Hugh Paxton’s Blog continues its serialisation of Hugh Paxton’s book The Diary of Abbot Buggly; an account of the first year of his daughter’s life in Namibia.
As Ripley remarked – strange but true.
Hey ho! Let’s go!
CHAPTER TWENTY-FOUR: The Creeps That Stole Christmas.
Alaine has just come round with a wooden sliding door and bad news.
My parents first met Alaine on the fog-shrouded streets of Luderitz back in 2001.
Strange town, Luderitz.
It’s deep south, on the coast, and most of the buildings could double as sets for a Scooby Doo adventure. Some of the strongest winds in Africa lash Luderitz’s haunted house mansions and when the winds are still the sea fog slinks in.
Nearby, all but swallowed in the sand, is the ghost town of Kolmanskop. This was once a boom town built on diamonds; it had a hospital and the hospital had its own wine cellars; the chief doctor believed wine to be medicinal and frequently prescribed it with the result that it was a very merry hospital. It was also the owner of the first x-ray machine in the southern hemisphere. The good times rolled; there was dancing, there was a skittle alley, the ladies sported the latest Paris fashions…
Then the supply of diamonds stopped. And so did Kolmanskop. The entire population cleared off for pastures new and the desert resumed control. One story, perhaps apocryphal, has it that not only did some residents abandon their furniture, but also forgot to turn their lights out.
Strangely, brown hyenas still check out the butchery –closed this many a year – driven by some queer ancestral memory. They pad in thinking who knows what hyena-ish thoughts, snuffle fruitlessly through the sand, then pad off and away, leaving the lonely butchery to its ghosts until next time.
Luderitz had the sea, fishing, a port, and it also had diamonds, not to mention beaches of agates. It survived its doomed neighbour. But there’s still an eerie sort of something in the air.
Elaine, his wife, Suzi, and son, Danny, were part of a madcap convoy (that included my parents) preparing to depart on a three day dune drive to an abandoned diamond camp. Kickoff point was Luderitz which was why the deathly calm was disrupted that chill, foggy morning by the sounds of four wheel drive vehicles revving, voices bawling, dropped tools clattering and excited children shouting.
The trip was exhilarating, hazardous, by turns terrifying and awe-inspiring (for a more detailed account check out http://www.japantimes.co.jp and enter Paxton in search. Quite a few of my parents’ travel columns are posted there). The upshot was that Alaine, Suzi, Danny and my parents became firm friends.
Alaine, like I say, turned up with wooden sliding doors and bad news.
The doors were ours; part of all this ongoing home improvements nonsense that continues to disturb my peace with the whine of drills and thud of hammers.
The bad news was Alaine’s.
Last night he’d hosted an office party for his staff. While all involved were sleeping it off, a bunch of botsostos crowbarred the front gate open, tiptoed past the sleepers and helped themselves to 55,000 dollars worth of computer hard drives, clothing, bank notes and assorted valuables.
Alaine looked understandably incensed.
It’s been nine years since he was last burgled and the thought that unknown men, possibly armed, had violated his home, office and privacy, well, it’s not a comfortable thought to think.
If Suzi, Danny and Anoushka had been present perhaps the alarm might have been raised; Anoushka, like myself, tends to wake several times a night at the moment. And when she wakes, so does Suzi.
But Suzi, Danny and Anoushka are down in Cape Town visiting relatives.
In a way that might have been a good thing. If the thieves had been discovered there could have been violence. Alaine has a pistol, the thieves might have had AK 47s or equally lethal, coca cola bottles or oryx horn lances.
I’ve spent many peaceful afternoons there and I don’t like the idea of the house and garden, with its pet chickens, and my favorite rabbit, and Anoushka’s bedroom with the mobiles and brightly colored pictures, being full of gun smoke and fist fights and people trying to kill each other.
I’m a small person. Live and let live, say I.
On hearing the news of the burglary, Wendy sighed and said again that it was better in the old days.
This struck me again as odd. By the ‘old days’ she means the Apartheid era of South African occupation.
Not an international success story.
“For Heavens sake, Wendy !” a liberal sort of person might say, “Black people like you were segregated because of the colour of their skin ! Where’s the justice in that ?”
To which the answer must surely come, “ There isn’t any.”
Maybe the old days were when Wendy was young.
With most adult people I’ve noticed them talking about how the old days were better even if the old days were lousy.
Perhaps the Cockneys have it right when they talk about the “good old/bad old days.”
There’s wisdom in a London Cockney.
Or so my father says.
CHAPTER TWENTY-FIVE: Midgard.
This morning my mother left for a place called Midgard.
