Thursday, September 29, 2011

Botswana's Moremi reserve is a wild place

Moremi Game Reserve in Botswana's Okavango Delta is a wild place, and a very hot place in October. There are a few lodges in the north-western part of this 4 872 square kilometre wilderness but most visitors depend on camping, mainly using rooftop tents. This is exclusively 4x4 territory and even if you fly in to Xakanaxa airstrip, the rest of the trip will either be in boats or off-road vehicles.
On the way to Moremi: Philip goes about his
ablutions. On the table are priority provisions.
 My brother Philip had been doing all the driving in his Land Rover Discovery from Johannesburg and through Botswana. At a road block, traffic officials had demanded his driver’s license. Naively, I had left mine in South Africa and dared not drive without it. So I felt it only right for me to volunteer to take over once we were in the bush. With the airconditioning wooshing and in second gear, high range – neither of which was indicated for present conditions – we cruised along the narrow sand road, me feeling like a seasoned adventurer. Then we went down; the power dissipating as quickly as the wheels sank into the sand.

“Oh my God,” I said. “I’m so sorry,” imagining darkly that I must be the only fool on the sub-continent that could get stuck so easily.

The others were silent as we surveyed the situation. It was heading for sundown and I wondered how I would handle the emotional burden of being responsible for landing us in the middle of nowhere in Big Five territory for the night. My son Alex and his friend Brett emerged from Alex's short-wheelbase Defender in front and attached the incredibly strong hand-made “snap strap” around its axle in order to tow us out.

“Never around the tow bar knob,” instructed Philip. “I was told the other day about one that snapped off. It came straight through the windscreen like a bullet and killed the driver of the vehicle being towed.”

With that dire warning we were soon on our way, only to go through the whole process again twice – with my brother again driving his own vehicle.

As dusk was gathering and the kilometres to Third Bridge diminishing rather slowly, we went down for the fourth time, and this time the Defender faltered. Brett was up on the roof rack in a flash, unfastening the sand tracks. With the loud roaring of both motors the short wheelbase literally bounced the Discovery out of the sand, burying the tracks about a foot underground in the process. As the non-drivers were putting in some sweat and blood pushing from the rear, a giraffe glided by serenely, looking at us with  some disbelief. Nothing focuses the mind quite like the thought of being stuck in a place like this after dark, mainly because pitching the tent attached to the camping trailer would have been impractical at this spot.

In the wild: our camp at Third Bridge.
Third Bridge, named after a rickety timber structure nearby, with crystal clear water flowing under it, is a centrally located group of camp sites. Here there was a very basic ablution block (now rebuilt and apparently bigger, very clean and user-friendly) and a tap. At that time, 10 years ago, you could heat the water by making a fire under some drums,  or “donkeys” as they were known, but cold water was a real treat in the hottest month of the year, especially when you constantly feel covered in dust.
 As we set up camp in the gathering darkness we had a lone visitor – an adult elephant standing quietly watching us about 30 metres away on the edge of the group of sausage trees which provided shade for the camp. Later, around the camp fire, we thought we might have more visitors when a few lions made themselves heard not very far off. But after the barbecue and a few beers, a night’s sleep on an inflatable mattress came easily, ending early the next morning with a chorus of bird calls from the trees and surrounding bush.

The birdlife in Moremi is phenomenal. A dominant call is the whining sound of the ubiquitous grey loerie, an inescapable part of any African bush experience. Apart from the main waterways, in the dry season the water is found in pans and pools scattered throughout the reserve. Though we were unsighted by reeds, we could hear hippos splashing and snorting not far from the camp. On game drives the pools make good places to stop and watch the hippos, as well the occasional crocodile and often the elegant red lechwe antelope, always found near water. One afternoon we were literally stopped in our tracks by a herd of about a hundred elephants, from the largest imaginable bull to little chaps tugging at twigs as they went by at a leisurely pace.

We swiftly became aware that there was a downside to the idyllic Third BridgeAfrica’s most talented scavengers, hyenas and baboons. On our second night in camp we asked for it by leaving a gas refrigerator outside on the ground when we went to bed, because the trailer didn’t provide enough ventilation for it. In a raid by a hyena, the fridge's lid was ripped clean off by an animal with the most powerful jaws in the world. The hyena’s activity caused his large, tough body to bump and thump the trailer violently and Philip and his wife Cathy awoke to a sensation they had never experienced before. Cathy looked down through the ventilation hatch beside their bed on top of the trailer and screamed. There he was (maybe it was a she), staring back at her, silky coat and bright eyes, like a naughty puppy.

