South Africa

South Africa
Johannesburg Airport

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Beautiful Ireland and its Misery

Tough Are the Irish
Don’t ask an Irishman what he thinks of the current state of his homelands financial

Situation unless your prepared for a verbal onslaught that rivals Tea Party rhetoric. After the collapse of the Celtic Tiger, the so name boom in the Irish economy, the country is troubled once again. This is not in the same style as the infamous “Troubles” that brought civil unrest too such a potent level with death and destruction layered with religious ideology and murderous political upheaval. It just stems from greed. Flat out Greed. Everybody gets the disease and now the Irish truly understand it.

Irish citizens are a highly self aware people. There is enough historically significant oppression, poverty, famine and ruthless in-fighting to go around for every generation to look inward. With the lives of so many innocents lost in the strife of the past, it seemed as though a blessed corner was turned in the latter ninety’s when the country joined the ranks of the prosperous with a serious march into the 21st century as a global powerhouse. All Ireland is now in disgust at the level of money grabbing that took place over the period of the Celtic Tiger. Just a mirror image of what has happened in the United States and the United Kingdom over the same period of time, although to a spectacularly higher degree.

Ireland has no time for glossy-green sing song speech patterns anymore, for its sink or swim. The sounds of fury and the reality of tough times are apparent everywhere, From homeless and beggars camped out under ATM’s on Grafton street in Dublin to the miles upon miles of empty office parks ringing the major cities of Cork, Dublin and Limerick. It all came and went in a blip. Future musical lyric over a pint of Guinness no-one can afford more aptly will descend into… “They took my hills and leveled em… too build a house of cards”.

Travelling Ireland at any time of life, one needs to be in touch with the history of the country to have a better perspective of your own journey through it. There is such severe beauty in this small island, that it is hard to contain it all and you can easily find yourself denying (especially if you’re Irish) the struggle and toil that lingers at its surface.

Push all the shallow needs aside and you find, buried deep in its heart and in its hills, real Ireland, a country that always shines under a weather beaten sun.

A land and people unaffected by mass consumerism and some ridiculous notion that bigger stuff and more things piled on top of that bigger stuff is better. In the West Country and in the south, there are those who did not lose their way, still living on the land, proud and pleased at who they are and what it means to be Irish. Not in the least bit ashamed of what has happened around them, just carrying on as though an economic collapse meant nothing. The hearth is still warm, food is still abundant and only your own hands can make it happen. I have been to Ireland on many occasions and this time I ventured further out the cosmetic door. I took the chance to dig a little deeper and perhaps gain a little more insight into my own history with this country. I had not been here in a few years, at least not since the Celtic tiger was swinging a powerful tail.
I was forced to swallow hard.

The striking similarities to Western Wisconsin and the loss of the family farm are so readily apparent you could not close your eyes long enough not to distinguish the difference. Whole acreages swallowed up by earth movers and cookie cutter homes only to be abandoned at one fell swoop when a housing market so ridiculously over-inflated went bust. Everyone wanted in; Buyer, seller, banker, taxman and lawyer. The shovels, with barely time enough to cool are now being picked up by those who had no interest in any of it. Sensible people with no choice but to plow forward and clean up a problem they did not create, like they always have and always will.

The people of Ireland will continue on and its beauty holds no shame, but it does lend one to question foreign interference with the “Big Bailouts” now seeming inevitable from the European Union and country’s within that union that are just as directly responsible for lending the money that was grubbed. There is a funny little quip that anyone Irish is familiar with, that “its all about the suffering”, a remnant of a religious culture that seemed to think it can offer eternal salvation if you suffer enough in this lifetime.

Time will sneak by and the country will regroup because as a people they are tough.

As unfortunate as the fighting Irish symbol can become sometimes, it does characterize the best part about the people of Ireland; they will persevere once again. Just as another old Irish saying goes… God helps those who help themselves.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

The sun arrives at Hilltop camp in Hluhluwe Safari Park and 15 or so adult monkeys decorate the trees above us. The more youthful maintain a station closer to the ground, testing us. Vervet monkeys will warm up to you enough to get at your food. I can only monitor the monkey business over a cup of tea while packing gear.
Our plan is to make another run through the park in hopes of stumbling over some Elephants before exiting the park. Loaded up, we descend a spiny ridge with an immense vista on both sides. The Toyota Hilux hangs on to its gears around each switchback. Near the bottom, Elephant evidence is everywhere. Snapped trees litter the road with enough fresh dung to fill the truck. A half a day disappears while we spot a litany of other creatures, but no Ele’s. A schedule demands that we meet the rest of the wedding party at Rhino River Lodge, a private game safari park a little further north.

