March 17, 2006

Following up on yesterday’s Arts and crafts theme…

I really like African masks. Here are four masks that I bought on the coast of South Africa (though the masks themselves are from Mali and Cameroon). Soyan doesn’t like these quite as much as the baskets, so they will have to adorn my office rather than the living room.

What I am suffering over is whether to buy (and ship) a pair of Bangwa carvings of an man and a woman that I have found. They are each 5 feet tall and quite magnificent, but I’ll need a big room to put them in on the other end.

If I don’t buy them I’m afraid I’ll regret it. If I do, I am afraid I’ll find them to be more hassle than I ultimately feel they were worth?

I’d welcome your feedback on how you pick souvenirs to buy and how you pick art to buy…

Average Rating: 4.9 out of 5 based on 224 user reviews.

March 16, 2006

Rueben Ndwandwe weaving a basket at his home.I am really taken with African crafts. Soyan and I both particularly like baskets. Throughout our travels in South America we bought almost no souvenirs, something that we did intentionally, but regretted slightly. Here in Africa we wanted to buy a few things for the house that we don’t have. We had looked in many of the small craft markets that dot tourist sites like the dimples on a golf ball, but we had not found any baskets that we really liked.

In Eshowe, a small town in the heart of Zululand, we went to see the Vukani Collection Museum, home to the world’s best collection of Zulu crafts and baskets, hoping to learn a little more and see if we could find some baskets.

Frommer’s South Africa writes:
“While Westerners head for cultural villages, many urban Zulu parents bring their children [to the Vukani Collection Museum] to gain insights into the rituals, codes, and crafts of the past.”

We learned a lot about the purpose of baskets. A large number of baskets were made specifically to hold beer, which was traditionally the woman’s job to brew and serve. Traditionally the baskets were beautifully woven, but without color or pattern. In 1972 the Swedish missionary, Rev. Kjell Lofroth, under the auspices of the Evangelical Lutheran Church, founded the Vukani Association, a cooperative to train and provide income to the Zulu people. He took Zulu baskets to Europe to sell. While he was successful in his initial sales effort he was consistently asked if he could provide Zulu baskets with color and pattern. He returned to Africa and began a major renaissance in Zulu baskets.


Soyan examines the baskets
The museum has many beautiful baskets, but one modern weaver’s work stood out. Reuben Ndwandwe. The baskets had intricate designs and a unique style of overlaying a second level to increase the complexity of the designs. Soyan and I were both immediately taken with his work. Unfortunately the museum didn’t have any for sale. Most of what they can get their hands on they keep, and everything else sells out almost right away.

We explained that we were heading to Durban, and asked if there any place there that we might find some of his work. The curator thought it was possible but suggested that we call him directly.

Call him?

I have never been to a museum where I could admire the artist’s work and when I inquired about it, I could call him.

Yeah sure, let’s call him!

Two minutes later Reuben verified that there was no place to find his work in Duran, but he did have a few baskets at home, if we wanted to come and see them.

Home was three hours in to the hills of Zululand, but what the hell, when will I next be in Zululand? We agreed to meet him by the side of the road in a small town near his home. We’d be the white people driving the Camry.

We stopped at an ATM before leaving any semblance of civilization to get some money in case we found any thing we liked, and I kept repeating “This is so cool!”. When I go to the Museum of Modern Art in New York, I see things I like there too, but I never get invited to the artists house to check out his latest work.

As I suspected we had no trouble finding Reuben on the side of the road, and a few minutes later we were in the little compound that was home to him and 3 of his 4 wives. (He kicked out the one that tried to poison him, but that is another story).

Our Reuben Ndwandwe baskets
He was warm and gracious and asked us to wait while he got the baskets. He returned with large tacky plastic bags and unceremoniously dumped his latest baskets out on to a straw mat. I particularly enjoyed this, because just three hours before I had been prohibited from using a flash, much less touching these sacred museum objects. Now here was the Artist treating them like so many potatoes.

After some haggling we bought four of the five larger baskets that he had. I took a few photos and we headed back out to start our long drive to Durban.

I can think of little else that I have enjoyed purchasing as much as these, too bad I shipped them to the States and I won’t see them again for a year.

