Sunday, July 31, 2005

A surfeit of Ostrich (with a side order of philosophical debate...)

Hello again!

And so it is back to late July once more, and to my arrival on the Baz Bus the morning after my ill-advised drinking session in Stellenbosch. I apparently looked almost as healthy as I felt (caused more by the extreme lack of sleep than by the quantity of alcohol consumed, as I'd actually been rather closer to sensible than usual in my drinking habits and consumed quite a bit of water inter-mingled amongst the beers), so the rest of the bus were fairly understanding when I nodded off almost immediately, my long practice at dozing on moving vehicles being put to good use.

When I resurfaced, around lunchtime (or what would normally pass for lunchtime - we'd been informed that the lunch stop was at 3pm...), it was to see one of the daftest movies I have ever seen, called "How High?". It's an incredibly silly and deeply politically-incorrect comedy centring around dope, and two boys from the 'hood who, in deeply improbable circumstances, end up in an Ivy League university. Utterly ridiculous, and I frequently found myself thinking that I shouldn't be laughing, yet giggling away hysterically.

The 3pm stop, as it turns out, was my stop anyway. It was in the generally unexceptional town of George, one of the largest yet least-visited along the famous Garden Route in South Africa's Western Cape province - the latter probably due to its being inland rather than on the coast. At any rate, this is the transfer point to get the shuttle up through some amazing mountain scenery to Oudtshoorn which is, as I mentioned in my last post, the Ostrich Capital of South Africa. Originally, in the 19th Century, the beasts were farmed for their extraordinary feathers, but these days it can be as much about their meat and leather. Our driver for this section of the trip was a garrulous old chap named Moses, who happily informed the girls in the bus that they ought to cook the boys breakfast the next morning, in exchange for the boys keeping an eye on them that night. He then attempted to persuade the German boy sitting next to him to sing us all a song. Quite a character was Moses, but really rather endearing.

My home for the next couple of nights was to be the Backpackers Paradise, which wasn't actually as much of an exaggeration as it might initially seem - it's a really nice little place, which I can definitely recommend to any of you who make it down to that little corner of South Africa. It being by now late afternoon, I trooped back into the centre of town (despite Paradise being near the edge of town, this only took about 15-20 minutes or so) for a drink along with the aforementioned girls who'd come in on the bus at the same time. Two pairs of girls travelling together, and I am ashamed to say that (due to losing my original bloody notebook in Pretoria and then having to reconstitute it several weeks after the event) I can only remember the names of one pair: Clare and Charlotte. I remember the other two had met each other at Portsmouth Uni, and that the taller one was a fan of sailing - hell, I've even got photos of them sitting on ostriches (don't laugh!), but can I remember their names? Can I bollocks...

Anyways, that evening most of us had decided to participate in the meal deal offered by the hostel: an Ostrich braai. In case I didn't mention it before, the braai is the South African word (originally from Afrikaans) for the barbeque, and the practice occupies an even more hallowed place amongst South African culture (especially among males, and among Whites) than it does in Australia. The Saffirs are really rather fond of their grilled meat, and lots of it, though with a refreshing focus on marinades and salads which I haven't always found amongst Aussies. Anyway, in this case the meat in question was the ubiquitous (at least in Oudtshoorn) Ostrich. And very nice it was too - a healthy slab of steak and a portion of Ostrich wors (sausage - boerewors or "farmer's sausage" is a staple of braais all over SAfr, and usually rather a tasty one, a bit like a slightly spicy version of Cumberland sausage back home), with oodles of salad. And yes, I did say "healthy" - ostrich meat is incredibly low fat (especially for a red meat) and near enough cholesterol-free, a little bit like kangaroo but without the heavy taste of skip-meat.

So, a pleasant meal was had by all (apart from the token vegetarian - SAfr is often not the best of countries for those not fond of lots of meat), and then we ended up sitting around discussing various things - after my over-exertions in Stellenbosch I was glad to stay near-enough alcohol-free (I think I had one beer with the dinner...) and just chill out and chat with fellow travellers. One of these was just how creepy one of our fellow travellers was - a middle-aged German guy called Eilert with a handlebar moustache that belonged on a 70s pornstar, who had immediately (and peremptorily) closed the window in front of me on the minibus up whenever I opened it slightly to try and stop those of us sitting in the back from collapsing of heat exhaustion. In case there are those out there who think I am being overly harsh, it is worth noting at this point that various other people I met along the way who had had the pleasure of his company expressed similar opinions. Another was an extended discussion of countries and nationalities, sparked by my questioning to what extent Wales counts as a country...

Now, before various of you out there (Rhiannon probably principal amongst them) set fair to lynch me over this, I should probably explain myself [those not wishing to be party to one of my more obscure arguments, even over cyberspace, can safely skip the next few paragraphs!].

Partly as a result of my studies of history (principally that of 19th Century European nationalism) and partly just because of my long pedantic streak, I tend to think in terms of Nations and States rather than "Countries". This is on the basis that a Nation is a group of people of similar backgrounds, languages, beliefs or whatever who think of themselves as a common group. A State is a geo-political entity with a government, a recognised territory, etc etc. Hence, a group such as the Kurds, who are spread over the border areas of Turkey, Iraq and Iran (amongst other places) are a Nation, but do not have a State. The Catalans and Basques, both of whom reside in the border countries of Spain and France, are Nations but do not have States. On the other hand, Belgium is a State even though until 1830 there was not really any concept of "a Belgian" - the country consists of the old provinces of Flanders (which is home to the Flemish, who are historically culturally similar to the Dutch) and Wallonia (home to the Walloons, who are similar to the French), and the Flemish and Walloons could each be thought of as a Nation. South Africa is a State containing groups of people who would identify themselves as being Xhosa, Zulu, Afrikaner or various other National groupings.

The central point here is that Wales is not a State. Neither is England, or Scotland, or Northern Ireland. The English, Scots, Welsh and Irish are all Nations, but there are only two States on the British Isles (in case there are any easily offended Irish out there, I use the term in its geographical sense, not in any political sense - and Ynys Prydain, from which the word Britain derives, is of course an old Celtic term for the largest island in the group): the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, and the Republic of Ireland (or Eire, if you prefer). Hence, in a strictly international legal sense, the fact that I am English (and I do consider myself as such) would not be recognised - I am a British Citizen, as that is what my passport identifies me as. The Government which controls what happens in the state to which I belong is the British Government, never mind that it meets in Westminster in England. Hence, as Wales is a Nation but not a State, I would argue that the rather woolier term of "Country" (which is more often associated with a State than a Nation) is not really applicable.

Obviously this gets complicated somewhat because a lot of the way the British now associate themselves with their separate Nations is tied in with sports, and the fact that there are separate Football and Rugby teams for the Home Nations. The simple reason for that is that we invented the sports, so we gave ourselves the right to have individual teams - no other country gets that right (for the same reason, the British are ridiculously over-represented on the governing border of FIFA, the world body in charge of Football). So there are separate football teams for England, Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, each also with their own governing Football Association (though, with our usual breathtaking arrogance, England are the only nation that feels no need to call its body anything other than "The Football Association", without any reference to England). And there are separate rugby teams for England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland (there is no north-south divide in rugby, intriguingly, which is why there is a separate anthem, "Ireland's Call", just for their rugby team and no reference to either the Republic or the North).

This would also help explain why there is so much confusion as to our nationality when we travel abroad. The Americans (and, to some extent, the Canadians and South Africans) tend to use British as a term for many of us, but will often use England and English interchangeably with Britain and British (much to the disgust of our Celtic cousins). The Aussies and Kiwis tend to distinguish us as our separate Nations as individuals, but will also often use England as a virtual synonym for Britain. Either that, or they assume we are actually separate countries, and worry if they'll need a visa to go up to Scotland. And when talking to people who don't have English as a first language, a lot of this flies straight over their heads and they automatically use whatever their local translation is of England and English to mean all of us. When we can't always agree amongst ourselves what label is the right one, we can't really blame anyone else if they get confused...

[Those not interested in my philosophical musings on the nature of nationalities and the like can now rejoin the rest of us]

It was actually a remarkably civilised discourse, but I think I confused Charlotte and most of the others a bit (especially when I brought the Kurds and the Catalans into things...). Made for a rather more civilised evening than just sitting around and drinking beers, anyway. The above section kind of puts down things that I've discussed with various people when travelling over the years - I guess I can sort of use it as an aide-memoire for the future. Anyways, eventually it was time for bed, as most of us were getting up pretty early in the morning to see the sights of the area.

I, along with the two lasses whose names I can't remember (though, now I come to think of it, I think one of them may have been called Gemma?), creepy Eilert, another German lad called Mario and a couple of Koreans, was heading up in Moses' ever-present minibus to the Cango Caves, which are slightly north of town. Although, before this, there was the small matter of breakfast to attend to, in the form of scrambled ostrich egg. Though obviously not a whole one - you can get about 15 or so people's worth of scramble from one egg. Tasted a lot like normal scrambled egg if I'm honest, particularly when eaten in my favoured form: on toast and Marmite (one of the joys of travelling in Africa, they have actual proper Marmite! - my supply from there has now sadly run out, so I'm back on Vegemite again...). Although the cooker seemed in a bit of a mood, so I ended up running late, arousing Moses' ire.

