Wednesday, December 20, 2006
Some years ago, business took me to a small town in the Schwarzwald - a place with a real fairy-tale feel. I still remember coming over a rise and seeing the extent of the forest of the first time - dark pine to the horizon. Within the forest itself, I saw picture-perfect wooden farmhouses and churches; and late one afternoon, I watched from beside the world's largest cuckoo clock (!) as a doe and her fawn stepped cautiously in to a meadow at the edge of the trees; the fawn was a ringer for Bambia.
Meetings over, I drove south from the forest; I still remember the perfection of that late-spring afternoon, driving a very new BMW past vineyard after vineyard. Then, Lake Constance came in view, and the beauty was too much: time to pull over. In front of me lay the vast blueness that the Germans call the Bodensee; beyond that, the air was clean and clear enough to reveal the great jagged snowy mass of the Alps - 50 kilometres away, in Switzerland.
The fairytale theme was continued at the lake shore, in the ancient island-town of Lindau. I reached the lake, and the old town of Lindau. The town is full of beautiful old German buildings, many of which have beautiful murals on their exterior walls. The most thematically relevant of these was a tower from which a painted Rapunzel had let down her long blonde locks, about 10 metres of them, to assist her waiting rescuer.
Unlike Rapunzel, I was not long delayed by the tower; reluctantly abandoning that beautiful BMW, I took a ferry from Friedrichshafen south across the lake, to Romanshorn in Switzerland (possibly the last country I had expected to reach by boat!). From there, a succession of trains brought me further south, first over gently rolling farmland; then gliding along the shores of the improbable, surreal powder-blue of Lake Thun; and finally, from Interlaken into the truly magical, numinous valley of Lauterbrunnen - better known to Tolkien fans as Rivendell. At this point, our fairy-tale theme is becoming an epic one: the valley sits below the trio of Jungfrau, Monch and the infamous Eiger.
The next day, I rode a cog-train up above Grindelwald. Abandoning rails for boots, a short hike up a ridge to the east of the infamous Eiger nordwand took me - standing in the very heart of Europe - beyond any sight or sign of man. Above me, cloud obscured the highest peaks; below, another layer filled the valley floors, and I stood alone in a world of naked rock and vast snowfields. Above me, glaciers sloped at improbably steep angles from unseen peaks; just beyond the relative safety of my ridge lay the scene pictured here - the debris from a vast avalanche.
Now, several years later and working in a very different role, I am expected at another meeting in the south of Germany - but first, I think I'll make a little detour...
Thursday, November 30, 2006
Two autumns ago, I was standing on the fore-deck of a nicely fitted-out 40ft Beneteau, the great white masses of an unreefed main sail and genoa carrying us steadily west along the coast. To starboard, I caught a glimpse of a fin slicing through the water towards us; then, within seconds, they closed the gap, and we had an escort of dolphin outriders. Just a few feet separated me and the dolphins playing in our bow wave. They have no fear of us, or the great bulk of the yacht; and, in their playfulness, we see something that reminds us of ourselves.
Eventually, the dolphins appeared to decide that a fast yacht under full canvas was a little too slow for their taste, and upped their pace a little; within a few minutes, they were lost to sight, and we, once more, were alone on the ocean.
Wednesday, November 15, 2006
The poor mouse had a rough time, I'm afraid: batted into the air, pounced on, bitten, and then released for a few seconds for the fun of re-capturing it. Occasionally, it landed close to cover and tried to run - but cats are fast.
We are living with a little furry psychopath.
Tuesday, November 07, 2006
On seeing us, he drew back, then stopped. Parked 15 metres away, we rolled the window down and started shooting; alas, without effect. Our external flash and our longest lense were both in the boot, buried beneath weekend bags and walking gear. We sat in silence for several minutes: we watched the fox, and he watched us. Eventually, he slipped into the shadow of the forest beside the road, and we moved on.
Friday, October 27, 2006
Thursday, October 19, 2006
Oh dear. Well, we did add him to the payroll for exactly this kind of work - except we'ld hoped for discreet executions, rather than extended torture sessions on the kitchen floor. I donned a pair kitchen gloves and grabbed mousy on his next escape attempt; for reasons I still can't fathom, I took him outside instead of snapping his poor little neck on the spot - and he slipped free from my glove-clumsy hands.
So, I'm minus one condemned prisoner, plus one confused and disgruntled cat. I suspect Mousy's reprieve will be short-lived, though - if he is still in our little garden, his days are probably numbered.
Monday, September 18, 2006
Catching the waves was still easy, though, and my weight distribution was good; I never dug the nose in. A bit shaky on my feet though; took a few runs in to get that sorted out, but eventually I found myself getting up and staying up. I even had some success with steering - both prone and standing - using changes of weight distribution to move along the wave front and to avoid bodies in the water. Nothing dramatic, but it seemed easy, and I never tipped myself in. The best/funniest ride saw me catch a wave very late: I only decided to try for it at the last second,
and was only half on the board when it hit me. Vaguely astonished not to have been capsized on the spot, I eventually manged to pull myself fully atop the board, and eventually to scramble to my feet; would have made hilarious video.
Practice makes perfect; must get out again, soon.
Friday, September 08, 2006
We stepped in cold green water; sun already hidden from us behind the cliffs, but a beautiful evening for a swim, with no swell to speak of, and only the lightest of zephyrs remained to tease the surface into tiny ripples. Near our jumping-off spot, we looked for the entrance to a very long and narrow sea arch which he said he'ld walked once at low tide; couldn't find it, and decided it was flooded (it being after high tide). In the next cove, though, we did find the other end - not particularly large, but big enough to look friendly and inviting. I was curious now - having missed this one on all previous trips - so I led the way inside, and found it deep enough to require swimming, but quite narrow once past the entrance.
