Archive for July, 2010

Brigitte’s Pick: Henrietta. Now you will know why the chicken crossed the road!

July 31, 2010

Supernatural Short Story: Night Fall

July 30, 2010

NIGHT FALL

(from H.Paxton’s Tales From The Deuteronomy Club)

Quention Thratt was tired and irritable as he approached Watton and the sight of four peasants blocking the road with what appeared to be a gigantic ladle did little to improve his state of mind.

Thratt slowed his horse.  The four men grappled with their ladle, one end of which (the handle end) was snagged in the blackthorn hedge that lined the lane.

Thratt waited for what seemed to him to be more than long enough then cleared his throat.  The four men, intent upon their burden, ignored him.

“I say,” said Thratt.

The four men turned their heads and stared at him.  Sweat dribbled from their ox-like faces.

“I say,” said Thratt again.  “This is a public thoroughfare.  I am a man of some importance and have ridden far on a day that I need not tell you has been exceedingly hot.  Could I importune you stalwart fellows to lay down your enormous ladle–if ladle indeed it is–and allow me to proceed to the Cunning Man Inn where I have reserved accommodation for this night?”

“Are you a wizzerd?” asked one of the men with what Thratt interpreted as considerable enthusiasm.

“A what?”

“A wizzerd,” the man said.

Thratt had little understanding of the Norfolk argot and a temporary disinclination to lengthy communication with those of peasant stock.  He drew himself up in the saddle and a chilly, superior voice disclosed his calling.

“I am an actuary clerk.”

“A what?” said the peasant.

Thratt, much against his better judgement, decided to explain.

*   *   *

“We were expecting you a little earlier Master Thratt,” said Boddick Dell, the landlord of the Cunning Man showing his guest into the tap-room where a plate of sliced meat was attracting flies and a tankard of wine was busily drowning them.

Quentin Thratt holding forth

Quentin Thratt holding forth in "The Cunning Man Inn"

Thratt mopped at his forehead with a handkerchief.  If really was a confoundedly warm evening.

“Some delays on the road,” he said tersely.  “I hope that I have not disturbed you at your dinner?”

“Nope,” said Dell.  “But my wife’s laid yours out and it’s ready waiting for you.”  Dell gestured at the meat and drink.

Norfolk, thought Thratt, was turning out to be everything everybody had told him it would turn out to be.

After retiring to his room and flinging open the windows in the hope of inviting a breeze, Thratt clambered wearily into bed and was no sooner asleep than he was woken by a crash of breaking glass and buffoonish bellowing from the street.  He peered out and was greeted by the sight of five men pulling a ladder, or what appeared to be a ladder, from which dangled several anchors and a pig skin tied with thread and stuffed with some unknown substance. This last accoutrement had the form of a bladder.  One end of the ladder was jammed in the casement of the Cunning Man’s taproom and the men were busy about it’s release.

*   *   *

By 3 o’clock that morning Thratt had had more than enough.  No sooner had the ladder been extricated and passed westwards up the high street to sounds of cheers, than a singular commotion broke out in the vicinity of the churchyard.  The night was a particularly dark one and while Thratt could never be entirely sure, it seemed to him that a large crowd of women, a regiment almost, if the noise was any true indicator of the matter, were attempting to unravel a net that had become exceedingly complicated about the gravestones.  A feeble, querulous voice–Thratt was somehow put in mind of the clergy by its tones–was raised against the hubbub either in condemnation or encouragement.

Thratt writhed between his sheets, stuffed hard pillows against his ears, muttered, gnashed and then leapt for the third time that night from his bed.  He seized the candlestick, struck a match and in the flaring, spitting light made his way angrily downstairs in search of Dell and an explanation.  “For if they have decided upon this night to throw a Fool’s Carnival, then the landlord has no right, being mindful of the circumstances, to accept the custom of a gentleman,” thought Thratt angrily.  “Particularly in a room that overlooks the main street!”

He burst into the taproom and into the company of Dell who was upon his hand and knees with a small brush sweeping at shards of glass.

“If it is the custom of this village to throw a Fool’s Carnival on this night,” began Thratt.  “Then you as a landlord have no right…”

“Watch the feet, sir”, interrupted Dell and then hauled himself slowly upwards.  “Now, begging your pardon and with no offence, but you mentioned a carnival?”

“I refer to the ladles, Mr. Dell.  I refer to the ladders, the mobs, the nets, the pandemonium!”

“No carnival, Master,” said the publican moving forwards and pressing his face close upon Thratt.  “Not that at all.  No, sir.  This is a mighty serious business and not one that a a man like myself could anticipate so as to warn gentlefolk.”

