My Travels: Light and Dark in the Namib Desert

Light and Dark in the Namib Desert

What hit me this year with not a cloud in the sky for five days was the wall-to-wall feeling of light in the Namib Desert. For the last two years I had been blessed with rain and dream clouds, with spectacular orange and red sunsets and sunrises.

Now this time it was not only during the day that we had this light. We were blessed with the energy of the full moon, and there was still wall-to-wall at light at night, with only the stronger stars of the constellations and the planets visible in the night sky.

The best appreciation of light in this special and beautiful place was gained in a balloon flight early on morning. More about the balloon flight later. In fact, I was up later than usual, only 5 a.m., to launch at about 6:15 am.. But that meant leaving Little Kulala Lodge as the orange rim lit up the length of the eastern horizon behind the Naukluft Mountains at 5:30 a.m. and arriving at the balloon launch site fifteen minutes later.

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The moon moving down into the earth’s shadow.

What was most impressive about the morning light was not the sunrise, but rather the setting of the full moon, with the softening of the harsh moonlight being burnt away by the eastern warmth.  What follows next with the moon setting in the earth’s shadow is nothing short of spectacular. From the air you can clearly see the dark shadow the earth casts on the horizon in the west as the sun rises in the east. As the moon descends it enters a fuzzy lighter zone called the penumbra, and then finally the dark zone of the real shadow, the umbra. This  point in time, with the sun, earth and moon almost aligned in the heavens but short of an eclipse, is an observer’s delight. It lasted for about fifteen minutes, and is so beautiful I had to remind myself to breath.

 

Then suddenly it was daytime. The dunes lit up soft red for five minutes and then shadows started falling.

 

My best moonrise was at sunset a few days earlier, sitting on the dune called Big Mama above Sossusvlei, having recovered from the exertion of the climb and again, waiting with slow breathing for the moonrise.

 

Moonrise over Sossusvlei

Moonrise over Sossusvlei

The earth’s shadow formed but the umbra was narrower because we were looking over the Naukluft Mountains. The sun set suddenly, with a blush of redness on the dunes and the sudden dimming of the bright eastern light. Unlike the east coast of Africa where the twilight does not exist, here in the desert the twilight lingered for almost an hour. Slowly the earth’s shadow would become night, but before that we saw the orange rim of the full moon rising. In the shadow and the dust of the autumn sky from bush fires over the Kalahari the moon rose like a soft face. I almost recognized it, and smiled to myself, spellbound in the beauty of this light and dark.

Conversations about Coming Home

Last night I attended a talk by Ian McCallum at the Yellowwood Café in Howick. He has just completed his expedition from the west to east coast of Southern Africa linking various elephant migratory routes and publicising the need for environmental action by focusing on pachyderms, a key species in the ecology of wild Africa and India. You can read about this trip on www.tracksofgiants.org

There are many things that struck me about Ian. He has an aura about him that is not just because of who he is (he is a qualified and working psychiatrist, author, poet, wilderness guide and expedition leader) but rather because he knows he is because of everyone and everything else. He is a true child of uBunthu: “I am because you are”.

He is thankful for everything and everyone that has coloured his life and allowed him to connect to this earth. He is practical as well, and made a strong point in the beginning of his talk of thanking everyone for very little thing they may do for the environment, no matter how small the action. It is these small actions that will make the groundswell that can change the world we leave to our children.

He told of a talk he did at Epworth primary School earlier that day. It was in a room filled with caricatures of wild animals. It was a happy room. He asked the children what they would feel if there were no more animals left in the world.

After some hesitation the first hand went up. “I would feel sad”, the child spoke.

I am sure Ian danced about the stage as he did with us, filled with energetic passion for the earth. He looked for more answers. It came from another child: “I would feel it was our fault!”

And the last child spoke out, sadness stinging his face: “what would we leave our children?”

His expedition was not so much about the giants of the bush as much as the giant within each of us that can change the world. We can all achieve so much, if we commit and try. The tragedy is not that we do not achieve, but that we aim too low.

At dinner I spoke with Ian about his first trail, which he undertook in 1981 with Ian Player and Maqubu Ntombela. It had a profound effect on him and his understanding of the world and himself. I remember it doing the same for me. The Wilderness Leadership School Erythrina leaf emblem encapsulates a simple philosophy of co-existence with the environment and one’s self: each of the three leaflets represents a core relationship in man’s life: Man to Man, Man to God and Man to nature.

I asked Ian why he had chosen psychiatry. “Because it was the one thing I did not want to do. So when I asked myself why I didn’t want to do it, and investigated it, I found it to be the very essence of medicine.” It echoed in me. I remember my time in the bush bring a clarity to my soul to explore the mind through medicine. I never got to being a psychiatrist, but certainly benefited from them.