And long. Forty or so feet in, it was getting quite dark, and no sign of an exit. The walls were closer, and the roof was at times uncomfortably low; a swell that had been undetectable in open water was now large enough to occasionally inconvenience me. Navigating forward by touch, the entrance eventually vanished behind a bend in the cave, although wet walls still caught a little reflected daylight. There was air movement now, apparently increasing...
Then, just when the blackness seemd to be about to close in completely and force us back, the bend in the cave brought a new sight into view- daylight! Ahead lay a fork, with sunlight at both ends: directly visible on the left, through a slit-like exit, and indirectly, as a green glow beneath the surface on the right. Paper-thin exit with air, or broad channel without? The subsurface light from the flooded sump was luminously beautiful; couldn't resist it.
We reached the limit of the of the right hand fork and considered our position, floating in soft glow of that extraordinary light; then, ducking down, I looked out into apparently open water: no obstructions visible - but also no direct sightline to a visible surface. Came back up: "I'm going to try it". Down to the bottom, then roll, onto my back: this way, I can save my head from floating upwards into unexpected rocks. Ten feet or so of blackness - then, light, air.
I rested on the surface, but not for too long: my brother was waiting in the darkness. Back below the surface, I found the mouth of the cave again, and realised that the return journey wasn't quite as easy - instead of swimming into a green glow, I must now move into total darkness. How as I going to find air - and my brother - again?
Upside down again, I crawled the roof of that flooded sump, searching for the mercury-glint of an airpocket. Nothing accelerates time like the awareness of not having it; after passing half a dozen tiny and useless air-traces - nothing breathable - doubt set in. Could I have gone too far? Was there another fork, diverting me into a trap? Then, at last, an air-puddle wide enough for head and shoulders, the sweetness of the first breath, and a reunion with a remarkably nonchalant little brother.
My poor brother received a brief crash-course in the nicities of swimming through submerged and lightless caverns on a single breath - "swim upside down, along the roof"; then I left, to lead the way and do lifeguard duty. Allowed myself a few breaths of fresh air, then down to the bottom just outside the cave, latching onto a fallen boulder to keep myself in position. Nothing at first to see but a black void. How long should I wait? Then, a small pale shape - a hand - came forth, moving in exploratory sweeps, and the long black wetsuited form of my brother rose face up from the darkness of the tunnel to join me, smiling, in open water.
Tuesday, August 15, 2006
From the sea, the views are, if anything, even better. Rugged cliff faces fall steeply into the sea, their bases riddled with caves and sea arches. My favourite discovery of the evening was the sea arch in the centre of this picture: it leads to a hidden cove with a substantial south-facing shingle beach, almost entirely enclosed by cliffs. From the land, it could only be visited by abseilers, but from the sea, visitors have a choice of two fine arches or one (narrow) open channel. A magical, numinous place.
Outside the cove, wandering among islets and sea stacks, I came across two other swimmers who said they were hunting for crabs; I don't think their prey was in much danger though. The would-be "crab hunts" were armed only with children's hand nets. One of them was trying to dive; I would see the head duck down, followed closely by a disappearing bottom. However, a wet bottom was all that he could manage, and his legs would remain, disembodied, on the surface, thrashing frantically at the air, a little bit like a capsized sheep (well, if sheep were black, bipedal, and could swim).
I decided to have a go at crab-diving myself. The bottom was a mixture of bare rock, kelp-beds and white sand, and the water was extremely clear in the sheltered areas - swimming in fifteen or 20 feet (5 - 6.6 metres) of water, the visibility was so good that the sensation of height made me a little dizzy. Finding crabs was very easy - one should look at the edges of the kelp beds, where prospective victims have food, but only imperfect concealment.
Catching them wasn't much harder - I would drop into a vertical dive with only the tiniest splash, and reach "snatching distance" within a few seconds. The crabs turned out to be a fairly combative bunch, stretching their claws up and back in search of the fingers gripping their carapace. They turned out to be smaller than I expected - the water makes everything seem larger and closer - with most of their spiky shells about the size of my hand. The strength of their legs was amazing, though (comparable to human fingers, I think). The largest and most aggressive of the half-dozen which I caught (and released) did manage to make contact with his right nipper: but it closed on thick and nerveless neoprene.
Very, very good to be back in and beneath the water. I never get tired of the sheer otherness of exploring these "alien" places; of the strange beauty that I find there; of lifting from deep sands and rising weightless, without effort, to the rippling "sky".
Monday, August 14, 2006
About three miles along the road, we met them again - this time, stationary. Biker No.1 - he of the bare arms with stylish leather waistcoat was lying in the road about 15 metres from his bike. Biker No. 2 had parked in front of him, and was standing beside him doing nothing in particular. Having called an ambulance as soon as we saw Biker 1 on his back in the road, we did our (amateur) best to assess his injuries.
These weren't nearly as bad as I expected. He was conscious, his limbs were all present and in approximately their usual configuration. However, he did have the following:
- A very deep abrasion on his left wrist, the blood from which had formed a crimson puddle about the size of a dinner plate on the tarmac below his hand, the fingers of which weren't nearly as pink as they should have been.
- A very large area of skin was missing from his left forearm. I think he'ld left it somewhere behind him on the road.
- A small but deep abrasion on his right elbow, with something clean and white showing at the bottom. Bone?
- A bloody mouth.
- Confusion: although conscious, he was apparently unaware of the extent of his injuries, he forcefully expressed the opinion that a visit to A&E would not be necessary, and that the (very promptly) arriving police were "all I f***ing need". I put this down to concussion.
In the end, there wasn't much we could do for him: we called the ambulance, positioned our car with hazard lights flashing so as to protect him from the traffic, and watched as an off-duty nurse bandaged the leakier wounds. Afterwards, watching his blood drying into my wife's blue jeans, I decided that getting a first aid kit and a warning triangle to keep in the boot would be a good idea.
Although I was glad that we gave what help we could, I could find only limited sympathy for this man and his injuries. Speeding, stunts, and very inadequate protective clothing? He didn't have an "accident" so much as an extremely fortunate escape (he was overtaking when he fell, and the car only just missed him).
