wait 2 years on a list before they are given a slot on the Otter Trail. There are only 2 cabins at every over night sight. Each holds 6 people.

With our waterproof gear on, and our packs full of dry clothes and dried food, we set off from Storms River mouth. On our first day we picked our way for 3 hours along slippery rocks. At one point, we spotted an otter diving amongst the swirls(a rare sighting), and later hopped over a stream and looked up to find a 100 foot waterfall. Breathtaking. We also ran into the 6 people, from Cape Town, who were to reside along side us every night. We wondered how this would work because we were told there were 5 people ahead of us. When we arrived, there were 5 Afrikaners, from Port Elizabeth, in the other cabin. We told both parties of the issue, there must have been a booking error. The Afrikaners stepped up, they said “you’re welcome in our cabin. There’s plenty of room. Two of us will bunk together. You can each have your own bed.” We were floored. We accepted the offer and said that we’d bunk together in a single bed the following night.

For me, the impressions from trek were three fold. It was Rich’s first backpacking trip, and our first trip together. If you were to watch us together you’d have never guessed that he was green, and I seasoned. He was a natural, especially in our camp kitchen(as usual, I did the dishes). The second impression the trip left on me was the awesome power of nature. Because of the fierce weather, we spent our days watching massive surf crashing all day, and then camped just feet from the shore, listening to the heavy surf through the night. I was lulled into a state of fear. The third impression was of the generous, solid, Afrikaners who took us into their circle of friends, offered us their bed, whisky, steak and a seat by their braai. At the outset of the trip, if someone had asked me whether I’d choose to spend 4 nights in close quarters with English speaking athletes/professionals, or Afrikaans family-oriented first time backpackers. I’d hands-down have chosen the English group, thinking that we’d have more in common. But in the end, the Afrikaners chose us, and we were grateful.

Monday, July 30, 2007

The late bird special

The staff at every lodge in Namibia has been impressive. They try so hard to please, swooping in with white gloved hands to remove a plate the moment you're finished a meal, and responding to every "thank you" with a drawn-out "pleasuuuure" and a smile. As tourism is Namibia's leading industry, jobs in hospitality seem coveted, and the largely African staff are well trained. But there's such a difference between colonial/European culture and the many many native cultures that the subtleties get lost in translation. Recently, we arrived at a lodge early and asked for a light lunch. We were escorted into an empty restaurant with open windows looking onto spectacular rock formations and watering holes for the wildlife. When we were pointed towards our table for two, I gasped when I saw a dead bird on the floor next to our table. The waitress looked at me, sighed and said "its dead." And so the standoff began. We were not permitted to sit at any other empty table in the restaurant because they were not "tables for two" and no one present was willing to deal with the dead bird. The waitress said to me "please, Ma'am, you sit now, we move bird later." I guess she hadn't yet been trained for what to do in the case of a dead bird in the restaurant. And, I can't pinpoint the guideline that prevented me from eating in the presence of death, but I knew it was not kosher. So, we picked up our plates and moved to the deck to enjoy the meal and observe some wildlife.

Thursday, July 26, 2007

Namibia Summary

It was after a long day's travel that we arrived at the Windhoek airport in our small 42-seater jet. The airport is, inexplicably, forty miles from downtown Windhoek, stuck in the middle of the desert. So, we had no view of Windhoek from above, indeed, no view of anything on the ground. We descended and descended through the darkness and suddenly the runway was there and we were on it. At passport control, we found a stack of photocopies of a letter from the Italian ambassador to Namibia to arriving Italian citizens. The entire subject was driving. We'd been told and had read that Namibia has the most dangerous roads in the world, but were absolutely in the dark as to why. Coming from South Africa, in which the danger is coming from other (desperate) people, we were a bit trepidatious about the danger that awaited us here. I did my best to translate a foreign letter after the 40 minute ride to our hotel. Our driver had met us with "welcome to our peaceful country" so we started to let our guard down a little. The letter pretty much said that since the roads, even the gravel ones, are in such good condition, the temptation is to speed. The danger apparently comes from this, and for people driving at night from the animals, domestic and wild, which cross and loiter on the roads.

