Funchal, Madiera (My dear)

Funchal – Madiera Islands (Portugal)

WOW!!! What a day! We had a restful morning at sea, arriving in in Funchal, at about 11am. 1:30pm we left for our tour which started with a long cable car ride up to Monte, where we saw the twin towered façade of the 18th Century church, which is a landmark throughout the city. Ascending in the cable car, in itself, was just an absolutely magnificent experience, as we looked down on the city and right over some of the houses and terraces. I did think that sun tanning naked on your balcony would leave you rather exposed, as we went right over the top of some houses. I could have gone up and down the cable car all day.

When we arrived at the top of Monte, we had a short walk to the Church of our Lady Monte. The church is beautiful inside, with stunning frescos on the roof and artwork on the walls. After spending a bit og time in the church we headed down the hill to go tobogganing. What this entailed was being pushed 2km down the steepest roads imaginable on wicker basket sleds. This was an adrenaline rush of note as there wasn’t a good breaking system that I could figure out. The sled pushers were really talented (I am glad to say) as we slid around corners and went flying down the hill. It was the best fun I have had in ages I could have done this all day too!! At the bottom of the hill I found the most fantastic hat for Duncan, a traditional straw boater. He looks ever so spiffing and dignified in his new hat!

We re-embarked the bus and headed out on a winding and picturesque road up to Eira do Serrado, 1000m above sea level. The switchbacks were incredible as we climbed higher and higher, looking straight down sheer cliffs. Regularly, we had to squeeze next to other cars or busses coming in the opposite direction. There was a short walk up to a viewpoint giving amazing views of the highest peaks of Madeira, but also of the deeply eroded, steep mountainsides. I had never imagined such rugged terrain, I had always thought of Madiera as a beach resort type island, but I so mistaken. From the viewpoint, way down in the distance we could see the tiny village of Curral des Freiras, which is so remote that the Santa Clara Convent nuns would hide there to escape from the pirate raids in the 16th Century. Once we returned down the hill, we had the chance to try the local drink called “Ginja” which is a cherry liqueur and really delicious (which is saying something because I don’t drink).

Madiera is an archipelago of volcanic islands that have formed over a hotspot (A body of magma or molten rock that pushes through the earth’s crust when it finds a weakness). As the techtonic plates move (the African plate moves at about 2cm a year) the plate moves over the hot spot and the volcano dies. After the plate has moved many kilometers it may encounter another weakness and the magma breaks through casuing another volcano to form. So the islands are mostly non-active volcanoes that have been eroding for millions of years, creating high mountains with steep cliffs and deep V- shaped valleys.

Back down the narrow winding road, with its spectacular views and onto our next stop, Cabo Girao, which, at 580m, is the world’s second highest sea cliff. A platform had been built out over the cliff with thick glass plates, so when one looked down, you were looking straight down to the turquoise sea below. Another spectacular sight, but not for those suffering from vertigo.

Back in the bus and we went all the way down to the coast to the tiny fishing village of Camara de Lobos (The sea wolves lair), which was once painted by Winston Churchill and there are many restaurants and pubs maximising on its celebrity status. We had a chance to sit and relax by the fishing boats and to try out another local drink called “Poncha” made from rum and honey. It was such a peaceful spot, with lots of little colourful fishing boats anchored in the bay. We all had such a fantastic afternoon, it was definitely one of the highlights of my last month.

This trip from Praia on the Cape Verde islands all the way up to Lisbon is already half way through and I have barely been off the ship. I managed to get out in Mindelo on the Cape Verdes, we then had two days at sea before arriving in Ad Dakhla (Western Sahara) where I couldn’t get off because it is ruled by Morocco and I don’t have a Moroccan visa (We don’t normally need visas when working on the ship because we fall under the Captain’s authority. Anyway, on to Las Palmas (The Canary islands), where I had a stomach bug and couldn’t go out, I did manage La Gomera (also Canaries) and then Funchal. We have now had a day at sea and then will go to Morocco for 2 days, where, guess what? I can’t go ashore either. Oh well, I guess it will give me time to finish up a whole lot of work I have and maybe get more done on my blog.

Watch this space

With love from the islands

Clouds and Duncan

Namibia – Ghost towns and wild horses

Namibia – Luderitz and Walvis bay

The start to our African adventure started in Cape Town, but in fact we really started our landings in Namibia. Even though I live in neighbouring South Africa, I have only ever reached as far as the Namibian border. This was the destination that I was most excited about.

