Namibia – Africa For Beginners.

A proper African holiday complete with lions, elephants and all the other trappings of Africa – most of which were absent from Angola as they had all been killed during the civil war (Mostly by Generals shooting them with heavy machine guns from Helicopter Gun Ships – Ah big game hunting is such fun!).

Advertisements

Generally when we had holidays or breaks from our work at the Luanda International School, Lotty and I went and wandered around in Angola, since we wanted to come to grips with this fascinating and complex country while we had the chance.  But on one holiday, several of our colleagues asked us to join them on a holiday in the neighbouring country of Namibia.   A proper African holiday complete with lions, elephants and all the other trappings of Africa – most of which were absent from Angola as they had all been killed during the civil war (Mostly by Generals shooting them with heavy machine guns from Helicopter Gun Ships – Ah big game hunting is such fun!).

So in due time the great moment arrived, and we all boarded the plane to fly us from Luanda to Windhoek International Airport.

On arrival we were first somewhat stunned by the modernity and cleanliness of the terminal, and then even more stunned by the fact that the guys from the travel company we had arranged our hire vehicles with were actually there.

We were swept up by these good men, taken to remarkably modern and clean pick-up trucks and driven off to Windhoek.  This was also a serious form of culture shock for us Angolan refugees… The roads were perfect, the vehicles driving on them were all new, clean and driven sensibly.   No weird battered, rusty ancient wrecks creeping crablike down the pot-holed roads here…  Everything was modern, clean, well maintained and impeccable.  After the mess and chaos of Luanda this was an eye-opener for us all.

Then we got to Windhoek, which turned out to be a small and also totally neat, tidy and clean little city, full of well dressed and well fed looking people.  Not a cripple, street kid or dead body to be seen anywhere.

By this time we were all reeling somewhat from the totally different place we now found ourselves in.   In a matter of a couple of hours flying, we had gone from a war-torn, medieval city to a 20th century, well organised and normal place.

I was later told that the first thing the Namibian President ordered when they became independent of South Africa, was a huge clean up of the country.. It took them a year apparently, but the results were truly impressive…

We were taken to our hotel, and signed in and as one we all rushed straight out of the hotel to see for ourselves what it was like in the shops and cafes of this place.   Another shock, the Supermarket’s shelves were filled with all manner of food and other necessities, the cafes were clean and relaxed places serving delicious coffee in clean, uncracked cups – just like any normal western city in fact.   This was a very strange feeling for us, coming from a place where the Supermarkets frequently had almost completely empty shelves, cafes were rough and ready and the only drink you could rely on them having was beer.

Anyhow, we wandered around in a sort of daze for a few hours, then retired, confused and relaxed to our beds at the end of our very disconcerting first day in Namibia.

The next day, Lotty and I in one camping truck, and Jayne and Mathu in the other one set off northwards to go to a nature reserve way up on the Namibia/Angolan border.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

……………………… Sort of flat!

This entailed a drive of something like 1200 km over countryside that made Holland seem mountainous.    I have never seen such a flat landscape in my life…. Not even a pimple to be seen.   If it wasn’t for the occasional Elephant, or warthog wandering across the road and the regular police check points it would have been the most boring bit of driving I had ever done.  Occasionally one came to small remarkably neat little towns, all of which still showed very clearly that the Germans used to be the Colonial power in Namibia.. Sort of miniature German villages dropped in the middle of this vast African tundra.

When we finally reached the northern border of Namibia, which was demarcated by a wide, muddy and sluggish river, with Angola on the far side, we camped in an amazingly luxurious camp site and in the evening, we sat like good colonialists beside the river, with long cool drinks in our hands, listening to the frog chorus and gazing over the river at the darkness of Angola.  Not a light to be seen on the Angolan side of the river.. Just darkest Africa.   And then suddenly drums started up on the Angolan side… Very strange feeling, listening to that drumming in the pitch dark night.

DCP_0042
Gazing over the river at Angola…….

The next day we headed off into the Caprivi strip, a curious narrow strip of Namibia that runs west-east between Zambia and Botswana, where there was a nature reserve we wanted to explore.

