Wednesday, 30 June 2010

feel good....

 picture via Sarah - grooving to Hot Chip

Well another Glastonbury Festival survived, and predictably enough, Michael Eavis has hailed it as "the best ever".  Well, I know he always says that, but this time he might just be right.  The weather helps, of course.... and apparently this is the first completely dry festival since my first, in 1993.  It was hot, damn hot.  With shade on the site somewhat scarce, it was actually occasionally too hot, and after a late night and a lot of cider, it's not all that funny to be driven out of your tent at 08:30 in the morning because it has become hotter than the sun.  And don't even think about what it does to the toilets.....How British to spend years moaning that the festival has been wet and muddy for years, only to then moan that it's too hot.

Don't let anyone tell you otherwise: it was glorious.  You could sit on the grass; you could spend the whole weekend wearing t-shirts, shorts, sunglasses and sandals; the huge crowds could move freely around the site without worrying about lakes of mud...... it was ace.

I've found my look -   picture via Sarah

After last year's festival, when I spent 8 hours behind the wheel of my car trying to cover the last 20 miles to the car parks, this year, we were taking no chances and spent Tuesday night in the Glastonbury Travelodge.  After a pretty uneventful journey down the M5, we had plenty of time before dark to have a wander around Glastonbury town centre.

 Frighteningly convincing, eh, especially Keith Richards on the right....

There are a few too many crystal and spiritual healing-type shops there for my liking (drawn by the mystical leylines, I should think, and there are lots of old hippies hanging around too), but the town also seemed to be full of posh young girls wearing Jack Wills t-shirts and drunken men walking around barefoot drinking cans of Special Brew.  It's easy to imagine that the locals aren't too fond of the festival.....It's not very rock and roll staying in a Travelodge above a Dominos Pizza and a Subway at the best of times, but I really didn't fancy sleeping in my car in the car parks.

C - balancing some stuff on her head -  photo via Di
An early-ish start and a short stretch of queuing later, and we got lucky in the car-park lottery when we were put right next to one of the pedestrian gates and then got the campsite we wanted by about 10:30.  Everyone else gradually arrived, and then we did the inevitable --- we went to the cider bus.

Cider bus! - photo via Di

Of course, we've been to the festival a few times now, and we're getting quite good at the whole middle-class thing..... I've taken freshly made mojitos for a few years now, but this was the first year that we took a stove top espresso pot so that we could have proper coffee at the tent every morning.  Perhaps we're just getting old and too used to our creature comforts, but it was great.  Food, as ever at this festival, was superb.  I only managed the three pies and didn't get over to Pieminister, but still ate my fill with organic goodness served in compostable containers.  Mmmm.  No brown van catering for me here.

  picture via Sarah
They also had a shop called "Hats for Bald Headed Bastards".

I was very static during the 2009 Festival, spending much of the time sat in a chair in front of the Pyramid Stage.  This year I was determined to see more, and I more or less succeeded - I wandered around the Green Fields, The Common, Avalon, Arcadia, West Holts, Cabaret, the Park and other areas of the site that I hardly ever get to.  I also saw acts performing at lots of the smaller stages.  The trouble is that there's so much to see... never mind all the bands, you can also see stuff like the Space Cowboy swallowing swords in the Cabaret tent or the crazy wall of death in the Common.  You can drink Tuborg or Cider at any of the bars, but you can now also get a strawberry mojito made with ice, fresh mint and Havana Club Especial at several places too, as well as organic English strawberry wine from the Green Fields at 10am... which we did, of course.

The bands were good too.  In no particular order, I especially enjoyed the sets by Rolf Harris, The Stranglers, The National, The Hold Steady, Ash, Gorillaz (in spite of what some of the reviewers said - they produced Lou Reed, FFS.... ), Muse, Hot Chip, Billy Bragg, Toots and the Maytals, Dizraeli and the Small Gods, Ray Davies, Slash and the Bees.  I missed loads too: Laura Marling, Thom Yorke and Jonny Greenwood, Mumford and Sons, Pet Shop Boys, Faithless, the XX, Keane, Stevie Wonder, the Wurzels.... but you can't see everything, can you?


I also saw the Courteeners.  Hmmm.  I like their new album a lot (which, if you've heard their first album, came from nowhere).... but really this is cat/mat/sat rhymes bellowed out to an undiscerning audience of bereft Oasis fans.  See also The Cribs.

A rare sight.  We spend much of the festival apart. She likes to salsa, I like The National.

We camped with the usual shower (is there a less apt word to use in relation to the Glastonbury Festival?  The Greenpeace showers were largely broken this year, so I went 5 days without.  5 hot, sweaty days.  Mmmm.).... we also welcomed Andrea and Linda into our happy little gang.  I also met up with a number of friends in various states of refreshment over the weekend: Del, Alex, Dom, Stef and Dave at the Cider Bus and Rebekah and Graham at the Pyramid.  Hopefully we'll have yet more friends at next year's festival, eh Jen?

don't ask.  She didn't even watch the Australia v Serbia game.... busy saving Pandora, or something

There was the football to consider too, of course.  I did go down to the Pyramid with about 40,000 other people to watch the England v Slovenia game, but I decided not to bother watching the game against Germany... not least because Slash and then Ray Davies would be playing, but also because I have only ever seen about three England games in my whole life that I have actually enjoyed, and having seen this England side play, I didn't have much hope that this game would be worth watching either.  I'm not smug about the result, by any means, but I did get to watch Slash playing "Sweet Child Of Mine", "Paradise City", "Night Train" and "Rocket Queen" and Ray Davies working his way through the Kinks songbook as England fell to pieces.... so....

