Sunday, January 27, 2008

“I bet there’s rich folks sittin’ in that fancy dining car…”



The Man in Black, the late, great, Mr Johnny Cash got it right. Indeed there were, and we were there, too. For the last two days, Legion of Fans (LOF) Mrs Blog and I have been livin’ the high life on The Pride of Africa, South African company Rovos Rail’s flagship choo choo, on a three day train trip fro Pretoria to Cape Town.

The things I do for you, LOF, in the name of research! (Check it out and drool on the Rovos Rail website).

Expect to see a scene set on this train, which prides itself as the most luxurious in the world, in my sixth book.

I can see quite a bit of skulduggery happening on board. Perhaps not ‘Murder on the Pride of Africa’, but certainly a bit of running along the tops of carriages, and what Muriel would term “gratuitous” sex.

Regular readers will recall that I am a big fan of ostentatious luxury in the wilds of Africa and Rovos Rail is certainly that. The best thing about RVR – and I’ve explained this in more detail on my other blog at Getaway Magazine, is that this train trip is just as good, in every detail, as what I hoped it would be. Think of every fantasy or favoured preconception of what it must be like to travel on a long-distance train ride in the lap of luxury, and this is it.

So good is every aspect of this journey, LOF that Mrs B and I have even taken to doing something that we have rarely done and, when we have, hated intensely.

I speak, LOF, of the dreaded “Group Tour”.

As part of the trip, guests are offered two sightseeing excursions, the first to the very aptly-named Big Hole, in Kimberly, and the second to the quintessentially cutesy and remarkably well-preserved 19th Century town of Matjiesfontein (pronounced, for the Aussies among us, as mikey’s-fontane).

How often, I asked myself, had I snickered and scoffed at gaggles of elderly people in plaid shorts or designer safari outfits trooping on and off coaches, video cameras in hand, blindly following the instructions of someone carrying a sign and wearing a name tag?

Many, I’m ashamed to say.

And here I was, dutifully filing off the train, on to the platform at Kimberly station, and thence on to the bus, cheerfully following the instructions (hanging on every word, in fact) of a man named Frick (not his real name), a local tour guide.

Frick had a well-rehearsed patter of borderline sexist jokes relating to diamonds and woman (the word ‘women’ does not exist southern Africa and ‘woman’ is both the singular and the plural for this gender), obviously designed to establish him firmly as a Man of Men, and a bit of a charmer of the ladies (and most of them on board Rovos Rail were of his generation).

Not that Frick confined his attention to the more mature woman of the group. He seemed to direct more than a few comments at two young ladies in their late teens (who, by their presence, lowered the average passenger age on the train to an acceptable 60ish) and the next youngest person in the group, Mrs Blog.

Normally, I would have anyone fraternising too closely with Mrs B horsewhipped (and that goes for you, too Val Kilmer, if I ever see you), but now I was part of the group and the one thing we don’t do in the group is horsewhip the tour leader.

No, LOF, we follow every command to the letter. We do not talk while Zee Leader is talking; und vee laff at every joke.

It was actually pleasant, seductively so, to potter along like a sponge on two legs for a while.

First, Frick made us watch the introductory fill-um about diamond mining and the Big Hole of Kimberly. This was lavishly shot and borderline informative, but the highlight, for me at least, was seeing the South African guy who played Cordell in Blood Diamond (Leo DiCaprio’s nasty mercenary mate who smashes his TV) playing a very camp Cecil John Rhodes, complete with an impressively false moustache, which I do believe he may have even curled, Snidely-Whiplash-style, when plotting to buy out all the small mining claims in Kimberly.

After the fill-um we rendezvoused with The Leader and walked out on a platform thing over the Big Hole. And big it is, LOF. Hugely massive, and very deep.

Frick tried to explain the intricacies of open-cast diamond mining, but the teenage consort of one of the young ladies, a beefy boy who looked like a member of a Springboks’ captive breeding program, was far more interested in the effects of jumping off the edge of the Big Hole into the alluringly green waters that have part-filled it. And so, quite frankly, was I.

“You die,” Frank said, hoping he could return to his monologue.

“Cool,” said the boy and I in unison.