We duly arrived at the entrance to the park, to be told that no one else was currently visiting, but that we were very welcome to stay if we wished.  And directed to the camp site – with dire warnings about not getting out of our vehicles anywhere except in the camp site – Lions you know.  The remarkably solid and tall wall around the reception offices rather reinforced this warning.

So off we drove, into the park.  Which was beautiful, sort of tall elephant grass and groups of trees.  Lots of warthogs and various sorts of deer, and loads of monkeys leaping about the place.   Not a lion or elephant to be seen.

DCP_0055

Warthogs with their ridiculous tails

We duly found the camp site – we recognised it as there was an outside lavatory block there – for the rest, nothing, no fence, electricity, water or even a place to dispose of our rubbish.  Obviously one of those places where if you brought it in you took it out when you left.  Reasonably enough, given the monkeys around the place.

The bit that worried me was that it was on the edge of a river, and had what was obviously the place where large creatures came out of the river right slap bang into the middle of the camp site.  Since these animals could only be crocodiles or hippopotamuses, both of which are highly dangerous, I wasn’t too happy about this.

DCP_0049

The camp site with our campers

We could see no crocs, but we did see the noses and eyes of quite a few hippos in the river.  Unsettling feeling.

Anyhow, we settled down, set up our camp and relaxed.

As the evening drew in, two wonderful things occurred.  The first was the arrival of a huge family group of baboons, who settled noisily down for the night in the trees around our campers.  In spite of having the reputation of being a real pest, and even dangerous to campers, this family group ignored us totally, and simply got on with their own domestic affairs.  Loved watching them doing this.

Then the second joy of the African countryside started up.. namely the evening chorus of hundreds of different sorts of frogs and toads.. Each sort with its own song…. These different songs combined to produce the most wonderful and huge choral work, that went on for about an hour… totally entrancing to listen to.

During the night we could hear the Hippos snorting and coughing in the river nearby, so I was extremely glad to be sleeping on the roof tent of our camper, rather than in a tent on the ground..   Hippos are generally considered the second most dangerous animal in Africa – the first of course, being humans – but they stayed in the river and didn’t bother us in any way, I am happy to say.

I shall write the second half of this Namibian thing later……..

Roadkill – The Depressing Side Of Driving In Oz

One of the most distressing aspects of doing much driving in rural Australia – which includes Tasmania obviously- is the high rate of road kill here.  When driving outside cities or largish towns for every kilometer one drives, one will see probably two or three dead animals that have been hit by cars during the night.  

One of the most distressing aspects of doing much driving in rural Australia – which includes Tasmania obviously- is the high rate of road kill here.  When driving outside cities or largish towns for every kilometer one drives, one will see probably two or three dead animals that have been hit by cars during the night.

roadkill

Every sort of wild creature that lives here is represented in this depressing parade of corpses – kangaroos, wombats, crows, ichidnas, wallabies and so on, literally every sort of wild animal will be seen sooner or later lying dead in the road or on the edge of the road.

As far as I can see, no one clears away their corpses, as one sees them in all states of decay.   From freshly killed to a bag of skin around a skeleton and all stages of putrefaction in between.

The crows are obviously very happy with this state of affairs, as it represents a continuous source of easy food for them to gobble up, and being crows they generally judge to a second how long they can stay eating as a car approaches, only leaping away at the last minute – or slowly stalking away in time for the car to pass harmlessly, before returning to their feast.

Even they miscalculate on occasion and end up as a sad bundle of disordered feathers lying next to their last meal – sad to see.

Last year we camped in parts of Tassie that are famous for the high numbers of Tasmanian Devils that live there, and hunt every night, so we had hoped both to see and hear them while we were there – but nope, the only one we came across was a very dead one on the road..  Another victim of the car.

It is not for nothing that someone years ago produced a book called ¨Flattened Fauna of Australia¨, made up of photos of all the different types of animals and birds this amazing country has, but all as corpses on the road.

So, as I said, seeing this mass of dead creatures when driving is deeply saddening, but a very typical aspect of this country – always has been and probably always will be.

I Learn To Scuba Dive – Bliss Is To Be Underwater!

On retirement, I discover the joys of scuba diving – Flying like a slightly intoxicated bird over the deep reef edge…. Such pleasure!