Nevertheless, all this threw a scare into me and as we went to bed, we resolved that rather than the Toyota Corrolla we'd reserved, we'd try to rent something safer, like the Mercedes we got in Kruger. At the rental agency the next morning, I broached the subject with the sun-weathered but pretty rental agent. Came the reply, which was to be repeated many times between Meghan and I: "Sir, this iss Namibia. We do not have luxury vehicles for rental." Put back in our middle-class shoes, we were shown to our white Toyota Corrolla, which was black inside and was absolutely spotless and in very good condition. We soon figured out that almost every car in this desert country is white or beige because of the strong sun.

We pulled out and headed south, hitting smooth dirt roads about an hour out of Windhoek. Here's a list of the highlights for the next 10 days:

From our two nights in Sossusvlei, in the south:

Climbing "Big Daddy", the red dune that rises above Dead Vlei (Dead Lake) in the Namib Desert dunes. And especially, running down the same, to walk barefoot across the absolutely white dead lake bed, the clay dried into tortoise-shell patterns, a stand of long-dead trees sticking out of the lake at one end.

Taking a ride in the desert with Sam, the Yorkshire-born guide from the Desert Homestead where we stayed. In the States, you only get to walk, sometimes get a bumpy trot, and a stern warning from the guide. Here, we got to canter for five minutes at a time, which was awesome... and actually feels like you're riding a horse, rather than being carried by it.

Stargazing on a perfectly still, perfectly cool desert night, with a new moon on the other side of the planet and the Milky Way so distinct it was like a band of clouds.

From two nights in Swakopmund:
The sunset over the crashing waves was awesome, but we were really too tired to take advantage of much in or around the town. Mostly, we tried and failed repeatedly to get on the Internet.

A night in Erongo Wilderness Lodge:
The whole thing. Sleeping in a tent under a thatched roof. Watching the sun set and rise from the top of one of the granite monoliths that surround the camp.

Also, the late-bird special, which is to be described in another posting.

Doro Nawas, in Damaraland:
An otherworldly sunset, watched from the very comfortable bed in our canvas-walled, thatch-roofed bungalo. One whole wall was glass doors, which opened up onto a polished concrete verandah, and then onto the desert as far as you can see. The squawking calls of the red-billed francolins, and the hollow clacking of some other bird.

Trailing a group of eight desert-adapted elephants down the dry Huab river bed.

A white, dry and different place. We saw lion and elephant, which are the things to see, but were more impressed with the small things we saw there (yellow mongoose), and with the combinations of animals all coming to the watering holes to drink, than with any particular wildlife sighting.

Except maybe the just-calved, still-wet oryx being cleaned by its long-antlered mother, surrounded by four jackals eyeing the baby hungrily. We learned later that these very bad dogs were not in fact after the baby (though I'm sure they wouldn't have turned it down), but were waiting around for the pair to clear out so they could have the placenta, apparently a major source of protein for them.

Mount Etjo Safari Lodge:
A nightly lion feeding, where we watched two maned males, four females and five cubs all going at some meaty bones and pre-killed warthog that had been chained there. This all happened from the safety of a bunker shaped like a small quonset hut with a four-inch high slot running the length of it. The slot had a grating over it so we were completely safe, but the lion knew we were there, and even a glance from an amber-eyed baby was enough to turn your guts to jelly. The feeding was gruesome and awesome, with the huge male keeping everyone in line and every so often bellowing out a series of roars to announce the kill as his. The best part, though, was at the end, where this male caught sight through the grid of the two chatty Italian girls down the bench from us. He got up and very deliberately pointed his hindquarters at them and sprayed. It wasn't stinky or wet or anything, just a territory marking and a warning, but it was friggin' hilarious.

A rolicking, but ultimately unsuccessful, private game drive through the bush, looking for black (or even white) rhino.

On returning the car to the rental agency in Windhoek, miraculously undamaged after two thousand miles on roads of varying quality, I apologized for the state of it. I'd filled it up and had the windows cleaned, but didn't know if the dust that had collected in every crevice was my responsibility. The reply came, bookending the trip perfectly: "Sir, this is Namibia. We are accustomed to dust."