“Philip! He’s here, right here.”

Philip lunged at the hatch. “It’s a bloody hyena! Hey, hey, fuck off, fuck off!

These were the words to which I (in the same tent, down on the ground) awoke. But it was all over. Having ravaged the tomatoes, destroyed the feta cheese and punctured some cans of beer, the hyena made off.

Breakfast with Brett: firewood at Third Bridge
burns all night.
Then came the baboons.

A big troupe had earlier invaded a neighbouring campsite, on which occasion we rushed over to try to pile some of the ammo boxes containing groceries into the absentee campers’ tent and then tried to drive off the infuriating animals with loud curses and the odd missile, which they ignored completely. It seems they will yield to nothing, bar perhaps rifle fire, though I doubt it.

Leaving soon after for a game drive, we secured our groceries and zipped up our tents. On our return we found chaos. The baboons had demolished Alex and Brett’s free-standing tent, collapsed our gazebo and trampled a camping table, though gaining nothing from their raid. At nightfall the primates took to the trees, with much barking and scuffling right overhead in the tall sausage trees, as we made supper.

The next morning Philip discovered that he had received just retribution for his bad verbal treatment of the animals the previous day. Two large loads of shit covered the windscreen on the driver’s side of the Discovery. Retching, he set about cleaning up the mess.

While the baboons were resting in the trees, another type of invasion occurred. Three identical Toyota double-cab 4x4s arrived, each carrying four middle-aged German-speaking men. The leader was a fit looking, wiry fellow with a large hunting knife on his belt and no shirt. Within 15 minutes they had put up a central gas lamp, erected their double roof tents on each vehicle, put down the ladders, put out their equipment and set about preparing supper, each apparently with a predetermined duty. A scribe sat updating the journal. Without messing about with making a fire, the German gents cooked supper on gas in the time it took to drink two Windhoek lagers, ate their food and went to bed as one man. They were up at first light and ready to roll at sun-up. “Go, go, go,” shouted the leader with enthusiasm, and off they went. We were out on our morning game drive sometime later when the convoy passed us at speed, perfectly spaced, with a small German flag flapping proudly on the cab of the lead vehicle. North Africa, 1941?

When the Germans and another English couple had left their camp sites and we had gone off sightseeing (first collapsing the small tent and taking other precautions) the baboons disappeared as quickly as they had arrived.

On the second last day we chartered a flat-bottomed boat with canopy to take the five of us on Xakanaxa Lagoon to see something of the famous waterways of the Okavango Delta. The water here is warm, crystal clear and deep, and it was really just a bird watching outing with a very knowledgeable guide named John, though our first sighting was not of a bird but an extremely rare sitatunga – skilfully spotted by John – an antelope which has adapted to living permanently in water, with elongated hooves, for feeding on reeds and other aquatic plants in swampy areas. When alarmed, it will submerge itself, with only its nose sticking out of the water.

The most impressive bird was the enormous marabou stork on its nest of large twigs in a bush not far above the water. It was shading its squawking chicks from the blistering sun with huge outstretched wings, waiting for its mate to return with lunch from some far-off kill. After all the tranquillity, John delighted in giving us a parting thrill by racing the boat at top speed along the narrow channels through the reeds.

No further: Reading the fine print I discover that October
in Moremi is "Africa at its harshest".
On one of our last game drives from Third Bridge we witnessed lions mating on a large open plain. They do it like clockwork every 20 minutes for up to three days. But that was not the end of the lions.

A huge lioness strolled past the ablution block the next morning while we were showering and we had no sooner hung up our towels back at camp when she showed up again – ambling right though the camp, without even glancing at us, and off into the bush.

That’s the joy of Moremi. Anything can happen.

This story appeared in Weekend Argus Travel.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

2012 is the year of evolution of consciousness

The moon with Jupiter and Venus: Taken from the stoep of
our cottage at The Crags in December 2008. Our sun will
align with the centre of the galaxy in December 2012.
 I have just finished reading The Mystery of 2012, an anthology of essays by numerous esteemed intellectuals, professionals, activists, teachers and authors, each of whom contributes his or her impressive understanding of everything from the Mayan calendar which ends with the winter solstice on December 21, 2012 - when our sun will align with the centre of the galaxy - to various aspects of science, business and politics which are being affected by the evolution of human consciousness at this time. This is a fundamentally spiritual transformation, but it is attended by social, political and scientific changes of attitude (see the news from Bolivia below).

