Friday, August 30, 2013

Camping in Kruger: lots of lovely lessons

Berg en Dal camping site in Kruger National Park.
Camping is not something you simply go and do; you need to know what you’re doing. And comfort lovers like me usually don’t because they have never considered pursuing the knowledge gained through selecting camping equipment, trying it out on site and then adding to it or changing it, according to the more refined needs out there under the stars.
   Why I mention this is because Estelle and I recently received an invitation on an all-expenses-paid trip from my generous brother Philip and his wife Cathy, to spend time with them in Johannesburg and three days camping in the Kruger National Park. We accepted with great excitement, if a little concern about the actual camping part.
Our tent and living area.
But not to worry, Phil and Cath had the Land Rover, the portable fridge, the trailer, the tent, the chairs, the table, the stretchers and a large basket full of goodies, including Lindt chocolates and Johnny Walker Scotch. All we had to do was help put up the fairly large, but lightweight tent. This simply required a nominal amount of connecting, lifting, pulling and sliding, tying and hammering – nothing for four fit young semi-retirees. But I think I must have had doubts about getting the thing to stand, and took my concerns out on the tent pegs. The sandy ground was quite hard and some heavy hammering with the mallet by yours trulyrendered at least two of the pegs stukkend.
In a short time, however, she was up, offering accommodation for the two women at the back, on the other side of a zip-up partition (a bit like business class – you envied the privilege of those on that side of the curtain). Phil and I took the front portion, which was really the stoep, and allowed a fair amount of fresh air through the gauze, which was nice for getting the full atmosphere and hearing more clearly the lions and other creatures in the night.
But the big challenge, we discovered, when camping in a place like Kruger, is getting used to the fact that there are a lot of people around you doing the same thing, and they come in a variety of camping outfits, from pup tents and blow-up mattresses to luxury self-propelled camping vehicles. Other accommodation includes normal caravans, from small to very large, and the all-in-one camping trailers, which I fancied most. With them, it’s just a matter of slit-slot and you’ve got a fold-down instant kitchen with its own lighting, or slot-slat and you have a comfortable double bed. Most outfits have some sort of awning and some campers are masters at finding real a strategic spot near an isolated power connection post around which they manoeuver their caravan, with awning, plus vehicle of course, and then hang towels on washing lines in between for complete privacy. I even stopped and congratulated one chap whose setup near the ablution block was a masterpiece.
The trouble is, there are only a limited number of trees in the camp and everyone tries to take full advantage of what’s available. And this is where brother Phil, with his strong sense of order and decency, started drawing lines in the sand. He had hoped for undisturbed tranquillity and a decent level of privacy at his campsite, but now you have Piet Poephol from Potgietersrus (and other names, allocated largely according to registration plates) reversing his Gypsy into our space, eventually placing it with a clear view of our entire campsite from his caravan’s veranda with its neat fucking table and chairs. We all agreed about feelings of exposure, but we and my brother particularly, eventually had to accept the situation in the face of overwhelming odds. All he could do was sit quietly in his folding chair with his Heineken, glowering at Piet reading his Rapport on his veranda.
There was more to learn. Making the evening braai, and for that matter any activity after dark, beyond sitting down in your folding chair with your Heineken, is not easy without adequate lighting. What we didn’t have – and I have since discovered that most veterans would never do without – were those lights you wear suspended on a band around your head which let you see everything in front of you by simply facing it. We had flashlights – powerful ones, granted – but overlooked the fact that in the dark you can’t easily carry a big flashlight, and your beer, and open the provisions basket and search for an item, all at once…