“Eventually, a shaft was sunk so that diamonds could be removed horizontally from the diggings…” The Leader began again.

“So, like (or laaak, as he pronounced it), you couldn’t crawl down the sides of the hole and dive into the water for the last bit, then?” the mini-Bok asked. I nodded in support of this very valid question.

“It’s 170 metres down,” Frick said, impatiently. “You dive, you die. Now, diamonds are formed by volcanic activity deep below the earth’s…”

“No, but what if you took a helicopter down there and jumped in. How cold is that water?” my fellow passenger persisted. If he hadn’t have asked the question I would have.

“You jump in there…” and by this time I’m quite sure Frick was looking for a young volunteer to prove his point, “and they’ll be pulling you OUT with a helicopter two weeks later when your body bloats and you float the SURFACE!”

Sheepishly, we both ceased our quest for true knowledge on the Kimberly digs.

Next stop was the diamond vault, which boasted hissing sliding doors and security worthy of a James Bond movie. “Don’t take pictures, or lean on the glass of the display cabinets,” The Leader warned us, “Or else...”

“Or else what?” asked our inquisitive junior member. He just couldn’t help himself.

“Or else.”

I was starting to slowly distance myself from the boy now, not wanting to incur Frick’s wrath – even though I still silently supported his sensible line of questioning. I am such a chicken sometimes.

Once we were all accounted for, and safely behind the double air locked doors, Frick resumed his informative tour. “Now here we have biggest diamond in….”

“How much is it worth?”

Another good question.

Frick sighed. “I can’t tell you… it’s priceless.”

“No, but is it laaak, millions? Billions?”

We all – myself included, I’m ashamed to report – turned away from the boy then. With rolling eyes, muted tut-tuts, and knowing nods we shunned the non conformist and returned our gaze, respectfully, dutifully, to our Leader.

At His command, we left the vault and allowed ourselves to be herded towards the souvenir shop, where an impressive array of Big Hole salt and pepper shakers, teaspoons, post cards and coffee cups awaited us.

“Look,” I said to Mrs Blog, “here’s a nice wide-brimmed floppy khaki safari hat with faux zebra skin puggaree and an embroidered Big Hole logo on it. Shall I try it on, dear?”

“RUN!” cried Mrs Blog, as she seized me by the hand and dragged me towards the exit. “RUN!”

Thursday, January 24, 2008

A bit of a stink

We tackle the big issues here in blogland, Legion of Fans. Over at the Getaway Magazine website I'm issuing an ultimatum to South African National Parks bureaucrats to get off their bums and then get back down on them.

I lift the lid, fellow campers, on some inappropriate behaviour in the country's public toilets.

(Warning: post contains some toilet humour and medium-level bad puns).

Sunday, January 20, 2008

Gold Mine!

"You should write a book about us, just like that one that oke Wilbur Smith wrote," said the burly mine manager as Mrs Blog and I wedged ourselves into a bird cage suspended from a steel cable.

"Oh, yes," I replied croakily, "just like Wilbur's book in which the greedy mining company drills through a dike (dyke?) against all prudent advice, unleashes a torrent of undergroud water and most of the main characters either drown or are crushed by falling rocks?"

The mine manager switched off his head lamp - the only one that was on at the time - and pitch blackness (and I do mean PITCH blackness) engulfed us. "Yes! That one! Hahahahahahahahahahaha."

Not a good start, not a good start at all, to our tour of the nether world, Legion of Fans (LOF). But there we were, bravely supressing hitherto unknown fears and, slightly hungover, visiting a gold mine which until recently was owned by friends of ours in Zimbabwe.

It's probably not a big operation by world standards, but we're not talking dwarves with picks and shovels, LOF, either. There's an impressive array of large, grimy machinery topside, belching a cocktail of foul smoke and gases, and lots of things that go Grrrrrr and ker-plunk. A foreman gave us a tour of the above-ground mills and other workings, and most of it washed over my non-scientific head, except for the good bits like "... see that water there - it looks clean but if you fell into it you'd die from arsenic poisoning... hahahahahahahahahaha!"

