Travel Memoirs of the Wanderlust-struck, PART 4

Orange River Rafting

When I was 19, I spent the Easter holidays in a soggy canoe barrelling down the Orange River, the longest river in South Africa and the mighty waterway that constitutes its northern border with Namibia. You’ll notice this if you look at Namibia’s eastern and southern borders. The former is a clean cleave right through the left ventricle of the subcontinent, while the latter, which follows the meandering course of the river, is wonkier than your life choices after your fifth tequila. For the trip, we hired the services of a river rafting company that supplied everything we needed – canoes, guides, equipment, food, and watertight storage – while we were tasked with bringing our own beverages and sleeping gear.

On day one, we landed at base camp after a long, dusty drive up from Cape Town and, on the banks of the Orange River, got acquainted with our guides and our fellow intrepid explorers. These were a rambunctious lot of my parents’ vintage (with kids my age) and thank goodness for that because there’s nothing worse than travelling with boring people. After a welcome braai (South African colloquialism for “barbeque”), several beers, and final preparations, we retired to our cabins for a night of civilized sleep: our last for the next seven days.

Daytime on the Orange River

Orange River rafting South Africa

As the sun came up, the heat descended. The north-western border of South Africa is several hundred kilometres closer to the equator and with the cold Benguela current, which flows adjacent to the west coast, imparting little moisture to the atmosphere, the air here is dry and the landscapes parched and dusty. Of course, the Orange River gives life to the trees, bushes, and reeds whose seeds won the lottery by falling near enough to its water to germinate and so there is some greenery. This is strongly juxtaposed by the warm oranges and reds of the iron-rich soils, which is where we and many like us assumed the river gets its name from. In fact, it was named in the 1770’s by a Captain in the Dutch East Indian Company after Prince William V of Orange.

The days spent on the river were long and afforded us a sneak peak at the lives of people who spend the majority of their waking hours engaging their hands and bodies, a digression for most of us middle-to-upper class families whose jobs or studies have us desk-bound. I found myself relishing the simplicity of the day’s work: the rhythmic, repetitive motion of rowing, the trees and rocky red landscape drifting idly by, and the hypnotic ripples caused by our canoes cutting through the muddy green waters of the not-so Orange River. The hours trickled by as new landscapes evolved and melted past us punctuated by the odd series of rapids we’d have to negotiate. I also kept mental note of the birds we saw – goliath herons, African fish eagles, hamerkops – which I would write down on my list when we stopped to camp for the night.

Orange River rafting South Africa

With all the arid beauty of this region and its rich birdlife, there was always something to keep the eyes engaged but untethered from the insular concerns of my fairly sheltered life, my thoughts were allowed to wander precariously to the future and to my dreams of travel. I was only in the second year of a Bachelors Science Degree and so my soul belonged to academia, a demanding and occasionally traumatizing mistress who would, every now and then, award you with enough validation to get you through the next six months of intellectual toil. I had a fair slog ahead of me before I’d be able to hit the road but the point is that the dream, or rather need, to see the world was there, gnawing steadily at my inner fibres.

This was daytime on the river – row, row, row your boat; think, think, think about shit – and for every toll it took on the body, it gave back in mental rejuvenation. Never mind the intense heat of the near-equatorial sun, the physical demands of rowing for eight hours a day, and the blisters caused by the oars rubbing wetly against the soft flesh adjacent to the thumb. You do your best introspection when there is nothing to distract the mind and there are few people to talk to. It’s the people who struggle with solitude and who constantly need to be surrounded by chatter that tend to have shaky relationships with their inner selves. And if they can’t be along with themselves and their thoughts, what makes you think it’s safe for you to be?

Don’t date those people.

Nighttime on the river

Orange River rafting South Africa

African sunsets are something to behold. There is some magical quality to the air here that creates the most spectacular sunsets, the intensity of which I’ve simply never witnessed anywhere else in the world. Perhaps it’s not so much the visual spectacle as it is the multi-sensory performance of the sun setting below the African horizon: the accompanying smell of the burning Earth and its parched shrubs; the chorus of the weaver birds, sparrows, and starlings settling down for the evening; the way the light falls over the landscape like a golden veil. Then, very suddenly, the night descends and, by God, it was my favourite time of day on the Orange River.

