a pony tale…

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Minutes ago I was up to my forearms in purple gloves, digging in cow manure for an earthworm. If that sounds oddly reminiscent to you, like the story of the optimist and the pessimist twins who were both given a roomful of shit for their birthday, you may be on to me. The pessimist child was sad and thought all she deserved was a roomful of shit. But the optimist sibling enthusiastically dived into the shit-filled room and declared ‘With all this shit, there must be a pony in here somewhere!’

photo from 2014, soon after which the cherry ripe plant in the back died and the herb garden began to rebel.

Last summer was a total disaster for my herb garden, and a new low point for my gardening skills in general. Admittedly, I’ve not embraced a lot of the maintenance and prep-work as I should have. Ours is a harsh climate and we were traveling more. And sometimes I’m just ridiculously hopeful. Given the chance this year to pursue my hermit tendencies has meant time to think…time to prepare, time to get my ass in gear and build a garden, albeit a small one to start with. And I have a secret weapon now that I have not always had…a gardening guru.

Here are her credentials:

Kilos of home grown tomatoes grown in the middle of winter in the desert. Need I say more? Thank you GG xx.

It all started back in April when we contracted our favourite paving genius, Scott, to pull up the old pavers in the courtyard and re-lay them, removing tree roots and other impediments to a level paving surface once again. I really didn’t need to break a hip by falling on the way to the clothesline. As we were clearing away the various piles of old pavers and bricks, left over from at least four other jobs, as well as various stacked pots, the garden beds were clearly revealed. They were in an unimpressive state of compressed soil, so poor it was hard to believe I’d been growing herbs in them for some 20 years!

Scott and his helpers came and performed their levelling magic. But something inside me was niggling…level pavers was just not enough. Those garden beds were a wasted opportunity. My large kitchen window looks out over the courtyard, which, in summer when the spa is uncovered is pleasant enough, but the other 8 months of the year it is pretty ordinary. I’d managed to grow enough herbs over the years to sustain my culinary activities, but even that had dwindled to a paltry half dead mint plant and a lonely dwarfed parsley that wanted to survive, but needed intervention.

I’m always in awe of the creativity the human brain can conjure when allowed to ramble freely. Mine began to conceive of a built up herb garden, with completely fresh growing medium and something that added beauty to the area. My good friend who I call my ‘Gardening Guru’ (GG) told me of a growing medium she had stumbled upon a couple of years ago. Manure. Surprisingly, she said that she used PURE, dried out and decomposed cow manure. Knowing she grows the most amazing vegetables every year (see above photo), my ears pricked up. Could this be my transitioning agent, from lacklustre gardener to Miss Confident Gardner 2020? God knows 2020 needs to have been a good year for something!

Like a storm in my brain, the creative waves began to gather. I measured the space of my old herb garden and calculated if I dug down about 150mm, and built a retaining wall around the area, adding about 200mm height from ground level I would have a deep enough bed to put in gravel for drainage, and 3/4 cubic metre of cow poo as my growing medium. It would be deep enough to accommodate the root systems of herbs and some small veggies, like lettuce and rocket (arugula), should I feel more adventurous. Then, came the really creative part. Could I take five different sizes and colours of bricks, blocks and pavers, in varying quantities, left over from four different jobs and build one good looking garden surround?

Transplanted parsley after about six weeks.

First things first…transplant to a pot the poor little parsley plant that had survived the summer remaining almost the same size as when I planted it, six months previously. That done, in May I began digging out the 150mm of hard, packed old garden bed. It was just awful soil, full of rocks and very poor, compacted soil. What was I thinking? Knowing my 67 year old back is not used to hard labour, and that I also did not want to agitate fibromyalgia symptoms, I went about the project very slowly and carefully, digging with a pick and shovel a bucket of dirt at a time. I would carry the bucket of dirt to areas of the garden that just needed fill, but in which we didn’t want to grow anything. Engage abdominals, fill bucket, lift with my legs and lug the bucket of crappy soil from the courtyard to the receiving area. I could only do about six or eight buckets in one session. It was hard going.

After ten days or so the base soil was removed. Next I bought gravel to put in the bottom, for drainage. Then it was time to play with my blocks. I lost count of how many different patterns I considered but eventually I reasoned that the back of the bed could use the least attractive and even broken pieces because it would nearly all be covered by soil eventually. I began placing the best blocks and bricks into symmetrical patterns at the front, and things began to fall into place. After I laid the firm base using leftover driveway pavers, I could start at the front of the area, using the best bricks to make sure it looked attractive. Of course levels had to be maintained evenly so that once it was filled with the manure, it would look even and be easy to work around. Again, this phase had to be done in a number of sessions because… bricks. are. heavy. And they had to come from three different areas around the garden, where we had neatly stacked them. Fortunately, our little red hand-truck, gifted to my husband many years ago, was my valuable friend. (Thank you Chappie)

Purple gloves have been my gardening friends for years. They are sturdy and impervious and I know where my fingers are at all times. After months of serious hand washing and sanitising, the hands didn’t need any more wear and tear. Gradually the edge took shape. When I had finished, I had only ONE piece of a paver left. Every single other spare brick and paver had been used. No one was more amazed than me. In fact, I’m sure NO one will be amazed at all! When you look at the bed, it just looks like ‘oh, yeah, that looks normal.’ End of story. I hasten to add, I was not using cement to hold it all together, that would have been one skill too far for me, I think. But Scott had said he didn’t think I would need it, and so far it appears he was right.

