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 3

The Lion King

As a child, I was obsessed with The Lion King. For one, I had an all-out crush on Simba that transcended the species and spatial divide between us: I was a human, he was a lion; I was 3D, he was 2D…it was just never going to work out. Anyway, being a Lion King nut, I amassed a rather decent collection of Lion King toys. I had Simba, Scar, Pumba, and Timone figurines with articulating joints, and I had non-movable molds of Nala, Zazu, and a bevvy of other critters, which I would spend hours playing with. In our backyard, I’d make them little homes out of rocks and sticks and play out sweeping sagas of action, romance, drama, and occasionally pornography.

lion king toys

The only Lion King toy I didn’t have was Mufasa, the true Lion King, friendly Darth Vader, and Simba’s majestic AF father before the little shit went and got him killed. It was on our trip to Singapore, killing a few hours in an airport lounge, that I finally clapped eyes on the missing piece of my collection. There he was on a shelf in a toy store, ensconced in shiny packaging, muscles rippling beneath his tawny plastic hide and with a flowing coiffed mane that would have made Elvis envious. I practically drooled. I took the $25 toy off the shelf and approached my parents with the biggest, moistest, most beseeching eyeballs I could muster.

cat Shrek sad eyes

Sadly, the answer was no. My brother and I had already been treated at the Singaporean installation of Hamley’s that day – the oldest and largest toyshop in the world – so I could hardly expect my parents to fork out even more money. My parents understood that no good ever came from spoiling a child; we had our limits and they were enforced, unlike today’s  parents who seem to think they can buy their children’s affections.

Instead of crumpling to the floor in a cacophony of snot and tears, I got busy. I scraped together every last coin I had left over from the little allowance my parents had given us for our trip and counted about $12.00. Okay, halfway there. I then scampered off to source the rest.

How?

By stealing of course! On hands and knees, I managed to pick up a few dollars’ worth of carelessly dropped coins beneath the cash registers at various airport stores. I also begged my parents for whatever coins they had left over – we were about to depart the country anyway so they wouldn’t need those. But I struck the true mother lode when I stationed myself outside the currency exchange counter, where some businessman had dropped a BRITISH POUND on the floor. To this day I wonder if he did it on purpose, seeing me desperately scrounging about for coins. Barely higher than the counter myself, I handed my bounty over to the teller and, when added together, managed to come up with the necessary funds. This was in the good old days when currency exchange stations still accepted coins. I marched triumphantly to the toy store, dumped two fistfuls of clinking treasure on the counter along with my trophy Mufasa figurine and, at the tender age of 9, made my first ever solo purchase.

When I trotted up to my parents minutes later with Mufasa in hand, they thought I had stolen it off the shelf only to find out – much to their astonishment – that their little daughter was resourceful and as crafty as a fox. Clearly, my grandfather’s Jewish blood flows powerfully through my thrifty veins.

Budget traveling

budget travel

What in God’s name does this lengthy story have to do with travel? Well, first of all, it all took place at Singapore Airport, so technically it is a travel anecdote. A more compelling reason for telling it, however, (and the moral of the story) is to emphasise the importance of being thrifty if you have your designs set on seeing at least a fraction of the world before you exit this mortal coil.

I have no qualms about eating at local hole-in-the-wall restaurants or open air markets rather than expensive establishments; and you’ll never catch me in a taxi when there’s a perfectly efficient and inexpensive public transport system to use. Besides, the ubiquitous crazy folk and Jesus-hawking zealots you tend to meet on public transport provide the most thrilling entertainment on long rides back to the hotel. I also have no qualms about staying in a simple motel, inn, or sharing a dorm room and enduring the snores and nocturnal farts of others if it means cheaper accommodation. Because, my friends, in a country in which the currency isn’t worth its weight in nickel, cheaper food, transport, and accommodation directly equates to more travel.

