Lockdown Lookback -2

Re-posting ancient content as a lookback during lockdown.

This post from my matric (or senior high school) year back in 1972. I chose it as just yesterday Sheila discovered letters I had written home from the course! So I added one 48yr-old letter and re-posted it here from my early days blog – http://www.vrystaatconfessions.com

Veld & Vlei at Greystones on the banks of Wagendrift Dam in the July holidays of 1972, my matric – or senior – year of high school. It was a ‘Leadership School’ – ‘a physical and mental challenge,’ they said.

Veld & Vlei Greystones Wagendrift
– Veld & Vlei leadership course July 1972 at Greystones near Estcourt –

Memories of a busy week: The tough obstacle course – carry that 44-gal drum over the wall without letting it touch the wall! Other obstacles, including tight underground tunnels. And HURRY!

Chilly winter nights in these old canvas bell tents – we slept like logs:

Cross-country runs; PT by military instructors. What’s with this love for things military? Brief immersion swims in the frigid water of the dam every morning; The lazy bliss of sailing an ‘Enterprise’ dinghy out of reach of anything strenuous!

Then the second week: Being chosen as patrol leader; A preparatory two-day hike in the area. One of our patrol was a chubby, whiny lad, so we spent some effort nursing him home. He was worth it: good sense of humour! Poor bugger’s thighs rubbed red and sore on the walk!

Then the climax, the big challenge: The course-ending six-day hike! By bus to the magic Giants Castle region in the Drakensberg.

Photographic trip to Giant's Castle Vulture Hide with Helen

We set off with our laden rucksacks down the valley, up the other side towards the snow-topped peaks, heading for Langalabilele Pass and the High ‘Berg. We had walked about 5km when a faint shout sounded and continued non-stop until we stopped and searched for the source. It was an instructor chasing after us and telling us to “Turn around, abort the hike, return to Greystones! Walk SLOWLY!”

Someone had come down with meningitis and the whole course was ending early!
We were given big white pills to swallow and sent home with strict instructions to take it easy: No physical exercise.

But our rucksacks were packed . .

mt-aux-sources_rucksack_2

  • – my rucksack – seen here on Sheila’s back –

. . and our wanderlust aroused, so we headed straight off to Mt aux Sources soon after getting home. Up the chain ladder onto the escarpment and on to the lip of the Tugela Falls, sleeping outside the mountain hut.

Mt aux Sources_2 (2)

Mt aux Sources ca1970

  • same hut – different time –

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I had no camera, no photos, the only record I still have of the course is my vivid memories – and the blue felt badge they gave us on completion.

But then I found a website by someone who had been on the same course – Willem Hofland from the Natal South Coast – and he had these black & white pics which I am very grateful to be able to use! He also had his course report and certificate, which I no longer have.

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Stop Press! Today got a letter from the dim and distant past: A letter I wrote my parents soon after getting to the course – on the second evening, it seems? This, written 48yrs ago!

Veld Vlei letter 1972_1

Veld Vlei letter 1972_2

Giants Castle pic from howieswildlifeimages.com – thanks!

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The Descent of One Mans

Charles Darwin wrote The Descent of Man. I’m going to write far more briefly and light-heartedly about The Descent of One Mans Pass. His is 900 pages long and has sex in it. Mine is one page and only has suffering.

It was Barbara’s fault, of course. She was the instigator and in a fair and just world she would have been given a heavy backpack and her kierie would have been confiscated. As it is, she hared down like a springhaas, leaving the other four of us who deserted the platoon for our ‘shortcut,’ gasping in her wake.

– Nigel Hemming’s unusual shot of One Mans Pass from directly above –

‘It’s steep but it’s not far,’ I said confidently, clearly remembering the last time I had descended this pass on Platberg, or Ntabazwe – only about fifty years ago when I was a fit, lightweight klipspringer. Well! The first, rocky, section turned out to be twice as long as I’d remembered; and someone had loosened the rocks:

– dancing on the dolerite down One Mans Pass – it carried on and on –

This part ended at the sandstone cave, which meant we had ‘conquered’ the dolerite cliff section, if we remembered Leon’s geology lesson correctly.