Our first port of call was Luderitz, where our tour was to take us to the Ghost town of Kolmanskop, which was previously a bustling diamond rush town. The diamonds found here are alluvial diamonds that have been washed down the Orange River from the Kimberly diamond pipe. Once the diamond rich soil reach the ocean, the Benguela current washed the diamonds North up the Namibian coast. This is why the Skeleton coast is so rich in diamonds. As with many ghost towns, once the resource has been depleted, the inhabitants move out to richer hunting grounds.

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The town was interesting to see, from the recreational area, where they had a bowling alley and pub, the gymnasium and all the living quarters. There was a significant difference in living quarters of the mayor, doctor and teacher as well as the other working residents. The buildings are all being taken over by the moving sand, leaving the town with a very eerie feel.

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From Kolmanskop, we headed off to see the Wild horses of Namibia. These horses are not really wild, but rather they are feral horses that were abandoned and have learnt to survive in this harsh environment. The best place to see these horses is at an artificial waterhole. We were very fortunate in that some of the horses came to the drinking hole, together with a few Gemsbok (which the locals call Oryx, after their Genus name).

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Our next port was at Walvis Bay, where we started out with a 4×4 trip over the dunes in the Namib Naukluft Park towards the Sandwich bay harbour. Our first stop was at a tidal estuary on the way to the dunes. It was here where we saw hundreds of lesser and greater Flamingoes, some Avocets and other wading birds.

The onto the sand.  After a short drive we came to an area that our guide said was very unstable and if a vehicle went off the path it would get stuck in sinking sand. We didn’t believe him, so we took a walk towards the sea and the sand seemed dry and resistant. He asked some of us to make a circle and hop around in a clockwise direction. As we started jumping, so the sand became soft, then sloppy and eventually completely wet. You will see in one of the photos, some of our group in the saturated patch.

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We had another stop where our guide found a web-footed gecko. I have always wanted to see one of these amazing little creatures. They bury themselves under the soil to keep cool and their skin includes a transparent cover to the eye, so like most reptiles, when they shed their skin, you can see the eye covering. The way they keep their eyes clear, is to use their long, prehensile tongues to lick their eyes. I think this is amazing and I think these Geckos are absolutely stunning.

So, off we went into the dunes, testing the vehicles 4×4 abilities, as you will see, some of them had a few issues, but nothing that couldn’t be overcome with the help of the fellow drivers.  It was a real thrill to drive in challenging conditions, especially when we went down the extremely steep slopes of some of the dunes that are over 50m high and at an angle almost 90 degrees, where we almost slid all the way down. The paths that we made will disappear in a day or so, as soon as the wind picks up and covers our tracks. This was definitely a highlight for me.

The day, however, was not over, as we were going to have dinner in the desert, so after freshening up, we headed out for an hour drive to a canyon, which was lit up with many candles to welcome us. We had an amazing choir and drummers to entertain us and we were fortunate in our timing, as we had a full moon rising over the canyon. A special treat indeed.

We stayed overnight in Walvis Bay and the following morning we headed out to the Walvis Bay lagoon, where we boarded catamarans for a 2 hour tour around the lagoon. This is where we saw plenty of Great white Pelicans, Kelp gulls and Fur seals. The highlight for me, apart from the pelicans, was seeing a mola mola or sunfish, which looked very much to me like a manta ray, as it swam right in front of the boat. Some heavyside dolphins were seen a bit further out, but were rather shy and wouldn’t let the boat approach.

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Back to the ship and off we headed to our next country, Angola, which was to be an amazing place, something I never, ever expected.

With love from the desert

Clouds and Duncan

Togo or not togo

Greetings from deepest (well maybe not so deep), Darkest (It doesn’t get much darker) Africa. Today was Lome, Togo.

Togo seemed to me to be a bit more developed than Benin. Not much in that all we see is makeshift houses and stores. In one day we travelled through most of the country. Our first stop was a small rural community and school. This is a typical rural school that we would see anywhere in Africa. The community put on a dance performance for us before the children went to their classrooms to show off their learning and singing skills. We also had a chance to walk around the village and see some of the traditional weaving methods and the village’s fetish. This is a small area where they make sacrifices to whichever God they are praying to. The sacrifice would normally be a chicken. I was curious to find out if they ate the sacrifice later. When we hopped back on the bus, the microphone had stopped working and our guide, Noah, said that the chief had asked for a donation of a chicken and we didn’t have one, so that was why the microphone stopped working and that when a chicken was sacrificed it would start again.

It was a further hours drive before we reached our next destination, which was in the higher altitude forest, which was covered in clouds. We had a quick refreshment stop where we drank coconut water straight out of the coconuts before we went for a walk through the forest looking at all the plants and some butterflies. When we arrived to where we were going to have lunch, we there was yet another cultural dance and music display. I find these dancing displays very noisy, with all the drumming and shouting, but the costumes and dancing is normally excellent, with each display being different.