Next I needed the cow manure to fill the remainder of the bed. Problem. The manure that was delivered had large chunks of very hard, decomposed material. GG told me it would be fine, just water down once it was in place and then use the spade or garden fork to break it up. Sounds much easier than it is, believe me. She said hers had been well broken down when she got it, but mine was still quite lumpy. She guessed that it was probably a local source and given our very dry couple of years, there had probably not been enough moisture to foster dung beetles who would have aided in breaking it down. The earth’s ecosystem at work, or not, in my case. Once again, my trusty bucket and I began shovelling shit and carrying it. This time it was actual shit. I carried from the pile on the edge of the yard, back to the courtyard and into the hole. Engage abdominals, shovel carefully, lift with your legs and carry to destination. Eight buckets a session. Every few days I would water it down and let the moisture soak the clumps then break it up with the gardening fork or the spade. And every couple of days I gave my body a rest day.

Somewhere during this stage of things I realised my fitness was improving. I began to look around toward continuing the activity once the herb garden was established. I finished up with some extra manure, so I decided to dig up the other small areas and incorporate the remaining manure into them. I could feel my courtyard beginning to love me back. After previous success with water rooted basil cuttings, I began to make cuttings of some succulents I had bought last summer but not known how to care for properly. What was left were some wilted branches, which I snapped off and put into water. Presto, I now have 10 perky cuttings all with roots, six of which are planted into pots for future transplanting. Then I took my mostly dead, wholly root-bound mint and divided it into three clumps (mint will survive almost anything, even me) and planted those into pots of fresh potting mix. They have bounced back like curls in a hair commercial. Totally giddy with success, I gratefully accepted my next door neighbour’s offer of seeds from her very interesting looking basil that has purple tips on green leaves. I scattered them into pots of fresh mix and I have lots of tiny green leaves poking their heads up.

Other smaller garden beds after their makeover but before planting. My ‘nursery’ is growing in the foreground.
The plant on the wire frame behind the garden is a newly acquired lime tree that is specially adapted to growing in a pot. We are attempting to espalier it so that its arms grow along the frame. The large pot is the transplanted parsley, the pots either side are the results of the mint being divided and nourished. The small orange pot and the black one beside it hold tiny cotyledons of basil plants grown from my neighbour’s seeds. The lush growing medium is the once doubtful looking, lumpy cow manure, ready for planting.

We are still a couple of weeks away from planting seedlings, due to frost risk, but I am hopeful. The nursery of seedlings grows, the growing medium becomes more lush by the day, and my soul has been gently lifted by the effort and achievement. GG and I realise, we are at our best when maintaining our positivity (see others who find solace in nature here and here )

So, what does digging around my garden wearing purple gloves, looking for a particular earthworm have to do with this story?

As I was preparing the last little space of garden bed to receive its share of the cow poo makeover, I moved the rescued, and completely transformed, pot of parsley from the bed, up out of the way of the digging. As I did so, there was a lovely fat earthworm enjoying the moisture. Not wanting to cut him in half with my spade, I carefully picked him up and placed him in the new bed. After consulting GG as to whether I’d done the right thing, she suggested he might like a more moist area. So I donned the purple gloves and raced back outside to retrieve him and place him elsewhere that is consistently moist. But I was too late. He had already made himself at home and disappeared into the moist manure, hopefully to enjoy many years of happy digging. In fact, maybe that will make two of us. Nature shows us in myriad small ways how to dig around and be grateful and move forward. I’m always looking for my pony.

Yours truly,

A Hopeful Gardener

(future updates to come…)

the valley…

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the valley…

This is the valley about five minutes’ walk from our house. I’m there most mornings ahead of the golfers, so, very early. The sun is not fully up and it is tingeing the mountains various shades of pink and orange that if you painted it people would say ‘that doesn’t look real’. But in person it does.

In this valley each morning I listen to the Pied Butcher Birds carolling to each other, practicing their glorious songs for all to hear. The Kites sweep the sky looking for early morning prey. Dingoes are ghosting along, dissolving into the scrub as if they are apparitions. On days when there are no dingoes I see kangaroos gliding across the fairways, racing to secret themselves away for a daytime sleep.

Occasionally I see other humans, some walking their dogs around the trails and we smile and greet each other—fellow nature lovers out in the wee hours. And just now the wee hours are hovering around freezing, zero if you are in the metric school of thought, 32 if you are of the Fahrenheit persuasion. I leave a trail, my breath blowing a pale white cloud after me as I puff up the hill to warm stiff muscles more quickly. At the crest of the hill, this valley stretches out its arms, never failing to impress still drowsy eyes.

It was down near the back of the buggy trail in this valley six months ago that I found the tiny, five month old joey, hissing and crying bitterly in its life threatening circumstance. I scooped him up, carrying him in my tee shirt, hurriedly back to the top of the hill and home to call for help. The Kangaroo Sanctuary came in an hour or so to collect him and we named him Amos. We surmised that his mother, in a bid for one or the other of them to survive, had jettisoned him from her pouch and into the cool air on the dusty track. Miraculously, he had escaped notice until I arrived.