Ian said of his first trail that he felt like “he had come home.” I know the feeling, and his inspiring talk made me feel like I had seen home again.

The Costa Calla Chronicle: The more things change the more they stay the same.

Home for a day

It is a long time since I wrote for the chronicle. At the house in Costa Calla I have five bound books of my musings over the years 2000 to 2005, when I used to go up almost every second weekend and take pictures and walk.

The more things change the more they say the same. That is what I thought on the way back, as we drove through a light shower before Pietermaritzburg. I went for a stroll on Sebastian’s Walk on Saturday afternoon. The bush at the start of the path to the sundial that counts only the happy hours has grown over to form an arch now. But the sundial remains; the brass is weathered and moss is growing on the mini Stonehenge rock that supports it. Some people were fishing on Evergreen and a dog jumped in to challenge his master’s trout. The master won.

Later that afternoon thick storm clouds rolled in from the east, black and billowing, ominous with lightning striking ever closer. The ridge from Evergreen to our house is igneous, and our place has been struck three times by lightning in the last few years. So I walked back to safety.

At home Ines was sitting before the fire, reading. Some things do not change. They just stay the same. She made supper and we chatted. After a solid sleep in the quiet, because after the storm the mist descended and enveloped the house in a sponge of silence, we woke and went for a walk. The sun was out and was warm. I worked up a sweat as the road climbed into Holbeck. We saw a pair of bulbuls, loyal to each other, as we entered the mist belt forest. We heard Piet My Vrou’s calling, along with a Narina Trogon. Heard but not seen. The forest allowed you to be a child again, at peace with the spirits of the great old trees reaching through the canopy to the sun. The road has dried out after all the rain, but every spring was burbling water that you could smell so sweet as you walked past. The bigger streams were torrents as they raced down the slope to the Umgeni below.

At the crest of Mbona Mountain we paused and descended into the valley, to the house. We passed a herd of Blesbok and zebra, with a few young of each, their curly clean pelts soft and clean against the obscenely green grass. They were on a slope with the gun blue waters of Amber behind them. After breakfast I took my camera and spent some time photographing them. It was hard not to think back to the Masai Mara, where on my last day I saw a million wildebeest and one hundred thousand zebra on the marsh. Now I was looking at five zebra and twenty Blesbok.

Zebra above Amber

We had lunch outside on the veranda. We had to move the table under the roof as the midday storm unleashed big juicy drops of water. Fortunately there was not much of a squall as we caught up with Bernard and Janet.

It was good to be back, and to know that the changes we saw and heard

My Travels: Birds and Bees in Flight

Although the Masai Mara is all about cats, the real reason we were there was to see two million or so white bearded wildebeest. I kept on losing count when I got to three hundred and fifty, which was when I opened the first Tuskers for the day. So sometimes it was easier to take pictures of birds.

The day after we took abstracts of patterns in dry mud instead of the leopard in the nearby bush, we returned to look for the leopard in earnest at the same spot.  The Mara is like the Highveld, but nearer the equator. There are huge plateaus of grassland with rivers gently woven into the fabric. Where the leopard was, it was a particularly beautiful piece of mature Acacia woodland. The woodland lies in a basin below two huge plains filled with long Red Grass. The basin had shorter grass, for it was well grazed, and you could easily imagine bumping into Hemingway sitting below a tree with Pops in canvas chairs, with mosquito boots on, talking about the day over a whisky. It’s just that kind of place.

We found some a pair of Little Bee Eaters playing in the low clear branches of the trees. We were quite close and started taking pictures. They would stay still for a while, then fly off, catch a bee and return. I shot off countless pictures and when I was processing later that day I saw a winner: open beak with a bee the little bird had caught and tossed into the air before biting into it again.

After the meal, the bird moved to another branch and was backlit against the bright morning sun. It started preening itself, allowing the light to filter through its feathers creating beautiful patterns and textures. I took a lot more pictures. Come to think of it, at the end of my trip I had taken eleven thousand pictures with two cameras. But I got a great one against the light of Merops pusillus.The genus Merops is specific to Bee eaters, while pusillus is Latin for “tiny”, which it is.

After this bird shoot we sat with Sand Grouse drinking water in a pan. They were further off, and moved much faster than one expected.

We saw squadrons of eagles and many groups of judicial vultures, roosting in trees or fighting over kills. The most impressive sight was when we were flying in a hot air balloon and saw hyena chase lion off a kill and vultures flew off. The resultant lucky shot was well composed and quite abstract:

My Travels: Brothers and Sisters in the Mara

Cats are my favourite animals. Their behaviour is similar across the spectrum, from domestic cats to lions. Well, similar except in mating.

