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
Sent from my Blackberry

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
Sent from my Blackberry

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
Sent from my Blackberry

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.