Monday, June 26, 2006

Garretstown - Secret Shore

Another video post...

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Two Falls - The Premiere!

As threatened, the video version of the last post...

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Two Falls

In another diversion from the African story, a fishy tale from the hills...

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.

The lower falls

On to the lower pool, entering from treacherously slippy rocks at the lip of the lower falls. A moment of anticipation in the air, as my body accelerated towards the water; then I am through the interface, into the 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

The Pride

In which I recount the story of our last few hours on safari at Gomo Gomo.

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.

Lion cubs on a dry riverbed, Timbavati

Monday, June 12, 2006

Walking with Giants

Continuing the story of our safari at Gomo Gomo on the 15th day of our honeymoon...

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.

Close encounter of the elephantine kind

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.

Bull elephant in musth

Friday, June 09, 2006

On Safari

In which we return to our African Odyssey, taking up the story on our first full day at Gomo Gomo, Timbavati, South Africa (just west of Kruger National Park)

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.

Impala grazing at dawn

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.

Hippo being surprisingly stealthy

Thursday, June 08, 2006

Back to the Dragon's Belly

Just for today, I'm going to break the "Africa sequence" with pictures from a swim I did last night, returned to the caves that I explored last year with Mr. T. This time, Mr. T couldn't make it, but Mr. S (he of the night-snorkel and a sailing adventure or two) could.

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.

Mr. S walks Mr. T's sea arch

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

Camping, African Style

Almost a fortnight into our honeymoon, we arrived at the Gomo Gomo camp in the Timbavati private reserve (adjoining Kruger National Park, South Africa). The picture below shows the intertior of our tent (the door in the shadows to the right leads into the tent's fully tiled bathroom...).

Roughing it at Gomo Gomo

We reached camp just in time for lunch, eaten beside the river, with a thatched roof to keep the sun off. After we had eaten, we jumped on board an open landrover for the afternoon gamedrive. This began very well, as we soon found lots of buffalo and elephant, despite the fairly thick bush prevalent in the area - and got rapidly better, as the radio crackled with a report of a leopard sighting. Our guide immediately shot off down a series of dirt roads, eventually leaving the road altogether to rumble through the bush itself in low gear, guided in by another jeep already on the scene. Before very long, we glimpsed the beautiful creature - almost perfectly concealed beneath a bush. Suddenly, the wonderful creature uncurled and strode out from its hiding place - straight past our jeep.

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

Scenes so lovely...

...must have been gazed upon by angels in their flight - wrote Livingstone, in 1857.

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.

Victoria Falls

Turning his back on the falls, our pilot took the helicopter cross country, our shadow flitting over the fields and rondevels of subsistence farmers, scrubby "medium dry" land - Mopane everywhere. The very flatness of this landcape formed the perfect dramatic prelude to what happened next: the plain stopped, and the ground fell away below us as we crested the canyon lip. Down went the nose as our pilot made a dive for the canyon floor, turning steeply, so as to avoid flying into the opposite wall. Levelling out well below tree-top height, he proceeded to fly upstream just above the water, only rising to allow the steep turns necessary to follow the bends of the canyon. If at all possible, I'll upload the video I took of this - still images, can't really do the experience justice.

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

The Mighty Zambezi

We woke on the 10th day in a bed strewn with rose petals - in the Airport Southern Sun, Johannesburg. Off to departures, where we discovered that our flight north would land in the town of Victoria Falls (Zimbabwe) and not over the border in Livingstone, Zambia (where we wanted to be). So it was that we came to spend a very uncomfortable couple of hours in Mr Mugabe's Zimbabwe. Some numbers that might help you to understand the present condition of that country: men have a life expectancy of 37, women 34 - the lowest in the world - and the official rate of inflation has reached almost 1,000%. - the highest in the world. The immigration officers in the airport extracted USD 110 from us for the privelige of entering this paradise.

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.

Bridge between Zimbabwe and 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.

Victoria Falls at sunset

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

The Dry Sea

Dawn on the 8th day of our honeymoon found us deeply asleep in a beachfront hotel in the centre of Swakopmund, a resort town surrounded on three sides by the vast emptiness of the desert on three sides, with the fourth side occupied by the even vaster blue of the South Atlantic ocean. By contrast with the land, the sea here is anything but empty, with a fish population that supports large populations of seal, dolphin and shark (which we know, because the ferocious heat of the wind from the desert chased us indoors in search of air conditioning - into the local acquarium).

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.

Quadding in the Namib

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...

View from a microlight

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.