Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Soutie

I was reading a very good book, called No Man's Land, by a South African called Carel van der Merwe (and names don't get much more South African than that) recently, and I came across an Afrikaans expression I'd heard before.

Soutpiel.

It's a bit rude, so often it's abbreviated to Soutie, as it means salty (soutie) willie (or whatever you choose to call the male anatamony without using the P word). I'm sure Muriel or Hann will correct my translation as required.

It's a derogatory term applied to a white South African of English descent who has one foot in England and the other in South Africa - metaphorically meaning that their heart is in two places and they can't commit, and literally meaning that their pee-pee is dangling in the Atlantic (if I have my geography right. If not, Mrs B will correct me).

I think I'm a bit of an Indian Ocean soutie. I don't dislike my country, Australia, at all, but right now I really would rather be back in Africa. It's probably because I was just there a couple of weeks ago.

For one thing, the weather is much nicer in Africa than Australia at the moment, and the beer is significantly cheaper. These things weigh heavily on my mind in the midst of a wet, cold Sydney winter.

Of course, there's the crime thing in Africa, and the AIDS thing, and the corrupt politician thing, and the economy thing, etc etc etc. I'm not blind enough to think that Africa is a paradise, although I do know a few southern Africans who think Australia is the promised land.

As Paul McCartney and Stevie Wonder put it so eloquently, "people are the same wherever you go. There is good and bad, in everyone..." They also said at different times, respectively "I am the walrus, koo-koo-koo-choo..." and "peace has come to Zimbabwe..." so I'm not putting all my faith in their lyrics, but you get the picture.

No Man's Land, which I commend to you, legion of fans, even though it's not published by my very good friends at Pan Macmillan, deals with a guy who leaves South Africa for England, in search of his wife, who has run away from him. I won't go into details, but he does make some observations about people living abroad.

It must be incredibly difficult to find yourself in a situation, as people I know have, where it becomes untenable or unsafe to stay in your own country. I can't really imagine HAVING to leave Australia. I would not like it, not one little bit.

But nor do I applaud when the 747 touches down at Sydney Kingsford Smith Airport (which I hope is never renamed Albert Namitjira or Osma Bin Laden International Airport), or get all misty-eyed when the annoying Qantas children start singing "I still call Australia home" as the aircraft taxis to its gate.

I like both places, but I love neither. I dislike some things about both continents, but I hate neither.

I am lucky, very lucky, enough to have a work-life balance which allows me to spend time in both Australia and Africa. I am very, very, very, very lucky, to have a wife who is happy to go along with this weird life, and support me and perhaps not do whatever it is that she might be doing if she wasn't spending five months of the year in Africa.

I'm one proud, lucky soutie.

Saturday, June 16, 2007

A view of a kill

If you watch National Geographic Channel or Animal Planet, or any documentary on African wildlife you'd be forgiven for thinking that any time you drive out into the bush you're going to see some animal tearing the bum out of another.
Scenes of lions sprinting across the savanna and tackling zebras, or leopards pouncing on unsuspecting Thompson's Gazelles are the staple fare of these shows, though the reality of game viewing is very different.

To give you an idea of the likelihood of actually seeing a 'kill' (as it's bluntly known) on a game drive, consider this...

Mrs Blog and I have visited Africa every year now for the past 12 - sometimes twice a year. The length of our trips has varied from 10 days to six months, but overall I'd estimate we've spent a total of about three-and-a-half-years all up on the continent. Taking out time spent in cities, on beaches and staying with friends, we've maybe spent three years actually in the bush, looking for and at animals.

Now, during that combined total of three years we have seen precisely three kills take place. For the journalists among us, that's ONE kill per YEAR of continuous creature spotting.

I've left out views of animals feeding. You wouldn't say this is an everyday experience, but perhaps once a week you might come across a pride of lions feeding on a carcass or a leopard up a tree with a dead impala (though this is quite rare, too). It's seeing the actual act - the kill taking place - that's the hardest, despite what the TV documentaries would have you believe.

The first kill we saw take place happened in the middle of the day, just before lunch time, in fact. Mrs B and I were actually in our accommodation, a national parks two-bedroom self-contained lodge at Nantwich Camp in Hwange National Park, Zimbabwe. As usual, we were the only people in the camp - probably in the park - at the time (Zimbabwe's tourism has collapsed as a result of the Government's economic and political genius). It was a few years ago and I was actually writing one of my books at the time - probably Far Horizon.

Mrs B was in the kitchen, advising me to stop work because lunch was ready (and people have the hide to ask what she does when I'm writing!).

I love the lodges at Nantwich. There are three of them, set on a ridge overlooking a waterhole. There are no fences and you get the distinct impression that you are in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by wildlife - because that's exactly the case.

