Friday, July 16, 2010

The African Experience Part 2

“Coming down the mountain!” as Perry Farrell says of Jane’s Addiction. We make our way back to the Kia and set out on another long drive to Hluhluwe Umfolozi Game Park {pronounced ShlooShloowee Umfolozi}. As we get closer and closer to Durban we begin to see the Indian Ocean. It is a must stop for us. I had not seen the Indian Ocean before and I know mSqwearl had not either. Our minds were made up an we drove on looking for a small village to turn off into. We miss one turn off and decide on Zinkwazi. A small little beach community that looked perfect for a quick 10 minute stop. We park and walk out onto the beach. We stand looking at the 2meter high waves crash on the beach as the tide is rushing in at our feet. While standing to capture the moment with me compact Olympus waterproof camera the waves rush over my feet. Still wearing my Gortex shoes I get soaked as a father and his children capture it on his video camera. We laugh and move up the beach. Standing in the water knee high, mSqwearl is relaxing in the cool rushing water of the Indian Ocean. Ken and I are talking about something as we hear a scream and yell from the distance. With is back turned to the water Ken makes a run for higher ground thinking the waves are going to crash into him. I bolt the opposite direction and run toward the water. I see a bobbing head being pulled along the beach. The head belongs to one of the young children who was with his father down the beach. A large swell came in to the beach too fast and was too powerful for the child to run from. The water grabbed the small boy as if it wanted to take the child to the great blue. However, fate had something else planned. As with us missing our turn a few miles back forcing us to choose Zinkwazi for our stop. The young boy would not be taken by the great waves. As I was running to the water to grab the boy, he was brought to the waiting arms of mSqwearl. He had been standing in the water relaxing as the same giant wave rushed into him chest high. All mSqwearl had to do was reach out and grab the frightened, yet calm boy, by the shoulder. As the father came running to make sure his son was safe, mSqwearl passed the child back to his father. And he thanks him as a caring father would do after watching his child be swept away.

Jasper, the father’s name, would invite us back to his home for coffee and to allow mSqwearl to shower and put on clean clothes. Soaking from the neck down after racing to save the boy , who for certain would have been swept over jagged rocks, mSqwearl, Ken and I all drive to the house up the beach. There we meet the whole family. Jasper introduced us to his wife, mother and father. His father, Jasper Sr., was a retired sugarcane farmer. In the recent years Jasper Sr. has been making trips to schools to talk about nature and wildlife. He felt that many children now a days don’t spend enough time outdoors. So, he brings the outdoors to the children. Doing so takes place in many forms. It could be live animals, plants, flowers or even animal bones and skulls. David, the young boy who was saved at the beach asked his father to get some of the animals out to show us.
Jasper kindly abides and leaves to room and comes back with a large box of treats. He first pulls out a massive skull of a warthog. He talks about how the large tusks are used for digging and foraging and the smaller tusks are used to defend itself.

The second animal he pulled out a small bag came with lots of items in it. First he brought out a tiny skull and placed it on the table in front of us. We tried to guess and determine what it was. To help us out he brought some long quills out and we immediately knew it is a porcupine.
He talked about the different quills and told us which ones are the most dangerous and how the porcupine defends itself. He told us that when a porcupine in cornered by a lion or other predator it will charge them in hopes to jab the hard quills into the animal’s face. Lions can’t resist the taste of porcupine, Jasper said , because porcupine is one of the lion’s favorite meats to eat. But, porcupines are no push over and have been know to kill lions with their quills.
As the quills get jabbed into the face of the lion by the porcupine, the lion will force the quills in deeper as it tries to dig them out. I had no idea that porcupines protected themselves that way. I love learning something new. And that day I was going to learn even more.

The third thing he took out of his massive box was a large lioness skull. He showed us how lions grab onto the face of is prey or the next. To prove his point he too his massive hands and placed them on the neck of Ken, who was sitting next to him. He grabbed and shook Ken then grabbed his own face to show how and where a lion would grab a man.