What else?

Ah, what else do you need to know.  It was great.  It always is.  Michael Eavis is right.  This year, I even picked up a tan.
  photo via Di

Oh, one thing to add.  The sight of a massive Range Rover parked in front of the Greenpeace area really tickled me.  Gotta love those green credentials, eh? Actually, it's Prince Charles' security guards casing the joint for HRH's visit to the festival, but what a photo.... that massive car has leather seats and everything and must do about 3mpg.  Greenpeace must have been delighted.  Sadly, they probably were when Charlie turned up and they had a green love in before he was ferried to his helicopter in a massive gas-guzzler......

...and whilst I'm moaning, what is it with all the rubbish?  The organisers go to great lengths to encourage people to recycle and to take their rubbish home with them; they have the slogan "Love the Farm, Leave No Trace" and they hand out black bags for rubbish and green bags for recycling so that you can keep your campsites clean.... and yet every Monday brings about the heartbreaking sight of thousands of abandoned tents, trolleys, bags, gazebos and a bombsite of empty cans, food trays, used baby wipes and the like.  It's disgusting.  People are happy enough to bring mirrors and portable showers and to shave their legs at the festival, but they're not prepared to put the effort in to help keep the place tidy.  Oooh, it makes me cross.  Grrr.

Apart from that, it's a brilliant festival, and I've already booked my room in that rock and roll Travelodge for 2011.

Nice one Eavises. to Canada tomorrow.  I'll try to blog as I go, but we'll see.  No promises.

Monday, 21 June 2010

it soothes all me troubles away, Oh arr oh arr aay....

It's not exactly another trip to an exotic destination, but the journey to Glastonbury 2010 starts tomorrow.  After spending something like eight hours behind the wheel of my car covering the last 20 miles to the festival site for last year's festival, this year we're spending the Tuesday night in a Glastonbury hotel and then covering the last mile or so in the morning.  With luck, this means we will both avoid the bulk of the queuing and also be able to choose ourselves a decent pitch for our tents.  That's the theory anyway.

In an ideal world, we'll be drinking in the sunshine well before England put us though the wringer on the big screens in the afternoon.  Naturally, I will as ever be taking freshly made mojitos into the festival site, complete with freshly squeezed limes, homemade (organic) sugar syrup, fresh mint and Havana Club rum.  For the first time this year, though, we'll be taking a stove top espresso maker with us too.  Who says that Glastonbury is becoming too middle class?  Pfff.

This is the festival's 40th anniversary, but it's also a milestone for me too: this is my 10th Glastonbury since I first went along not knowing what the hell to expect in 1993.  The weather forecast is good, but I've been to both sunny ones and muddy ones, and I'm wise enough to know that you go to every festival with both sunscreen and wellies and hope you need to use the one more than the other.  Mind you, a few days in a properly sunny festival would be most welcome indeed.

As usual, I haven't made anything more than vague plans to go and see any of the bands.  Every festival has been different for me: last year I seemed to spend a lot of time around the Pyramid Stage, but this year I'd like to try and get around to the John Peel and Park stages a lot more.  The Left Field is back too, this year curated by Billy Bragg, so I'm looking forward to spending some time there too.  Of the bands, I'd quite like to see the National, but apart from that I'm pretty open-minded and will play it all by ear....

Mainly, I'm looking forward to spending some time drinking atomically powerful cider in the sun with my friends.

Let's hope it's another good one, eh?

Oh, and I'll be tweeting for the Guardian this year, so keep your eyes on their site if you're interested in my views on pies, cider and not seeing the bands I thought I was going to see and probably ending up at N-Dubz.

See you on the other side.

Thursday, 17 June 2010

say something....

I had an appointment yesterday with the nurse at my local doctor's practice.  I was there to attend the travel clinic and to see if I needed any extra immunisations or malaria prophylaxis before our trip to SE Asia in August.  As expected, I'm up to date in most things, although the nurse took my blood to test my antibodies to see if the course of Hepatitis B injections I had in 1992 are still any use or if I need another booster.  I also picked up another prescription for some malarone.  No dramas.

As the nurse was checking the various travel warnings for Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam, I idly glanced over her shoulder at my medical record, displayed on her computer screen.  Amongst all the usual stuff about my condition (which is flagged up on the top of the screen, lest anyone miss it), I noticed that there appeared to have been some correspondence recorded since my last visit.  If you remember, I went to the doctor a couple of weeks ago to ask about the "lump in my throat/chest" that I had been experiencing.  The doctor I saw checked with his senior partner and then gave me a call to say that they thought it was probably neurological, and thus related to my MS, and that I should therefore talk to the MS Nurses about it.  In the end, I didn't bother.  It had started to bother me less, and as I have an appointment with my neurologist at the end of July for a regular check-up, I just thought I'd bring it up then.  I don't imagine there's anything they can do about it, so I figured I'd just wait. 

It turns out, according to my medical notes, that my doctor has been in correspondence with the MS Nurses and with the Queens Medical Centre in Nottingham, and between them, they are referring me to a speech and voice therapy centre.