Average Rating: 4.9 out of 5 based on 239 user reviews.

March 15, 2006

Jimmy Carter's Urinal
I have never slept in a bed where Washington or Lincoln slept, but I have now apparently taken a leak in the same spot as Nobel Peace Prize winner and US President, Jimmy Carter!

This sign in the men’s room by the “Gone Rural” women’s craft coop in Swaziland reads:
Jimmy Carter
President of the United
States of America
Stood Here”

I can’t believe they really put that sign there and I am sure that Carter doesn’t know.

Jimmy if you are reading this blog sorry for spoiling your day.

Average Rating: 4.6 out of 5 based on 181 user reviews.

March 13, 2006

Sunrise from Olifants wilderness campWe had spent days driving through the Serengeti spotting game, and we had a fantastic up close experience with animals at Tshukudu private game reserve (writeup coming soon, but photos are here!). We even considered skipping Kruger, but since it is home to 507 birds, 336 trees, 147 mammals, 114 reptiles, 49 fish and 34 amphibians, we didn’t feel we could do that in good conscience.

We wanted a different kind of experience in Kruger National Park - we couldn’t stand the idea of driving around for 3 more days, and we wanted to walk. We booked a 3 night, 2 day wilderness hike in the park. These hikes are enormously popular and in prime season book up many months in advance. Of course we were at the depths of low season and managed to book with just a few days notice. We were very excited because these hikes are your only opportunity to walk within Kruger. We selected the Olifants wilderness trail based on the brief description in our Lonely Planet and felt lucky we had been able to get a hike booked at all.

We left the Olifants wilderness camp at 5:30 AM and by the time we were on the trail by 6:00 AM, it was already 81 degrees (27 C) and incredibly humid. We wandered single file through the lush grasslands surrounded by birds and enjoyed the fact that it was still “cool”. Every half hour the couple from the front headed to the back to rotate our positions in line. This way everybody had a chance to be in front with the best views.

A hippo in tall grass.We crept along the river stalking a hippo and got a brief glimpse before he hid in the tall grasses of the shallow river banks. It is hard to believe that an animal that weighs more than most cars (Yes for real! Male hippos weigh up to 7000 pounds) feels he has to hide from a bunch of us puny humans, but hippos only feel safe in the water.

We walked back above the river and followed its banks for another 40 minutes until the river narrowed and its banks steepened. Instead of tall grass there was the thick vegetation behind which we heard lots of hippos snorting to alert each other to our presence. We peeked through the vegetation and found more than 20 hippos keeping cool in the river. We stopped to marvel at how enormous they are.

Hippos in the riverWe crossed the river, giving the hippos a wide berth, and continued our wander. The guide pointed out fresh rhino tracks, prominent in the mud because of the recent rains, and we began to follow them. Rhinos are often solitary creatures that roam large distances, and so our guide showed us how they flatten large bushes and leave their scent to signal their presence to other rhinos.

After 2 hours of following the tracks it was 9:30 AM and time to think about breakfast. We stopped to watch more than two dozen raptors in a tree about one and a half kilometer across the grass.

Robert,  our guide.Robert, our guide, could not identify the raptors from this distance, but suggested we investigate after breakfast. We emptied our packs and had a breakfast of cheese, sausage, crackers, dried fruit and juice. We drank lots of water and listened as our guide explained that we had probably stumbled on to a kill. In all likelihood a lion was still there. The raptors were likely vultures watching the kill from a distance lest a lion convert them from looking for a snack to being one.

We were lucky that we were walking straight into the wind so our scent would not give us away from a distance. Our guide implored us to approach quietly so we could see the lion before he heard us. He warned us to have our cameras ready, as we weren’t likely to get a long look.

We walked quickly, but quietly (at least as quietly as 10 humans can) toward the raptors. As the distance closed their identity as vultures was confirmed. I was fortunate that our rotation had left me at the front of the queue. Only two men with high powered rifles would separate me and the beast. I had my camera ready as we caught the first whiff of a rotting animal. Something was definitely dead nearby. We were now close enough to see all the birds clearly and I keep expecting movement ahead of us. The sudden movement of a fast animal that bolts when he is in danger, but there was none.

