Out of Africa

The van crawled to a stop next to a huge aloe cactus and the motor shuddered to a halt. Even before the red dust had a chance to settle, we immediately started chatting excitedly. Most of us had traveled half way round the world and this marked the end of our journeys. We had finally arrived at what was to be our new home for the next 4 weeks – Thanda Private Game Reserve, South Africa.

Situated 3 hours drive inland from Durban in KwaZulu-Natal, Thanda covers a total of 15,000 hectares of African savanna. At the heart of the reserve is ‘Intibane’, an old hunting lodge that sits nestled in amongst thorn trees and has stellar views across the surrounding hills and a nearby watering hole. This is also where we’re based for the duration of our stay, along with other groups of researchers, scientists and volunteers. The lodge consists of a cluster of small thatched cabins that surround a large communal dining building that overlooks a swimming pool, open fire pit and BBQ area. A fence was recently erected around Intibane to keep the animals out, but nature has a way of getting around these obstacles and it’s quite common to see warthogs drinking from the pool, impala’s (antelope) grazing in the grounds and the sound of hyena’s calling in the night (they even had a lion wandering around the cabins the week before we arrived!). As you can imagine, there’s never a dull moment.

Most of us are here for the ‘Big 5’ (lion, elephant, leopard, rhino and buffalo), which roam freely within the reserve. But in fact Thanda is home to dozens of species such as hyenas, wild dogs, cheetahs, giraffes, antelope and zebras to name a few. It’s truly an animal and nature lover’s paradise. For us photographers, it is a dream come true. Our task is to go on game drives to photograph flora and fauna that will be used by researchers and the Thanda foundation, we’ll also carry out conservation work within the reserve and visit local schools to educate the children about the animals and their environment. But firstly, we’re busy doing a 4-day digital SLR course run by nature and wildlife photographer Emil von Maltitz. This should improve our skills tenfold (as wildlife photography can be quite challenging) and ensure we leave with a portfolio of amazing images.

Since arriving at Thanda a few days ago, we’ve been on 4 game drives – 3 at sunrise and one at sunset. Our first game drive in Thanda was an experience to remember. We left Intibane around 6.30am in the chilly dawn and drove deep into the reserve. Our guide found fresh lion tracks pressed into the earth and we followed them to a dried up watering hole. There lying in the morning sun was a female lioness and two adolescent lion males, their manes short and spiky with youth. These were the South Pride and quite a find for our first outing! Like a herd of wild paparazzi, cameras began immediately snapping in a frenzy to catch these magnificent animals. One of the young lion males got up and stretched his legs, parading in front of us, his muscles rippling beneath sand coloured fur. He looked over at us with mild curiosity, and it was hard not to stop and pinch myself in disbelief that these animals are in fact super predators and we were only sitting meters away from them in the back of an open top safari jeep.

And so the days have passed by like scenes from The Lion King. We shot photos of zebras before they galloped away leaving a cloud of dust in their wake. Then there was the tower of giraffes, their heads moving about the tops of the thorn trees, visible from miles away. Driving further along we had to stop short on the road to let a crash of rhinos pass (yes, they’re called a ‘crash’ of rhinos – quite fitting when you think about it!). And who could forget the two cheetahs that had just eaten an antelope. We followed these large spotted cats for over an hour, each of us in awe at their effortless grace. There’s still many more animal sightings to come – including a new herd of elephants that have just been released into Thanda’s newest area, the Kings Land. Plenty of action that will keep the next month packed full of adventure. Funnily enough, it doesn’t matter how many times you see these animals, you never get tired of it.

When I walk back to my cabin at the end of each evening, I shine my torch into the darkness, half expecting to see a pair of eyes blinking back at me. Strangely enough, sometimes they do and I tell myself it’s just an impala (harmless) grazing under the Milky Way. Mostly it is, but sometimes I drift off to sleep to the sound of strange noises wailing in the night and it gets me wondering what else might be wandering out there…and I dream of Africa.

The final two photos in this post were taken by Tessa Weiner.