I do still have the feeling of something caught behind my breastbone, but I wasn't particularly aware of any problems with the way I speak.  No more than usual, anyway.  I do have a nagging worry that I slur my words slightly; not much, but enough to make me slightly hard to understand.  I haven't really mentioned this to anyone though, and I suspect that I've always had a slight tendency to mumble and that it isn't anything to do with my MS at all.  I'm certainly not quite sure how my doctor might have picked that up from my complaint about my throat/chest, anyway.  The fact that these medical types have been talking about me without feeling the need to mention it to me is, however, of no surprise at all.

Another appointment to see the neuropsychologist to go through my test results came through this week too, so this news is just what I needed. 

More doctors.  Hurray.

Tuesday, 15 June 2010

I can tell that we are going to be friends....

After years of refusal, I have finally caved in and set up a Facebook account....although judging by the number of people who almost immediately hit me with requests to be my "friend", I would imagine that most of you know that by now.  (how does that work, incidentally?)

I'll admit that I was quite proud not to have an account for so long, but the simple truth is that the real reason I didn't open one because I know myself too well; I know how much time I spend on the internet on things like blogger and twitter, and I had an inkling that Facebook wouldn't be any different.  Best not to open that door, I thought; better not to get started at all than to have something else to suck up my life.  That and the idea (picked up from membership on Friends Reunited) that I would be getting requests from people who I would rather never see again as long as I live.

In the end, what tipped the balance was the desire to stay in contact with some of the brilliant people that I met in Africa.  Yes, I could email them, but setting up a Facebook account seemed to be the best way of making sure I was included on the photos we were planning to share and was generally a good way to stay loosely in contact with everyone with the minimum of effort.

You know what?  It's been okay.  I have had requests from people I don't care for, but I've ignored them; I have spent a fair bit of time mucking about with it, and it's another thing -- along with email and twitter -- that I check regularly on my phone, but overall it's not been so bad.  Actually, it's been sort of fun.  I had some initial problems setting up the privacy settings on my account, but even that's now been sorted and everything seems to be ticking along nicely.  I'm "chatting" to some people I haven't had much regular interaction with in years, and it's been good.

I've not "poked" anyone yet, mind..... I hope it stays that way.  And no, I haven't Facebooked your mom, although I wouldn't rule it out.

Monday, 14 June 2010

it's the hard knock life....

I've got good news and bad news.

The good news is that I have now finished writing up our trip to Africa (which seems to have taken me nearly as long to do as the trip itself actually lasted....).  I'm sure you've all enjoyed reading my superlative-scattered write up as much as I've enjoyed writing it, but will probably, at the same time, be slightly pleased and relieved to hear that the trip we were thinking of making in August to Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda is now not going to happen.  So, for the time being, there will be no new photos of lions, elephants and giraffe around here.  Please try to contain your disappointment.

The bad news is that there is more travelling still to be done: Glastonbury is up first (another wellies year, I fear), but almost immediately after that, we're flying to Vancouver to spend 4 weeks in the Canadian Rockies before flying out of Calgary.  If all goes well, then hopefully I'll have some pictures of bear and whales and things to bore you with at the end of July.  Shortly after that, instead of going back to Africa, we're heading to Bangkok to spend a few weeks travelling around Thailand, Vietnam and Cambodia.  I've only been to South Korea in that (general) part of the world, so it will be good to see more.  I imagine I will be writing about that trip here too.  

I've bought a new hat too... be thankful I'm not writing about that too.

Please try not to hate me.

Once that lot's finished, I'm rather afraid that I'm supposed to be going back to work in September.  I'd love to say I've thought of something better to do with my life, but as of now, I'm afraid that I haven' least nothing that will pay, anyway.  I actually popped back into the office this week for the first time since January.  It hasn't changed much, and I can only imagine that it's missed me about as much as I've missed it.....i.e. not at all.  I was only there as C. needed to sign a few bits and pieces, but I still managed to bump into a couple of people I knew and only just made it back in time for the South Africa vs Mexico game that kicked off the World Cup.   I ask you, what's the point of being off work during a World Cup if you then miss it by being voluntarily at the office?  It looks like my brilliant career will resume more or less where we left it.....

Now, before all that, has anyone got any suggestions about what we must do when we're in the Rockies?  We're leaving frighteningly soon and haven't really planned anything beyond arriving in Vancouver....

We've been away, you see...... did I not mention?

Friday, 11 June 2010

Hakuna Matata!

Day 18 Chobe River

Approximate Distance: 420 km
Estimated Travel Time: 6 hrs

Another day, another opportunity to see some game.  This time we head to Kasane, alongside the Chobe river.  The Chobe National Park itself has some of the biggest concentrations of game of anwhere in Africa, but because we've already done so many game drives on this trip, we're actually going to be taking a sunset cruise down the river.  There's method in this madness, as the river is of course where much of the park's wildlife goes to drink as the sun sets.  In addition, the park is particularly famed for its large numbers of elephant, its crocodiles and its bee-eater birds, all of which can be found down by the water.  Pretty soon after arrival at our campsite, after a short stop to pick up some more beer in Kasane, we head back out in the truck to meet up with our boat.

Well, perhaps boat is pushing it a little... this is basically a floating platform.  The Chobe river is wide, particularly at this time of the year, but it's also pretty sluggish as it makes its way towards the Zambesi and the sudden violence of the Victoria Falls, a few miles downstream from here.  Mind you, as the water is infested with crocodiles, I don't fancy falling in much.  Our campsite is partly underwater, and we've already been warned to be very, very careful of crocs as we walk about the place.... they have a nasty habit of grabbing you and then drowning you before eating you once you've softened up a little.  I've avoided becoming anything's dinner thus far on the trip, and it would be a shame to start now.