Eventually, very slightly late, we were off up the valley towards the afore-mentioned Cango Caves, which are a set of really quite pretty holes in the ground that were found 150 or so years ago by a local farmer. Unfortunately, they were not always looked after in the best ways, with concrete layed down for floors, hooligans breaking off sections of stalactite and stalagmite from some areas and (in an act of breathtaking stupidity) another entrance cut out of the rock during the high tide of apartheid, so that there would be separate entrances for Whites and non-Whites. This extra entryway started drying out the caves, changing the climate therein irrevocably. In terms of the actual sights therein, the Caves were pretty but not spectacular - not a patch on the Postojna caves in Slovenia, for example. There was also some dodgy lighting, particularly the red lighting for a rock formation christened "Neville the Cave Devil" (alongside some blue lighting for "the wings of an angel" and "the family bible" in the "Heaven and Hell cave" - and no, I'm not making this up!). We only did the Standard Tour, which took in most of the more easily accessible sections. There's also an Adventure Tour, which goes down into some of the deeper, tighter parts of the cave, but given my mild claustrophobia I figured taking in sections such as "the letterbox" would not be the best of plans.

After finishing our hour-long tour, it was back in Moses' minibus to go down to one of the Ostrich Show Farms. There, we were informed about the wonders of Ostrich feathers, Ostrich leather, Ostrich eggs and Ostrich meat, before getting the chance to see some of the big, frighteningly dumb birds face-to-beak, walk through one of their nests on the leftover eggshells (which I can reliably report are more than strong enough to bear my weight) and then to sit on one of the beasts. Unfortunately, due to my larger-than-average size, I would not have an opportunity to ride on; the maximum weight for doing so was 75kg, and I haven't weighed anything like that for nigh-on 15 years now! However, with the ostrich standing restrained in a wooden stall, it was possible to sit on it. So I did. Very strange feeling, especially as you need to hold the neck "like a joystick" (albeit an exceedingly flexible one).

After this, it was back to the hostel, where I found out that the Quad-biking trip I had hoped to go on was not going to be running that day, so my afternoon was free. So I wandered into town to the supermarket, bought myself some food, and cooked up a nice batch of Chilli con Ostrich Carne for my lunch. Except that, because supermarkets never seem ready to sell meat in less than about 500g batches, it ended up also being my dinner. And the next day's lunch. Combine that with another Ostrich Scramble breakfast, and I actually managed to consume Ostrich as part of every single meal while I was in Oudtshoorn. I didn't have any more for a quite a while after that, unsuprisingly. And after this lunch, I settled in to watch the afternoon's game of Rugby. For the Tri-Nations season was upon us, meaning Springbok fever was once again gripping the nation (or at least parts of it).

Again, apologies to those intimately familiar with all this, but for those who don't know, the Springboks (or just the Bokke to their diehard fans) are South Africa's famous green-shirted rugby team (that's Rugby Union for any League stalwarts out there). They were also traditionally the pride of White South Africa, and totally dominated by white players (whereas Bafana Bafana, which literally means "The Boys The Boys", are South Africa's football team and the pride of the majority of the nation). This is now changing slightly, though there are ongoing arguments about whether there should be quotas on the number of players from particular backgrounds within the team - though players such as Bryan Habana and Breyton Paulse, the current Springbok wingers, are both Coloured and both demonstrably in the team on merit (Habana is ridculously quick!). The Tri-Nations is an annual competition in which the "Big 3" rugby-playing nations of the Southern Hemisphere (Australia, New Zealand and South Africa) play each other home and away.

Anyways, like most hostels in South Africa, Paradise was run by Whites and their friends who came round were mostly also White, so I got an introduction to the fervour that the Bokke inspire. Joining me in this was the second of the girls whose names I can't remember (who I am now thinking might have been a Caroline...?), and we both marvelled at just how worked up one of the local guys was getting. Whenever the South Africans managed a good move, he would bellow out "Oh Yes!" rather a lot, displaying a level of fervour that even I wouldn't generally associate with sport. Let's just say he seemed quite passionate, and leave it at that. At any rate, the Boks beat the Wallabies (Australia) for the second week running (they'd won a friendly the previous week) so the locals were all pretty happy.

That evening ended up being another very quiet one, sitting around chatting with the girls, and with some Dutch who had arrived that afternoon. Just as an aside, it is worth noting that there were so many Dutch and Germans travelling around South Africa, it often seemed more like a national migration than a few tourists! The next morning, it was time to pack up and get ready for the trip back down the pass to George, and another rendez-vous with the Baz Bus (after the Ostrich consumption noted earlier).

And that is where I will lay my metaphorical pen to rest once again, as this entry has got ridiculously long now (and somewhat off-topic as well!). Until next time, farewell!


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Friday, July 29, 2005

In Vino Veritas

G'day once again.

I guess it's time to get back to the narrative, which last saw me about to head out to Stellenbosch from Cape Town.

Let's get the trivia out the way first: Stellenbosch is the second-oldest European settlement in South Africa, and is one of many monuments to the vanity of the Cape Colony's first governor, Simon van der Stel - Stellenbosch literally means "Stel's bush", and apparently half the mountains thereabouts are named for relatives of his, while South Africa's principal naval port (and 3rd oldest settlement) is Simon's Town, now almost part of the southern suburbs of Cape Town. Stellenbosch is also home to one of SA's most prestigious universities, and a bastion of the Afrikaans language - there's a fair bit of furore going on at the moment, as Stellenbosch Uni still insists that Afrikaans remain the language of tuition, while some of its students want this changed to allow instruction in English. Finally, it is one of the three towns (along with Franschoek and Paarl) which form the heart of South Africa's Winelands. So, no prizes for guessing what I was planning there...

To travel there (and indeed, for a good deal of my voyages in SA), I was to use the Baz Bus. For those not familiar with the world of Backpacker Buses, this is what is sometimes called a HOHO or JOJO bus (standing for Hop/Jump On, Hop/Jump Off, respectively). The principle is that you buy travel over a certain distance, but can spread out the time taken by jumping off at certain points to see/do things there, and then jumping back on (by booking) when another bus is due through. Some of these, such as the Kiwi Experience or Magic Bus in New Zealand, or the Moose in Canada (or indeed, the Easyrider here in Western Aus), function very much like tours, in that you get commentary from your driver, and quite often make little side-trips to places that you couldn't get to using normal public transport. The Baz doesn't do this. It's a backpacker shuttle bus, pure and simple. Its real selling point is simply that (like most such buses) it does pick-ups and drop-offs directly at the hostels, avoiding having to go into central bus stations, or to the service stations which function as bus stops for many smaller towns.

Now, I had actually used the Baz Bus last time I was in South Africa (a year and a half previously), and hence my plan was to use it for some sections of the journey, and use express buses for other parts, as the Baz has the annoying characteristic that it runs daily between Cape Town and Port Elizabeth (PE), at the western end of the route, but then somewhat less regularly than that over the remaining sectors of the routes it follows. And this, if you're trying to keep to any kind of a timeline, can be bloody frustrating. And, although I had 4 weeks this time in SA, I was under no illusions that I definitely needed to watch my progress, as there's a lot of ground to cover. Still, their setup was fine as far as I was concerned up to PE, so I had bought myself a pass covering that far. And Stellenbosch was my first stop.

This meant that my reintroduction to the Baz Bus lasted less than an hour and a half, as we drove out of Cape Town to the little town of Somerset West, where a shuttle-bus from my hostel in Stellenbosch would meet us. This, again, is a pretty common occurrence on the Baz route, as the buses tend largely to follow the routes of the highways. It was at this point that it was brought home to me just how much this was off-season in SA, as there were only 3 passengers (me included) on the bus that morning. However, one of these, a German guy called Benjy, I was to keep randomly bumping into for nearly a week afterwards - this is another thing you get used to when following the route of a HOHO bus, there are some familiar faces you will keep bumping into.

Once transferred safely to my abode for the next couple of nights, the Stumble Inn (geddit!), I booked in on a little package deal that got me two nights' accommodation and a wine tour for the bargain price of 310 Rand (which is a bit under 30 quid). I had about half an hour or so to get my stuff stowed away in my dorm, and then it was off on the wine tour. My companions on this were all off an overland truck (plus ca change, plus ca reste meme...) which had stayed in Stellenbosch the previous night, and had almost all been working as teachers and the like further up in Africa, whether in Uganda, Tanzania or wherever. So we exchanged a few stories and the like as Lukas, our driver and guide, drove us off to our first winery, Simonsig. Named after a certain Mr van der Stel. Quelle surprise!

Thus began one of my more civilised drinking sessions of my travelling times, as I sampled wines from various of the vineyards we visited. There were a grand total of 4: Simonsig, Fairview (home of the wonderfully-named Goats Do Roam wine, and a corresponding Goat Tower), Dieu Donne and Delair. The more observant among you may have noticed the French trend to some of these names - the wine industry in the Cape really only took off with an influx of Huguenot (French Protestant) refugees, when they were expelled from France. We had a wonderful lunch at Fairview, with fresh-baked bread, and it was all very convivial. I also discovered that one of my companions for the day was a natural-born techie.

Now, most of you who have known me for a while know quite how much of my time at 6th-Form and university was taken up by my work as a Stage Technician, or techie (mostly doing lighting work, but also some set-building, stage management etc). So, for me, particularly as I've been stranded away from theatrical pursuits for some time what with the claims on my time which work made, it was really rather refreshing to be able to trade tales of nightmare directors, dodgy fixes, last-night parties and the like with someone else from the same world. I really should try and get back into the theatre over here, maybe.

