Archive for December, 2009

Beautiful Damaraland

December 31, 2009

BEAUTIFUL DAMARALAND (Part one):

Simply, but truthfully, stated, Damaraland in the North west of Namibia offers the visitor some of the most ‘kick in the guts, wow, pinch me I’m dreaming!’ beautiful landscapes in southern Africa.

Namibian Eagle

Namibian Eagle not far from petrified forest

This is fierce, gorgeous, mountainous country; multi-hued crags, table mountains, bizarre rock outcrops that look like fossilized giants, wonky cathedral remains or twisted gnomes, extinct volcanoes,  wide valleys covered in fine yellow grass – straw really – that look soft as blankets from a distance (but aren’t!) and ochre boulder plains littered with minerals such as quartz, agates, amethysts and geodes. It is rumoured there are even meteorites in them thar hills!

All minerals belong to Namibia and although it is seriously tempting to stuff your pockets with enough geological gleam and glitter to start your own museum or mega-sized novelty rock emporium, it is technically illegal.

This said, some local Damaras do run shabby little roadside ‘shops’ – normally just a dusty jerry-rigged table, manned by a dozing child, or not manned at all, but overseen from a distant hut by a crinkly grandmother who is totally comatose. If you do succumb to temptation and successfully manage to wake the proprietors, you won’t be busted by the Special Field Force guys and frog-marched to the jail. I’m not even sure there is a jail in the area.

DON’T BUY PETRIFIED FORESTS:

Keep your mitts off petrified forests. There are quite a few, one boasting a tree trunk ten metres in length. Passing this fellow off as ‘carry on luggage’ will raise eyebrows at the airport. Even small chunks of these long dead trees, if discovered in your luggage, will cause delays.

Desert El Bull Mining Calcrete Minerals

Making up for mineral deficiency. Desert Elephant Bull Mining Calcrete Minerals. Long legs and short tusks are characteristic of these magnificent creatures.

DESERT ELEPHANTS:

This is desert elephant territory. Unlike your ordinary African elephant, these are frugal giants. They don’t destroy trees, browse carefully to avoid destroying their food source and can tolerate three days without drinking. Most elephants like a drink on a daily basis. But then again most elephants don’t have to trek over 100 kms in search of a spring (or ‘fontein’ in Afrikaans)! The desert elephants are the largest in the world but their tusks are small due to calcium deficiency.

Your best bet if you want to see them is to explore the tree-lined dry river beds or, if you don’t have a robust 4 wheel drive and are feeling lazy, grab a beer or cocktail at the Palmwag Lodge’s pool side bar and keep fingers crossed. They occasionally drop in for a drink. No fancy twizzle sticks, cocktail cherries and dainty umbrellas for them. The swimming pool is quite adequate.

  • ELEPHANT WATCHING SAFETY TIPS:
  • Don’t get too close.
  • Immobilise your car alarm. Car alarms annoy them. They annoy me, too, actually. But I don’t weight two tons and charge the offending hooter then sit on the vehicle or bang its owner on the head with a trunk that doubles as a log if it tenses up. An elephant’s trunk has more muscles in it than the human body. (NOTE: Don’t quote me on that stat. I’ve heard it but I’ll need to check its veracity).
  • If you are sharing your pool bar with an elephant click away but don’t use flash unless you want to be involved in a bar room brawl of epic, nay! elephantine, proportions!
  • And for Heavens sake do not offer to share your peanuts!

This Blog will continue on the Damaraland theme tomorrow.

Cheers!

Hugh

PS OK, almost forgot. The weather. Guess I should bore you with the latest news. It’s habit forming.

Rain last night and this afternoon in Windhoek. Very welcome. Very cool. Cold actually, although that isn’t ‘cold’ as in a British freeze, or the Canadian version. Blinding rain on our drive south after Otjiwarongo two days ago. I couldn’t see the road, the windscreen wipers were on full power and looked as if they were waving white flags of surrender, and the car was rattling away as if the skies were opening fire with several hundred thousand air rifles. Tremendous lightning displays.

From the Very Recent Archives: Fans, PhD Idiots, Criminals, One Legged Man, Etosha, lions and “Just a Moment.”

December 30, 2009

START: THIS WAS WRITTEN ON THE EVE OF OUR DEPARTURE NORTH BUT NOT SENT BECAUSE, AS USUAL, I WAS INTERRUPTED!

BUT WORTH A READ I HOPE.

IT COMES IN TWO PARTS:

PART ONE! (Parental Note: Not suitable for suicidal adolescents). Not suitable for the suicidally inclined … at all.