It's a short chug from the dock into the National Park itself, passing increasingly plush looking safari lodges as we go.  There's a fork in the river around a large island.  It's deserted of everything but birds at this time of year, but when the waters are lower, apparently this is teeming with life as the grazing animals like water buffalo swim across to take advantage of the lush greenery.  Already, the other side of the river is bustling with wildlife for us to look at.

The park is best known for its spectacular elephant population: with over 120,000 it has the highest elephant concentration of Africa. Apparently, most of them are probably part of the largest continuous surviving elephant population on Earth. Botswana is something of a conservation success story, and the elephant population here seems to have solidly built up since 1990, from a few thousand to their current numbers. The elephants living here are Kalahari elephants, the largest in size of all known elephant species. Yet they are characterized by rather brittle ivory and short tusks.We quickly see whole herds of elephant, often with young calves are drinking from the river.  I think I could watch elephants forever without getting bored.  They're amazing.... especially after I learned that an adult bull elephant can drink something like 200 litres of water in 4 minutes.  Actually, it's amazing there's any water in this river at all.

I also get my first glimpse of crocodiles.  These are only medium-sized, we're told, as apparently they get as big as 6m around here.  That sounds like an exaggeration to me, but even if they 'only' reach 4m, that's still a pretty damn big crocodile.  The medium-sized ones here look plenty big enough to take me out, that's for sure.  All they seem to do is sit on the edge of the river and sunbathe, but even then they have a malevolent look about them.  These things are prehistoric.  Literally.  Like sharks, they are largely unchanged since the time of the dinosaur because they are so well adapted for what they do.  That's quite a thought.  As we drift on by, one of them casually opens his mouth and shows us his teeth..... he has lots of teeth.  The baboon we see at the water's edge don't seem to mind the elephant, but there are none of the around the crocodiles.  I don't blame them at all.

We also get to see hippo.  We saw a hippo from a distance in the Okavango Delta, but here we get the chance to see them a lot closer.  Before the start of the boat trip, the guide warned us -- as guides always do -- that he couldn't guarantee that we would see anything as the animals don't perform on command for tourists.  Well, he was prepared to make one exception for us: he guaranteed us that we would see hippo.  It quickly becomes apparent why.  There are hippo everywhere.  In fact, in Chobe it appears that hippo are the new springbok.... they're pretty much everywhere you look.  Actually, truth be told, you don't really get to see much of a hippo when they're in the water.  They're big enough, but really you only get to see their butts and the tops of their heads as they spend as much time as they can in the water to keep their sensitive skin away from the sun.  At first glance, they don't seem to do much either except expel air from either end of their bodies and make a succession of loud grunting noises.  I suppose they don't want to expend too much energy.  They're vegetarians, and I shudder to think how much they must have to eat to keep their massive bulk moving.  No wonder they keep as still and as cool as they can.  Lucky for us, there are some babies here though, and they have such worries.  All they want to do is to play.  They chase each other and they have play fights and they generally put on a show for us.  It's enchanting... as my face clearly shows.  Well, take it from me: I was enchanted.

It's a fantastic cruise.  To top it all off, on the drive back to the campsite, we see a herd of elephant crossing the road in the town centre.  Our driver follows them down a lane, and we get to see them silently disappearing down to the river and along the bank.  It's a magical moment.

Day 19-20 Livingstone, Zambia

Approximate Distance: 100 km
Estimated Travel Time: 3 hrs

We get up early in the morning to try to beat the rush at the ferry to cross the Zambezi River.  The Zambezi is the border between four countries: Botswana, Zambia, Namibia and Zimbabwe.  We will use the ferry to leave Botswana for Zambia and to continue on to Livingstone. Apparently you can spend hours and hours here, and it's all pretty chaotic.  On the way in, we drive past an enormous queue of lorries waiting for their turn to cross, and the area around the ferry is alive with the people who have to cross this river every day of their lives to go to work.  It's not exactly what you would call a slick operation, but after a short delay, we make it across safely enough and brave Zambian border control.  African borders have been nowhere near as difficult as I thought they might be, but there's usually a few forms that we have to fill in before we get a new stamp in our passports.  In Zambia, they ask that we pay them fifty US dollars in cash.  In return, they don't even ask us to fill out anything and we can quickly get on our way.  It seems that money and a bolshy guide go a long way to combat the red tape of most African bureaucracy

From the border, it's a short ride into Livingstone, home of the mighty Victoria Falls.  As the falls form a natural border with Zimbabwe, the town is awash with migrants from the economic disaster just across the river.  There are people here who will try and get you to buy a one trillion dollar note from them as a curiosity item so they can feed their families.  We're told that all the traders here will happily barter for items that we might consider rubbish or useless.  One guy on our trip part-exchanges an empty coke can for some nick-nacks in a shop, and items like dirty socks and t-shirts and knackered old trainers are highly prized items (although I'm not quite naive enough to believe that DJ Tash's old Nike Air trainers are going to an orphan as the guy she's bartering with is keen to try and tell her....)

We're here to end our trip with a bang, taking part in a few activities to get the blood pumping before we go home.  This, apparently, is an adrenaline capital, and some of the activities on offer here are things like bungee jumping, gorge swings, rafting and all that kind of jazz.

Oh, and the falls of course.

We go straight to the Falls as soon as we arrive.  They're awesome.