The book was published in 2007 and many of the writers suggested at time of writing that 2012 will be the year around which all sorts of dramatic events might happen to and on our planet. At that time the global recession had not yet developed in earnest, nor had the Gulf oil spill and the earthquakes and tsunamis that hit Japan yet happened, not to speak of the Arab Spring political uprisings in the Middle East and other significant events.

In his essay, Hungarian super-intellectual and Nobel Peace Prize nominee Ervin Laszlo explains societal transformation from 1800 to 1960, and on to the present, emphasising the accelerating growth of technology. But “the uneven and imbalanced globalisation sparked a new gold rush for the wealth promised by the high-technology service and production sectors… (and) broke apart established values and priorities.”

According to Laszlo, 2012 represents the Chaos Point. “Now a simple rule holds: We cannot stand still, we cannot go back, we must keep moving. There are alternative ways we can move forward. There is a path to breakdown, as well as a path to a new world.”

Another contributor, Corinne McLaughlin, who is the executive director of the Centre of Visionary Leadership based in Washington, fascinated me with her observation of the dramatically increased power of civil society around the world – “the biggest movement in the history of humanity”, she calls it. With the failure of governments to address major problems like poverty, environmental pollution and health care, for example, these organisations work with ideas rather than force, and collectively could become the "new world superpower", the big difference being that their work is quietly effective and unobtrusive, and therefore has the hallmarks of a “spiritual” movement.

Consider also web-based organisations like and the powerful effect it has had on international political, social and environmental events with its huge base of active international supporters. We have also seen the effects of cell phones and social media in the “people power” uprisings in North Africa, for example.

Governments beware; your roles and power are eroding!

The final chapter in the book is by James O’Dea, formerly director of the Washington DC office of Amnesty International and executive director of Seva, a non-profit organisation dedicated to international health and development issues in Latin America, Asia and on American Indian reservations. He has also participated in the World Wisdom Council in partnership with Irvin Laszlo.

Writes O’Dea: “Our consciousness is most deeply perceptive and lucid when it is spiritually immersed and compassionately involved in the unfolding of the full range of experience - in other words, when it is paradoxically both detached and engaged. This detachment is not a separating or uncaring stance ….it is a deep surrendering and releasing of the small will, so that it is a not confined by the logic of narrow self interest. In this kind of surrender we experience a profound trust that, below the surface of the visible world, there is a vitality, an inspiring aliveness, and even a source of greater guidance.”

Precious forest dwellers: Taken from the kitchen window of
our cottage at The Crags.

What's with Bolivia?

With the cooperation of politicians and grassroots organisations, Bolivia is set to pass the Law of Mother Earth which will grant nature the same rights and protections as humans, according to Wikimedia Commons. The legislation is intended to encourage a radical shift in conservation attitudes and actions, to enforce new control measures on industry and to reduce environmental destruction.

The law redefines natural resources as “blessings” and confers the same rights on nature as human beings, including: the right to life and to exist; the right to continue vital cycles and processes free from human alteration; the right to pure water and clean air; the right to balance; the right not to be polluted; and the right to not have cellular structure modified or genetically altered. Perhaps the most controversial point is the right “to not be affected by mega-infrastructure and development projects that affect the balance of ecosystems and the local inhabitant communities”.

In late 2005 Bolivia elected its first indigenous president, Evo Morales, who is an outspoken champion for environmental protection, petitioning for substantive change within his country and at the United Nations. Bolivia, one of South America's poorest countries, has long had to contend with the consequences of destructive industrial practices and climate change, but despite the best efforts of Morales and members of his administration, their concerns have largely been ignored at the UN.

Bolivia will be establishing a Ministry of Mother Earth, but beyond that there are few details about how the legislation will be implemented. What is clear is that the country will have to balance these environmental imperatives against industries, like mining, which contribute to the country’s GDP.

And already (September 28) these high ideals are under stress. According to online pressure group Avaaz, Bolivian police have used tear gas and truncheons to crack down on indigenous men, women and children marching against a mega-highway that will slice through the protected Amazon rainforest.

As a result, two key ministers have resigned, Bolivians are erupting in street protests across the country and President Morales has been forced to temporarily suspend the highway construction. "But powerful multinationals are already divvying up this important nature preserve. Now, only if the world stands with these brave indigenous people can we ensure the highway is rerouted and the forest is protected.
"Avaaz has just delivered a 115 000-strong Bolivian and Latin American emergency petition to two senior government ministers; they are worried about massive public pressure and are on the back foot... let’s ramp up the pressure and raise a global alarm to end the crackdown and stop the highway. Sign the urgent petition - it will be delivered spectacularly to President Evo Morales when we reach 500 000," says the message from Avaaz.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

A monastic lifestyle down at Milkwood Glen

Milkwood Glen: A relaxed environment.
In a post I wrote elsewhere on this blog almost a year ago, I said the time had come to release a society that “desperately tries to repress anything it does not understand and that does not follow today’s economic rules” (an American astrologer’s words in quotes). I have my own path to follow, I declared.