We exit the park, traveling north onto a series of dirt tracks on a landscape that finally flattens out on the backside of Hluhluwe and in the lowveld of Zululand. After entering Rhino Safari Park and a 15 minute bumpy ride, a well concealed lodge pops out of the brush unexpectedly as two warthog’s barrel across the lodge courtyard. Female Nyala graze as we drop our gear at our quarters and attend lunch with family and friends in the open air- underneath a thatched roof, lodge-pole structure. The next night and day take up some of the pre wedding events with more game drives followed by stunning meals at the lodge and an evening campfire under the southern hemisphere’s canopy of stars. Spending time, gathered with family and friends in this extraordinary place is truly a special experience.

The time arrives to raise the safari tents and head southbound for a wedding. We decide to utilize the Hluhluwe Game Parks road system by transitioning through it. With four vehicles in tow, a group is spotted standing at the edge of a hillside, cameras in hand, clearly focused on something below. We pull along side parked vehicles with nobody following the “stay in your vehicle” rule, it becomes apparent what they have spotted; Elephants. Not just a couple or a few. We watch them in the dry river bed wandering back and forth with a swagger. My count is 18. Little ones tug on the tail of a parent or explore on its own, remaining relatively close to the safety of the herd.
Elephants in the wild captivate like no other creature. Twenty minutes pass before we trek on. I could have sat on the side of that road all day long.
Elephants are flat out mesmerizing.

Driving south into a black night, back to the Dolphin coast, dark landscape filters by with the odd village lit up against a hillside. This is Zulu country. It is hard to suppress nagging questions of two cultures still at such extreme odds, questions we in the States are historically familiar with, white settlers and a native population. In the darkness you can visualize a country full of poverty and politically self-tortured. In the light of day you would be blind not to notice the oppressive razor wire that inhabitants hide behind. It is easy to discount it as just remnants of former Apartheid rule only to understand it is a product of post Apartheid. Possibly this is just paranoia with violent crime rates here soaring but unfortunately everyone has a story, a first hand account of a bad things.

The pre wedding build up now over, the family’s gather at the Collisheen Estate in Ballito for the exchange of vows. Collisheen is a farming manor squat in the middle of sugar cane fields. A nearby airfield keeps the gentlemen entertained as a World War I era Tiger Moth skims the field and ladies stroll the grounds in sharp dress with endless champagne. The entire affair wanders into a different era itself as the reception catwalks into an enormous tent, all Africa and England under canvas.

After a few more days of sun, sand and amazing African cuisine, it is time to Say goodbye to all and move on to the next segment of the trip. Bidding farewell to my family has always had an ache. Like tearing off a bandage, the quicker the better, a public place helps as well. Visiting a group that has a life halfway across the world is not
“Over the hills to grandmother’s house we go”.
Even with the internet, physical distance is still physical distance. Gateway, the largest mall in Africa, just outside Durban provides suitable cover for the English way, “we shall be together a gain’s” are exchanged with a few “God willings” followed by the somber walk…. One look over the shoulder, a gentle wave and that’s it.

Cape Town

After a drop at Durban airport and a 2 and half hour flight, we are on the approach to the southern most city of Cape Town. “The Mother City” as it is referred too has a style uniquely its own. Dug into the ramparts of Table Mountain on three sides, it is where the Atlantic batters its western face. There is nothing like this setting. Like a sentinel guarding the city, Table Mountain monitors the sunrise and sunset where two oceans meet. Indian and the Atlantic oceans collide within sight, south at the Cape of Good Hope. This is the bottom of the African continent and known as the Western Cape.