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A world apart

Sitting here on a plane destined for South Africa, it’s hard to believe that in less than 24 hours time, I will be bumping along a dusty road towards the Thanda Private Game Reserve, over 3 hours drive from Duban in the heart of Zululand. There I will embark on a 4 week volunteer program focused on African wildlife photography, research and conservation. On top of that, I’ll have the opportunity of interacting with the children from the local schools and will help teach them about the flora and fauna of their environment. Am I dreaming?

It seems like only yesterday the GLG and I were packing our bags for South America, eager to hike in the Andes, climb a volcano, marvel at salt lakes and taste steak grilled to perfection. It seems like only yesterday that I bid a teary farewell to my traveling companion and headed for Spain where I enjoyed seafood paella, visited Gaudi’s cathederal, indulged in gelato and swam in the Med. And it was only yesterday that I was wandering Covent Garden, navigating the London tube and sipping English breakfast tea. I have neither a grasp on time or place now.  I am somewhere over northern Africa and heading south once more.

I am not entirely sure when I’ll have a chance to upload this post, but I hope it’s soon. I believe we only have internet access once a week when we go to the nearby town of St Lucia, so it mightn’t be as often. Not to worry, I will be writing my blog entries on my laptop at the camp, so hope to keep you all up to date with tales of my (mis)adventures and photos of the wildlife (lions, rhino, giraffes etc). Can’t wait…!

In the meantime, here are some miscellaneous pics I’ve taken from around the world that I thought you might enjoy…xx

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The many faces of Buenos Aires

They say that Buenos Aires is the Paris of South America. If you raise your eyes and look up at the grandeur of the buildings above you, with their intricate stonework, wrought iron balconies and French doors, you could be forgiven for thinking you were in Montmatre. Even when you cast your eyes over the café tables sprawled on the pavement, the bow-tied waiters, trendy boutiques, bronze statues and narrow cobbled streets, you feel that BA has a certain Parisian flavour about it. There’s even the familiar danger of stepping in dog merde to keep you on your toes!

However, look a little closer and you’ll also see some striking contrasts between the two cities. For instance, you might notice that the buildings look a little more tired in BA, their façade’s grimy with city smog and their shutters closed. Some of the buildings look derelict, home to pigeons now. It’s like they’ve passed their time and lost their shine. Then there are the hardened faces of the working class, still feeling the effects of the country’s slide into bankruptcy only a few years ago. It’s clear that life for some people in Buenos Aires isn’t easy, but there’s a spirit inside that keeps the fire alive. And the best place the feel the pulse of this determination is in Boca.

Boca is an interesting place, run over with tourism now, but steeped in history nonetheless. The area originated as a portside community and quickly grew into a bustling town full of tanneries, factories and industry. Home to a largely Italian immigrant community, the area has supposedly some of the best home made pasta in the city, which you can enjoy watching a free tango show (just mind the doormen who will try anything to get you sit at one of their tables!). The buildings also make for a striking spectacle. Walk around and you’ll see a whole spectrum of colours – from bright blues, to fire-engine red, yellows and greens. Apparently the people of Boca were so poor they used left over shipping paints to paint their houses. The colours inspired generations of artists, musicians, writers and bohemians to settle in the community. Nowadays, the only colours the locals are interested in are blue and yellow – the colours of their beloved football club, Boca Juniors. The story goes that the youth who started the club in the early 1900s didn’t know what colours to make their t-shirts, so decided that the colour of the next ship to sail into the harbour would determine it. It was a Swedish ship and the rest they say is history!

But it’s not all about football and that famous dance. The young people of Buenos Aires have also perfected the art of eating and drinking like no one else. It’s not unusual for them to be out partying till 4am in the morning on a Tuesday night, then in at work for a 9 o’clock meeting the next morning. These people just don’t sleep. The GLG and I fell into step with the locals and followed suite, dining late into the evening and enjoying a red wine or more into the early hours. The only difference was that we could sleep in! However we also took advantage of visiting their annual Art festival – ArtBA, the biggest of its kind in South America. Here artists from all over Latin America (including some international names) come to exhibit a collection of their works for sale. Private collectors, hoteliers and corporate business alike come to buy works and there’s a vast array of media and styles to suite all tastes and budgets. Check out some highlights below.