We now head off this morning for four nights and five days on the Otter Trail. High winds are predicted for the middle day (up to 50 mph), so we have no idea how successful our jaunt is going to be. We're bringing extra whisky to make sure everything turns out okay.

Monday, July 16, 2007

Land of Five Hour Drives

M and I have landed safely in Swakopmund, Namibia, after several long drives over lonely roads. From Giant’s Castle in the Drakensberg, to Fugitive’s Drift Lodge, where we were bowled over by the intimate hospitality and the masterful storytelling, was five hours by car. The experience at Fugitive’s Drift is amazing. They take you to the battlefields of the start of the Anglo-Zulu War in 1879 and recount the harrowing tale of loss and redemption(for the British, at least) that unfolded over about 18 hours, but which affected the British Empire’s view of itself from then onward. For me, it was mostly a lesson in storytelling and hospitality. They hew very close to the line between personal and professional hospitality, with the guides and staff having dinner with you every night. Stories are told casually around the fire at night, and during the day by professionals who are as much actors as guides. We really enjoyed the experience of having the stand at Rorke’s Drift recounted to us at sunset by Rob McClaskie. Fugitive’s Drift is moving forward after the tragic murder of its founder and guiding star, David Rattray. I feel confident that we got as good an experience there as my brother and parents had when they went there whiled David Rattray was still alive. His spirit, voice and shadow still lingers over the place, but I think the day is not far off when he will be another of the lively characters in the stories told there, rather than a tragic presence. This land has seen a lot of bloodshed and sorrow, but it is really inspiring.

From Fugitive’s Drift to Johannesburg airport was another five hours. We flew to Windhoek, spent an exhausted night at a pension in town and the next morning set out for another five hour drive., this time mostly on gravel roads(though that prospect in Namibia is not as daunting as in South Africa or even Italy or America) through the desert to the Desert Homestead. The various shapes and shades of jagged rock and blue sky here are amazing. And the sparseness of people/towns/anything is astounding. At the Desert Homestead, we were treated to more great hospitality, with an excursion to Sossusvlei/Dead Vlei. White dead lake, auburn dunes all round, black dead trees. It is iconic. Pictures are necessary to do this justice. Unfortunately, Namibia’s internet service is akin to dial up. We’ll be posting pictures later. Much later.

We also got the opportunity to go on a horse ride. A real one. We got to canter for a bit, which they never let you do anywhere else. Meghan and I were grateful for the opportunity, but it left us a bit sore for our next drive, this time six hours to Swakop, as the locals call it. It’s a nice little beach town, and rather than taking a scenic flight we’d planned on, we’re going to take today to do our internet stuff, walk around, stare at the sea, and eat some good prawns. Tomorrow, we’re off to the Erongo province and Erongo Wilderness Lodge. Then on to Damaraland and Etosha. Thankfully the roads will be paved from here forward!

You must...

"You must" pronounced "yeww mest" is the most frequent phrase I heard in Durban. It can be used to convey a range sensibilities.-enthusiasm, "you must try this chutney!"-disapproval, "you musn't just call any taxi driver, they can be very unreliable"- insistance, "you must take this route to the highway as it is the shortest route."I bristled every time I heard that expression.. The combination of well-meaning, very insistent South African culture with 2 clueless tourists in a dangerous city have lead to the overuse of this phrase. Rich mentioned to a family friend that I did not like hearing that phrase and they laughed, chalking the misunderstanding up to a cultural difference. "You must," Greg explained, "is how we convey importance. It's harmless.". Hmmmph, I don't buy it. I don't like being told what to do. Rich and I had a lovely stay in Durban and were also very happy to leave. Onward!

Monday, July 09, 2007

Leaving Giant's Castle

It is a smoky, hazy pre-dawn. M is still asleep, but I'm up at 5am after taking a post-dinner nose dive. M warned me I'd wake up too early. I stand by my decision. This has been a renewing stop for us. Quiet days, lots of walking, pretty much no interaction with anyone except each other. I know, sounds awful, but we've been having fun. The first day, we took a short walk. The landscape here is pretty stark. M had a hard time believing my assertion that the burnt brushland that surrounds this camp was not some sort of environmental disaster.