Well, I meant what I wrote, but I had little idea about the direction in which my path might lead.

Since then, Estelle and I have moved from our timber cottage in the forest to a house bought by my son at Milkwood Glen, about five minutes walk from the sea at Keurboomstrand, near Plettenberg Bay. This is a beautiful verdant place with, as the name implies, plenty of milkwood and other trees. Trees, shrubs and flowers flourish here. We do miss our forest walks with the dogs (and sometimes the cats, too) and we miss the calls and sightings of the wonderful variety of birds, including the regular chatter of low-flying Knysna loeries. But being on the edge of the ocean brings within easy view a new collection of wildlife, most notably whales and dolphins.

Wide open: Keurbooms Beach with Robberg on the horizon.
One late afternoon recently, when the sea was like a pond, a large shoal of fish appeared to be moving across the bay and seabirds plunged at it with abandon. At the same time, in small groups all over the bay, dolphins were also feeding freely. When, like small children, they had had enough and were full of energy, they did loops out of the water and surfed the breakers in a frenzy of pure joy.

Yesterday evening we had another surprise show of pure glory. As the sun set on Robberg peninsula, across the bay from us, a dead-calm ice-blue sea met a pink sky as the breakers rushed gently to shore. The colour of the distant Tsitsikamma mountains was a sharply defined deep blue. Berg wind conditions clear the air and bring the environment into sharp focus, retouching it with magical colours.

We returned to the beach this morning and the sea was as calm as it can be, softly ironed by the gentle north-westerly. But this time nature provided additional delights. Two whales wallowed serenely a couple of hundred metres out. An ocean safari boat soon arrived with a full load of red life-jacketed whale-watchers. But it was not an intrusion and must have provided those tourists with the kind of experience that is beyond description back in London or Berlin. The colours of the boat and the life-jackets reflected brightly in the still water as the whales showed a leisurely fin here and an unconcerned tail there. Back on the beach, the tide had strewn a million intricately detailed shells and we collected pockets full as we walked.

In the man-made past year, of course, the recession has bitten deeper for many of us. We resist, but it persists. Estelle is working some nights at the rehab in Plett and at the vet shop and surgery some days. I still have some newspaper work (and a very small pension), but, in Estelle's absence, I am now quite largely engaged in house-husbandry. Yes, house-husbandry, as in househusband instead of housewife. It’s an occupation which for some reason I don’t seem to mind too much and I even take some pride in washing up (it could simply be a socially accepted form of obsessive-compulsive disorder), hanging up the laundry, sweeping the patio and shopping for groceries. I try to approach these tasks with what Buddhists call mindfulness, which teachers say can be interpreted as “unconditional friendliness” towards what is happening in the present moment, and appreciating it for what it is, without judgment.

Buddha: He likes cooling off in water.
 I also walk Buddha our Newfoundland dog around the village. He is much loved here because, like his revered namesake, he is unconditionally, and uncontrollably, friendly. Buddha loves to carry bags of any description, so when you come across a family who have just moved into a holiday house for the weekend, and are busy unpacking their groceries, Buddha charges up, desperate to help carry. The sight of him, because of his black coat and large size, can be quite alarming, but shock soon turns to unconditional friendliness. Buddha also loves to cool off in the water, but prefers pools to waves.

Birthday hike: Estelle on Robberg on the eve of her 60th.
 When you add to my domestic activities reading, writing and daily meditation, you come to the conclusion that I live a pretty monastic lifestyle which, in spite of earlier ego-resistance, I am now learning to accept. A cutting in my little book says “transcendence arrives when you embrace the life that is given”.

Many people in this area are familiar with the financial struggle which can follow making a commitment to this most beautiful part of the world. It seems to breed a toughness and self-reliance – a kind of battle-hardened acceptance which lies side by side with a love of doing your own thing in a lovely place. If your fridge or TV needs attention, you don’t book it in for repairs with hundreds of others, or, better still, buy a new one. The repairman, who you know from the old days, comes to your house and fixes it with good humour and goodwill, and you pay him an undeniably fair sum in cash. And the appliance works better than ever.

Anyway, to get back to the point. My situation is such that I have been forced, or rather provided with the opportunity, to look at things differently. It’s all about perception. I’m learning to find “greater joy, deeper peace, more certain wisdom and more loving relationships”, in the words of an eminent spiritual teacher. But, of course, I’m still a student with common weaknesses.