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Heaven on Earth

When we’d originally been planning our trip through South America, I had been dubious about visiting Iguazú Falls. I mean a waterfall is a waterfall, right? I couldn’t have been more wrong. Roughly translated ‘Iguazú’ means ‘Big Water’, and with an average water flow of 1,746 m3 per second, it certainly has to be seen to be believed.

For those who don’t know, Iguazú Falls lies at the border of Argentina and Brazil. The main waterfall can be viewed from the National parks on both sides (each park is a UNESCO World Heritage Site), however two thirds of the falls are located on the Argentinean side. We decided to spend 2 full days exploring the Argentinean Iguazú National park as we’d heard that there were numerous jungle walks in addition the main waterfall attractions.

We began our first day with a trip to Devil’s Throat. Like the name suggests, this is where we were to see the true force of Mother Nature at work and the point at which half of the river’s water thunders down a U-shaped cliff 82m high, 150m wide and 700m long. To put it bluntly, we were going straight for the jugular. Funnily enough, the walk along the bridge to the look out was quite deceiving of the impending drama we were to face, neither giving away the roar of the falls nor the sheer power of the water rushing over the edge. Therefore, it is quite a gob-smacking shock when you finally do peer over the edge (albeit it a little unsteadily) and look down at the crash and tumble of the washing machine below.

However, for us the most beautiful spectacle was wandering the forest bridges to the side of the Devil’s Throat, where numerous subsidiary waterfalls fall over iridescent lush green moss and ferns. These falls and the surrounding greenery look like they’re straight out of the Garden of Eden. Amazonian rainforest grows wild and thick in these parts and the mist in the air creates the perfect environment for all sorts of rare orchid species not found anywhere else on the world. If it wasn’t for the hordes of tourists, you’d almost be tempted to strip off bare and become one with nature…almost.

Another very worthwhile activity in the park is strolling along one of the many walking tracks in the rainforest. Most take a couple of hours, so it’s worth bringing a packed lunch. We were treated to a vast array of Amazonian wildlife, from monkeys swinging from branches, to huge blue butterflies the size of your open hand and even a large black hairy tarantula sitting still in the middle of the track!  If you stop and stand still for a few quiet moments, the forest truly comes alive.

For us, we were on the search for a Tucan. There’s something about these cartoon birds that makes them look like they’ve come straight from a children’s colouring book. But they were nowhere to be found…until we were on the way out the park gates and we heard the most unusual sound – a cross between a crocking frog and a cricket. The GLG (who had been channeling Bear Gryills the entire time and carving tiny bamboo spears with his new Swiss Army knife) ran ahead to see what the commotion was about. He came back like an excited kid in a sweet shop – we were going to see one after all! In fact, we didn’t just see one; we stumbled on an entire tree full of gurgling red and yellow Tucans. What a magnificent sight! We had to wipe the smiles off our faces and pinch ourselves to see if we were dreaming. If I can, you can, we Tucan.

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Love me tender

If Salta was beside the sea, then it might just be one of the most livable South American cities we’ve been to. I am of course bias, having lived near the ocean my entire life. Nevertheless, it has plenty of other redeeming features – a spectacular and dramatic desert on its doorstep (complete with deep red canyons and huge cactus trees), orange tree lined piazzas (laden with ripe fruit), an array of bakeries selling sugary donuts and a pedestrian friendly city centre. There’s also a high percentage of men sporting variations of the Maradona mullet, giving the city an 80s edge that makes you want to pull your jeans up higher and walk with a stagger.