The first lioness we saw in Naboisho was well hidden on a rocky slope covered with bush. She groomed herself and then moved on, out of sight. The buffalo grazing below the slope in the lush green of the wetland was more impressive. Their bovine eyes gazed peacefully out at the car, chewing cud. Yet they were more feared by hunters.

The next viewing was more impressive. In the Masai Mara Reserve we got excited.

“There’s a lion” we all shouted in unison. He was walking through the tall grass towards a rocky outcrop.

“There’s another lying on the granite cap. Get ready for a head rub”, said Marius. It’s easy now that I know these two are brothers, and when I think of my cats when they meet after a day out, they also rub heads. But I did not expect these two lions, the one who still had to walk one hundred meters to the hill, and climb it, to rub heads.

The one lying down roared. It was solid sound in our ears we were so close. You could touch the vibration. The first lion was now in the scrub to the right. He disappeared. We waited. The crest was covered in scrub for about thirty meters, and the granite opening was just big enough for two lions to lie. “Get ready for the head rub”, repeated Marius, checking his camera settings. In a flash the brother came out of the bush into the warm soft morning light, and they rubbed heads then lay down. Just like cats.

Brothers in the early morning sun

The next impressive sighting started with a lioness that seemed to be hunting a herd of wildebeest in Paradise Plains.  We watched her for a while but moved off because there were too many vehicles. Onesmus was looking the other way and spotted the same male leopard on a slope we had seen him on a few days before.  “Leopard” was all he whispered, and we drove off.

We lost the leopard but found two more lionesses walking in a nearby valley. They stopped, one on a termite mound, to roar. They were walking towards the lioness that was hunting. They tackled each other like kittens playing, and then called again. The hunting lioness answered and one of the two lay down, paws stretched out in front of her. “She’s waiting for the hunting lioness”, said Marius. “Get ready for a jump.” I had seen this before in my cats so I knew what to expect but the lens I had trained on the lioness was too big and I missed the action. The three turned around to walk up the valley, and were joined by the two brothers in the early darkness of evening. The females continued playing with each other as they made their way up the valley to crest. The males roared gently every now and then.

As I said, cat behaviour is similar across the spectrum except when lions mate. More about that tomorrow.

Sisters playing

My Travels: A Photo Shoot at the Foot of Sirente

Sirente is a long mountain that rises from the village of Rovere on the Altipiano of Abruzzo and at its peak reaches up to 2200 meters above sea level. The plateau of the Altipiano sits at between 1350 and 1450 meters above sea level.

Rovere sits on the western and southern slopes of a small hill at the base of Sirente. From the north it presents a quaint skyline.  It is one of those kitsch pictures you always want to capture, so as I drove out of Rocca di Mezzo at 5 am I was tempted to stop on the road and take a photo, but decided against it. It was just too kitsch! When I turned down the road that runs parallel to the cliffs of Sirente for 40 kilometres, I saw mist in the valley before Rovere and turned off into the fields and set up my tripod. I had to take a picture of Rovere.

A slightly less kitsch picture of Rovere

Remember it is midsummer in Italy, and they are experiencing a heat wave. It was 7 degrees Celsius above zero below that mountain and fortunately I was wearing a thick winter jacket. The three quarter moon was quiet high but as the sun rose orange rays warmed the Velino Range in the background and presented a beautiful spectacle.

I packed up and drove about 15 minutes along Sirente towards the town of Seicinaro. I stopped in the Prati di Sirente (the plains) where the mist was thick and banked up against the mountains.  There was a large herd of cows feeding like happy babies in a cot with warm milk. Instead of mobiles making noise, the sound of their bells rose and fell, echoing in the quiet cold air. I took some photos of the cows and one I thought would make a good black and white photo with the white mist behind and the light rising through the mist onto the cliffs high above.

The moon had not really set any further and was still high, so I had to use the wide angle lens in portrait mode to capture the cliffs and moon in one picture.

From there I moved on to the watering point, a stone trough, further down the plains. The mist had burnt off and the light was harsh, even thou the sun had not yet peeped over the foothills nestling the Pagliare di Tione to the north. I decided to pack up and drive home. Already I had seen a wild rabbit and was satisfied with the wildlife viewing. Along the way back just before the turnoff to the Anatella Fountain, where the road is thickly wooded, I spotted movement in a small opening about one hundred meters to my left. My heart jumped. It was a young male deer with 20 centimetre antlers and a smaller doe. Fortunately I had my 70 – 200 mm lens on the camera on the seat next to me, and I managed to get some photos to prove I saw them. It all happened very fast and they were quite skittish. The shutter noise of the camera really scared them. It is hunting season here, even though it is part of a reserve. One time we were walking in the mountains a few years ago and we came across a hunter shouldering a shotgun. He had lost his dogs, and asked us if we had seen them.