The first part of the tour ended at the location for the money shot - where the extracted molten gold is poured into these conical-shaped thingys. It was, LOF, quite frankly an anti-climax. I expected the pouring to be done in some bomb-proof vault, by robots with mechanical arms, while mining magnates in pin striped suits with big cigars watched on greedily through foot-thick glass. In fact this - perhaps the most interesting part of the process - takes place in an open car port and involves a machine that is similar, and about as interesting, as a cement mixer.

Whatever. The really interesting bit was going to be the descent just that little bit closer to hell. Underground - where men are men and writers try and be as macho as they can be, and not go small potty in someone else's crisp new overalls.

"Going underground is a bit like a really tough game of rugby," said our friend, the until-recently owner of the mind. "The only good thing about it is the shower and the beer afterwards."

Right.

The mine manager's wife must get quite annoyed at him, as his muscles seemed to be perpetually bulging and making, or expanding, the tears in his frayed overall shirt. The sleeves had been shortened high, up close to his armpits, presumably because his biceps wouldn't make it through the holes.

"We normally fit 10 people in the cage," he said, as we dropped, much faster, or so it semed, than the lifts I'm used to in city skyscrapers. The five of us murungus (whiteys) were crushed together like Japanese bullet train commuters as it was.

"Ten?"

"Well," the manager explained, "We do work on an average weight of 75kg per man, usually. Hahahahahahaha!"

I felt everyone of my thirty-ish kilos above the average weight and tried to suck in my belly a little more - not easy when you're standing half-bent. It appears the average height of the mining fraternity is also nowhere near mine.

Anyway, it was a relief to get out of the cramped cage and hi-ho, hi-ho our way off in search of 75 kilogram short people at work.

"It's warm down here," said Mrs Blog. And she was right, though little did we know that this first brightly-lit tunnel was, in fact, the good cool bit, where a remnant breeze occasionally reached us from the lift-shaft.

I won't pretend to know what I'm talking about here, and would have to do much more research if I ever did write a book about city slickers getting trapped underground and dying in an avalanche of rock or torrent of subterranean water, but it goes a little like this...

After going deep into the earth (the main shaft is a bit over a kilometre long) you branch out into these big tunnel things. These are easily big enough for even a tall person like me to walk upright in. It's here that you see the little train cart thingys being pushed and pulled on rails, full of big bits of black rock.

From there, more tunnels are blasted upwards, at angles, and parallel tunnel whatshisname things are dug, above and on either side of the one with the little choo-choos. Still with me?

We (the boys in the group, not the two girls, that is) climbed up a rope ladder into one of the working tunnel bits. Gripping the rough-hewn rungs was not easy, given that the two blokes before me had deposited a thick layer of black ooze from their boots. This was my first inkling that it was, in fact, quite possible to suffer serious injury or death down here.

Anyway, I made it, and realised, for the first time, that I was dripping wet.

The heat creeps up on you underground, like a giant invisible sweaty-palmed uncle's hand, slowly, gently, squeezing out all the moisture from your body. My new overalls were as wet as if I had jumped fully clothed into a swimming pool. It was hot, I suddenly realised, damn hot, though there was no breeze to cool or dry the sweat gushing from my body. It was like the time a plastic bag got plastered across Tonka the Land Rover's radiator grill and he very nearly spontaneoulsy combusted. Being drenched in sweat did, however, have an upside, I realised. If something really scary occurred, I could wee myself and no one would notice!

This was the serious part of the operation, it appeared. I could no longer walk upright and whereas the main tunnel was pleasantly lit in a manner which would make a fetching cover picture for a mining company's annual report, with the light bouncing off smooth rock walls and smiling dwarf-like workers bidding us good-morning, this part looked like a bomb had hit it. Which, of course, it had. Or, rather, explosives had been used to blast great chunks of the earth from the tunnel walls. From there, mightily muscled little people drag or shovel the bits of rocks down the passageway to the waiting mini train carts in the gallery below. Still with me?

Us chaps walked/stumbled/crawled through the working a bit and came to a rope ladder which we'd actually passed earlier in the main tunnel. We then played a wizard mining jape on the ladies waiting below. We climbed down, turned off our lights and crept up behind the gals, whereupon the mine manager yelled "OUT, OUT, OUT! GET OUT OF THIS F-ING MINE IMMEDIATELY OR YOU'RE GOING TO DIE!!!!!! Or words to that effect.