There’s a conference there between officials from the Ministry of Environment and Tourism (MET) and the UNDP’s Environment Unit.
They’re planning the creation of a vast national park that will stretch down from the mountains in Angola, hook east to take in the upper Zambezi and Victoria falls in Zambia and Zimbabwe, head west again, incorporating Etosha, the Kaokoveld and Damaraland and then surge south down the entirety of the Namibian coast, cross the Orange River and envelope South Africa’s Richtersveld.
One heck of a proposition in my small opinion.
Not a national park. An international park! A super park that will restore the ancient wildlife migration routes, tear down the fences and make Namibia one of the wonders of the world.
That’s my mother for you. She thinks BIG! So does the Private Secretary, and the UNDP Environment Unit.
Even the President’s on board and raring to go. In his way.
They’re also planning to refurbish and improve the existing national parks, making them the jewel in the crown of African conservation.
Not bad, eh?
At a little after noon she phoned to inform my father that one of the UN vehicles had rolled over (twice) on the Midgard road. The Land Cruiser was a write-off. It hadn’t cruised over the land, it had crashed into it, and the only person now cruising anywhere was being cruised off to hospital with a bunch of broken ribs.
The sad aspect to the incident was that the vehicle had only just been bought. A mere 69 kays on the clock.
And then this clown, Gabriel, goes and tries to overtake at high speed. On a gravel road. On an S-bend.
Dear, dear, dear! The UN!
There followed a lengthy lecture from my mother to my father on driving safely, not flooring the accelerator, watching the verges for leaping antelope and for two cheetah that were cleaning up a kudu kill on the road, making sure I was safely strapped in, had a towel to screen me from the sun. Blah blah.
As this went on and my father said, “Yes, of course I will. No of course I won’t. Yes, I know. No, I’ve told you I won’t. I’ve said that three times! Blah blah and de dah de dah,” it dawned on me that I, too, would be going to Midgard.
Today I am six months old. Today, it seems, that I will be also witnessing history in the making at this Midgard place.
And, reassuring thought, my father will be driving me there.
My father had strict instructions to depart at 3.30 but was preoccupied with purchasing essential supplies (beer and a sack of Nam Ice attractively labelled “Nam Ice is Damn Nice” for the cooler box) and we didn’t actually hit the road until 3.31.
But despite the late start, I’d have to say it was an interesting trip. The road to Midgard begins just beyond Kapps Farm which lies beside the road to Hosea Kutako International Airport.
We reached the police checkpoint and stopped by the little white line drawn across the road. Every road in and out of Windhoek has a police checkpoint. It is advisable to keep your eyes firmly fixed on the little white line.
Vile criminals who stop ten centimeters beyond the white line are accused of ignoring road signs. And justly so! The fine is a mere bagatelle. The paperwork involved is tediously and studiedly designed to waste hours of the criminal’s time.
Give Namibia’s police force its due, though. The boys and girls in blue (or desert fighter camouflage complete with hip slung AK 47s) don’t extract bribes, hint they’d like a little contribution for their pension fund, or otherwise shake down motorists.
If you want that sort of constabulary you have to go to Angola. If you’d like to be shot as well, try the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). The DRC bit stands for Down Right Crazy.
The only time my parents have been subjected to extortion by the police in fact was when a member of the Special Field Forces spotted a bag of jelly babies on the dash board. He didn’t actually say anything but his eyes assumed the desperate yearning look of a cocker spaniel beside a Christmas dinner table.
My father gave in. It was simply impossible to resist the expression of mute but desperate desire on the face of this battle hardened ex-bush fighter.
ABBOT BUGGLY TRAVEL ADVISORY.
If you value your jelly babies, keep them in the glove box. And if you ever do rashly offer an African a bag of sweets don’t expect him or her to take one and pass the bag back. He’ll or she’ll grab a massive handful. You might then get your bag back. But don’t count on it.
We stopped on the legally correct side of the little white line and waited. We waited a bit more. We wondered if we were being waved through by the two coppers who were slumped by the semi-permanent shelter. Was it a wave? Or were they just stifling yawns or wafting away flies? Were they even awake ?
If my father actually possessed a cell phone, and if that cell-phone possessed a thermometer it would have read close to 40 degrees. The two rozzers looked totally zonked.
“Those guys aren’t about to arrest anyone,” my father remarked, taking off in a cloud of dust.
The little white line receded behind us and was lost to sight.
The Midgard road was mildly crummy. Gravel, washboard, occasional patches of sand and we made slow progress. My father kept to a steady 40 kph but even so we slithered about a bit. The guy, Gabriel, had apparently been doing over 100 kph when he went airborne.