A couple of days later I walked that trail again and could smell death all around. At least two bodies lay decaying in the hills of the valley. It was not a smell you would mistake. It saddened me to know that the little joey’s mum was probably one of them. For a while I couldn’t walk that way again.The reality was just too visceral.

For a couple of weeks the Kangaroo Sanctuary sent me regular photos and news of dear little Amos. He was healthy and had even started to grow some hair! And then, a week before we departed on our trip to the Southern Ocean, a message from the Sanctuary…Amos had suddenly declined and within less than two days had died. They told me this is the way it happens. Mostly they survive, but when they die, it is sudden, and for no apparent reason they can identify.

Can you see the difference, the photo on the left was about three weeks after the one on the right–hair!

I could scarcely believe how much I had bonded with little Amos and how very sad I was that his life had ceased. I cried off and on all day when I found out. It was probably just as well that I couldn’t allow myself too much time to grieve because we had to prepare for the trip.

There has been so much sadness and hardship in the world since then, that I have not wanted to write this to you. Putting another sad thing out into the world seemed unnecessary, and probably still is, so I apologise. I kept waiting and hoping there would come some kind of clarity to me for the reason I would be chosen to save the tiny life and then have it taken away again. None came.

And then I remembered what Tahnee at the Sanctuary had said to me ‘You can take comfort in knowing he was safe and loved when he passed.’ His end was not violent, it was quiet and warm and in loving care. 

Sometimes there are just no other reasons, there is just love.

reading, listening, thinking…

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I have been thinking. Hard. Listening better. Reading deeper. The world needs to change, and I do too. I’ve thought about change from various perspectives through the years. Every time I moved states or country I changed. I can’t recall an occasion when this wasn’t for the better.

I heard recently, being uncomfortable is necessary. Even some pain is necessary until we emerge renewed. The scars may remain, but they are reminders of how it/we used to be. We don’t like discomfort, let alone pain. Life is very hard a lot of the time, if we are doing it right. All the more reason we need to bathe in joy when we occasionally find it.

I’ve noticed when I’m going through troubling times there are a few things that stabilise me, even give me cause for hope. They are mostly small, simple things…walks…homemade food…learning something new…watching nature…being creative.

Tarta de Santiago made with my own two hands.

Looking at things more closely reminds me of the day I had just cleaned the bathroom and then needed to do something in there with my reading glasses on and suddenly I realised all the dust I had missed! Sometimes we don’t know what we don’t know and it’s good to take a closer look. I’m learning all kinds of things about converting basil cuttings with water roots, so that they will then grow in soil. I paid attention and five out of the five cuttings have survived. More importantly, I’m trying to learn as much as I can about the plight of People of Colour everywhere, especially in Australia and the USA. It’s the least I can do given my white privilege. The two things that are most important in our lives are the two things we have no control over…where we are born (what country) and who our parents are. I heard this many years ago and completely believe it, but am gaining a fuller understanding now.

Our local nurseries were out of seedlings and seeds for months. Since I had one healthy basil plant I decided to make cuttings and grew them in water. But you have to convert the water roots to soil, which takes about a week. All five cuttings survived.

Turning the questions around is a very important exercise too. I remember sitting at a table in a friend’s house 8 or 9 years ago, having a discussion with a third person about when she had colon cancer, the same year I’d had breast cancer. It was a stark wake up call to me, that not everyone reacts the same to things. She said her first thought was ‘Oh, why me?’ And literally, my first thought was ‘Why not me?’ I’m no better or worse than anyone else and people get cancer all the time, so why would I be exempt? We are not exempt from life’s trials and challenges, so we pull on our big girl panties and learn from it. All. There is always something to be learned.

Our local groceries have been out of coffee filters for weeks. There’s a tiny little sticker on the shelf where they should be that says ‘sorry customers, we are currently unable to get this product’. So this morning I tried making my coffee the old way, the way I used to make it before pour-over coffee became a thing. You know what? It tastes better! I may not go back to  filters. I could spend the money on something more fun than a piece of paper that gets thrown in the garbage, or I could even donate it to support something I believe in.

What’s my point? When you know better, you can do better. Thank you Maya Angelou, for putting it so clearly we can all understand. Have a great day each and every one of you, go out there and listen and learn and be kind. Let’s all do better.

What I’ve been listening to…

On Being – interview with Eula Biss (also this repeat interview with Isabel Wilkerson here – see mention below)

This American Life – Afrofuturism – sounds odd but I’m trying to expand my awareness.

What I have been reading and watching…

How to be an Antiracist – Ibram X. Kendi (also this TED talk on YouTube with Ibram here)

The Warmth of Other Suns – Isabel Wilkerson (also a previous post I wrote about this remarkable book is here, it will sound vaguely familiar…)

The Light of the World: A Memoir – Elizabeth Alexander (also a previous post I wrote in 2015 after I’d read the book, still one of my all time favourite books is here)

we have a life…

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For weeks I have been ruminating over the whole isolation and distancing scenario, trying to figure out how it is effecting me, and observing how it seems to be effecting others, what we are being told, too. I imagine you are doing the same.

It occurs to me that social distancing in general is actually somewhat agreeable to me. First of all, I don’t like crowds or crowded situations, that’s obviously an advantage. Also I don’t appreciate the smell of certain individuals who either wear too much perfume/after shave, or who choose not to bathe regularly or who consume great volumes of garlic, or who have boisterous children. Keeping some distance is fine with me. I miss hugs.