Hi chaps!

It’s happened again! My macaw article has been interrupted again!!

This time by children in the pool (that’s becoming a pattern) and today (Dec 21 2009) by Billy and Joe who turned up to repair a ceiling fan following a complaint from our current tenant. The fan upon inspection was working perfectly. The PhD student currently inhabiting one of our flats, and lamenting the fan’s non performance, hadn’t turned it on. There’s a dial you can turn. It starts the ceiling fan!

How obvious is that? And to render assistance, it is marked, “Fan”. A label then offers additional sound advice.

“On.”

To further clarify matters, it is also marked, “Off.” Should, for example, you wish to turn it off.

PhDunce!

Before we go North I’ll explain to him how a telephone works. He had tremendous problems this afternoon.

BUT ON TO THE ONE LEGGED MAN! FAR MORE INTERESTING!

Billy and Joe are good old Namibian White boys. When they come here they stay a while. A couple of beers on the stoep; it’s hot and everybody’s relaxed and comfortable with each other. The stories came as they always do.

I now know how someone may hang themself from beneath a bed. I am categorically advising that you don’t try this out for yourself – it would, after all, be fatal and as Shakespeare puts it ” God has fixed his canon against self-slaughter” amongst other kinds of slaughter.  Surprisingly easy! I was informed that you could wrap something tightly around your neck, attach the chord to a fixed object that won’t come loose. A bed leg does nicely. Loss of breath. Conk out. Fall backwards and gravity finishes the job. I always thought people had to dangle themselves from the ceiling!

We touched on other topics. Billy, Joe and I.

Recipes. How to repair cars. The weather. Always, the weather!

One Legged Man Foils Burglary

Conversation turned to how Joe had blocked an Owambo robber’s car the previous night. Joe spotted something wrong, pulled up and asked the scumbag, “What are you doing here, sir?”

The scumbag then said, “I’m waiting for a friend.”

Joe, who is built like a pickle barrel, stayed with him for seven minutes and then said, “Your friend’s not coming. I think you are up to mischief, sir.”

The scumbag made the mistake of making racially charged statements of the “Fok you Boer, you Racist!” variety (hardly fair, Joe was calling him “Sir”), then started his car, and attempted to reverse with the obvious intention of doing a runner. Joe blocked him with his own car and then removed his artificial leg and threatened to brain him with it.

This is no empty threat. Joe has removed his leg, hopped into action and cracked several skulls in his time. The criminals are always disconcerted by the performance. In this instance a Windhoek City Police cruiser arrived by happy chance and recognised the villain, confiscated his car and took him away. A sorry sight. Not so much disarmed as dis-legged. If word gets around in the holding cells of how the outlaw was arrested (and it will) his reputation is shot in the exhaust pipe big time!

The target householders remained blissfully ignorant of the incident. Or maybe they were hiding. Either? Whatever. They didn’t help.

A few more stories, and then Joe and Billy finished their drinks, gave Annabel a hug and swung her around, threw her about and said things like, “Give us huggies!” (Annabel loves horseplay and she loves these bold, reckless but respectful pirates) and then they drove off in the latest cranky vehicle they’d bought and were renovating.

A typical Billy and Joe visit!

Moving on!

PART TWO: ETOSHA, LIONS ETC. THIS ONE REALLY IS FROM THE ARCHIVES!

TITLE: JUST A MOMENT!

Namibian lion, yawning

Namibian lion, yawning

Hi! It’s me, Annabel, again. I’m now four years old and to the best of my knowledge I think it’s safe to say I am still Africa’s youngest travel correspondent. It’s my job to suggest places you parents can take your offspring. Just don’t sue me if it all goes horribly wrong, OK?

I recall, with clarity, my first intimate encounter with an Etosha lion for the very good reasons that my father and I nearly broke our noses. And a springbok jumped over my car.

Here’s what happened: We were approaching Okaukuejo after an afternoon’s drive, thinking happy thoughts and looking forward to drinks and dinner. Basically with the rest camp’s tower in sight we had subconsciously slipped from mentally “red alert game watch” status to mentally “inert dinner watch” status. The safari was over. Time to chill and pig out.

Then we observed a small herd of springbok grazing right beside the road verge.

“Springbok,” said my father who has a patronising penchant for explaining the blindingly obvious. Young as I am, I have seen thousands upon thousands of springbok. Don’t get me wrong. I exult and delight in springbok. They’re lovely animals. But I don’t need to be told what I’m looking at when I’m looking at them. And after a few minutes in Etosha neither will you. There are springbok all over the place.