Night-time in Kruger Park can bring all sorts of surprises...
That night it was lovely to hear the nocturnal animals calling from the bush, but what we hadn’t counted on were the sounds coming from inside the tent. In spite of the lumps at the bottom of my borrowed sleeping bag, and my rug slipping off the sleeping bag, I fell fast asleep on a belly full of braai and booze. I was only made aware of the drama that unfolded around me in the tent in the middle of the night, the next morning by a sleep-deprived and grumpy brother Phil. I had not been the only one snoring, but mine had apparently started soothingly gently but then built up to a crescendo, which, along with the less noisy back-up of the ladies at the back, became unbearable for poor Phil, lying patiently trying to get to sleep. Fortunately for me, his tight-fitting sleeping bag had acted like a straitjacket, and when he failed to stop me with more than one quiet plea, he eventually resorted to crude curses in Afrikaans and tried throwing things at me - to no avail. Well, when I saw the bags under his eyes the next morning I felt really deep remorse.
   The next thing to learn was how to handle the ablution block, especially at rush-hour, which I tried to avoid by doing my main ablutions in the late afternoon. But if you do that you miss out on the early morning camaraderie. Like the gentleman standing next to me at the shaving mirror who engaged me good-naturedly.
   “Did you hear the lions last night?” he asked excitedly in an Afrikaans accent. “Beautiful, hey?”
   I shook my head sideways in agreement: “Lovely, man, lovely.”
   On another occasion I managed to get a shower cubicle as soon as I arrived. But as I got in it dawned on me that I had left my soap at the campsite. I dashed naked to the hand-soap dispenser over at the basins and tried to stuff the slippery stuff into the shower cubicle’s soap holder, but the soap holder had a drainage hole at the bottom and the soap quickly disappeared onto the floor and down the drain. Never mind, the nice hot water would do the trick, I decided. When I emerged from the shower I could tell from his accent that the next guy in line was foreign. And he was determined not to lose the cubicle to some shower-predator - like a lion with a kill looking out for hyenas. Mostly he just stared at me as I dried myself.

This is what its all about..
But after all, what we had come to see, the wildlife, was certainly there during our game drives. Over two days driving out of Berg en Dal we made contact with plenty of animals, though no cats, among them 28 different sightings of rhino. We came across two who were lying on the ground, apparently napping. They staggered to their feet and made their way past the front of the vehicle, sniffing the grille disconsolately. They looked stoned and we wondered what they had been grazing. Only later were we made to understand that we had disturbed them at the sleepiest time of their day!
   On the way back to Johannesburg we decided to spend the night somewhere comfortable. Cathy did the accommodation research on her cell phone while I drove, Estelle back-seat drove (tapping on my shoulder meant I was out of control of this large vehicle and trailer) and Phil supervised. Cathy came up with a place called Misty Mountain between Sabie and Lydenburg on the Long Tom Pass. Phil took over the phone to negotiate, charming the bookings lady into the lowest possible rate for the night. But there remained the question of breakfast. “OK,” he says to the bookings lady, “that’s a good deal … but … my wife, she also wants breakfast…
   As it happened, Misty Mountain turned out to be a good choice. The accommodation is so spacious and comfortable, it has spectacular views over the valley below, trout fishing, walks, and the breakfast was great; mine a smoked trout omelette.
Misty Mountain is a good place to stop over on the way back to Johannesburg.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Simple spirituality is like the African bush

My son Alex was telling me about academics doing field work in the African bush, and all the data gathering and analytical work they do with tracking devices and other hard and software. He is now a veteran wildlife tracker who learned the basics years ago from his Shangaan mentor and life-long friend Renias Mhlongo. He laughed about it, saying Renias could probably get the same results as the scientists in just a day in the bush. That may have been an exaggeration, but the message was there: true, but simple, understanding comes from a long period of dedication to and passion for whatever pursuit one engages in.

Spirituality is no different. Getting to the core of life and loving it, is perhaps one way of putting it. Any discovery along the path which brings another building block of experience or realisation feeds our growth towards maturity in our understanding. It is an ongoing process which brings clearer vision and greater contentment in everyday life.

The great teachers including Lao Tsu, Buddha and Jesus have all expressed deep understanding in simple terms because that is what they were drawn to do by the suffering they witnessed around them and tried to explain to those who came to them that the answers to difficult questions are often simple. Jeshua ben Joseph, the soul of Jesus of Nazareth and author of the channeled works A Course in Miracles and The Way of Mastery says we are often confused by the smorgasbord of apparently enticing ideas while the deepest truth is often simple, so simple that most people might pass it by.

 Popular writers who have influenced my understanding, Deepak Chopra (who attended an English church school in India), Eckhart Tolle (who transcended an almost suicidal state of mind to become what has been called a modern mystic) and Thomas Moore (who became a Christian monk in his youth and later migrated to finding beauty and truth in art and music, and as a therapist gleaning his understanding from the everyday woes of modern life) all embrace the same liberating view that we do not live life; Life lives us, something which Jeshua also emphasises over and over, “You are that One”, meaning you are one with God and that he (Jeshua) is not a saviour from hellfire, but an elder brother, a teacher and saviour from delusion.

