Saturday 21 June 2008

21st June, Saturday,2008.

Today is the longest day of the year, every year I wait for it but miss it and the day is over. Not this year!!!

Back from the Bush 1

The first glimpse from the airplane is endless rolling mountains that look like sand dunes, chasms, ravines and cracks on the earth. One can visualize the prehistoric landscape with dinosaurs roaming majestically, steam vents and volcanoes. The vast emptiness of it all is over whelming. It is an amalgamation of the best of every element needed to support life and mankind; in spite of all the abundance the landscape remains stark and seeped in violent history.

It is Africa!

The Nomad is back from the bush, a whole three inches taller in cowgirl boots at that! Do not ask how I come back in cowgirl attire from Africa. I do not know why and when my fascination for Africa began. It is a continent I have a very weak link to; a great grandfather who lived the life of a plantation king in the Colonial times, a grandfather who was born in Kenya. They both returned to India after the British rule ended to rebuild their lives as paupers.

The fascination is not based on the gold, diamonds, minerals and platinum, but on the exotic wildlife. Ever since the geography textbooks showed Congo, the heart of Dark Africa as one of the most inaccessible and dangerous places in the world, I obviously wanted to go there. That dream is yet to be realized, but to begin with, South Africa did just fine!

On landing in Johannesburg the setting is quite different! Still Spartan, but civilized disinfected emptiness, lots of fences and fantastic roads. What I found most unusual was the lack of people everywhere. South Africa is a big country with population of only 46 million. It is almost impossible to see a crowd of any sorts anywhere…. Unless…. you are thrust in the midst of a bike rally!

For 300km of our 500km route from Johannesburg Airport to Kruger National Park, The Paradise Bike Rally participants kept us company! Harleys, Suzukis, BMW, Ninjas, Hondas, Hayabusas, and lots of, what my non mechanical brain could only fathom as, f*^$#@^ sexy bikes, whizzed past us. Leathers, boots, buttons, helmets, mini skirts, hair dos, (and don’ts!) tattoos and piercings, it was like being at the sets of the Fast and the Furious, except this was live!!

In this stylish and glamorous group the only thing that stood out was the lack of any black riders. The large group of bikers remained overwhelmingly white.

No, it is not racial discrimination. That has long been replaced in a more virulent form as economic apartheid. The black South Africans cannot afford 1500cc bikes or BMW’s. Yes, South Africa does have a black majority rule, but this has not changed things much except for the few black CEO’s and politicians. The rest of the population of course now has the right to move around freely in their own land but not the resources to use that right. Combine that with the large inflow of immigrants from surrounding countries and the high level of unemployment and you see the frustration manifest itself into rape, muggings, and robbery that make up the high crime rate in South Africa. Lawlessness is a way of life and all the whites can do is shut malls and offices at 6:00pm and lock themselves behind all those fences.

So you hear whites complaining about this unique role reversal apartheid. Boo Hoo, but that is what you get after centuries of oppression. First the Dutch and then once gold was discovered in 1886, the French and the English raped the land for diamonds, platinum and minerals. The small time entrepreneurs destroyed forests in search of animals for ivory and skins to fund their mining ventures. Africa truly is a blessed land to yet be so rich in resources after a century of rampant destruction and the African people are truly an innocent race to let the English remain after Independence. When we, said Quit India, we meant it.

Anyways as things stand right now, those who have the freedom don’t have the money and those with the money cannot enjoy freedom.This makes for a seriously pissed off population.

************************* These were the only potholes we saw! Formed by centuries of swirling waters of the Blyde River.

The houses and villages along the way were absolutely from bed time story books. Most of it was colonial architecture, the frigidness muted by bold primary colours and brown sandstone. Inns, shops and hotels had the most apt and fun names. Pig and Pickle, Teaspoon and Tankard, Linger Longer, Duck and Fish, Hook and Tackle.