“Kindly explain.”

“It’s the moon sir,” said Dell with a helpless smile.  “We’re trying to get it out.  It’s fallen in our pond.”

Thratt had read Descartes and he had done so, not in translation but in the original French.  Thratt’s grasp of Polish dog-latin was perhaps tenuous, but that did not mean that Thratt was a man prepared to disregard the observations of Copernicus.  Nor was he unacquainted with subsequent developments in the fields of astronomy, geography or physics.  Newton was a man with whom Thratt felt at ease.  The scientific journals that circulated in the London coffee shops were friends.  Thratt was more than an actuary clerk and, in this moment, he felt it keenly.  Thratt was a Modern Man.

Some modern men, when told that the moon had fallen into a pond would have bristled at the suggestion, believing themselves victims of a joke, or following hard upon the wretched meal served earlier, an insult.  Others might have laughed.  Or jeered.  Or fled the house.  But as Thratt stared into the earnest, foolish eyes of his host, his heart was moved by pity.

Thratt determined to put aside petulant complaint and step forwards.  “It is at moments such as this that the human condition advances,” he thought.  “Why, I, a single man, can make such advances here in this villages with its preposterous vitality that shall set it on a glowing path towards sense, rationality and the use of logic as a tool, in a way that no other can.  I can dismay them, and using this dismay uplift them.  I shall be more than a beacon of hope.  I shall be the brush that scrubs the medieval cobwebs from their souls!”

Thratt thrilled with noble purpose.

“Summon the village!” he announced in tones of thunder.

“Sir?” muttered the landlord uncertainly.
“The village, my good man! Summon it.  I shall rid you of your moon!”

"It's the moon sir," said Dell with a helpless smile.  "We're trying to get it out.  It's fallen in our pond."

"It's the moon sir," said Dell with a helpless smile. "We're trying to get it out. It's fallen in our pond."

*   *   *

The village, as it rapidly emerged, was already awake and gathered itself with alacrity and flaring torches outside the Cunning Man.  For some moments a brisk chant of “The Wizzerd!” went up but Thratt shushed this with what some took to be magical wave of his arm.  It is certain that, dressed as he was in a rumpled night-shirt, wearing a dangling night-cap, and leaning at a dangerously enthusiastic angle from the first floor window, Thratt looked more of a wizard than an actuary clerk, but on hearing the chant and having its meaning explained to him, Thratt spoke forth in strident tones.

“Good people I am no wizard!” he called.  “I am an actuary clerk!”

“A what?” shouted someone.

Thratt, however, had no intention of getting into all that again.  “It doesn’t matter,” he called.  “I have something very important to tell you.”

There was silence.  Thratt stared down into the upturned faces, noted the round eyes, the gapes, the turnip-like stolidity of them.

“But first,” he said “I will show you the true nature of the moon that you believe has fallen into your pond.  There will be time for explanations later.”

Cheers followed this pronouncement and the mob followed Thratt as he made his way to the pond.

*   *   *

The pond was that sort of pond which by day supports smug flotillas of fat ducks.  In this dark night, however, it had a dead, leaden appearance and the torches that the peasants held cast somewhat disconcerting lights upon its surface.

Thratt approached with confidence but the villagers hung back, spreading out behind him as timidity was overcome by the desire for a good view.  The onlookers quickly formed a crescent some yards to his rear.

Thratt noticed that the bull rushes and other reeds that fringed the water had been badly trampled by clogs and he carefully avoided a nest of wet pitchforks that had been discarded.  Recently, judged Thratt.

“I am looking at a reflective surface,” shouted Thratt back over his shoulder.  “Water is in this sense very like a mirror.”

Thratt waded into the shallows and stared very hard at the pond.  He saw what he had expected to see.  The moon.

“Gentlemen, Ladies, you are familiar with the Wiltshire moonrakers legend?  Those rakers, who deluded by the…”

Thratt paused and looked at the moon that appeared so deeply submerged in the black waters of the pond.  It was certainly a very convincing thing for the hot night was airless and no wind rippled the surface.

Something about the sight caught at Thratt.  He peered more closely at the moon.

And as he did so, the moon, the shiny disk of glowing silver, rose up to meet him.  As it rose it grew, as if rising from depths and at great speed.

It swelled and loomed and reached the surface.  And there it appeared to float, in size, that is to say in the size of its circumference and radius, almost that of the pond.  In thickness it seemed like that of a wafer.