After we left Beijing, we moved to Cebu (One of the several thousand islands that make up the Philippines) where Lotty had been given a job at Cebu International School.   As by that point I was about 67 years old, we decided that perhaps it might be as good a moment as any other for me to stop working and to settle back into the joys of retirement.

So that is exactly what I did.

However, I was then confronted by the problem that most people who retire are confronted with – what to do with those hours when you are not asleep?

For me, this was no real problem, since when in the Philippines one dives.. Simple.

By diving, I of course mean scuba diving, not high diving or anything like that.

Apart from one dive I had had in France many years before, during which I spent the better part of my time under water on my own, except for a friendly octopus who was busy arranging his/her garden outside the old paint tin he/she had squatted in I had never scuba dived before.

Loads of time with snorkels, but not with airbottles.

So I was introduced to a fellow called Alfred Alesna, a local dive instructor – a superb natural teacher and simply splendid guy.   He had worked for many years as a professional working diver cable laying and similar, and was more at home under the sea than on the shore.

Anyhow, he was one of the many local Paddi qualified dive instructors, and he became the guy who introduced Lotty and I to the wondrous world of scuba diving.

Alfred in full diving fig, at Kon Tiki Dive Centre

In due time we both qualified as “open water divers”, which roughly means we had dived a handful of times and knew the basics of diving, how to change our bottles underwater, not get killed and so on, but were far from experienced divers, and in no way safe to be allowed to head off on our own to dive off the reefs around Mactan Island where we did most of our diving.

Poor old Lotty at this point was busy earning our livings, but I, oh joy, I was as free as a lark, and thus went diving several days a week…  Which as each time I went, I probably dived three or four times, I very quickly worked up to several hundred dives, and had reached the dizzy heights of being a fully qualified Rescue Diver – which meant I was one step down from being a Dive Master, which would have meant I could train other divers.

 

thresher

My First Thresher Shark – So Elegant!!

However, that didn’t really appeal to me, so I stopped climbing the qualification ladder and settled down to simply enjoy my dives.

By this time I was also diving regularly with a bunch of cheerful divers who dived with Eric Vincent, the happy owner of Aquadive, one of the many dive centres there.

Continue reading “I Learn To Scuba Dive – Bliss Is To Be Underwater!”

We Get Arrested In XinJiang – Interesting………

A few years ago while my wife and I were working in China, we went for a long holiday in Xinjiang Province, which is the most westerly and northern province in China, bordering onto Tajikistan, Kazakhstan and several other Stans.    By the way, “Stan” is a Farsi word which simply means “place of ……. People”   So Pakistan means “Place of the Paki People” and so on.

Anyhow, we had just completed a 36 hour ride in a sleeper bus from Urumji and arrived at a small town near the Kazakh boarder and were sort of standing beside the bus wondering what to do next, when a couple of young Chinese girls and their tiny kid brother who had also been on the same bus as us came over and and started to talk to us.

This resulted in an invitation from them to rejoin them on the bus and head on off to the end point of the bus’s journey where there was apparently a very beautiful area of alpine countryside.

So, having no other pressing appointments, we agreed, clambered back onto the bus and headed off for another 5 or 6 hours driving and duly arrived at the small provincial town near to this especially beautiful landscape.

With their help we booked into a reasonable small hotel and enjoyed an evening in the town with them and their tiny little brother.

The next morning we hired a taxi for the day and headed off with our friendly Chinese girls to explore the famous area of natural beauty.

As we approached it, we ran into a serious Chinese Police road block – machine guns and so on very much in evidence sadly, and here our passports were checked extremely carefully.   There seemed to be some sort of problem with our passports, but it wasn’t made clear what the problem was, so we were told to leave them with the cops, and carry on into the hills.

Continue reading “We Get Arrested In XinJiang – Interesting………”

Xin Jiang – Riding Camels In The Taklamakan Desert

After we had safely regained Kashgar after our wanderings up to and back from the glacier (see earlier post on this topic – link below).   We decided to go wandering on our own (my wife Lotty, and I) for the rest of our summer break from our work in Beijing.   So to this end, we thought it might be pleasant to start off by taking a camel trip into the Taklamakan Desert which was right next to Kashgar.