We didn’t pass another vehicle but that’s not unusual in Namibia. We did, however, pass baboons. Lots of baboons. The fearless sort of baboons that saunter across the road and then stop and look at you with the sort of “Yeah? You got a problem, buddy?” expression that starts fights in bars frequented by the US military.
We also passed oryx and kudu. The oryx looked serene. The kudus were pure elegance. They don’t run, they sort of float away in slow motion bounds. Clearing a four meter fence is nothing to a kudu. It simply flows over the thing.
Eland can do the same thing though its hard to imagine how. They’re immense, bulky, wattled, cow-like creatures – the largest antelope in the world.
Disappointingly we didn’t see the two cheetahs. They must have dragged their kill into the bush.
Midgard is, in a word, bizarre. The complex was built by the richest man in pre-Independence Namibia and boasts, among other things, a pagoda, a church, an amphitheatre and a fire engine museum. The whole place, which is absolutely immense, appears to have been designed by at least 100 different architects each working independently.
Schizophrenic city, that’s Midgard.
It was all but deserted when we finally rolled in. Yes, there was a flock of geese waddling past Reception, and, yes, far away across an equestrian race track there was a teenage boy fishing around in a swimming pool with a rake, but that appeared to be about it.
It creeped me out. It even perturbed my father.
“Where the blazes is everybody?” he muttered uneasily. “Where’s the receptionist? Where’s the conference hall? Why would anyone build a fire engine museum deep in the Namibian bush?”
I had no idea.
The geese honked. The honks echoed through a courtyard that was flanked by quiet buildings that looked as if they’d been airlifted in from at least eight countries; Germany, Italy, Gabon…
A poster announced that there would be a Mexican buffet and dance on New Years Eve. There was a plaque explaining that Midgard had been opened by none other than our esteemed president, Dr Sam Nujoma. I wondered if perhaps he’d then changed his mind, come back and closed it.
Bees droned around the flower beds; roses, cacti, a sign that read “Grow, damn you, grow!” a few tribal fetishes, a half hearted sprinkler and some sort of Nordic goblin.
The sun beat down. Heat. Stillness. I sat in my push chair swaddled like a Bedou. My father pushed me here and there looking for human life. The geese left.
And then, wow! A receptionist arrived!
She blinked as if surprised to see us. She rootled for keys. They were attached to a withered seed pod, very well varnished. Apropos of nothing she said that the Italians had left (which Italians? I wondered) and that she loved Italian ice cream.
My father remarked that he’d forgotten to pack any. She laughed. It was a surprisingly vital and encouraging sound. When she’d finished laughing the soporific silence of Midgard took over again.
We drove off with our key pod to find our room.
Like lots of bits of Midgard it was a long, long way away.
The conference was held in a hall that could have accommodated the best part of a Nuremburg rally. The number of conferees might have partly filled a modest garden shed.
The conference went well.
Like all conferences it had its unusual moments. One delegate suggested that Etosha national park could help pay its way by selling 30 of its black rhinos.
This approach to conservation is called “Wise Use”. The idea is to make wildlife profitable either by charging rich people lots of money to shoot it, shooting it yourself and then selling the valuable bits, or simply selling it “on the hoof” so to speak.. The philosophy is invariably tempting and usually, as in the case of this rhino suggestion, controversial.
People pay large amounts of money to go to Etosha to SEE black rhinos. Etosha is one of the world’s best places to see black rhinos.
Selling them to pay for the park’s upkeep could be seen as being on a par with selling the roof of your house to pay for repair work to the drains.
Like my father, I was invited to dinner to meet the delegates. It was a braai, the southern African word for a BBQ. Before we left to join the festivities, my father received another lengthy lecture from my mother.
Executive Summary: “Be Good.”
Ie don’t GET political, BE political. That’s to say; don’t say anything offensive, no rampant opinion airing, for Heaven’s Sake stay away from the subject of “wise use” and no bad language or sudden fist fights, even if the man on the other side of the table is in dire need of a sound smacking.
The lecture struck me as sensible but in a way I feel that my mother misses the old days.
She has to be polite almost all of the time now.
It’s what you do if you are in the UN.
After one dinner party she remarked that “Ten years ago we wouldn’t have listened to that for ten minutes.”
She eyed my father with a mixture of relief and disappointment when they left that particular shindig. He’d been good. She’d been good. But she seemed afraid that the pair of them were getting old.
They are. That’s what we do. My father has pretty much joined the ‘Mr. Pleasant’ crowd at official events. But there have been incidents.
“Of course I’ll be bloody good !!! I’ve told you that three times! Where’s the restaurant?”
“A long long way over there.”
