The Grand Journey. Part 10-A Quirky English Town Stuck in Time

DSC02135This was my first visit to Brighton, a seaside town along the English Channel. I had heard quite a lot about it before arriving. During the 19th century, it was a get-away playground for the rich and famous. Dukes, princes and wealthy industrialist caroused here. The Grand Hotel and stately mansions still flank the Victorian seafront.DSC02123 DSC02124



Most notable is the Royal Pavilion, a retreat for the Prince of Wales, who later became King George IV. The prince hired designer Henry Holland and later  John Nash to build the outlandish Hindu-Gothic monument. While George frolicked here as a young man, the city of Brighton eventually bought the pavilion in the 1850s. During WWI it served as a hospital for Indian and British soldiers coming back from the front. Later it became a tourist attraction. It was also the site for the first legal gay marriage in the UK in 2014.DSC02130

Then there is the landmark, Brighton Palace Pier. This amusement park of a dock stretches over 1700 feet out into the Channel. It houses game arcades, fast food stands and fairground attractions. It is a fine place to see the English attempt to enjoy a stony beach with frigid water or watch the world’s most aggressive seagulls eat tourist scraps.DSC02125 DSC02126 DSC02136 DSC02143 DSC02137 DSC02142

DSCN1750I also wandered The Lanes, twisting alleyways from 18th century Brighton. I could not help but think I was back in the 1960s. Incense and pot smoke wafted through the warm afternoon air. Music stores sold only LPs, many 30-40 years old and had walls covered with posters promoting past concerts of The Who, Jimmy Hendrix and the Kinks among others. Even the street wall murals reminded me of Pearl Alley in 1960s Columbus rather than a British seaside town.DSC02147 DSC02148 DSC02149

After Africa, Brighton was striking. I was back in the modern western world but decidedly one stuck in another era. It was slightly disconcerting. Had I flicked the wrong switch in the time/travel machine? DSC02120I lodged at an apartment at the new Brighton Marina, but then would spend the day walking through memory lanes. One evening as a waitress approached our table of eight, she greeted me as if I was one of her regular customers. I politely mentioned that I never had been there before. She was more than slightly embarrassed. I should have just said hello and, “Give me the usual.”  Brighton was a bizarre mix of space and time, ice cream and ale, fish and chips. Plus Italian food from the waitress who thought she knew me. It was time to head back to London.DSC02139

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The Grand Journey. Part 9-The Last Waltz in Africa

DSCN1704DSC02093I am on the last day of the overland safari and our guide, Haimbodi “Hofni” Holni, greets the group as he always does regardless to time of day, “Good Morning!” Hofni is the perfect road mate—continually upbeat, a gigantic curiosity for the world and a genuine interest in people. As usual, mix a group of a dozen strangers  together for a eight-day road trip and all does not blend well like whirled peas. There is always one that tries to spoil the casserole. But in spite of an alcoholic loudmouth who tried to seize control, Hofni kept the ship upright for the 600 miles from Victoria Falls to Jo-burg and a 500-mile round trip Jo-burg-Kruger National Park trek. I treasured every day that we ran together.

DSC02058Our truck, Pavarotti, now growls westbound under the control of Dennis, a Jo-burg driver who I talk to often during our road stops about the oppressive days of apartheid in South Africa. We are headed to the Great Escarpment, a prominent geological formation rising over 10,000 feet, 3000 meters. It is also known as Drakensberg in Afrikaans, or Dragon Mountains, due to its steep sided blocks and soaring pinnacles. This is what 20 million years of massive geological uplifting can do…DSC02034

DSC02057The first stop is God’s Window, an overlook that plunges 2300 feet/700 meters. On a clear day GW boasts a view eastward to the Lebombo Mountains on the South Africa/ Mozambique border. Today, however, the haze is thick and I turn my attention to an eco-niche rain forest behind that is surrounded by arid mountains. My Japanese friend from Pavarotti, Yokari, relishes in this verdant green landscape. It must remind her of her distant homeland.DSC02097 DSC02043 DSC02045

DSC02066Next up is Bourke’s Luck Potholes named after a local prospector, Tom Bourke, who predicted that gold was here. Unfortunately for Tom, he never found any at this spot. Other gold seekers found a seam located just a short distance to the south of Bourke’s claim. All he ended up with was the name of this place. It is a beautiful confluence of two rivers, the Treur and Blyde, and it marks the start of the 20 mile/33km-long gorge called the Blyde River Canyon known as the largest ‘green canyon’ in the world due to its lush subtropical foliage. The geology here is impressive. Plunge pools, potholes and giant kettles are craved out of the sandstone as the river snakes its way west.DSC02078DSC02065 DSC02083 DSC02068 DSC02062 DSC02096


Hofni declares the last stop at the Three Rondavels, spectacular peaks that resemble the traditional beehive-shaped huts that still can be seen throughout the South African landscape. But these rondavels tower nearly 3000 feet/700 meters above the surrounding countryside. A local motorcycle gang hangs out here. So do a few young tourists tempting gravity and rock stability on an outcrop a lifetime away from the bottom of the Blyde River Canyon, one of the larger canyons on the planet.DSC02100DSC02102DSC02101Before I know it, Pavarotti is back in the flatlands on a four-lane highway speeding toward Jo-burg, a city of 11 million souls. A red dot of a sun disappears into the city’s smog as we approach. My African odyssey has ended.DSC02105

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The Grand Journey. Part 8-Nobody Can Kudu Like You Do