Our final stop of the day was at a Voodoo ceremony. Firstly, it is important to explain that the Voodoo religion is not about dolls and needles. The basic belief is that there is an ultimate creator and God. He has a number of helpers, or minor deities through which you can get messages to him. Very much like Catholicism, where you have God, but many people will pray to saints to get their message to God. Voodoo have gods of fire and lightning, fertility and good luck (this deity is portrayed with a huge erect penis), rivers etc. each group have their own minor deities and there are ceremonies for each deity, normally once a week. So if you worship 3 deities, you need to worship 3 times a week. Like so many traditional African religions, your ancestors are very important in the religion, and they believe that when you die you go into the spirit world where you can then be re-incarnated in another body.

The ceremony we watched was not put on for us, but we were allowed to watch the ceremony and our guides gave us explanations. On the one side there were a group of half a dozen men drumming rhythmically. Women, dressed mostly in white, would be doing dances, lots of them spinning in circles. Once they were in their trance, they were led to an area where they would drop an egg onto the ground and then pour water from a tea pot in different directions over the area. If the egg breaks the ancestors have answered yes to your question, if it doesn’t break, it means that you didn’t manage to reach the ancestors. There were many women and children watching the dancing, many of the little children doing their own little dances on the side. The kids were very curious and stripped me of my camera and were taking photos of everything, mostly blurred. They loved the radio as it was like a cell phone and they took my hat and sun glasses and pranced around, barely able to see where they were going. My binoculars were of much interest, as I let them look through them and it was clearly an experience they had never had before.

The whole ceremony and our time here has certainly improved my understanding of what voodoo is and that it is not what is portrayed in the movies. In fact, if you use energy to curse someone, that negative energy will come back to you. It amazes me that all religions have so many of the same beliefs running through them. As an aside the Greenlanders have a Tupalak, which is made of bone and you can wear it around your neck. The spirit in the Tupalak will fight someone else if you curse the other person, but if the other person’s spirit is stronger, it will boomerang back at you.

After another very long and hot day, it was back to the ship, where we had another cultural performance. I think my ears are still recovering from all the drumming that we have experienced in the last few days.

Warm (!!!!) regards

Clouds and Duncan

Benin (Cotonou) and the city on stilts

Benin as all the African countries is a fascinating place. We docked in Cotonou and had a 40 minute drive to Calavi where we hopped on small local boats and headed off towards Ganvie, a town of 35 000 people that is built entirely on stilts.  Ganvie is situated on a lake that Is 152km2, all of it privately owned. The lake borders on Nigeria and a lot of fuel is smuggled into Benin through the waterways in yellow containers and sold on the road at a price half that of the legal fuel price. Of course the quality is not guaranteed and poor quality fuel has been reported to have caused a number of accidents due to mechanical failure.

On our way to Ganvie we travelled through the main water thoroughfare, where we saw lots of small wooden boats being paddled by women taking produce, like pineapples or fish to or from the market. The women would cover their faces when they saw us, the guide explained that the population didn’t want their photos taken because they felt that they did not receive any benefit from tourism. Along the way we could see the fishing techniques of the locals. The family plot has stakes (made of bamboo or palm bracts) secured on the substrate and nets tied along the sticks. This is left for between 1 and 2 years to allow fish (primarily Tilapia, which like the environment provided by the stakes) to accumulate in the area. They then throw nets into the water to draw fish, mainly carp and Tilapia, hoping to be able to draw them in. Many Pied Kingfishers were in on the act too, standing on the stakes and then hovering over the water before diving in for the kill.

We saw small children, 3 or 4 years old paddling the small boats and when our guide was asked how they learnt to swim, he said that they are born knowing how to swim. That the new born baby is put into water and the child will be able to swim, says our guide. The fishing must be good because along the way we saw plenty of egrets and herons (as well as the kingfishers).

When we arrived at Ganvie we stopped at a place called Chez M, where we were treated to the Egun dancing masks. Women are not allowed to dance so all masked dancers were men and the dancing was very energetic. Each dancer had a turn to do their dance on a sandy square, some warlike others spinning around to make their costumes fly. In the heat (32C) the dancers must have been dying of heat in their thick, heavy costumes.

Our next stop was to visit the “door of no return”, which is the symbolic gate where slaves were taken to ships never to return. This is a UNESCO site and is a very powerful symbol of the more than 25 million people who were taken as slaves. The Slave trade was facilitated by Cha D’Souza, the president of the country at the time. The way of treating the slaves to be, was horrific. They were kept naked in complete darkness, men and women separated. Many died from disease or lost their sight, about 50% of the potential slaves died before they even made it to the ships. Before they were shipped out they had to circle the tree of forgetfulness, the men circled it 9 times and the women 7 times, and this was to get the slaves to forget their past, their village and families.