Thursday, August 03, 2006
I chose a quiet set to launch, and was pleasantly surprised - designed for novices, the kayak was so wide and stable than falling off was practically impossible. The slight flexing as waves pass seems to make staying on even easier. Best of all, armed with a paddle, I made short work of the trip out to the break, where more conventionally equipped surfers were waiting for their waves.
Result? I caught lots, although I did have some initial problems with weight distribution: waves were getting past me because my weight was too far astern. Leant forward on the next one and slid down the face - then the nose must have dug in, because the next frame on the video is full of bubbles... great fun. I did catch a few waves without incident though; my favourite was the one where the flexing of the kayak causing it to become lodged on the crest of the wave (rather than riding at the foot of the face, like a surfboard would). Fantastic. A leash would be a good investment though - the kayak travelled nearly as far independently as it did with me. See below, the video version of this post...
Friday, July 28, 2006
The coast was spectacular: we explored the lee side of a long peninsula: sea cliffs all the way, riddled with caves and sea arches. The water was flat calm - at times we might almost have been airborne, so clear were the colours the rock and weed below. The paddles through the caves and the arches were magical. We had only two capsizes on the trip (neither mine). I did have one awkward moment, though, in a cave. The episode was typical me: the guide stopped at the entrance, which was large and very inviting. Curiousity propelled me forward, and I glided past her, into the gloom beyound the cave mouth, and found a broad and inviting tunnel. Moving deeper, the gloom became a pitchy darkness, navigating now by sound and touch. The walls closed in: I shipped my paddle, and used my hands instead. I slowed to a stop as the loud and hollow slop-splashing just a few metres ahead warned me of the end of the cave: a moment too late, as it turned out.
Above me, a huge rock wedge protruded unseen from the roof almost to water level. Sliding under it, I stopped below its lowest point just as the trough of the swell passed by. Then, the boat rode up and forwards on the surge of the following wave, and I found myself forced onto my back, pinned in the darkness between the deck at my back and the rock pressed into my chest, wondering how high the water intended to rise...
Patience and calm were rewarded: the crest came,and went, and a sharp shove to the offending wedge sent me smartly sternwards, back to the light.
Wednesday, June 21, 2006
Tuesday, June 20, 2006
Last Saturday, I returned after a hiatus of some years to an old haunt in the hilly country which lies 50 miles or so south west of The City - a pair of swimming holes filled by waterfalls which lie hidden in a cleft high in the hills. After several weeks of good summer weather, I arrived on a hot and sunny afternoon to find the water even clearer than I remembered it; minutes later, I was in it, giant-striding in from 5ft above, video camera rolling. It was all just as I remembered - below the surface, the peat particles perpertually suspended in the water warm the light into the most amazing shades of yellow, orange and brown: closer to the air, the ripples on the surface cast dazzling networks of caustics upon the rock and pebbles beneath.
other world, where gravity is no longer relevant, gliding among swirling storms of silver bubbles which gleam in the black of the deepness below the falls; is this what it would be like to swim through Guinness?
In the calmer reaches, I saw the flickering tail of my old friend the trout, hanging in the current beside a shady rock. In the shallow river which drains the pool, I floated motionless as a shoal of juveniles flashed all around me, even swimming right up to the glass port protecting my camera - amazing!
Coming soon, if technical difficulties can be overcome: the video version of this post
Wednesday, June 14, 2006
On our last morning, we had the usual 05:30 start, after which we set off on our final game drive. After the wealth of animal sightings we'ld had in the previous few days, we were a little disappointed to find the bush almost eerily empty - even the omnipresent impala seemed to have moved on. With only about an hour or so remaining before breakfast time, an Afrikaner accent came crackling over the radio - a pride of lions had been spotted. At last!
I was the first on our vehicle to see them: the round ears of a lioness projecting just above the dry grass. Inching forward, we were able to see the whole pride sprawling on the track ahead of us. Although they'ld fed recently (bellys round with all the meat they'ld put away), they were relatively active. One of the younger lionesses, not yet full grown, was still kittenish and playful - we watched her crouch low behind a bush before pouncing on another (fully grown) lioness emerging from the bush, who took the attack in good humour.
Abruptly, the whole pack arose and moved off, apparently at the instigation of the male. We followed them off the track and along a dry riverbed - very sandy. Reaching a shady spot, most of the adults flopped down to sleep and digest. Three little cubs were still active, however, mockfighting and nipping each other's tails. We watched from close by as their mother washed and fed them - absolutely adorable.
Monday, June 12, 2006
We spent an uneventful morning attempting to find a pair of leopards known to be mating in the area - I was amazed at the nonchalance of our tracker, who seemed quite happy to hop down from his perch on our bonnet to stroll off into dense bush, looking for leopards who I can only assume would find an interruption most unwelcome.
Back at camp, we were invited to go on the usual morning bush walk, an offer which we were quick to accept, particularly since we would have the guide to ourselves - so Janco fetched his gun, and the three of us strolled out of camp around 11:00. "Want to see some elephants?" said Janco. We did.
After a short walk east of camp, we left the dirt track to move through the bush - very quietly, and with Janco stopping every now and then to test the wind. The first (to us) recognisable hint of animal activity came in the form of several very fresh looking piles of buffalo droppings: these are not a type of animal we want to meet on foot. As our guide puts it, the buffalo is a very dangerous animal because it has "no sense of humour" and "no imagination" (in others, too stupid to be confused by bluffing on our part).
Close to the river, our guide motioned us lower, and we found ourselves moving on all fours. Up ahead, huge grey forms were moving inland from the river; we had found our elephants. Crouched low behind such cover as we could find, we discovered that elephants look a lot bigger when the option of simply driving away is no longer available.
