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: Leave only Footprints, Take only Memories

Sweeping camp

This picture shows the Wilderness Leadership School camp on Driefontein in the Pilanesberg. The big rock is on the north of the camp. Whenever we left camp we would bury the ash away from the camp, cleared all equipment and then sweep the site with branches of Euclea. We always left the camp the way we wanted to find it, as if no one had been there for ages and it was another special find.

I was out on trail almost every six weeks or so and the camp remained a special find: it was like coming home. Some of the trails I ran, some I was second in charge or backup and some were training camps where a group of field guides went out to sharpen their skills and improve their knowledge. I worked in the smaller Northern Transvaal reserves of Nylsvlei and Doorndraai for a year before graduating to Pilanesberg with the big four. Lion were only introduced in about 1987. But we still needed experience with big game: buffalo, elephant and rhino. Pilanesberg had restocked with white rhino from Umfolozi and in the early eighties they were thriving: numbers were around two hundred and they were breeding well. Many cows had two generations of calves accompanying them.

We spent quite a few weekends in Pilanesberg assisting on work parties: we took down old farm fences, rolling bales of barbed wire down koppies leaving a swath of destruction in their wake. We also demolished a few of the old farmsteads, cleared the rubble onto parks board trailers drawn by comfortable drivers on new tractors. These work parties allowed us to get comfortable with the lay of the land and explore for trails. When the reserve finally opened all I needed was formal training to handle the .458 rifle and rhino.

So one weekend Arnie Warburton and Laurie Wright, the two senior guides and great men, took Allan and me into a valley where we found a lone rhino. Arnie and Laurie climbed a nearby koppie and made themselves comfortable. They were sitting downwind. Arnie had a mischievous smile as he lit his cigarette. “Right boys, stalk the rhino and see if you can touch its tail. Remember, while it’s hanging down loose there’s no worry. If you see it curl up get out of there!”

Come to think of it, I cannot remember if Arnie or Laurie even had the rifle with them at that stage. There is no way they would have shot a rhino chasing a trainee field guide doing such a stupid thing! It was nerve wracking manly stuff, and made for great story telling that evening around the fire. Both Laurie and Arnie were consummate story tellers. So many of the little events, like this one trying to pull the rhino’s tail, stick out because of Arnie.

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.

Conversations about Work and Corners

The Greeks use the word work to mean labour as well as to mean trying to pull a fast one. They say the only work left in Greece is the work where you pull a fast one on your neighbour.

Sitting in the lounge at Oliver Tambo Airport after an intercontinental flight is far removed from arriving in Athens and driving into the city. Some stores are flashy and new, like the Zara, while behind it lies a burnt out facade of a building destroyed in riots or set fire by the owners so that they can claim from insurance.

A night in Athens remains, a drive through the ghetto inhabited by Indians and Pakistanis and Chinese, drugs changing hands under furtive glances along dirty side walks with cars parked on and off, crammed and dirty as well. They hover outside windows of stores that hold a foreign nation’s goods, strange in Greece were it not for the fact that Greece had Gypsies before.

After the ghetto we drove out to Paxi, a small village on the Attiki coast between Athens and Corinth. It was filled with young people drinking coffee and cocktails. Some arrived on scooters, some on superbikes and quite a few in Porches. The psarotavernas, the fish tavernas, were empty except for one, where three tables including us enjoyed a meal like we would have had ten years ago for ten times the price. Some of the taverns had been turned into new Russian looking club cafes and were full of designer clad youth.

The next day I left Athens and wondered through Corinth up  to Nemea, through Mycenae, Tolo and Astros and ended up in the village where time seems to have stood still. The road past the house has quietened down, with much less traffic than before. The priest across the corner is never home during the day since his wife died, and in the night the lights are on as he struggles with the insomnia brought on by loneliness. The empty house on the corner remains empty, except for one year when one of the sons used to peep out from shutters even though we continued to park our car on his corner. The remaining corner has a ramshackle house with stables and chicken coups facing our house. She has been moved into a home because of dementia. Our part of the village is made of corners. No where else are there four houses neatly laid out on the corners of a crossroad. Three the same age, with the priest’s new house built in the eighties on the odd corner.

That is about the only sense of order there. All the villagers are working, but not all of it is labour.

Looking into Arcadia from Mycenae

Conversations about Syntagma Square

I was reading a book about a garden in Helekion outside Athens and the horticultural intern mentioned a day trip to Athens and Syntagma Square. That brought back a flood of memories, since it has been well over twenty years since that  I walked on that marble paving.