But I must move on with my tale!

My father slowed the car slightly to avoid alarming them and prompting panicked pronking and resulting vehicle/springbok denting, and we drew level. The elegant antelope observed us with their liquid, soulful eyes. Panicked pronking didn’t seem to be on the agenda.

“Lion!” shouted my mother. I really couldn’t fault her on that one. A mere ten feet from the herd, lying on its stomach inching forwards very slow and low to the ground like a bulging fur rug with attitude was a large, dusty female. Things then moved fast.

The lioness seized the moment to charge (in my opinion taking advantage of our presence and engine noise as a distraction). She rose to her feet and pounded forwards. My father didn’t pronk but he panicked (in his defence the lion was bloody close) and floored the brake far too hard and fast. My mother lurched forward dropping her camera. And my child seat belt snapped with the result that both I and my seat sailed merrily off and into the back of my father’s head which in its turn jerked forwards into the steering wheel. Triggering the horn.

The springbok herd exploded. Bokkies everywhere! Pronking. Sprinting. One sailed over the bonnet. The lioness took in the bedlam, all but brushed the passenger door, put two and two together and recognized that it added up to a wasted stalk and an empty belly. She skidded to a halt.

Dinner was already 100 meters away and receding at full speed. She gave us a long, hard and very reproachful stare but I missed most of it. I was too busy howling. And so was my father. The lioness shambled off in disgust.

So what you might be wondering is the point of this story? Apart from its obvious value as a warning to those who brake too abruptly, use their faces to press car horns and buy defective child seats for their offspring?

It is this.

Bashed noses, missed photo ops, thwarted lion hunt, and all other mishaps considered, the incident was nonetheless what I call an Etosha “moment.” And trust me, Etosha throws up a lot of moments. Usually when you least expect them. These moments sometimes only last a moment but if they are pedigree moments they’ll stay with you for a lifetime.

Luck is a factor. I won’t deny that. Timing, too. Things become potentially a lot less momentous if you take a game drive at high noon when everything’s asleep. Or if you arrive in the wrong part of Etosha at the wrong time of the year. Times, climates, vegetation, game movements change quite significantly. But don’t despair. This timing thing can be remedied by purchasing one of many useful Etosha related guide books*.

Luck I can’t help you with. Or maybe I can.

There are some ways of stacking the moment cards in your favour. I find checking the game sightings book at the guest camps’ receptions helps. Unless no tourists have bothered filling in their sightings or have entered hot tips such as “We saw five baby zebra”. Without saying where. Come on chaps. Etosha’s over 22,000 km2, one of the biggest parks in Africa. If you do experience a moment how about letting us know when and where it occurred? No need for a GPS reading. Just a waterhole name, time and date. Not too tough, huh?

Running out of film or having your digicam’s battery die on you is normally a sure fire way of guaranteeing an immediate encounter with brawling elephants, a leopard kill or a wildebeest stampede.

Turning your back on the waterhole and saying “Well, nothing’s happening. I’ve had enough of this. I’m going to bed” is another good one. As soon as you’ve shut your chalet door and undressed, you will hear the crunch of footsteps and an excited voice saying “I simply can’t believe that oryx charged the lion. Damn near speared it” or “That’s the first time I’ve seen 100 giraffe. And so close!”

It won’t of course be your moment. But by grumpily turning in early you’ll have provided a very public service to others who didn’t.

Finally, (and regular Air Namibia readers of my column can be excused for finding me repetitive, because in this respect I am, remember “Small is Beautiful”) Etosha isn’t just about elephants and lions and black rhino. The little guys are just as active and equally capable of providing their own fair share of moments. So give ‘em a chance!

*Helpful hint: the Etosha Centenery edition of The Sandpaper magazine, available free of charge from the Strengthening the Protected Areas Network (SPAN project) has an excellent review of Etosha books. Tel: 061 2842569 or email sandpaper@span.org.com

A Quick Christmas Message From Our Turtle and Parrot Rescuers in Guatemala

December 29, 2009

Ed Note: Colum Muccio, the author, sometimes slips into Spanish.

Hey ho! Let’s Go! A Christmas Greeting from Guatemala!

Thanks for this Colum!

START:

From all of us at the Casa Muccio-Ruiz and from ARCAS, we wish you a Feliz Navidad and Año Nuevo, hoping you are passing it well with friends and family.  Here, we’re living the vida loca with the craziness and pyrotechnics typical of the end of the year in Guatemala.  Burn the Devil day was December 7th, and tradition calls for buying loads of fireworks and sweeping together mountains of dried leaves, old mattresses…  and setting it all on fire in front of your house at 6PM.  The place looks like a war zone!  No carbon credits for Guatemala on this one!  This year, a warehouse across the highway caught on fire, so we were wafted with the aromatic smell of burning furniture all night.