Many people think that the days of slavery are over, but I think it is important to remember that the trade in women and children is worth more than the global arms trade.

Our final stop was at the Sacred forest. Trees in this small forest are sacrosanct and there are a number of statues representing Gods of the Voodoo religion. The Gods of earth, air, fire and luck/ fertility, whose massive erect penis was a fascination to everyone. There were a mass of fruit bats in the trees above us, mostly hanging with some flying, it was quite a sight.

Our guide, Noah, was brilliant, and my favourite quote of the day was him saying that we are on African time. ‘You’ he said” have watches, we have the time.” when asked about religion, he told us that 70% of the population practiced Voodoo and the rest were split up between Christians of different sects and Muslims. He said it was difficult to give numbers, because someone my go to church in the morning and pray to Voodoo Gods in the evening.

More on Voodoo later.

Greetings from hot, sweaty Africa

Clouds and Duncan

 

 

The Republic of Congo-Not the DRC

Pointe noire- Congo

Our arrival at Ponte Noire was met with the type of bureaucracy we have been expecting in Africa. Firstly the pilot couldn’t come onboard at the time he had been booked, because he was bringing another ship in, then clearance had to take place, although that was quick. We boarded the busses and headed out, but we didn’t get very far before we were caught in a traffic jam that simply wasn’t moving. We were still in the port. Our delightful guide Nicole, was giving us a running commentary, “we are moving” she says” we are going slowly. So our bus driver decides to cut the queue of trucks waiting for inspection trying to get out of the port. This was much to the ire of the oncoming truck drivers, who, of course could not get through. I had images of is being stuck there for hours and then having to turn around and go back into the port. Eventually, the immigration officer and head of police, who had met the ship, gave us an escort out of a different exit and we were on our way.

Our first stop was about an hour away and we certainly bounced our way watching the world go by. We saw the typical scene of Africa, with many stalls selling everything from pipes to beer, lots of children and what I would consider squalid conditions.

Our guide was called Nicole and the most interesting aprt of the trip was hearing about her life in the Republic of Congo. Nicole’s story is an extraordinary one. She is one of 30 children. Her father has 5 wives, the first has 10 children, the second has 6 children, the third (From which Nicole comes) has 10 children, the 4th has 4 children and the fifth wife didn’t have any so she could have perky breasts (she gave all the hand signals) and a good body. She is the only child studying past High school and she has completed 2 and a half years of her degree. Her brother in law has been helping her finance her studies, much to the unhappiness of the rest of the family, who believe that he should be using that money for his family. She lives with them and maintains that she will not get married until she finishes studying. She is now 26 and when she finishes studying she wants to find a job so she is not reliant on a husband for her well being.

Her father became very ill and had to move to the main city, away from their village. He took his one wife and children. When he died, his family, were not able to relocate back to the village (for cultural reasons), so they kept living in the city. A year after her father died, her sister died (The sister married to the man helping Nicole pay for her studies). There is a belief that when a parent dies he/she will often take one of their children. To prevent this, her sister’s face was smeared with Sardines to try and break the bond between the spirit and her sisters 6 children. The children also had bracelets and anklets put on to create a protective ring around them, so that their mother’s spirit couldn’t take them away. There is a two week mourning period, where everyone stays in the compound. This was the most difficult part for Nicole as she was due to write exams soon after the mourning period, but she still passed her exams.

She tells us that she is 26 and that she isn’t going to get married now, that she is going to finish her studies and then get a job so she is not reliant on a man for her income. I think she has a hard road ahead of her, but she seems very determined, and it is women like this who change their societies.

What I realize more and more, is that the culture and beliefs of the West African indigenous people is so strong, that there is little to no chance of trying to instill a western culture and or values. Then again, should we be trying to change a nation’s culture so that it fits what we believe is best. More thoughts on this later.

 

 

Angola – Lobito and the amazing train journey

Greetings from Lobito

We arrived early in the morning in the port of Lobito, where we had sunny skies and hot temperatures. We started out with a short bus ride to the train station where we boarded the original Victorian cars of the British railway built in the 1930s. This train trip was to take us to the City of Benguela. The train was awesome, no airconditioning (a few old fans that didn’t work), but we could open the windows wide and watch as we slowly made our way to the city of Benguela. The landscape had changed from Namibe, we now had lots of water and plenty of waterbirds in the pans next to the railway lines. It was tricky trying to identify some as the train was moving fast enough for us not to be able to get to see the birds well with binoculars. We did spot many Jacanas and Little Grebes as well as all the Egrets and a number of herons. The train was very narrow and the passages could only fit one person at a time, so there was much human reversing for people to move around, but most had space in their own cabins or the card room, and looking out was great. As with most African countries, the kids are friendly and get excited about trains coming through, so we had many children come running out to wave at the train. We did have a couple of kids shoot toy guns at us, which makes me wonder what they will grow up thinking?