Concert time: Charley and Anna with Missy.
 My daughter Melissa and her husband Charles live on a farm on the other side of town. Charles, a horticulturist, is the son of legendary veterinarian Andre Reitz whom I have known since the days when I bred Aberdeen Angus cattle in the area with my late father-in-law. Charles and Missy have provided us with delightful twin granddaughters who are sure to teach us plenty in the coming years. And we hope to teach them something, too. And apart from providing us with a home, our son Alex continues to inspire us with the work he does in the world of wildlife (and human) conservation and the almost weekly updates on the new and exciting opportunities he draws to himself.

I still write travel stories, as you can see below, but these days I prefer going to the many interesting South African destinations rather than doing long hauls overseas, even in business class and staying in fancy hotels. I cherish the memories of some of my overseas travel, but my tastes have changed. For example, thanks to Alex and his network of associates, in August we are going on a walking safari as a family with my brother and his wife, our children and their partners, in a remote part of Ngala private game reserve, staying in a tented camp complete with ranger, tracker and cook. Alex is a veteran ranger and professional tracker himself, so when we get into the bush we should know exactly what we’re looking for, and at.

Monday, May 2, 2011

KwaZulu-Natal's perfectly preserved historic battlefields fascinate and overwhelm

Solemn sunset: A mass grave at the place where British
soldiers were killed by Boer shelling from across the valley.
Looking down from the rocky heights of Spioenkop in KwaZulu-Natal, the view across the aloe and acacia-dotted valley below is spectacular. The large Spioenkop Dam on the Tugela River to the south lies tranquil in the late afternoon light. The landmarks immortalised in history books - Twin Peaks, Aloe Knoll, Conical Hill, Green Hill and Tabanyama are all around us. Our guide, Omri Nene, a gentle young actor, relates the events of the Battle of Spioenkop quietly, holding our little party – my brother Philip, British father and son Mike and Thomas Crozier, and me – spellbound. From time to time he breaks the tension with a broad smile and a giggle as he returns to another of the comical blunders on both sides in the conflict.

General Sir Redvers Buller, VC, commander of the British forces in Natal, was attempting to relieve a British force in Ladysmith besieged by the Boers during the Anglo-Boer War. He delegated control of his main force to the indecisive General Sir Charles Warren, who had at his disposal an overwhelming number of infantry, cavalry and field guns. On the other side of the Kop were the Boers, totally outnumbered but well armed with modern Mauser rifles and a few other guns.

Omri told of the bayonet charge by British soldiers when they eventually reached the top in thick mist on the night before the main battle. A Boer picquet of 15 men were resting behind a low wall of rocks until they were alerted by the chilling rattle of multiple bayonets being fixed before the charge. One of the Boers failed to escape as the soldiers caught up with him and bayoneted him, his body left lying on the hard ground among the scattered brown rocks. His solitary grave marks the spot where he died.

The next morning the Boers began to pound the British position, shelling them and putting down a storm of rifle fire, initially from the adjacent plateau of Tabanyama. Meanwhile, Commandant Hendrik Prinsloo of the Carolina Commando captured Aloe Knoll and Conical Hill with less than 100 men, while about 300 burghers, mainly of the Pretoria Commando, climbed Spioenkop to launch a frontal assault on the British position. A furious fight at the crest commenced, with heavy losses on both sides.

In the end, after a bloody, gruelling and desperately confused battle – one that would become notorious in British military history - both sides departed from Spioenkop. Interestingly, a number of the world’s future leaders were there: Winston Churchill, Boer leader Louis Botha, who would become the first Prime Minister of the Union of South Africa, and Mohandas Gandhi who organised an ambulance corps for the British army.

Today, as the sun sets and a chilly wind finds its way into our warm clothing, all there is to remind us of the dramatic events of January 24, 1900 are the white stones of mass graves and disconsolate memorials, most of the names inscribed on them being those of brave young Brits in their early twenties and younger. Young Thomas Crozier makes extensive notes from some of the memorials to take back to his wheelchair-bound granddad in the UK.

That morning we had visited the spot along the railway line near Colenso - site of an earlier battle - where the unstoppable young war correspondent Winston Churchill was captured after the derailment of a British armoured train. His later escape from Boer captivity was well publicised and at Spioenkop he was back, commissioned by Buller as a lieutenant in the SA Light Horse regiment in recognition of his exploits. Here he made himself useful as a kind of self-appointed scout and courier, riding hither and thither, keeping Buller informed of events.