A dead rhino killed in Kruger by a poacher from MozambiqueThe whiff had become a stench, and then finally we saw what the vultures saw: a dead rhino. But, this was a rhino that died at the hands of man. Robert and Michael, our tracker, sprung in to action like the professionals they were.

“Please stay close and don’t wander. We don’t want to contaminate the evidence, ” Robert instructed us as the Michael the tracker circled and called back to the guide in Shangaan.

“The poachers were professionals. They knew just how to cut the horn out with a simple knife, not like the amateurs that that needlessly hack it with an axe.”

“See the cut in the Rhino’s side. That is to make it easier for the animals to get to the rhino and to speed the process of decay, so we won’t know when they killed it.”

“Here is the track, it was only one man.”

“The poacher was experienced. He downed the rhino with a single shot. ”

“Over here he had to shoot another, but this time it wasn’t for the horn, it was in defense. There are two cartridges here, but only one is spent. His gun jammed and he had to eject the cartridge that didn’t fire. He had to act fast, the second rhino was practically on top of him by the time he shot him.”

Our guide scans the hills for the military beacons that allow him to describe our exact location without a GPS so he can inform the investigation team.

Poached hippo,  with his side cut to make him rot more quickly.Robert explained that every year Kruger lost a small number of Rhinos to poachers. They were generally Mozambicans that came across the northern border of the park on foot. Given that Kruger is about 2 million hectares (almost 8000 square miles) the chance of catching someone in the act is basically nil.

After they find a carcass they follow the tracks back to the village in Mozambique and try to buy information. In poor towns it is hard to keep a secret. When that doesn’t work Kruger runs stings posing as buyers of Rhino horn to track down the poachers. While the man who does the poaching is not likely to get rich, the middle men and those that smuggle the horns to Asia and the Middle East stand to earn money that rivals drug smugglers.

As we started talking about how much Rhino horn sold for, I learned that the horns sell for astounding amounts (on par with Gold or Cocaine) for use in both Chinese traditional medicine and to be made in to ceremonial daggers in the Middle East. A single horn can sell for up to six times the price of a Rhino itself (horn included). This is absurd! Even more shockingly, there is no need for a Rhino to die to harvest the horn. Rhinos grow their horns like hair. You can cut off a rhino’s horn without any harm to the animal and he’ll regrow it.

It seems to me that making the trade in rhino horns illegal is as stupid and as it is short sighted. It increases the risk of poaching by driving up the price to the point that poaching is worthwhile and simultaneously removes an incentive to farm Rhinos and insuring growing communities. It seems that the only reason the trade is illegal is because it is so difficult to catch the poachers doing the poaching.

If there was an open market for Rhino horns the price would fall and poaching would be less worthwhile. Buyers would buy from farms that could insure a product without harm to the animals. The argument that Kruger puts forth is that legal trade would just stimulate demand to offset supply increases, but so what… if true, that would ensure a robust market and lots of Rhino ranching.

But what would you do in the interim, if trade were legal, but nobody had yet raised mature Rhinos?

Kruger park itself actually has an enormous stockpile of Rhino horn that could glut the market, and they are certainly not the only ones. Throughout Africa many governments have large supplies of the horns. This would offer a huge one time bounty to the parks and conservation organizations and help prepare the market for new production.

Why not insure the Rhino’s future by making trade legal instead of the other way around?

See more photos from our trip to Kruger National Park.

If you are interested in taking a wilderness hike in Kruger more information can be found at the South African Parks web site.

Here is what the park says about the Olifants wilderness camp where we stayed:

The trail camp for the Olifants Trail is situated on the southern bank of the Olifants River, west of the Olifants/Letaba confluence. It offers a magnificent view of a beautiful stretch of this perennial river, which ultimately flows through Mozambique and into the sea. The landscape varies from riverine bush and gorges to the foothills of the Lebombos. It supports a variety of wildlife, including large predators, elephant and buffalo. The Olifants River is home to crocodile, hippo and many bird species.

Average Rating: 4.6 out of 5 based on 217 user reviews.

February 26, 2006

Surfing BaptismThis morning we headed to Victoria market in search of Indian hawkers and Indian food. We found the market virtually empty on a Sunday morning, and once again, failed to eat Indian food.