On top of all this, Salta presented us with our first Argentinean pirilla (steak and grill restaurant) experience. And what better place to pop our cherries than the traditional local grill house ‘La Monumental’. Unaccustomed to the portions (and cuts of meat), the GLG and I ordered the mixed grill, a side salad and a plate of papas fritas (potato chips) for a hearty lunch. This was met with a raised eyebrow and a few quiet words from our bow-tied waiter – did we gringos know what we were ordering? You see the portions in Argentina are none other than gigantic. You could feed a small army with a mixed grill (and I’m sure they do). A Tenderloin can look like a small aircraft carrier. Plus, there’s enough baskets of bread to sink a ship and tasty condiments to boot – which are all part of the service. Yes, we could do some serious damage in this country. Juicy and tender, it was all it was cracked up to be and more. I saw something shift in Tim’s eyes then and knew that he was a changed man (little did I know that this would become a daily ritual that would later result in a meat overload a week later).

Another must-go pirilla is the family owned ‘Casa Molino’. We arrived around 8pm to discover that the restaurant didn’t even open till 9pm. Fortunately, they let us in for a bottle of wine while they set up for the evening and started the grill. Soon people were flooding into this restaurant, filling its massive garden courtyard and 4 surrounding rooms. Jam-packed with locals (not a gringo in sight), we were all treated to various bands that came and went during the night. Even the waiters joined in, grabbing an instrument in between waiting tables. It was around 1am when we finally left and the owner looked at us astonished and exclaimed – ‘Are you leaving already?’. Yes, I said. Alas, we had a flight to catch early the next morning. He shook his head, ‘but the real party begins when we stop serving food and start dancing on the tables!’ I asked what time they closed up and he laughed, ‘we have to kick people out at 5am.’ I was astonished – it was a school night. It was suddenly clear that we were going to have to change our schedules in this country or get left behind. Let the party begin!

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Starry skies and volcanoes

It was love at first sight. Even as we disembarked from the bus, stretched our weary legs and wandered the dusty streets in search of a place to stay, I was head over heels.

The object of my affection is a small speck of a town on a desert plain in far north Chile. They call it San Pedro Atacama. It’s a ‘blink and you’ll miss it’ ramshackle of adobe mud brick houses and hardy desert trees. In fact, I’m not even sure it’s considered a bonefide town, with signs merrily declaring it a commune (although I swear I spotted a sign with the words ‘University’ behind the town’s Plaza de Armas). In any case, as soon as you wander its labyrinth of narrow unpaved laneways, you really do feel like kicking your shoes off, grabbing the nearest guitar and joining the locals to sing its praises. This place is seriously chilled-out.

Surprisingly, we almost missed it. It was only a last minute call that we decided to end our 3-day Salar de Uyuni tour in the tiny town (close to the border of Chile and Bolivia) rather than in Uyuni where we started. And we’re glad we did. The only question was how long to stay as we were scheduled to fly from Salta (Argentina) to Iguaçu Falls at the end of the week. Funnily enough, it didn’t take long to decide after having an afternoon nap in a hammock and a bottle of wine beside a crackling bonfire in an open-air courtyard later that night with our newfound traveling companions.

However, San Pedro Atacama is more than just a bohemian artist colony with dreadlocked buskers and juggling street performers. Sure it feels a little tourist-ready at times, but for good reason. The town is only a stone’s throw from some of the most spectacular scenery in the country as well as a whole host of outdoor adventure activities. Predictably, the GLG and I didn’t stay rocking in our hammocks for long. The lure of climbing a live volcano at over 5,600m in a day was an opportunity too good to resist. More on the expensive side than some of the other equally worthwhile day trips (such as our night of stars and planets with a well known international astronomer), we wanted to peer into the eye of a living and breathing volcano.

Setting off at 5am, we drove in darkness for a couple of hours before the sun crept up over the moonscape, casting an eerie glow over the silent and deserted land. The temperature had dropped during the night and the ground was covered in a thin layer of white snow. It was going to be a cold day indeed (a dramatic contrast to the blazing heat of San Pedro Atacama). After 4 bumpy hours over a pot-holed riddled desert ‘road’, skidding occasionally on the fresh snow, we arrived at the base of Lascar Volcano. Looking up at its steep and shale-like walls, we could see a cloudy haze of yellow sulfuric smoke rising up in the still morning air.