With no light pollution and few obstructions in a 360-degree sweep around us, the night sky yawned above us, a fathomless black vault set ablaze by trillions upon trillions of twinkling stars. The starlight was so intense and the night so still, it was almost as though one could hear the universe gently breathing in and breathing out. I looked at the gentle silvery light on my arm and marvelled at the fact that the photons pummelling my skin at that very moment were likely older than the Earth. Total nerd that I am, I had brought along a star chart of the Southern Hemisphere (I was taking a university course in astronomy at the time) and delighted the other families’ children with the names and mythology of the stars, planets, and constellations. Nighttime on the Orange River was my favourite, even though the mosquitoes were relentless in their bloodsuckery.

Earning your experience

Orange River South Africa

We slept in tents, cooked over the fire, and went to the toilet in the bush with sweeping views of Namibia one night and South Africa the next, depending on which bank we camped on. We paddled hard during the day, swam in the river to cool off, and, on the third day or so, hiked up a hill to an abandoned fluorspar mine, where shards of the snot-coloured mineral lay scattered everywhere. These, we threw onto the campfires at night to unleash their enchanting properties of thermoluminescence, which is nerd speak for something that lights up when it’s heated.

The Orange River was a magical experience from which I returned with bulging deltoids, sun-bleached hair, and skin so tanned that I barely recognised myself in the mirror. Basically, I looked like a dried-out bag lady but with an enormous white smile. Every meal, every night’s rest, and every breathtaking view I had experienced during those seven arduous, euphoric days on the river had been earned. From the ephemeral streak of meteorites in the night sky to the spectacular pink sunrises, the bubbling stews on the campfire and the vegetal smell of the river… we had earned it all and the experience was all the more thrilling for it. I returned to city life and the rigors of university refreshed, invigorated, and refocused.

Oh, and I earned a distinction in astronomy.

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Travel Memoirs of the Wanderlust Struck, Part 1

This is not just a collection of stories – it is the story: a chronicle of my life’s adventures and those of my parents, who imbued in me a curiosity for the world. Over the course of the next however long it takes, I shall be delivering this story to you piece by piece, in succulent little bite-sized hors d’oevres of adventure and awesomeness. There will also be tales of occasional idiocy and human flaw, for travel holds a mirror up to our inner selves and reveals both the beauty and the ugly.

Let’s go….

Tumbleweed parents

My travel family
My father, mother, brother, and yours truly (bottom right)

I grew up in a family who liked to travel. My parents had met in South Africa and weren’t married for more than a few hours before they boarded a Union Castle Line vessel – a working mail boat – bound for the United Kingdom that would take them far away from the meddlesome influences of my truly insufferable paternal grandmother. They subsequently spent the next two decades bouncing from one continent to the other, budget travelling harder than Syrian refugees. When necessary, they would drop anchor, get a job, and earn a little money, only to get itchy a year or two later and set sail for the next adventure.

My mother has a beautiful silver bracelet, which she has adorned with charms purchased in almost every new city or country she has visited. The damn thing just about weighs a pound, which just goes to show how well traveled my folks are. Its tinkling would also announce her impending arrival long before she entered a room, which saved my ass from trouble many times during childhood. Australia, Belize, Cambodia, Denmark, El Salvador, Fuji, Germany, Honduras, Italy…for every letter of the alphabet,they can name a country and at least a handful of cities they’ve seen. And so, my brother and I were raised on an intellectual diet of travel anecdotes, geography, and world history.

My parents are walking tomes of travel knowledge, which I have had the extraordinary privilege of tapping into my whole life, not only for the purpose of cracking High School geography but also for my own adventures. My father is particularly fond of recounting old travel anecdotes that end either in a comedic punch line or with someone getting diarrhea, and often both. My mother, on the other hand, loves to thoroughly research a country before visiting and so could just about bore you to death with a sweeping account of its history and culture.