Happy with the deer viewing I drove home to process the pictures. All in all a happy morning  with some good photographs.

A happy view of a forest with the sun behind the leaves

On Trail: Playing in the Bush

The second time I was in the Timbavati I was very lucky. The Timbavati River was flowing clear in parts, and submerged in other sections. It was April, with warm days and cool nights. Unlike my first trail which was with fellow school friends, this was a mixed group with adults. I was in my last or second last year at school, well over thirty years ago as I write.

It was great to have access to so much water. Washing up was easy: we just scooped pots and bowls through the wet river sand and rinsed off in clean water. It was also good to be able to sit in the water and have a bath, girls first, then guys.

One day we were having lunch on some rocks in the bend of the river. The water had been channelled into a narrow fast flow for some length and as we were relaxing after lunch, someone threw a leaf into the water and we watched it bob and tack as it flowed down the river. I looked around and broke off a frond from a reed and lowered this into a fast flowing section. “Mine’s faster” I said. “Let’s have a race.”

So we did. All of us including Alan Shore, the field guide, chose their “boats” of leaves and we started the regatta just as the river entered the channel. We were oblivious to everything around us as we ran barefoot along the river sand and over rocks to follow our leaves to the finish. We did this over and over again. It was just so much fun. At the end, when we had finished racing and splashing in the water, Alan said “so, you see how important it is to play?” We all nodded. Some of the adults even mentioned things like stress and big city pressure.

But it was an important lesson: remember to have fun in what you do. It was easy to have fun on foot in the bush. It was easy to be enticed and excited by the wonders of nature. But how difficult is it to have fun in your daily life? Being at university and studying had some fun aspects, but it was hard work. Working itself has some fun aspects, but that’s even harder work than studying. So how do we recapture that lunchtime game chasing leaf boats in a clear river oblivious to the big five that wandered around us?

I am not sure. I still do not have the answers. Perhaps one of the ways to recapture that fun is to tell stories. Our ancient forefathers would have sat around the fire at night telling stories, recounting hunts or seasons or people they had met.

Now we sit around glowing screens at all times of the day or night reading words that sometimes do not even tell a story.

Early morning mist at a dam in Timbavati

On Trail: Chinese,Japanese, Oh! Taiwanese

In the old days under the Apartheid government South Africa had few state friends. Indeed, the only three were Paraguay, Israel and Taiwan. There was a program to teach their diplomats English by inclusion, so they lived in Johannesburg for 3 months and attended adult English classes at WITS. Somehow someone (and I think it was Fran) thought it would be good for them to spend five days in the African Wilderness on trail.

So I picked up six men in their thirties and forties who were all shorter than me and walked with small incisive steps and as the week unfolded kept repeating “Ah, so” in unison at the marvels of the bush.  We spent the first two nights at the Big Rock Camp in Pilanesberg and then walked up to Bailie Loop and camped on the escarpment at the small waterfall, safe from the rhinos that loved that plateau.

There were two memorable moments. The first was up on the plateau, once camp had been set up and we were relaxing. Arnie Warburton (my second in charge and senior) called me to come have a wash with him in the stream. I went reluctantly but he cajoled me, and as we sat drying in the dying sun on the still warm rocks he handed me a cool beer that he had secreted in his pack and on the way down to the camp had left to cool in the stream. Arnie is long gone, but he was a wise and impish at the same time kind of guy. It was a great treat to have that beer and escape the intensity of the Taiwanese trailists for a few minutes. He complimented me on the trail so far.

The second was after we had our Indaba after the return. We were still at the old Parktown house under the big tree in the garden and I remember the translator/teacher being there as well. They were all filled with a spiritual gratitude for the time spent in the big open space. They told us of how and where they lived in Taiwan and what little of nature they saw, and how being at one with the wild animals had elevated their sense of living. One of the trailists, a gentle soul, almost had me crying when he commented on how beautiful it was to see the grass waving in the wind like the waves on the sea. His eyes really appreciated the simple beauty of Africa.

Arnie looked after me. From when they chose me to run trails to accompanying me on that five day trail. He tried to make a manly man out of me without changing who I was. I cannot remember him ever being negative or unhappy, expect once when I saw him say goodbye to his children and go back to his girlfriend, Theresa.

For the Taiwanese it was good for them to spend five days in the African Wilderness. Absolutely.