In fact, the park's managers stage controlled burns pretty much constantly. Yesterday must have been a big one. It smoked out our last sunset. We have a great hut here with a fantastic view of the Drakensberg range, also called uKhahlamba in Zulu, which translates to "wall of spears". Peeking out the big sliding glass doors now, I'm pretty sure our last sunrise will be much the same as our sunset, as the wind which visited day before yesterday has not returned to blow away the last remnants of grass smoke. At least it's not nasally irritating, even if it is visually. Actually, that's not fully true. The hazy view is just a different kind of view.

Day before yesterday, we packed a lunch of ham, cheese, and chutney sandwiched and braved the wind (and the dust/ash-devils it whipped up) and hiked the 12 mile round trip up to Giant's Hut, right below the escarpment. We saw lots of folks trudging up with big packs replete with helmets and ice axes. Just the hike was adventure enough for me. We came home sore but happy, as we'd made it back in time to catch the store before it closed, and so had wood for a fire, bottled water to refresh us (rather than boiled), and, crucially, beer to wash away the dust and soot.

I cooked M a bunny chow, a Durban curry in a bread bowl, the classic Durban dish. She loved it. We're going to have to figure out how to get this stuff back home.

Rich Armstrong
Sent from my Blackberry

Saturday, July 07, 2007

Rich and I stayed in Durban for 6 nights. The first 4 nights were with the Armstrongs in a posh oceanfront flat that had been leant to us by family friends. What a treat. The last 2 nights, we stayed with the ever-entertaining Worthingtons and their 5 yellow labs(guard dogs? I think not). We had dinner out every night with a different set of friends or relatives. I really enjoyed meeting the people who I'd heard so much about. It was an in depth introduction to a new city and to the Armstrong's roots. Rich and I both felt our speech being affected by South African English, but the full-blown accent would not be easy to pick up or even imitate, though Rich has come out with some good efforts.

What I noticed first about Durban was how pleasant it is. The people are welcoming, the suburbs well taken care of, the beach extends for miles and the climate is perfect. But then we started to notice the 10 foot walls, with razor wire or electric fences, armed response alarm systems and guard dogs. We noticed how circumscribed the middle class white folks were in their daily activities. So, Rich and I decided to go on a tour, with a Zulu guide, of Durban's townships. We drove through miles of slums in various stages of poverty. The government has provided housing over the years, but the demand far outwieghs housing stock and often people live in squalor. We saw where Gandhi settled here to practice law and refine his philosophy for two decades. It was a real eye-opener, even if those eyes were safe in a moving car.

After the township tour we returned to the "safe" part of Durban and continued our activities. There were several times during the week in which we suddenly found ourselves in the wrong part of town. And as the only white folks, we were scrutinized, and thankfully, left alone. I am not sure what the solution to South Africa's many issues are. I admire the people who are working towards improvement. There are lots of them working very hard, but as we've seen, they have a big job in front of them.

Rich Armstrong
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Tuesday, July 03, 2007


So we've figured out that there needs to be some new word coined for non-flight-related jetlag. We've been in Durban for three nights now and have barely seen the far side of 10pm. Eleven seems far away. Midnight is another country. Things seem to quiet down pretty early here, but most of this schedule is due to early rising, which we started in Kruger Park to be up when the animals are most active. But early rising leads to early tiredness, so with no TVs or late-night carousing with old friends to keep us up, we've been collapsing into bed around 9:45 and getting up before 7:00. (Well, one of us is up before 7:00.) Without pressures to adjust our schedules, it has been very much like jetlag.

In a couple of days, we're off to the Drakensberg to really relax for a while! All in all, this is a good thing. With only about 11 hours of sunshine in the day, it's best to make the most of it.