The fourth animal he showed us was a baboon skull. It was white and shiny with large fangs. Jasper said the getting into a fight with a baboon would be a bad thing. The have large front fangs but they are used for puncturing the meat. the teeth you have to worry about are the bottom ones. As they rub against the top long fangs they get sharpened. Almost to a razor sharpness. I touched them and could feel the edge, much like a knife.
We were amazed by the animals and knowledge of the grandfather. Yet, we were not finished. The children and parents all were not satisfied with impressing the Americans. They asked their grandfather to “bring out the fun stuff”. So, once again Jasper the retired sugarcane farmer now turned naturalist leaves the room. This time he returns with a plastic bag. We could see it had been in the freezer as cold air permeated through the air. He opened the bag and pulled out a whole baboon head. Still containing the hair, eyes, tongue and teeth. Ken and mSqwearl leaned back away from the beast. .

I reached forward and asked if I could hold it. He kindly passed it along to me and I admired its powerful and strong features. This baboon had come into the village and was tormenting people and killing animals. It was threatening the lives of many people and need to be killed. Jasper was asked to come to the village and dispose of it. He did, but decided to keep the head for his teachings. I am glad he kept it otherwise I would have never been able to hold it.

Out plan to stop for 10 minutes soon turned into almost 2 hours. We were asked to join them for fish curry and stew. But, we kindly denied as it was getting late and we needed to check into out huts at the game park. We did however enjoy some birthday cake leftover from the afternoon. We kindly said our thanks for hospitality and moved out the door. Once again, we are shown that people are the greatest keys to vacation and travel. Meeting this family was a pure pleasure and one I will never forget. This day has been one of the most amazing days of my life. I began the morning atop a mountain plateau in the small country of Lesotho and I finished it in the sitting room of a South African family looking at animal skulls and holding a baboon head while hearing the Indian Ocean pound it’s powerful waves on the beach of Zinkwazi.
What kind of life am I living? I ask myself this question many times. I guess I am living my dream.

Part 3 of the African Experience will show you the animals you have been waiting to see. The BIG FIVE!

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

The African Experience Part 1

It has been a long time coming for the next installment of the Wayfaring Writer. I am halfway around the world on my Around The World Flight. I am sitting here in Warsaw, Missouri at the Cosmic Coffee chatting with the locals. It is time to fill you on on the African Experience.
Stepping off the plane and going through customs you could see that the World Cup had hit South Africa in full swing. June 11th was the beginning of the World Cup and I arrived on the 13th after a 26hr travel schedule taking me from Tokyo to Beijing, Bangkok, Hong Kong and finally to Johanesburg. Walking through the madness of World Cup Mania you could see the excitement and anticipation of the tournament in everybody's eyes. I walked out of customs to see a mass of people holding signs with names from all over the world. I had hopes of seeing my sign with the name "Schwartz's Sweet-Ass Ride" on it but no luck. I sat around for an hour then stood on my bag to get noticed better and then heard "MURF"! It was time to begin an epic trip my with Ken and Squirrel, who would later earn his new South African name mSqwearl.(Decked out in our World Cup Gear)

Summing up the three week long travel experience in one post is impossible. Luckily, I have lots of time to fill you in between working on my new house and sitting in the Cosmic Coffee shop. It will take some time so be patient. We gathered ourselves and headed to the Meewes household in Boksburg. My good friend Michele was nice enough to set us up with a place to stay at her parents house. Mike and June's hospitality and home were at a 5 star level. If they were to open a bed & breakfast I would suggest not choosing any other place. Michele's daughter, Amy was in my Kindergarten class four years ago when I was teaching in Poland. Michele and I continued our friendship after she moved back to South Africa. Arriving at her parent's house we were immediately welcomed to the family. They remembered me as Mr. Murphy and soon adjusted the name to Neal. Michele and the girls came over for some fun and playtime. We all caught up and informed them of our travel plans and when we would return. It was so good to see Michele and her girls Chloe, Amy and Leah.

With Ken and mSqwearl sleeping in the new Kia Senata I was on the road to Giant's Castle for our first adventure in South Africa. The road was flat and straight with not much to look at. Actually, it looked a lot like Kansas until a table top mountain appeared in the distance. At that point we knew we were getting to the highlands. The roads were nice and the drivers even better. It was not what I expected.

From what I had been told by people who visited I was expected a rough and dangerous environment with threats of theft and murder. WRONG! South Africa is much more than I expected. Throughout the traveling we met countless numbers of people who went out of their way to make us feel welcome. At no point in the entire 3 week trip did we feel threatened or unsafe, even though many people had told us to be careful. Being smart is all you need to do. Don't put yourself in situation that might cause you problems is what I always say. More stories of generosity and hospitality are in the next installments.