2009 has been a tough year, struggling with a deteriorating security situation and a drop in volunteer numbers which has put a serious strain on the ARCAS (and my) budget!  We have to perform magic each month just to meet payroll.  There is good news though.  In Hawaii we’ve broken a new record for sea turtle egg collection, with just under 40,000 olive ridley eggs rescued at the Hawaii Hatchery and over 2,000 for the El Rosario Hatchery.  (In 2010, we’re going to concentrate on strengthening the El Rosario project!) Last week, we were visited by the first leatherback of the season, and we buried the 54 eggs in our hatchery.  Another nest of leatherbacks was buried in Monterrico.  (Thanks to a ban we helped put into place, the collection of leatherback eggs is now completely prohibited.)  The El Salado Farm is growing nicely, and we have perhaps 30% of it reforested.  It’s starting to look really good and in a couple more years will be one of the primo sites for birdwatching on the Pacific coast.

In Peten, the scarlet macaw and white-tailed deer captive-breeding programs continue growing, and in 2010 we will be working towards finding appropriate release destinations for the animals raised in these programs.  We’ve just established contact with the World Parrot Trust and look forward to working with them in this.  In December, I got to take part in a very cool release of 80 parrots of 4 different species in the Rio Azul area, one of the most pristine zones of the Mayan Biosphere Reserve, 80 kilometers north of Tikal. The 10 hour drive out to Rio Azul on monster trucks was definitely not recommended by my chiropractor, but it was well worth it.  We released the birds on a fire-watch platform built in a chico tree on top of a hill, and in 360 degrees, you could see absolutely no sign of humans.  Not even a cell phone tower, if you can believe that!  We could see the Mirador ruins about 30kms to the west.  We hope to expand our work in this zone, incorporating animal releases into environmental education, community development and ecotourism activities in Uaxactun and other communities near Tikal.  The Rescue Center continues to improve its methodology and installations, and is now recognized as a model on a regional and international basis.  With the Humane Society, State Department and USAID, we are carrying out regional training workshops in the hope of building capacity in Latin America in wildlife rescue activities, with the longer range goal of establishing a regional network of wildlife trafficking control and rescue centers.

Two nights before Christmas, the ARCAS office in San Lucas was visited not by Santa Claus but by a bunch of burglers who were apparently worried that our computer and other equipment was getting out of date and decided to liberate us of it.  Quite a blow to us in this start of the new year!  We’re conducting a end-of-year fundraising drive to replace the equipment in case you can help out.

For more info on our work with ARCAS, we just updated our website at www.arcasguatemala.com and have established a second website for Cerro Alux at www.cerroalux.com

On a personal front, this year was one of many challenges and changes.  After 14 years, Silvia closed down her custom clothing business, a difficult decision to make but it was definitely time.  (Our garage is still full of sewing machines and cutting tables in case you know of anyone interested!) She gets constant calls from ex-clients pleading for her to re-open, but she’s moved on to painting, mainly on the marine theme, and is producing some really nice stuff.  You can see them at her facebook page.  In July, we welcomed Sofia and Annika back home after things didn’t work out with deadbeat Leonel.  It’s nice to have them back, is definitely a better environment for Annika, though it’s also been a struggle not having Sofia fall back into teenage habits.  She’s got a job lined up as an English teacher starting in January and is planning to start university.  Ricardo continues working at an ad company while getting his masters in Business Administration and pumping iron.  I’ve been dividing my time between ARCAS, riding the Beemer and trompsing around Cerro Alux looking at the birds.  Last week, I decided to climb Tajamulco, the highest volcano in Central America, on the same day that a freak cold wave moved in and dumped 10 inches of snow on the volcano, something that almost never happens.   We cancelled the trip to Tajumulco, instead climbing San Antonio and Chicabal.  Only 14 volcanoes left!

So, it’s definitely been a tough year, but like people around the world, we’re holding on, looking forward to things improving in 2010.  I hope everything’s good there for you.  If there’s any way you could help out with a donation to replace our office equipment, please let me know.  And if you ever want to visit us here in Guatemala, also, please let us know.