If this were in itself not enough, the moon had on its cratered surface a face as if seen in profile.  The face of this moon, they eye on the face of the moon, glared at Thratt.  The lips of the Moon fluted as if whistling although no noise came from the pond and the surface of the pond gave no ripple, being as smooth and undisturbed as a mirror.
A mirror.  Horrid thought!  Mr. Thratt glanced upwards but the night sky was a dark–as moonless–as before.  Nothing hovered above him.

Before he turned away from the pond, and made his way back to the waiting villagers, Mr. Thratt forced his gaze back at the disconcerting waters.  The moon was still there but it was receding.  Shrinking.  Now a penny, now a ha’penny, until at last it winked out.

The water lapped very cold about his ankles.

The moon reappeared and then, in the manner of a bobbin spun by a child upon a string, it plunged away and reappeared.  Receded and advanced.  And as it did so it did something rather horrible with its chin.

Thratt left the pond in haste.

The crowd waited.

Thratt willed himself to summon a sober voice.  It came, but it came reluctantly, and he had little idea of what it was that it ought to say once it had arrived. “I suggest,” he began.  “I suggest…”

The faces stared.  The crowd shuffled not a foot.  There was a muted ripple from the pool behind him.  And then a slurp and flurry of frothing, brief admittedly, but of a particularly offensive nature.

“I suggest,” said Thratt with sudden urgency, “I suggest you catch it and put it back where it should be as quickly as possible.”

“And God speed,” he added fervently.

With these words  Thratt urged on the anchored ladder and the bladder, beckoned the women forwards with their net, and was exceedingly gratified to note that four men to the back of the crowd had had the forethought not to discard their ladle.

He mounted his horse without further haste and left at speed for Suffolk.

"I suggest," said Thratt with sudden urgency, "I suggest you catch it and put it back where it should be as quickly as possible."

Suzi’s Bit: The Taxman and the Rabbi

July 30, 2010

Here’s another good one from Suzi!

“At the end of the tax year, the Tax Office sent an inspector to audit the books of a Synagogue.

While he was checking the books he turned to the Rabbi and said, ‘I notice you buy a lot of candles. What do you do with the candle drippings?’

‘Good question,’ noted the Rabbi. ‘We save them up and send them back to the candle makers, and every now and then they send us a free box of candles.’

‘Oh,’ replied the auditor, somewhat disappointed that his unusual question had a practical answer.

But on he went, in his obnoxious way:

‘What about all these bread-wafer purchases? What do you do with the crumbs?’

‘Ah, yes,’ replied the Rabbi, realizing that the inspector was trying to trap him with an unanswerable question. ‘We collect them and send them back to the manufacturers, and every now and then they send us a free box of bread-wafers.’

‘I see,’ replied the auditor, thinking hard about how he could fluster the know-it-all Rabbi. ‘Well, Rabbi,’ he went on, ‘what do you do with all the leftover foreskins from the circumcisions you perform?’

‘Here, too, we do not waste,’ answered the Rabbi…

‘What we do is save all the foreskins and send them to the Tax Office, and about once a year they send us a complete dick.'”

Volcano, a new series. Indonesia: Big Booms, New Life.

July 27, 2010

 

Hugh Paxton’s Blog promised you Colum’s Column, news from our long suffering, underpaid, overworked  conservationist friend in Guatemala. Colum came through with a good post but has since fallen silent. One of his goals is to climb every volcano in Central America and I’m hoping this new series will inspire him to haul his hairy arse out of the rainforest (or off a volcano) and sit down in front of his computer.  

This one’s from the Hugh Paxton archives, but worth a glance if you like volcanos. It was first written in 2000 but the facts remain the same.

Hey ho! Let’s go! 