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Benguela is an old city, founded in 1617 and we had a chance to visit one of the oldest buildings, the “Igreja do Populo” which is an iconic church built in the 18th Century and is where slaves were baptised prior to being shipped out. It is pretty gruesome to think that people thought it was OK to sell others into slavery, but that they had to be baptised first (Whether they believed or not). Many slaves were sold for guns, which made hunting so much easier, so often the price of a slave would be how many guns will you give me?

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From the church, we had a short walk to the gardens, a small area filled with palm trees, and benches where the local population can sit and relax. At the entrance to the gardens is a huge Baobab tree, which our botanists, Michelle and Marcel, were very excited about, and it was a stunning specimen. Chris and I were watching birds and spotted some Speckled mousebirds up in the palm trees, as well as some palm swifts and the ubiquitous House Sparrow.

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It was now time to head back towards Lobito, but we still had a number of other stops on the way. We headed down a rather bumpy gravel road along the Catumbela River, right to the dam wall, where the sluice gates were allowing a massive amount of water through. The birding was good in this area, and we noted many species, including Prinias, Sunbirds and the white browed Coucal giving it’s recognisable bubbling call. I also spotted a small water monitor trying to get out of the water by one of the weirs, where the current was very strong. We threw in a large branch onto which he could climb and get out, without constantly falling back into the water.I hope he managed to get out in the end.

We then headed over to San Pedro fort, which is an old dilapidated building built nearly 200 years ago and is now a shell. However, it was on top of a hill, which provided a really good viewpoint of the 1905 one way steel bridge made by Eifel’s engineering company and right next to it the new modern bridge, built by the Chinese, which has been in use since 2010. It is interesting to see the Chinese influence and amount of development that they are putting into Africa and one wonders about the price that these countries are paying, as they say, “There is no such thing as a free lunch”

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Back to Lobito, over Eifel”s steel bridge and back to the ship, where we had a long way to go before reaching Luanda, the Capital of Angola.

Watch this space as we move into the tropics

Take Care

Clouds and Duncan

 

 

 

Angola – Namibe and the Welwitchias

Greetings

After a long pause in blog writing, I am trying to get back into the swing of things. I am currently on an African Adventure, travelling up the West Coast of Africa and the last 3 days have been in Angola. Who would have known that Angola had so much to offer? We started our Angolan experience in Southern Angola in a place which has never before had a tourist ship. We were local celebrities and the radio and television reporters were there as well as a convoy of 11 vehicles including police, ambulance, you name it, they were there. Making full use of lights and sirens even when there weren’t any cars in the way. Here is a link to the news article published in the national newspaper : http://jornaldeangola.sapo.ao/sociedade/deserto_encanta_turistas

Today, when we were in Luanda, someone came up to one of our guests and asked him if he had just visited Namibe and when he replied in the affirmative and asked how he knew, the person said “Because I saw you on TV”.

Namibe, being very far south, is desert, but without the Dunes of Namibia, more of a desert pavement, with very little growth. We were out on the hunt for the Welwitchia plant, a highly adapted plant (To desert conditions), that lives for thousands of years and it’s only source of water is the coastal advection fog. We passed a number of individual plants until we came to a patch where there were many male and female plants. This is a plant I had always read about and had a special interest in seeing, however, after looking at the first one, someone spotted a small snake moving under the leaves of one close by. I lay down on my stomach to look under the leaves and came face to face with a small horned adder. What a beautiful little snake, who was a bit shy about all the attention he was getting (we managed to get most of the guests to get down to see him), as he moved around the plant under the leaves.

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Before too long we had to move on to the Arch Lagoon, or the “Lost oasis” which is a canyon carved out of sandstone, which when it floods is filled whit water and attracts massive numbers of water birds. It was, however, dry, but we had a bit of a hike through the canyon and back along the floodplains to be greeted by the local dancers putting on a tradition singing and dancing performance.

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All too soon we had to head back to the port, so that we could get back on the ship and sail to our next destination, further North, called Lobito.

Watch out for more news from the desert

Clouds and Duncan

 

 

 

 

Notes from all over

I haven’t written much since just before the end of my time in the Antarctic. It has been a rather busy time, as it always is and I have managed to go away and have little snatches of holiday on the last few months. My last trip in the Antarctic was defined by strong winds and amazing sunsets, with lots of humpback whales and a few killer whales to add into the mix. My ankle had started healing well and I was able to go out a bit, which was really cool as the penguin chicks were also at a really cute stage.