Nice food is a huge pleasure for me, and need not be exotic or expensive, though admittedly, these croissants are both! (however, see pear photo below)

However, these words advertising a new tv show really hit a nerve:

a lifestyle show for a world where nobody has a life.

What on earth are they talking about? I have a life. We all have lives right now. They may not be exactly the same as the ones we had a few months ago, but they are our lives and for most of us there is still some room for a variety of experiences within them. I resent someone telling me I don’t have a life. I’m well aware that for the elderly who are being kept isolated from visitors and loved ones, and for the young families, isolated together while trying to home school and work from home, for carers and first responders and for those who have lost jobs or own small struggling businesses, it is very tough. But for a number of us the change has not been devastating. It has been inconvenient at times, for sure, but isn’t life this way from time to time anyway? And aren’t there always people who have it better or worse than us? Didn’t Australia just experience the worst bush fires ever recorded? Those were hellish and mostly completely out of anyone’s control. To be sure, I know people who have been hurting. But we all still have a life, which means we have possibilities and choices.

Some of the inhabitants I look after are the birds. They entertain me and I feed them, a perfectly symbiotic agreement.

Looking after a home and the inhabitants’ needs, requires conscious living. It always has, and it still does.

There have been the well publicised shortages, some of which are ongoing in the form of empty shelves, thankfully, no longer people fighting over things. This has highlighted in our home one of the ways in which I manage it—I always keep a backup of things we use regularly, in the pantry. This meant that when we came home from being away and the world had changed, we did not have to worry about desperate procurement of toilet paper, soap, sugar etc. This is called planning and organisation and I have always done it. Previously, it has been met with humorous derision in the form of me ‘always being prepared for a small famine’. No one is laughing now. I’m not a hoarder, just someone who plans a little bit ahead. Partly that comes from living in a place where unexpected weather events sometimes cause shortages of products, both food and otherwise. When the railway line is flooded, goods can’t get to us. If there is a drought or cyclone in an area where certain fruits or vegetables are grown, we may have a lean season. I remember Dad telling me, running out of things causes urgency and inefficiency and it can be avoided by just anticipating one’s needs.

While cutting up fruit for breakfast, I take photos. I love the shape of pears.

‘Now’ is part of life. And we still have a Now, though sometimes challenging.

Recently I broke a tiny corner off a back tooth. It was very sharp. Thankfully, our dentists are doing emergency work. I had to be at the dentist at 8.30 in the morning and I was not looking forward to it. Our old dentist had sold the practice and retired since last time I’d been. So I tried one of the ‘children’ dentists, as my friend calls the younger ones. He was very gentle and conservative and thought it best to just grind off the sharp corner and watch the tooth for a while. All good. The odd part was the protocol. First of all, they had told me to wait in the car in the parking lot when I arrived, because they aren’t allowed to use their waiting room. Apparently I was also supposed to call them when I arrived, which someone forgot to tell me, or I didn’t hear–it’s a lot to absorb sometimes with all the new regulations. But given they can look out the windows and see cars and the occupants, I thought perhaps they would just see that I was there. When I’d been sitting there for a few minutes, they called me and asked if I was coming. I said “yes, I’m here!” She replied “Oh, just come to the front door and we’ll meet you there.” The dentist met me at the front door with sanitiser, then when I got into his room, the dental assistant met me with more sanitiser, and after that I still had to wash my hands!! Then I had to rinse my mouth with disinfectant, spit into a paper cup that was then disposed of, and finally put on the extra large bib and plastic glasses. I did feel for a minute like I was living in a sci-fi film, or had leprosy and no one told me.

But I still have a life and it is still filled with simple moments of joy.

Despite daily physical therapy exercises for years, occasionally the muscle in my upper left thigh still plays up. I know when it does that, if I jog uphill at the start of my morning walks, it somehow sorts out the problem, and in a few days or a week it stops hurting. After five days of pre-walk jogs, I started out of the house and realised it was fine, no more pain.

Flower Supermoon over the MacDonnell Ranges

There was a full moon and I thought I’d jog up the steep hill to the third tee, just for extra measure. It had been months since I’d scrambled around the rocky outcrops, chasing early morning light for photo opportunities. That morning was the Flower Supermoon and it was especially bright and beautiful, so I had special incentive.

As I crunched around the rocks and dry plants, looking for good vantage points from which to photograph, I thought about how comforting it is to do something enjoyable, however simple it may be. In fact, I’m quite partial to simple things. I was also listening to a gentle discussion via a favourite podcast, about a favourite book by Pema Chödrön, ‘When Things Fall Apart’. It is so full of wise passages…

Things falling apart is a kind of testing and also a kind of healing. We think that the point is to pass the test or to overcome the problem, but the truth is that things don’t really get solved. They come together and they fall apart. Then they come together again and fall apart again. It’s just like that. The healing comes from letting there be room for all of this to happen: room for grief, for relief, for misery, for joy.

Pema Chödrön, When Things Fall Apart

We still have a life, and the moments of joy amidst the inconvenience, anxiety and sadness, are there to be seen. We just have to look for them and allow them to exist with everything else.

last one out…

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We could have had one last safari, making six, before we left Gondwana. But the last two had taken a toll on my tummy that I just couldn’t shake. The effect was worse than the roughest seas on the cruise and Don was happy to be done as well. We decided to get an early start for Franschhoek (pronounced: Fran-chook). We knew we were running low on energy and we had to save some for whatever might happen on our trip home.