To this very day, my parents speak fondly of five decades of travels as though they have just come back home from the airport. I can’t even get my dad to remember how to work WhatsApp properly and yet, he can tell you in exquisite detail all about their adventures in South America, camping out in the Amazon jungle, escaping political coups in Columbia, and visiting the lost city of the Incas in Peru, all the while dodging cases of “Montezuma’s revenge” and refusing offers of cocaine around communal camping fires. Moreover, he speaks as fondly of these harrowing experiences as one might of a long-loved, yet long-dead family cat.

With two brave, intrepid explorers for parents, I grew up with a particular vulnerability to travel bug infection, which was made fatal when they took my brother and I on our first international holiday.

Airplane taking off

Singapore and Malaysia

Having kids did little to interfere with my parents’ love of travel and in 1994, when I was nine, we were whisked off to Singapore and Malaysia on an epic three-week adventure of which I have a collection of faded snapshot memories. Starting in Singapore, I remember the cloying heat and humidity, it’s vegetal tropical smell, impeccably clean streets, the delicious coolness of its sleek, air-conditioned public transport system, and skyline of chrome-and-glass skyscrapers.

Singapore city

I remember waffles for breakfast at McDonalds, a spectacular waterfront area guarded by the mythical half lion, half mermaid (Merlion) statue, and spending a day at a waterpark. It was here that I fell completely in love with Aaron Copland’s “Billy the Kid” orchestral suite, which was played as a soundtrack for one of the fun rides. It’s funny the silly things we remember as kids.

Singapore Merlion

Then, moving on to Malaysia, I remember sinister-looking komodo dragons sprawled out on a beach we visited, the awful smell of stinky dugong fruits in the open-air markets, and the enchantment I felt at watching amphibious fish called “mudhoppers” skip across the fetid mudflats.

Mudhopper fish

I remember being chased by cantankerous temple-dwelling monkeys, ordering apple juice off a restaurant menu and receiving a glass of chunky, pulverized apple, and, on a rickety bus ride somewhere, watching an old Malaysian gentleman eat some kind of cream bun and thinking, man that looks delicious. I remember relieving myself in the hole in the floor that was the bathroom of the island-hopping boat we had hired for the day and feeling terribly distressed that I had ruined the beautiful turquoise waters with a monstrous turd, the kind of which only back-to-back days of hard travel and strange food can concoct. I agonized over whether or not to tell my family to vacate the water but embarrassment won the day.

P.S. I was a kid – I stopped pooping the minute I became a lady.

Malaysia island boat

My early travels with my family are a collection of these sorts of snapshots: multi-faceted compositions of colour, sound, smell, visuals, and remembered emotion.

Travels in Southern Africa

About a year later, in 1995, our family and my parents’ friends embarked upon a safari style trip to Zimbabwe, catching a two-night train from Cape Town all the way to Bulawayo, a major city in southwest Zimbabwe. From here, we toured the country’s largest game reserve, Hwange National Park, and drifted for a few days in a houseboat on Lake Kariba. We hiked the Matobo Hills and took in the breathtaking Victoria Falls, even walking across the bridge to visit Zambia for a fleeting moment.

Victoria Falls Zimbabwe

I have a lasting impression of each place – again, all sensory compositions that are difficult to craft actual narratives around. I remember being young and feverishly excited by nature. I kept a list of all the birds and animals and would shriek in excitement every time we saw something new. I imagine my parents’ friends wanted to garrotte me on those lengthy game drives but my parents were nothing but patient; grateful to have a child who was enthusiastic about nature and travel. It’s rarer than you would think.