Abrazos,

Colum


Asociación Rescate y Conservación de Vida Silvestre/Wildlife Rescue and Conservation Association (ARCAS)

Intl Mail Address:  Section 717,  PO Box 52-7270, Miami,  FL  33152-7270  USA

Street Address:   Km. 30 Calle Hillary Lote 6  Casa Villa Conchita, San Lucas Sacatepequez, Guatemala
Telphone: (502)7830-1374 (Phone/Fax), 7830-4273,  5704-2563 (Colum cell)

E-mail: arcas@intelnet.net.gt

Website:  www.arcasguatemala.com

The Blog is Back! It took ten hours of bone rattling drive, intense thunderstorms and some precarious driving. It Now needs a bath to get the sand out of its ears!

December 29, 2009

We are back safe, sound and with several kilos of dust and grit in the cooler box, our hair, ears, every where else really  – and I do not lie! Not one burst tyre!

A fantastic trip North!

Prepare yourself for lots of info on Damaraland that should prove practical if you are planning a visit.  You should. If you are not planning an expedition, but are simply interested in Bushman culture and prehistoric rock art, wildlife, geology, breaking your neck, the Damaras and tourist behaviour,  I think you will find something to keep you awake.

That’s for tomorrow.

Right now my beloved wife, Midi, and our equally beloved daughter Annabel, are hogging the bath.

What is it with women and juvenile females hogging baths?

Any advice welcome as always.

While I wait for them to stop hogging the bath, here are some more questions:

1. Why would a Bushman inscribe an image of a penguin and a seal on sand stone cliffs many miles inland of the sea? 4,000 years  ago?

2. Why are there so many petroglyphs depicting giraffe and rhino?

3. Why would an image, carefully cut into a sand stone rock face, depict a lion with five toes and a very long tail that looks as if it might end in a burst of fur but that might also seem to have five fingers?

4. What’s a hippo petroglyph doing there? On top of an arid mountain? Date disputed. Perhaps 2,000 years old.

5. Why is the kudu petroglyph dancing?

Two final questions (THEY ARE STILL IN THE BATH!!! I HAVE NOTHING BUT TIME!!!)

1. Why didn’t I get into the bath first? Why didn’t I elbow them aside and assert myself? I’m meant to be the Alpha Male!

2. Why do morons spray rock images, world wide, with Coca Cola?

Answers to this Blog on Reply.

No prizes, I regret.  This is a stingy Blog. When the hits start hitting several million it will become a very generous Blog.

Cheers! And, as always, best wishes! Hope your Christmas was as wonderful as ours.

Hugh

Namibia Does Its Bit For Global Warming

December 22, 2009

Namibia sent 37 delegates to Copenhagen. En route and return they collectively added more than 59 tonnes of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere (as well as wracking up an impressive $581,552 bill in travel and subsistence allowances).

The delegation’s message to the world? Developed countries cause all the pollution so they should pay to solve the problem.

Nice going fellahs! Couldn’t you have just sent a fax?

Blog on Holiday

December 22, 2009

For the next six days we will be up north in the Damaraland wilderness. The Blog will not be operating during our absence but will let you know all about the trip on our return on the 29th.

Have a very merry Christmas!

Us

PS I’ve just noticed that a lot of messages and comments sent by readers were automatically consigned to the Spam dustbin. I don’t know why this happens but if you wrote and didn’t get a response this is the reason. I’ll try and sort this problem out.

Cheers!

Wildlife Rescue in Guatemala: Fighting the Criminals, Helping the People

December 21, 2009

As you will have guessed from the title of this post, this doesn’t really have much to do with Namibia, although illegal wildlife traffic here is still an issue.

But even if Namibia is your main reason for visiting this Blog, Colum Muccio, who is running the wild life conservation project in Guatemala is an old friend, very persistent and what he is doing is worth having a look at.

It is also worth pointing out that despite sharing a car with him on a 12,000 mile road trip across North America, down through Mexico and into Guatemala I still don’t know how to spell his name with confidence. It annoys him intensely!

The illegal traffic in wildlife products (or wildlife to feed the equally illegal exotic pet trade) ranks third after drugs and weaponry in scale.

Check www.arcasguatemala.com

Competent Volunteers Welcome.

It’s not a bad website and has interesting links. Volunteering is also an exciting experience! I won’t forget releasing 30 green iguanas (confiscated by the cops from smugglers then restored to good health by ARCAS) in a rain forest river bed after a grueling drive and a hectic boat expedition.

Somebody said, ” When you are old it’s not the things that you did you will regret. It’s the things that you didn’t do.”

I reckon whoever said it, got it right.

Enough philosophy.

Cheers!