When I'm writing I look out over the waterhole and as I shut down the computer I saw an old male buffalo wander out (not run) into the middle of the vlei towards the waterhole. That morning we'd awoken early to the sight of 300 + buffalo out on the plain, and a group of seven lion lazing nearby. This is not unheard of, as lions often follow buffalo herds (at a discreet distance, lest they get a hooked horn up the clacker) waiting for stragglers. Anyway, the herd and the pride had cleared off by about 9am.

So, this buffalo straggles out at midday - he was probably on his last legs through old age, or maybe even sporting an old knee injury - and, as calmly as you please, the seven lions walk (not run) out after him.

This kill would not have made good TV. As the old dagga boy (muddy boy - a term for male buffalos) paced slowly along the lions took turns jumping up on his back and trying to bring him down. It was, in fact, a rather amateurish and clumsy effort on the part of the lions. A couple would have a go, while the others stood back. One brave feline leapt up on the buff's head, between his horns and hung on like a rodeo cowboy for a while until the big black beast tossed him off.

Eventually, though, the lions wore him down. Mrs P and I watched and listened to the slow, sobering sight of this magnificent old animal taking more than an hour to die. He was still groaning as they started to feed on him.

The actual snuffing out, I've noticed, seems to be shown for only a second or two on TV - the denouement to the heroic chase across the Serengeti (most of those documentaries you see are filmed in Tanzania's Serengeti or Kenya's Masaai Mara where, shamefully, the national parks authorities allow tour buses and film crews to drive off road, trashing the environment. In southern Africa you have to stick to the roads in the national parks which makes kills even harder to spot, but protects the bush). In real life, the killing part of the kill is often slow and bloody

Kill two was almost comical (in a black sort of way). Mrs B and I were having a cup of coffee early one morning near Olifants Camp in Kruger, watching a pride of lions - mostly lionesses with some very cute little cubs.

Impala are usually very wary animals with fine instincts of survival honed by the fact that they are the bottom of the mammalian food chain in Africa, and food for all the predators. The herd we saw this morning were, well, just plain stupid.

Like the lions, this was mostly a group of a females, also with cute little babies. Perhaps it was because it was drizzling rain that their collective senses of smell and hearing let them down, because they wandered over a little rise and straight into the middle of the lions.

For a moment every animal seemed to do a "what the...", then a double take as the impala suddenly realised their monumental blunder and the lionesses thought, "hellloooo bwekfast!"

The four lionesses erupted as one, though each shot off in a different direction. With coffee splashing and spluttering all over us, Mrs B and I scrambled for cameras as this HUGE lioness came charging straight towards Tonka in pursuit of a baby impala.

The little antelope looked up and saw a Land Rover (Tonka) blocking its way and executed a sharp left turn. If it hadn't, both it and the lioness would collided with us. Unfortunately for the impala, I think it was the turn that was its undoing. The lion veered at an angle and intercepted it, scooping it up on the run and catching it in its mouth. It slunk away from its sisters a little way down the road and greedily devoured the baby in a few minutes.

Phew.

Kill three went on and on and on and on. It was actually a replay of a scene I'd seen on one of the TV documentaries. Again in Kruger, we came across a mother cheetah with two fairly large cubs. The mum had caught a baby impala (see, those little antelopes really do it tough) but had kept it alive, in order to provide a practical lesson in hunting for its youngsters.

The cubs 'played' with the impala for about half an hour, catching and releasing it over and over. At one point the cats became a little bored with the game and the impala sprinted over to our vehicle and lay down beside it. Mrs B, in tears by now, wanted for a moment to open the door and rescue it, but we decided this would be a bad idea (I could you tell that was because we hadn't taken enough pictures, but that would contrast me as very insensitive and not a nice person all... so I can assure that was not the (only) reason why we thought nature should be allowed to take its course). In the end, the mother cheetah skulked over and retrieved the baby which, in time, was put out of its misery and killed.

Tsk, tsk, sniff, sniff, you may blubber. True, it's not a nice thing to watch (quite exciting, though), but look at it this way. There are 1.5 million impala in Kruger - the most numerous of any animal - as opposed to 70 highly-endangered cheetah. A cat's gotta eat, right?

As gory and sad as it sometimes is, the 'kill' remains the holy grail of wildlife viewing - and no doubt TV has fuelled this expectation. It's all part of the African experience - more aptly known as the African addiction.

You shouldn't WANT to see one animal taking the life of another but, secretly, you do. You shouldn't really spend every cent you make in Australia financing five-month trips to Africa, but Mrs B and I do. It doesn't really make sense to spend up to six hours a day in a Land Rover (noisy, hot, uncomfortable) criss-crossing thousands of square kilometres of African bush in the hope that you MIGHT see something unbelievably exciting which will stay imprinted in your memory until you die.... but, we do.