Anyways, the day progressed quite happily, although the inebriation rate picked up somewhat when a few of us acquired some of the local vintage to quaff whilst en route between wineries. And then, when we got back to Stellenbosch in late afternoon, we decided to go out on the town for a few more drinks. Probably not the most sensible of decisions, really. Again, things started off okay, but it all went downhill somewhat when I managed to lose most of the people I'd come with from the hostel, and I remembered that for the vast majority of the young people out that night (it IS a Uni town, after all, so there's no problem with being out on a Wednesday night) English was not the first language. Well, I couldn't really help but notice it, given that I had no idea what most of the people around me were saying. And that's not a situation I particularly like. So I ended up diverting into Steers (a homegrown South African fast-food chain, and one of the reasons why McDonalds hasn't really taken off down there) for some ill-advised beer munchies, and then calling it a night at a relatively sensible hour. Well, about 1am, which counts as relaitvely sensible in Stellenbosch...

The next day was then a pretty quiet one, as I slept in, got some shopping, went on the internet, and went back to sleep for a bit longer. And then got persuaded to go out for a few more drinks, largely by a lovely trio of Irish lasses (Elaine, Michelle and Eifa), who had persuaded Lukas and John (another of the guys who help run the hostel) to show them a night out in town. That was actually a far more pleasant night, probably at least in part because I'd had more than enough sleep, and hadn't been consuming wine all day, and I didn't manage to lose people. I had learnt my lesson. Well, one of them, anyway - can't expect me to pick up everything at once, Mum... I also found a place in Stellenbosch that I really rather liked, called Mystic Boer, which had a local band playing when we arrived, and then promptly proceeded to play loads of indie and rock music, which had me grinning, singing and bouncing around like a fool. Almost like being back at my beloved Oporto bar in Leeds, only with more dancing and most people chattering in Afrikaans! However, we eventually moved on from there (I think some of the group were hoping to find somewhere a bit more in tune with their musical tastes, though I was obviously distraught) and ended up in a place called Springbok's, which was basically a bit of a dive. The only thing going for it is that it's open ridiculously late, to the point that we only actually made it home around quarter to five in the morning. Which isn't ideal when you have to be up and on a shuttle to meet the Baz Bus around 8am.

Which, you guessed it, was what I had to do. For it was time to move on, leaving one of SA's great university cities and heading for the little town of Oudtshoorn, the undisputed Ostrich Capital of South Africa (and possibly the world). And that tale will have to await another telling, as it is getting on for sunset here in Coral Bay, and I am going to make one final attempt to get some decent sunset piccies from the beach (as if I haven't taken enough sunset pictures on this trip, but that's not the point).

Hope you are all well, and my apologies again for how ridiculously behind me this tale is getting.

Take care and have fun!


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Wednesday, July 27, 2005

The Long Goodbye

Sunday 24th July, 2005. Our Acacia African Adventure was over. My first 6 weeks on the road had ended, and it was time to attend to the slow but painful business of saying goodbye. But not quite yet - there were still a few things to sort out, a few things to attend to.

First of these was Table Mountain. On arrival, we had confirmed a rumour that had been doing the rounds as we got further south, namely that the Table Mountain Cableway (i.e. the cable-car up the mountain) was due to close the next day for 2 weeks, for maintenance. So, as soon as people had dumped their packs in their respective hostels (one large group in The Backpack, another in Ashanti Lodge, and various others, mostly couples, scattered across other places), and generally showered and cleaned up, we met back up at The Backpack, got in a cavalcade of taxis, and headed up to the Cableway for a late-afternoon ascent of Cape Town's imposing massif.

And, once again, things went basically fine to start with, although Kath and one or two others were a little bit nervous on the way up (despite having mostly got past my own fear of heights, I can certainly sympathise). Once up, people scattered over the top of the mountain and started doing their own things. And it was while taking on the unfamiliar role of birdspotter (I was looking at a black eagle, ok?), that I got approached by Kiri, who was visibly uncomfortable. She was one of those staying in separate accommodation from the main groups, and had made her own way up to the summit and, unfortunately, had not just gotten a little bit nervous on the cable-car ride up, but had a fairly serious panic attack, to the point of nearly being sick. Hence, she was now adamant that she would not take the cable-car back down, and wanted my help to find the way to walk back down.

Now, here I face a dilemma - the walk back down is at least 2 hours or so, and it's less than 2 hours pre-sunset. So Kiri, if she goes for this, is going to be doing at least part of it in the dark, down a 1000m+ mountain. And, while she has some water, she doesn't have walking boots, or even a coat or anything. But she insists she isn't going back down the cable-car. In the end, as I didn't have water or anything with me for the descent, I walked Kiri to the top of the main track back down the mountain, gave her my fleece, hat and gloves and set her on the way down. And immediately started worrying about whether I did the right thing, or whether I should have tried to bodily carry her onto the cable-car or something - it really isn't advisable to attempt the descent of Table Mountain on your own with night coming in. When I met back up with the others, they were similarly worried, but we agreed that there was basically nothing more we could now, except maybe ask the Rangers to keep an eye out for her coming down the track.

In the end, as it turned out, Kiri was fine - she made it back okay, and was reunited with the rest of us that evening, as we gathered (minus Kath and Yohan, our first departures) at The Backpack, before going on for a dinner at a nice little place called Arnold's. There, I kept up my usual eating habits and demolished some zebra steak. Mmmmm. After a pleasant dinner there, there were a few more of a long stream of tearful goodbyes and a bunch of us piled into taxis and headed out to the suburb of Clifton, and a little place called La Med. Which was at least half empty until we arrived, but gave everyone the chance to carry on drinking and have a bit of a boogie (I was relatively loath to indulge in the latter, given that the music was largely R'n'B, at least to start with). Around 1am, I joined the next bunch of those going home, leaving the die-hard maniacs to go on (to a gay bar, it later transpired) for further mayhem.

The next day, I took full advantage of having a bed and not having to put up a tent, and lay in until late morning. Then I got on with some of the inevitable domestic chores of getting my laundry done, reorganising the pack, going to the Post Office, lots of internet etc. And, in the evening, met up again with most of the remaining Acacia brigade and went for a very pleasant dinner down at the Waterfront of Cape Town, at a place called Quay Four. In the process I had my first pint of bitter in over 6 weeks (mmmmm, Bosun's Bitter) - not really the classic accompaniment to Cajun-blackened Cape Salmon, but it worked for me! After a very nice dinner (accompanied by some glorious wine, courtesy of Matt and Brandon, who had had an industry insiders' tour of some of the wineries that day), there were more tearful goodbyes, as we lost ever more of our group. This just reminded me once again that I really don't like extended goodbyes.

And the pattern was repeated to some extent the next day - lounging around in the morning, lots of internet time, went for a wander down to the old Castle of Good Hope, had a few drinks with my room-mates at Ashanti (including a mad Welshman, Richard, who I made the mistake of letting near my hair with clippers - I ended up with the most severe haircut I've had in over 5 years!) and then ended up diverting out for one last dinner with the remaining Acacians. Some of them came back to Ashanti afterwards, and hence cue yet more long goodbyes.

And then that was it. My Acacia experience was over. It was off to sleep, nice and early ahead of a morning departure for Stellenbosch. And that's where I shall have to pick up next time. Until then, my friends, goodbye!


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Sunday, July 24, 2005

Things not to do in a tent...

Hello again! Right, time for another attempt at a quick update on the old blog.

So, we had arrived at our campsite at Orange River, to be faced by a minor shock: grass. Lots and lots of grass. And other green stuff. And about the only sand was in the volleyball court. And there was a river. We were most confused by this. This was not a desert. Where had they hidden all the sand? It was also our penultimate night on the truck, so Paul asked us if we wouldn't mind brushing down all our tents.

Once we got over these acclimatisation issues, a few of us headed over to the aforementioned volleyball court (possibly to assuage our need to be covered in sand), where Yohan and I were given somewhat of a kicking by Roger and Dave. One amusing aspect of the set-up there is that one of the main shower-blocks is right next to the court, and the block is mostly bamboo fencing - so those who are quite tall can actually look out onto the court while they're having a shower! Of course, I wouldn't want to be a particularly tall lass trying to take a shower in there while a match is on...

Anyways, after a shower to clean off any leftover sand, we had a while to wait before dinner was going to be ready, so I tried ringing home, and promptly burnt what little credit I had on my mobile in talking to my Mum for about 2 minutes! Somewhat disheartened by this, I decided that it was about time I dealt with the bottle of gin I'd been lugging around since Heathrow, so got started on the gin and tonics, happily encouraging any of the others who were interested to have a drink too (I can remember getting Jon, Valdy and Paul to all have a drink with me). Meanwhile, Jon was repacking his entire pack in the middle of the camp, when he could take time away from yet another in an endless succession of campsite dogs, which was yapping around with typical enthusiasm.

After dinner, it was time to adjourn to the bar, where I ended up talking with some Germans and Afrikaners, meaning I missed the decision by the group to stage a mass brown-eye salute (probably a good thing, on reflection...). Eventually, my increasing inebriation persuaded me to hit the sack at a relatively decent hour, meaning that what I later found out about other activities that night was generally acquired second-hand. And, not for the first time, it centred on Heetan.