When we grasp the full implications of the fresh idea that our highest selves are animated only by the creative spirit of the universe (even the highest selves of tax collectors and prostitutes, corrupt politicians and criminals) and that we are not captives in an insane world, any more than a bird or the rising sun is, we have room to begin to relearn our purpose on this planet, not to accomplish comfort and security, power and influence, but through learning from our experiences and finding, not through “rationality and control”, as I remember Thomas Moore putting it in one of his “soul” books, but through the “gifts of the soul”. 

Sunday, March 10, 2013

Karoo paradise and historical treasure trove


Top and above: Samara provides every comfort
in its natural Karoo setting

The enchantment of Samara private game reserve, not far south of Graaff-Reinet, comes in a combination of factors: the location amid imposing mountains, the wide open plains viewed from those mountains and, of course, the wildlife - all enhanced by the lush green veld after a prolonged period if good rains. The acacia leaves are soft and succulent and their thorns gleaming white, and sharp as needles. At night you feel the stars are so close you could pluck them from the sky, and the mornings so fresh you could bathe in them.

Alex and students after their graduation.
But that’s not all. This beautiful location happens to be associated with places of learning which are closely related to it in their function: the hospitality training at the College for Tourism in Graaff-Reinet and its affiliated Tracker Academy whose students learn their skills partly in the soil of the Samara reserve. Through our son Alex, who was instrumental in establishing the academy, my wife and I had been invited to the year-end dinner and graduation ceremony of the students at the college on Magazine Hill in the historic town.
I have not attended many such functions, but the ceremony made a deep impression on many of us in the audience. It was not just the sight of these bright young black people in their academic gowns about to receive the rewards of their studies - many far from their homes - but their beautiful singing at intervals during the ceremony and as they filed out of the venue, all of which left us a little misty-eyed. Also impressive was the obvious commitment of the staff, officials and the executive director Andre Kilian and chairperson Gaynor Rupert, wife of prominent businessman Johann Rupert. Three of the top students had already landed plum jobs overseas even before their graduation.

Samara is about 30 minutes’ drive from Graaff-Reinet via the Tantjiesberg mountain, so named for the tooth-shaped outcrops along its ridge. As a Boer War history enthusiast, the Camdeboo region has long fascinated me, after extensive reading about the dramatic events during the “invasion” of Cape Colony by Boer guerrillas after the fall of the Transvaal and Orange Free State republics to the British in the war of 1899 to 1902. Graaff-Reinet is rich in the history of this conflict.

Karoo Lodge is the central building on the 18 000 ha property, with three stand-alone suites across the way past the swimming pool and other accommodation located elsewhere. Viewed from across the extensive lawn at the back (with resident tortoises) its rear elevation is beautifully symmetrical Karoo farmhouse with neat twin chimneys, exactly as it must have looked on the restoration drawing board.

Meals can be taken under the trees.
The lodge provides luxurious colonial-style accommodation, fine décor and, due to its limited size, excellent service from locally-recruited staff, some of whom were still there from our previous visit two years before, spoiling us with the same friendly desire to keep us comfortable, especially after a walk or drive in the veld. General manager Marnus Ochse and his wife Anneke were regularly on hand for information or a chat. The three meals a day (plus two tea-time spreads) were all outstanding and served in different locations either indoors; out on the lawn under a shady tree, or on the spacious veranda, where dinner is lit by an attractive arrangement of paraffin lamps at the table.

Cheetah cubs in the bush at Samara
The wildlife experience came with two sources of expertise: the Tracker Academy about 10 minutes’ drive down the road, and Samara’s tall young Zimbabwean head ranger with a marvellous smile, named Test Malunga – affable, humorous and, above all an excellent teacher with a wide knowledge, some self-taught and some from academic studies. On a late afternoon game drive with four other guests we walked with a journey of giraffe and approached a cheetah and her two cubs to within a few metres. The mother lay in the grass hardly taking any notice of us, her elegant tail swinging to and fro occasionally as the cubs played nearby. Although the cubs seemed quite relaxed, Test pointed out the erect hair on their backs.