A picture or, given the context, a video is worth more than the excessive words in this post. If you've read this far, then you deserve to see this little video, on YouTube, which was sent to me by two African afficiandos within the space of a few minutes.

It's long (about eight minutes), but quite spectacular. It's called Battle in Kruger (click on those words) and it will give you an idea of the sort of adrenaline-fuelled experience which keeps our addiction fuelled. (note, it gets a bit gory, but you really, really, really must watch it to the end).

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

A cure for jetlag


It always makes me laugh when I read in travel magazines or the travel supplements of newspapers about helpful tips for getting over jetlag.

"Don't overdo it on the flight.." (as if); "Sleep when you feel tired..." (soft); "Get plenty of exercise when you arrive..." (after a 14-hour direct flight from Joburg to Sydney... sure); "Relax..." (what about earning money for the next overseas flight?).

No, legion of fans, there is only one cure for jetlag. Alcohol.

One thing the rehydration brigade is right about is the need to keep your fluids up during the flight - but by that I mean booze. The first battle in the fight against jetlag starts with that elusive first drink (or, if like me you have access to airline lounges, in the club before boarding).

You have two important goals during a long-haul international flight - the first is to drink yourself into a stupour so that you can even sleep in an economy seat, and the second is to get your body used to the time at your destination as soon as possible.

Step one can be tricky. Your first hurdle is getting access to enough alcohol to achieve your msision without ending up in plastic cuffs or in the local courts at the port of debarkation. In these days of temperance and air rage, hosties (sorry, flight attendants) are ever watchful for the passenger who has tried a little to hard to match the value of their air fare in free tinnies.

A few tips... don't sit there pushing the call button (in economy you are likely to ignored. I once had a hosty lean over me to cancel out the call button I'd just pushed, then turn and walk away. I presume she thought I had pushed it by mistake - although perhaps she thought I'd had enough). Get off your bum, keep that deep vein thrombosis at bay with a little exercise and walk down to the little closet where the flight attendants sit and read the papers and bitch and moan about the passengers while sneaking mini bottles of vodka behind the curtains.

Ask for your beer or other favourite tipple, politely, while injecting a bit of small talk about how hard it must be to work as a flight attendant (they do like to whinge about their jobs, I've noticed, as if 10 per cent air fares were something to complain about).

Go to a different crew station, or pick a different flight attendant each time you want a drink (never the same two in a row). You'll get to meet more people that way, too.

And hide your empties (those threadbare blankets are good for something).

Once you've put away a few tubes of the ice cold amber nectar the effect at elevation, coupled with an appalling selection of chick flicks, should put you to sleep.

On waking, as stated in objective two, your goal is to get your body back into its correct (destination) time zone.

Work out the time at said point of arrival, and match your alcohol consumption to the anticipated hour of the day.

For example, if you're sitting at 30,000 feet and the Captain says it's 6am at your destination, then have a breakfast-type drink - I recommend a Bloody Mary.

If, however, it's already 6pm at your end-point then you should be well and truly into some serious after work drinking - somewhere around the five or six stubbie (dumpie for the African readers) by now.

On arrival, you should endeavour to stay awake until a reasonable night-time sleep time. I find the best way to do this, funnily enough, is to get stuck into the bevvies.

Mrs B and I arrived home, pleasantly mellow, at about 3pm in Sydney the other day. I had consumed the appropriate amount of beer on the flight to get me an after-lunch glow, despite the fact that my body was telling me it was 7am in Johannesburg, where I had boarded the plane.

On arriving home we got stuck into the beers, then went out to dinner and split a bottle of red. Finding ourselves back home at an early hour (around 8pm) we resloved to fight through our tiredness with more beer, more wine and some Amarula liquer.

At about midnight we passed out, then woke again at 8am the next morning. Slightly hungover and dehydrated, but back on track.

It's the second night home now, around 10.57pm and I'm fealinnnnnnnnnn feeeeeelinnnn aaaahhhhh blahhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh




World record 4x4 odyssey


Ladies and gentlemen, we have a new world record (at least I think it is), and two cases of industrial deafness.

Mrs B and I have just travelled about 700km from Massvingo in Zimbabwe (Fort Vic to you unreconstructed rhodeys out there) to White River in South Africa - in low range 4x4.

For the non diesel-heads out there, low range is what you put your four wheel drive into when you wish to negotiate raging rivers, swamps, deep sand or clinging mud. It's like a crawl-mode. It is most definitely not recommended for tar roads and there is even a sign in Tonka, our venerable (read old, noisy and slow-at-the-best-of-times) Series III Land Rover warning of dire consequences if the vehicle is driven in 4x4 on tar.