The ladies stayed put. They either realised it was a joke, or were too terrifed to move, or had no idea which way to go - or all of the above.

Mine-humour over, we then saw lots more things I can't remember, with the highlight being a ride up to the next level, sitting in a bucket the size of a garbage bin, fixed on rails and pulled by a motorised cable. Mrs Blog likes this bit the best. So did I, except for the beam which seemed to be designed to decapitate anyone over 5'3" tall.

There should be a wooden cut-out of a clown up on top at the entrance, I thought, with an arm held out at that height and a sign reading "If you're taller than me you're a f*ing idiot if you get into this bird cage full of little muscly people".

I've been to more than my share of media events and construction-site tours back home in Australia where everyone is forced to don a brand, spanking new white plastic construction helmet. At 6'6" I'm convinced that this is a plot by site supervisors to make politicians visiting them look like gubers, and dorky pen pushers like me look like, well, even more like dorky pen pushers than we actually are. But never, LOF, have I been so pleased to be dressed like the construction worker in the Village People.

Blow after blow glanced off my plastic hat. The stocky bullock-like mine manager wore a different hat to the rest of us. It was one of those old fashion, vaguely military looking things like John Waybe wore as Red Adair. His hat was heavily scarred and battered as well - proof that mining's even dangerous for short people.

"We actually dig DOWN," he yelled, over the deafaning whine and bash of a HUGE pneumatic drill. One sweat-drenched miner was holding the drill up, bracing it against his shoulder and leaning against it with every one of his 75 kilograms, while a comrade steadied both man and machine. "That way the rock doesn't fall on US!"

Except, as we found out by clambeing up another swinging ladder if there is a "whoopsie".

"A whoopsie?" I asked, this being the first time I'd heard that word since the most-welcome withdrawl of Frank Spencer and 'Some Mothers do 'ave 'em' from TV screens around the world many years ago.

"That's a whoopsie," the mine manager said, pointing to a chunk of rock the size of a small asteroid. "Sometimes bits do fall down."

Soaked, begrimed, and thoroughly knackered, we made our way gratefully towards the bird cage. I was buggered, LOF, and all I'd done was walk around and look at what goes on down there.

As we sat - slumped, actually - waiting on a stone bench polished smooth as black marble from decades of sweaty miners' backs and bottoms, I realised just how lucky I was to be a dorky 6'6" pen pusher in a funny scarred hat, instead of a real miner.

Thursday, January 03, 2008

Getaway to the other blog

Forgot to mention in the last post that my other blog, at Getaway Magazine, is still going, and they've got a few pre-recorded posts to run while I'm incommunicado inZimbabwe.

Feel free to leave a comment, if you wish, and I'll pay you (well, at least be pathetically grateful).

Gone foraging

Mrs Blog and I are in Musina, quite possibly the hottest town in South Africa.

Musina used to be called Messina but the Governemnt decided it would be very wise to spend taxpayers' money stamping out the last vestiges of colonialism here, which happened to be an extra "e" and an "s".

Some people say the money spent on new street signs, stationery etc could have been better used on a few more new houses, or nurses or policemen, and that things are a mess in this country... though clearly there is now no mess in Musina.

Mrs B and I are bucking the daily trend and unlike the 4,000+ Zimbabweans arrested on a good/bad night trying to cross the border (a South African policeman told us that figure) into South Africa, we are heading north, legally, tomorrow across the Great Green Greasy Limpopo (Rudyard Kipling told me that).

We're heading into the land of no milk and no honey... and no beer, no food, no diesel, and no mobile internet connectivity.

So it's good bye from us until mid-January. Happy New Year to you all (and especially you, Val Kilmer, if you've been self-googling again. Mrs B says hi).

Tuesday, January 01, 2008

The Ghost and the Darkness


Zany funsters that we are, Mrs Blog and I decided to see in the New Year by watching a movie - a DVD on our trusy Toshiba laptop (Memo to Toshiba marketing dept: Mr and Mrs Blog would make excellent application story in exchange for one free new computer).

It may not surprise you that some of our favourite movies are set in Africa. Or, you might just think we're a teeny bit sad for coming all the way to South Africa and spending a starlit balmy night in the bushveld in front of a fire watching a movie abut lions.