Staying near the Victoria and Alfred waterfront as a centralized location is a good choice.
The city is accessible from all directions and caters to the foreign visitor. The harbor itself, centered on Table Bay is large with ocean going traffic coming and going from all directions. Cape Town is a product of Dutch colonialism. In the 1600’s Dutch traders established a port here for a trading stop with the East Indies. The city maintains a Dutch feel with its architecture while it also identifies heavy with British history. The main language here is English but only amongst a mixture of native tongues. Afrikaans is spoken by the white settlers throughout South Africa and is a combination of Dutch and German.

Table Mountain itself is easily accessed by an Ariel tramway which is unique as it is the only one in the world that rotates 360 degrees on its way to the top and bottom. The view is worth the price of admission as I doubt there is another like it. Hiking to the top on specified trails offers another way up with a small fee. Once on top of the table, an entire day could be spent on walking trails and with views straight to nowhere but Antarctica, you can literally see the curvature of the earth.

The Weather on top of Table Mountain can be unpredictable and the tramway will shut down when winds reach the cut off point. The top can also be obscured in what’s known as the table cloth, when south-easters blow in cloud cover.

An open topped double-decker bus gives a fabulous tour of the city bowl and all sides of the mountain including the Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens with 2 square miles of celebrated South African flora. The bus hugs the cliff face on the Atlantic wall around Camps Bay, Clifton, and Bantry Bay while making its way back to the waterfront.
Once more whales loom out of the water, this time Southern Rights, the Rights portion meaning at one time they were the right whale to hunt.

The African sun here will do its damage if you are not prepared for it; it hangs high up and will wither you without protection.

Homeward Bound

As the end of the trip draws near its hard not to reflect while still in country knowing soon you will be re-adjusting to the life you call home. Needing to catch a flight from Cape Town back up to Johannesburg earlier then usual, I dread the long wait at Jo-berg airport for the evening Delta 777 back to the States. Bridget and I decide stay at the airport terminal for the day for no other reason then security. It is no struggle to understand that hanging around a place like Johannesburg with out a dedicated plan is a bad idea. A trip that comes off better then expected is always a bonus when travelling abroad and at this point there is no need to push it. Jo-Berg with all its sincerity can be a very dangerous place even in the middle of the day.

There is the unfortunate side of South Africa and Africa in general, it is no place to go misguided or haphazardly. Being aware is the rule. With a surface sheen, billons pumped into the economy after the 2010 Soccer World cup, flags plastered on every post, it is sadly undermined with race related tension that may take generations to wash away. The mistrust is deeply rooted. All sides must tire someday and carry on with the cause of fairness and peaceful justice amongst its citizens. All said, none of mans inhumanity to himself on the continent would prevent me from exploring any part Africa again, for somewhere in its soul lies what it truly is; Magnificent.

For to be free is to not merely cast off ones own chains…but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others. --- Nelson Mandela.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

The South Africa Planet

After traveling from the woods and fields of Western Wisconsin, not only is South Africa a long way down on the skin of this planet… it is another planet. There is nothing subtle about a country who’s land mass is twice the size of Texas with the attitude to boot.
If it’s big….and I mean really big, moving on legs or fins, it might just be a few feet out the door. If it’s slithering under a stunning flower in bloom, hopefully not the one you’re observing at the time, its venom could end your life in less than 20 minutes. I have no qualms with this amazing place being referred to as “The cradle of humankind”.

The landscape of South Africa is an old place; it feels old, really old.

On the 15 hour 45 minute flight from Atlanta to Johannesburg I found my mind with plenty of time to examine my fortune of growing up with family abroad and henceforth my ability to attend a cousins wedding in Kwa Zulu Natal, a province of South Africa on Africa’s eastern shores and home of the Zulu kingdom. Landfall below the equator finds you without conventional seasons. It’s either raining or its not, albeit two seasons that cannot be counted on. Our version of fall becomes the rainy season. Technically in spring now, the sun is working hard toward summer where by December the heat is oppressive. An hour hop from Jo-berg on South African Airways finds the city of Durban and its brand new airport King Shaka on the Indian Ocean.