– Tim in sandstone cave where his ancestors left graffitti – J Jacobs – but couldn’t spell their name –

The second section is the grassy-rocky section which I also remembered well – except it was also much longer now. Perhaps there’s been a tectonic upwelling since I last did it?

– descent of One mans Pass – grassy slip part –

. . then a section I had completely forgotten about. A bonus section, you could say.

. . a last little bit:

. . and we were on terra firma horizontalis, on the Bloekombos site of many a happy Methodist Sunday School picnic in the ‘sixties. As Tim correctly pointed out: As Methylated Spirits, we were only allowed tea and ginger beer at our picnics.

Now all we had to do was walk on the level to the Akkerbos – or Oak Forest – which I clearly remembered as being at point A:

– Platberg – and the Akkerbos which somehow moved east in the last few decades – tectonic shift, no doubt –

. . but which is actually, and disconcertingly, at point B.

So we trudged. A reconnaissance patrol was dispatched to find us, but their vehicles turned out to be less capable than we’d have wished for, unable to negotiate a few fallen twigs across their path. Field Marshall Lello RSVP also seemed to have less pull with HQ than we hoped, so no helicopters were dispatched either.

So we trudged. On the way we passed some ladies packing a lovely smelling herb into bundles. We greeted them and trudged on. Luckily Gail had passed them before us and been more engaged. She told us how they had been delighted she could speak isiZulu and knew their herb was Imphepho (Helichrysum, or liquorice plant – that was the smell!). They were bundling it up for sale in eGoli, eThekwini and eKapa (Joburg, Durban and Cape Town). Imphepho is used for ritual purposes by sangomas for summoning the ancestors. According to Pooley ‘to invoke the goodwill of ancestors, to induce trances – and to keep red mites away.’

Soon we arrived at the Akkerbos to tremendous applause and a lavish spread. Well, one of those. A lesson learned: The old ‘Don’t Split The Party’ is a good principle!

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kierie – unfair walking aid which well-balanced people don’t need. At first

springhaas – jumping hare; bouncing rabbit

klipspringer – petite antelope which lithely and blithely bounces from rock to rock without causing them to start mini avalanches

bloekombos – gumtree plantation

akkerbos – oak plantation

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Weather: Light westerly breeze; gale, actually!

A bit of stopping to smell the flowers en route:

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I’m afraid the conservation status of Platberg, this precious mountain, is precarious. Do read about it.

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Read about how we were not the only, nor the first, holy folk to descend this mountain: ‘It was the arrival of the Prophet Isaiah Shembe at KwaZulu Natal (Durban) from Ntabazwe (Harrismith) as he was instructed by the Word of God to do so.’

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This stroll was Monday. It’s Thursday and I’m still walking like Charlie Chaplin in slow motion. Tom seriously said ‘Dad, maybe you should see a doctor.’

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Monday, exactly one week later and I’m tripping the light fantastic as usual – Normal gait restored.

Oddballs Palm Island Luxury Lodge

Getting into Botswana’s Okavango Delta can be awfully expensive.

A cheaper way is to fly in to Oddballs Palm Island Luxury Lodge, get on a mokoro and disappear off into the wild with a guide who knows where he’s going and what he’s doing. In 1993 Aitch and I did just that, spending a night at Oddballs, where you are given a little dome tent to pitch on the hard-baked earth.

You get visitors:

The name is ironic, see (“contrary to what is expected, and typically causing wry amusement because of this” – I made a quick check; don’t want to get ‘ironic’ wrong). While in camp you stock up on the meagre supplies available in their shop, like potatoes and onions; a tent, a braai grid; add it to the 10kg you’re allowed to bring in on the high-wing Cessna 206’s and you’re away! 10kg doesn’t go far when you’re a books, binocs and telescope junkie!

The next morning we pushed off in our gentles S-shaped tree trunk mokoro to enjoy six nights out on the water in the care of a wonderful man named Thaba Kamanakao. He rigged up the seats so they were really comfy, the backrests enabling you to fall asleep at times!