Like most people outside China, we had never heard of this desert, even though it is one of the largest sand deserts in the world, at some 130 000 square miles in size (337 000 square kilometers), so we were interested to have a look at it while we were there.

So we hunted up a company who organised camel trips into the desert, made all the necessary arrangements, and took off by car to the starting point of our epic journey into this huge desert.

By the way, they had only just built a road across it a couple of years earlier, and no one much had crossed it yet.   Also the Chinese used it for their atomic bomb testing apparently…  Ho hum.

And of course, the famous Silk Road went around it too, one arm going to the north of it, the other going around the western edge.   We, to be different, intended to go straight into it, and see what happened..

We arrived at the setting off point, which turned out to be a sort of bus station on the edge of the desert. A simple building with a glass roof, long rows of plastic chairs and a short length of road outside it.  And beyond that, a vista of enormous sand dunes, so we couldn’t see very far into the desert.   Just enough to whet our appetites.  Oh and of course a lot of disdainful looking Bactrian camels (the sort with two humps).

100_3129

100_3207

Continue reading “Xin Jiang – Riding Camels In The Taklamakan Desert”

Camels – Pamir Mountains – Joys of Xin Jiang

One holiday while we were working in Beijing it was decided that we would go and have a look at Xin Jiang Province – the most northern and westerly of China’s provinces.   In case you have never heard of Xin Jiang (nor had we!) it lies in the top corner of China, nestling against Pakistan, Tajikistan, Kazakhstan and a load of other Stans.   And was the part of China where the Silk Road first entered China.  It is also an area inhabited by a race of people called Uigars, who are not Chinese, but of Turkish descent, and who speak a language that is nearer to Turkish than Chinese.

It is also an area that is Muslim, and at that time (2008) not in any real way involved with Islamic fundamentalism, but owing to the idiotic actions of the Chinese government, it was rapidly become so – sadly.

Anyhow, we were not bothered with such matters, simply wishing to have a look at the place and walk around in it.

To which end we went to Kashgar, a city that at that time was an enchanting mix of mud houses in winding little streets, amazing markets and generally appealing aspect.   Full of friendly Uigars selling tea and snacks in delightful street cafes and such like.  Amazing food too of course.  An intriguing mix of Arab and Chinese cuisine and to finish it off properly, the one remaining statue of Mao in China, an enormous one too, about 18 meters tall and for some inexplicable reason seems to be giving a Hitler salute.

mao

So, once we had arrived there, and spent a couple of days wandering around and enjoying this really  fine small city, it was time to head off to the Pamir mountains where we had arranged to go for a long walk up to a glacier at about 5500 meters above sea level.

This was my first sight of Central Asia, and I was at once knocked out by the sweeping shape of the landscape that had been formed by the advancing and retreating glaciers during the various Ice Ages.  That wondrous collection of gentle curves that are so typical of such landscapes, much the same as in the Scottish Highlands and similar places, pleased me no end.

100_2867

We drove for hours along the river valley in the bottom of one such smooth channel with the very shallow, but wide and winding river beside the road as we went along, slowly getting higher and higher, which given that the altitude of Kashgar is already pretty high at about 1300 meters,  I began to wonder if I might have perhaps been a bit silly in going directly from Beijing, which is about 50 meters above sea level to such a hight.    However all seemed well, and no signs of altitude sickness made themselves apparent.

Continue reading “Camels – Pamir Mountains – Joys of Xin Jiang”

How To Survive In A French Village

When we got to Fontenoy le Chateau ( a small village in the low Vosges) in 1997, we knew absolutely no one, and to be honest we had moments of wondering what on earth we were doing, coming to a small community in a country we really only knew from holidays (and in my case, a rather large number of relatives clustered in Paris and around Lyons).  We did more or less speak French, and had gone to a lot of trouble to try and find out about banking, bureaucrats and other “official” things.  But simply living, making friends and becoming part of the community, well that was quite a different set of problems.

 A short video to give you an idea what Fontenoy looks like

After we had been there for a few months, I became aware of the existence in the village of what in France are called “Associations”, which are groups of people who have got together, formed a club of sorts in order to pursue some common aim.  These Associations have a legal existence and are all properly registered in the head office of the Departement, which in the case of Fontenoy meant Epinal, a nearby city of some 100 000 souls.