I’d far rather spend money on travelling once or twice a year than only once every two to three years, as is typically the case with my fellow South Africans. And if I budget well, I can see and do far more than I would if I blew two thirds of my budget on eating, sleeping, and getting around. I’m talking about affording to see more attractions, engage in more activities, and explore more of my destination, sending me home with a heart full of stories and sublime wonder.

Budget travelling is one of the best and most powerful methodologies one can employ to truly see and experience a foreign city and, in a lifetime, dozens of cities on every continent…except maybe Antarctica, although nobody’s judging anyone’s bucket list here.

Penguin Antarctica

More important than being able to hit the road more frequently is the fact that budget travelling eliminates the pretences and inauthenticity of well-heeled travel so that the experience you have of a place is raw and honest. It’s about spending 10 hours+ a day on the road, in the bush, or tramping through a concrete jungle. It’s about feeling the climate – the humidity and the heat – rather than banishing it from your experience, and eating where the locals eat for a fraction of the cost of some fancy restaurant. To budget travel is to live like the majority of locals live and it’s to leave that city or country with a lasting impression of its supreme beauty, charm, culture, and cuisine but also its struggles.

The suggestion here is not to sleep on a park bench and drink nothing but tap water; rather, it’s to stay in hostels with other travellers, to couchsurf, “Air bnb” it, or do some kind of house swap. It’s to share a table with other locals and travellers at an open air market or eatery and to witness the city in motion from a bus, train, or even tuk-tuk. I never turn down the chance to meet and get to know other travellers because you never know what kind of opportunities a friendship will open up to you. Sure, there’s a lot to be said for staying in a luxury hotel – I mean, given the offer to stay for free, I’d likely choose that over slumming it – but it does provide somewhat of a sterile travel experience. And what could be better than playing pool, drinking tepid beer, and getting to know fellow budget travellers in the rec room of a hostel?

So…rather than travelling like the Queen of Sheba and only being able to afford a holiday once every two to three years, budget travel. Experience your destination in all its authentic, raw, and occasionally painful beauty!

Grand Canyon

Travel Memoirs of the Wanderlust Struck, Part 2

This 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. This is the second instalment. Let’s go….

Caravanning

South Africa road trip
Gravel path somewhere in the middle of South Africa’s “Little Karoo”

In between major travel adventures, my family would hitch our tiny, cramped caravan to our bright red Toyota Corolla, pack up a weekend’s worth of clothing, invariably wake up way later than intended on the morning of our departure (the Beckman men are always late) and go camping.

Over weekends and school holidays, we’d hit the N1 or N2 national highways out of Cape Town and drive for what would seem like an interminable amount of time before drawing up at some campsite, caked in dust, and just about ready to murder each other. At the age of about 11, I discovered the blissful joy of reading and so I would typically occupy myself with a book. My brother had, concurrently, discovered the blissful joy of pestering me and so we’d usually end up in a backseat brawl to which my father would shriek: “If you two don’t knock it off, I’m going to turn this car around…”

In this manner, we crawled our way around South Africa, rigging up our caravan and its attached canopy tent and spending days at a time living like hippies. Our family caravan had two narrow cots for us kids to sleep in and a dining section that converted into little more than a three-quarter sized bed for my parents. Each day invariably began with a loud fart from my father, followed by the smell of gas (propane) as he turned on the stove to make morning tea. A cup of sweet rooibos tea and a buttermilk rusk later, my brother and I would barrel out the caravan to a crisp, dew-kissed morning with unlimited possibilities for play.

South Africa landscape
Desolation Valley, South Africa

We explored the length and breadth of South Africa in our tiny caravan, from its East coast, rendered lush and green by the warm Agulhas current that courses adjacent to its coastline to the dry, desolate, yet dramatically beautiful West coast. Patchwork quilts of farmlands become landscapes dominated by rugged mountains and outlandish rock formations, which then give way to vast tracts of interior that are virtually featureless, save for a scattering of dry shrubs and the odd koppie. The towns here are decidedly one-horse; the kind of places where ostriches serve as guard dogs. It was pure magic.