In 2000, I simultaneously embarked upon a journey through puberty and Botwana’s Okavango Delta, an oasis of waterways, lush vegetation, and sprawling savannah in the middle of the Kalahari Desert. We travelled with a guide and his elderly chain-smoking lady friend who drove us around in a weathered safari vehicle, cooked dinner over a fire each night, and told us the most spectacular stories about past adventures in the bush. We journeyed through a spectrum of landscapes and witnessed a staggering diversity of wild animals and birdlife, from African fish eagles and great eagle owls to little bee-eaters, crimson shrikes, and lilac-breasted rollers.

lilac-breasted-roller

We explored the delta’s intricate network of waterways by mokoro, a Botswana dugout canoe, and were treated to a flight over the region in a 6-seater propeller plane. How I wish I had discovered the joys of photography early on, for then my souvenirs of these magical places would be more than just a collection of memories, obscured by my inexorably advancing age and perhaps just a little tequila-induced memory loss.

Flying over Okavango Delta

I remember the acute sense of freedom I felt at being out in the bush with absolutely no fences to keep the wildlife out of our camp. At the time, I was also in a particularly cloying relationship with a boy who was excessively protective and quick to get angry if I didn’t pander to his insecurities.

To illustrate, he once showed up at my door on a night he was supposed to go out. When I asked why he wasn’t out partying with his friends – privately grumbling that my night of toenail clipping, series bingeing, and popcorn hoovering had been ruined – he told me that he couldn’t trust himself to behave so he decided to do the gentlemanly thing. I think he expected me to be grateful or proud of him for not cheating on me. Instead, I shat all over his head and sent him home. He stormed out the house, furious, which lasted about a minute before he came back knocking on the door to engage in further heated debate. I was 15 at the time and even though he was my first real-ish boyfriend, I knew bullshit when I smelled it.

The point is, going away to the Okavango Delta got me away from the noise and discomfort of a suffocating relationship and into the bush, where the distractions on offer invigorated and awakened my soul. Travel gave me such a healthy perspective on life, my problems, and the way forward, and it still does. Even though the spiders in Botswana are the size of cats, our campsite was routinely marauded by baboons, and a hornbill voided its bowels into my eye – not even exaggerating on that one – I absolutely loved it and will definitely make my pilgrimage back there before I kick the bucket.

Botswana Okavango Delta

Snorkelling with Seals in Cape Town

A few weeks ago, my best friend and I climbed aboard a boat and struck out for Duiker Island, a seal, seal pup, and seal poop covered collection of rocks tucked around the corner from The Sentinel Mountain in Hout Bay, Cape Town. Why would anyone endure the swells and smells for such an excursion? Aside from the staggering beauty of the Cape peninsula and the pleasure of watching seals in their natural habitat, we were here to go snorkelling with them!

For one blissful hour, we escaped reality to submerge ourselves in the moody greens and blues of the Atlantic Ocean, where prolific kelp forests swayed and swished in the swell and the playful seal pups were close enough to touch. Usually, I use my words to describe experiences. This time, we hired a Go Pro camera from the company who took us out – Animal Ocean – to document it all and so I present to you my first ever (shoddy) attempt at putting together a travel video!

Wednesday Wildlife – The Leopard

We saw the leopard slinking low in the desiccated grasses of the Welgevonden Game Reserve in South Africa’s Limpopo region. I almost soiled myself, not out of fear but of excitement. I have been to almost every major game reserve in Southern Africa, yet never to have once spotted this dotty kitty. Until now – this was a huge moment for me and my underpants.

One solitary male on a discrete hunt for food. At first, I celebrated the sighting, treasuring every second that I could watch him sleekly moving through the dry bush. A sighting like this – a once in a lifetime – is too often over in seconds.

Leopard by Thea Beckman 1

But a hunting leopard makes use of lofty vantage points to spy potential prey and, in one fluid movement, our male launched himself up the bole of a tree and took up sentry. Leopards are shy animals and extremely unsociable, which likely explains his unimpressed expression with being watched and photographed.

Leopard by Thea Beckman 3

Legs (and litchis) dangling out all over the place, he remained in suspension for the better part of 20 minutes, while lazily surveying the surrounding bush and staring at us with piercing, tawny eyes. On average, leopards weigh between 60 and 70 kg and can live up to 15 years. What is most exceptional about these cats is that they can drag prey heavier than themselves up a tree, where it can hang safely out of the reach of other predators and scavengers, offering the leopard a consistent source of meat for several days.