The Victoria Falls waterfalls occur in a country that is perfectly flat. From its source on the borders of the Democratic Republic of Congo, the Zambezi River meanders for 1300 km across the wooded plateau of Zambia, eroding for itself a shallow valley on its mild descent to the site of the falls. The river eventually found a weak spot on the lower lip of the surface over which it passed, and forced a passage which was steadily deepened into an exit gorge.  During the last half million years the river has scoured out eight of these cracks across its bed. The Victoria falls occur where the river is 1688m wide, presents the spectacle of an average maximum of 550 million liters of water a minute tumbling over the lip of the trench in five main falls, the Devil’s Cataract, Main falls, Horseshoe Falls, Rainbow falls and the Eastern Cataract. The highest of these is Rainbow falls, on an average 108 m high. A peak flood sees 750 million liters of water in one minute hurtling over the falls.As I've mentioned, the water is pretty high at the moment, so there's quite a lot of water flying about.  The locals call the Falls Mosi-oa-Tunya, the smoke that thunders, and it's not hard to see why.  You can see the falls from miles away as a pillar of "smoke" rises straight up into the cloudless sky.  Close up, it's even more impressive.  It's also pretty wet.

 [photo courtesy of Tash]

Actually, it's so wet that we almost can't see anything.  Almost.  It's totally worth the $20 park fee though, and I'm astonished when some South African guys at the gates ask me if it's worth the money.  It's Victoria Falls!  It's one of the natural wonders of the world.  How can you be in Livingstone and even contemplate not going to see them?  By the time we get back to the truck, we're all absolutely soaked to the skin.  It's awesome.  It's not just the falls around here though.... there are also marauding packs of baboon who will threaten and rob anyone who goes too close to them, as Jess demonstrates below.

 [photo courtesy of Jess]

I saw a guy stupid enough to pull out and start eating an apple in front of a baboon, and it's on him almost immediately.  It's all he can do to throw the thing away before he gets into real trouble.  Baby Max at one point finds himself surrounded by a troop who demand he hand them over everything he is carrying, and then proceed to try and open his camcorder case (they can't) and drink his anti-bacterial handwash.  Mmmm.  Tasty.  All filmed by an amused Max on his camcorder..... You don't mess with a baboon.

Next up: booze cruise.

They prefer to call it a sunset cruise, but you pay $40 (or something) and then get as much booze as you can drink and as much food as you can eat.  It doesn't take a genius to work out what happens next.  This is basically the start of the long farewell, and no one on the truck wants to miss out. We quickly take control of the bar, because that's the kind of classy people that we are, and Elbie cracks out a few bottles of fizz.... and no glasses.

It's a fun evening, with a beautiful sunset on the Zambezi not going entirely unnoticed amidst the carnage.  I definitely don't get my money's worth in terms of booze, sticking to a couple of bottles of beer, but I do get to be endlessly entertained by my companions..... whether it's C. drinking far more than she usually would simply because fizz is her weakness, DJ Tash getting all friendly and chatty with everyone as she got drunker or all of the "Titanic" impersonations on the prow of the ship.  Pretty much everyone is three sheets to the wind by the time we get back to the campsite at about 6pm.  We head to the disco, where an enthusiastic game of whisky slap is kicked off.  Not familiar with it?  It's a game where you pair up, take a shot of whisky and your partner slaps you full in the face.  Sounds good, huh?  All the rage in New York, Jane tells us......

  [photo courtesy of Tash]

I actually end up going to bed at about 8pm as I'm not really much of a dancer and I'm not really in the mood, but I think everyone is basically done by about 10pm.  We've had so many early morning starts that our ability to sit up late has basically been broken.  Besides, most of us have a pretty full day of activities planned for the next day.

I'm going lion walking, for a start.....

It's all part of a rehabilitation programme.  They think that lion populations in Africa have plummeted something like 90% in the last thirty years.  This is simply a result of human expansion into their domains, but it's such an iconic animal for Africa and for many of the cultures here that this can't be allowed to continue and these beautiful animals need help if they are to survive.  The programme operating here takes lions born in captivity and puts them through a four step programme.  Step one sees the young lions being educated in the bush by being taken for walks with humans standing in as the senior members of their pride.  Step two sees the human contact being slowly withdrawn and the lions being put into a safe environment that's not less than 500 acres and is safe and full of game.  Here they are able to fine tune their hunting skills and to start to live as "wild" lions.  Step three sees these lions forming prides, breeding and having cubs.  These cubs are effectively wild, and step four sees the introduction of these second generation lions, usually as part of a full pride, back into the African wilderness.

The programme hasn't been going for long in Zambia, and they've only got as far as step two, but this approach seems to have worked elsewhere in Africa and they're hopeful it will work here too.  The walk we will be doing is part of step one, and after a safety briefing about how to behave around them lions, we're introduced to three beautiful ten month old lions, two sisters and their brother.  In lots of ways, they're very much like their domestic cousins.  We're not allowed to have anything that dangles off us.... well, if you've ever played with a cat, then you'll know why not.  For the same reason, we're only to approach them from behind, and we are given a stick.... not to hit the lions with, but to use as a way of distracting them.  They may only be playing, but a whack from a playful lion could do some pretty serious damage and you have to give them respect.  We're told to keep an eye on them at all times, to be aware where they are, and if they look like they are stalking us (what our guide calls their "naughty look"), then we are to point the stick at them and to tell them "NO" in a firm voice.  I've seen plenty of lions on this trip, but nothing prepares me for my first close-up glimpse of these beautiful creatures.  They're magnificent.  They have huge paws, golden eyes and are simply stunning.  They're also clearly quite lazy -- just like a cat -- and are a little reluctant to go for a walk just because we want to walk with them.  They want to laze around and to play with each other, and frankly I'd be happy to watch them, but the guides get them moving and we set off into the bush.