South Africa road trip
A backyard in the tiny town of Sutherland, South Africa. This town also happens to be home to the largest telescope in the Southern Hemisphere – the South African Large Telescope (SALT) – because here in the Karoo (a semi-arid region), there is so little light and other pollution the telescope has maximum visibility.

Again, I can’t tag any place names to the snapshot memories I have of those early adventures but they imparted in me a sense of scale and a corresponding sense of humility. South Africa is a staggeringly vast country with a diverse collection of landscapes to explore and the lessons this early travel taught me were indispensible.

It’s not all about you

toddler tantrum funny

Kids tend to think that the world revolves around their tender little bodies and needs. It’s why they sulk or cry when they don’t get what they want – the injustice is too much to bear! Yet, as a kid, travel taught me that there is an enormous world out there where comfort is, for the most part, a rare commodity. It exposes you to the cruel desolation of the deserts, the stifling heat of the tropics, the desperate poverty of cities, and the disquieting strangeness of foreign cultures, cuisines, and customs. Rather than shelter me from these humbling experiences, my parents had me participate in the discovery of it all.

Then, of course, there’s the discomfort of traversing the planet’s truly vast countenance. Hours spent in hot cars pestered by annoying brothers or cramped buses, airport departure lounges, and long-haul flights with nothing to do other than stare at the other passengers with the big, googly eyeballs I was yet to grow into. And, again, rather than shelter me from this discomfort, my parents taught me to be patient and to endure the punishment because the reward was the thrill of exploring new places. My early travel experiences became the framework for a worldview that is rare amongst children. And it was all okay because I could trust my parents to keep us safe, feed us when we were hungry, and let us fall asleep in their laps when we were tired. What more could a kid need?

Certainly not an iPad.

View from plane

Learning your insignificance

We all like to think that we are important in our environment. As children, we like to feel like the beating heart and soul of the family and as hormonal teenagers, we strive to be socially, physically, or academically revered at school. Finally, as adults, we work hard to be respected within the workplace and community. It’s therefore understandable that many people are intimidated by travel. Aside from the fact that we aren’t typically comfortable with strangeness, the vastness of the world takes the importance you’ve spent your entire life cultivating and makes an utter mockery of it.

You think you’re important? Go to a foreign country where nobody knows you and nothing revolves around you and see the world in motion completely outside of yourself. It’s humbling. This probably explains why most of my life’s epiphanies have taken place at 37,000 feet, whilst flying for hours over staggering tracts of glittering ocean, ice shelves, and deserts. There is a whole world out there and down there and it carries on irrespective of me. The only conceivable reason why this might sound depressing to some is ego. Let go of your ego and the world becomes a rich source of experience, education, and thrilling, unforgettable adventure.

It is all too easy for humans to become mired in their own comfort zones, which are awfully small if you have never set foot outside your own city. At an early age, travel made me aware of and comfortable with the vastness of the world and its treasure chest of new places, people, languages, foods, cultures, and views. That vastness has beckoned to me for as long as I can remember. And it’s thanks in no small part to my parents’ narrative of their own travels and the innumerable trips, both local and international, they took us on.

Thailand beach

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 Enquiring Mind: A Species on the Brink of Extinction

I feel quite precious about my BSc degree. I studied three long hard years to earn that rolled up piece of paper with its gold badge and blue stripe. And I did it all by wading through knee-buckling and mind-bending numbers of equations, published journals, scientific textbooks, physics lab sessions and titration kits. Every day, I was convinced by my subject matter that I was too stupid to study science and would, whilst walking between lectures, enviously glance over at the drama, film and media students playing guitar on the lawns outside the Arts Building on UCT’s Upper Campus. Look at them sipping R6 coffee, letting the fierce Cape Town sun burn off their whiskey hangovers; all of them looking super skinny and wearing clothing that was considered hip in the 60’s.