Rich Armstrong
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Monday, July 02, 2007

Township tour

M and I spent the morning taking a guided tour of some of the townships outside Durban. It seems a little sterile piling into a van with a guide rather than striking off on your own, but frankly the crime rate here is just too high to take any sort of chances on your own. I'm glad we took the time to get some perspective on how people--all people--live in South Africa these days. The depth and breadth of the poverty is at least as stunning as that of Rio, but here you have the added problems of AIDS, and now drug-resistant TB.

The structure and tone of the tour was actually pretty hopeful, so we weren't left too depressed. At least, not depressed enough to refuse another Durban curry for lunch.
Rich Armstrong
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Sunday, July 01, 2007


Meghan and I touched down in Durban, city of my birth, about twenty-four hours ago. We took a drive through the center of town on the way from the airport to the suburb of Umhlanga, about five miles north where we are staying with friends in a stunning beachfront condo. Really what Durban is these days is a bustling African port town. When I grew up here, it was a bustling colonial port town.

Umhlanga is beautiful and we've had the benefit of incredible African hospitality. We have a lot more of it to look forward to. Today is sunny and warmish, but windy. My parents are spending time with old friends and M and I took the opportunity to opt out and have a quiet Sunday afternoon. There is still no sign of my bag from British Airways, so the next couple days will include at least a little shopping. Their lack of communication and organization has been really frustrating. Up until then, I had been having quite a good time with BA.

Our time in Kruger was truly amazing. Watching Meghan react to the game has been the most fun. She said in her previous posting that "wow" has been her most frequent word, but actually, the word she's been using has been "NO!" as if she cannot believe that this is actually a hyena with cubs in front of her eyes.

I was particularly proud of spotting a leopard (no pun) on our fourth day there. The way it works in Kruger is you drive along at about 30 km/h all craning your necks to spot game in the bush. You can see about 5-50 yards from the car, depending on how thick the vegetation is. If Kruger is crowded, though, as it was this past week due to the start of school holidays, most of your game is spotted not by looking for a shape in the brush, but by looking for a mini-traffic jam. Often, you have to roll down your window and ask someone what it is you're supposed to be seeing. So, out of five sightings of something big, maybe one will be an animal you spotted yourself. This is why spotting the leopard at the side of the road, on her way into the thicket, was particularly gratifying. My favorites, though, were the hyena with two cubs on the second to last morning, and the herd of almost forty elephants of all ages that surrounded our van as they moved up from grazing and drinking at the river.

There was so much, though, plenty of lion sightings when we would have been happy with one for the week. Tons of elephant. We watched giraffe drinking at a watering hole a couple days ago. A really fun trip.

One thing that you don't expect is that you get a camping appetite, one that goes along with rising at dawn, trekking out into the wilderness, and coming back victorious with photos. But really, what you're doing is sitting on your butt all day in a car. So you eat as if you were hiking ten miles a day, but you might not walk a mile the entire week. Dangerous.

The food was simple. Lots of boerewors (pronounced BORR-a-vorse) and some lamb and chicken, usually done on the braai, which is just a grill, but which is a South African institution. I concocted a slaw dressing out of chutney, olive oil, lemon juice and salt which will definitely follow us back to the States. Other than that, it's all been pretty basic but very satisfying. M has taken to rusks (basically South African biscotti... but not awful like biscotti usually are) and biltong (like jerky, but again not awful). These are real South African foods, and are also the foods of my childhood. I find that I have a particularly infantile relationship with this country. Most of the time I spent here was under six years old, so I'm more excited about nostalgic candy than about a particular place or food or drink or whatever.

One highlight yesterday was Natal prawn curry at the Oyster Box Hotel in Umhlanga. This is a beautiful old colonial hotel with a deck overlooking the Indian Ocean. Natal used to be the name of this province (now called KwaZulu-Natal or KZN) with a big Anglo, Indian, and Zulu population. My mom has written an article about this curry, so I'll leave the provenance and history and everything out of this post and just talk about the food. A huge plate arrived with a pappadum, rice, a roti (spicy flatbread) and more than a dozen big shrimp swimming in a spicy, oily, tomatoey sauce. The texture is very particular, sort of similar to a really good marinara. It comes with sambal (chopped fresh tomato and onion), chutney, and a spicy relish on the side. This was really a standout dish. I intend to eat many more of them. The lamb variety is a definite must, and prawns are good, but prawns and hard-cooked eggs are better.