2000, Krakatau

Five days and 116 years ago, a small island in the Sunda Straight between Java and Sumatra exploded. They heard Krakatau go bang in Perth, Australia. And 4,600 km to the west they heard it too, on Rodrigues Island in the middle of the Indian Ocean. The airwave it created hit Bogota, Colombia, on the other side of the world 19 hours later. It then bounced, back and forth, seven times. Krakatau’s 40-meter-tall tsunami killed 40,000 Javans and Sumatrans, drowned one person in distant Ceylon and hit Le Havre, France, 32 hours later. (By that time, the killer wave was just 1 cm in height.) Sunsets around the world were extravagant with light flamed by floating ash for weeks afterward. Krakatau was not the biggest volcanic eruption in human history. In 1815, the Tambura eruption on Sumbawa Island (also Indonesia) lifted “five times the rock and ash,” according to Harvard biologist E.O. Wilson’s magnificent book, “The Biodiversity of Life.” And 75,000 years ago, an eruption in central Sumatra (Indonesia again!) punched out an impressive 1,000 cubic km of solid matter. There’s a lake there now. Krakatau was, nevertheless, a big one. The captain of a British ship lying 222 km south that day reported encountering “carcasses of animals including even those of tigers . . . besides enormous trunks of trees borne along by the current.” When the ash settled, Krakatau, formerly the size of Manhattan, had largely ceased to exist. What remained was Rakata, a completely lifeless chunk of rock at the southern end of the former island. And Rakata presented the scientific world with a unique opportunity. This sterilized environment offered early zoologists an unrivaled “living laboratory” in which to study the recolonizing process of life. The ship’s naturalist on a French vessel that searched Rakata for life forms nine months after the eruption, found just one: a spider. Although the Frenchman was perplexed by the presence of this lonely colonist, scientists now believe the spider arrived by ballooning _ a process in which the spider spins a web and, like a kite, is wafted by the wind sometimes many thousands of meters in height and for distances of hundreds of kilometers. Indeed, the earth’s atmosphere is full of balloonists and other insects caught by strong updrafts. They form an airborne drift, known as aeolian plankton, that settles here or there at the whim of the wind. Subsequent scientific visits to Rakata recorded new arrivals. Birds and bats, naturally. There’s no mystery about how they colonize islands (although, interestingly, many forest bird species refuse to cross large areas of water). There were also more surprising immigrants: a reticulated python (which reaching lengths of 10 meters is the world’s largest snake species); geckoes; rats. All of them presumably swam the considerable distance from the mainland or rafted over on floating vegetation. Unlike the volcanic Galapagos Islands where scientists believe it took on average 80,000 years for each new species to became settled (even the giant tortoises had to float 1,600 km from Ecuador), Rakata soon became rather crowded. By 1930, there were 300 species of plants alone. In 1999, as our speed boat sliced through calm water beneath the bluest skies, there was little indication that this island had ever been seared by burning gas and ash. Vivid tropical greens completely smothered Rakata. Eagles spiraled overhead. It was as peaceful and thriving a chunk of biodiversity as one could wish. The same could not be said of Anak Krakatau (“Child of Krakatau”) which burst out of the sea just east of Rakata in 1927 and has been erupting, on and off, ever since. The last burst of violent activity occurred between 1992 and 1995, claiming the life of an American visitor. The recolonization of life on Anak Krakatau is dramatically obvious. A monitor lizard, disturbed by our arrival, padded away. These entrepreneurial omnivores manage to scrounge a living on dead marine life that washes ashore. Carnivorous grasshoppers whirred through the air. Flowering creepers snaked across the beach. For several hundred meters inland, tropical fir forest and giant pandanus palms swayed in the rising breeze. Today, Anak Krakatau is at least 350 meters high, and growing. It’s a tough climb and it wants to twist your ankles. Wild sugar cane clumps mark the last inroads of vegetation; thereafter it’s pumice, ash, sulphurous vents, lava bombs and splendid desolation, arcing sharply up to the steaming summit crater. Looking down from the heights you can clearly see the battle between life, pushing up, and catastrophic forces pushing it back. Visits to the volcano are best topped off with a refreshing but bizarre spot of snorkeling. There are the usual marine marvels: giant clams, vivid clownfish weaving unharmed through the stinging tentacles of their host anemones, fluttering wrasses and so on. The underwater reef world, as anyone knows who has been there, is far from silent. There is the faint grinding scrunch as parrotfish nip and crunch hard coral with their beaks. The occasional squeak or grunt. Off Rakata these sounds are augmented from time to time by a threatening, thudding grumble — almost a groan — as Anak Krakatau shifts uneasily. Getting to the volcanoes presents no difficulties. It can be done as a day trip from Jakarta, three hours’ drive and one and a half speedboat hours away. A safer option is to stay overnight at one of the many sea front inns, though. Although the dry season sees calm waters, for most of the year the weather is fickle, as we discovered. It was a hellish return trip. From a perfect, cloudless morning was born an afternoon of lowering clouds and fast, gusting winds that churned the Sunda Straight into violent life. The speedboat thudded across the angry waves like a sledge that has run out of snow. Drenched, battered, shaken and stirred, my heart went out to the monitor lizard that had to swim through this sort of stuff before taking up precarious residence on some of the world’s most temperamental real estate. But that’s life, I guess. Tough. Hiring a speedboat seating six costs roughly $ 100 and can be arranged by Sam Hidaya. Tel: 0253-81074 Fax: 0253-82400. If you want to push your luck, you can also camp overnight on Anak Krakatau.

