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Archive for November, 2007

Adrenaline Beauty

Stepping out onto perilously thin wire mesh, the ground hundreds of metres below, I take a deep breath before the death march toward the centre of Bloukrans Bridge. It’s what I’ve wanted to do from the beginning of the trip — isn’t it? Isn’t it? I question myself over and over, but not as loudly as the others from the truck who are standing around, some shaking and quaking, some talking gibberish to compensate for their nervousness. I try not to show fear. Perhaps only those paying close attention would notice the increased heaviness of breath or lightly clenched fists.

Watching other people makes it seem easier. They put us through in weight order, and with the few men jumping it means I’m not first. The music is blasting so loud that you can’t hear the men scream, although we find out later that most of them went down swearing bloody murder. We wave to the people over on the viewing platform; those not even brave enough to walk out under the bridge. They have our cameras in tow, so we smile big, put on happy faces. Why are we doing this again?

There is no time to think about it. Toes out over the edge, 5-4-3-2-1 and no time to think about what you’re doing. Looking down is unavoidable, as is the feeling of having your stomach drop out of your body! But the rush is great, my scream is the loudest of everyone and the view — once your eyes can actually take it in — is incredible. Being hoisted back up is actually the scariest part. But when the blood rushes back into the rest of your body and your feet are on solid ground, then you can take in what you’ve just done, and brag about it for the rest of the trip.

Bloukrans Bridge is the highest bungy in the world.

Our next stop was the otter trail, a 3.5 hour hike which winds around the garden route coastline. This is more like the South Africa I imagined! Whales frolicked off the shore as the surf pounded the ground at our feet. We swam for an hour underneath a waterfall by the ocean, and generally had a fantastic time.

South Africa is getting better by the moment!

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Ostrichs and Caves

South Africa is an undeniably beautiful country. Today I sat up on the beach with wind blowing through my hair as we passed through the mountains. There is lots of room on the truck to stretch out, sun tan and chat with everyone.

After a night in the quaint town of Swellendam, we travelled to an ostrich farm. Ostrichs are far from my favourite creatures – I wasn’t unhappy to see one being devoured by a lion – but today I learned and experienced almost enough to change my perceptions. We saw the eggs (indestructable), the chicks (quite cute!) and nippy adults who we were allowed to ride. Riding an ostrich also did not sound like my idea of fun – but I figured it was about as close to riding a hippogryff as I was ever going to get! So swallowing my trepidation and pretending he was Buckbeak from Harry Potter, I hoisted myself up onto an ostrich, whose head was covered by a canvas sack. Gripping firmly onto the wings, I braced myself as the bag was removed from the head and the ostrich bolted into a bumpy gallop! I lasted about 10 strides before tumbling off the back end… but at least I could say that I did it!

We then moved on to the Cangol Caves, a spectacular calcite rock formation of stalagmites and stalactites. I did the “adventure” tour, which involved crawling through tight spaces, climbing up chimneys and slipping and bashing my head on a rock (not mentioned in the brochure!) All was well, and somehow all of us managed to slide through “the letterbox”, a tiny crack about 27cm in width. I really must have lost weight on this trip! It won’t last long, especially if ostrich steak is on the menu… on a plate is still my favourite way to encounter an ostrich, despite today.

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Cape Town and Farewells

Cape Town is the end of the road for half of the people I have been travelling with for the past two months. There are so many people I am going to miss, and so many people I am going to see in the future… without our resident funny man Chris or Tash’s famous laugh or Isabel’s hugs, the trip just isn’t going to be the same. It does mean more space in the truck for the rest of us though!

Travelling overland is like being thrown into a pressure cooker. Life is condensed into a tiny space, where personalities jostle and collide. Our experiences – these new, fabulous, unique experiences – are shared with each other. Life is surreal when you travel; it is reality the way we wish reality to be. It is why so many people find it addictive. It is also why some people can’t wait to get home and back to the regular. There is something highly charged and magnified about life right now. Senses are heightened. Emotions. It is easier than life back home. It is much more difficult than life back home. Travelling is always a challenge, and that’s why I love it.

Cape Town weather has been somewhat of a disappointment, but it improved remarkably for today. Trying to cram everything that this city has to offer within two and a half days is impossible. We tried. On the first day, as it poured with rain, I made my way to the District Six museum. I have never been to a place like this before – a museum that is not designed for visitors but for the people who actually lived through these events. This was not a museum of facts, but a museum of life – people’s life stories were plastered up on the walls next to giant murals of a thriving corner of the city that existed 50 years ago – but does not exist now.