Anyhow, I thought that by joining one or more of these Associations, I might be able to sort of break into the village community and become part of the daily life there, and almost more importantly, make some friends.

In the event, I achieved all those aims and much, much more, and ended up being a very central part of the life and soul of Fontenoy along with a fair number of other highly active (both physically and organizationally) local citizens.

Thus I first joined an Association with the resounding name of Des Amis du Vieux Fontenoy, which devoted itself chiefly to the restoration of the ruined 11th Century castle that explained  the “Chateau” part of Fontenoy le Chateau’s name.

This restoration mainly consisted of keeping the grass and weeds in and around the very thoroughly ruined castle under control, and organising a student work camp each summer holiday, where students came, lived in one of the remaining sections of the medieval wall that used to surround Fontenoy and slowly carried out a mix of archeology and restoration work on the castle.. But to be honest, this is really a 100 year project as the castle was very big in its hey day, and is pretty conclusively ruined now.  And most of the stones that originally constituted the castle have over the centuries been stolen and used to build the houses in Fontenoy itself.  Including the imposing church too, by the way.

And whilst the more fanatical members of the Association were fully prepared to demolish all those houses and even the church to get the castle’s stones back, there was a certain reluctance on the part of the good citizens of Fontenoy to allow that to happen.  Stalemate thus.

Actually the castle became a ruin not by the jaws of time, but was captured by, of  all  things, a Swedish army that happened to be operating in that area during the 100 years war, and who upon capturing the castle, forced the good burgers of Fontenoy to pretty conclusively demolish the castle.

When I joined this Association, it’s Chairperson was the highly energetic and impressive Veronique Andre, a good soul who became a very good friend over the roughly 10 years we spent in Fontenoy.   Vero, being the sort of person she was, I also found very much in evidence in the several other Associations I joined shortly after becoming active in the Friends of Fontenoy.

In the course of my Fontenoy period, I was a very active member of as above, the Friends of Old Fontenoy, also of Les Amis de L’Ecole, an association who busied themselves chiefly with fund raising for the local primary school in the village through all manner of events, chief being the now famous all over France Feu de St. Jean and making and processing the float for Saint Nicholas on 5th December every year, and last but by no means least, sending that float to the Carnival procession in the nearby town of Bains les Bains where all the local villages and small towns processed through the town on their various floats with bands and all other good things as part of the Catholic Carnival (Mardi Gras).

The creative and organisational driving force in that association in those days was another truly good friend of ours, Jean Pierre Remond, who was a real jack of all trades, could design constructions superbly, understood the mechanics of large constructions, and was a very good organiser of labour and material suppliers too.

Being of a creative bent I also joined the Association called Village de l”Ecrit, which as its name would suggest, busied itself with all manner of literary matters, including giving an annual prize to what their jury considered to be the best book of the year written by a Vosgean writer.   Sort of local equivalent of the Booker Prize really.

This one was lead by an equally energetic soul, the good Michou, who used to be a teacher but was by then retired.  She also became a pretty good friend over the years I worked with her for that Association.  This work consisted mainly of creating an enormous number of plywood “Speech Bubbles” each year on which we carefully painted quotes from all manner of authors, in French (of course) but also in honour of the considerable number of Dutch folk in the area, and who passed through on their holidays, in Dutch and as a sort of small gesture to those Brits, such as Lotty, Roger Oscar et.al who were hanging around, in English.  And occasionally in German too.  Particularly the heavier and darker of the Germanic philosophers.

These we hung up all over the village, so almost every house, shop and public building had at least one of these panels decorating it for the entire summer.   It is indicative of the cohesive nature of such a village that everyone was very happy to have one or more of these panels hanging on their house or fence, and as Michou, Daniel (another village stalwart who became a real friend over the years) and I hung these panels, we had long and enjoyable conversations about the quote that was being hung up.   Like all good villagers all over the world, most people in Fontenoy always had time to stop and chat.

Occasionally this could be mildly irritating to me, as they were perfectly happy to do this when driving their cars through the village going in opposite directions, if they came upon each other, they would cheerfully stop, blocking the road completely and chat amiably away for a quarter hour or more… And no one worried.