My wedding date and girlfriend Bridget find our ‘selves on the Dolphin coast in the village of Salt Rock. A town so named when the Zulu warrior- King Shaka would deliver handmaidens to the beach where they collected the dried salt on the rocks for purposes of trade. Nearby, in fields of sugar cane is the seaside village of Ballito, the location of the wedding.
Our seaside villa is perched directly on top of an ear splitting roar as the ocean thunders the beach into submission, taking a breather only to repeat this eternal cycle. Inside miles of shark nets that parallel the beach and about a hundred yards out, Bottlenose Dolphins can be seen playfully intermingling with the dozens of surfers that arrive early every morning. Arguably, the north coast of Durban has some of the best surfers in the world with the average generally spit out the other end of a 50 ton washing machine stuck on the spin cycle. Not much farther out, Humpback whales are spotted breaching the water while migrating to breeding grounds off the shores of Mozambique from Antarctic waters, their tails incapable of being parked in your garage, splitting the salt water in two with an enormous plume at one crack.

With the wedding days away yet, an opportunity arises for a road trip to northern
Kwa Zulu Natal and a public game reserve. A safari can easily be accomplished at minimal expense on your own with some prior planning and a vehicle. Most public and private game reserves offer the same wildlife experience. Open game drive vehicles with a driver or rifle shouldered walking guides are the norm. Bear in mind the sky’s the limit when it comes to a private styled safari and the manner in which you care to be pampered can become pretty outrageous along with its cost.

Much of South Africa’s infrastructure was restored in preparation for the 2010 World Cup Soccer event held last June and July, making the cruise north on the N-2 motorway in our diesel Toyota 4x4 Hilux a pleasure; The same truck made famous by Taliban warriors in Afghanistan. Collections of ramshackle beehive villages, basket headed natives and enormous stands of Eucalyptus forests sail past at 120 km per hour. Locals collect at particular points on motorways and like an NFL referee signaling an infraction, use hand gestures to flag down a particular bus. The mini bus system; collections of 12 passenger German Volkswagens’ stuffed beyond human capacity and weaving through traffic at high rates of speed are as deadly as a Black Mamba coiled up in the bush. Taxi’s and minibus styled transportation services are notoriously unregulated and rule the road like the Wild West.

After a 3and1/2 hour drive and a road side stop to pick up fresh pineapple, nuts and avocados the size of a softballs for our stay at Hilltop Bush Lodge inside the park, we arrive in Hluhluwe; the location of the Hluhluwe-Imfalozi game reserve. Pronounced Shooshloowee and located on the Imfalozi River system, it is Africa’s oldest game park.
At the Memorial Entrance, the main gateway into the park and one of three, your senses
Heighten on viewing the evocative landscape. A rolling hill topped Savannah with 3000’ft plus topography. Rounded tops are pock marked with scarp forests and Acacia trees that resemble gigantic Japanese Bonsai trees.

To say the park is sizable is an understatement. It contains Africa’s famous “Big Five”.
Cape buffalo, Rhino, Elephants, Lions and Leopards all roam here and are featured on the South African paper currency known as the Rand. The big five label endures today, as they were the hardest creatures to hunt on foot. Hundreds of other lesser known animals also reside here, including 360 species of birds and the last remnants of wild dogs and Hyenas, all dispersed within the parks 370 sq miles.

Barely ¼ mile into the park it is clear that the rule of staying in your vehicle ought to be adhered too no matter how bad the camera angle. A group of Rhinos, known as a crash are immediately encountered heads down grazing the bushveld. Even with lousy eyesight and stubby legs, a 2-1/2 ton grumpy Rhino can move at 30 mph. Getting between one of these guys and your Talibani ride will not favor you or your vehicle. The park has the largest collection of white Rhino on the planet after Poacher’s in the 1970’s nearly rendered the animal extinct. Rhino horns have been used historically for many reasons and have brought upwards of a half million dollars on the black market. In Asia, particularly China, a pulverized horn provides the ridiculous notion that when ingested…Johnny Wong will find Sally Cho a-lot sexier or vice-versa. I am reasonably certain that a ground up table leg would have about the same affect.

Giraffe are easily spotted a little further into the park. Your imagination cannot catch up to the realism of these skyscraper styled, elegant creatures grazing at tree top height. Nyala, Kudu, Impala, Warthogs and Zebra can be seen quite regularly herding near sources of limited water as a drought has put added pressure on resources. The gouged out river basins are dry as a bone, an ironic benefit allowing 4x4 crossings.