Farewell Gondwana.

When we said farewell to Felix we could tell he was very worried about his family and how he would support them. Gondwana had announced they would be winding down at the end of that week, keeping only a basic crew to maintain the reserve.

‘last one out, turn off the lights’

He’s behind me making fart noises, isn’t he?

Just as when we had arrived to a welcoming committee, we left with a cheeky farewell from the Gondwana inhabitants. As we drove past small towns and townships* we felt quite heavy and sad, for we could see what was coming. In the townships people live very close together and many have poor hygiene and no transport, so they were hitchhiking rides. A perfect ‘vehicle’ for an eager virus. Even though the government was being very proactive with regard to the virus, and there were only a few hundred cases at that stage, we just knew what would likely befall them.

Woman making ‘rooster bread’ at Swellendam.

The drive was, again, very pretty landscape, and we had a nice, albeit brief, refuel and loo stop in Swellendam. We watched a local woman making ‘rooster bread’ as it is called. There was a little cafe two doors away who would make the dough and this lady came every day to cook the bread for them. She would roll the dough into mounds, then one at a time she would place a mound on the grill and pat it down. When it cooked on one side she turned it over to the other side and then stacked them up ready for the cafe to use. Apparently they put anything in them you would use in a sandwich. I would loved to have tried one, but we weren’t the least bit hungry so I asked to take the photos and thanked the woman, and we were on our way again.

wildflower in the mountain pass

We drove through the Franschhoek Pass to get to the town and so we had a stunning view of the area even before we’d arrived. This region, as with Stellenbosch, was famous for wine, but we were not going to experience that side of things on this trip, due to the alcohol restrictions. Our accommodation was a rather unusual place, set beautifully with the mountain as backdrop and a stunning scene from the outside tables as well. The L’ermitage Franschhoek Chateau was what I would call a group of holiday apartments, large bedroom and sitting area, with kitchenette and luxurious bathroom. There were all kinds of balconies and outside areas to sit which we used to advantage, while planning our activity for the following day. The place was even set out for weddings, with its own chapel and small reception hall. That evening there was a small wedding and reception, without alcohol but nonetheless enjoyed.

Entrance to L’ermitage Franschhoek Chateau.
Photo from L’Ermitage Villas, Franschhoek, looking out the window of the restaurant.
Empty streets of Franschhoek.

When it came right down to it, the town was mostly empty and with the wineries and museums closed we had to get a bit creative. We had seen something about a large organic farm a short drive from town and decided we would drive there and see if they were open. Again, we were lucky. They were open and due to small crowds, we had a private tour around the main gardens. It was their last day to be open due to lockdown measures and it was the most incredible place of that type we have ever visited. Babylonstoren** used their own organic produce to make nearly everything that was sold on the farm. There was a winery (closed, of course), a farm shop with dairy products, breads, meats, olives and many other things. The Scent Factory used their own herbs to make soaps, creams, perfume and other products. Also there were two restaurants, one that served large meals and one with smaller offerings, called The Greenhouse, our choice later in the afternoon. The lamb and olive pie, halloumi and salad sandwich and a shared dessert, were all homemade using their own organic ingredients.

It was the most relaxing, nourishing and calm place you can imagine and a perfect choice for our last full day in South Africa.

The Scent Factory was true to its name. The essential oils filled the air and when we left I felt like I’d had an aromatherapy treatment!

The last morning we were away smartly, though CapeTown was only an hour’s drive. By the time we filled the car with petrol, dropped off the rental and got to the airport several hours had elapsed. We had an hour or so to wait but we had eaten breakfast before departing L’ermitage, even though breakfast was being served in the airport lounge. I noted the food was all open and subject to any airborne germs that might be around, so I was glad I wasn’t hungry. I was pretty sure that uncovered food would not be the case for much longer. We could feel the tension everywhere.

So you see, the things we worry will happen to us, seldom do. And the things that we never see coming are the ones to bring us undone. Our bags were never lost. We were never sick, or seasick. I seldom had any problem finding food I could eat or the appropriate clothes from my suitcase. Even my pants fit perfectly to the very end.

Big challenges yield big memories…and they don’t get much bigger.

Thank you for traveling with me.

The return trip that takes up from here is here.

*townships are loosely equivalent to Indigenous communities in Australia, or Indian reservations in the USA

**Babylonstoren, so called because of the various languages in South Africa, having been settled by the French Huganots and the Dutch centuries before. And ‘storen’ is the word for ‘hill’ taken from one of those languages. The garden was designed by French architect Patrice Taravella.

safari, so good…

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We had set our alarms for 5.20am the next morning. Somehow 5.30 didn’t seem quite enough for two people to be ready and present for a 6am safari departure. It was tough. The activity, anxiety and travel was beginning to wear on us. The early start, before sunrise, was the reverse of the evening before. It was cold at the outset, and so we were rugged up, and Felix’s polar fleece ponchos were gratefully received. Bouncing through the cold, damp morning air woke us up in a hurry. Having recently completed the Southern Ocean-course -in- zodiac-hair-and-makeup, I did not consider any preparation beyond clean face and teeth, but the Canadian woman looked like she’d just stepped out of a fashion spread. I tried to keep some distance between us. I did wonder how early she had to get up to look like that, but only for a moment. She was nice, and smart too, I hasten to add.