It was about this point that large bull, circling through the bush "inland" of our position caught our scent and turned to face us in the classic elephant "I am very annoyed" posture (ears out, and foot, if my memory does not deceive me, pawing the ground). We stopped pretending to be invisible, stood up and awaited developments. Our guide decided that things had gone far enough, and commenced to smacking his rifle as loudly as possible, while simultaneously instructing the elephant to move on forthwith (I'm paraphrasingly slightly here...). For a long moment, there was no response - and then, shaking its great head at the chutzpah of these tiny apes, it returned to its grazing. Very quietly, we began our return to camp.
Friday, June 09, 2006
Woken at 05:30 by our guide. Not the first time we'ld woken, either - hippos keep very unsociable hours, and aren't exactly built for stealth, and seem to be constantly snorting and puffing. This is at the same time, an annoying and wonderful sound to hear through canvas walls. The compensation for the early start is the cool beauty of the dawn, the flooding of the bush with a warm gold radiance.
Coffee helps sleepy eyes to open, and the bush keeps them that way: just a few yards from camp, we met with a large male lion, padding quietly along the track towards us our (completely open) jeep. Other sights of the morning included a small herd of elephants, a lone hyena slouching along the track, and a lion pride with 3 young cubs (the progeny of the big male we'ld met earlier). More coffee in the bush, then back to camp for breakfast overlooking the river, watching a brilliantly coloured Kingfisher hunting (grasshoppers). Despite having had a busy night breathing around our tent, the hippos still have plenty of go, and they can be seen - barely -makely stately progress up and down the river.
Thursday, June 08, 2006
We reached The Beach around 18:00 and used an old entry point - sea was extremely calm, with only the ghost of a swell remaining (we've been basking under the shelter of a high pressure ridge for about a week now). The water seems noticeablely cooler this time of year, but lots of fishy activity - before entry, we watched a large shoal - mackerel? - being chased inshore by unseen predators.
We soon found the entrance to the Dragon's Belly - the shaft I call the Dragon's Throat had very good overhead clearance, with the tide low and falling, although it was still a slightly disconcerting swim - the cave walls amplify the swell, and I had the added distraction of trying to keep my video camera steady and focused. The tall thin picture on the right shows part of the western wall of the dragon's belly - the rockface pictured is perhaps 30ft in height.
Leaving the Dragon's belly, we passed over extensive and very rich kelp beds, finding the usual rock-dwelling fish (including 2 dogfish, small members of the shark family) and the occasional spider crab (unfortunately, well concealed and exceptionally difficult to photograph). Trying to find a good specimen for Mr. S, I dived below the kelp canopy to swim a groove in the bedrock. Intent on finding crustacea, I got quite a surprise when I looked up to see the walls of the slot closing together above my head. Ahead, though, the water was brighter, and I followed the groove for another few metres, every kick feeling molasses-slow. Then, the gap widened again, and I shot up through the open roof, back to the sun. The rest of the trip was uneventful - a stroll through a sea arch, shown above, and a short swim through a cave where Mr. T and I had previously found an airlock. More photos on flickr...
Wednesday, June 07, 2006
We followed this handsome devil to a wateringhole and watched him drink. Then, on the other side of the pool, his mother appeared - and we followed her for a while. Very instructive to watch her climb a tree - straight up the trunk as if gravity didn't apply.
Tuesday, June 06, 2006
Propelled by turbine and rotors rather than supernatural powers, we made steep turns above the falls, windows revealing a very vertical view of the chasm into which the Zambezi plunges so abruptly. This chasm is a huge slot in the bedrock which opens into an extremely sheer canyon that zigs very abruptly, before becoming slightly less sheer walled and turning slighting less abruptly. This was our next destination.
Eventually, out pilot ended his Luke Skywalker impression by pulling out of the canyon and taking us over a game park just upstream from the falls. A helicopter probably isn't the ideal way to stalk game, but it certainly gave us an outstanding "God's eye" view of a standoff between elephants and a pair of rhinoceros, apparently contesting for shade.
Yet another tropical sunset
Later, for a change of pace, we went for a river cruise on the African Queen - a two decker river boat similar to the kind of craft that ply Lake Constance. Finger food and an open bar, and ringside seats for another hopelessly romantic African sunset.
Friday, June 02, 2006
We were met, as expected by a friendly man with a very battered minibus, who got us to the land border, and, eventually, through it: the border itself is formed by the Zambezi, a river of awesome power, across which arcs a large single-span bridge - halfway across, we have reached Zambia.
Our (extremely comfortable) hotel was the strangest yet: the entrance looked just like the gate of an army barracks, the impression re-inforced by the mock military uniforms worn by hotel security staff, who turned out to be omnipresent on the perimeter of the hotel grounds. And what grounds! The trees and lawns of the gardens harbour Zebra and antelope, and are visited nightly by troupes of vervet monkeys, who arrive just before sunset. We were charmed to see them playing on on the lawn, and started to film them - until we realised exactly what they were playing at - and that we were recording a sort of vervet Kama Sutra. It seems that they divide their lives equally between sleep, fornication, and the pillaging of any hotel room whose window isn't closed tight.
Our room, as advertised, was a five minute stroll from the lip of the falls themselves. The deep bass ground-trembling thunder of the falls themselves has to be heard - and felt - to be believed. Simultaneously, the endlessly falling waters and the rising, shifting mist are ethereal and fascinating in their variation. Above, you see the sunset as we saw it, on our first evening in Zambia, at the lip of the Victoria Falls.
Thursday, June 01, 2006
Later in the afternoon, we ventured out to do some exploring. Our route into town had taken us through the flattest, most featureless landscape I've ever seen, an almost completely sterile environment. Today, we wanted proper "Laurence of Arabia" style desert. Based on a little advance research with Google Earth we drove south along the coast. Almost immediately, huge dunes rose us on our left - megatonne behemoths, silicon waves that ripple on a timeframe of centuries. We couldn't wait to get closer.