DSCN1658The second part of the expedition centers on South Africa’s premiere national park, Kruger, which borders Mozambique to the east and the Dragon Mountains to the west. Our first entry into the park is aboard a 4 x 4 and we speed through the bush to catch an African sunset high atop gigantic granite bolder. Awaiting us there are two guys who have set up bar-complimentary glasses of sherry and Amarula—South Africa’s answer to Bailey’s Irish Cream—are placed on top of table clothed setup and a make shift hut serves as a beer and wine bar. Welcome to the Hard Rock Cafe, Kruger style.DSC01832 It is dark as we thread our way back to our safari camp on hard, dusty roads. Our driver, Kaiten, suddenly slams on the brakes. “We’ve got elephants on both sides of us,” says the guide. “Stay quiet and no photo flashes, please.” In the deep dusk I can see long trunks pulling down branches above and to the right. Our 4 x 4 slowly inches forward. Kaiten suddenly senses that he has gone to far, and the bull elephant to the left might charge. The guide slams the truck into reverse and speeds backwards 20 yards. The bull trumpets loud sending chills down my spine. I have heard this sound in Tarzan films but the sonic volume of this call in the wild is immense. This is the real deal. Finally, the small elephant herd on the right crosses the road to join the bull. A young juvenile stops in the track, looks at us and flares out his ears to make him appear larger than he is. His mother is teaching him well.

DSC01839The next morning at Oh-Dark-Thirty we gather for a bush walk. Our two rangers, Jacob and Simon, pause to load their .485 caliber Winchester African rifles before we begin. I am told that armed guides are required on bush walks according to South African park regulations. What a difference from Botswana where our guides there were armed with a mere stick. I find today’s armament strangely comforting until I discover that both rangers walk at the front of our single file line in case of a jammed gun during a charge. Of course, I am positioned totally at the end of a long line of hikers. “What if some beast attacks from the rear?”, I ask myself. DSC01842Childhood jungle films come to mind.   I remember that it was always the last guy in line, usually a pigmy carrying a large load on his head, would meet some gruesome fate–a poisoned dart, a fatal squeeze from an anaconda, ripped flesh from a lion’ claw. As we walk along in the tranquil golden dawn, I am constantly scan the bush behind me. When not doing that, I look at the deep grass we walk through. Cape cobras and black mambas live in the Kruger bush. When we stop for a break I ask Ranger Jacob about those badass serpents. “If you get bit by a black mamba, you have about an hour before the venom will kill you. We have real fast helicopter medivac here so no worries. The problem is the mamba will usually try to bite twice. If that happens, you only have ten minutes. Then about the only thing you can do is sign your will.”

Jacob shows me the .458 magnum bullet.

Jacob shows me the .458 magnum bullet.

The rest of the morning we hear hyenas nearby, spot a few Cape buffalo in the distance and watch five hippos watch us. They are bobbing up and down in a water hole. “Hippos are the most dangerous animal in Africa,” explains Simon. “The male here, he’s the one with red around his ears, feels threatened right now. We are encroaching on his territory and he will protect the females in his group.” We watch the hippos grunt, blow bubbles and stare at us. It is time to get back to the lodge.DSC01838

The next day we are back in a 4 x 4 with our guide/driver who gives his name as simply ‘D’. Our group hopes to see all of the Big Five today–elephant, rhino, leopard, lion and Cape buffalo. These are deemed as the most dangerous African animals to hunt. They are the ones that Ernest Hemingway wrote volumes about. DSCN1671DSC01910DSC01739DSC02000 DSC01921

Remains of the impala in the tree.

Remains of the impala in the tree.

For many tourists, seeing all five is a quest that is often not fulfilled. The African goddesses must be guiding D today as we see all five in five hours. In fact, we see a leopard who puts her fresh kill, an impala, high in a tree. Moments later we see her 8-month old cub. Our last Big Five is a lone 3-year old lion is taking an afternoon nap under a tree. He finally raises his massive head to see what all the commotion is about. I have been nearly two weeks in Africa by this time. It is my first lion siting.DSC01996

But we also see other animals equally as splendid as the fab Big Five. There are impala, sable, wildebeest, striped mongoose, giraffe, zebra, monkey, baboon, hyena and, of course, kudu. DSC02004 DSC01882 DSC01745 DSC01719DSC02024DSCN1619 DSC01893These large African plains antelope are seen everywhere in Kruger. The males have long, spiral horns that reach for the skies. Both sexes have thin, white vertical stripes running down their buff-colored flanks. I ask our guide D about these beautiful animals. “There are over 8,000 greater kudu in Kruger. At times, locals come in from the borders of the park and hunt them for food. Of course, that’s totally illegal.” I learn from D that others, professional poachers, go after the exotics, especially the rhino whose horns are valued by the Chinese as an aphrodisiac. D claims that 2-3 rhinos per month are killed illegally in Kruger. “That is simply unsustainable. I spent four months on the anti-poaching patrol. They would drop us off in the middle of the bush and we would live on the ground with bare essentials. I learned how to craft a toothbrush from a twig and make toothpaste from bush leaves. We track the poachers just like they track animals.” “Did you have any close encounters?” “Oh, yeah. Once I was alone and came upon two poachers. They immediately started shooting at me to kill. I shot one through the neck and the other through the leg and then called the helicopter medevac. I never learned what happened to them.” I am at a loss for words. This first-hand information adds an entirely new dimension to the issue  of wild animal poaching. It is conservation warfare pitting preservationists against opportunists. I have tremendous respect for people like this guy who lays it on the line to preserve the natural world. After watching elegant antelope survive the rugged bush here, I see the connection to our guide and want to pay him a compliment. “That’s an amazing story, D. Nobody can kudu like you do.” He laughs at the quip and gets it. D drives on silently as we get to witness the rest of Kruger’s glory. DSC01847DSCN1570

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