Arnie Warburton in the Bush October 1985

On Trail: Teutonic Design

I remember one trail with German, Swiss and Austrian exchange students: they were all young adults at university who were brought out by The South Africa Foundation to spend three months in our country and see what makes us tick. In the eighties the only ticking was that of the time bomb waiting to destroy the government in power.

They were an energetic and keen group. They walked fast and asked lots of questions.  And they just wanted to see big game. The small interesting things were not that important to them. We had good views of three white rhino and a calf driving in on the Friday night and the Saturday walk was filled with all sorts of antelope, including eland, wildebeest, hartebeest and impala. It did not keep them happy, and they were looking for confrontation with the big five. In the afternoon on Bailie Loop we found a mother white rhino and calf.

From a distance I explained our policy and protocol again for viewing dangerous game on foot: they were to stay behind me, stay in single file and follow my hand instructions. Everyone was excited, because seeing a rhino on foot adds another dimension: their huge bulk and tends to make you feel small and respect nature. I also explained to them that in the open veld with no cover we would not approach the animals closer than one hundred meters. As we got close and stopped, I knelt down so the others could see over me. The rifle butt was in the dust and the barrel was cradled on the side of my neck. The next thing I saw out of the corner of my eye was a tall German walking out sideways and moving forward with his camera to get a better shot. The rhino sensed this and I hissed at him to get back in order. He did, with a long face. I lifted the rifle onto my thighs, so that I was facing the rhino, but I should have shot the German. I was so angry with his attitude.

Back at camp toward evening he tried to make amends and was over keen to assist with the meal.  He had his own ideas on how the food should be cooked, so I left him to it. Then he needed a break and went to the loo, armed with spade and toilet paper. On his return he spoke. “Why don’t we dig a trench over there” he said pointing down the valley to a clearing behind some scrub, “and then everyone can relieve themselves in the trench and will need to cover up only that section they have used.”

I went to pick up the rifle to clean it. “That’s not how we do it. This camp is used three or four times a month and the place would be filled with trenches like the First World War before we knew it. Animals will be attracted by all our waste protein and dig it up, anyway.” I raised the rifle to the dying light to check the barrel. Then I sighted a tree in the distance away from the group. I should have shot him, he was a real pain!

The dawn watch on trail: waiting for the sun.

On Trail: Spring in Pilanesberg

I took a trail into Pilanesberg on 24 September 1984. It must have been varsity holidays and I was three quarters of the way through second year medicine.  It was a joy to leave the dissecting halls and the ingrained smell of formalin for the bush. Fortunately I kept copies of the trail reports I submitted to the Wilderness Leadership School. The opening paragraph of the report makes nostalgic reading for me:

The pickup went off well, and we drove via Hartebeestpoort. We arrived at Pilanesberg at about 6 p.m.”  Friday afternoon pickups were always stressful as trailists had to rush from work to get their kit and make their way to the Parktown Offices or WITS University Planetarium, where they left their cars and piled into the old blue and white Volkswagen kombis that the school owned. These vehicles probably did more off road work than most modern 4×4’s do!

“A few kilometres from Manyane Gate, having seen kudu and wildebeest, we saw tow cheetah. The light was not so good so we couldn’t make out if they were at a kill or not. We saw about eight rhino on the way to Driefontien, as well as sable and eland, with a lone sable running parallel to the kombi for a few hundred meters – quite a show.”

We would have arrived at out campsite in the northern wilderness area of the park and unpacked all the equipment and luggage. It was always a crazy time, with the trailists like children at a fun fair: bouncing all over the place. I would drive the empty kombi away to park it out of sight and then slowly unzip the rifle bag from under the second row of seats and load the magazine with three cartridges, thumb sized .458 soft tip bullets to stop a rhino or elephant. I would lock up the kombi, leave the key on the top of the driver’s side front tyre and walk back to camp in the darkness with a torch lighting my way. That walk was my treat for the weekend. After that it was fun, but hard work.

We slept in the open under an ouhout tree at the foot of a koppie, with the northern side of the camp defended by a large rock that was often still warm at night after a sunny day. The fire was made on the eastern side between the rock and the tree, looking out over a beautiful valley of grassland and bush higher up. There was a shallow nek in the lay of the land on the southern side that was traversed by a well established rhino path. On some nights you would hear the rhino walking past, hearing what sounded like the nylon stockings on an old lady’s legs rubbing together. It was difficult to see the rhino in the dark, except if there was a moon. Then the veld took on a shimmering silver appearance and emanated a sense of peace beyond what we deserved.

My trailists at the end of the trail at Manyane gate.