But there we were, Legion of Fans (LOF), out on the veldt plugging in cables to watch one of our all time favorite flicks - The Ghost and Darkness, starring Messrs Val Kilmer and Michael Douglas, and an assortment of multi-hued sidekicks from central casting.

I don't know what it is about this movie we like so much or, indeed, why we even like it all. Val, "Iceman " Kilmer gives a typically barely-defrosted performance, delivered in an appalling Irish accent, as Colonel John Patterson, who is sent to Tsavo in East Africa to build a bridge for the iron snake (aka railway) the British were using to import Christianity and export ivory.

Michael Douglas looks like a Jack Russell in need of a hair cut and a good wash as the wild-eyed professional hunter, Remington, who is brought to Tsavo to kill some man eating lions which Colonel Patterson, despite his promise to his underlings, has been unable to sort out.

Why would a couple who spend five months in a tent in the African bush want to watch a movie about a couple of lions that killed and ate 100 people? Weird, yes?

Without wishing to spoil the movie for you, in case you haven't seen it, it's no great secret that the lions eventually get turned into rugs. Mrs Blog loves lions and is an anti-hunting bunny hugger, so why would she want to watch a movie about kitty cats getting stuffed?

But like it, we do. Big time. We usually watch it just before leaving for Africa. Like Rugby League players banging their heads against the dressing room wall to psyche/toughen themselves up for the big game, perhaps we watch the The G and the D to acclimatise?

Battlefield Innoculation, they called it when I was a 19-year-old infantryman - making you crawl around under a fixed-firing machine gun while explosives went off around you was supposed to make you not so scared when you encountered the real thing on the battlefield. (I don't think it worked in that case, though, as I transferred to the Corps of Transport soon afterwards where we spent our weekend bivouacs drinking, perhaps in training for the day when we would become old men sitting in RSL clubs playing poker machines).

Whatever.

I have a sneaking suspicion, despite her protests to the contrary, that Mrs B has a bit of a thing for the old Iceman, Val Kilmer. As well as the Ghost and Darkness we own Top Gun on DVD. We've watched it... oh, I don't know... 20 or 30 times at least, and Mrs B is an avowed Tom Cruise-hater. She also thinks Kelly McGuinness looks like an old horse who needs to be put down. So what's the attraction Mrs B? Anthony "Goose" Edwards? Even with hair, I think not. We are also quite possibly the only people in the world to have purchased a copy of The Saint - the remake with Val Kilmer... Hmmmm.....

Anyway, with our braai (barbie) fire blazing away in the background we set up the laptop and begain watching.

Strange people that we are, one of us (it was New Year's, so I can't recall whether it was me or Mrs B), said "Wouldn't it be cool if there actually was a lion over there, just past the fence, and it walked by or called while we were watching." The fence here at Punda Maria Camp is about three-feet high and there are so many blackouts the single electric strand probably no longer works. You can tell, by now, that we'd started drinking early.

There was a rustle in the bushes.

The heart skipped a little beat, LOF, when the people in the tent next door arced up their hand-held spotlight and called us over - right at the moment the lions were about to eat Michael Douglas (errrr,, sorry if I've spoiled it for you - but with that haircut and hat, MD should not have been allowed on the set, let alone to live through 90 per cent of the movie).

I grabbed my wickedly-sharp Air Force Survival Knife (just like the one Rambo uses in the original eponymous movie), which we actually call "Patterson" after Colonel John Patterson the Lion Killer... and shielded Mrs Blog as we stalked silently through the darkness to see what beast was terrorising our camping neighbours (OK... I just made up all that stuff about the knife... except for us really calling it "Patterson" which, I admit, is a bit sad, but proves again how much we love this movie).

It was a cat.

A predator of the night.

A ruthless killer, found as often INSIDE the wire of the Kruger Park's rest camps, as outside.

Perhaps lured by the scent of fresh blood (from the neighbours' chops), or the squeals of the bite-szied children in the caravan behind us... it had stalked to within two metres of us, without us knowing it.

We held our ground and I looked it in the eye.

And shot it.

(With my Canon EOS 10D with 75-300mm image stabilised lens).

The small spotted genet.... of the darkness.