Monday, November 30, 2009

Postings from Pretoria #26

30 November 2009

Hello there... Rodger French here.

Photo Update Alert:

“Amalinda” – “Bulawayo”

Our visit to Zimbabwe continues:

Day 3 – Breakfast

[Digression: If you ever decide to visit Zimbabwe - or anywhere in southern Africa, for that matter - you will surely encounter the “Full English Breakfast.” For the uninitiated, this consists of a choice of juices, cereals, yoghurt, fruit, cheeses, and cold meats followed by eggs, bacon, sausage, baked beans, stewed tomatoes, and toast with butter and jam. And coffee or tea, thank you very much indeed.]

Thus impossibly fortified, it was off to the National Art Gallery and an art contest for local schoolchildren sponsored by the U.S. Embassy’s Public Affairs Office based in Harare, the subject being “Climate Change.” Many of the submissions were quite artistic, if a tad on the apocalyptic side. Winners were announced, awards presented, and refreshments served. Afterward, I had a fine time touring the galleries and workshops, and managed not to part with all of my cash, seeing as how we had big plans that evening.

That would be dinner with our DOS chums at The Cattleman (Motto: “Our Reputation Is At Steak.”). Old West theme, Calgary Stampede and American beer/jeans posters, cowgirl cheesecake in the men’s room… in short, a classic. The waiters have worked there for years and are entertaining as well as efficient. The owner made the rounds extolling the virtues of his homemade chili sauce, a concoction that demanded maximum respect. And the steaks - I enjoyed a medium-rare 12 oz (340 g) sirloin – were perfectly grilled and simply splendid. Those cows did not die in vain.

Day Next – Anne had one last official duty to attend to, and then we had a rather long, but uneventful travel day, making our way back home in good form. I enthusiastically encourage anyone who is interested in visiting Africa to consider Zimbabwe as a destination. It is a physically beautiful place and Zimbabweans are very nice people who, despite all their problems, remain cautiously optimistic about the future. After all, nothing lasts forever. Not even Robert Mugabe.

Bonus Exposition – I feel compelled to acknowledge the many interesting men, Black and White, with whom I shared handshakes and brief, but surprisingly substantial conversations. Listed chronologically, for what it’s worth:

Ivan – Firefighter from Vancouver who was making his way solo from Kilimanjaro to Cape Town. A real sport and worthy traveling companion.

Billy – Our excellent host/guide at Camp Amalinda. He was off to JoBurg to collect his wife (Priscilla) and their newborn (?) and return to the bush.

Phil – Hotelier and owner (with wife Sharon) of Camp Amalinda and The Bulawayo Club.

Innocent – A fine gentleman, and a most solicitous and expert guide for my walking tour of Bulawayo.

Nelson – Assistant Yardmaster with the NRZ who took us on a mini-tour of the railroad freight yards.

Tim – Public Affairs Officer (PAO) in Harare. A very sharp and empathetic guy; definitely ambassador material.

Pete – Billy’s Father-in-Law and a farmer who has lost 75% of his land since Mugabe’s politically motivated and economically disastrous “land reform” in 2000.

Oscar – Independent journalist being harassed for investigating links between government officials and the systematic poaching of wildlife.

J.J. – Embassy motorpool driver.

Our next major African expedition looks to be Namibia in March 2010, but count on my checking in between now and then. As always, thanks for your patience and kind attention.



Saturday, November 28, 2009

Postings from Pretoria #25

28 November 2009

Hello there... Rodger French here.

Photo Update Alert:

“Amalinda” – “Bulawayo”

Extended Posting Alert

After our recent excursion to Victoria Falls/Chobe National Park, I hadn’t expected to be posting again so soon. Silly me. Anne had scheduled an official IRO visit to Bulawayo in southwestern Zimbabwe and, as an early Christmas present, picked up the freight so I could tag along. Lucky me. The three days there were among the most rewarding I can recall since we’ve been posted in Africa.

Day 1 – We flew in a 37-passenger jet from JoBurg to Bulawayo, Zimbabwe’s second largest city, deplaning at an old hanger serving as a temporary terminal while the spanking new facility is under construction – a process halted by lack of funding. (This would be a recurring theme during our visit, especially regarding libraries, Anne’s area of expertise.) From there we were whisked away to Camp Amalinda (, located roughly 60 km down the road in the Matobo Hills.

Photoz hardly do justice to this place. The thatched accommodations are built into the granite landscape and the effect is that of a really cool “Indiana Jones” movie set. The Matobo Hills are magnificent and we spent the afternoon hiking to a rock summit, where we had a beer and absorbed the view, including Malindidzimu Hill or “World’s View,” the resting place of one Cecil John Rhodes, the legendary British businessman (founder of De Beers Mining Company), visionary (Cape to Cairo Railway), and embodiment of racist imperialism.

