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.