The next day I took a hop-on, hop-off bus around the city to see the best of Cape Town. Sarah and Mike were also aboard. It took us around to District Six itself and allowed a glimpse of the reality the museum had told me about. It was scary to compare the grassy hills to the bustling streets that were once there. The bus took us up to the Table mountain lower cable car station, but due to high winds we were unable to ascend. Then back through Camps Bay and Clifton’s Bay – truly spectacular parts of the city that I wouldn’t have glimpsed without taking the bus.

Today, I pulled the curtains open to sunshine streaming into the room. Finally! After breakfast on the balcony outside my room, overlooking Long Street, Sarah and I ventured down to the train station to head to Boulder’s Beach – the home of the penguins. One train, one bus and a minicab later, we arrived to the most gorgeous of beaches and crystal clear turquoise water. We yearned to swim but we were short on time – we had left Cape Town just in time to see cable cars start their climb up the mountain! But by the time we got up there, once again it had closed due to high winds. We will try again tomorrow morning, before the truck leaves.

Now I am about to head to Robben Island, and I am back down at the Victoria and Albert Waterfront. The waterfront is my favourite spot in the entire city – and so far I have three pictures of the exact same spot (day one – no table mountain visible, day two – table mountain visible against a grey sky, day three – beautiful sunshine behind table mountain!) It has been lovely to relax for a few days, and terribly sad to say goodbye to everyone. How can you feel like you’ve lost so much when you’ve only known people for two months?

Australia is fast creeping up on us… only two weeks now to the next part of my adventure. I can’t believe that soon I’ll be writing in a different continent, but it will be happening sooner than I believe.

Africa will be hard to beat.

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Mondesa

There is a definite shift in atmosphere as the truck moves into South Africa. Namibia, of course, is rife with South African connection, much more so than I realized upon entering Mondesa – the township of Swakopmund. Apartheid is so closely associated with South Africa that it is easy to forget how it affected all the countries surrounding. Township tours themselves seem to have a certain stigma about them – no one wants to be seen as a privileged white tourist snapping photos of a black slum. And thankfully, it wasn’t like that at all. Because of the warmth of the people we met and the depth of meaning I acquired from the experience, it proved to be one of the most worthwhile outings of the entire trip so far.

Mondesa is divided into four tribal areas, the largest of which is the Damara clan (although they are not the most populous tribe in Swakopmund, they dominate this particular township). Despite these divisions, which were set in place by the government specifically to cause conflict, there is little tension between the tribes. Everyone is free to intermingle and live as they wish. Our guide, Castro, was Damara, and he kept us at ease throughout the tour. Only three of us ventured out on this adventure – myself, Ben and Gabriella.

Mondesa is built up of low-walled brick houses. Some of the buildings seem more like prison cells than homes – many of the walls have no windows at all. But Castro informed us that they build the walls that way so it is easy to extend the houses once a homeowner has more money. It is small details like this that keep us from becoming overly cynical — people wait many years to be allowed into the township, and life is happy and enjoyable, for all the troubles.

We are taken to the home of the Damara chief, Oma Lina. She is the first female chief in Damara history. She is eighty years old and a formidable character — she dominated the small living room with her presence. With her grandchildren crawling over her knee, she politely answered all our questions and drew from a vast fountain of South Africa, Namibian, German and Afrikaans historical knowledge.

From there, we moved on to a so-called “temporary” settlement for people waiting to be allotted land in Mondesa. The settlement was only supposed to last for one year, and so far has been around for over twenty. The people there are much less fortunate and must make their homes out of items they recover from the nearby landfill. Generally, the homes do not have electricity, however there are very strange street lamps on every makeshift corner. We entered the home of a local artisan, whose bright neon home certainly stood out amongst the dusty browns and greys. There, we met one of the brightest children I have ever known, a twelve-year-old boy named Daniel. He grilled us about the nature of our trip and where we were from – he is desperate to travel himself – and he taught us the four clicks of the Damara tongue. We exchanged addresses and I will send him the pictures I took of us in his home, and of him playing Professor Daniel. I can only hope that he has the opportunity to take his education as far as he wants to… it is children like that that are not only the future of Africa but of the world.

A brief stop at a local medicine woman’s store and a few bites of a local meal ended our journey. The mopani worms were delicious (surprisingly, since I hated them in Zimbabwe) but the rest of the meal came with the unpleasant aftertaste of gritty sand… an unfortunate inevitability in the desert!