Hugh

US Pressure on Uganda to Suspend Plans to Execute Gays

December 21, 2009

The leading US Govt Africa expert, fearing that executing gays could set a precedent that other African nations might imitate, delivered a stern warning. He got the name of the country wrong, admittedly. Rwanda might sound like Uganda but it’s a different country. You don’t have to be gay to be executed in Rwanda. When the country’s in genocide-mode anybody will do.

But the American guy meant well.

The blunder reminded me of an encounter I had with Charlton Heston during “Operation Restore Hope” in Somalia. We met, by chance, in a tent while somebody was bombarding Bardera with mortars and Charlton had clearly had enough of the heat, the flies and the mortars. He was wearing an outfit that closely resembled the kit he was wearing when he starred as Moses. He even had the staff.

“We’ve got to leave these Ethiopians to take control and responsibility for their country,” he told me while signing some bemused GI’s dollar bill.

The same GI had just complained to me that he’d come to Somalia to “feed the kids and give out food to hungry people like women and things. I didn’t think these people could behave like they’re doing. What am I doing here?”

Come on Americans! You’ve got the best of intentions. Charlton was visiting to raise troop morale and build bridges with the local population. Some chance of that! The French Foreign Legion were breaking bandit heads, the Australians were doing the same and the average pitifully terrorised Somali loved them for it. These peacekeepers were consistent. The US presence struck me as just plain confused.

So here’s a quick letter to America. I repeat myself; as a nation and individuals you strike me as a people with good intentions. But it is always helpful to know which country you are talking to and in which country you are currently resident! And why you’re there.

Desert Rhinos and Lots of Children

December 20, 2009

Hi chaps!

Another post. This flurry of blog activity isn’t an indication of obsessive behaviour. I’m on baby sitting duty and I’m keeping half an eye on children in the swimming pool. They’re excellent swimmers and the chances of them drowning are about as high as the chances of me winning the ongoing Lions Club Advent Calendar competition. Zip!

But if anybody does drown, their parents will kill me.

So I’m here on the stoep and sifting through stories that I’ve written, that might be of interest and that I can recycle while being interrupted every 30 seconds by some child yelling “Hugh Paxton! Do Great White Sharks only eat good people?” or “ Hugh Paxton! Is it true you have a talking cupboard in your bed room?” Or “Hugh Paxton! Did you stick your knife in its belly?” Or “Daddy, I’ve got water in my ears!” Or “You’ve knocked my goggles off. Do you do that to a guest?” Or, “Daddy! There’s an octopus!” Or, “All my clothes are covered in ants”…

Strictly speaking I should be writing a story about Scarlet Macaws for a Japanese magazine. But that needs concentration. Today isn’t making that possible. I love children. But as concentration aids? Nope. I want a refund!

So here’s something about a Japanese Formula 1 driver who went mad, endangered black rhinos and a film crew.

This blog is dedicated to Blythe Loutit, who sadly died of breast cancer. She was my dear friend, a lovely woman, a gifted artist and if you get charged then gored by a desert rhino in Damaraland it’s all her fault. She helped save them. She really did. Her husband Rudi is alive and well and is keeping up the good work.

Hey ho! Let’s Go!

START:

We are in the Kunene wilderness region of north west Namibia, with former F-1 star, Ukyo Katayama, an NHK documentary team (NHK is Japan’s national TV broadcaster), a bunch of bloody-minded camels, several battered off road vehicles, half a hundred local tribesmen and Namibian wildlife artist, Blythe Loutit, founder of The Save the Rhino Trust (SRT). We’re looking for rhinos.

Not any old rhinos either. Namibia is home to almost 30% of Africa’s desperately endangered black rhino population. Namibia is also home to 97% of the uniquely adapted subspecies of black rhino, known as the “desert rhino” (Diceros bicornis bicornis). Kunene is the heart of their territory; covering tens of thousands of square kilometers of rugged mountains, boulder plains, sun scorched grasslands and ephemeral river beds.

This isn’t, at first glance, the sort of place that one could possibly imagine a rhino wanting to live in.

The adjective for Kunene is “harsh”.

As our cameraman exclaimed incredulously, as he squinted through the ferocious glare, at a surreal landscape seemingly devoid of a trace of greenery, “What do they eat?”

In fact, despite the overwhelmingly barren vistas that surround us, this is perfect desert rhino habitat. These ponderous 1,400 kg creatures have perfected the neat trick of eating desert plants that would frustrate virtually every other herbivore. With their powerful molars they can crush needle-sharp thorns, mash wood, and their stomachs are capable of dealing with plants such as the euphorbia, the sap of which is toxic and, at the very least, can cause blindness if brought into contact with the eye or excruciating rashes if it touches exposed skin.