Early morning start..with a certain bulky animal just at the right edge of the road.
Herd of Elands at dawn.

There was coffee and tea, again, which we did not have–breakfast would be after we returned in 2-3 hours. A short while out, we spotted a herd of Elands atop a ridge. Felix announced we were going to try and find the lions, because they could be quite elusive and it might take several safaris to locate them. But of course during the search we saw many other animals. There were blue wildebeests, zebras and various kinds of antelope, cape buffalo, hippos, and baboons. We stopped for morning tea. I took photos of plants.

Can you hear the theme of 2001 a Space Odyssey heralding in the dawn?
Morning tea on a custom-made safari truck-fold-out table.
Evening drinks with giraffes. As you can see from this photo, everyone else was so busy talking and drinking they missed this magical moment. I was the only one to get this shot.
My pano shot at the end of the sunset colour…with four year old who was not in the shot when I began but somehow managed to be in it at the end.
Native vegetation.

The search for lions was fruitless. Felix explained, during hunting was the most active they would be. After a kill and feeding, they laze around in the shade and sleep for days, making them very difficult to spot. He further explained there was only one pride of five lions in the whole of the 26,000 acres of the reserve. This was because the reserve followed a balanced approach in the numbers of animals of each type. They could cohabitate and live as nature intended, killing to eat as required. It was all self-sustaining. He said the staff never, ever intervened in the animal behaviours as they interacted with each other. Even when the animals occasionally roamed through the villa and lodge area, they were allowed to do their own thing, as long as ‘their own thing’ didn’t include human consumption. One night, some time back, guests were trapped in the lodge restaurant a couple of extra hours after they had finished their meals, due to the lions deciding to have a look around. No one had seen lions for days before we had arrived, or while we were there, so it was just not to be. Curiously, they were the animals we were least interested in seeing.

Wise words from Felix: “A buffalo always looks the same, whether happy or unhappy, so assume he is unhappy and stay out of his way!”
That baby zebra to the left was just the cutest little thing ever.

Every safari showed us a different aspect of the animals and the environment. We had five in all. Our last morning safari was an astonishing encounter, again with elephants. Felix found a small herd, moving across the hillside, eating grass as they moved. If I told you that he spotted the herd from over a kilometre away, you wouldn’t think it possible. He had the most incredible eyesight. When we got to the location, Felix pulled the vehicle right in the path of where he thought they would walk. Everyone, except the four year old, was quiet. You could hear the elephants breathe and tear the grass from the ground as they quietly moved through. It was an unforgettable few minutes. The video, which this template won’t allow me to load onto this blog, is on my instagram page if you want to have a look @amosthemagicdog. Also, my other favourite video of a herd of young impalas is there as well.

We were surprised when Felix asked us not to post photos of the rhinos. Poaching is still very dangerous for rhinos, and the metadata that poachers can get from photos helps locate them. Even though Gondwana is strictly protected, you can imagine how difficult it must be to protect all 26,000 acres of hills and valleys. In some cases the reserve has cut off most of the rhinos’ horns, to protect them if poachers should find them. Nothing to see here, fellas. But a couple of rhinos had their original, natural horns, proving that nature knows what she is doing. The graceful, tapered curve of the natural horns created the perfect foil to their otherwise bulky shape.

We were repeatedly reminded that the animals are wild. They are kind of used to the vehicles filled with humans, as long as there are no surprises, but the animals are still wild. I suppose in that regard they were like the penguins and seals we saw on the cruise. I’m sure they don’t miss us pesky humans one bit while we are staying away just now!

Zebras keeping a close eye on us in the Fynbos.

On our second day, in the afternoon break between breakfast and evening safari, we decided to take a short hike through a protected area on the Reserve called the Fynbos. This is a very specific biome particular to southwestern, South Africa, but some of the plants are also seen in South America and Australia, due to the once large land mass called Gondwana. One of the most dominant plants outside of the protected area is the protea. I have never seen such expanse of protea, largely because the other Fynbos plants are not present in enough numbers to control it. The proteas become so dense they keep the wildlife from being able to move through, so controlled burning is used for the large areas. Also, as in Australia, some of the plants actually require the heat from fires to regenerate. The protected area where we walked was full of plants included in the Fynbos, as well as zebras and giraffes! They are timid creatures and so we were allowed to walk in this area, but they kept their distance. Below are the photos from that walk. Because we had to mostly stay in the vehicles, there were few chances to look closely at the vegetation.

field of burnt protea at sunset

On the evening of our last full day at Gondwana, we noticed the bar was closed. More COVID-19 restrictions were in place. No sale of alcohol, even with meals, was allowed. Even though this reserve was privately owned, the new rules applied. With every new restriction we became more anxious. We still had three nights left in South Africa, at least we hoped we did. We were in constant touch with Qantas and were reassured our flights were still in place.

A perfect last evening for our time at Gondwana.

Gondwana…

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We had it on good advice that Gondwana* Game Reserve would not disappoint us in our desire to see African animals. But honestly, how many wonderful animal experiences could a person rightly expect from one trip? It was hard to believe that anything could live up to the experiences we had just witnessed on our cruise. But it turns out you can be incredibly lucky.