As I said, I only found out much of the action the next morning, and I was not totally flavour of the month with some of the crew after I overslept, and tried to make myself a sandwich for brekkie while the food crew were trying to clear things away. However, it turned out I was far from the last person to be ready to leave - I looked on in confusion as Heets put his and Leonie's tent back up and went in armed with a bucket. The gossip around the truck swiftly informed me that this was because Heets got slightly confused as to his location in the middle of the night, and used their tent as a toilet. It then proceeded to how at least Heets' ground-mat wasn't soaked, as he had dragged this into Jen's tent, where he had threatened to dance (due to her decision not to stay outside and dance with him). And then onto how we might be screwed for lunch that day, as Jon, Dave and Valdy had apparently gotten onto the truck and been throwing the pasta that was to form the basis of the salad around... At any rate, pretty much everyone was sat on the truck, engaged in the usual post-mortem analysis of a heavy night, while Heets scrubbed his tent clean, then took it down and packed it away again. And then we left.

And, to be honest, not a huge amount happened that day - it was largely just another day on the road, enlivened somewhat by our morning stop in the town of Springbok, where almost the whole truck gave in to urges for munchies in the form of KFC, and I spent half my time wandering around trying to set myself up with a new SIM card for my mobile (to connect it to a South African network). Our stop for the evening was a quiet campsite near a place called Citrusdal, which also contained hot springs - these proved popular with some of the group, but I have to admit that a combination of apathy about climbing up the hill to where the pools were, nervousness about getting wet and hanging around in the cold, and realisation that the last 6 weeks were catching up with me meant that I had a very quiet night down at camp, where I took the opportunity to transfer all my possessions back from being strewn through my locker to being crammed in my packs.

The next morning, we broke camp for the final time. Oh, what a sweet sensation it was, to know I would never have to erect Tent 42 again. Unfortunately, they were all covered in dew, and got covered in damp grass when we took them down, which somewhat undid all our efforts the previous evening, when we had wiped down every tent thoroughly to try and get them clean. Everything was stowed into White Nile, and off we went, down the highway towards Cape Town. After all the various dirt roads (sometimes verging on tracks) and the like we had encountered on the trip, doing the final stretch on an immaculate tarmac highway just seemed slightly wrong.

Anyway, on arrival in Cape Town we made a stop off in the northern suburbs, at a beach called Table View. Can anybody guess what you get a view of from there? So, we all got our Table Mountain shots (slightly spoiled by the amount of haze), and then various last-minute shots of the group (or most of them). The reality that the whole adventure was coming to an end was starting to hit home. And it got another kick into place when we arrived in the centre of town and, for the first time since some of the group went into Zim at Livi, people split up to sleep in different places.

And that will have to do for the moment - the official end of the tour seems as good a point as any to end a log entry. From now on, I would be back under my own steam again, going at an independent pace. But that is a story for next time, my friends. Until then, farewell...


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Friday, July 22, 2005

Bad Games, A Big Hole and The Last Border

Hello once more. Well, it's a bit late, but this entry will hopefully get us to the Namibia/SA border. Hopefully...

So, when last I had to be pried away from the machine, it was dinner time of our second evening in Sesriem. Which was potje time again, only this time, it was oryx potje. Mmmmm. That said, there's something bizarre from knowing that what you're having for dinner now is one of the things that you were happily photographing only a day or two earlier. I guess it's not usually an issue with pigs, cows or hens, but applies more when you decide that antelope or zebra or ostrich is the way forward (as indeed each of them is!). And then, post-potje, it was time to head off to the bar once more. Although the bar at Sesriem has to be one of the smallest and most pitiable attempts we saw in many a campsite.

Which actually makes it all the more surprising, then, that this turned into one of those occasional nights of drinking games when everything gets just a little bit silly. We had Brandon and Matt, our American buddies, teaching people how to play "Whales' Tails", a game involving a mythical inquisition by the Prince of Wales into who has slept with his wife (just DON'T ASK) that requires extraordinary powers of concentration, so is best done early in the evening (it also really screws over people who aren't that quick to work out things with numbers). Then we played that old standby, the Name Game, involving shouting out celebrities' names in turn as you go round the circle, which tends to mess up people who don't have a good memory (it punishes repitition and hesitation). Then Jo got us playing Whizz-Bang-Bounce, some variant of which is familiar to many people, and which tends to make life hard for those who've already got drunk in the previous games. And then that old classic, Bunnies, was wheeled out, which just confused absolutely everybody. At which point, some bright spark suggested the most evil incarnation of drinking games known to western civilisation: I Have Never...

Now, for those lucky souls not familiar with "I Have Never" (which also goes by the names Never Ever and Never Have I Ever), I shall summarise it as follows: going round the circle (most lethal drinking games involve a circle), everyone takes a turn to say "I Have Never Done X", where X can be pretty much anything. Often, at the start of games, X can be something harmless like "Done a bungee jump" or "Skydived" or "Been to 3 different continents". But, people playing drinking games being what they are, the tone very quickly descends to the gutter, down through the sewers and onwards, and you frequently end up finding out things about the people you're playing with that you would never have guessed (and often that you wish you'd never found out at all...). For this reason, it works quite well with backpackers whom you've only just met and are unlikely to spend much time with in the future, and is an exceptionally bad idea with good friends or family members!

The usual rules can also include the imposition of a "Circle of Trust" between those playing the game, such that nothing found out in the course of play can be passed on to anyone else. This is essential in the (obviously purely hypothetical) situation where you have one half of a couple playing the game while their other half is fast asleep elsewhere, and will be seeing other people involved the next morning... In any case, due both to this and to my occasional attempts to remain close to some standard of public decency, I won't be divulging any of the knowledge brought forth from the game, but I figured I might as well give a little background on it, as it pops up once or twice more in the course of my travels .

Anyways, after the late bout of I Have Never around the campfire (and an impromptu decision by the lads in the group to graffiti the desert...), it was a slightly owlish group who surfaced in the morning for our trip out of Sesriem, and further south through Namibia. This was another of those occasions where we just didn't really do much during the day, although for once we actually got where we going on time, so there were no issues with getting into the camp, finding our allocated spot etc. Some unkind souls remarked to Paul that they'd almost forgotten how to put up their tents during the daylight. Still, after setting camp it was time to hop back on the truck for a quick trip out to the rim of the Fish River Canyon, which is, Namibian tourist authorities reliably inform me, the 2nd Biggest Canyon in the World (after the Grand Canyon). Don't know on exactly what basis they do this, but I can reliably inform you that it is one bloody enormous hole in the ground. And we actually reached it in time to get photos of the sun setting, even more improbably.

After that, it was back to the campsite for dinner and the usual drink or two (although for once there was no campsite bar to help out proceedings, so we were entirely dependent upon our own supplies, and upon the Valdy Bar, an esky stocked with alcohol by our esteemed driver and sold on to us as the most convenient repository of cold liquor). That evening was enlivened somewhat by another broadcast of Leonie's DVD of her getting savaged by a lion cub in Vic Falls, by the seemingly dozens of copies being made of a CD of African music that Paul and Valdy had repeatedly used to greet the morning on the truck, and by the attempts of Scott, aided by myself and Paul, to finally fix the damned stereo on the truck (which was now happily playing in the back of the truck again, but not in the front, leading to our being plagued by horrible music at horrible volumes while Paul and Valdy listened to something else on a personal stereo in the cab...). Eventually, after much mucking about with electrical gubbins and me having climbed on the roof of the cab, we got all of it working apart from one speaker, which seemed a pretty decent effort given that a bloody "professional" electrician hadn't been able to get it working!

There was an effort to get another drinking game going, one involving each person in turn adding one word to the sentence underway, but it didn't really get going that much, and the night turned into a pretty quiet one. The next morning we were up and away again, on our way out of Namibia. It was actually a pretty late start, as we didn't have too much ground to cover to the Orange River border crossing point. What we did manage along the way, though, was one of those occasional unadvertised breaks, and this one was a doozie: some hot springs, at a little place called Ai-Ais. Now, the last time I'd been in anything similar was when I was over in Hungary last year, but this was vaguely similar: hot pools of various temperatures, some indoors, some outdoors, though the ones in Budapest didn't have a set of fountains that went off occasionally, and worked as a very effective back massage for those standing underneath them! They also didn't see their outside pool hijacked by a bunch of overlanders with a rugby ball (in defiance of the "No ball games" signs liberally plastered around), leading to much fun, amidst shrieking, splashing and generally scandalising the other (mostly German) holiday-makers there.

Soon enough, though, it was time to hit the road again, and head for the border, where it was another hassle-free crossing (you know, there I'd been, pre-trip, imagining all kinds of nightmares at African border crossings, and it was mostly so easy it was booooring!) and there we were, in our final country on White Nile, the good old Republic of South Africa.

And that's where this latest instalment will tail off, as the details of our final truly silly night on the truck will have to wait. Until then, dear reader, fare thee well!


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Wednesday, July 20, 2005

Sand, sand and more sand

Right, time to cover a little more ground on the Blog, and see if I can finally get a bit nearer to the Namibia/SA border. Looking back on last time, we had just had our second night in Swakopmund...

Well, we were all up and ready to leave Swakopmund on the Tuesday morning, but unfortunately White Nile wasn't! Due to some issues we'd been having with the stereo, and a couple of other minor issues, she was being looked at by a mechanic. So we got a little time to ourselves, which most of us used either for catching up on net time, or for shopping. Eventually, an hour or so past our original departure time, White Nile rocks up and we all pile on. We then find out that the attempted repairs haven't fixed things, as they couldn't figure out what was wrong. Bugger. So, we head on, dodgy stereo and everything, down the coast to the town of Walvis Bay.