People around there lived very long lives by and large.. And I suspect that this very relaxed approach to life had a lot to do with that.  That and the way they always recognised each others existence.   Walking though the town could take time, as one had to greet almost everyone by name, and at least pass a couple of minutes discussing the weather or whatever… I liked this a lot.

The procession of floats through Bains les bains each year was a sort of social high point in the wider area around Fontenoy.  As I said above, all the local villages built some sort of a float for this very important and much loved event in the yearly calender.   I took part in this for most of the roughly 10 years I lived in Fontenoy, dressed in a variety of costumes appropriate to that year’s float.   One of my favourite ones was when I was pulled behind a tractor in a huge double four poster which I was sharing with a splendid old lady, who was notably short of teeth, called Antoinette.   Rural France is remarkably prudish sometimes, and the sight of the two of us happily in that bed pleasantly scandalized the public who stood beside the road as we passed by….  I was teased about my romantic and erotic involvement with Antoinette for many years after that one.  Another very happy memory, and Antoinette was a simply delightful woman to talk to, and as I discovered, to share a bed with….   Even if all we did was talk to each other.

Daniel and Gerard ready for Carnival

Antoinette and I in the famous four poster

 Me lurking beside a Chinese dragon one year

Anyway, by means of my very active involvement in the Associations in Fontenoy, and by being prepared to help anyone who needed a bit of help – going up onto the forest to gather their allocation of winter firewood, helping repair a roof, whatever was needed, I rapidly became accepted as one of them, a real honour I felt.

In the course of all of this, I made some extremely good friends, as Fontenoy seemed to have more than its share of good hearted people in it.  People such as Gerard, who used to own the one garage in the village, and was a rather rotund and red faced but utterly likable and reliable man, all the various active members of the Associations I belonged to.  Also there was Roger (Monk) Llewellyn-Smith and Marion his wife who arrived after us, and who became great and important friends to us, which they still are.. And of course Jean Pierre’s wife, Marianne.  The list of friends we made there is simply too long really to put here, but there were many of them.. and the friendships we made mattered to us, and still do in many cases. Actually while Fontenoy had its less pleasant inhabitants, as everywhere does, the great majority of the people there were actually remarkably pleasant and friendly to us.

When it came time for us to leave France and go off to work in Angola, I was given a surprise farewell party and honour  in the town hall.   How they managed to keep that a secret from me was a minor miracle, as in such a village, the saying that “if you dropped your hammer at the eastern end of the village, people were talking about it at the western end before it had even got to the ground” really did apply.

Anyway, I was sort of tricked into going to the town hall that night by Oscar, who told me that there was a special meeting of the town’s folk to discuss something or other of importance, which I should take part in.  So as he had grabbed me while I was still working, I was in my dirty work clothes when we arrived at the town hall, and I was surprised to see that just about everyone I knew in the village was there, all dressed in their Sunday best.

On entering the hall I was grabbed, pushed out to the front, and the good lady Mayoress – Francoise – started to make a speech aimed at me….  And to announce that I was to be given the Fontenoy Medal – and honour that Fontenoy had instituted to show appreciation to people who had really contributed in a very notable fashion to the community in some way or other…And that apparently was me!

After which a number of friends made speeches extolling my many virtues (in their eyes at least).   I was totally overcome by the entire thing.  Never having been at the receiving end of such public acclaim in my entire life.  I was also doubly honoured by the fact that I was not a native of the village, and not even French for God’s sake, but of all things, an Englishman….!

I am overwhelmed as The Mayoress tells us all how wonderful I am…

Not sure I believe what they are saying about me

An astonished me, with the Fontenoy medal in my hand.  Note that I am leaning on the table. I needed to.

Lotty was working in Geneva at the time, so it was arranged that she would phone during the ceremony to give me her thoughts as well…

That is  a memory I will cherish for the rest of my life.   It had real significance to me, as I truly loved Fontenoy, those people who had befriended and helped me while we were there and I was actually very sad to be leaving a place in which we had invested so much work, thought, dreams and hopes.   But, that party at the end was amazing, wonderful and unforgettable.

Continue reading “How To Survive In A French Village”