The game reserve was about a four and half hour drive from Stellenbosch. After a little bit of a lie-in, we enjoyed a lovely breakfast at our B&B and had a reasonably prompt start. Google map played one of its well known tricks and took us on a gravel road because it was the shortest route after we turned off the highway. We later discovered the paved road was faster, though technically not shorter.

Our welcoming committee.

From the highway, and for most of the drive on the gravel road, it was hard to believe this was the game reserve that had wild animals and had come so highly recommended. The lie of the land was unimpressive, though the drive there had been lovely. We arrived at the manned entrance, identified ourselves and were given a map to get to the lodge and accommodation. The minute we turned into the drive, it was as if we had come into an altered Universe. There were giraffes. I swear I nearly hyperventilated. No one is allowed to leave their vehicle so photos from the car window were required. It’s not as if we hadn’t seen giraffes close up before. We hand fed them at Monarto Zoo in South Australia a couple of years ago. But this was uncontrived and so casual…oh, yeah, those ole things, just giraffes, you know.

We arrived at the lodge and were shown to the villa that would be our accommodation for the next three nights. It was truly perfect. It was ‘glamping’**, and more…rustic but with a king size bed, and all the niceties. The view from the bed toward the stunning landscape and the other villas was very special. We were told our first ‘safari’ would be in an hour, but we were required to meet in half an hour so the guide could gather his group and so we could have afternoon tea before departing at 5pm. Thrust into it, we barely had time to change clothes and get to the meeting point which, fortunately, was the bar area, a stone’s throw from our villa.

Felix

There was no way I was going to have a cup of tea when about to leave on a three hour safari, but I could manage a couple of tiny tea cakes. After four weeks, I was learning to cope with semi-permanent dehydration. Our guide for the entire stay was Felix. What he didn’t know about the animals and the country probably wasn’t worth knowing. He was a really lovely man. Felix gathered everyone and showed us to our vehicle, which held 9 adults, plus the seat beside Felix. The three rows of seats were graduated in height from front to back so that everyone would have a clear view. Very clever. Don and I decided we would climb to the seats at the back…not realising they were also the least comfortable over bumpy terrain…and it was ALL bumpy terrain. But the main reason we decided the back seat was worth trying was the very precocious, and vocal, four year old with his parents. Fresh from a wilderness experience with only adults, a loud four year old was not something we had anticipated.

Our first safari that evening was our baptism by bump. Felix had decided to chase down one of the elephant herds. When I say we went over hill and dale, that is putting it mildly. My poor back and stomach were tortured to the limit and my bladder…well, once again, we were being stoic. We had been told there were no toilet facilities anywhere, which was plainly evident, so, when a man about thirty years younger than us asked if he could do a ‘necessary stop’, I wanted to say ‘Really?’

Our view from the highest seats.

But we were rewarded with elephants. And not just elephants, but baby elephants. They were astonishingly majestic, as was the scenery. We would never ever have guessed that this incredible terrain lay only a few miles from the highway that carried us there.

Sunny and warm watching the giraffes.

As the sun set the temperature plummeted unbelievably. Felix handed out ponchos, which at first some accepted politely, but later snuggled into gratefully. It had been hot when we left so no one wore jackets, but now we were freezing. It was dark by the time we returned for dinner and we were tired and hungry and in desperate need of a ‘necessary stop’. I think all that bouncing around actually burns energy!

It was rather late by the time we’d eaten dinner and Felix had told us he would be calling us at 5.30 the next morning, for a 6am departure. All I could think of was the good ole days when I thought zodiac excursions were challenging…

**glamping is a combined word from ‘glamorous-camping’

*Gondwana: we hear a lot about Gondwana here in Australia as it is thought that about 550 million years ago, Australia, Africa and South America formed a single land mass and it has been given that name. It was readily visible in the shared plants we saw, both in South Africa and here in Australia.

a nervous time…

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Thirty-six hours prior to landing in CapeTown saw us hit the roughest seas of the trip. The sick bags appeared on the hand rails again, and this time, both Don and I were feeling passing waves (excuse the pun) of seasickness. We visited the bridge to watch the huge swell and waves lash the ship, even up to the windows of deck 5, which, incidentally, was the deck we were staying on! Even this did not make me want to leave the ship for the next leg of our journey.

Our arrival into CapeTown was filled with mixed emotions…for me at least. If I’m honest, I have to say that I never had a desire to visit CapeTown, so for me we were leaving the best holiday we’d ever had, and if we were allowed to disembark, transitioning into a place I didn’t really want to be. Even Don, who had wanted to go there for years remarked how dry and brown Table Mountain looked. You seldom hear about it but South Africa’s rainfall levels have steadily decreased for decades. There had been a serious water shortage only the year before. Finally, they’d had enough rain to replenish some areas, but still nowhere near historic normal rainfall. We were glad we had made the decision to not stay the night in CapeTown, and especially glad since this is where coronavirus started in South Africa.

Finally, as we approached CapeTown the seas abated. Table Mountain with the city below.
The ill-fated German ship is the second one back on the right.