 My last night on the ship was super special as my “soul sister” Nicki was joining and she was in Ushuaia the night before, so we had a chance to see her. I didn’t think that we would see each other again as she was working on another ship. She has come back to the fold now and I am happy that I will get the chance to work with her in the Russian Far East. So many people think that living a life traveling to remote areas is a glorious way to spend one’s life and, indeed, it is quite extraordinary, however, it is a transient lifestyle, where one isn’t grounded in one place and having stable relationships is not something we rely on. It is tough, where one makes close friends (as we share cabins, one invariably becomes friends (or not) with one’s cabin mate). At the end of the contract, though, you never know whether you will see them again, or it may be over a year before you work together again. What I enjoy about the ship that I work on, is that we have a core group of expedition staff and we all get on, so when I join the ship it is like coming home to my family. It is however, a still a very artificial and superficial environment. One expedition staff member used to say in his introduction that he was part of a witness protection program and this was the best way to protect his identity. Well, he is not far off the mark, because if you don’t want anyone to find you, working on a ship like this is a brilliant way to do it.

After leaving the ship, I had to lug my 40kg of luggage and further 20kg of hand luggage, being slowed down by the moon boot, through Buenos Aires, Atlanta and onto Boston and Providence for a week of IAATO meetings and getting a chance to get to work with my new colleague Amanda. We are now a total of 5 women, making up the secretariat, most of us 40 somethings and fortunately we all get along particularly well.

 Finally, in mid-February I came home to my wonderful house and garden and even though I struggled horribly with jet lag for about 10 days, it was great being home. IAATO Work of course starts the very next day and we all know that the next few months will be hard stressful work in preparation for the Antarctic Treaty meeting and 10 days later our IAATO annual meeting. So when the pressure is on, the best thing to do is go on holiday. This is exactly what I did at the end of February and it was probably the first real holiday I had had for nearly a year. I went up to Zimbabwe with three bird club friends, to meet another couple of bird nuts, who I met on a similar trip to Mozambique and who I like immensely. Birding with this bunch is NO HOLIDAY. Up at 5:30 (sometimes we got to sleep in to 6) every morning, and out birding pretty much the whole day (with a packed lunch) until evening. I was toasted and went to bed at 8pm every evening. We went to many different habitats from wetlands, grasslands, and  indigenous forests. One of the most spectacular sights was going into a township area at dusk and watching thousands of Amur falcons coming in to roost. The sky was filled with birds coming in to the tops of the trees and the noise of all the falcons calling (a very high pitches Kew kew sound) and having a chat before bed time was particularly memorable. The locals thought we were very odd, as they probably never notice them. I don’t think many believed us when we told them that these birds had flown all the way from Siberia and China. We saw 254 species in 9 days, I don’t know how many lifer I had, but it was certainly well over 20. My favourite group of birds are the sunbirds and the Miombo Double collard, variable and bronzy sunbird are all new for me and what spectacular birds they are, so I have to put a few pics of them in, even though they were very far away so it had to be zoomed and cropped a lot, they are still stunning. The friends I was with are

 Zimbabwe is an interesting place to visit, as it is a hugely depressed economy with a 90% unemployment rate. It boggles my mind how people survive. They have moved onto the use of the US Dollar and every dollar that you get is black with grime it has been used so much. Everything is close to being between two and three times the cost of South  Africa, although at least there are supplies of most things. I did read last week however that Robert Mugabe has decreed that the importation of fresh fruit and vegetables is not permitted. I am not sure where the locals are going to get supplies from as just about every farm we drove past is overgrown, unproductive and destroyed. Farms where it was obvious were previously functioning are lying bare, with tunnels for growing tomatoes just a skeleton of their former selves, the shade netting hanging in shreds. The Zimbabweans who live there (over 6 million have fled to South Africa), are friendly and work within the constraints of their environment. It is a shame to see such a wonderful country being systematically ruined by a dictator and his cronies who are only interested in lining their own pockets and don’t care for the population. I will need to write a separate blog on Zimbabwe and how this grip of terror is implemented, it is a stranglehold that affects everyone right down to the poorest. 

 Even though it was a very busy time, I came home refreshed and ready to get stuck into work. Being home and moving from a ship job to a desk job is a bit of a transition but I try not to think of it and just get on with it as best as I can.