History preserved: Three Tree Hill Lodge is a haven for
Boer War history enthusiasts.
 Today, on the other side of the valley, on a rise among the acacias, more or less where General Warren’s HQ had been, is a beautiful place of refuge named Three Tree Hill Lodge by virtue of its location. Proprietors Simon and Cheryl Blackburn (formerly of Singita Private Game Reserve and Kwando Safari Experience), both of them seasoned safari guides, share their knowledge and experiences with guests in the lounge and dining areas over farmhouse meals. Their easy-going style is what the Three Tree Hill experience is all about. The lodge has a marvellous little library of historical books and a large collection of historical photographs all over the walls - an attraction in itself. A portrait near the dining room table shows a fresh-faced young Winston Churchill gazing down benignly.

Omri was never far away, serving drinks and joining in the conversation around the table. He grew up in a local village and studied theatre at the University of KZN, later serving as a community liaison officer for the university’s drama department. He has performed at the Grahamstown Arts Festival and travelled to the US to play Macbeth in a production in Detroit. Coming to Three Tree Hill Lodge presented an opportunity to learn history and hone his skills as a raconteur, he told me.

On the day of our arrival we took a leisurely hike with Cheryl and her dogs alongside the game reserve adjacent to the lodge, with beautiful views of Spioenkop and the surrounding veld, stocked with game. It is a little-known and virtually undisturbed official conservation area.

Accommodation at the lodge is in attractive cottages with views across the valley. I was delighted by the green-painted historical-style corrugated iron structure of the cottages, with a timber finish inside. They are unusually user-friendly and comfortable, without the pseudo-luxuries found at some more pretentious lodges. Fugitive’s Drift, which we visited next, follows the same formula of luxurious but uncluttered comfort with a strong historical feel.

We travelled to Fugitive’s Drift via Ladysmith and Dundee, stopping to view the exhibits at the Siege Museum in Ladysmith, all of which were of much more significance after our previous days’ experiences than would otherwise have been the case.

Arriving at Fugitive’s Drift, we were given a warm welcome by our affable and now well known raconteur and tour guide, Rob Caskie, and we soon found Nicky Rattray, widow of David Rattray, in relaxed mode among the other guests. Rob had long been an associate of David Rattray, the world renowned speaker on history, particularly the Battle of Isandlwana and Rorke’s Drift, as well as Zulu cultures. David was a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society and lectured internationally.

Chilling tale: Rob Caskie keeps visitors to
Rorke's Drift enthralled.
That afternoon a long-standing intention of mine was fulfilled when we found ourselves at Rorke’s Drift where, in what is virtually a yard between the hospital (now a museum) and a storehouse (now a church), the terrible battle between a small garrison of British soldiers and about 4000 Zulu warriors took place when the Zulus attacked the fortified mission station. Rob’s rendition of the story of the battle was enthralling, with frequent and powerful use of the Zulu language, as well as gruesome details you don’t find in regular accounts of the story which has been popularised by more than one movie.

Rorke’s Drift was defended by 139 British soldiers (a number of them seriously ill in the hospital), who inflicted serious casualties on the attacking Zulus and successfully beat them back after a long and terrible night’s fighting. But some of the most harrowing action took place in the hospital, whose thatch roof was on fire. A few soldiers were assigned to defend the hospital, eventually saving a number of patients at great personal sacrifice as the relentless onslaught by the Zulus continued to hammer at the tiny building.

Some commentators have suggested that 11 Victoria Crosses was excessive for such a small group of soldiers simply defending themselves against attackers, but looking around that tiny and now perfectly peaceful piece of ground with a stone cattle kraal next to the church, one can understand what a desperate battle it must have been.

Because of the time of our arrival we visited Rorke’s Drift first and Isandlwana the next morning, when in fact the battles took place the other way round on January 22 and 23, 1879, respectively.

Big battle: Isandlwana was a battle rated as one of the
greatest military disasters in British colonial history.
Isandlwana was a battle rated as one of the greatest military disasters in British colonial history. Again our group sat in folding chairs overlooking a beautiful vista on a glorious morning with the famous mountain lying like a sphinx to our left as Rob entertained us with the story of another dramatic battle. Again, the facts described in great detail. Again, Rob’s performance was a wonderful tribute to his predecessor. We were particularly impressed by the way he could remember every guest’s name and use it to punctuate his story most effectively.

Out on that slope, all that remain are scores of white stone cairns and other memorials. And Isandlwana, the mountain, remains unmoved by time or history.

See and This story appeared in Diversions leisure magazine.