We past quaint little villages and rest stops. Belfast was one of them.The tulips you see in Amsterdam are mostly exported from here! I also discovered a lovely second hand book shop, run by two very pretty charming old ladies. All excited about discovering some obscure South African literature, I came out rather shamefacedly clutching The Great Gatsby by F.Scott Fitzgerald, and the Great American Novel by Philip Roth (only 90 bucks!), two books I had been yearning to read. What with the frosty weather and natural surroundings, buying something close to classics seemed just right!

The Wilghe, also the Treur (mourning) Wilghe is one of the most common trees to be seen in South Africa.

Friday 20 June 2008

Back from the Bush 2

It is almost impossible to get over the African sky, which put up a different spectacle everyday and each part of the day. Hues I had never seen before, sunsets to die for, and at night the whole universe spills over you as you look up.

In the heart of Kruger with no sign of civilization, artificial lights or pollution, the clarity is stunning. The sky is white at night; parts not studded with bright pinpricks of big stars are almost completely covered with fine, silver, star dust. While the sky above you is lit, the surroundings are pitch black, and the cold wind howls through the stark landscape. It is not fun I assume to be a small vulnerable animal in such surreal surroundings, hoping you do not bump into a lion on a midnight stroll.

This is, of course, exactly what happened.

The first thing I saw was two glowing green eyes, then silently like an apparition the ghostly form of a lioness emerged from the misty black surroundings. Bold and arrogant it padded towards the truck. Pure muscles and sleek lines, the animal exudes raw power and this one, quite aware of the fact, without pause or hesitation walked right at us till I could reach out and touch her if I wanted to. A contemptuous backward glance, knowing that her presence controlled our very breath, she plunged into darkness again!!!

Just a few minutes later we went through another breath taking experience. My torch caught the stricken eyes of some animal. I tried to lower it quickly to avoid blinding the poor thing. But that very movement revealed more glowing eyes, and more and more ….

Imagine, if you can, the black surroundings giving way to about 100 pairs of green eyes glowing out at you. What we first thought to be a group of Impalas turned out to be a herd of buffaloes, 200 strong, crossing the road ahead of our truck. Still photos would do no justice, I have a video where a circle of torchlight dispels the darkness slowly and the massive shapes of the African Buffaloes emerge, walking in and out of the lit circle, while in the surrounding shadows 100’s of glowing eyes blink lazily.

The Big 5, The Big 5, The Big 5…. This refrain can drive you crazy in your sleep. The Lion, African Elephant, African Buffalo, Black Rhino, and Leopard are the mighty 5 of the South African jungles. From Itineraries/guides and books to hotels, t shirts and souvenirs, and since 1990 even the South African currency displays the Big 5.

These elite animals were categorized by the difficulty in hunting them on foot, not by size. An African safari still is essentially that, a hunt for the Big 5. Tourists all over the world flock to play tag in the jungles. If you do not know better, a typical safari will go like this….

Look…someone spotted a Lion..click click click… Zooomm to another part of the forest where a herd of elephants are crossing….click click click..zoooommmmm.. Rhino..click click click…zoom…a little ahead Buffaloes…click click.

Unlike India the African Savannah are open grasslands with good visibility. There is not much forest cover for animals to hide, making sighting fairly easy. Except, for Leopards of course. Now there is a ghost, if there ever was one.

The trouble with these safaris is that you miss the rest of the forest in the mad dash to find a lion. Kruger has some of the most spectacular, colourful species of birds; and a huge variety of little mammals. Unfortunately since I was there in winter, we did not spot any snakes. Some of the most beautiful birds I remember were horn bills that looked like flying bananas every few meters, brilliantly coloured starlings, which burst into blues and greens as soon as they catch the sun on their wings, and an eerie grey and pink Goshawk with mean eyes. Experience wise I like Indian safaris better, especially Kanha, the guides make you so much part of the forest, every little thing, from the soil to plants to arachnids or poison ivy is explained and interlinked. You learn how the forest works, how it lives.

Thursday 19 June 2008

Back from the Bush 3 ...and the last!