Quote: “We must find new lands from which we can easily obtain raw materials and at the same time exploit the cheap slave labor that is available from the natives of the colonies. The colonies would also provide a dumping ground for the surplus goods produced in our factories.” Rhodes influence in southern Africa was colossal and his legacy is still very much evident. Local example: Rhodes designed the broad thoroughfares in Bulawayo so that his wagons pulled by 16 oxen could make u-turns.

Returning to the Camp, we sat around the fire, watched the African sunset, and enjoyed a steak dinner. Then, off to bed, to the sounds of baboons in the bush and dassies on the roof.

Day 2 – After breakfast, we drove into Bulawayo, which a lovely city, and checked into The Bulawayo Club, founded in 1895 and formerly an old-school hangout for ruling class Brits and Rhodesians. (Dark wood paneling, large animal trophies, portraits of the Queen, that sort of thing.) It’s now a hotel, recently opened and still under renovation, and a great place to stay. Since A.J. had to work, I procured the services of a guide for a walking tour, specifically the Zimbabwe National Railways Museum.

Bulawayo was HQ for Rhodesia Railways (now NRZ - National Railways of Zimbabwe) and is still the country’s major railway centre. The Museum includes locomotives and rolling stock in (typically) various stages of repair, and visitors are allowed to climb aboard and explore at will, at their own risk, naturally. This includes a tour through the private Pullman car of one Cecil John Rhodes. (Dark wood paneling, green leather, brass fittings, that sort of thing.) This was a perfect way to spend a fine African afternoon.

[Sidebar: My Dad was a railroad man and worked “third trick” (the night shift) for many years. He would, on occasion, take me to work with him and let me spend all night riding around in a switch engine shunting freight cars between Louisville, KY and New Albany, IN. It was awesome.]

That evening, we had dinner with some of Anne’s colleagues at a local Chinese restaurant, returned to the hotel, and slept to the sounds of silence.


Saturday, November 21, 2009

Postings from Pretoria #24

21 November 2009

Hello there... Rodger French here.

Photo Update Alert:

"Victoria Falls" - “Botswana” - “Chobe Elephants”

Our grand African “safari” continues:

Day 4 – Off to the Kazungula Border Post, gateway to Botswana. This was our day off, which I well and truly needed, afflicted as I was with “Zambezi River thighs” (extreme muscle soreness and 2nd degree sunburn). We checked into the Chobe Marina Lodge – complete with wart hogs and vervet monkeys frolicking in our backyard - and had dinner. We also set up our itinerary for the next two days.

[Sidebar: Naturally, we took reading material with us for those quieter moments. I read, “Playing the Enemy” by John Carlin, an account of Nelson Mandela’s embrace of rugby as a tool for reconciliation between Blacks and Afrikaners. Highly recommended.]

Day 5First Activity: Up at 05h00 for the morning game drive into Chobe National Park with our guide “John the Baptist.” It was a beautiful morning and we spotted all manner of wildlife, including kudus, impalas, pukus, sable antelope, buffaloes, hyenas, dung beetles (I‘m a big fan), and birds galore.

We also looked in on two breeding herds of elephants taking turns in the Chobe River. Chobe is known for pachyderms and, it being spring, there were quite a few calves in evidence. Seeing large groups of these fascinating animals in the wild was a wonderful experience.

In other National Geographic moments, we observed a fish eagle share a tree with a vulture (this is simply not done), a yellow-billed kite steal a mostly-dead frog from a brown hamerkop, and a lioness drag a very-dead buffalo carcass into the bush. Typically, all the bush vehicles in the area (13, by my count) converged at once on the grisly scene. The lioness was very cool about it, going about her business and occasionally posing for photoz.

Second Activity: Later that afternoon, we opted for a river cruise, which became an exercise in sun avoidance for moi et mes thighs. Nonetheless, we had a lovely time looking for birds, crocodiles, hippos, and elephants in the waters and on the shore. And, of course, another glorious African sunset.

Day 6First Activity: Up at 05h00 for the morning game drive with our guide Simon. We drove into the bush rather than to the river and, while there was generally less wildlife about, we did spy a small herd of zebras, a very rare occurrence at this time of year. And we came across our lioness again, hanging out, presumably digesting buffalo.

Second Activity: We opted for a 15h30 game drive with Simon and crossed paths with a herd of elephants headed from the river into the bush for the evening. The animals in Chobe are use to and have no reason to fear humans and their large vehicles, so we were able to observe these elephants at very close quarters for an extended period of time.

[Elephant Safety Tips: As long as you do not insert yourself between the large females and the young calves, you’ll be tolerated. And when they’re ready to move on, get out of the way.]