Friday, March 18, 2011

What is this thing called spirituality?

I first came across Joan Borysenko while reading a wonderful collection of spiritual essays called Handbook for the Soul, published in 1995. The words below are taken from her website, with her permission. For me this is a clear and comprehensive wrap-up of what spirituality is all about, and for me it is important that people—particularly those who are confused about it all—become familiar with this understanding:

The late French Jesuit priest and scientist Pierre Teilhard de Chardin said “We are not human beings having a spiritual experience; we are spiritual beings having a human experience.”

When we understand the truth of that realisation, a new world of meaning emerges. Trust in a beneficent spiritual reality with which we can cooperate enhances health, mood, and our capacity for what Plato called goodness. In this section you can access information on what spirituality is, how it differs from religion, what a mature spirituality looks like, and how you can use your soul’s compass to guide you on a path where the inner and the outer become one—where your personal spiritual evolution and purpose in life converge. When that happens, the answers to the two perennial questions, Who am I? and Why am I here? become one and the same. In the words of Ram Dass, that answer is “to love, serve and remember”.

What is spirituality?

It is important to distinguish religion from spirituality since while they may overlap it is entirely possible to be spiritual without being religious and vice versa. Spirituality is a commitment to a life of depth and compassion that connects each of us to a larger whole. It is predicated on the development of a contemplative life in the classic sense of contemplation: an open and curious examination of experience as it unfolds, moment by moment. This is also called Presence, and it is the basis of an awakened life based on guidance from the Source, in service to the highest good. Our personal spiritual development must ultimately serve others for it to be an authentic unfolding of the heart of spirit in action.


While different faiths developed through specific prisms of culture and contexts in space and time, there are universal spiritual principles which are fundamental to all of them. Interspirituality is the common ground, where all of the wisdom traditions meet. Interspirituality is committed to finding the spirituality both within and beyond religion. What ties us together is a shared desire to connect with the Ground of Being in a way that fully respects our differences. The challenge is to embody what is most true and real for us without seeking to convince or convert others. Our intention is to delve deeply into the perennial interspiritual philosophy of guidance and discernment so that we may become more fully present and capable of clear, compassionate action in the world.

Spiritual growth

Spiritual growth is a maturational process through which our potential for full humanness, the ripening of all our capacities in an integrated way, can be realised as our birthright or true nature. The methods through which we cooperate with the indwelling spirit—which is always moving us towards growth and freedom—are generally thought of as spiritual practices. One of the most profound practices is the willingness to engage with the questions that arise in the process of daily life.

Why are we here? Are we fulfilling life’s purpose? What is evolutionary intelligence trying to express through us? In this time of global change and uncertainty, of spiritual indirection, people are asking these age-old questions with renewed curiosity. There is a thirst for meaning and purpose—a dawning realisation that happiness is not a commodity that can be bought with a gold card.

Fulfilment and joy arise naturally from the capacity to be present to life as it unfolds and to listen for—and discern—the best possibilities in any situation, with informal, enlightened, compassionate action.

The importance of inquiry

Inquiry is a heuristic process of discovery that is driven not by answers, but by dwelling in the deep questions that arise in our lives. In this sense, it is an open, rather than closed, form of learning: open to the truth that can reveal itself directly from authentic questioning. Inquiry requires living in the spirit of openness, curiosity and respect, increasingly mindful of what it is in us that may limit or restrict our willingness to stay with our experience as it unfolds. Deep spiritual inquiry and open-hearted sharing require an atmosphere of trust. Deep learning, a vibrant, unfolding spiritual journey and spiritual transformation are best facilitated not by the top-down provision of dogmatic, final answers, but by dwelling together in the fundamental and deep questions that arise on the journey.


Friday, January 7, 2011

Learning and preserving the ancient art of wildlife tracking

Keen to learn: Pokkie Benadie (second from left) and students track
a rhino and calf at Samara.
 The invitation by my son Alex to visit the only wildlife tracker academy in South Africa at Samara private game reserve near Graaff-Reinet was irresistible. We had heard the step by step progress over the months and I had visited Samara for part of a travel story before the academy’s first students arrived. Everything was now in place and it was time to go and see for ourselves.

Lessons start early at the SA College for Tourism Tracker Academy and when my wife and I arrived to join a tracking session one of the students, Robert Hlatswayo was waiting to guide us to the tracker group which had already gone into the bush. Neatly turned out in the academy uniform, Robert was clearly a motivated young man, keen to show us how it’s done. Alex and resident trainer, Pokkie Benadie were supervising the group of four – out of an intake of eight - as they set out to track a rhino female and her calf.