Thaba said we could choose where we wanted to camp – anywhere. Soon after lunch we saw a magnificent jackalberry tree on an island and said ‘there!’ – my guess is he knew that! We set up camp – our tent and two deckchairs and a ready-made campfire spot which he’d likely used many times before. The rest if the day was given to lurking, loafing, listening, lazing. Thaba set his gill nets, gathered firewood, pitched his smaller tent and set his chair at the fire. We were all quiet most of the time, listening and loving as night fell. After we’d eaten we sat talking and listening some more. Then Thaba played his mbira – his ‘thumb harp’ – and sang to us; I’ll never forget his introduction as we switched on our tape recorder: ‘My name is Thaba; Thaba Kamanakao; Kamanakao is surname;

– shady jackalberry camp –

We chose not to move camp each day, electing to sleep three nights under a jackalberry and three nights under a mangosteen, both giving welcome shade and birdlife. We had little food, but Thaba provided us with the fish he caught in his gill net each night.

I ate the barbel and he and Aitch the bream. Lucky me, it was delicious! He also loved barbel, but his lifestyle advisor – a sangoma? a shaman? a nutritionist? – had told him he wasn’t allowed it! So a myth robbed a man of a useful source of protein. The first night we were joined by newly-qualified Pommy doctors Louise and Richard and their guide “BT.”

When we moved camp from the camp Aitch named Jackalberry Camp, to her new chosen Mangosteen or Squirrel Camp, we decided we needed a bath on the way, so Thaba took us to a stunning clear lagoon, carefully checked for big things that could bite and then stood guard on the mokoro while we swam and rinsed – no soap, please! Anyone going to this beautiful inland delta: Pack some small swimming goggles and an underwater camera if you can. The clarity of that water is awesome.

Beautiful underwater pic by David Doubilet – to show the clarity.

OddballsOkavango Camp

Squirrel Camp nights were again spent cooking and sitting around the fire; talking and listening to Thaba playing his mbira and singing;

Days were spent birding the camp, hiking the island and an daily foray in the mokoro. Once we we were ‘moved off’ by an impatient ele, Aitch getting mildly reprimanded for turning round to get a fuzzy picture as we retreated. Another time Thaba – scouting ahead – spooked a herd of buffalo, who thundered in a tight mass towards us. We climbed the nearby termite mound – Thaba had told us to stay next to or on it – and they thundered all around us;

– our ‘buffalo hide’ termite mound –

We would sally out daily on short mokoro trips,

– colourful dragonflies, lilies and reed frogs at eye level –

Back before the sun got too high so we could loaf in our shady camp, where the squirrels and birds kept us entertained for hours. Six lazy, wonderful, awesome days.

One night a herd of eles moved in and we lay listening to their tummy rumbles. We kept dead quiet and just peered at them in the moonlight through the tent flap, as they had a little baby with them and we didn’t want to upset mama.

Botswana Oddballs Savuti (2 small)
– still life with Sausage Tree flowers & leaves – Aitch saw the beauty at her feet –

Then we headed back reluctantly for a last night at Oddballs. Warm showers under the open sky; cold beer & gin’n’tonics on the deck, ice tinkling in the glass; watching spotted-necked otters in the lagoon, lounging in comfy chairs. Topped off that evening by a big hearty hot meal prepared for us and plonked onto a table on the deck. We ate watching the sunset turn the water .

And suddenly it dawned on us that, even though we did have to pitch our own tent again, Oddballs really IS a Luxury Lodge!

Oddballs (5)
– chandeliers of sausage tree flowers hang over the lagoon –

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Oddballs is fancier nowadays.

mokoro – dugout canoe; one mokoro, two mekoro

sangoma – shaman? traditional healer? medicine man? says he communes with the ancestors

mbira – thumb piano or thumb harp musical instrument

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postscript 2018: This post was found by Thaba’s son, who informed me in the comments below that Thaba the legend had passed away. Damn!

R.I.P Thaba Kamanakao; You made our trip unforgettable.

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Read an account of another 1993 trip to the Okavango Delta – Delta Camp right next to Oddballs) by Bill Keller, a US journalist for the NY Times based in Joburg.