Some photos…

Amy and Daniel Amy and Daniel

Professor Daniel Getting click lessons from Professor Daniel

Mopani WormsMopani Worms… mmm

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Internet in Namibia has been shaky at best, despite being one of the most westernized countries that we have visited so far. I almost feel like the “Africa” portion of my trip has ended, even though I will be doing a township tour on Wednesday that will surely change my mind. As a result of the poor internet, I have been unable to update, despite having lots to say! So this entry will be extremely long and probably written over the next few days. My aim is to be caught up by the time I leave Swakopmund (Thursday morning) so keep on checking for new updates throughout the week. We are then moving on to a few bush camping places in Namibia, and I won’t have time to update then… so I had better get on it!

Things to write about….

D’Kar campsite, Botswana

There are so many truck companies that tour around Africa, it is unreal. Acacia, Africa Travel Company, Kamuka, the list goes on and on. But the best thing about Oasis is that they take you off the beaten track, searching for the small places and activities that make a trip like this worthwhile. One of those places was the D’Kar campsite on the edge of the Namibian-Botswanian border. The D’Kar campsite is part of what Oasis calls “community-based tourism,” where what we are doing (travelling, enjoying ourselves, learning about cultures) benefits the communities we visit. D’Kar is a bushman or “san” community, and while we were there we were introduced to the truly ancient bushman culture. D’Kar is also home to a brand-new archeological discovery, so new that they have only just applied for funding to truly excavate the area. The discoveries made there will change the course of human history — the stone tools prove humanoid civilization existed in this part of Africa for 3 million years. Not only that, but we got to seriously interact with the tools… touch, play, feel… artifacts that would be found behind three inches of thick glass in the British Museum.

Another highlight was the bushmen dancing and storytelling. Their language is made up of a series of clicks, which help to form the words. It adds a whole new dimension to their stories. Like Native Canadian or Aboriginal stories, many of the bushmen tales were creationist and animal-based, such as how the ostrich came to have a long neck or how the jackal burned his back. It is also not often that we have to watch for scorpions as we sat around the fire… but it is a local hazard and we all had to watch our feet and our shoes.

Windhoek, Namibia

Namibia is beautiful and highly German, which means lots of good meat, lots of good bakeries and lots of colonial German architecture. We went out to Joe’s Beerhouse and had an amazing group meal. Lots of game meat was eaten, including gorgeous zebra steaks, ostrich, springbok, oryx, impala, and more. We all tried a little bit of everything, and it is delicious. No wonder the lions were salivating over the ostrich during the lion stalk! Sarah certainly took to the ostrich and continues to eat it at every possible occasion – even in an Italian restaurant in Swakopmund! I desperately wished for more time in Windhoek, but there is so much to see that we had to move on…

Etosha Nat’l Park, Namibia

Etosha is the national park of dreams. It is made up primarily of a huge clay pan called the Etosha pan. There are many waterholes dotted around, where the animals congregate during the day and at night. Three campsites are situated right inside the park around floodlit waterholes; we stayed at two of them during our visit.

This part of Namibia is hot and dry. The game drives in the truck lasted for over 8 hours each day, and despite the stunning scenery and incredible game viewing, few of us lasted until the very end. Still, there was nothing better than sitting in the front of the truck with our driver, pair of binoculars in hand, staring at the panoramic view of game. Giraffes became boring (how is that possible? there were just so many of them…), springboks “pronked” across the road, lions lazed in the sun, everywhere there was game and birds galore. The second waterhole we visited gave us the best night viewing we have experienced, bar my lion stalk in Antelope Park. Waiting from 8pm until well past midnight, we saw jackals and a lone giraffe, as well as lions and rhinos. Game viewing requires a lot of patience. But there is nothing better than being the first one to spot a silhouette in the darkness of the elegant neck of a giraffe, waiting as it slowly approaches the waterhole, steps back, approaches again before bowing down to the water. For pictures of the giraffes in Etosha drinking, be sure to visit my flickr site (link at the side) for a view that few words I can come with can describe.

Cheetah Park, Namibia

Although cheetahs seem to be relatively rare in the national parks, in farmland Namibia they are considered to be pests. Farmers are known to shoot to kill without hesitation if they see a cheetah approach their livestock. One such farmer shot a cheetah on his farm, only to discover that was survived by three newborn cheetah cubs. The farmer and his family took these cheetah into their home and raised them as pets. Now, the farm is a sanctuary for cheetahs found in Namibian farmland. Instead of being killed, the cheetahs are brought to this place and taken care of.