Pokkie is a modest, instantly likeable man with a firm handshake and a ready smile. He is a native of the Karoo, the product of more than 30 years’ experience at the Karoo National Park and a certified master tracker. He started out looking after his father’s sheep and trapping jackal and caracal which threatened them. By age 16 he was able to identify the tracks of all the local wild animals and follow them through the bush.

With Alex and Renias Mhlongo, both veterans of Londolozi private game reserve in the Lowveld, and both senior trackers, Pokkie makes up the team of trainers who are passionate about imparting the techniques and ethos of professional tracking.

Like Pokkie, Renias grew up tending his father’s cattle in the Lowveld and the responsibility was great. His father was a traditional man who was jealous of his herd and sternly intolerant of any dereliction of duty. So, when cows went missing in the veld, there was only one way of dealing with the problem – tracking them down.

Alex and Renias started out as a ranger-and-tracker team at Londolozi, taking mostly wealthy overseas guests on game drives and introducing them to the African bush. Early on, when Alex was still a rookie, they were looking for tracks in a dry riverbed when Alex was charged and knocked down by a leopard female which had a cub nearby. Renias kept his cool and virtually saved Alex’s life by quietly giving him the right instructions as the leopard stood menacingly near, with Alex’s rifle flung out of reach. It was a pivotal moment for Alex and the two have been close friends ever since.

They have travelled overseas together, to London for example – Renias the village boy’s baptism of fire into the Western world – and to train American trackers to follow bears and other wildlife in Yellowstone National Park in the US. They also do a motivational talk together called The Power of Relationships, based on their mutual experiences.

Pokkie, Renias and Alex received tracker certification from Louis Liebenberg who has played a major role in re-igniting the ancient art of tracking in South Africa. He is the author of the seminal book The Art of Tracking and is the only known person to be working with indigenous people on documenting this deep knowledge of the wilderness.

After spending the first six months at Samara the groups of students move to Londolozi where they complete the year’s training with Renias.

All ears: Alex uses a special program to help
students identify bird calls
While walking in the veld with this group of students, we soon saw the enthusiasm and willingness to learn. With his neat military-green outfit and stick (which they all carry when tracking), Pokkie reminded me of an army instructor. But that is certainly not his style. The neatly rolled up sleeping bags and towels in the dormitories do indicate discipline, but these young men are taught to think for themselves. When tracking a dangerous animal in thick bush, for example, they have to make up their own minds whether to proceed or not. They are encouraged to “give themselves permission” to proceed.

Each of the four – Nathan, Robert, Tutani and Clearance – took turns in leading the group as it tracked the rhino and calf. There were some tell-tale signs of the animals’ passage, like fresh dung, but picking up and following the tracks – to the untrained eye simply semi-distinguishable smudges in the soil – is a demanding activity requiring close attention, stealth, silence maintained with hand signals, and constant vigilance. There were signs of apprehension as each individual took the lead, but witnessing the students’ dedication to the task was heart-warming.

We made our way over open ground and eventually to a largely dried up dam where the signs showed that the animals had been to drink and then left. We continued the pursuit - stopping along the way to identify birdcalls - through a dry riverbed and into some thick bush. I could tell by the breeze on my unusually bare legs that we were upwind of the mother and calf (a tip picked up from the bit of training received) and, sure enough, there was a sudden crashing noise of big animals in the bush ahead of us. We couldn’t see them, but they were well aware of our presence and made off again. Keeping this up requires some energy since while large and apparently cumbersome animals, rhino are nimble on their feet.

After about three hours, and opportunities to view other animals, including some beautiful eland, the big moment came. With Tutani leading the group, the two rhino crossed our view. We had found them, and the game was up.

Back at the academy we could relax with all the students, the other half of whom had been watching wildlife DVDs under the supervision of Janetta, Pokkie’s wife. She is delighted to be playing an active role at the academy, providing meals and general “housemother” support of the students, as well as conducting some of the lessons.

Pokkie is also intensely satisfied with the way things have developed: “It has always been my dream to teach these skills, and I am very pleased to be here. You learn a lot by teaching others, which gives you extra confidence.”

Alex had the last word: “Our aim is to empower the custodians of Africa’s wilderness to preserve the continent’s last remaining wild areas. Our intention is that our graduates will bring authenticity and accuracy to environmental education, anti-poaching, eco-tourism, data collection and conservation, all of which hold the promise of gainful employment for these young people.”

Home on the range: The Tracker Academy building.

This story appeared in the Sunday Independent and Weekend Argus Travel.