A holiday in South Africa

Where else to go on a holiday with a friend who lives in Australia? Well, South Africa, of course, being pretty much halfway between Australia and Senegal! I wondered if this was actually going to work out though as I got to the transit desk in Nairobi, part-way there, to be told, “I’m sorry madam, but that flight you’re booked on to doesn’t exist any more”. We were due to meet at Johannesburg airport, our flights getting in within an hour of each other, and now that perfect planning looked to be in jeopardy.

However, there was another flight from Nairobi to Johannesburg, departing three hours earlier, and I was transferred onto that. What would happen to my luggage, I asked – already checked through to Johannesburg on a flight that no longer existed. They assured me that it would be there, and I had no option but to accept their assurances. So it was with a huge sigh of relief that I saw my little rucksack squeezed between the suitcases on the carousel in Johannesburg.

After a night in a guest house in the suburbs of Johannesburg, we started our holiday with a four-day trip to the Kruger, travelling there along the “Panorama route” with our driver/guide. This was one part of the trip where I really had to compromise, as I wanted to use the time bird-watching but was aware that my friend would be bored rigid if I did. So we spent our time watching elephants, rhinos, zebras, etc (plus a lion replete from a meal from a freshly-killed giraffe, a greater spotted genet and a couple of well-hidden leopards), and only when I saw a bird that I thought was big or colourful enough to be of general interest (a bustard, a tawny eagle, a saddle-billed stork) did I ask the guide to stop. I still enjoyed it there, although it was incredibly frustrating to see so many birds flitting about and not be able to stop to watch and identify them. The bird highlight for me though was the crested barbet, a bird I desperately wanted to see but had not expected to land on my breakfast table to finish off the scraps of toast!

Our next main stop was a farm outside the town of Oudtshoorn. This is the home of the so-called “meerkat man”, who spends his time studying meerkats and trying to promote interest in them and their conservation. We were not lucky with the weather in this place, meaning tours out into meerkat territory involved my wearing five layers of clothes and still being absolutely freezing cold. It turns out that meerkats are rather partial to warm sunny weather too, and they wisely spent their time down in their burrows keeping warm whilst we were out there looking for them. Still, it was nice to spend a couple of days on a farm.

From Oudtshoorn to Wilderness, a small town on the garden route with some nice walking trails. We spent a superb day hiking up a trail to a waterfall, and even my non-birder friend was quite impressed by the Knysna turaco we saw there. This walk was followed by the best meal of the trip too, in a little Italian restaurant some thirty minutes’ walk from our hostel, with wonderful pasta and one of the nicest red wines I’ve drank in a while, all the better for costing only $10!

After Wilderness we visited Hermanus. I really wanted to dive with the great white sharks, and correctly predicted that my friend would be happy to spend her time whale-watching while I was with the sharks. In fact “dive” is a bit of a misnomer. We donned our thick, thick wetsuits (the water temperature that day being 10°C) and our masks, and climbed into a metal cage tethered to the side of the boat. Floating in there with our heads above the water we waited for the spotter to shout warnings: “left, left!” then took a deep breath and ducked underwater to watch a real life Jaws just a few feet away.

The sharks are in the area because of a large seal colony, but to attract them close to the boat the operators use tuna (they are not allowed to use seal meat as bait, oddly), which they throw into the water on the end of a line and then drag along the surface to get the sharks to attack it. The sharks come incredibly close to the cage, so close that you feel you could touch them if only it were safe to poke your hands through the bars. Amazing looking creatures, I only wish I had had an underwater camera to capture it all as the photos from the boat just don’t do it justice.

& this is getting too long – so part two to come later

Second impressions

Despite the restrictions imposed by my employer (a ban on travelling anywhere other than in one of my NGO’s vehicles), I’ve seen enough to really like Haiti. I’m leaving today feeling really quite envious of the people working here on six-month to two-year contracts.

Sure, we had to move out of our hotel because of the violent demonstrations in the square outside, we heard gunfire as we left the office one evening, and the cholera epidemic was starting to get out of hand (dead bodies left in the streets in some towns, as everyone was too afraid to touch them). But Port au Prince remains a beautiful city in terms of its steep hills and its greenery, the atmosphere is at the same time both laid back and lively, and the people are so friendly. There are actually some really nice residential areas to the city too, like the enormous private estate of Belvil with its big villas – and nothing in this district fell down in the earthquake of course.