We set off on foot and in pushchair. The MIDGARD logo on the hill was glowing like the HOLLYWOOD sign. As was a cross on top of the hill.
My mother, rather rashly told my father about the rhino sales proposal.
“Those Wise Users!”
“They just killed that friendly elephant, the silly bastards…”
The Midgard post conference braai witnessed my father being fairly good.
The subject of trophy hunting came up immediately.
It arrived courtesy of my father who, for no reason I could discern, described a website that his friend was designing for a hunting farm. The farm’s owners had put together several package deals.
For a certain fee the gallant hunter was guaranteed a bag of 1 hartebeest, 2 kudu, and a warthog. If the hunter had deeper pockets the deal was expanded to include all the aforementioned plus a wildebeest.
Then there was The Special. All the above plus an eland. And get this! Two dassies thrown in free of charge!
Dassies are rock rabbits. Well, not exactly. If we’re speaking strict taxonomics they’re the closest living relatives to elephants and dugongs. But they look rabbitty. Or guinea piggy.
They’re hardly big game. No great white hunter in history has been gored to death by a charging dassie. No mud hut village terrorized by the deadly night stalking dassie (dassies spend about 23 hours in a day in their holes half asleep).
“What kind of turkey would want to boast that he’d flown all the way to Africa, shot his way through a laid on shopping list of inoffensive herbivores and got two rabbits on the house? Free of charge!”
My father snorted laughter.
“A German!” bellowed a Belgian lady delightedly. “They’ve got to be Germans!”
A gentleman of German descent stiffened.
Someone pointed out that one dassie consumes seven times more forage than a sheep and that charging people to shoot them was a great idea.
“But dassies live in rocks! They’re not in competition with sheep! And Black Eagles rely on dassies for food.”
That was someone else. Various other people began speaking simultaneously. Midgard was becoming animated.
“Hunting is one of the mainstays of conservation in this country!”
Whoever said that was not lying. Hunting is important to Namibia. And a lot of previously over-grazed areas of veldt have been relieved of their cows and returned to their original natural grazing population. In the interests of hunting.
The Belgian lady then raised the topic of the radio collared “friendly elephant” that had just been shot in Damaraland by a hunter, thereby destroying years of scientific research and pissing off all the non-lethal safari lodges in the area who relied on guaranteed elephant sightings for their living. The shooting also irked a lot of tourists who’d paid a lot of money to enjoy the spectacle of a wild elephant that was not in danger of being shot ten minutes after they’d seen it. Or, worse, before they’d seen it. 
“It’s too tempting.” My mother had arrived in the conversation. “A local community can earn $30,000 just by letting one hunter arrive and shoot one elephant. They don’t even have to do anything. If you compare that to the logistical hassle of maintaining a community run camp site that charges a tourist twenty dollars to pitch his tent it’s much easier…”
“And $30,000 can build schools, clinics…” said somebody.
“And $30,000 buys a lot of beer.”
Oh dear, it was my father again.
Someone ignored him and said that often community-earned money from sustainable resource utilization was pumped back into conservation and community development
“Community Involvement” has become something of a Mantra in international donor circles. The idea is that it works for the mutual benefit of community and conservation.
My father suggested that it sometimes didn’t.
“I turned up at the Twyfelfontein community conservancy and there were maybe thirty people lying around in the shade fast asleep. Looked like slaughtered seals. One bloke managed to make his way over and the first thing he did was ask for money. He told me he was ‘struggling’. I told him the only thing he was struggling to do was struggling to stand up.”
Some people laughed. Others, and this next point is significant, the Others included my mother, didn’t.
My father resumed his website anecdote. Perhaps he was under the impression that a little more humour might pour oil on waters that were looking increasingly troubled.
Yes, perhaps he was. Or maybe he was on the point of becoming ‘bad’.
“Anyway, the funny thing about the website – apart from its content – is that if you move the cursor to a hidden spot the hunter’s head inflates like a balloon and the slain hartebeest at his feet shrinks to dassie proportions. The idiot’s still posing like Hemmingway but looks like some encephalitic action man with rickets who’s just shot the neighbour’s pet. It’s a scream!”
My father then yelped.
Courtesy of a perfectly aimed and directed hoof to the testicles delivered under the table by my mother.
The talk shifted away from trophy hunting and Wise Use.
It shifted, in fact to me.
I was jolly, I burbled, I gnashed my toothless gums, I was charming. Most importantly I was a neutral focus for meaningless comments. I prevented the braai from degenerating into a heated argument then a disaster.
Just six months old today and I’ve salvaged an internationally important conference.
By being good. Or so I congratulate myself.
We left Midgard the next day.
I was rather irked by the fact that I didn’t get to see the fire engine museum.