My next mini-adventure was a long weekend down at our little place in Wakkerstroom (which a friend once called a pixel, because it is 40m2 on a 10 000m2 stand). For those of you who don’t know where Wakkerstroom is, it is about 300km South East of Johannesburg. It is a tiny town, with a large wetland and 23 species of endemic birds (Birds only found in South  Africa), two of which (the Rudd’s and Botha’s lark) are only found in this area. My purpose of going down was to scatter some of my mom’s ashes there, as it was a very special place to her, as it is to me. It happened to be a long weekend and even though we hadn’t planned on it, it was the 4th Wakkerstroom music festival. I am amazed that such a small community can have a music festival at all, let alone one that attracts such amazing talent. Our first concert was a violin recital by a matric student at Roedene school, whose rendition of Cesar Frank’s violin sonata was awe inspiring. It was held in the tiny Catholic church, which seats 50 people (although we are lead to believe that services only have about 8 parishioners). It is in this church that there is probably the most beautiful stained glass window I have ever seen, and I have been to many churches around the world. Perhaps it is because the design is so close to my heart, as it depicts Wakkerstroom, its wildlife, culture and landscape. So I have included iPhone pictures (not very good ones). See how many creatures you can spot and which you can identify. There are crowned cranes, bald ibis’, cape clawless otters, dragonflies amongst many other species. A friend from Wakkies had heard I was coming down and asked if I would give a talk on birds of the Antarctic to the bird club, I agreed thinking there would be 15 people or so, well, there were well over 50 (probably because of the music festival) but it was quite gratifying having such a response. The Saturday was a relaxing day, going to a guitar duo playing everything from Queen’s Bohemian rhapsody to Brazilian dances. It was so brilliant, I bought their CD. We went to the vlei birding in the afternoon, until the Gala concert in the NG Kerk, in the centre of the town. A beautiful sandstone building, seating 450 people, it was packed. The 2 hour concert was a selection of short pieces by each of the performers during the weekend. A truly uplifting experience. The Sunday, we were taken on a special trip by Glenn, who took us on a drive way up to a farm where there is a lookout with an almost 360 degree view of unspoilt grassland. How privileged we are to live in South Africa. On our way back to town we stopped at another farm where they do Bald Ibis monitoring (The bald Ibis is another special for the area). This is a breeding site, which is not presently occupied, but has a lovely waterfall. As dusk was approaching and the town had emptied out of all the “Foreigners” who had come to watch the concert, we headed down to the vlei to one of my favourite hides, where I spent some quiet time and scattered some of my mom’s ashes. For those of you who have been through this process, it is incredibly emotional, even though it is almost a year since my mom died. As we were leaving the sky was turning a deep red creating amazing reflections on the water.

 I have been really busy with talks while here and gave a talk on Climate change and the polar regions to about 350 people at Monash  University, I was amazed at the turnout and hope that I made some people think about the impact we have on our planet.

 I have had two other mini-breaks, one to St Francis Bay, which is a beautiful spot and where I could simply relax, go for walks and spend time putting this presentation together. It always takes me way longer than I anticipate, as I have to decide on a few pictures out of hundreds – and when one is handicapped with a severe case of indecision, it takes hours. I went down to Wakkerstroom a second time just for one night and met up with some special friends again and we had such a wonderful time.

 My next adventure is about to begin, with 2 weeks at the Antarctic Treaty meeting (Not that it means all that much, but these meetings are always over my birthday, which kind of sucks). Then I am home for 10 days, go to Providence in the US for 10 days for our IAATO annual meeting, home for 10 days and then off to Japan, the Russian Far East and Alaska to join the ship for 2 months. I can’t wait. So jet lag and sleeplessness will be my friend and I am sure I will be a zombie by the time I get to Japan, but it is all very exciting. I will be joining our new ship, the Silver Discoverer and this is a new itinerary for me, so in between IAATO work, I will be reading and preparing lectures for the ship as well.

So there is a snippet from my life for the first few months of the year.

I hope all is well in your world

Clouds and Duncan

 

Zimbabwe – a land of beauty and desolation

I was asked by someone about the situation in Zimbabwe after my recent visit. Zimbabwe is a beautiful country, the birding, like most of Southern Africa is unbelievable. The people are friendly and stoic. They are tough and can withstand any hardship.