Easily done - we joined a quad bike excursion, and within a few minutes the coast had vanished, the familiar seashore exchanged for a surreal world composed entirely of endless dunes beneath a huge and perfect sky, unrelieved by so much as a single blade of grass or patch of lichen. Our own tracks are the only mark that life has left on this landscape - and that no more permanent than a boat's wake. Don't miss it.
Strangely enough, the nearest parallel I can think of this excursion was a snowmobile trip on a glacier in the south of Iceland - the same sense of a completely alien world of stark and almost geometric simplicity, devoid of life for more or less the same reasons (no stable surface, no standing liquid water). Even the feeling of arcing a quad bike across the face of a steep dune felt just like doing carving turns on a downhill ski run in a U-shaped valley above the treeline - the same sense of speed, power, and the proximity of disaster...
Later, we left the ground altogether in the modest modest approximation to an aeroplane that I've ever ridden - a microlight. We circled the town, then arced over the mouth of the (dry, of course!) Swakop river, the dunes reddening as the sun sank into a blue, blue sea. By the way, the very glider heritage that make this such a precarious looking contraption also makes for the smoothest takeoffs and landings I've ever experienced in a fixed-wing aircraft. And view... no windows, no walls, floor or roof - just a seat, 800 feet above the strangest sea I've ever seen.
Thursday, May 25, 2006
The petrol station was something of a revelation; poverty exposed in way we hadn't seen before. Lots and lots of people squatting or slouching in the shade, most with no apparent connection to an actual vehicle. Poor clothes - patches and holes - and one quite young man who had lost the vision of his right eye to a cataract. We immediately attracted the attention of several men carrying scalpels and nuts on strings: these men scrape a living of sorts by cutting scenes of wildlife on the side of these nuts, and adding the names of tourists to make a personalised souvenir. Competition was fierce - as soon as the secret of our names was out, several heads were bent in concentration as they carved; we had had absolutely no intention of buying any such thing, but ended up purchasing from 3 men nuts with the names of various friends and family, swayed by a combination of their pitiful clothes, their desperation, and the memory of the Red Cross aid station we'ld passed a block or so back. Glad to leave town: we'ld felt a little besieged.
Moving south, we found an increasingly parched landscape; the large farms of the east now replaced by modest little holdings, the imposing gates and long drives exchanged for ramshackle farmhouses within sight of the road. A parallel traffic system is operation, with the (very occasional) pickup truck using the main highway (a gravel road of generally good quality) and donkey carts using tracks on either side of the main road. Beautiful scenery, dominated by the Brandberg Massif, but a very tough climate - we crossed only a single bridge in a whole day's driving - hundreds of kilometres. There are plenty of rivers on the map, but these are, almost without exception, bone dry. We did encounter some wet sumps (bring a 4x4) but the road is mostly very good. Very little traffic; despite this, the roadside in the vicinity of the Ugab river is full of souvenir stalls operated by ladies in spectacular traditional dress.
Arriving at the White Lady turn-off, we were stopped in our tracks by four or five skinny little children who wanted in the first instance to get water, and in the second to trade food for rock crystals. We filled their bottle, and promised to return later - which we did, swapping biltong for an embarrasingly generous amount of rock crystal. Big heartbreaking smiles from the shoeless, shirtless children.
Reaching the car park at the foot of the mountain, we paid our entrance fee - for which we received the services of a guide. Covered in insect repellent and sun screen, we began the 45 minute hike to the paintings only after swilling enormous quantities of water - the heat of the afternoon in that windless ravine was, if not furnace-like, at least oven-like. Our guide turned out to be excellent - as well as living near by, he had studied the geology, flora, fauna, and history of the mountain, and was able to enlighten us on subjects ranging from basaltic outcroppings to life cycle of the enormous tadpoles swimming in the river that flows along the floor of the ravine. The walk is quite easy (apart from the heat), but does require fording the river eight or so times - flip flops would be a better choice than hiking boots. Reaching the White Lady herself, we appreciated the shade of the boulders very nearly as much as the cultural and historic aspects. Incidentally, the "White Lady" is actually a man - probably what we would call a "Witch Doctor". Painted by the San (also known as Bushmen) , the paintings are a relic of a culture since vanished from the area. Ever wondered why they live in the harshness of the Kalahari? Because other drives drove them out of everywhere else (other tribes forced them from this area four or five centuries ago).
Wednesday, May 24, 2006
Eventually, in a grove of ghost trees (as odd looking as the name suggests) , pressure of time forced us to turn south and begin working our way out of the park. South of our last rest camp, we found distinct indications of elephants - enormous lumps of dung, dinner-plate sized footprints, and broken branches littering the ground. Sadly, the stench of fresh droppings was as close as we got to finding Etosha's elephants. Leaving the park, we drove south on a very monotonous arrow-straight tarmac road till we reached Outjo, at which point we turned west and drove towards Khorixas. Gradually, the flat country fell behind, and the hills of Damaraland rose about us. This region was noticeably more rural than the central area of Namibia - traffic was very light, and consisted exclusively of pickup trucks ("bakkies"), usually driven by whites, and pedestrians (black, skinny, and usually with nothing but the clothes on their backs). Eventually, we reached the turnoff for Vingerklip Lodge - a 19km dirt road, all of it through privately owned land - essentially, a 19km driveway. Just as I'ld planned months previously, the vistas for which Vingerklip is known opened up before us, epic in scale, golden with the last of the sun.
The lodge itself occupies the spine of a ridge, with a bar, restaurant and gazebo strung out along the ridge line itself, while the guest cottages sit just below these, each enjoying panoramic views. The gardens - of local, drought-hardy plants - are beautiful, as are the structures themselves: huge timbers, still with their old trunk form, soar above to form an exceptionally high roof vault; the heavy thatch and low eaves keep out the heat of the day. We drank our sundowners - entirely fruit-based, for once - in the gazebo, enjoying the view you see above. After sunset, I had a starlit dip in the plunge pool; later, we sat on our balcony and watched a massive storm rage with true tropical fury, hurling a barrage of lightning against the parched land far to the south. Dear visitor, if you happen to be anywhere near the general vicinity, don't miss a trip to this place.