We did however enjoy a walk along the beach after lunch. Along the way we stopped to watch surfers from the concrete walk way. As we were watching them, I noticed a group of middle aged black woman and and children watching the surfers from the waters edge. On closer inspection, one woman was carrying a drum. A man and a woman from the group seemed to be wading out chest deep in the water, and he was dunking her.

Soyan realized that they weren’t watching the surfers at all. They were conducting a baptism.

With god as my witness, and in case he is busy a bunch of surfers, you are now born again.

Average Rating: 4.5 out of 5 based on 176 user reviews.

Indian Food I was delighted to learn that Durban has the largest Indian community outside of India. While this is an interesting fact to share with unsuspecting family and friends, I was excited because I love Indian food. We had excellent Indian food in Tanzania, but that was more than a month ago and we were ready for some more.

We picked up recent Frommer’s Guide to Southern Africa from a book exchange in Zambia, and decided to try the 2 “must visit” Indian restaurants in Durban. When I called to make a reservation at Gulpur, I go an error about the number being invalid, but I attributed this to my lack of prowess at navigating the South African phone system.

When we arrived at the specified address last night, we found a new restaurant in place of the one we were looking for. I guess I should have been more confident my ability to use a phone. Instead, we settled for dinner on the patio of Tribeca restaurant, surround by several tables of trendy young Indians drinking martinis and eating pizzas and burgers.

Tonight we once again set out to try the other mustn’t miss Indian restaurant: Jaipur Palace, and found we were a week too late for its closing party. I guess Indian food isn’t as popular with Indians as it is with us.

Determined, we went to Little India a restaurant passed on our trip to the Musgrave Center. The Mutton Vindaloo was excellent, the Aloo Mutter and the Chicken Sagwala were pretty good, but we were delighted none the less.

Little India is located at: 155 Musgrave Road, Durban. (031) 201-1121

Indian food photo by Miss Domestic used under Creative Commons license.

Average Rating: 4.5 out of 5 based on 226 user reviews.

February 25, 2006

Mugg and Bean Oriental Chicken Burger Mugg and bean is a South African chain that purports to serve American food. I found this item on their menu and I really don’t know what to say! This is one confused food item!

An oriental chicken burger that has guacamole on it and is served on a bagel?!

Yes it has teriyaki sauce, but does that really justify calling it “oriental”? Why not call it “mexican”, I mean it has guacamole. Or deli style, it is served on a bagel.

Average Rating: 4.7 out of 5 based on 227 user reviews.

February 17, 2006

Map to Jungle JunctionI met Gremlin at breakfast in the backpacker hostel we were staying at in Livingstone. He explained that he ran Jungle Junction, a jungle camp on an island in the middle of the Zambezi river. We chatted about how he ended up in Zambia and how long he had been running the place. Eventually I asked him to pitch me on why I might want to go.

“Why the hell would you want to stay in the hot, noisy city with people hassling you to buy crap all day when you could be in the jungle?”, he practically yelled at me.

I pointed out that there were some lovely falls near by. He snorted, “Fifteen minutes, how pretty, now what?”
Without accepting his summary of the magnificent Victoria Falls, the chance to escape the heat and hassle of the city did seem appealing. Gremlin eventually offered a few more details about how I might spend my time on the island. I could visit a local village where there were few tourists and nobody would ask me for money. (This is more unusual in Zambia than you might imagine.) I could hike, learn African drumming, take a sunset cruise or simply read from “the best English language library in Zambia.”


A view of the Zambezi from our room
We decided to head to the booking office and see we what could learn. We met a friendly older American couple that had run schools in Switzerland for twenty years. After selling the schools, they had come to Zambia to visit their son, a doctor working in Zambia, and decided to stay and open a school for expat children.

They had just returned from three days at Jungle Junction and they had loved it. They seemed quite respectable and discerning. This provided the necessary reassurance to venture to a place in the jungle whose flier featured a crocodile lying in a hammock smoking a joint.