I did manage to get out on the Saturday evening. To my astonishment, the Ivorian band Magic System were playing a live concert, and enough people from work wanted to go that we were granted permission to extend the usual weekend curfew to 2am provided we travelled in convoy. I was so surprised that people in Haiti would have heard of a West African band, but was told that Magic System have made it big throughout the French-speaking world.

They performed outdoors, on a stage set up within a restaurant-museum complex on the site of an old sugar cane plantation, and the audience was a real mix of locals and expats. There seem to be loads of West Africans working in Haiti, as I met people from Guinea, from Sierra Leone, from Burkina Faso and from Cameroon – together with the music, the climate and the French language it really made me feel at home!

I have to admit too that I do enjoy the excitement of being in a place with a bit of danger. & I guess I’m not alone in that, as many of the expats I spoke to there had previous experience in Darfur, Afghanistan, Gaza and DR Congo. I rather wish I could be content in a 9-5 job somewhere suburban, with a husband, a television and 2.4 kids, but travelling/working in places like Sierra Leone or Haiti make me feel, what? More alive, I suppose. Or maybe it’s just the change of scene that does that?

First Impressions of Haiti

Ever since I started my job I have had my eye on a trip to Haiti. Partly because the country’s strong cultural connection with parts of West Africa has interested me (same people, language, voodoo culture, etc), and partly just that it is a place that is hard to visit as a tourist (because of the level of violence that has plagued it for so long) and so I wanted to take advantage of the ability to see the place through the protection of my employer.

However when they turned to me last month and said they needed me to take part in an assignment there, it was not the same Haiti that I had been thinking of before. The violence is still there but now there is all the devastation and hardship that has resulted from the earthquake, and as my trip approached also a growing cholera epidemic and even the threat of a hurricane.

Well I arrived yesterday, and the place has made a strong impression on me. Perhaps partly because I was a little tired and perhaps disoriented from my travel (I left Johannesburg Friday night and after flying via Nairobi, Dakar, Washington DC and Miami I finally arrived in Port au Prince some 67 hours later), but it is certainly true that this place is unlike any other I have visited.

The city has a beautiful location, set on a number of hills, with higher hills behind and the Caribbean Sea on one side. It is also very green, with tropical vegetation filling whatever space it can find. But of course the earthquake damage is so visible. There are many damaged buildings around, some just with one wall missing and cracks in what remains, some pushed over at crazy angles and some completely collapsed, where the walls obviously gave way and the floors of the building fell in upon one another. I suppose many of these must have skeletons amongst the remains – family members and friends of those who still remain. There are also piles of rubble everywhere – and amazingly, a few very beautiful traditional old wooden houses that survived the quake.

Around these damaged buildings and piles of rubble people get on with life, setting up little stalls and making new pathways between them. However there is still a big danger of further earthquakes (there was apparently a tremor just three days ago) and the buildings that remain, already damaged, are now very vulnerable. We’ve been told that the usual earthquake response, when indoors, is to remain inside and shelter under a table, but that given the fragility of the buildings here we should try to get outside as quickly as possible.

There are also the big tent cities of the homeless. The first tents you see are right outside the airport, and there are many other camps around the city.

Taking photos of all this is difficult. In common with most other INGOs, expat staff are not allowed to walk anywhere (even just to cross the road from the hotel). The gang violence that used to plague this country has returned, with robberies, kidnaps (89 reported so far this year) and shootings quite common. White people are obvious targets for muggings. In addition there is an election due in three weeks’ time, which has always led to violence here. So far there has not been much – two shooting incidents, one involving one of the candidates who was the one with the gun! – but it is expected to build up over the next week. Our hotel, the only one with space, is on one side of what was the main square (now a massive tent city), and this is where the biggest demonstrations and riots are expected to occur. We’ve been told that in such a situation we remain inside the hotel if already here, or spend the night somewhere else if it happens when we are at work. There are many weapons in the country (the gangs, some of whom are behind certain presidential candidates, even have AK47s) so anything that turns violent is to be avoided.

The hurricane largely missed the island, thank goodness, although it did cause flooding in some areas. That flooding, however, is likely to increase the risk that the cholera epidemic spreads to the capital, and if that happens it would be disastrous as so few people here have access to the kind of sanitation and cooking facilities needed to avoid it. We do have a limited supply of tinned and packet food with us just in case!

My overall impression at the moment really is of chaos, and I do wonder what on earth I am doing here…