Tuesday, May 23, 2006
My first dawn within Etosha found me sitting by the watering hole adjacent to the Halali rest camp. Four springbok were drinking and grazing, with bouts of play-fighting – they lock horns, and try to force each other back. All four were extremely wary, huge ears all a-turning and a-twitch.
We left camp after breakfast, intending to stay out in the bush all day – inside Etosha, park rules say tourists must stay in the vehicle cab when outside the rest camps, except for a handful of toilets in “safe areas”. Our morning drive was fairly uneventful- just a few wildebeest, ostrich, assorted antelope. After lunch (makeshift picnic of biltong and biscuits), the viewing got a little more interesting – some giraffe (surreal, graceful, occasionally hilarious). Exploring a very quiet track in poor condition (lots of bumps and large puddles), we found two tourists peering beneath a rather sickly looking hire car. We pulled up immediately; Mrs P swung up onto the roof of the cab to watch for lions, elephants, etc. (not so easy, in the dense scrub along that track), while I hopped down to examine the “patient”.
Quickly diagnosing the hapless machine as “too sick to tow”, we noted its latitude and longitude, and - our cab being only a two-seater - opened the tailgate and offered the Spartan comfort of our pickup’s bed to the stranded Germans (an anxious mother and her teenage son). Abandoning our game viewing, we drove them straight to the Okaukuejo rest camp, this being the closest place from which they could call for assistance, and also our destination for that evening. A little disappointed at having had to cut our drive short, we rested by the pool with cold drinks, before consulting the animal sightings book at reception (filled in by other visitors), then took the north road from the camp (a road we wouldn’t have been travelling that day, if we hadn’t been doing our Samaritan act).
A few kilometres out, we were buzzed by a Cessna performing the most unorthodox pre-landing circuits I’ve seen outside an air show. Just after this, a South African in a big jeep heading south flashed us down: lions ahead! Smiles and thanks, and off we went; in fact, we had already spotted a few jeeps pulled over up ahead. The area was very open – grassland – and soon we spotted leonine heads raised above the grass blades. Three lionesses lay together on our left, while a single male was off to our right. Searching with her big lense (500mm telephoto), Mrs P soon found another male lion some way off behind the lionesses. None of the animals were particularly close – the lionesses, which were nearest, were at least 30M off – but, even at that distance, they were beautiful, menacing, fascinating animals.
Monday, May 22, 2006
Friday, May 19, 2006
By local standards, rainfall is fairly good in this area - there are a lot of big cattle farms - but we thought it was dry as almost anywhere we'ld seen. This was the first town to give us that "third world" feel - stopping at the petrol station, we immediately attracted the attention of a couple of hawkers (thin, poorly dressed). I'm afraid they didn't get much from us - we picked a scrawny young lad to be our "parking guard", and crossed the road to the stalls of the traders - this is one of the largest craft markets in the region.
After some browsing, we soon found ourselves inside the stall of Oliver Moto (in the picture, the first on the left). Oliver is a nice young man with a relatively relaxed selling style. We liked his stock - plenty of carvings, mostly in wood, with some soapstone and a few in horn, bone, or tooth. On this, our first visit, his opening price for a wooden mask sounded a bit rich, so we shook our heads sadly. He soon confessed to quoting us a "hunter's price", and dropped about 20% from his starting price. Mrs P and I exchanged significant looks: we knew how this dance went. I slipped into my old role of distinterested spectator, and my wife dusted off her old bargaining weapons; the most important of these is that she never pays more than she initially intended to, and is genuinely prepared to walk away from a deal if the price is even 1% above her limit. On this occasion, the bargaining went fairly smoothly. Oliver played well, but faced an implacable and experience opponent, who, taking her time, eventually wore him down to a price that that surprised even me.
For readers who haven't shopped in this way, the game is played like this: the trader will generally open at a fixed - outrageous - multiple of their lowest acceptable price. For example, in certain markets in the Far East, we found a common multiplier of about 7; We found that a lower multiple is current in Okahandja, but I'm not going to tell you, dear reader: we like Oliver, and we hope he does well.
We returned to Okahandja for a hour or two towards the end of our trip, and dealt with Oliver again; his range is good, and having compared his prices with those of other suppliers, we're sure he gives good value (but the bargaining is up to you!). When we'ld finished with our purchases, we took his contact details (he has a mobile phone, but not an e-mail address); I think perhaps the goods he is trading could find a wider market, particularly the range of animal carvings (zoos) and drums (crusties, art students). One of the most revealing moments of our dealings in his stall came when he was writing down his postal address for us: spelling "Okahandja" - the town where he lives - required a short debate with his friends (brothers? colleagues?). The educational legacy of apartheid?
Wednesday, May 17, 2006
This beautiful creature, seen walking a dry riverbed in search of a cool place to sleep and digest, is a member of a small pride which hunts a territory within the Timbavati reserve (adjacent to
He was walking the track just a few hundred metres from our tents, coming our way. Our guide pulled over to the verge to let him pass (we were riding in an open landrover; think a stretched version of a world war II jeep, right down to the folded-flat windscreen and rifle by the driver's hand). I had an excellent view as he strode past within a couple of yards, protected only by his indifference to me. Big and brutal, he had a surprisingly melancholy mein (but a nice big mane - sorry). Talking to the tracker, we found out why.
At 12 years old, it seems he is "over the hill". Our guide’s assessment of his prospects was bleak; within a year or so, other lions will come to fight him for his territory, and he will lose. If he “doesn’t make too much fuss”, then he might be allowed to live, to shamble off into exile, where he might scratch out a lonely existence for another year or too. I don’t like his odds – he is the last of four brothers, the third being killed within the last 12 months by another pride to the north of his territory. It seems that that even the lion, the “king of beasts” himself, has only a short and precarious existence. Even knowing how the old villain maintains his position, I pitied him. Strange that such brutal animals should be so attractive – but we find them endlessly fascinating, particularly the cubs.