When we first used to visit Greece and stay in a hotel in the city, we would have an obligatory visit to Syntagma Square to confirm our return air tickets even though we had just arrived for a six week holiday. My father was very particular about confirming return flights. Much as he loved Greece, he did not seem to want to be stuck there. We always thought it would be cool to spend a few more weeks exploring the village or if we were lucky a few more days at the sea, snorkelling, paddling and eating at tavernas. It never happened.  My father was never bumped off a flight, although there were many horror stories about South African Greeks, or worse still, first time travellers from the villages who had never been on a plane and then were bumped off as Olympic Airways was  always overbooked. It helped that my Godfather was a pilot on the national airline. It also helped that my father nurtured the family’s relationship with the lady who worked at the Olympic Airways office tucked into a corner behind grey marble columns on Syntagma Square.

Syntagma means Constitution and the square was formed on the foundation after independence from the Ottomans and specifically after independence  of the Hapsburg advisors to the new king, whose palace on the northern aspect of Syntagma is now the Greek parliament. It is a large oblong square with its length leading toward the sea away from parliament. It is ringed by busy roads and a main road, Amalia, which tries to bisect it at the waist. Many times I imagined the frustrated buses and taxis driving straight through the square to avoid the snarling traffic that blocked the Athenian roads. As slow as the traffic seemed it was still difficult to cross the road from the inner square. Traffic lights were suggestions for drivers and Zebra crossings were distorted strips on the melting tarmac that mirrored the neo-classic columns of the parliament in sympathetic decoration but did nothing to slow the traffic for a mere pedestrian to cross. I soon learnt that it was all about attitude when crossing a road in Athens. Put your foot into the road without hesitation and walk confidently, head up, without so much as looking at the cars threatening to drive over you.

If you stood at the parliament and looked toward the sea, which was invisible for the buildings and smog, at the bottom of the slope lay a few open cafes, where we would be treated to iced lemonades and ice creams as children. Tucked in between the cafes was the American Express office, where we used to change travellers cheques.

When I started going alone as an adult I loved Syntagma. Occasionally I would walked up to the square and see the ominous gathering of the crowds threatening a demonstration and turn and go back. Other times I would sit and drink a frappe and enjoy some people watching. Once I dived into the Olympic Airways office and on a whim booked myself a flight to New York and Los Angeles. That my father knew the staff meant I got a good deal without any questions being asked.

Syntagma is worth a visit. I am going back this year, even if there is a protest.

A photograph of my father's from the sixties in Athens

Conversations about Donkeys

The narrow tar road from Mantinea to Kakouri

When fishes flew and forests walked
And figs grew upon thorn
Some moment when the moon was blood
Then surely I was born.
With monstrous head and sickening cry
And ears like errant wings,
The devil’s walking parody
On all four-footed things.
The tattered outlaw of the earth
Of ancient crooked will:
Starve, scourge, deride me–I am dumb–
I keep my secret still.
Fools! for I also had my hour,
One far, fierce hour and sweet
There was a shout about my ears
And palms before my feet.

A Poem by G.K. Chesterton

I remember this poem from school, when in the sprawling suburbia of Johannesburg I was one of the few children to have ridden a donkey. In those days, the seventies, donkeys outnumbered cars in Kakouri. The drive into the village in the late afternoon invariably paralleled a donkey’s trip back from the fields. Often, in the cool shadows of the avenue of plane trees one would pass a beast of burden carrying an old man and some thick woollen bags of fruit or vegetables, perhaps a bottle of wine. The old man would be tired; having toiled in the summer heat, using a hoe to channel water to the various trees and fields so that the plants could grow, his body ached. Most times the donkey rider would lift his hand in a slow wave, and if he recognised us would smile widely, eyes suddenly alight and alive.

The next morning, even before the sheep were led out of the village, a chorus of donkey braying would wake you, like a stuck water pump squawking into life. It took me a few days as a child, novice to these beasts, to realise that they did in fact make this noise and not “eeh haw” as in the nursery rhymes I learnt in suburbia.

As children we were all treated to a ride on a donkey. The most awkward thing was not the animal itself, soft silky ears and beautiful brown olive eyes gazing into the ancient distance. The most awkward thing was the ancient style wooden saddle. My idea of a saddle was a John Wayne leather beauty complete with lasso rope, not something that looked like an upside down disused rowing boat that belonged to a midget. The wooden frame made the saddle so wide that the extra girth almost dislocated your hips, which is why most people rode their beast’s side saddle, even the men.

Before the motorbikes arrived as cheap and easy transport to the fields for the farmers, we would sometimes ride the donkeys part of the way to the fields. On the way back the beasts would usually carry produce, and we would walk alongside or lead. I remember leading once eating fresh pistachios, popping them into my mouth from the branch, and feeding a few to my friend the donkey.

I can still see the old men riding the donkey back onto the village when we drove down that narrow tar road from Mantinea to Kakouri. What always intrigued me was the old lady that was leading the donkey, while the old man rode on top. Chauvinism is definitely alive in Greece. Or was the woman hoping to crucify her man later?