Maps – Paper Ones!

I was talking about GPS devices and how they make maps obsolete, but do they? As friend, trekker and mountaineer Harry ‘Pikkie’ Loots points out, when out in the wilderness, be sure to take your maps and compass along. Sometimes you’re not connected to anything, you only have what you brought.

I love maps. Here are some of mine – about 70 of them here:

Those three Drakensberg maps are 1:50 000 and made of waxed paper so they can survive some soggy weather. Some of the others are plastic laminated, so even more waterproof.

I thought I’d compare my Drakensberg map of the chain ladder to what I could find online. Actually, you can get far more detail online! Here’s a snapshot of the chain ladder area:

– WAY more detail! You can even see the footpath above and below the ladder! –

So it would pay to search the area you’re going to beforehand and capture and print some detail to supplement your maps.

Still love maps!


GPS 1996

ca.1996 my good friend Larry sent me a Magellan hand-held GPS after we had hosted him for parts of his trip to SA that year. I didn’t know what to do with it. It was fun, we’d stand outside while it took its time finding up to nine satellites; it would give us our location (about 300 South and 300 East); and we could re-trace a path we had driven, but we didn’t really see much use for it at first. I kept playing with it, fascinated, thinking ‘Oka-ay, now what?’

Then came frog atlassing! We were active in bird atlassing in quarter degree squares, but frogging was different. Easier! All we had to do was tape-record the frog calling, add a few details like weather and habitat, record the location on the GPS and send in the “sighting” (hearing). That was really cool. No maps needed.

For recording we had a directional mike and a cassette tape recorder. My first one had a fold-out parabola mike, the new one looked more up-to-date, just like this:


Although we felt like early adopters in 1996, much had been happening already. The GPS project was started by the U.S Department of Defense in 1973, with the first prototype spacecraft launched in 1978 and the full constellation of 24 satellites operational in 1993. Originally limited to use by the United States military, civilian use was allowed from the 1980s.

In 1989, Magellan Navigation Inc. unveiled its Magellan NAV 1000, the world’s first commercial handheld GPS receiver. These units initially sold for approximately US$2,900 each. We had the 2000 – wonder what Larry paid!?

In 1990 Mazda made the first production car in the world with a built-in GPS navigation system.

Garmin seemed to become the most commonly-seen GPS units in SA, as I recall it. Now cellphones – smartphones – have it all built in, no need for a separate GPS. No need for a separate anything, almost.

Camera, TV, map, compass, email, music player, music library, PC, internet browser, scanner (paper, credit cards, barcodes), fax, bank, credit card, remote control (for TV, DVD, games, drones, model cars, cameras, etc), business card, airline ticket, light meter, spirit level, distance measuring tape, calendar, guitar tuner, recipe book, library, e-reader, field guide, tune recogniser, advice columnist, demonstrater of how to fix anything and build anything, video phone, video camera, live streaming camera, plant, insect and animal identifier, newspaper, photo album, photo editing, notepad, book writer, dictionary, online shopper, timer, watch, alarm clock, walkie talkie, data store, games (board, active and interactive), keys (house, car), torch, voice recorder, calculator, radio, ANYTHING. Everything!


– OK, so he was an earlier adopter –

Satellites – Where are they?

Look up and spot the satellites above you. How far are they? Well, if you could lift up the front of your car until it was standing on its exhaust pipe and then drive straight upwards, the nearest ones are only one hour’s drive away, assuming your car can go 160km/h. I’m sure mine could achieve that – on the way back.

Virgin Galactic is taking deposits (now) to fly you not quite so high (one day) for R2,5m.

Here are some distances to various satellites (that’s the International Space Station in the top pic, the one we drove to in an hour or two).


Satellite Types


shuttles, space stations, spysats, navsats, hamsats


weather sats, photo sats

960-1 900km

spysats, military comsats, hamsats

4 800-9 600km

science sats

 1 000-19 000km

navsats (eg. GPS)

36 000km

communications, broadcast, weather (geo-stationary)

Those that stay in one position relative to earth (the ‘geo-stationary’ ones) are a bit further and it would take you about two weeks of non-stop driving to get to the DSTV satellite. If you get there, please switch off all those “reality” shows. So better pack some sarmies and a flask of coffee. And take blankets.

car in space_2.jpg

Two geo-stationary satellites.

On this scale the space shuttle and spysats are flat against the earth – you couldn’t see any space between them and earth they’re so close.

So: Ready to take a R2 500 000 ‘space’ flip, even though you won’t actually be going into space?

Virgin Galactic.jpg

The furthest ‘satellite’ you wouldn’t be able to drive to, though. It is now 20 640 000 000km away. Voyager 1 was launched in 1977. It’s more a ‘space probe’ and it’s flying away from us at about 17km per second. Voyager 1 is the first and only man-made object to have explored Uranus and Neptune, and to have left our solar system. A radio message from Voyager 1 now takes over 19hrs to reach us.


Update: Now Voyager 2 has also left our solar system. In December 2018 NASA announced the satellite, the only spacecraft to have visited all four gas giant planets — Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune — had joined its predecessor Voyager 1 beyond the bounds of our sun’s influence How’s that!? Travel at 17km per second for just 41 years and Zap! you’re out of our solar system! Just another 81 000 years and you’ll reach our nearest star, Alpha Centauri. Of course, you’d still be in the Milky Way, our own galaxy. Intergalactic travel? Now that’s another ballgame!