Leopard by Thea Beckman 2

The heat, the altitude, and the lack of action took its toll and he let rip an enormous yawn, offering us a glimpse at teeth that could crack your neck like a cheese stick. Seeing this leopard quite honestly constitutes one of the high points of my life and if you’ve seen one, perhaps you’ll understand why. They are truly beautiful, extraordinary animals.

Introducing “Wednesday Wildlife”

I may have shifted my attention to travel but a fascination with wildlife and birdwatching, in particular, remains a stubborn fixture on the landscape of my unorthodox personality. As a part of my new venture, therefore, I shall be posting a weekly picture of an animal or bird that I have taken on one of my adventures. I would like to introduce to you… *appropriately lengthy drumroll*… Wednesday Wildlife! Aren’t I original?

Hold on… I have a better one: Wander Woman’s Wednesday Wildlife! Isn’t the alliteration maddeningly satisfying?

Anyway, enough of that tomfoolery. Before I got around to repurposing this blog to travel, I let rip with the Facebook page, Wander Woman Thea, which I urge you all to like, follow, share, interact with, drool over, and even fondle yourself inappropriately to. What I don’t know can’t hurt me. Over the past few weeks that’s been going, I’ve posted three Wildlife Wednesday features – or, I should say, #WildlifeWednesday – so in an effort to bring you all up to speed, here are those posts.

The Cheetah

Wednesday Wildlife post 1

On a recent trip to Sanbona Wildlife Reserve, I had the incredible life joy of seeing my very first ever cheetah in the wild. We approached this male by foot and got within about 15 meters of him, where I swooned over his kitten-esque antics. Did you know that cheetahs purr? Also, they are the fastest land animal in the world, able to reach speeds of 80 to 120 km/hr in short bursts. I shit you not.

An excerpt from my article for Southern Vines magazine about the reserve:

“Sanbona Wildlife Reserve is a malaria-free, big five private game reserve located three hours’ drive from Cape Town in the Little Karoo. Believed to have originated from the Khoikhoi word for “desert”, the Karoo is a semi-desert region of unique and desolate beauty, marked by tough, low-lying shrubs, hellishly thorned acacia trees, otherworldly succulent plants, rocky koppies, and russet soils.”

Read full article here.

In other words, get your butts to South Africa and come explore our truly gifted natural heritage. Also, because I love to travel and will use any excuse to get out the house, especially to play tour guide to a foreign visitor, get in touch with me if you do make it to our fair shores. Just please don’t axe murder me.

The Owl

Wednesday Wildlife post 2

This absolutely gorgeous creature is a spotted eagle owl, which I photographed in the golden late afternoon light of a game drive that culminated in a glass of chardonnay overlooking a dry river bed.

Sunset chardonnay

There, just in case you didn’t believe life could get THAT good.

Spotted eagle owls are medium-sized, as far as owls go, yet are one of the smallest of the eagle owls. Interestingly, they are a big fan of bathing and so can often be seen around water or on exposed branches or on the ground with spread wings during summer thunderstorms.

Nestled into a thicket of rather nasty Karoo Acacia thorns, this guy glared smugly and somewhat angrily at us, confident that none of us would be stupid enough to breach his/her boma of razor sharp thorns. Of course, human nature is by definition a balance between high intelligence and sublime stupidity. Needless to say, we took our pictures and left the owl alone to its angry vigil.

The Baboons

Wednesday Wildlife post 3

If a picture could speak a thousand words, this one would be a “50 Shades of Grey” novel.

These are Chacma baboons AKA Cape baboons and they are one of the largest of all the monkeys. Indigenous to Southern Africa, they live a highly social life with a defined hierarchy, at the top of which is the alpha male, quite easily one of the most intimidating of all the African animals. Quite honestly, of all the sounds I have heard in the bush, I find the resounding, explosive bark of a baboon to be far more terrifying than a lion’s roar or the hollow clink of an empty wine bottle (and knowing that it’s the last one). An angry male baboon could easily give Chuck Norris a thorough bitch-slapping.