On our way back, there was the lioness, lying on her back under a tree, waiting to have her tummy scratched. We demurred.

Day Last - Loaded into the van, transited the Kazungula Border Post, and stopped at the Victoria Falls Hotel to switch to the airport vehicle. This afforded an opportunity to say hello to the bell captain and the bellhops, who remembered us and happily moved our luggage the necessary twenty feet or so. Everyone was tipped, naturally. Then it was off to the airport and back to JoBurg.

I think it fair to say that all four of us had an extraordinary experience. We traveled at a level of comfort that was appropriate and affordable, and did our fair share to support the local economies. Chances are, none of us will ever get to visit these places again, so we packed as much adventure into a few days as could reasonably be expected. I am grateful for the opportunity and the company.

As you’re able: Spend the money, visit your friends, see the world. Onward.


Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Postings from Pretoria #23

18 November 2009

Hello there... Rodger French here.

Photo Update Alert:

"Victoria Falls" - “Botswana” - “Chobe Elephants”

Well, we’re back safe and/or sound from a major African excursion. And that whole “once in a lifetime” cliché? Couldn’t be more true.

Day 1 – A.J. and I, along with our guests T & P, boarded a small jet headed to Victoria Falls. Routine flight, although I did engage in conversation with one Kjeld Krüger, a ninth generation Afrikaner who leads big game hunting expeditions in Zimbabwe. Nice Fellow. We had a pleasant chat and he gave me the email address of his brother Jehan, who leads eco-safaris. I hope to follow up on that contact.

The local airport is easily navigated, so we were soon on our way to the Victoria Falls Hotel. Built in 1904, this is a classic late colonial-era hotel with a grand view of the Victoria Falls Bridge (connecting Zimbabwe and Zambia), historical artwork in the corridors, and high tea. This is one of those swank establishments that hosts monarchs, presidents, and Hollywood stars. It is also a ten-minute walk from the Falls.

Day 2 – Victoria Falls was “discovered” in 1855 by David Livingstone, the Scottish explorer, missionary, and physician. Known as “Mosi-O-Tunya” (“the smoke that thunders”), it is widely recognized as one of the “Seven Natural Wonders of the World.” Victoria Falls is also the economic engine for thousands of people trying to make a living in Zimbabwe, so it was not unexpected that our ten-minute walk was fraught with young men relentlessly hawking trinkets and souvenir Zimbabwean currency, especially the coveted One Hundred Trillion Dollar note.

[Sidebar: Zimbabwe has moved to a monetary system based largely on the U.S. greenback. Being the only guy in our group, I was put in charge of gratuities, so I kept a pocketful of $1.00 bills and tipped pretty much everyone in sight.]

Early November marks the transition from dry season to wet, so the Falls were not at their most spectacular; but, on the upside, you can actually take photoz. At the height of the rainy season, one must get airborne via helicopters (noisy pests) or ultralights (way cool) to get out of the mist. But even at diminished flow, the sight of so much falling water was awesome and well worth the journey.

We had arranged a sunset cruise on the upper Zambezi through one of the small tour operators at the hotel. Consequently, we spent the evening on a thoroughly funky boat navigating the river and small channels above Victoria Falls, keeping a lookout for birds and crocodiles, and giving the hippos a wide berth. We enjoyed beer, snacks, and a glorious African sunset. It was a very good day.

Day 3 – No way I would go to Victoria Falls without rafting down the mighty Zambezi River, an adventure rated as one of the planet’s “Top Ten Whitewater Rafting Trips.” A.J., to her everlasting credit, decided to accompany me. (T & P had their own agendas.) Neither of us was really prepared for what followed.

The trip encompassed 23 km and 21 named rapids, mostly Class 4 and 5. This was the easy part. Two less reckless tourists had cancelled that morning, so our raft consisted of us, our guide Wilson, and three young African guides-in-training. Piece of cake. The river was perfect for some primo paddling and it was an unmitigated thrill to be on the water. And we did not flip the raft.

There were, however, two small problems: (1) climbing down the gorge (app. 92 m straight down) to the put-in and (2) climbing out of the gorge (app. 108 m straight up) at the take-out. The descent was most perilous, as we had to navigate wet, nearly vertical metal stairs - some of which were missing treads and handrails - as well as large boulders.

The ascent was not as dangerous, but it was all up and, I can state unequivocally, the hardest work I’ve ever done in the pursuit of recreation. (Incidentally, Anne decided to take her leave during the lunch stop and head out with the land crew. Ever the sport, she returned with them later to meet me at the top of the gorge.)

It was a hell of a day, but we all returned safely to the hotel where we ate, drank, and made ready for the next morning’s drive to Botswana.