The cheetahs in the house are as domesticated as large cats can be, and we were able to approach them and pet them, just like we did with the lions in Antelope Park. Maybe its due to their litheness or their speed, but cheetahs are much more scary than lions. They seemed less predictable, to be sure. But we all took some photos, before going out into the sanctuary to watch the wild cheetahs being fed. Some people have the most insane jobs in the world. Two guys jumped off the pick-up trucks we were standing on with a garbage can full of meat and large sticks. Five or six cheetah growled and snapped all around the trucks, the guys barely staving them off with their sticks. Then they would throw the meat into the air, to be caught in hungry mouths. The cheetahs did live up to their speedy reputation, bolting once they had captured their piece of meat so that it couldn’t be stolen away. It was a close encounter with an animal we have yet to see in the wild, and it was refreshing to see another example of conservation tourism at work.

Spitzkoppe (the Matterhorn of Africa), Namibia

Spitzkoppe is a giant outcrop of rock in the Namibian desert. There were more rock paintings here which I ventured out to see, and I climbed the closest outcropping of rock with Eric and Amelia to watch the sunset. It was the first night since we left Victoria Falls where we didn’t experience rain and thunder. Therefore, it was the perfect night to sleep out under the stars. I have never seen a sky so huge as that night. Shooting stars fell all around us, passing straight overhead or in the corners of our peripheral vision. The night was cold, but comfortable wrapped up in our sleeping bags and lying on our roll-mats. Namibia is full of contrasts and truly wild beauty. Again, we feared snakes and scorpions, but we all survived the night… even if we didn’t sleep through the night at all.

On our way out of Spitzkoppe, we stopped at Cape Cross on the Atlantic Ocean. Here, we visited a giant group of seals, who stop here on their way north. The seals were everywhere crowding the beach and the smell was just immense. We watched them frolic and fight, and try to protect their babies from the hungry jackals which kept circling the area. The ocean was freezing… only a few brave (or stupid?) souls ventured out into the sea. They lasted a few seconds before running back out again into the warmth of fresh towels. Yikes!

Swakopmund, Namibia

Just as Vic Falls is an adrenaline capital, so too is Swakopmund. Here, the contrast of scenery is truly visible. A seaside (or oceanside?) city, Swakopmund enjoys both the quaintness of a German town with the action-packed thrills of Victoria Falls. The dunes are right on the doorstep and they are known as the playground of Namibia — the government has donated a lot of money in order to allow for plenty of ‘sand tourism’ while preserving the delicate and unique ecosystem.

The first activity that I did in Swakopmund was sandboarding! Due to my severe dislike of snowboarding, I decided to stick with the lie-down version. There is almost no learning curve and you get to have fun straight away! The boards are basically constructed of thin formica with a very smooth flat surface for sliding on. The guide positions you onto the board with only one piece of advice – don’t move a muscle. Then he lifts your feet over the edge of the dune and you fly down the side of a massive sand mountain! We started off small, but by the time we reached “Dizzy,” the monster hill, I was hitting top speeds of 77km/h. The fastest of the day was 79km/h. As with the gorge swing, it was the gruelling climb back up to the top that was the worst part of the day. Climbing sand is no easy feat, especially with the wind whipping the boards around your body. But the adrenaline rush is worth it, and so is being out amongst the dunes. The dunes are just incredible. They are the stuff of pure desert imagination.

After that, we decided to get an even better view of the dunes by skydiving! Namibia is one of the cheapest and most rewarding skydives in the world, due to the fact that you get to appreciate the massive sand dunes, the sparkling blue Atlantic Ocean and the Swakopmund city scape. I was the very last person to go up in the plane, after watching people in our truck jump for over three hours. To say that I was trembling with anticipation is severe understatement! I jumped with a camera man to film my wild adventure and had the absolute time of my life. The freefall lasted 30 seconds. To be honest, I never expected skydiving to be so incredible peaceful. Under the canopy, I had a full five minutes of flying like a bird, enjoying the view and chatting with my guide. I even got to fly the canopy for a while, learning how to steer and shift in the air. The landing was tip-toe gentle, and the photographs are fantastic. I wanted to do it again in an instant, and was bursting with envy for the guys who get to jump ten times a day.

The next day (as if there could be more!) we ventured back out into the dunes for some major adrenaline fun — quadbiking. I chose an automatic bike (although I would STRONGLY recommend semi-automatic bikes if anyone out there gets the chance to do it!) and we zoomed around the dunes for a good two hours. The views were… unreal. And getting to ‘rollercoaster’ (drive up and down the side of dunes, often close to vertical steeps!) was amazing.

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