Our trusty guide handed us a hot mate tea (an incredibly strong and thick tea sipped using a silver ‘straw’ making it look like you’re smoking a pipe) and a small breakfast to get us ready for the long climb ahead. With approx 3-4 hours climb up a continuous steep ridge of thick snow and loose volcanic rocks, we certainly needed the energy. The three of us must have looked quite a sight too as we regularly stopped to level our breathing (which becomes incredibly laboured at that altitude), flapping our arms to open our lungs and breathing out with loud yogic exhalations. After what seemed like forever, we finally reached the summit and looked straight into the eye of the biggest, meanest and awe-inspiring crater I’d ever seen (okay, so it was my first volcano ascent so I had nothing to compare it to but you catch my drift). It must have been at least 1.5-2kms in diameter and too deep to see the bottom. Thick yellow plumes of sulfur smoke billowed into the air and hissed from hidden vents in the crater’s walls. Listening carefully, we could hear a faint crackling coming from deep within the earth.

Up on top of Lascar you almost feel like you need to stand in a constant state of readiness incase the unthinkable happens. Our guide told us that the locals believe that Lascar is preparing for another eruption, much like the one that destroyed the small village we passed on the way in. They can feel it in the ground and they wait for the inevitable signs. I have no doubt they could be right as it certainly felt very much ‘alive’ when we were standing on the rim in the blowing wind. We decided it was best to give Lascar some space, and we high-tailed it down the slope in record time. You just never never know, do you…and you certainly don’t want to be within breathing distance when it decides it’s had enough.

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Postcard from Buenos Aires

Hola chicos! Wow, time sure does fly when you’re traipsing around South America with a backpack on your back and a camera in your hand.

The GLG and I have been flat out the last 2 weeks and only just arrived in Buenos Aires a few days ago for our final fling before we go our separate ways – Tim back home to Oz and me onto Spain. Somewhere in between one pirrilla (Argentinian grill house) and the next, we slipped into a meat-induced coma, surfacing only to drink Malbec from Mendoza and homemade Tiramisu. Pure bliss, but my body is still in recovery.

Not to worry, sit tight as I have plenty of tales to share with you from our adventures in Chile (however brief) and Argentina over the coming week. In the meantime, here are some pics of life and art on the streets in BA to get you started.

Hasta luego, see you later

xx

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Walking in a dream

SNAP! Postcard shot in the bag. And another. Wow – it’s difficult not to take a good shot in this place. Where are we? The Salar de Uyuni Desert in Bolivia, that’s where. The very place that inspired Salvador Dali to create some of his most surreal landscape paintings and a place that’s been plaguing my dreams for years.

For those that have ever had the pleasure (or misfortune) of working with me, you’ll know that I have two constant postcards that I lovingly Blu Tack to my computer or desk partition wherever I go. I picked them up for free from a small café in Newcastle in 2001. The café owners had visited the Salar de Uyuni desert years earlier and had fallen under its spell, returning home to open a café under the same name. Hammocks, an open fire and devilishly good hot chocolate kept me returning for lunch most weeks and I became captivated by the images of the desert on the cafe walls (and on the free postcards!). I vowed I would visit this strange and desolate place one day.

Like most people, we began the tour in the town of Uyuni itself, a small dusty cluster of buildings on the edge of the world’s largest salt flat. We’d been warned repeatedly on travel forums and by fellow travelers to be careful when choosing a tour operator due to tales of drink driving, speeding, faulty 4WDs (incl stories of cars loosing wheels or breaking down in the desert for days). Fortunately luck was on our side and we teamed up with a great driver and cook as well as a fabulous Dutch girl and 3 Columbian chicas. The GLG was in for a memorable ride!

The next couple of days were a blur of spectacular scenery, cosy dorm rooms (with limited lighting), cold showers (if at all), red wine, Columbian hard spirits, singing (Ricky Martin eat your heart out), dancing and laughter. We had a ball. Even the language didn’t faze us as we seemed to communicate through a kind of quazie Spanglish. In fact, it presented the perfect opportunity for me to finely tune my interpretative dance skills and I was able to communicate almost anything with a small impromptu performance…well almost anything.