Fires through out the park have blazed recently and the sweet return of fresh growth satisfies the grazers as we sneak up on three older male Cape buffalo. With the engine off, using gravity to creep down the slope, their gnarled horns bob in the thickets rendering the dry river bank devoid of greenery. Aware of us ten feet away and not bothered, we are fortunate they are herbivores. Cape buffalo and Hippo’s are easily the most dangerous and unpredictable animals in the Bush. Reported human deaths average 200 a year for Cape buffalo alone.

The sun sets early here and main gate closings are strictly adhered too. With that we make our way to the highest point in the park, the Hilltop Lodge. With its spectacular views and generated electricity, the Lodge is the focal point for a system of self catered chalet styled huts. In the main lodge guests can log their day’s sightings on a map with movable animal magnets. With 186 miles of mostly gravel roads in the park, it offers the visitor the best method for sighting a particular creature without pushing fuel limits and park exit times. Running out of gas here is a bad idea… a really bad idea.

Retiring to a beautiful thatched roof hut- typically African, brings a well needed respite as we discuss African politics, wildlife and the events of the day over dinner. This is the time for storybook Africa and sleep. Visions dart around the brain as I recall our reason for traveling 8,000 miles. The mind continually retreats to the public board at the main lodge and the elephant magnets positioned near the Black Imfalozi River. Just like game in the Wisconsin woods, nothing is ever certain. There are no guarantees in the African bush, although the possibilities are endless.

Spending time in Africa instills in one that you’re an integral part of wildlife. There is no getting around the fact that cohabitation with the environment and the seriousness of self preservation outside your protected enclave is a mandatory skill. You are not so much a visitor as you are a participant. All things in the natural world that you had previously established as wild are no longer. You acknowledge that you are also wild in this world and without an appreciation of this; you can personally play an unwanted role in the food chain.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Unfortunately its been some time since i have posted anything legitimate on here. the good news is my good friend Duffer seems to be hanging in there despite the certain finality of his particular condition. Today i depart to see him, traveling once again in the environs of the instability that airline employee travel provides, that said , no better way to get around for cost and i have no trouble with continuing on in the classic format that i had once traveled in a ways back in youthful days.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Rooster's Do Not Lie

A rooster crows for the third time its 5am. Leaning outside the door in the courtyard of Tres Balcone’s I spot the alarm clock perched atop the low facing Ceramic roof line. He struts across the peak as if to announce what we are in for. His brethren have done the same here for some 600 odd years, speaking volumes, as if to say “you should have been moving 3 hours ago”. He would be right... Our host Francisco Alcoser, an amiable Peruvian man
is up sorting out are breakfast down the stone steps in a semi open kitchen. The mountain air smells sweet.

Welcome to Peru, Welcome to Cachora Peru, an idyllic village squeezed into a canyon bottom quite neatly as if stone, mud and brick boxes were mechanically pressed here by some giant hand. Looming in the distance out the bottom end of the canyon to the north is the Salcantay range, so Grand and enormous in stature with peaks ranging in and out of 22,000ft it makes the Rockies look like the foothills.

My Friend since University of Minnesota Rugby days is Jeff Lien or “Duff” as I know him, a nick name he picked up when as kids his younger brother Dan would flub the pronunciation of Jeff. The two of us have traveled to the far corners of Peru to venture into the heart of the Andes and Choquequairo (pronounced “shokeekerow”), a lesser known mountain top Inca ruin. Abandoned around 1530 it is considered to be one of the last holdouts of the Incan Empire, an Empire internally fractured by civil war with the inevitable arrival of Francisco Pizzaro and his merry band of gold diggers. Fortunately for Pizzaro not a lot of digging was required, just the taking. The Conquistadors spent little time with pleasantries forcing one of the more sophisticated civilizations of its time to head for the hills, literally, inhabiting villages teetering on cliffs of extinction. So remote is Choquequirao it will take two days of vertical foot travel to get there.

This is not your Machu Pichu. No exhaust belching buses, no camera on polo laden tourist, no glossy brochures, and no descendants of an ancient empire hucking t-shirts, in fact no one at all, just a few suspicious mules and the singularly inconspicuous trekker.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Welcome to America. May I take your order please....