The political and land situation in Zimbabwe is far more complex than we could possibly imagine. The farm invasions are more to do with controlling the population than actually getting the whites off the farms, if this was the case, the farms would be operational to some extent. So the object is to displace all the black workers, in this way Mugabe can control them. So what happens is that one of the inner circles decides he likes a farm and invades and moves everyone out. He is not interested in farming, but he takes everything that is in the house and sells the farm implements etc. The farm workers are moved off the land and most of them are then given a small piece of land on which to do subsistence farming. They, of course, do not have the deeds to this land and can be moved any time any of Mugabe’s cronies feel like it. The country is set up in an hierarchical system with small areas, forming districts, forming bigger areas etc. Each of these areas has a ZanuPF person in charge, the bigger the area you are in charge of the more important you are (and the more farms you can invade). These headmen (for lack of a better term) need to make sure that everyone in that area supports Zanu PF, so if there is an opposition rally and too many people attend, the head of the district will lose his position with all its benefits, so he will ensure that there is sufficient intimidation to make sure the people living in his district tow the ZanuPF line. While Zanu PF cannot tell which individuals vote against them, they look at the district  and if there are too many votes for the opposition in this district, the Zanu PF person in charge of that district will be removed (or worse) and the people threatened, attacked and intimidated. These Zanu PF district heads area watching everything and are very aware of the day to day comings and goings in their area and they have to account for anything happening to their superiors.

 A few examples of this: My friends, who are German diplomats at the embassy in Harare travelled one day into a rural area to go birding. They were given permission to go into this area by the tribal leader. This tribal leader was then harassed by the Zanu PF person for that area and interrogated as to why he let diplomats (from the number plates) into this area. They now have to go in a car without diplomatic plates if they go into this area. They cited 2 examples of tourists being arrested for taking photographs. One case they were taking photos of birds and they were arrested because they may have been taking photos of derelict farmland, this person was released after a few hours of smooth talking by his companions. The other person wasn’t so lucky, he was showing friends the area that he grew up in and was taking photos and they kept him in jail for a few days before he was eventually allowed to speak to a lawyer who secured his release. Of course they have no grounds to arrest anyone for taking photos. We were warned not to take photos of derelict farms, even from inside the car.

There are roadblocks regularly, more than 20 in a stretch of about 350km. These are money making machines for Zanu PF, so each station has to collect a certain amount of money through bribes, which goes to Zanu PF, anything extra they can keep. We were in a diplomatic vehicle so we were never stopped.

 The currency situation is also interesting, because what happened initially was that there were two rates of exchange with the US dollar, the official exchange rate and the street exchange rate. People were limited as to how much money they could draw or exchange into dollars. If you had the right political connections, you could buy as many dollars as you wanted at the official low rate and sell on the street at a real rate (high rate), and continue to do this. This of course means that all the bank reserves are completely depleted and all the money from normal citizens has been stolen, so they print more money and you end up with an inflation rate of over 11million percent. Most people lost everything, any savings they had were either stolen by the government or they lost it through hyper inflation. The only people who had anything were those with funds outside of the country and those with fixed assets – which didn’t include farms. The son of one of the birders we met had 5 farms taken from him. He then managed to get a 5 year contract to farm a piece of land for some Zanu PF minister who stolen a farm, the first year was fine, the second year, just before the crop was to be harvested, he was thrown off the land and the crop was effectively stolen. It is not just farm invasions that are happening, the same is happening to shops, where so called war vets arrive at a store selling white merchandise like washing machines and they just clean the store out and the shop owner has no recourse. We went birding at an airfield for small planes and one of the plane owners was telling us that the flying club that own the ground received a letter from the surveyor general saying that the land now belonged to him and that they had to pay him rent and the rent was based per square metre of what he would get if the area was cultivated for maize.

 It is a tough place to live. We had electricity outages quite often when we were there, but it wasn’t as bad as previously, although these friends did have an outage of more than 130hours shortly after we left. Up in the Eastern highlands, they have blackouts every second day from 8 to 8.

 Mugabe is talking about re-Zim dollarization, so nobody is prepared to keep any money in the bank because they will lose it again, but as Zimbabwe doesn’t have authority from the US government to use US dollars as their currency, they cannot easily get reserves and it is even more difficult to steal. Zimbabwe is a kleptocracy and Mugabe has an incredibly powerful stronghold built on terror and intimidation. Just one last story, the next door neighbour of my parents is a Cameroonian who worked for one of the UN agencies in Harare. When they had the massive cholera outbreak, his superiors weren’t prepared to spill the beans to the outside world, so he did. He was summarily dismissed and he took them to the Special UN court for unfair dismissal. He won and was posted somewhere else. He left the UN shortly thereafter and was working for another international agency in Hong Kong, where he was deliberately run over by a car and is now back here in South Africa recovering. He believes that there is a hit out on him because of what he did in Zimbabwe.  

We have no idea of what is happening North of us and I just pray that we will not go the same way. Many South Africans say that they will not visit Zimbabwe as long as Mugabe is ruling the country as they do not want to contribute to his coffers. I have a different perspective. Do visit Zimbabwe, because your money will go directly to the people who are trying to eek out a living.