Soweto is an urban black settlement in the city of Johannesburg. On June 16th 1976, around 15,000 black students from Soweto began a peaceful march to protest against the enforced use Afrikaans instead of English in schools.

The first shot at this group of children was fired by Colonel Kleingeld, the first person to fall was Hastings Ndlovu followed by a 12yr old Hector Pieterson. This photograph taken of Hector being carried by Mbuyisa Makhubo with Antoinette Pieterson (17) running alongside was captured by Sam Nzima.

It made headlines all over the world and since has been a symbol against police brutality.

(click to enlarge)

As tension between students and police escalated, emergency clinics overflowed with bodies of injured children. Heavily armed police on armoured vehicles patrolled the streets of Soweto day and night, shooting indiscriminately, helicopters scanned the area from above and even the armed forces were put on stand by. The government reported 23 casualties. Reuters claims that atleast 500 people were killed and thousands of men, women and children injured. It was a terrifying display of state repression.

Soweto will never let itself forget the terrible riots of 1976.The impact of which, reverberated throughout the world and put Soweto on the political map. The scars still remain, from the bullet holes still present in the Soweto church building to the memorial built in honour of Hector Pieterson. The church is also the abode of the Black Madonna .

Inspite of this Soweto has much to boast about. It is home to 2 Noble Prize winners who grew up on the same street, Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu and to the Grammy Award winning Soweto choir for its fabulous Gospel Music.

Apart from the historical and political contexts there was another reason I bulldozed a very reluctant trio to accompany me to Soweto.

For the past few days all we had been exposed to was a very European lifestyle. The government rest houses in Kruger at Satara were like 5 start resorts compared to our humble Indian circuit houses and forest bungalows and the Private Game Lodge at Kapama was the last word in living in style in the bush. One could lie in a hot bath and look out at the vast expanse of forest and if lucky see herd of imphalas grazing and one did!

The food and wine itself would take up a post by itself. Imagine being in the middle of the African forest watching the incredible sunset and sipping sundowners.

Being Indian with a strong suspicion against tap water embedded in our minds, buying bottled water proved to be as expensive as a glass of wine. So to keep from dehydrating it made more sense to sustain myself on the endless choices of light beers and wine available . I can say in all honesty that we consumed far far more alcohol in that trip than water.

The only signs of civilization were neat houses and small towns spaced far apart and away from the roads. I often wondered what these people did with themselves with nothing in the middle of nowhere.

It seemed a very cold and lonely place. I yearned to see black culture. I had always imagined Africa to be a colourful land, with warm people, very alive and exuberant. Hence the bullying it took to get people to Soweto, and I was not disappointed. Finally we saw life out there on streets. Markets, stalls, people getting their hair braided on the streets, countless hair salons, all hoarding advertising only beer, and shocking pink coloured buildings!

Finally out of the bush with access to T.V and newspapers, I realized how primitive their media is, in content. The top stories were mostly aimed at being tear jerkers about mothers and babies. The TV shows were African versions of the Bold and Beautiful or about crime and reform. The extent of impact petty crime has in an average South African citizen’s life is shocking.

A trip to South Africa is seldom complete without visiting the cultural village Lesedi, where you experience the traditions of the Basotho, Ndebele, Pedi, Xhosa and Zulu people, followed by this dinner.

Nyama Choma --- Succulent dishes from the 4 corners of the African Continent

Nyamazane - Wild Vension

Ngwenya - Tasty Crocodile

Imifino - Bush Vegetables

Intshe - Ostrich Meat

Izithelo - Tropical Fruit

and

Maduma Ezinqueni -Beans that Thunder the Buttocks.

The Greatest African Feast !!!

My last night was spent playing the Marimba with 2 other guys on the freezing street while people actually stopped to listen, inspite of the cold!

Wednesday 4 June 2008

Maiden Hour of the Azure Shower

Aaand just as I was beginning to despair at the unending summer........

It's raining it's pouring the old man is snoring, he went to bed and he bumped his head and he couldn't get up in the morning.

{Click on them for an enlarged view, please do! :) }