We signed up to head there the next day. They were to pick us up at our hostel at 2 pm. When nobody had arrived by 3pm I wandered to the office to see what was up. I found Gremlin covered from head to toe in mud. He explained that the truck had gotten stuck on the way out because of all the recent rain. They’d be by to get us in just a minute, but he was headed home to Scotland for a visit, so I’d meet his partner, Brett.

Dugout canoesBrett picked us up in a Land Cruiser pickup truck that had another couple sitting in the back with the luggage, so Soyan and I shared the tiny cab with Brett. We made one more stop to pick up food and supplies for the camp as well as Lulu the manager. All this was piled in the back with the luggage and the other guests as we hit the road.

We left the tar road after 20 minutes for the 10 kilometers of dirt track that would get us to the Zambezi. It was a muddy and bumpy ride, but Brett drove like a champ. After just twenty more minutes we arrived at the shore and climbed in to a pair of dug out canoes. A pair of paddlers took us a short way downstream to camp.

Camp was a primitive paradise! There were central bathrooms and showers up to western standards but open to the air in pole and reed huts. Our huge airy room had an ample porch with a fantastic view of the Zambezi. A pair of oil lanterns provided light at night and under our mosquito net and duvet we felt and safe and snug as at any Four Seasons.

Soyan readingThe only electricity came from solar power and it was dedicated to the stereo in the bar. Our excellent meals were all prepared over wood fires and lit by candles. The library did not rival any of the 11 University of Chicago libraries, but was indeed the best we had seen in Zambia. I enjoyed Bill Bryson’s thin African Diary and we borrowed the Southern Africa Lonely Planet to do some planning.

Lizazi Village,  a sister makes breakfast for her brother.The next morning we went on a village walk and got a feel for the local village. It is a subsistence community of farming and fishing. We met the village head man and a few locals. We met a young girl cooking impossibly small fish for breakfast for her and her brother. We saw the crops, the church and the homes of both of our guide’s wives. It was a fascinating peek in to local life.

Brett and Evelyn in funny hats.Most of the remainder of our time at Jungle Junction it was raining, but we could not have cared less. We loved the jungle scenery, the cool (if somewhat humid) weather for sleeping, and the chance to read and relax. Our evenings were spent hanging out in the bar chatting with the handful of other guests, that quickly became like family as we all shared a small island. Brett told me about the struggle of running the business and Evelyn, his botanist girlfriend kissed me when I shared our red wine. We all wore funny hats from the large collection behind the bar and felt like we were in a special place.

A dugout canoe on the ZambeziWhen it was time to leave, we loaded all our gear back in to shallow dug out canoes and crossed back to the main land with only a little fear that if the crocs came after us we’d probably get away with the loss of only one limb, but that the luggage would be lost forever. We piled back in to the Land Cruiser, and this time we decided to take the back, sharing it with Evelyn and leaving the other couple in the cab. The extra room and air more than made up for the lack of a seat, and the sun was finally shining after the almost unending rain.

Almost as soon as we left camp I realized that all that rain meant mud, and not a little bit either. This was the most rain Livingstone had gotten in at least a decade. We were about to see just what a four wheel drive vehicle was capable of… and what would stop it in its tracks.

View of the mudNot even 300 meters from camp we came to a long muddy stretch and eased up to the edge. Our driver paused and performed a careful study like a kayaker picking his line. He then backed up and prepared to enter the mud with the benefit of substantial speed. As soon as we hit the mud I realized that the comparison to a kayaker would prove to be a more apt than I had imagined. With the engine gunning we took the bumps and dips just like we were running rapids and with a remarkably similar amount of splashing. Our driver was once again masterful in his ability to keep the Land Cruiser moving, but eventually the mud sucked us down like a mammoth in a tar pit.

After a few minutes of gunning the engine and trying to rock ourselves free, the driver walked back to camp to summon a Grant, a guest who had arrived in his own four wheel drive vehicle, hoping he could pull us out of the muck. We waited patiently in the back of the truck, but of course we were not alone.

Our audienceOne funny thing about Africa is that, despite having a much lower population density than the the US, you are never alone when your car gets stuck. It doesn’t matter if you have been driving through the bush for two hours without having seen a soul. If your car breaks down or gets stuck in the mud, a village emissary, generally an 11 year old boy with no shoes, will appear almost instantly. This happens so quickly you are force to wonder if he has been following you the whole drive, knowing this would happen. Like an army sentinel, his job is to summon as many other people (almost always more little boys) that will form the audience for the show you are about to put on. Without television, a car stuck in the mud gets excellent ratings.