So why, you ask, would I do such a stupid thing? Necessity, of course. The purpose of this latest brief trip to southern Africa was to relocate Tonka from his home in Zimbabwe down to South Africa in preparation for an extreme makeover before our next big trip. On the top of the to-do list was fitting a new gear box and transfer box (attentive fans will recall past posts on the deteriorating state of the gear box).

Things were ticking (OK, chugging) along nicely until just south of Massvingo when Mrs B and I slowed for a police road block. Once we were waved through I put Tonka into gear - no, tried to put him into gear - and was met with a sickening crunching and grinding noise from below, and no forward motion.
The gear box was going through its death rattles. We pulled over at a service station (which, like most others in Zimbabwe had no fuel, just a throng of people sitting around with nothing to d0). I slid underneath in the hope that I would find something dangling loose, or a bolt half out (as is often the case with Tonka) but everything look scarily intact. No amount of bashing, hammer hitting or swearing would fix the problem (surprisingly all of these often yield results). This was an internal problem.

Doctor Roland, the South African Land Rover mechanic has a saying, which provides solace at times like this. "The Land Rover breaks, but it does stop." What he means is that while Tonka has had his little problems over the years he has never ground to a complete halt.

And such, fortunately, was the case. I found that by engaging 4x4 in low range, Tonka was able to move again, albeit with much whining. Much, much whining. In this mode he was capable of a top speed of 40kph.

Modern day torturers (or tactical questioners as they're sometimes known in today's PC defence forces) have known the value of noise for some time. Put a bag over someone's head and play unceasing, near deafening noise (anything - static, Eminem, or something really cruel, like Leonard Cohen) at them for a couple of days and any baddie will roll over and sing like a canary. Tactical questioners take note - put your terror suspects in a Land Rover and drive at 40kph in low range for five days. You'll be left with a jibbering, staring, drooling wreck who will do/say anything to make the noise go away.

Like me. And Mrs B. In the evenings, after driving for as long as we could (about 100-200km per day) we would stare blankly into space for the first hour, over our beers, waiting for the ringing in our ears to cease and our hands to stop shaking.

Fortunately, the last 300km or so of our trek to White River was through the majestic Kruger National Park, where the speed limit on tar roads is 50kph, so our top speed was not out of order. Unfortunately, though, we were so noisy that I think we were scaring away any animals in our path. As a result, game viewing was not up to our normal standards.

However, the Kruger has a way of soothing the most frazzled nerves and it was nice to be back.

Tonka's new gear box had arrived in South Africa from the UK during our journey but, as we boarded our flight from Johannesburg to Sydney, it was still stuck in Customs at Joburg Airport... the saga will continue.

Friday, June 01, 2007

City of Gold

What an odd place Johannesburg is. (I've been reliably informed I can also call if Jozi, but I don't feel I know the city well enough to be so familiar).

City of gold, though, it is. Especially as sunset approaches. On the drive from the aiport yesterday, and again today, from my hotel room, the place does indeed glow as the setting sun catches the dust and the exhaust fumes

I'm staying in a place called Melrose Arch. What was here originally, I don't know, but today it's a little 'pod' of business headquarters, banks, restaurants and coffee shops. Residential apartments are under construction on the edge, pushing the perimeter out into the badlands. Soon you'll be able to live, work, work-out, and eat (as long as you like sushi and latte) in the pod without ever having to leave.

It's not exactly a gated suburb - it's too small for that and the security is understated rather than of the razor-wire-electric-fence variety. However, you definitely get the feeling that right of admission is reserved. It's not a colour thing here - there as many mobile phone-toting black businessmen and immaculately groomed African women here as Gordon Gekko and Hilton-esque whiteys. It's money that buys you into Melrose.

I feel positively underdressed and underpaid, but it's interesting being a 6'6" fly on the wall here for a couple of days.

Money. The place positively oozes it. Why, I wonder would someone drive a black Lamborgini in a city where car thieves use AK 47s in lieu of coat hangers? In today's paper was a story of someone who ran over a woman and child in their 4x4 while trying to escape a car jacker. You'd think people would try and hide their wealth here, but that's not the case.

The hotel bar's a laminated version of a dark-pannelled, deep-armchaired gentleman's club, complete with antique books by the yard. Fat men with gold chains are giving a laptop presentation to a Chinese delegation; a group of young Indian guys are playing billiards; a black guy's snogging a platiumum blonde on the leather lounge by the fire and me and the Aussie miner are fighting off jetlag with Castle Lagers.

No one's embarrassed by their wealth here, nor are they scared of the crime that, presumably, lurks beyond the borders of this billionaire's Brigadoon. I spoke to a couple of people over coffee this afternoon who could comfortably talk about murder rates and urban renewal in the same breath. Strangers who told me Johannesburg's an unfriendly, cliquey place (having just met me four minutes earlier), but they wouldn't live anywhere else.

Odd.

Very odd.