Brigitte’s Pick: Love in a mental hospital

July 27, 2010

Zambia: It’s Fairly Easy to Find the Zambezi (part one of two parts)

July 26, 2010

 “This isn’t a car document,” the customs official says, his forehead creased in suspicion.

All around is the chaos characteristic of a Mugabe-era Zimbabwe border crossing. Milling herds of hot, frustrated travelers, wailing babies, huge trucks destined for the Congo grinding gears and fuming, dodgy-looking foreign-exchange dealers ducking and weaving in and out with fistfuls of useless Zimbabwe dollars, papers strewn like confetti on the ground along with mashed banana peels . . . bedlam, purgatory, as the rusty cogs of a rotting bureaucracy slowly turn.

 

News photo
A manually operated pontoon that functions as a tributary ferry

 

“This is a license to import light aircraft,” the official continues.

“It most certainly is,” I explain, as gawkers gather, hoping to witness a fight (increasingly likely) or an arrest (also increasingly likely). More people arrive to watch.  Anything to relieve the frustration and boredom.

 

“The border post at Plumtree issued it to us,” I add. “It was the only type of document they had left.”

A mere three hours of brain-numbing argument later, we have our license to import light aircraft revoked (shame really, it would have made a great souvenir and might have come in handy if we ever decided to import light aircraft). The onlookers disperse. No fights. No arrests. BORING!

Our passports are stamped. We are free to proceed.

Thus begins our canoe trip down the Lower Zambezi.

Helpful hint No. 1: Don’t enter Zambia from Zimbabwe. Fly to Zambia’s capital, Lusaka, instead.

Until recently, the Lower Zambezi was very much an undiscovered tourist destination. Strictly speaking, it still is. But that doesn’t make canoeing across it particularly tricky.

Unless, of course, it is the rainy season, when the venture is tantamount to suicide. Legend has it the Tonga river-god, Nyaminyami, was infuriated by the construction of the Kariba Dam upstream in 1960, and to judge by the river in murderous, rainy-season flood, he still hasn’t calmed down.

 

News photo
Unforgettable silhouettes and fiery sunsets along the Zambezi River
News photo

 

I am pleased to inform you, that when I made the Zambezi’s aquaintance the river God’s mood had improved.

The Zambezi was  no longer a raging torrent. It was  back in placid mode.

The water is clean, sweet, drinkable and very often as  smooth as a mirror.

Here’s how the canoe expedition works. There is a consortium of comfortable riverbank safari lodges spaced at canoeable intervals along the Zambian bank. If you are wisely flying in to Lusaka, the lodges will arrange airport pickup and transfer. It’s an interesting four-hour drive from Zambia’s colorful capital to the river, crossing a series of mountain passes abundantly littered with skeletal husks of crashed, abandoned or burned-out buses, cars and trucks.

Hugh Paxton’s Blog rates it the vehicular equivalent of the elephant’s graveyard. Here Zambia’s groggiest vehicles come to die.

If you are arriving overland from Zimbabwe, you must first cross the Zambezi on a geriatric car ferry, then cross a smaller tributary on a manually winched pontoon. The boatmen sing melodiously as they crank the handles. It is what South Africans describe as a “real Africa” experience.

No matter where you are coming from, you turn up at the first lodge after driving along the Lower Zambezi Highway (which is, in fact a rutted, mud track, totally impassable in the rains).

Then you spend as long as you need to recover from the ordeals of getting there. You sip gin-and-tonic sundowners and take in the fiery African sunsets, while hippos wallow and snort. You half-watch the river while flicking through bird books, or read an Agatha Christie novel and wonder who shot Colonel Protheroe in St. Mary’s Mead vicarage and why you care.

That sort of thing. Most relaxing.

When jet lag or border-crossing lag has faded, you hop into canoes (or, if you prefer, a motorboat) and off you go downstream. Canoeists are accompanied by a guide and, if they’re feeling lazy, a stout individual with a paddle. If they’re paranoid, the lodges can also lay on a guy with an AK-47.

The Zambezi is not the longest of Africa’s rivers – that distinction goes to the Nile – but it is one of the continent’s greatest water courses. It rises in the Angolan highlands and discharges 2,700 km later into the Indian Ocean on the flood-prone coast of Mozambique.

The Lower Zambezi’s banks are lined with occasional bursts of tamarind trees. These are the botanical footprints of Arab and black African slavers based in Zanzibar and other fortresses along the east coast. The slavers were fond of tamarinds and left seeds wherever they went.

An ugly trade but a beautiful legacy.