Tuesday, May 16, 2006
Last Thursday afternoon, I was bobbing in the warm, warm waters of the Indian Ocean, taking this picture of the tiny (uninhabited) island of St. Pierre (you can see more or less the whole island in this picture), part of the Seychelles group. The trees are heavy with fruit (coconuts, almonds), and the leaf litter is disturbed only by the passing of the occasional skink (this is skink heaven: I've never seen them so fat, sleek and lazy). In the surrounding sea, huge schools of fish swim over white, white sand and gorgeously baroque corals; hawkbill turtles graze peacably just below the surface. There are sharks, too - whitetips (reef, not pelagic), which fled at my approach. I hired a boatman to maroon Mrs. P and myself there for a few hours. Never so happy to be stranded... unfortunately, he turned up again just before sunset, as promised.
Friday, April 21, 2006
- Very different to anwhere that either of us has previously been
- Exceptionally beautiful
- Warm and sunny
The scenery is, as advertised, of exceptional beauty (Camps Bay, the Cape itself - thank you, Mr. T). We haven't been swimming yet - partly because of the cold (Atlantic Ocean), and partly because of the Great White sharks (Indian Ocean).
This is a beautiful country, full of possiblities. However, there runs everywhere a strong undercurrent of tragedy... I'm sitting in the airconditioned comfort of a very new Mercedes Kompressor, but outside, the shacks of the shanty towns blur past.
Wednesday, April 12, 2006
In my defence, it has been a rather fraught week, professionally speaking: I need to solve a fairly significant accuracy “issue” which is holding up development on an interesting new Device (a secret Device, at least for now). This is a very mathematical issue – my favourite kind – and I’ve had my teeth in it for a full week now (metaphorically speaking, but only just…).
It has reached the point where my default mental state is to have my head full of geometric shapes and equations. Walking, driving, eating – dreaming, now – it doesn’t stop. I cannot put this problem down – or, possibly, vice versa. Obsession has two faces: (temporarily) a mono-maniac, yes, but also doing my very best work. It’s a fascinating condition to be in.
I weighed in a kilo lighter this morning… down one trouser size over the last few weeks. Coincidence?
Thursday, March 30, 2006
Later, we sat out a few dances, and, like everyone else in the bar, watched the floor, which was empty except for a couple we had never seen before. Both were slim and very tall - six foot six or more. He wore a pale suit, and she a velvety-black one-piece that appeared at first to be an evening dress, but in fact had very baggy trouser legs. Dancing mostly with eyes shut, they moved in perfect sympathy and with great flair: even a simple walk became extraordinary with their embellishments.
Usually, they stayed in close embrace, heads inclined together. She would stroke his neck very lightly, and smile as he led her into extraordinary figures. Still with eyes closed, he would smile back as she followed him perfectly; without hesitation. Sometimes, they would improvise… magical, beautiful.
Monday, March 20, 2006
...has sprung. We spent the weekend in the country, visiting my parents. The seasons are definitely changing, although winter isn't giving up without a fight - there was fresh snow on the hills over the weekend, and a thick frost last night (althought it didn't survive the dawn).
Daffodils everywhere now. For some reason, foxes seem to be especially active - we saw two on the drive to my parents house, where Mum spotted another strolling through the garden. I'm looking forward to summer (which, for us, is not very far away now at all - tickets have arrived, vaccinations have been performed, anti-malarials stockpiled).
Wednesday, March 08, 2006
Recently, we’ve had a cold snap: cold air from the arctic has chased away most of the clouds and rain, leaving us with clear skies and hard frosts. On my daily commute to The City, I’m constantly distracted by the icy wonderland around me. One morning last week, I simply surrendered to beauty, and stopped on the hard shoulder. For five minutes or so, I stood and enjoyed the dawn – the above panorama (crudely stitched by means of The Gimp) really doesn’t do it justice. The sun now rises nearly as early as I do - summer is very much on its way.
‘What is this life if, full of care, / We have no time to stand and stare?’
- W.H. Davies
Monday, February 27, 2006
Finally: spare a thought for all the non-fictional lovers out there who find their love menaced by non-celluloid bigotry.
Monday, February 20, 2006
Wednesday, February 15, 2006
Monday, January 30, 2006
We were just about to give up hopes of getting anything better when a van pulled up and the driver strolled over to talk to us. Being about two miles past the “no access to unauthorised vehicles” sign, we waited guiltily for a lecture on trespass in general and the dangers of wild fires in particular. Instead, the stranger glanced at Miss C’s Canon SLR, currently attached to a large tripod, and invited us to go “somewhere with a much better view”.
Not without trepidation, we started up Miss C’s car and followed our guide – who had not identified himself – deeper into the woods, along ever darker and rougher tracks, at one point crossing a shallow ford. We began to speculate darkly about whether we were being led, or lured, and why he might know so much about where to find the fire…
Eventually, a faint glow appeared above the trees – clearly more than one fire was loose on the mountains tonight, and a deer blundered across the road just in front of us. Now, the air was noticeably smokier and we began to worry about our guide’s judgement – we were very obviously downwind of the fire, which is to say, right in its path. Our fears were allayed somewhat when a line of parked vehicles appeared ahead - several fire tenders and a row of cars. A fireman came over to talk to us... and once again, our presence was accepted as perfectly natural. So far from chasing away foolish civilians, he (and our guide) formed an impression that we were freelancing journalists, so after checking we hadn’t blocked his engine’s exit route, the jovial fireman began to give us some background on the fire (3 companies out, with two “appliances” each).