Now, Walvis Bay was the last town to join Namibia, as the South Africans didn't release it until 1994! The reason for this is that Walvis Bay was historically part of South Africa under the British, when Namibia was the German colony of South-West Africa, largely because Walvis Bay sits on the only decent harbour along the entire Namibian coast, so we Brits decided that was the only bit worth having (note that this was way back before anyone found diamonds...). These days, though, it's re-integrated with the rest of the country. And we were popping down there to go see flamingoes. You see, there's pretty big salt marshes along the coast there, which the dumb pink birds love, so there's thousands of the buggers just sitting there. I wasn't really in the mood to get that excited about them, but a few of the others went off determinedly up the beach, with a cunning plan to try and drive some of the hordes perched outside effective camera range back towards the waiting masses armed with cameras. Unfortunately, due to a shortage of time and the fact that distances on the beach can be deceiving, this came to nothing, which was a shame - I was rather looking forward to them jumping around trying to scare some of the birds into flight...

After that, it was back onto the truck for another long drive down through the Namib desert, enlivened as ever by the always-competitive intra-mural games of scrabble, Uno and chess which flourished on the truck. We also made a stop at a farmhouse, which I believe was called Solitaire, where many of our number had what Paul and Valdy promised us was the "best apple pie in Namibia". From there, it was on towards the campsite of Sesriem, the gateway to the greatest dunes of the Namib, and to Sossusvlei. Except that we got there late. D'Oh! They did let us in, but our original pitch had been sold on, so we had to share with a poor family on holiday. By this point, it was too late to make our scheduled trip to see sunset at Sesriem canyon, so we just settled in for the night at the slightly surreal campsite. You see, it's all sand, but then you have these big trees sprouting up out of the middle where their roots have found water way down - each pitch is generally around the base of a tree (vital for shade during the day). Another very early night followed, as we had to be up really early...

... because the next morning we headed off on what is an informal race across the park. As soon as the gates from the campsite into the park open, most of the 4WD vehicles of whatever stripe within head out in their very own version of the Cannonball Run, albeit over a much shorter course! In this case, they are all rushing for the base of Dune 45, which is basically the designated point for watching the sunrise from within the park (wily people that the Namibian National Parks people are, they provided road access, a car-park etc at one of the dunes, on the basis that if people are going to muck about with the dunes by climbing them, it's probably best to restrict it to one of them...).

Still, despite a slightly later start than we had planned, all seemed to be going okay. Then, on arrival, I made the critical error (perhaps understandable given my oft-stated aversion to the hours of morning) of mistaking the word "sandals" for "shoes" in the phrase "We don't recommend you wear sandals when attempting to climb the dune". So I went off to climb a huge red sand-dune in my besocked feet, despite the fact that said sand is bloody freezing first thing in the morning. Given my performance on the dunes during sand-boarding at Swakop, I was expecting pain, but even that didn't necessarily prepare me for the horror of climbing that bloody dune. I was halfways sure I was bloody dying out there, as I struggled along, trying to use others' footsteps as much as possible to lessen the amount that the sand slipped out from under me as I climbed. Still, I made it up the steepest part (the first bit) and was progressing okay along a ridgeline as the first glimmers of light started to show on the horizon. Time for the first pre-sunset photo.

So, out comes my camera, snap goes the shot, and then comes the whirring of it turning itself off. Bugger. Flat battery. Oh well, time to put in a spare. Except that one of the spares is flat, and the other one isn't there. Bugger. I put it in Roger's bag when we went sand-boarding, and never got it back. And Roger is way further up the dune than me at the moment. Nearly howling audibly with anguish, I stumble on up the dune to where the rest of the group are gathered, searching frantically for Roger and Chiara as the light grows brighter on the Eastern horizon. And then, having found them, discover that Roger doesn't have his bag with him. It's not even on the truck. It's back in the camp at Sesriem. Bugger bugger bugger! We're out in one of the most photogenic landscapes on the planet, and my camera is basically dead. Aaaargh! Eventually, I remember that I have a disposable 35mm camera in my daypack (purchased for those times when even I'm not daft enough to take my digicam out...), and manage to get some shots. I still don't know how they turned out, though, as the film hasn't been developed yet!!

Oh, and by this point my feet are not merely sore, but also rapidly going numb, standing in very cold sand (joys of the desert - it's totally bloody freezing at night...). After a short while to appreciate the beauty of the sunrise and the majesty of the ensuing view, it's time to make tracks back down the dune. Literally. I think all of our group made it down the main approach again (admittedly with much whooping and jumping), but some idiots from other groups on the dune just charged down the pristine faces of the dune, which seemed just a bit childish - there's a certain stark majesty to the sand dunes there, and a line of footprints running down the side just seems to desecrate it somehow. I know that when more sand blows over, it'll just get wiped away, but it just feels kind of disrespectful to the place.

Anyways, when we got back down it was to be greeted by two sights: first was Paul applying the finishing touches to a massive fried breakfast; the second was another (northbound) Acacia truck, laying out the chairs and tables for a champagne breakfast. We'd been trumped. Dammit. That said, once we were tucking into our brekkie, it was widely agreed that champagne at 6:30am was not a good thing, and we'd rather be stuffing ourselves with bacon, boerewors (S African "farmer's sausage" - very good) and scrambled eggs. Oh, and defrosting our feet, for those of us who went up barefoot or in socks. Soon enough, though, it was time to move on, heading to the main parking lot out in the middle of the desert, which serves as the base for trips to Sossusvlei itself.

Before arriving at Sossusvlei, Paul had been really selling us on the possibility of doing this walk with a bushman out to the vlei, which would show us all the life in the desert and that kind of thing. Only on arrival did he discover it now cost almost twice as much as he'd thought it did, so he offered to lead a trip through the dunes to another, nearby vlei, the Hidden Vlei. Now here I have to confess to one of the few possible regrets I have from my trip with Acacia - due to my tiredness, the soreness of my feet (which were recovering from some other cuts even before I nearly froze them) and my unwillingness to climb any more bloody dunes, I didn't join most of the others from our truck as they followed Paul. But I also, due to not having got enough cash out last time we were in a town, didn't fork out the 80 Namib dollars (or about 7.50 GBP) for the shuttle vehicle into Sossusvlei itself. Looking back, that's faintly ridiculous - to have come that close to what's regarded as one of the natural wonders of the world, and then stayed in the car park nursing sore feet for want of a few quid in local currency. Bloody stupid. Oh well, I guess I'll have to go back to Namibia some other time to remedy that!

Anyways, after all the morning adventures, we headed back to the camp at Sesriem, where we had an afternoon at leisure. Most of the group used it to chill out by the pool. I used it to resuscitate and then back up my digital camera. I know, I'm a geek, but it needed doing. Then, that afternoon, we had our delayed appointment with Sesriem canyon, which is surprisingly impressive. So much so that we wandered down into it, lost track of time, and came back up to find we'd just missed the sunset again! D'Oh! Then it was back into camp, and dinner time.

But I shall have to break off here, as my time is about to run out, and this entry is (once again) getting stupidly long. Take care and have fun,


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Tuesday, July 19, 2005


Hello again,

Shall we head back to the narrative, which cut off last time just as we entered Swakopmund, which seemed to be utterly dead...?

The good news here was that we were staying in a hostel again. Beds! No putting up of tents! Yay!!! So, we got everything settled into our rooms, then headed off for the obligatory videos outlining all the activities available to do in Swakop. The main ones of these are Sandboarding, Quad Biking and Skydiving, making good use of the sand dunes just out of town. For me, this was relatively unnecessary, as I already knew I was going to do Quadding and Sandboarding. No contest whatsoever. Various of the others umm-ed and ahh-ed a bit, but it was pretty similar sentiments form most people, although Roger and Chiara (our Canadian couple) decided to do the skydive as well!

Having decided on our activities for the next day, it was off to the bar (or back to the bar in a few cases...) to start our belated celebrations of Valdy's brthday - given that he didn't have to drive the next day, he was good to come out with us and start the mayhem. However, the early action was fairly brief, as we adjourned from the hostel bar to a pub/restaurant called The Lighthouse for another big slap-up meal (mmm, oryx...). Although, given the amount of wine and beer consumed alongside the food, matters were proceeding fairly energetically anyway. Once we finished there, we decided that, given the deader-than-a-morgue state of much of Swakop on a Sunday night in the middle of winter, it was back to the hostel bar again, where Valdy renewed his long-running relationship with shooters, aided and abetted by various of the usual suspects from the truck.

What followed was probably one of the daftest nights on the whole trip, and hence the memories are slightly more fragmented. Highlights included Belinda's seriously energetic dancing up on the tables, Dave's dogged pursuit of the barmaid, several games of pool that went on way too long, largely because I think some of the players could scarcely see the balls, and the classic comedy moment where I found myself chatting to one of the jump-masters for the skydive company, who'd had a few bevvies himself. It was partway through his trying to persuade me to sign up to jump the next day, that he pointed out a guy passed out on the bar. And told me that was the guy who packed the parachutes. What little enthusiasm I had at that point faded away pretty sharpish. By the end of the night, though, I'd apparently dozed off on the bar myself (classy, I know) before staggering back to my bed.