“They are being very brave,” he laughed, “but they are not really comfortable.”
On a walk in the bush the next afternoon, Test turned our attention to the flora, explaining how acacia trees protect and renew themselves with strategic deployment of thorns, providing browsing animals only with a regulated supply of food. As he explained, elephants have overcome this trickery by breaking off whole branches, or uprooting the whole tree in order to circumvent the natural chemical process. We also watched as a trap-door spider worked his own trickery, his thick legs neatly folded just inside his hole, waiting for prey. With the veld blooming with spring flowers, we observed the function of the Karoo anchor-bush in binding the soil, and learned some of the names of the many beautiful species of ground cover. We crossed a stream twice, wobbling on the stepping stones over the bubbling, sparkling, pollution-free water.

Cape mountain zebra on the mountains around Samara.
We also took a very rugged drive up onto a mountain location with dramatic views of the Plains of Camdeboo, made famous by the book of the same name by Eve Palmer. Up on the mountain we viewed large groups of quizzical mountain zebra and stately gemsbok.

Observing nature is one thing; tracking wild animals and other creatures is another. To learn more about this skill we joined Alex, Tracker Academy trainers Pokkie and Janetta Benade and the eight students carefully chosen from all over South Africa. Pokkie is an officially recognised master tracker who grew up in the area which is now the Karoo National Park, where he worked for many years, and Alex is a senior tracker and general manager of the academy. Janetta is progressing through the ranks, studying, teaching and acting as house mother to the students who are invariably far from home and accommodated in dormitories. They were fascinated to meet Alex’s parents and we felt like visiting celebrities as they lined up, smiling broadly, to shake our hands.

Before long we were on the trail, finding tracks all over the veld. Identifying and following them is an ancient skill whose usefulness is re-emerging after almost being lost, thanks to the few who have dedicated themselves to its preservation.  Today, trackers are being used in tourism, anti-poaching and research, and many of these young men can look forward to exciting careers.

Master tracker Pokkie Benade (third from left)
with students.
But learning the skill is far from easy. A tiny smudge in the sand can be part of the track of a small animal like a mongoose or suricate; the evidence of claws, sometimes visible, sometimes not, for example, can indicate not only the type of animal but whether it was walking or running. Even the hoof tracks of ungulates (hoofed animals) vary in many ways and positively identifying the differences requires a trained eye. Pads and toes also show subtle differences between animals. Some tracks are much more obvious than others, like the large impression of the rhino or giraffe, but other spoor left by obscure animals, reptiles, tortoises, birds and insects - all playing their part in the ecology - are not. Even the big cats’ tracks are all markedly different.

In spite of my recent part-time theoretical studies of tracking, I was mostly left guessing. The students, after only their first six months before moving on to Londolozi game reserve in the Lowveld for the second semester, were asked in turn, secretly, so that the others couldn’t hear, to identify a random track along the trail, and almost invariably got it right.

Graaff-Reinet is an excellent tourist destination.
The town of Graaff-Reinet is an excellent destination in its own right, especially for history and culture buffs. It has scores of prominent historical homes, buildings, churches, monuments, memorials, museums, galleries and a famous stone prison.

In the centre of town, where Parsonage Street and Church Street intersect, the famous Dostdy Hotel (currently being renovated), Reinet House (once the home of Andrew Murray) and the truly magnificent Dutch Reformed Groote Kerk - said to be modelled closely on Salisbury Cathedral in the UK - form a sort of central assembly on which the rest of the town hangs. Across the road from the Groote Kerk, for example, is the elegant low-slung Graaff-Reinet Club where exuberant officers of the Coldstream Guards once danced on the bar counter and fired revolvers into it in celebration of their imminent departure at the end of the Boer War.

A little way down Church Street you find McNaughton’s Bookshop, with many fascinating books, including the comprehensive Graaff-Reinet: An Illustrated Historical Guide by Tony Westby-Nunn, a treasure trove of information and priceless illustrations which shows in detail why Graaff-Reinet is such a special town.

Following the graduation ceremony at the College for Tourism, a group of us were the guests of Gaynor Rupert for lunch at a restaurant called Polka where we enjoyed an excellent cold buffet (and an excellent perfectly chilled Chenin Blanc) in the yard under vapour-irrigated vines. The restaurant, at 52 Somerset Street, is rated No 1 among five in the town.

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