Typical habitat of the UCT hipster. Social structure: gregarious. Diet: yes. Activities: avoiding trends, political inactivism, bowl haircuts and wearing non-prescription eye-glasses (when it’s hot, without lenses)

Scientists Say: “Sciencey, Sciencey, Science, Science…”

Most of what the layperson knows about science has been hand delivered to them by the media. By the very people that wore non-prescription eye-glasses at university and smoked pipes (the Sherlock Holmes variety), while plucking thoughtfully at the braces redundantly holding their excessively tight-fitting skinny jeans up. I am mercifully stereotyping here, I know that. So let’s get serious… the headlines you read are almost always written by people who studied sociology, psychology, literature, journalism, film and media. Not the people that spent three, four, six or more years becoming trained in the ways of rigorous scientific study and reporting. This isn’t necessarily a BAD thing…

ANYONE can understand science. Science shouldn’t BE this intangible and untouchable fortress of knowledge that only the highly educated elite are allowed to enter. Science is the study of all the observable, measurable and physical things around us. It explains why the sky is blue, how diamonds are made, where babies come from and what the aurora borealis is. All it really takes to become a practitioner of science is an enquiring mind and a strict adherence to the scientific method, which is essentially the set of rules governing how you go about proving something… anything, really.

Now the two points I have made above may seem to stand in stark contrast with each other. Surely, if we should all actively try to understand and engage with science, the media should be more than encouraged to report on it. But this is actually where the problem arises. It’s in the delivery of messages that are geared to impress, shock, attention-grab and intimidate. Large black-and-white statistics that no one REALLY understands, but sound impressive anyway, thrust their way visually at us from news and magazine stands. A thumb-sucked example would be:

72% of ALL South Africans Have Herpes!

I don’t know about you, but I don’t remember answering any national surveys about my HPV-status, which immediately makes that statistic redundant. If you haven’t tested every single South African, then you can’t say that 72% of ALL South Africans have The Herp. You may go as far as saying that surveys of 1,000 university students reveal that the vast majority are clearly showing no discrimination in who they play tonsil hockey with.

You have to be so careful when publishing the results of controlled scientific trials, studies and research. More importantly, YOU – the reader – have to be so careful when reading what the media has to say about these studies. In an effort to craft headlines that sell, the media takes the results of years of careful measurement and data analysis and interprets them in a way that will sell their product. There are two fundamental problems with this:

1. The true findings of the scientific study and their greater application to our knowledge base is almost always lost in translation

2. It creates a massive divide between the layperson and the entire discipline of science.

Reporters throw around big, impressive and authoritative words and phrases, such as “results of a scientific study”, “scientists say”, “scientists prove”, “according to scientific evidence”, etc. And the result is that our enquiring minds have been left on the very brink of extinction.

Class Dismissed: Your Take-Home Message

It’s such a pity that people feel so disconnected from science and from an understanding of the world around us. What is even more of a pity is that we just accept the statistical fodder thrust at us. “Whoa! I’d better start eating more avocados! According to the health section in the You Magazine, it reduces varicose veins by 69%!

Side note: I’m totally thumb-sucking here, but in the past, You Magazine has used the health section to provide some wild-sounding statistics relating to food and nutrition. They seem to have cleaned up their act as far as science reporting is concerned.

By the way, I ONLY buy You Magazine for the crossword puzzles!

…and maybe to collect pictures of Justin Bieber. What?

Do yourself a favour. The next time someone says: “According to scientists” or “Scientists say” ask them: “Oh? In which peer-reviewed journal was that published? And what methodology was followed when they tested the efficacy of avocado in reducing the appearance of varicose veins?”

Be a little more critical of the ‘sciencey’ information people, companies and brand names use to convince you to subscribe to their beliefs, products or services. Find out the facts for yourself. Ask why? How? Revive your enquiring mind! Bring it screaming back from the edge of the gaping chasm of blind acceptance. Not only will it make you sound incredibly intelligent, but you will actually BE more intelligent.

Although that may not go down well with your hipster friends.