Vying with the tamarinds are dense forests of acacia, strangling figs, Natal mahogany and the occasional African ebony tree. There are also sausage trees named after their dangling, sausage-shaped, heavily armored seed pods, which can weigh up to 5 kg. Sitting under a sausage tree is not recommended.

WHEN IS A SAUSAGE TREE NOT CALLED A SAUSAGE TREE?

1. WHEN IT HAS JUST KILLED YOU.

The pods fall like mortar shells. Direct cranial hit. Lights out. You can’t call it anything because you are dead.

2. When It Is Called The Fat Tail Of A …

One African name for the sausage tree translates as “the fat tail of a sheep.”

Obviously this was decided in an era before sausages. And come to think of it, I didn’t see any sheep in Zambia. A bit of a conundrum.

3. The Father Of All Kit Bags

The Arabic name tranlates as  “the father of all kit bags.” I’m not sure who came up with that one. Obviously he as an Arabian. But kit bags? Fathering kit bags? Hugh Paxton’s Blog is unable to see the reasoning behind this one.

The sausage tree is locally believed to be holy, and rather risky religious gatherings are held in its shade. The ripe fruit pulp, while inedible to anything except giraffes and hippopotamuses, is sometimes mixed with honey to make beer . . . but we digress.

The initial banks of the Lower Zambezi are a designated wildlife management zone. This serves as a buffer to the Lower Zambezi National Park, which is, in fact, Zambia’s most recently designated national park. Local people are allowed to collect firewood and graze goats in the wildlife management zone, and this takes human pressures off the national park itself.

Zambia is poor. Fifty percent or more of the population is unemployed, and there is a great deal of what our guide described as “loafing” going on in the villages with their beehive-shaped mud huts. But Zambian people, by and large, are extraordinarily friendly and the first stretch of buffer-zone travel is regularly punctuated by shouts and waves and wide, bright Zambian smiles.

Then the wildlife management buffer zone falls behind, and it is wlderness time.See Part Two (when I’ve got round to posting it)

Nambian Days: The Fall and Rise of Rhinoceros (part two)

July 25, 2010

THE KUNENE WILDERNESS

The desert domain where the rhinos rule

 

 We are in the Kunene wilderness region of northwest Namibia, with former F-1 star Ukyo Katayama, an NHK documentary team, a bunch of bloody-minded camels, several battered off-road vehicles, about 50 local tribesmen and Namibian wildlife artist Blythe Loutit, founder of The Save the Rhino Trust (SRT). We’re looking for rhinos.

 

News photo
Springbok grazing

 

But not any old rhinos. Namibia is home to almost 30 percent of Africa’s desperately endangered black rhino population. Namibia is also home to 97 percent 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.

The adjective for Kunene is “harsh.” This isn’t at first glance the sort of place that one could imagine a rhino wanting to live in.

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

 

News photo
Rock monitor

 

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 any other herbivore. With their powerful molars they can crush needle-sharp thorns or 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. Its skin surface area — through which moisture is lost and heat absorbed — is small in proportion to its size. In the peak of summer, when temperatures soar to the high 30s or low 40s, the desert rhinos 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.

 

News photo
A Bushman petroglyph of rhino

 

It hasn’t always been this way. A poaching epidemic in the 1980s brought them to the brink of extinction (see previous column, which appeared on May 17). Thanks to SRT, though, and with the help of local tribal chiefs and some hyperactive government conservation officials, peace has been restored. Rhino numbers are growing at the rate of 2 percent 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 sq.km of Kunene on foot, donkey, camel and in their long-suffering vehicles; staying in touch with remote settlements, monitoring the rhinos, maintaining a database of wildlife, and making sure that what Loutit calls “the terrible times” don’t return.

I’ve never worked with a Japanese tarento before and wasn’t entirely sure that I wanted to this time. By and large, tarento (particularly comedians, eyelash-fluttering bimbos and transvestites) make me lunge for a barf bag and 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.

 

News photo
Dramatic view of the Kunene wilderness

 

By the time he arrived in Kunene he’d been menaced by a leopard, gone eye to eye with a cheetah and flown with a maniac of a pilot who (for reasons unknown) had engaged in a dog fight with another plane (before landing at the wrong airstrip). Unfazed, it was now time for him to join SRT’s desert patrols in search of rhinos.

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 10 bone-jarring hours of very off-road driving and a couple of severely flat tires, 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 tribesman 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. Plus 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 sparkling.

“This,” he said, “is very different!”

Too true!

Anyone interested in Saving rhinos is welcome to drop Hugh Paxton’s Blog  a line. 
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POST SCRIPT: It is with great sadness that I have to tell you that Save the Rhino founder, Blythe Loutit, has died of breast cancer. Her wild and wonderful husband, Rudy, continues her work. We sat by her grave on a Kunene mountain overlooking the land that she loved and had a drink together in her memory as the sun set. Out there the rhinos still thrive, their numbers increase.