We stop a couple of times so that we can stroke them.  We approach them carefully from behind, distract them with a stick if they look like turning round... and we pet them.  Their fur is slightly rougher than you'd expect, but nothing can explain the feeling I get when I touch these magnificent animals, especially when they start to play with the stick in my hand in almost exactly the same way as my cat plays the same game in my garden at home.  It's a magical, magical morning.

There's a video too.... do watch it so you can see these beautiful animals for yourself.  It wasn't an especially cheap morning, but it was worth every penny.  This is how the charity funds its work, and I'm more than happy to have contributed.

Lots of other people are busy throwing themselves off gorges and other adrenaline-y type activities, but I'm done.  We head back to the campsite, treat ourselves to a massage in the spa next door and generally relax and get ready for our last dinner with the guys we've spent so much time with over the last three weeks.  It's actually quite emotional.

C. and Jane have been working hard on an awards ceremony, and nobody in the team leaves without getting a personalised prize that sums up the impression that they've made on the party.  C. gets the David Attenborough award for her ability to spot and identify a bird at 100m and I get the Perrier Award for keeping everyone (well, Jane...) amused by reciting old and obscure comedy sketches on command.   The biggest awards of the night are reserved for our guide, Elbie, and our driver, Barry.  If we are the party, then these guys have been the life and soul of the party, and it's the least we can do to hand them over a couple of bottles of booze with their awards and their tips.

It's been an incredible tour and I'm so sorry to be leaving these guys.

Day 21 Depart Livingstone, Zambia

The long goodbye continues as we pack up our tents the next morning and get ready for our lunchtime flight out Livingstone airport.  It's actually quite emotional as people start to pack their stuff up and get ready to leave.  Many of us are flying home, some are staying in Livingstone, and several people are heading back to South Africa.  DJ Tash and Gums, those happy occupants of tent number 509, are teaming up together to catch a bus up to Malawi..... although as they are collectively known as Team Fu*k Up, I imagine that's going to turn out to be quite a ride.

We say our goodbyes and head to the airport to start our long journey home.  The parting is softened by the fact that we get to spend most of the day hanging around with Sina, the very aptly-nicknamed Dark Horse, who has flights at nearly the same times as us and has the same long layover in Johannesburg.  She's cool and lovely and it's been a pleasure spending time with her and with the rest of the gang over the last three weeks.

We've seen a lot of overland trucks as we've travelled through Africa.  I'm fairly sure that the companies that operate them are all pretty similar and that there are good trucks and bad trucks in every company.  What I think has marked our trip out is that we've had the happy good fortune to have two brilliant guys leading our trip in Barry and Elbie, and we've also found ourselves in the middle of a group of people who seem to be able to get along without cliques and who genuinely seem to enjoy each other's company.  I'm going to miss them.... so much so, that I break the rule of a lifetime and actually sign up to Facebook when I get home so that I can more easily stay in touch with them.

What an amazing trip.
What a beautiful, amazing, vibrant place Africa is.

 [photo courtesy of Jess]

We liked Africa so much, we made a t-shirt to commemorate the trip.  The map of all 5,250km of our route is pretty cool, but the front is even better: a tribute to both Jane's leopard and to Barry our driver and his pipe.

On the arm?  The catchphrase of the trip: WE ARE THE PARTY!
(Another tribute to Barry a.k.a. Chuck Norris is the Zambian copper bracelets that many of us buy at Victoria Falls.... Barry has been impressing us all tour with his bangle that opens beer bottles, and this is where we can get them.  A beer opening bracelet.  Does it get any better than that?  Barry, you're a legend and I salute you.....)

How can I possibly end the story of this incredible trip?  Why, with a picture of a statue of Nelson Mandela made entirely of beads that I saw in Johannesburg airport of course.... 

Africa... you were awesome.  I will be back.

Tuesday, 8 June 2010

shining like a national guitar.....

Day 14 Maun

Approximate Distance: 280 km
Estimated Travel Time: 4 hrs

Our next stop was Maun, the gateway to the Okavango Delta.  We have one night here before we head off to spend the next two nights bush camping out in the delta itself.  The Okavango Delta is the world's largest inland delta. It is formed where the Okavango River empties water gathered on the mountains in places like far-away Angola into a swamp in an endorheic basin in the Kalahari Desert.  Where most deltas empty into the sea, the 11 cubic kilometers of water that irrigate the 5,000 km² of the Okavango delta are lost to evaporation and transpiration, with the rest draining into Lake Ngami.  Not a drop reaches the sea.  It is, in fact, the world's largest inland delta.

When we enter the delta tomorrow, we'll be going in on boats, but the sheer scale of the place is best appreciated from the air.  After we put our tents up, we head back to Maun airport and take a scenic flight above the delta.  It's apparently the size of Switzerland, but from the air it looks quite a lot like the mould you get on the top of an abandoned cup of coffee.