OK, must sign off. More to come.


Friday, June 29, 2007

Kruger Park!

Here are the rules to game viewing. Wake up at 5am. Drive until you see wildlife that you've only seen on nature shows. Stop. Watch the wildlife. Take some pictures. Do not get out of the car. Do not agitate or feed the wildlife. Drive back to camp when you get bored or tired. Have breakfast. Leisure time in the camp until afternoon. Get back in car and watch more wildlife. It's pretty simple.

"Wow." Has been the most frequent word out my mouth over the last 5 days. Since we arrived, we've seen. Lions(20), Hyena(7), Cheetah(2), Leopards(2), White Rhino(1) Giraffe, Elephants, Herds of Buffalo, Warthogs, Mongeese, Babboons, Monkeys, Countless exotic birds, Crocs, Hippos, Wildebeasts, Zebras, and several varieties of elklike animals. Its' been unbelievable. They all seem to emerge from the trees, prowl around, and disappear as quickly as they came. In the 30 years that Rich's dad has been coming here he's never seen so much game. This is the first time he's ever seen leopards and we saw two in twenty-four hours.

The most memorable experience by far was watching a herd of 35 elephants, from calfs through big tuskers, aproach us from afar. The herd emerged from over a crest, stoped in the river to drink, and then proceeded towards munching on trees as they all plodded along. They surrounded our vehicle for about 10 minutes and then moved on. We could see every hair on their chins. And with one gentle push, even the mid-size ones could have toppled our vehicle. It was exhilarating and terrifying.

On top of the excitment of seeing such amazing beasts, has the been the beauty and serenity of the landscape. Each of our camps has been on a bluff over water where we could hear hippos and lions and elephants all night long belting out their Kruger chorus.

Africa Part 1

After 24 hours of traveling, some very close connections, and one lost bag, Rich and I arrived in Jo-berg on Thursday the 22nd at 10am. We were picked up at the airport by Peter Malan and re-united with Di at Elaine Menasses house. After re-supplying Rich with socks and underwear at the mall, taking quick naps and showers, Elaine graciously served tea to Di's 3 cousins and their spouses(her entire extended family). There we heard tales of their youth in Zimbabwe and status of family now. Di seemed in her element among the raucus seniors. In the 6 hours we stayed at Elaine's we imposed aprox 5 days worth of hospitality on her. After tea we were whisked off to the Malan's house where we met Peter & Jen Malan, Wayne & Belinda and their two adorable daughters Kara and Emma. Peter had cooked up two delicious curries and we all lingered over the dinner table savoring the meal and excelent company. We got a good night sleep and caught the early flight off to Krugar park. Hospitality is very important in South Africa, and in the less than 24 hours we spent in town, the Armstrong's friends made this abundantly clear.

Thursday, June 21, 2007

Radio silence

Well, that three week span in Italy and London just flew by. When you're as connected as M and I are, it's easy to assume that the whole world has broadband. As it stood, we had in Italy only a dial-up computer infected with about every type of spyware out there. I managed to get it clean before I left, but it seriously hampered our online ability.

Italy was awesome. We fly to South Africa tonight. More later.
Rich Armstrong
Sent from my Blackberry

Monday, May 14, 2007

Summer of George!

[George reads a letter]

George: Severance package...The Yankees are giving me three months full pay for doing nothing.

Jerry: They did it for three years. What's another few months.

George: I'm really going to do something with these three months.

Jerry: Like what?

George: I'm gonna read a book. From beginning to end. In that order.

Jerry: I've always wanted to do that...

George: I'm gonna play frolf.

Jerry: You mean golf?

George: Frolf, frisbee golf Jerry. Golf with a frisbee. This is gonna be my time. Time to taste the fruits and let the juices drip down my chin. I proclaim this: The Summer of George!

Sunday, May 06, 2007

on the road to nowhere


Kruger Park
Drakensberg Mountains
Zulu Battlefields
Otter Trail
Cape Town


Sossusvlei/Namib Desert
Etosha Pan