Our NHK documentary won best doc of the year award in Tokyo. Katayama had a nervous breakdown. Hardly surprising.

Namibian Days: The Fall and Rise of Rhinoceros: Part One (of two parts)

July 25, 2010

INTO NAMIBIA

The fall and rise of rhinoceros

 

First of two parts Some years ago, the English adventurer Benedict Allen made the first solo crossing of the notoriously inhospitable but hauntingly beautiful Sand Dune Sea and the Kunene wilderness area of Namibia, in southwest Africa.

He filmed himself doing it.

 

News photo
A rhino at a watering hole

 

TV audiences were treated to numerous excruciating closeups of Allen developing a formidable collection of boils, sores and Technicolor sunburn; all of this, interspersed with piteous groans and cracked monologues on how damn hot and murderous it was.

Indeed the Namibian government, anxious to present the country as a clean, orderly, tourist-friendly destination, was so upset by his filthy and disheveled appearance that it ordered him to take a bath.

What captured the imagination of his viewers, though, apart from the sheer lunatic audacity of the undertaking (and the boils) were Allen’s camels, one of which behaved appallingly.

Obstinate, lazy and unruly, the evil-tempered brute had to be virtually dragged by Allen for hundreds of kilometers through some of the highest sand dunes in the world; not to mention over lichen plains that don’t see rain, sometimes for centuries. Several times he came close to just clearing off and leaving the camel to die. Several times the camel had the same idea about Allen.

 

News photo
Poached rhino skulls

 

Allen has moved on to harebrained (non-camel reliant) pastures new — the last time we saw him, he was hoping to avoid being shot by drug dealers while trying to find a lake allegedly haunted by a giant serpent in the Amazon — but the camels have not.

Allen left the camels with a Namibian safari outfit, which then passed them on (in a hurry) to the Save the Rhino Trust.

And SRT put them to work, patrolling one of the world’s last great wilderness areas in search of rhinos and poachers.

We joined the camels at SRT’s camel camp in the Kunene wilderness region in northwest Namibia.

For added interest we brought along a Japanese film crew and the former F1 racing driver, Ukyo Katayama. He was to be our tarento/presenter for a two-hour-long NHK documentary. Katayama, due to various pressing obligations, including an ascent of Everest and an expedition to reach the South Pole on a bicycle (honestly!), had barely a week in Namibia for the entire project.

Anything, we suspected, might happen.

And sure enough, it did.

But before getting into that: a background briefing on SRT and black rhinos.

In 1970 there were an estimated 65,000 black rhinos in Africa. Most countries in east, central and southern Africa had rhino populations.

Trade in rhino horn — used as an expensive but scientifically questionable fever palliative in traditional Chinese medicine and for ostentatious dagger handles in Yemen — prompted a poaching pandemic on a scale that beggared description.

More than 97 percent of the entire global population was wiped out in less than 20 years. A single rhino horn fetched as much as $ 65,000 in Taiwan. Though the poachers themselves received a relative pittance, it was still a significant sum as far as they were concerned: Two hundred dollars goes a long way in rural Africa.

Kenya eventually resorted to adopting a Shoot To Kill policy to tackle poachers, and its national parks became war zones as rangers with outdated .303 rifles engaged “shifta” bandits from Somalia. The shiftas had that African-anarchy staple, the AK-47.

Rhino horn-related mayhem spread south, reaching Namibia in the early ’80s. At that time Namibia (or South West Africa as it was then called) was the forgotten corner of Africa. The rest of the world barely registered its existence. And Kunene was the forgotten corner of Namibia.

It was this huge, sparsely populated expanse of desert plains, sun-burned mountains, gorges and dry river beds that Namibian wildlife artist Blythe Loutit drove into in 1980. She was looking for artistic inspiration. She found carnage.

South African Defense Forces had moved in to establish military bases to combat insurgent South West African People’s Organization guerrillas who were making forays down from Angola. The SADF found more than SWAPO. They found an extraordinarily rich population of wildlife: herds of thousands of springbok, lions, giraffe, oryx, and uniquely adapted populations of desert elephant and desert rhino. (This latter is a sub-species of the black rhino.)

The SADF, along with high-ranking government officials, went on the rampage.

Says Loutit, “The slaughter was horrendous.” As she drove her battered Land Rover past watering holes littered with the rotting carcasses of rhinos, she decided that something had to be done. She soon learned that local tribal chiefs were equally appalled by this sudden visitation of helicopter gunships and armored personnel carriers, and dismayed by the decimation of the animals.