Our guide, a forester, waited patiently while we changed our footwear before leading us down a narrow path into the trees which formed a dark wall along the right of the logging track. We didn’t have to ask where we were going, as a long and jagged orange wall – the flame front itself – was now visible between the pine trunks, a long line extending as far up and down the hillside as we could see. The trail ended suddenly, and we found ourselves on a high heath, stumbling by flashlight across the heather. The fire front was about 150 metres from the conifer stand, hissing and crackling, and very definitely advancing towards it. As we watched, our guide strode into a rain of sparks and embers and set to work. Through the smoke, other figures could be seen fighting towards us from the windward side, flailing at the flames with long poles. The battle was very obviously unequal: we could see a front hundreds of metres long, but counted only half a dozen men, with the wind gradually pushing the fight towards the trees. Miss C set to work with her camera, while I took the role of the writer, producing a notebook and pen and interviewing the foresters as they paused for breath.
These hill fires, it seems, are generally started here by sheep farmers to encourage the growth of fresh grass for their flocks on the commonage. Unfortunately, rather than co-ordinate small, controlled burns with foresters, they tend to set off huge blazes on the sly and slip quietly away. Sometimes, this kind of carelessness destroys property – fences, forests – and sometimes, it takes lives. We watched as the last fence before the forest ignited, and prepared to retreat. We knew already that if flames reached the trees, a devastating crown fire would roar towards our car - which would then be sitting, literally, on the front line - as the track would become the next fire break, stoutly defended by firemen and foresters.
Then, suddenly, the choking smoke lifted: the wind was changing. All at once, a hopeless battle became an easy victory for the foresters as the wind forced the fire first back onto smouldering ground with little remaining fuel, and then uphill, away from the wood.
Eventually, we turned our backs on the flames and the dark silhouettes shadowing their slow march across the hill face and started for home, not long before midnight. The men we met had been working since early evening, and would work on into the small hours.
The mourners, suitably solemn, but not tearful, also had something of times past about them. The deceased had ten children, and his sons, now long grey themselves, filled the front pews with their large families. The service was shared between 5 or 6 priests, all white-haired, one too old to stand another who head was sunken between his shoulders. The priest who read to us from the New Testament delivered his piece in a sopoforic monotone. He managed to take a story that Buffy would be proud of – “Jesus confronts and defeats demon which in possession of some hapless man” – and strip the drama from it so completely that the tale seemed barely to leave a ripple on the consciousness of the congregation. Despite this, the service was not without moments of beauty, as when three priests joined to sing some phrases in perfect harmony at the climax of the mass. I did wonder if perhaps the very flatness of the preaching was soothing to the family.
A long dark procession wended slowly towards the graveyard, pausing for a moment in front of a door with a black rosette. Among the tombs, a priest led the crowd in prayers from a portable lectern. I noticed that the grave diggers – two – had four long handled shovels standing in the mound of fresh earth beside the grave mouth. Then, sons and grandsons stepped forward, taking these and other from the hands of the professionals, and began to move with quick and personal rhythms. No symbolic handfuls here: as more came forward, tapping the man they came to relieve, I realised they intended to complete the job, a final service to their father. Miss C and I agreed that it was an awful thing: at once touching, and very hard to do.
We left the graveyard not under the traditional drizzle, but beneath a cloudless blue sky, air crisp with a promise of frost, me walking that country lane between Miss C and two of her sisters: easily the most fashionable and glamorous attendees, a very pretty tableaux marchant.
Friday, January 27, 2006
Thursday, January 19, 2006
Tuesday, January 17, 2006
Once upon a time, near the end of a very long holiday, Miss C and I found ourselves, by a combination of accident and intention, right in the heart of the Alps: Chamonix – our first-ever chance to explore this vertical wonderland. As impoverished ex-students, we equipped ourselves only lightly: I picked up a free guide to the local mountain walks, bought us one extending walking pole each, and launched us skyward with two tickets for the cable car to the Plan d’Aiguille and L’Aiguille du Midi. A few hours later, I was leading Miss C over rough lumps of granite amid truly spectacular scenery when we realised that we could no longer see the daubs of paint that marked the trail.
A few yards later, the penny finally dropped when our path was barred by a mysterious opening in the ground: a slit with grey-white sides, flooded. Crevasse! All of a sudden, like a horrible conjuring trick, they were all around us. Our previous experience of such things was limited to geography lessons, which in my case stopped at age 15. Dimly, pages from my old text book floated before my mind’s eye… that last tricky ridge of boulders was, in fact, a lateral moraine, and the rock field on which we stood was concealing the surface of a glacier. As it turns out, glaciers are not universally white and gleaming, but can cunningly disguise themselves with debris from the higher slopes.
The feeling of ambush intensified when we tried to retrace our steps to the moraine and found our way apparently barred at every step by another crevasse. They were small enough to be easily jumped – but, unnerved by their sudden appearance, we didn’t try it. Instead, we found bridges or diversions, walking in single file, with Miss C instructed to keep well back but follow me precisely.
Returned to the cable car station, we had the choice of riding it back to the village, or of trying an eastward walk towards the Mer de Glace, Europe’s largest glacier. Several miles of majestic scenery and precipitous path later, we arrived only to find that we had missed the last cog train down the mountain – and a dark storm was gathering overhead. Too tired and hungry to enjoy the spectacle, I offered Miss C the choice of spending a night, minus our luggage, in a mountain hotel at the head of the track, or of walking down through the forest and back into Chamonix.
If there is one thing in nature which Miss C cannot abide, it is thunder. Picture her then, in a dark alpine forest as night falls, with lightening crashing all around, staggering with fatigue and supported by a metal walking pole.
We arrived after dark at the hostel where we had stayed the previous night, crossing our fingers that a bed could still be found… The hostel was, as it turned out, fully booked: but, looking at the two waifs soaked to the bone, badly chilled, visibly sagging with exhaustion, the receptionist took pity on us, and some other poor couple were instantly “unbooked”.
Here, dear reader, is the remarkable thing: not then, and not since, has Miss C ever spoken a single cross word to me about the whole ordeal.