Baboons spend the vast majority of their days foraging and grooming each other as a way of strengthening social ties and, well, just feeling loved.

The Mousebirds

Wednesday Wildlife post 4

These three stooges, who are warming their undercarriage in the mid-morning sun in a coastal bush at De Hoop Nature Reserve (southwestern Cape coast of South Africa), are speckled mousebirds. Mousebirds are gregarious and enjoy the company of other mousebirds, as we can see from the amount of love biting going on in this picture.

Fruits, buds, and berry eaters, mousebirds are named after their appearance (small, greyish bodies and long tails) and foraging behaviour; scurrying around in the bush in search of food. They are the only bird order that is confined entirely to sub-Saharan Africa and – get this – could actually be considered “living fossils” because the 6 species that exist today are the only survivors of a lineage that was massively more diverse in the early Paleogene and Miocene (thanks, Wikipedia).

Another magazine excerpt from an article I wrote about the reserve:

“The seamless confluence of a variety of vegetation biomes and landscapes in De Hoop Nature Reserve has attracted an enormous diversity of birdlife, from iridescent sunbirds and large raptors to swooping aerial birds and gaily coloured flamingos. In a single day, in fact, you could quite easily rack up a bird list of over 100 species, so abundant and varied it is (over 260 species of birds have been recorded here).”

Read full article here.

Wednesday Wildlife with me

That, my friends, is all for today! I will be posting these pictures along with an explanatory blurb every Wednesday at 9am SAST. Of course, if you like my Facebook page, Wander Woman Thea, you can get all of this delicious intellectual goodness delivered right to your feed or inbox. You can also find me on Instagram at @wander_woman_thea.

Happy hump day!

The 2015 "Slushy" Waves of New England

It’s too bad that seawater is salty, because with a bit of sweet flavouring, everyone would have had access to unlimited slushy “Slurpee” a year ago, courtesy of Mother Nature!

Video Source: “Giant Frozen Waves Nantucket Beach” Uploaded by Galaxy 11

The United States spent much of February of last year in the frigid grips of a record-breaking icy winter. Yet, in addition to the usual suspects, which include deep snow and biting winds, the cold would seem to have even won over the briny seawater of the north Atlantic Ocean. This video shows a series of images of ocean waves breaking on the shores of Nantucket in New England (northeast USA), only, there seems to be something distinctly different about these waves!

The photographer, Jonathan Nimerfroh, is an avid surfing enthusiast and on a trip to the beach, he noticed something odd about the horizon. As it turns out, the temperatures are so low in the area the water has begun to freeze and so, what we are looking at are giant slushy waves! These icy waves have also been aptly called “Slurpee waves”

The maximum temperature on the day these pictures were taken was at a teeth-chattering -7 degrees celsius (17 degrees Fahrenheit).

What’s truly amazing about this is that salt is known to lower the freezing point of water to well below zero degrees celsius. This is precisely why we throw salt over our driveways to prevent them from icing up. The fact that even the salty seawater in northeast United States began to freeze is testament to the uncharacteristically cold winter they had last year.

15 Awesome Human Superpowers

Some people work hard, train hard, educate themselves and push themselves to the very limit to gain some kind of notoriety in life (and the money it tends comes hand-in-hand with). This video is proof that, in addition to being inherently gifted, there are other ways to become famous… be exceptionally stupid. Eating metal screws makes you an idiot. Just because you survive your diet of cars, wheelchairs and bad life choices doesn’t make you special.

Having said that, there are some incredible cases of human superpowers in this video, such as the “human calculator” and the man who learned conversational Icelandic in just one week. My only superpower is being able to make my one eye squint – actually I have two if you count the other one, but that’s far too lascivious to mention here – and so my concluding question to you is: what’s your superpower?

Video Source: “15 Real Life Human Superpowers” Uploaded by Planet Dolan to YouTube channel www.youtube.com/watch?v=dM3_s0rKBVc