Back to the driving. As we climb slowly through the hills of the Drakensburg we find our way through some small villages on a black dirt roads covered with potholes. We drive amongst the local children waving and smiling as we go by. Some reaching with hands out asking for money. These people make their living off of farming and raising livestock in the hills. We stop for a break and a stretch, as well as to admire the surroundings. This country is beautiful, whether it is the landscape or the people. The Drakensburgs region of South Africa proved to be the beginning of the best trip of my life.

Arriving at Giant's Castle we walked into an amazing chalet with two bedrooms, fireplace, kitchen and a view to die for. We played cards and watched some World Cup matches and enjoyed some nice cold glasses of Castle Beer. This beer would soon become our favorite beer of choice. In the morning I wake up to the sound of a Gurney's Sugarbird chatting on a bush in front of the window with a breath-taking sunrise behind it. I yell at Ken to get up and he is reluctant but I force him out of bed to see the Sugarbird. He can barely see out of his binoculars but is soon awaken by the beauty of the amazing creature. "I am finally on vacation", I thought to myself and made my way to the kitchen for some fruit and coffee.

Our plan that day was to walk through the mountains and make our way to the caves. The landscape and views on our walk were some of the best I had ever seen. The one hour walk ended up taking us about 2 hours and we barely made it to the tour for the ancient cave drawings. These drawings were thousands of years old and were done by the Bushmen of South Africa.
I have never seen ancient drawings like this before. I have seen them in museums but never in naturally preserved environments like that one. They were kept in brilliant condition, even after the English had set up camp in the caves and used the drawings and walls for target practice in the 1800's.

After Giant's Castle we started off on a seven hour drive around Giant's Castle mountain range to find our next stop in Underburg to prepare of our drive up Sani Pass to Lesotho.
Lesotho is a small country in the middle of South Africa with a population a little over 2,000,000. This part of the trip would be the first of many experiences with people living off the land. The people of Lesotho had been living the same way for the past 300 years. Homes are made out of animal dung and mud.
The funnel shaped roofs covered in straw and grass allow the home to stay warm on top the the mountain ranges of Lesotho. Most people raise livestock or harvest grain on the plateaus atop the mountain peaks. Life is simple there. Men and women are considered to be equal and 70% of the female population are literate. Families usually consist of a mother and father with only two children about 2 to 3 years apart.

Women do most of the work as men often try to find work elsewhere outside of Lesotho in South Africa. The problem with this is after leaving Lesotho they find themselves in a new world that exposes them to new experiences and new vices. Often with money in hand, men find themselves searching for women and alcohol. Beginning a new life with alcohol and unsafe sex. With that comes the possibility of contraction of STDs, most common HIV and AIDS. After living a life in South Africa for sometime, they return to Lesotho with money and STDs. Spreading the diseases to their wives. 23% of the population has AIDS or HIV, according to UNISEF statistics. This information was passed on to us by Crispian, our guide and driver. Crispian has traveled and lived amongst the people of Lesotho since 1960. He was a horseman and guided tourist for many years. Now, he conducts his tours by off-road vehicle. His knowledge and experience with the people of Lesotho proved to be a valuable component in acquiring knowledge about Lesotho and its people.

The following photographs are a series of shots taken by myself and by Emmanual,the 2year old child present in the first photo. He saw my silvery, mirror-like camera and wanted to touch grab it. After looking through Ken's binoculars he reached for my camera and started pushing buttons and captured photos of another boy named David. The people who live in this village survive on the bare minimum. Fire baked bread is the main source of nutrition along with goat's milk and other vegetables. Money is earned by making a variety of products for tourist. Relying on tourists to purchase these woven hats, rugs and other artwork helps them to survive. With the beginning of Winter at hand we felt a hard wind blow and a snowstorm set in. Shoeless and wearing only one layer of clothing the boys run inside as a flash blizzard hits the peaceful village. On top of the Sani Pass you can also find Africa's Highest Pub. It is located in a small building that serves it own beer call Maluti, hot or cold wine and a variety of other bar drinks. We choose to have a hot glass of tea spiked with rum. Perfect for the cold morning that has set in. With a blanket of snow piling up outside we sit by the fire warming up before our decent down the snow and ice covered switchbacks to South Africa.

The Lesotho experience opened my eyes to Africa and I will be forever changed by it.

More to come. Part 2 will take you from the top of the mountains of Lesotho to the beaches of the Indian Ocean in Zinkwazi, South Africa.