The next day was another bright and cool day, enlivened somewhat by the post-mortems of the previous night over fry-ups. And by Dave's smug appearance that morning in a tasteful T-shirt emblazoned with a variant on a certain Pizza restaurant's logo featuring the words "Pussy Hut". And no, he wasn't referring to a kitten sanctuary. Soon enough, though, it was time to load up into the Kombi vans associated with most good backpacker activity companies and head out to the dunes, ready for sandboarding. For those not familiar with the activity, this involves climbing sand dunes, then going down them either on a waxed-up snowboard, or lying down on some form of toboggan. The first bit (going up) is the painful bit. Really painful. Climbing up a mound of shifting sand whilst dragging a board of some kind is not fun. Not at all. Especially not when recovering from "the night before", as so many of us were doing (I will freely admit to having several thoughts along the line of "I am going to die" in the course of climbing the dunes that morning).

However, the going-down bit is great fun. I had decided, given my brief exposure to snowboards a few years earlier, to give the "stand-up" version of sandboarding a go. And, well, frankly I sucked. The only real benefit of quite how bad I was was that I made a couple of appearances in the video of the day (they always like good crashes...). After a couple of attempts, and a couple of gut-busting climbs back up that evil dune, I happily switched over to tobogganing. Now this was much more fun. Sliding down the slope at up to 80km/h on a sheet of waxed plywood is very addictive. I made one descent down "Lizzy" (the 2nd-fastest route down the dunes, and still a real eye-opener!), and then 2 further ones down "Dizzy", their fastest run, featuring a point where the slope drops away and you can get "air" under at least the front of your sheet. Absolutely superb fun. There's nothing quite like doing near enough 50 miles an hour down a sand-dune on a sheet of plywood, frantically trying to keep elbows and hands (gloved) from digging into the sand and causing a spectacular "wipeout", either screaming like a girl or giggling like a loon. I was still bouncing around a couple of hours later, when it came around to time to go out on the Quads.

Now, to be honest, I love Quad bikes (4WD 4-wheeled motorbikes for those unfamiliar with them). I almost never pass up a chance to have a go on them, and this trip just sounded like it would be amazing, as we would be heading out through the dune fields, before "roller-coaster-ing" up and down the sides of the dunes. And doing so for about 2 hours. I won't bore everyone with all the details, but suffice to say that, at least after I had got clear of some of the more nervous riders near the back of the field and joined up with the over-enthusiastic idiots in the leading group, I was ploughing along at near enough full throttle for most of the rest of the trip. And the "roller-coastering" involves going at full speed, often down a slope, towards one of the dunes, driving as high up the side of it as you can then, just as you are losing traction and slowing right down, turning back down the slope to pick up more speed and (often) do it again over the other side of the dip. There was general agreement from those of us who did it that this was probably the single most fun activity on the whole damned trip, and for most of us that included rafting the Mighty Zambezi (TM).

We got back to Swakop itself after sundown, having caught dusk looking over the South Atlantic, and caught some air over a few of the bumps on the way back. Various of us were obviously disappointed when told that, no, we couldn't go and do it again, and yes, we had to give the quads back now. We then headed back into town to the hostel, and shortly popped over to one of the local pubs, to see the video CD from our sandboarding earlier in the day. I loved this so much that I gave in and bought a copy. I know, I'm weak, but it is quite cool, and I actually quite like the music too! Then it was back to the hostel, where my cooking team were to have our final shift making dinner on the trip, and rarely can there have been an easier one - chicken burgers. Fry chicken breasts, chop salad, get out bread rolls and sauces. Even the washing-up was pretty straightforward. Unfortunately, though, by the time we'd finished cleaning up, everybody's ardour for any further celebrations had dampened somewhat, and it ended up being a very quiet night.

And that will have to do for now. Until the next time, mis amigos, adios!


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Sunday, July 17, 2005

Fast beasts and smelly beasts

[From this point on, the untimely loss of my notebook in Pretoria means a few of the remaining posts are less detailed than they might have been (stop cheering at the back!). Still, I shall continue with the chronicles of my time in the Dark Continent. And so I return with you once more to the north of Namibia, and to Etosha National Park.]

And to another early departure, in search of yet more game. This, though, was to be our final game drive of the trip, on our way out of the park and back south again, on the first stage of the long descent towards Cape Town. And, to be honest, there wasn't really anything else to excite me on the way out. It was simply a case of getting back to the gate, having lunch at the campsite which had no room at the inn when we arrived, and then heading on south for what Paul assured us would be a quick drive of an hour or so to the Otjitongwe Cheetah Park (try saying that one after a few too many beers).

Unfortunately, for once Paul's knowledge of the route (which he hadn't been on for a year or so) failed him. It was significantly more than "an hour or so" to the cheetah park, such that we arrived there rather later than anticipated, and were hence unable to pet the cheetahs. Yes, you did read that right - I said "pet the cheetahs". As in, go and stroke them and generally sit next to the big predatory puddy cats. This is apparently possible because, alone amongst the Big Cats, cheetahs are not born with the hunting instincts, and so do not automatically see us as Food. The people who run the park rescued the 3 cheetahs in question as cubs. So they're like big domesticated housecats. That can run up to 100km/h or so. And have non-retractable claws (another little unique cheetah feature). Not going to go into the morality or otherwise of doing this, but the animals seem happy enough.

Anyways, as noted, we weren't able to do the petting that afternoon, so it was off to the enclosures further out in the park, where they keep the other cheetahs. These are generally wild adults who have been caught on farmland and would otherwise have been shot. So, instead, they are kept in enclosures and fed regularly. Again, not quite the same as having them free in the wild, but I reckon better than having them dead. Anyways, as you may have guessed, we were there for the spectacle of them being fed. Only we were late, and we weren't the first group, so we got to watch from White Nile. And I didn't think this was necessarily a bad thing, as the other intrepid visitors were in a little trailer, surrounded only by low railings, behind a bakkie (transl. = "pick-up", or "ute" if you really must). In an enclosure with half a dozen or so big, hungry cats. Protected only by a guy in the stereotypical Afrikaner costume of khaki shorts, check shirt and boots, wielding that known weapon of mass-destruction, the Big Stick.

The feeding ritual itself largely consisted of: Afrikaner oke (transl. = "bloke") goes to bucket in back of trailer and grabs large hunk of meat (another reason NOT to be in the trailer, in my book, though some of the others on the truck were loudly lamenting that they weren't out there); beckons to circling pack of cheetahs; waves stick at any that get too close (seriously); throws meat out into pack; cheetahs pounce in giant furball; one of them gets the meat and legs it off, sharpish, to a safe distance to feed; repeat until no more hungry cheetahs prowling around in enclosure; repeat for next enclosure. All pretty prosaic, were it not for the fact that a cheetah haring in at near-top speed in search of food is a pretty awesome sight, even if it is basically getting a steak served blue.

Anyways, after that it was back to another small square of dusty ground masquerading as a campsite (although this time in a cheetah park), there to pitch our tents and settle in for the night. Dinner crew made dinner. A bunch of the rest of us headed off to the bar. I know, it does seem like my alcoholic tendencies were coming to the fore again, but there really wasn't a great deal else to do. Although this bar did sell some pretty cool cheetah park T-shirts, one of which I purchased. Several others of the group also did so, and some of the discussions around colours were enlivened somewhat when Helen (who's training to be a makeup-artist) started suggesting what the most appropriate colour for various people would be. Before anyone asks, mine was apparently pink. Now, unfortunately, I actually rather dislike the colour pink, associating it as I do with pink-shirted, pin-striped, rah-rah City Boys (spot my pet prejudices) and several rather over-enthusiastic student Pantomimes on which I worked. So I got a rather fetching maroon/burgundy kind of number instead. STOP LAUGHING!

That was about all for that night, and the next morning dawned for us slightly less bright and early than Paul habitually liked (I wasn't complaining). The reason? Well, it was time to do our cheetah-petting. Those nice people at the park had offered to fit us in first thing (i.e. around 7:30, engendering something of a lie-in for us) and so we struck camp and drove over to the farmhouse at the entry to the park, where we went through the (rather substantial) chain-link fence into the front yard. There to be confronted by 3 adult cheetahs.

I have to admit feeling just a tad nervous when walking in there (in a daft-arse show of bravado, I'd gone in as one of the first in the group), but our true Afrikaner oke from the previous afternoon talked nicely to his pets and got them to lie down, and we then took it in turns to crouch down and pat and scratch them behind the ears (obviously with a barrage of cameras going off - luckily they're apparently used to all the bleeps, clicks and whirrs). The one I patted first even purred! I mean, it's logical for a cat to purr, but I'd never quite envisaged a scenario where a cheetah was purring right in front of me while I scratched behind its ears.

The roll-call of pictures was interrupted every so often, though, when the cheetahs got distracted by another family pet, a little vervet monkey, which would sit just out of reach in the bushes, or on the scaffolding around the water-tower, and chatter at them. We also had a comedy interlude when one of the cheetahs took a bit too much of a liking to one of Dave's flip-flops and went off with it! He got it back in the end, but now complete with cheetah bite-marks on it. And there was a slightly overly dramatic end to the session when the cheeky little monkey dropped down to the ground to taunt one of the farm dogs (who played quite happily with the cheetahs?!?), and took its eye off where the cheetahs were. And one of them pounced. Cue much shrieking, first by the monkey, and then by the lady of the house, whose pet it was. Eventually, the cat dropped the little rascal, who promptly climbed back up to the roof, and order was restored. Hopefully, the little pest may have learnt not to go around teasing the cheetahs, though!