I arrived back in country from South America last fall physically exhausted. I am sure i was suffering from "bad sleep syndrome," the fatigue you suffer while travelling has a direct relationship to the one you no longer have with a comfortable bed; Yours.

As i sat half cocked over a travel pack on an uncomfortable stretch of classic airport gate seating, the kind you can get hemorrhoids from just looking at, my mind faded in an out of what i had just experienced, a knee busting, lung searing, eye popping trek; Climbing in and out of a river bottomed Andean-furnace, Twice. I recall the sleep fatigue and factor in a percentage of the physicality. Packs, tents,and mules in the steepest canyon on the planet makes for some humility and sleep only at exhaustion, the kind where dreams are neither necessary or obliging.
Atlanta -Hartsfield Airport is a general whir as an entire army of business travelers weave in and out of each other all desperate to make a connection or find a place like myself, just to hurry up and wait. My mind wanders, reading becomes a pointless endeavor as my gaze is continually pulled from the page to the endless human flow. I adjust my view too the cluster of high concept shops. The gate for my connecting flight into Chicago is smack in the middle of a mini mall. There is the shoe palace, (use you imagination,remember Richard Reed?) the ubiquitous fancy burger joint/sports bar, more takes on pattied cow flesh then high def televisions bolted to the ceiling and the mobile phone/techno device kiosk where a pleasing dread locked sales girl will make you care about the color of your mobile device.
At the TGI/Apple/insert name of: famous pro sports "jock", which by the way is big, autographed and in a glass case on the wall, it's the Monday morning extension of Sunday football on every screen, except for the one in the back corner. Above the bus station droning along in all its pixel'ed glory, there is something a little different, seems there are a couple of wars going on, brought to you by Coca Cola.
I turn my thoughts to Jeff or Duff as i know him, wondering if my trekking companion and friend of twenty years was still sitting in Lima, Peru, i wondered if he was as sore and tired as i was. I know he had lost almost 15 pounds on the trek and had been bitten in the mountains by a tick of an unknown variety which at the time had caused us some concern, I was sure he was waiting for the right moment to make an escape, a harried taxi dash to the airport weaving in and out of 8 million people all trying to get to the same place at the same time. I left Duff at 9:oo the previous night to catch an earlier, separate flight. We said goodbye after a successful adventure at our hotel in Lima's version of the cul'de'sac. This one in particular, a Peruvian styled Palm treed safe zone microscopically wedged into a city that cares enough to arm everyone with a sense of unease.
I was pleased upon how easy my re-entry into the my home country was a mere two hours earlier. I passed through every gated check point with over a thousand soldiers returning from Iraq, my freshly renewed passport slung around my neck, not one major hiccup through customs. Unusual to say the least considering where i had just come from.....

Sunday, January 10, 2010

"Greetings from my corner of a mad planet"

Seems the time has come for me to register in with the so called "In" crowd, the suspense was killing me anyway and the voices in my head were only getting louder. The basic idea here, is to keep getting to the bottom of it, Scratch the itch until quite frankly it gets a little bloody. I make no claim to know what the so called itch is nor do i truly believe in a bottom or a top for that matter. I have no prepackaged, predetermined outline. In short, I might not know just what the hell i am doing and the idea that at some point i may even remotely get it sorted is laughable. I might just end up frog stuck in the process, Nonetheless i march forward, hammer in hand, determined to bust up the china shop, knocking over the Bull whilst plunging through the glass ceiling with crystal ball in hand -my approach always irregular but genuine, success a diversion only. I preface future Blogs by making no apologies for my "let come what may" attitude. I am aware in my travel experience that the tendencies of humanity to reach for the basics only to continually desire the savory drippings of the worlds so called fortunate ones - leaves all of us in chains of contradiction, In our attempt to clean the palette we sometimes subject ourselves to some pretty serious nonsense.
I have no desire to grub around measly hovels to experience some bloated sense of self and the always available human condition crap, i will however continue to get it on with the ones getting it on.

For the reader; As i explore the "Blog Option" a little further I hope not as much to be successful at getting some seemingly pointless rant across but to instill a desire in others to get out there and find your wall.... get dirty, get acquainted, be unsafe for a measure of time and most of all just check it out, then get up on the wall and make your decision about the view ....