Helpful hint: If you happen to be pitching a tent in Kunene, do not attempt to make a campfire out of euphorbia stems. The poisonous smoke can kill you.

The sheer size of a desert rhino, strangely enough, enables it to keep cool. The ratio between skin surface and body volume is small, meaning they lose less moisture and absorb less heat through their skin. In high summer when temperatures soar to the high 30s, mid 40s they climb crags to catch a cooling breeze from the distant Atlantic Ocean.

There are predators here. Desert adapted lions, which prey on the seal colonies on the coast and the occasional beached whale, will sometimes kill rhinos. Spotted hyenas have been known to sneak up on snoozing rhinos and bite off their tails. Hyenas will also have a go at juveniles. But overall, the rhinos along with Kunene’s immense desert elephants (the largest in the world), rule the roost.

It hasn’t always been this way. A poaching epidemic in the 1980s brought them to the brink of extinction. Thanks to Save The Rhino Trust (SRT) instigated by Blythe and husband Rudi, and with the help of local tribal chiefs and some hyperactive government conservation officials, peace has been restored. Rhino numbers are growing at a rate of 2% a year and Namibia has set a target of 3,000 rhinos by the year 2030. To put this figure into perspective, there were only 2,400 black rhinos left alive in the whole of Africa in 1980. In 1970 there were 65,000.

So there’s still work to be done and SRT is doing it; routinely patrolling 25,000 kms sq of Kunene on foot, on donkey, on camel and in their long-suffering vehicles; staying in touch with remote settlements, monitoring the rhinos, maintaining a database of wildlife, and making sure what Loutit calls “the terrible times” don’t return.

I’ve never worked with a Japanese ‘tarento’ (Japanese for a famous person) before and wasn’t entirely sure that I wanted to this time. By and large tarentos (particularly comedians, eyelash fluttering bimbos and transvestites) make me lunge for a barf bag then the TV off switch. In that order. But Katayama had made the rather rash claim that he was prepared to “challenge anything” and he lived up to the promise.

By the time he arrived in Kunene he’d been menaced by a leopard, gone eye to eye with a cheetah and been flown by a maniac of a pilot who for reasons unknown had engaged in a dog fight with another plane (before landing at the wrong airstrip). After only three days in Namibia our intrepid hero suffered a nervous breakdown and it took us a day to prise him out of his cabin. A total wreck! It was now time for him to join SRT’s desert patrols in search of rhino.

Although rhino have an excellent sense of smell, they are short sighted. When startled they tend to thunder off at high speed. And in any direction. In the interests of not getting smashed to a hash, I opted for a vehicle patrol and was dumb enough to bring my own vehicle. After ten bone jarring hours of very off road driving, a couple of severely flat tyres, the front left door fell off.

Sightings; oryx, a chameleon in a 1,000 year old welwitschia plant, a herd of 800 springbok, three desert elephant, two kudu, lots of giraffe, one fat Afrikaner and his terrified son stuck in a sand dune, three French tourists, one Damara man complaining that a lion had jumped his goat kraal the previous night and helped itself to the contents, and a large number of dust devils.

But no rhino. Back at camp, Katayama, who had opted for a camel patrol was in his tent listening to soothing sounds of the sea on his Walkman. After a day with the temperamental camels, he needed all the soothing he could get. Also he’d just missed stepping on an Egyptian cobra. Also there had just been a mass hatch – a plague proportion hatch – of omnivorous corn crickets. They were EVERYWHERE ! And I noted bleakly, they had eaten all my cigars, two bootlaces and a candle..

Katayama had, however, seen a rhino. Predictably enough, it had charged him. But then it had veered off. After he’d finished being soothed by his tape he emerged from his tent, eyes deranged, panicked and sparkling with a disturbing light.

“This,” he said, “is very different!”

Too true!

Heaven and Hell and Going Nuts: Seychelles (pt 2)

December 20, 2009

HEAVEN OR HELL?

The Vallee de Mai (Mai Valley) is a heavenly spot. But for some it is also a glimpse of hell or, as Milton put it, “Paradise Lost”.

It is certainly the birthplace of a botanical monster.

Before he got speared and chopped up into lots of small pieces in Khartoum by the Sudanese dervish followers of the Grand Mahdi, British General Gordon, paid a visit to Mai Valley.

THE GARDEN OF EDEN

Gordon decided that, here, on Praslin Island in the middle of the Indian Ocean, he had actually discovered the original site of the Garden of Eden.

The Vallee de Mai was, and still is, beautiful.