It's vast, and it keeps unfolding beneath us for the duration of the hour long flight as the sun sets.  From up here we can see herds of water buffalo (the last one of the Big Five that we haven't yet seen on this trip), elephant, hippo and even a large herd of sweeping pronking springbok (pronking is the word used to describe the distinctive, four-legs-in-the-air, jumping that various gazelle do, and during the course of the trip has also become an amusing substitute for the f-word).  The pilot throws in some aerobatics in an attempt to make us feel queasy, but we're all pretty dazed already by the sheer scale of the delta.  It's huge.  Back at the airport, we muck about on the runway as we walk back towards the terminal, pretending that we're in Top Gun, and in the terminal itself, I see a discarded sign amusingly advertising a spot of zebra hunting in my postcode in the UK.  I've not seen any game around West Bridgford myself, but there might be some hanging around Holme Pierrepont, I reckon......

Back at the campsite that evening, we're briefed on what to expect in the Delta.  Basically, we're going to travel for about an hour on a speedboat and will then be poled for another couple of hours into the delta on mokoro, the traditional boats of the region.  We will be completely out in the wild and will not have access to comforts like showers and flushing toilets.  There will also be no fences between us and any animals around the place, which will include lion, hyena, hippo, snakes and elephants.  It is emphasised to us in no uncertain terms that we are under no circumstances to visit latrines on our own, especially after dark, as we could easily be taken by lion, who have been known to investigate the campsite from time to time.  Their eyes reflect back golden in torchlight, apparently.....If we meet a lion, we are told not to run under any circumstances, as this will trigger the predator's pursuit instincts.  Instead, we are told to stand tall.  Apparently the lion will recognise from our height and the fact that our shoulders are broader than our hips, that we are predators and not prey.  Hmmm.  I'm not sure that I'd rely on that particular nugget.  Don't lion hunt giraffe and elephant?  We are also told to stay out of the water unless specifically told otherwise..... the water is stained a deep brown colour from all the tannins, and we will not be able to see any approaching crocodiles or hippo.  That said, the guide also says that we should take every opportunity we do have to swim when told it is safe.  Hmmm.  We'll see.  Sounds like an interesting couple of days ahead.

Day 15-16 Okavango Delta

Accommodation: Basic bush camping

After starting before the sun rises most mornings on this trip, we actually have a reasonably civilised start to the day today.  We're able to get up, shower and breakfast after dawn and still have plenty of time to pack everything up for the next couple of days.  As well as a small bag with a change of clothes, we're also packing up the tents, the chairs, the food, some booze, the mattresses and some 10 litres of water per person.... which is apparently what we're going to need for the next 48 hours.  It's quite a lot of stuff.  We load up the speedboats and we're on our way into the delta.

After an hour on the boats, we stop at a busy little village just outside the buffalo fence that marks the edge of the delta proper, and we transfer into the mokoro.  Traditionally these are hollowed out trees that are flat-bottomed and poled through the shallow water.  Actually, nowadays, many of these are made out of fibreglass, but they're still powered the old-fashioned way..... by hand.  Naturally, we don't have to do anything; we introduce ourselves to our poler, who is marvellously called Life, make ourselves as comfortable as possible and settle down for a two-hour ride to our campsite.

There's lots to see - plenty of eagles, kingfishers, darts, storks and other birds, as well as the shifting scenery as we pole through the reeds deeper into the delta.

It's a very restful way to travel.  Apparently it's considered a compliment to the poler if you fall asleep, and as the heat of the day rises, sat on our mattresses, it's hard not to nod off, even with the undoubted attraction of a brown bag lunch sitting within easy reach.

 [photo courtesy of Jess] is pretty comfortable though.

After a very pleasant couple of hours, we arrive at the campsite that's going to be our base for the next couple of nights.  Up until now, we've been staying in fairly nice campsites with showers and the like.  Things are a bit different here.... for starters, the toilet is a freshly-dug hole in the ground behind an old termite mound.  If the toilet paper is still hanging on a branch around the corner, then it's empty, if not, then you have to wait.  It's a simple system, but it works well enough.  Besides, anyone who has used a latrine like this will tell you that it's actually a pretty clean system.  In fact, it's cleaner than some of the toilets we've seen along the way in Africa so far.  The campsite itself is perhaps more compact than we're used to, with all our tents gathered together and surrounded by the tents of the guides and polers, who are to act as a first line of defence against any wildlife that may choose to wander through the site.

 [photo courtesy of Grooves....]

It's actually pretty comfortable (even if most of that water we were told we needed to bring with us has been accidentally left on the speedboats.... I guess we'll have to manage with rather less than 5 litres a day, eh?).  Our schedule for the next couple of days is naturally entirely dependent upon the animals, who are most active at dawn and at dusk.  The plan is to go on walking safaris out in the bush at those times, and then to spend the long hours in the middle of the day chilling out at the campsite.  Water levels in the delta are high - they've received more than twice the usual volume of rainfall this year, which everyone hopes is not the result of climate change and a sign of things to come - and so game is actually pretty dispersed.  As in the Game Parks, the chances of seeing wildlife are much higher when water is scarce and the animals are forced to congregate around waterholes..... so all this water means that the chances are that we won't see all that much whilst we're here, but because we were so lucky in Etosha and have had a good look at the delta from above, I can't help but feel that the pressure is off.  I'm just looking forward to getting out and have a good look around, knowing that I could walk into a lion..... the thought alone is exciting enough. 