And so, we were off again, down slightly more minor roads, heading SW for the coast and our next stop, the Cape Cross seal colony. Now, the origins of the name Cape Cross are faintly humourous, so prepare for long-winded explanation. Originally, it ws named because it's a cape, and the Portuguese (who were the first Europeans to reach the place, en route to their discovery of the sea-route around the Cape) placed a cross there, proclaiming how glorious it was in the eyes of God that they had found this coast, yadda yadda. All was perfectly fine, until sometime in the 19th Century, after the area fell under the control of the Germans, who, in a fit of sublime inspiration, called their colony "South-West Africa". Catchy, huh? Anyway, they apparently, for reasons known only to them, waltzed off back to Germany with the original cross, and erected one of their own in its place. As you do. ??!? Matters were then, however, further complicated after Namibia's independence from South Africa, as the Portuguese supplied a replacement replica of their original cross. So there are now 2 crosses at Cape Cross. And a lot of seals.

And, despite how cute people may find them, there is one overwhelming issue with seals: they stink. Absolutely reek to high heaven. Poo poo poo. Almost up there with hippos. (Almost). To the point where Paul advised us not to wear any fleeces or the like out of the truck, as they would take in rather too much of the odour, and he'd hate to have to throw them out the window (or words to that effect). You get the idea. They smell. They're also really rather noisy, keeping up a pretty impressive barrage of honks. And there's somewhere in the vicinity of 80,000 of them there. Covering the rocks, and the shoreline, to the point where you can barely see them. You get the idea. Lots and lots of smelly seals. Oh, and I saw a jackal wandering around, which was also kind of cool.

And then, not before time (I'd been wearing one of my bandanas as a mask over my nose and mouth to alleviate the aggression of the smell somewhat), it was back onto the truck, and further on down the coast to the little town of Swakopmund. Now, as you may be able to guess from the name, Swakop is a pretty Teutonic place. Kind of like a small Prussian town dumped in the desert by the sea. And we arrived on a Sunday night, when it wasn't exactly kicking. Actually, more than that, as we drove in, the consensus was that we'd arrived in a ghost town. It looked like the local tumble-weed was on a fag-break. Could this be the place described by some guidebooks as "the adventure-sports capital of Namibia"?

Well, this post is long enough now, so you'll have to wait for the next one (possibly as soon as tomorrow) to find out. Awww, ain't I a tease?

Until then, taraa!


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Saturday, July 16, 2005

Bloody hell, leopards DO actually exist...!

[Thankyou so much to Yohan, for sending on the best leopard picture from our truck, gratefully reproduced here]

Hello again my friends,

After a spate of horribly expensive internet in Durban, and non-existent internet during my sojourn in the Drakensberg, I am now in Pretoria, with cheap-as access, so it's time to try and bring the story a little closer to the present day, so let's pick up where last I left off, in Etosha:

This being a national park, you can guess how we started the next day. Yep, dark and early (5am or so, again...), loading onto White Nile for further chasing off bloody antelope. Or at least, that was how I felt at the time. As predicted by Paul back up when we were in East Africa, I had been getting fairly game-fatigued. Once you've seen all these animals a certain number of times, you do find yourself saying things like "Oh no, not another bloody giraffe", and people making jokes about only wanting to see another hippo if it was fighting a lion at the time. Combine this with my usual aversion to early mornings, and you'll have some idea that I was in not the most happy of moods.

This wasn't helped by the fact that the seat-rotation policy on the truck had now brought me right back to the back again, and when we did stop to see things, our driver Valdy tended to line us up okay for those near the cab, while unintentionally leaving some of the rest of us looking at bushes, which was mildly frustrating. Still, we were seeing a fair bit of game, which kept quite a few of the newer occupants happy. As it was, though, I was fairly tuned out and having a conversation when we stopped to look at another giraffe. So I wasn't the first to react when Dave and Heetan, from opposite ends of the truck, both made comments along the lines of "Are those spots in the bushes there?".

Indeed, it turned out, they were. Finally, after over a month on the road, I could see a leopard, the most elusive of the "Big 5" of Africa! Incidentally, not sure if I mentioned it back in my musings from Kenya and Tanzi, but the Big 5 are named not for their actual size (there are much bigger creatures than the leopard out there) but for their danger to hunters - hence, the Elephant, Rhino, Buffalo, Lion and Leopard were the 5 most dangerous things for big-game hunters to take on back in the 19th century. Anyways, there was much frantic photography, as everyone tried to get a decent shot through the undergrowth (unsurprisingly, their camouflage is pretty effective...) - the best of ours was Yohan's, which he kindly sent on arond the group afterwards (and I have shamelessly used here). And then, there was astonishment as another leopard loped out of the undergrowth just behind it.

Now, leaving aside London bus-style jokes about waiting forever and two turning up at once, this is incredibly rare - adult leopards are solitary creatures, and only ever pair up just before mating, splitting up again just afterwards. Neither Paul nor Valdy had ever seen a pair of them at once before, and it's not many people who have. Understandably, this completely rejuvenated me and got the enthusiasm back up, so I was a very happy bunny when we got back to camp for lunch. Most animals being sensible enough not to wander around much in the heat of the day in the deserts of Namibia, we were not due to head out again until later in the afternoon and so had a few hours of leisure around the campsite, which any of us put to good use by jumping in the pool. Or at least, those of us with a certain tolerance for chilly water - compared to the hot desert air, the pool was really rather cold, and it was notable that the Brits were rather more ready to plunge in than the Aussies in the group.

Much splashing around in the pool with a ball (and a much-needed ice-cream) later, it was back on the truck for more beastie-spotting. Amidst the hordes of springbok, and quite a few kudu, we managed to get a glimpse of a lion, much to the joy of the crew who had joined up in Livi, as this was their first leonine sighting (and completed their entire Big 5, all within Etosha!). We also went out briefly onto the Etosha pan itself, a huge salt-flat. This gave us a chance to get out of the truck in the middle of a park for once, as there were more than enough sight-lines for safety. We put this unaccustomed freedom to typical use - taking photos of one another, kicking balls around and general horseplay (e.g. Dave deciding to lick the salt-pan, and Amanda deciding to ride on his back while he was doing so...). And in all the excitement, we nearly lost track of time, and so were left at the mercy of Valdy's driving once more as we raced to get back to Halali camp and avoid being locked out! This time we managed to cut it even finer, as we drove through the gate and almost immediately passed the guard heading over to lock it. Phew.

It was then back up to the waterhole for most of us, where we saw elephants, hyenas and jackals again. The highlight, though, was definitely when rhinos came back down again. And this time, the mummy rhinos brought their kids, leading to a situation where we had two adult females and two juvenile rhinos all clustered around the waterhole. Absolutely mesmerising, and really lovely for Helen, whose favourite animal they are, and who had missed the rhino the previous evening. Eventually, though, it all got pretty quiet and it was time for bed again.

And that is where I must leave you now, as I have spent way too long on the net today. Adieu, mes amis!


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Friday, July 15, 2005

Beer Halls, Funky Labs, Bakeries and Waterholes

Hello once more. Or should I say Guten Tag? For our travels had now taken us to Windhoek, the capital of Namibia (Africa's youngest country) and probably the most German city in Africa, though it actually feels more like a colony of South Africa. Most noticeably, Windhoek is very "first world" in the centre, with banks, takeaways, shopping centres, supermarkets, buses, and everything else, all looking clean and modern. The roads are also excellent, and the vehicles are largely in a decent state of repair. Botswana had been similar, but the contrast with Malawi, Tanzania or Kenya was very pronounced.

At any rate, our stop on that first night was in Windhoek where, joy of joys, we would be staying in a hostel (the wonderfully named Cardboard Box), meaning dorms and beds! I was, by this point, getting fairly sick already of the tents (especially the whole hassle of pitching and striking camp almost every day). Windhoek also meant the opportunity to go out to a nice restaurant for dinner, and go on drinking in bars afterwards. After an hour or two at the hostel (used by the boys mostly for playing pool or drinking beer, and by the girls apparently for straightening their hair...), and the fun of breaking into the back of the truck (the bolt on the door had slipped on due to the steep slope we were parked on!), we headed off to Joe's Beer Hall, a much classier establishment than the name might suggest, for dinner.

Now, Joe's is one of those wonderful places, found in many large African cities, which offers a good variety of game meat on the menu. I had a truly divine Kudu steak, while Belinda, sat to my right, had Zebra, and various of the others dined on other antelope, or on ostrich or crocodile. With the beer and wine flowing, this made for a very agreeable environment (despite the dents it was putting in our individual budgets), and a fair few of our number were still in the mood for a party. Hence, we headed on to the Funky Lab, a gloriously-titled drinking den, in a motley cavalcade of taxis.

At the Funky Lab, Matt amused himself by claiming that Paul was a famous pop-star in Europe, and that he was his manager, in order to blag the "VIP Room" of the bar for us. This served the additional purpose of giving us somewhere slightly more private where we could celebrate when midnight chimed and Valdy's birthday began. Eventually we were moved back out to the main bar, where I had one of my occasional sulks that the music was mostly R'n'B (which I enjoy dancing to almost as much as I enjoy trips to the dentist), and amused myself by watching some of the other antics (Helen attempting pole-dancing by the bar, Brandon swaying gently whilst looking confused, Belinda boogeying away furiously on the dance-floor, etc etc). I joined the second exodus back to the Box aroud 1am, while various of the die-hard party crew (mostly those who actually liked the basic) moved on to another bar, Chez Ntemba. I might have been tempted to go along, but was determined to make at least reasonable use of having a nice soft bed to sleep in.