UNESCO has designated it a World Heritage Site. The Mai Valley is virginal, cut off from the world; a place of clean flowing mountain streams, mossy waterfalls and countless whispering palms that offer shade and shuffle their fronds in the tropical breeze creating the clean, peaceful sound of the sea.

Sun light breaks through the palm frond canopy in places in enchanting constantly shifting rays and shafts of light. It is an artist’s dream.

But it wasn’t simply the beauty of the place that made General Gordon decide he’d found Eden. It was what grows here and virtually nowhere else on earth – the coco de mer palm.

SEX AND GIANT NUTS

This vast palm produces nature’s largest and heaviest seed. Nuts regularly exceed 20 kgs in weight. But it is their shape that has fascinated people for centuries.

The nuts resemble the voluptuous hips of a woman, both front and back. They are about the same size, too. The unintentional mimicry is uncannily exact – there is even a whiskery tuft of “pubic hair”. In the right place.

Taking the whole thing further, only female plants produce young. Male plants instead put out a long dangling catkin that to quote our Lonely Planet guide book “resembles a you know what”. And it does.

Local folklore has it that the trees, which grow in pairs, move together to copulate and that anyone witnessing the act will be cursed.

Gordon decided that the coco de mer was the biblical Tree of Good and Evil Knowledge whose fruit Adam and Eve ate in defiance of God’s instructions leading to the awakening of their sexual self awareness and their subsequent expulsion from Paradise.

In defence of his tree of Eden theory, Gordon wrote, “it’s fruit externally resembles the heart, while the interior (the nut itself) represents the thighs and belly, which I consider as the true seat of carnal desires..”

Eden or not, the discovery of the Vallee de Mai and its unique botanical inhabitants brought an end to centuries of speculation as to the origins of the vast nuts.

Mariners and explorers had found them floating far out at sea but had never seen an actual living plant.

For reasons still unknown the coco de mer will naturally germinate nowhere other than on Praslin Island, and the two nearby islands of Curieuse and Silhouette in the Seychelles archipelago. Even now, only a few of the world’s best botanical gardens have managed to grow them.

TAKING IT SLOW

Complicating human inspired coco de mer cultivation is the tree’s laid back metabolism. A tree only begins to contemplate fruit and nut production after 25 years of growth and then each fruit and nut takes seven years to mature. Three out of seven fruit don’t even bother but just fall off, guaranteeing a serious headache for anyone taking a nap in the immediate vicinity.

The palm then leisurely grows for up to 1,000 years before finally reaching a height of 30 meters and being knocked over by a tropical storm. Odd little craters in the Vallee de Mai mark the passing of fallen trees. Even these take time to go. A coco de mer ‘grave’ which is the husk of its base can linger for 60 years.

UNDERSEA FORESTS, THE GARUDA BIRD AND ITALIAN POISONERS

Before explorers put the Mai Valley on the map, some people believed that coco de mer nuts grew on forests at the bottom of the sea – hence their name, which translates as the coconut of the sea. In India they were believed to have medicinal properties. The Indonesians thought that they grew in the tree of the mythical garuda bird. In late Renaissance Europe, particularly Italy where assassination was a politician’s best friend, they were valued as proof against poison. They were made into cups and commanded huge prices.

HUGE PRICES

They’re still pretty pricy. But then again so is Praslin Island in general.

The Seychelles government – has opted for the “high quality low impact ” tourism model. In plain English this means that anyone who is seduced by its brochure photos of tropical paradise and books a vacation here pays through the nose.

This policy allegedly discourages mass tourism (beach bums, travelers, working slobs, people like you and me) but stops environmental overload and Waikiki beach style over development. In principle this is great. Not very Marxist, true, but, eco-friendly.

In reality, the Seychelles hurts. It is far too expensive.

A modestly sized coco de mer nut with export certificate will set you back anything up to US$500. If you are after a whopper then consult your bank manager and consider re mortgaging your house.

To put this in perspective, a plate of the sort of sludgy spaghetti meat sauce you might have found in an ailing 1960’s era Tokyo coffee shop can set you back $20. The hotels and guest houses on Praslin island have adopted the high price element, too. But they’ve not got around to applying ‘quality ‘ standards. They’re OK.

So modern day visitors walk through the Eden of Mai Valley in two minds. They are entrapped by the paradiscal beauty of the trees and nearby empty beaches  but always there is that awful, one might even say hellish, fear of the bill that’s coming their way when they sit down later to eat. Sleep. Do anything, really.

The Mai Valley is a paradise.

But to misquote Milton, “Paradise Costs!”


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