Grant with his truck and a boy dragging a branch
Of course the upside to an audience in Africa is that when things get complicated, there is usually some audience participation. Grant arrived and tied his truck to ours. Several of the nearby children helped to haul branches to stick behind the wheels to provide traction. We watched all this comfortably from the back of the truck and never even needed to get out. After a few minutes we were back where we started ready to take another run at the river, err road. This time we made it!

We were on the road again only 40 minutes behind schedule, but now the sun that had been such a blessing was getting warm so I wasn’t so excited when we got stuck again 2 kilometers later. This time we’d be on our own because Grant could not risk driving through the mud to help lest he get stuck too. After a 15 minutes of vain stuffing grass near the wheels and gunning the engine nothing the car no longer moved at all. The car was in exactly the same position if the pedal was to the floor or if the car was off. Now this is stuck!

Land Cruiser on a jack in the mudThis was my first lesson in what it really takes to drive in the mud in Africa. What it takes is a willingness to get muddy, a big block of wood, an enormous jack, and the nerve to stuff branches under one tire at a time while the car is jacked up two feet in the air on top of mud. This time we would definitely be getting out of the truck. After about an hour we were finally free and hoping once again to avoid the mud. Thankfully we manged to make it through the remaining mud without getting stuck again. We all breathed a sigh of relief when we got back to the tar road.

It took almost three hours to go 10 kilometers, but I was so relaxed after my time at Jungle Junction, I hardly cared. After all, 3 hours is not a long delay in Africa.

Average Rating: 4.4 out of 5 based on 159 user reviews.

Jonathan jumping off a cliff.As I continue catching up on my backlog of adventures I return you to Zambia…

We had a great time in Livingstone, Zambia. It is the adventure capital of Zambia and possibly Africa as a whole. There is everything from micro lights to Bungee jumping. We had a blast white water rafting on the Zambezi (a category five river) and then spending a few days chilling out at Jungle Junction (an island in the Zambezi 30 miles from Livingstone) and finally doing the “Gorge Swing”.

The Gorge Swing is an alternative to the famous bungee jump from the bridge across the gorge that divides Zambia from Zimbabwe. Calling it the gorge swing is about as accurate as referring to a bungee bounce. While you bounce when you bungee and you do swing on the gorge swing, neither is really the point. What you really do is free fall for 4 seconds off the edge of a cliff and then “swing” to stop you from hitting the river bed below. It is quite a thrill.

For the same price as the Bungee we booked a full day of rapelling, zip lines and “swinging”. It was a lot of fun and great exercise too, because what they don’t tell you in the ads is that after you get down, it is a 15 minute walk and 90 meter climb back up. The video was too good to pass up so we ponied up for the DVD as well, but as part of the deal I made the guy pull out some clips for the web site. The clip below shows me and then Soyan and me jumping together.

Watch my mouth as I fall and you can clearly see me say: “How fun!”

If you can’t see the video try downloading it here:
Gorge Swing Video (requires Quicktime. Or check out the photos below.)

Here are photos from the day: The Zambezi Gorge Swing

Average Rating: 4.7 out of 5 based on 155 user reviews.

February 16, 2006

Birders (that’s bird watchers for those of you not hip to the birding scene) are normally passionate and obsessive people. While I enjoy snapping a few shots of birds, I don’t share their obsession. Nonetheless, I usually like people who are a little bit obsessive. If someone doesn’t care deeply about anything, he isn’t usually very interesting.

I found the passion I read about in The Big Year, a recently published book about competitive birding, to be charming and I understood it perfectly.

So when I met the pair of British birding lawyers on my recent wilderness trail trip in Kruger National Park I expected to like them and maybe learn a little something about the local birds. I was surprised that I needed only spend an hour with them before I learned to identify the sound of the constant chattering of a pair of Snotty Nosed English Nit Pickers. Once I had heard it, I wasn’t able to escape it for the entire trip.

Average Rating: 5 out of 5 based on 206 user reviews.

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