To kill the time before our first walk, we kick off a game of movie title charades that will become an obsession over the next day or so, and head off for a swim at a nearby "safe" area.  I've promised my practice nurse back home that I wouldn't swim in Africa, but all of this goes right out of the window when I jump into the cool waters of the crocodile, hippo and who-knows-what-else infested waters of the Okavango Delta..... although I do keep my sandals on throughout.   It's pretty hot out here, so it's a good way to cool off and to have a bit of fun, mucking about in mokoro and splashing about in the water.... although it's noticeable that Bones, the doctor in the party, elects not to get into the water.  Ah, I'm sure it's fine.  I make a mental note not to google the various micro-organisms that might be living in this water when I get home....

On our return to the camp, we break up into groups of about six and head out on our first walk.  Our guide is Vincent, and he takes us out for about an hour's walk behind the campsite as the sun goes down.  It's pretty exciting as he briefs us on the dos and don'ts of a walking safari and we get out into the bush.  Basically, watch him and don't run unless he runs.  OK.  Easier said than done, I think, but ok, let's give it a go..... We walk slowly through the savannah, straining our eyes and our ears for sight or sounds of anything.  We actually don't see much: some zebra, a warthog and some baboons, but it's still an incredible experience.

After a night of more campfire charades, in which I am told that my team is being unreasonable by picking obscure films like "The Shawshank Redemption" (eh? Wait until you get a load of "Titus Andronicus", suckers....), we get up with the dawn to go out on a longer, four hour walk.   In terms of actual animals seen, we don't see very much again this morning.... some impala, baboons, monkeys, warthogs and the like... but we do have the thrill of following fresh buffalo tracks before Vincent decides that we're not in the best terrain for bumping into what is the most dangerous of the Big Five and takes us off the trail.  We also hear a lion.  I'm not sure how close it actually is, but it sounds as though it is close.  Now, part of me would dearly love to see a lion on foot, but I'd be lying if I didn't say that the larger part of me was not all that disappointed that we didn't run into it.  Quite how close the lion were is revealed a little later on when we find the freshly picked clean skull of last night's kill, some 200m away from our campsite.....

We walk for several hours, but in spite of Vincent's best efforts, the high water levels mean that the game is simply too well dispersed for us to see much.  He takes us back via what I assume is an old stand-by for days like these: a set of elephant bones.  Apparently a pair of lion can pull down a bull elephant, a feat that becomes all the more impressive when you see quite how big their bones are.  The ankle bone alone must weigh about 15-20kg, and the skull is huge.

I'm guessing that these particular bones have been here for a while, but who's complaining when it means you get to mess around with some massive bones?  Not me, that's for sure.

Perhaps in an ideal world, we would have seen some more wildlife -- some of the other groups see elephant, and it's not outrageous to think that we might have seen both lion and water buffalo around here.  I'm philosophical though: you get what you get and there's precious little point moaning about it.  I do feel a bit bad for the guys who joined the group in Windhoek and thus didn't get to see all those animals we saw in Etosha, but I still think this was well-worth doing.  It turns out that walking safaris are brilliant, even when you don't see all that much.  It's a unique environment and it's brilliant that we can spend a few days soaking it up.  And playing charades.

On our last evening in the delta, we go out poling to look for some hippo as the sun sets.  We stop on the fringes of a large, deep water pool, and we spend a happy half hour listening to a hippo grumbling and groaning as he wallows in the water in front of us.  We only really see his nostrils when he surfaces for air, but he makes an impressive amount of noises anyway... mostly farty noises, it has to be said.  Besides, we also have another peerless African sunset to admire. 

Back at the camp, the guides and polers have clearly been around us long enough to start feeling more comfortable around us.  Where last night they were keeping their distance a little, tonight they are sitting with us around the fire, joining in (as best as they can) with our game of charades, and then finally treating us to some fantastic singing and some crazy dancing, including "the frog" as pictured below.  It's great fun, sadly spoiled a little when they ask us to sing some songs for them, and the best we can come up with is "The Birdie Song" (which they love) and "YMCA" which they find a bit baffling (who doesn't?).

Another fantastic couple of days in Africa then, and the next morning we are poled back towards civilization..... and then nearly killed in a speedboat when our driver decides it's a good idea to let DJ Tash drive and she nearly runs us into a tree.

Somehow we survive.....

 ...only to see our bread being stolen by a particularly brazen monkey as we were setting up our lunch.  He then proceeded to eat the whole lot whilst sitting in the tree above our heads.  Cheeky little....oh.

Day 17 Gweta

Approximate Distance: 240 km
Estimated Travel Time: 4 hrs

Today's a pretty easy day.  A relatively short drive along a road with elephant and giraffe on either side, followed by an early arrival at a campsite where we will be setting up our tents underneath ancient Baobab trees.  We're on the edge of the Makgadikgadi Pans here, an immense area devoid of anything but salt and shimmering horizon. As the largest expanse of 'nothingness' on earth, the pans have area the size of Switzerland (is everything the size of Switzerland in Africa or what?), and are clearly visible from outer-space.  Crucially for us though, there's a good set of showers, a really nice pool and a fantastic bar.   We spend the next few hours relaxing, washing off the grime of the delta and generally relaxing before the next stage of our journey.  I drink a few amarulas and learn how to do "the springbok" shot correctly (it's amarula with creme de menthe and there's a whole ritual involved....).

It feels a little like we're on the home stretch now, but we've still got the Chobe river to see, the Zambesi to cross and then Zambia and the mighty Victoria Falls before we head for home.  We're not done just yet......