As for the Salar de Uyuni desert, it delivered its own award winning performance. Glaringly white salt plains stretched for as far as the eye could see. Tall volcanic mountains of every colour imaginable stood silent beside aqua and red lagoons. Pink flamingoes grazed in flocks, their thin legs bent as they foraged for food. Tuffs of yellow grass punctuated the dusty rocky earth, a dramatic contrast to the blue sky above. Light seemed to play havoc in this land, reflecting off the water but sometimes unable to create shadows or definition on the sandy mountains. It was surreal. It was eerie. It has left an imprint in my mind. There’s something about the Salar de Uyuni desert that almost defies explanation. It just is.

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Nurse Bobo

I’ll let you in on a secret – I earnt my nurse stripes while in La Paz. I’m officially ‘emergency ready’. Here’s the story…

Reluctantly and out of necessity, I was called on to administer painkillers into the toned right buttock of my faithful GLG (German Love God). Yes, I hear you saying, sounds like fun. Truthfully, I was petrified.

It seems that all the soft hostal beds, bumpy bus rides and an increasingly heavy backpack weren’t doing any favours for Tim’s back. As a result, an old injury flared up and he got an inflamed nerve in his lower back, causing all sorts of pain and discomfort. By a complete stroke of luck, the owner of our hostal was a retired psychiatrist who not only gave Tim a free medical consultation, but set up an emergency specialist doctor appointment with a local neurologist. Armed with a bag full of heavy painkillers and fresh needles, the doctor (who we are forever grateful) drove us to the local hospital where I was given a 5 second crash course in how to inject a vile of voltaren into Tim’s lovely butt cheek.

Despite being scared silly that I would inject him with an air bubble or accidentally hit a vein (all very possible), I have since delivered 5 successful injections without incident. You’ll be please to know that his back is healing nicely and we’ve celebrated with a 3-day 4WD jeep tour of the Salar de Uyuni desert on an unpaved bumpy road. Details to follow.

Next up I’ll learn how to do the Heimlich Maneuver (or perhaps a triple bypass) seeing I’m on a roll…anyone?

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A La Paz

I don’t think there’s a city more dramatic on arrival than the Bolivian capital of La Paz. Yes, that’s a big call to make, but one I’m willing to put on the table. You go from bumping along a dusty desert plain, to suddenly spiraling into a deep valley of gigantic proportions. Thousands and thousands of adobe lego-like houses seem to spill downwards for as far as the eye can see. Literally every square inch of land is occupied. All of this is overlooked by the imposing jaggered snowy peaks of Mt Illamani (6402m). It’s both awe-inspiring and intimidating. You can’t help but to grip your seat with anticipation for the ride that’s ahead.

Once you get deeper into the city, your attention goes from macro to micro as all your senses work in over drive just to keep you alive. A thick flow of traffic snakes its way through the city, horns blaring as cars weave in and out of non-existent lanes and narrowly miss pedestrians. Public transport takes the form of minivans and they cruise past busy corners with their roller doors open, ready to scoop up passengers. People choose their van based on a string of destinations yelled out by a door man or woman so fast I swear they sound like a horse race commentator. This is definitely not a city for the feint hearted!

However, once you acclimatize to the dust and dizzying height (it sits at a lofty 3660m), La Paz can surprise you in more ways than one. Traditionally dressed women in layered skirts (of any material), oversized shawls and bowler hats rub shoulders with modern-day youth. Jugo street vendors beckon you to try their freshly squeezed fruit juices, while others sell pastries and buns. Wander up into the Witches market and you’ll find dried llama fetuses (which locals bury under their houses for good luck and fortune) next to bags of coca leaves and herbal remedies. Wander further still and you’ll come across the black market selling everything from second-hand watches, DVDs, office supplies to clothing. A block away and you’ve got stalls and stalls of fresh produce and spices. The list goes on. Not up for street food and sightseeing backpacking gringos? Then catch a radio taxi into the more affluent suburb of Sopocachi to find fine French cuisine (there’s a big ex-pat community here), wine bars and live jazz.

It seems that nothing is impossible in this city.

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