With her husband, Rudi (then manager of Namibia’s Skeleton Coast National Park), the tribal chiefs and an eclectic mix of journalists, housewives, roving geologists and angry army personnel, Lutit established SRT.

“It worked,” she says. “Much to my surprise.”

Photographs of politicians crowing over their “bag” of endangered species were leaked to the international press. People who had never heard of South West Africa took out their atlases and became involved. Local poachers were recruited as ranger scouts; schools raised funds for Land Rovers; anti-poaching patrols went out; the SADF was reined in by Pretoria; and the red tide turned. By any standards this ranks as one of the most dramatic conservation successes of the late 20th century.

Namibia now contains nearly 30 percent of the world’s black rhino population and virtually 100 percent of all desert rhinos. This is the only country where rhinos live outside national parks or game reserves. Despite this, numbers are increasing.

So is SRT’s workload.

We knew, as we drove north over steep, winding mountain passes, across plains of yellow grass, past increasingly rare (and increasingly small) collections of huts, that SRT is working in an area very much off the beaten track. We knew, too, that they currently patrol an area of 19,000 sq. km monitoring rhino populations, maintaining a presence to deter poachers and building trust with the scattered, often nomadic human population.

As we pulled into the SRT base at the Palmweg oasis, though, we didn’t know how the camels were going to behave.

Rwan-dada? Or Rwanda Reborn? Is President Kagame Dictator or Saviour? August Elections Imminent.

July 24, 2010

The first Rwandans (Rwandese) I met, were crossing the border into Tanzania. Some were bleeding, others still had blood on their hands. Or on their pangas.

They were “refugees” and heading for a hastily erected series of camps set up by the UNHCR with the help of NGOs, aid workers – the usual suspects.

The refugees were very unusual suspects.

A significant proportion of the refugees (both men and women) had indulged in the swiftest genocide in human history. 800,000 of their neighbours and fellow countrymen(women and children) in 100 days. That is one hell of a body count!

My wife had volunteered to run one of the refugee camps and soon had 80,000 of these guys in her care.

A BEAUTIFUL PLACE.

Before the militant Hutus fled the revenge of the militant Tutsis who had had their their people butchered (literally), this small slice of Tanzanian border was serene and picture perfect. Morning mists rose from the river valleys, the views were gentle and filled with a sense of serene mystery. Hippos in the river. Crocs in the marsh. Birdlife that you couldn’t believe. Exquisite!

“Ah yes!” you would think after clawing your way out of your tent. “This is heavenly!”

WELCOME TO HELL: SMASHED HEADS AND PANGAS

A panga is another word for a machete. It’s a crude and very large chopping knife ideal for slashing banana trees, sugar cane and, in this case, heads, limbs and anybody who had the misfortune to be a Tutsi or a moderate Hutu in this ethnically driven civil mass killing.

Just before the border crossing point into Tanzania I saw a huge pile of discarded pangas ordered from China by the genocide planners, distributed to, and by, the people who used them. Then discarded by these people before they attempted to seek sanctuary with the UN in Tanzania.

Quite a lot of pangas! Thousands!

Some un-washed. Flies everywhere.

A form of horror had arrived in this beautiful place. And it had a smiling human face. And it was guilty.

THE MURDERERS

They looked like normal Africans. But murderers anywhere in the world look like normal people.

My wife had to co-ordinate efforts to feed them, house them, provide medical aid, resolve disputes, co-ordinate with an over stretched Tanzanian police force to prevent riots escalating… Then there were the witch camps, a bit of cholera but that was just a bullshit claim to get more money for the UN…but hey, ho! busy times.

EDITOR’S NOTE: This story is going to be quite long. I’ll hit you with Part 2 tomorrow. But the elections are coming. Great things are happening. Streets are cleaned daily. Plastic bags (and newspapers) have been banned in Rwanda to prevent pollution. Rwanda has the highest economic growth rate in the great central lakes region, President Kagame wants it become the African Singapore. The president is up for re-election in August and has been accused of starting Africa’s First World War.

Calling Steve Hollier!

July 23, 2010

Steve! Sandra! I’m loving your blog posts but for some reason am unable to leave comments. Is that me being inept (likely) or are other people reporting similart problems?

Smooth sailing!

NOTE TO READERS: Hugh Paxton’s Blog strongly recommends Steve Hollier’s Blog. If you can’t afford or don’t have time to travel overland to Azerbaijan, he’s doing it for you. It’s on my blogroll.


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