Given the state some people were in the next morning, I felt I'd probably made the right decision to bail out when I did. After fairly relentless progress south and west since Dar, we were now headed back northwards, up across Namibia towards Etosha National Park. Namibia being mostly desert, this wasn't the most visually stimulating of trips, but that didn't really bother that many people, as most of us were either snoozing or engaged in the usual games of Scrabble, Chess, Uno, etc. We made a couple of stops in the few little towns along the way, one of which was used to grab cakes for Valdy's birthday. We also encountered the rather bizarre sight of a "Baeckerei mit internet" (Bakery with internet, for those unfamiliar with German, which wasn't a combination I'd ever considered particularly likely).

Unfortunately, all these little distractions meant that we were running quite late as we entered Etosha. Our problem was that the campsites in the Park close their gates just after sunset, and people are liable for hefty fines, on top of probable loss of their camp slot, if they arrive late. Paul had been hoping to get us into the campsite closest to the southern gate, but this was fully booked up, so we had to race across the Park to the Halali site, attempting to cover around 80kms in under an hour. That we did this is testament to the determination of Valdy, who pushed White Nile about as fast as he possibly could, and got us to the camp with barely minutes to spare.

After pitching camp yet again, the dinner crew (Jo, Jen and Belinda this time) got to work on the night's food, while the rest of us headed up to the water-hole. One of the attractions of Etosha is that the water-holes tend to bring a lot of the animals in the park into places where they can easily be seen, and each of the 3 campsites has its own floodlit water-hole. Hence, we arrived at ours to find an elephant having a very lengthy drink. During the course of the night, we would also see hyenas, jackals, kudu and, best of all, black rhinos. This more than made it worth sitting out, braving the cold. It also made me really appreciate the little tripod I had bought from Jessop's before leaving, as without it I wouldn't have got anything but blurs on the night pictures. Hence, I was a pretty happy bunny when I snuggled down under my blankets to sleep that night.

And the wonders of our second day in Etosha will have to wait, as I have other backpackers circling around, wanting to use the computer. Until next, my friends, goodbye!


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Wednesday, July 13, 2005

Delta Blues

Hello again, my friends. Back to Botswana, and the day we headed into the Okavango Delta:

Well, the day started on a bit of a surreal note, as I arrived by the truck for breakfast to hear Paul conversing with Valdy. The latter, however, was not to be seen. At first, I assumed he was the other side of the truck, and his voice was carrying through the open storage lockers. In fact, the explanation turned out to be rather more straightforward: Valdy was underneath the truck. To be more precise, Valdy had slept underneath the truck. Having failed, for once, in his efforts to get friendly with a young lady (not from our truck) the previous night, he had apparently realised that he had no idea where Paul had pitched their tent, and so had elected to sleep underneath his trusty White Nile!

Anyways, humorous episodes involving Valdy aside, we had to break camp yet again, as we were taking our own tents, mats, sleeping bags etc for our little overnight jaunt into the Delta. This was pretty well automated by now, even for the new guys who had only joined us in Livi, so we were all ready when the time came to pile onto yet another truck to head out to the mokoro launching point. Due to the early morning chill, I was very glad that I had brought along my trusty blanket, which I had acquired for the princely sum of 2 quid at the PEP store in Kasane (PEP is a kind of cheap clothing store in South Africa, which also has branches in Namibia and Botswana - I had also finally succeeded in my long-running sandals quest there!), even if it did have a slightly unfortunate habit of molting on me!

Our arrival at the mokoro launch point was unfortunately something of an exercise in chaos - there seemed little or no rhyme or reason in the way pairs of us were allocated to mokoros or their polers, with some pairs of light people placed in the high-sided fibreglass boats whilst heavier people ended up in the older, shallower wooden boats. As you can probably tell, Jon and I ended up in a wooden one, which promptly started shipping water over the gunwale amidships (largely because the cross-breeze through the delta was whipping up a low swell), getting Jon soaking wet and quite upset!

From this point on, matters ranged from the mundane to the farcical, as Jon and I ended up being dropped off on a mudbank while our canoe (and poler) was taken back and swapped. This helped matters slightly, but we were still dealing with quite a lot of spillage into the bottom of our mokoro, which was soaking the ground-mats (on which we were sat). And we were some of the luckier ones. Tony and Stacy (the Kiwi couple who'd been on the truck since Uganda_ were going along with only about 1cm of freeboard above the waterline (we had maybe 3cm...) and Stacy was lying flat out in a "luge" position, trying not to think about dropping into the water. Roger and Chiara (the Canadian couple who joined us in Livi off the Jo'burg truck) had also had to be swapped out, as had Dave (London wideboy) and Amanda (American lass), two more of the Jo'burg brigade.

The worst fortune, though, was reserved for Brandon and Matt, the two American lads who'd joined up with the truck to start with in Livi - their mokoro sank. Twice. Apparently the first time the water started coming in on Matt, who was sat in the middle of the boat, and they just slowly subsided. After this, their bags were transferred into another boat, and they headed off again. Only for, a few minutes later, the prow of the boat to disappear into the water (leading with Brandon's feet), and another impression of a submarine to begin. At this point, the polers decided to transfer the boys into one of the fibreglass mokoros, to ensure their safe arrival at the campsite. So, what did they transfer into probably the most un-sea-worthy vessel in the fleet? Our tents. One of which apparently fell in the water during the transfer. Which later turned out to be Matt and Brandon's tent. Honestly, you just couldn't make this kind of thing up.

By the time we arrived at our campsite for the night, it was to find that many of the tents were at least damp, and about 3/4 of the ground-mats were somewhere between soggy and totally sodden. Admittedly, it was still only early afternoon, so we laid these out to dry, along with various sleeping bags (mine included) which had also got slightly closer to the delta than intended. Feeling mildly disgruntled at all this, we then headed off on game-walks with some of the polers. These were, it must be admitted, more than a touch disappointing for many of us. The game appeared to have all decided to hide for the day, such that we saw a couple of antelope and a brace of warthog (all at a distance) and that was about it. Apart from all the poo - our guides were, in fact, very good at pointing out and describing the dung of the absent creatures.

As you can most likely tell, I wasn't really that bowled over by our little adventure in the Delta, although it was partly salvaged by a gorgeous night-time vista of the southern skies. Quite a few of us, either prompted by a sense of adventure or by a wet mat or tent, ended up sleeping out around the campfire, in the company of our polers. Unfortunately, either they or Valdy turned out to be responsible for some pretty energetic snoring and this, combined with a biting cold wind, served to severely restrict my ability to sleep. So much so, that I had only had about an hour or so when dawn came around and people were getting up for another game walk. Dispirited by the previous day's anticlimax, and seriously knackered, I decided to opt out of this and get another couple of hours' sleep.

Soon enough, though, it was time to get up, eat some breakfast and reload the mokoros for the trip back through the delta. Having evidently learned something from the previous day's misadventures, this time all the heavy people, along with the cameras and other things sensitive to water (Brandon having seen his MP3 player ruined in the sinking incident) were piled into the high-sided fibreglass vessels. Unsurprisingly, this severely reduced the number of water-related accidents and upsets, and we made it back with little or no trouble (although I did feel slightly sorry for the poor lass who got lumped with myself and Yohan, the two heaviest guys on the truck, in her mokoro). All in all, I was very happy to get back on terra firma again and head back to the campsite at Maun.

After a very welcome lunch, most of us took the opportunity to catch up on diaries and the like for the early afternoon (though there was also the usual game of frisbee going on), before a bunch of us headed back into Maun to go for scenic flights over the Delta. You might have thought, from the above, that I was sick of that damned river, but I was actually pretty excited to be getting a flight over it in a light aircraft, so as to get a view from something other than a few cms above water-level. And view-wise, the flight didn't disappoint - from up there, I could actually grasp the watery green and blue majesty of the place, as well as seeing a hell of a lot more game. My only slight regret was that I ended up on a plane with two nervous fliers, so our pilot kept it mostly very slow and level, whereas some of the others were apparently doing all kinds of low-level tricks and banked turns. Ah well, you can't have everything!

Given the antics pre-Delta, it wasn't that surprising that it was a relatively quiet night back at the campsite, with only a few of us adjourning to the bar after dinner for a drink or two and some more anarchic table-tennis. Unfortunately, it wasn't the best night's sleep for me, as it turned out that the ground-mat I had grabbed from the pile was one of those with a hell of a lot of damp still inside, which had seeped up onto the bottom of my sleeping bag. I threw the mat out of my tent in irritation and slept (badly) on the floor, only remembering in the morning that I actually had my own little travel-mat in my locker on the truck. D'Oh!

The next day was another of those long ones spent on the road, as we lumbered our way south-westwards across Botswana to our next overnight stop, outside the little town of Ghanzi. This was a very rocky, dusty campsite overall, with little to recommend it apart from the pleasant little pub (amusingly entitled "The Rampant Aardvark") and the patch of greenery behind, which a few of us put to good use for an impromptu game of 3-a-side footie. This pressed home to me just how unfit I'd got, as I was staggering around short of breath after about 15 minutes. When I finally get back to doing regular exercise again, it's going to be painful.

The next day, we were up and off bright and early again, for the drive westwards through the outskirts of the Kalahari desert to the border crossing point on the highway from Botswana to Namibia. Another uneventful, visa-waivered, crossing later, we were into my 6th country of the trip, the Republic of Namibia. And that is where I shall pick up the narrative in the next posting, as otherwise this has the potential to turn into an absolute monster of a post.

Until then, fare thee well!


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