We knew that this part of the trip could be fraught with difficulty. Our travel agents had conferred on our part and decided we should stick with the bookings we had, and try to complete the last 6 days of our trip. We had been granted permission to dock the ship, but passengers would not be allowed to disembark until everyone’s temperature had been taken the evening of our arrival. This was more than had been allowed for a German ship that had arrived just days before us, at the same dock. The German ship had been flat out refused permission to allow passengers off, and further, had been told to go away! I had made friends with a German couple on our voyage and they later updated me with the fate of the German ship. It was eventually allowed to stay at the dock but the passengers were not allowed to leave until Germany sent charter flights to take the 2000 passengers home. It was a couple of weeks before that happened, apparently.

There was a gorgeous sunrise on the morning of our departure. But it was bitter-sweet.
The docks were very industrial but the sunrise transformed the place.

The next morning our health report was good. We had been confident it would be. We were just unsure if the authorities would see things the same way. Early that morning, we were allowed to leave Le Lyrial. As we departed we were handed a face mask, our names crossed off the passenger manifest, and the Captain…Our Captain, as always, was there to bid us bon voyage. We elbow bumped and I told him again how very much we had enjoyed the voyage. Even as I write this, there is a lump in my throat when I think of the sadness at leaving our safe bubble and the care of our dedicated Captain and crew. We walked down the ramp and onto the dock where dock workers in high vis vests and masks pointed us toward the immigration area. Already the world seemed impersonal and strange. Surprisingly, no one checked our immunisation documents, as we had been told they would. We were simply passed through to find our bags and exit outside to the transport area. It was all so ordinary and unceremonious, and scary.

After a short wait our transfer driver, Denzel, appeared with a very clean vehicle supplied with every kind of sanitiser known to humankind. We were soon to find out, sanitiser and soap was in plentiful supply in South Africa. Also plentiful were smiles and assistance. Once we had collected our rental car, we drove straight out of CapeTown to the town of Stellenbosch. It was only an hour’s drive and when we arrived at the B&B it wasn’t yet lunch time. Don was reeling from the effects of being at sea for most of the last three weeks, and by the next day I was feeling it too. We would suddenly be taken over by a woozy, disorienting feeling, as we tried to get our land legs back again.

Unsurprisingly, we were both exhausted. We spent the afternoon at the nearby botanic gardens, where we also had a very nice lunch. Later that afternoon we strolled through a very quiet Stellenbosch and learned the government had closed all the pubs and most wineries, and there was no sale of liquor allowed after 1pm…so if you wanted a Bloody Mary for breakfast you were fine, but something with dinner, not likely. The government had already begun its effort to discourage gatherings by limiting the sale of alcohol. There were a few exceptions, one of which we happened to find for dinner. It was a nervous time for everyone.

The empty streets of Stellenbosch spoke volumes.

We had rented a small apartment in a Victorian era house that had been converted. It was so delightful and felt immediately like a safe place to be. We had a lovely little garden and a small kitchenette. However, there was little time to enjoy our oasis, we were already heading on to our next adventure the following day. And in our spare time we nervously watched the news headlines.

too much of a good thing…

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When things are difficult, we yearn for comfort. As we neared the end of the cruise and tensions were raising due to the many uncertainties, the Chef and his staff consistently soothed us with pastries and afternoon teas. It felt like my absolute duty to taste-test the offerings. Research, you understand.

Warning: items shown in this blog post have been consumed. Discretion is advised.

Each night for the entire cruise, we returned from dinner to a small pastry or sweet of some kind. Often we were too full and too tired to eat it, but it was such a nice little thing to return to the room, bed turned down, towels refreshed, room tidied, and two little night nibbles. One evening in particular there appeared on our freshly turned down bed, two perfectly lovely little boxes decorated with a likeness of French author, Marcel Proust. Each contained one of his favourite small, shell shaped cakes known as ‘madeleines’.

It seemed only polite to sample the many breads, pastries and croissant freshly baked for breakfast each morning. I remained restrained throughout, but carefully worked my way through, the flakey fruit pastries, the croissant and the many varieties of bread that were beautifully displayed. I regularly returned to favourites like croissant and grainy bread. Mostly I had a bowl of fruit and a piece or two of cheese, followed by a pastry or piece of bread…delicious…with butter. If that sounds sinful, guilty as charged.

For lunch and dinner there was also bread but often I saved myself for a little dessert. One of the best things about desserts were the very small servings. Could this be the secret to how French women stay so slim? One could taste and enjoy without completely throwing caution to the wind. Or when one felt compelled, try two or three things…because they were so very tiny…not me of course…but I heard stories…

My two favourite meals were a confit duck pie, and vegetables on polenta. Most meals were very good, even with me having to dodge onion in things, but these two were outstanding, comfort food dishes, while being a bit gourmet as well.

Confit Duck Parmentier, french shepherd’s pie, a piece of grainy bread and a glass of rosé.
Vegetables on polenta, perfectly creamy and comforting.

For the first half of the cruise I am sorry to say I purposely avoided the afternoon teas. There was so much good food at meal times and then there was the whole ‘will my pants fit me in another three weeks?’ issue. I thought discretion was called for. However. I made up for it the last week or so when they started doing themed teas…

Parisian classics – the tiny one dipped in chocolate is a small madeleine…the round one to the left was my favourite ‘cookie’, a crisp buttery morsel, but one was never enough, the little tiny ‘loaf’ shaped cake was almond.

French Regional Classics –tiny donuts in sugar, an almond bread filled with lemon curd, and an orange flavoured glutinous mouthful to the right

Choux and Mille Feuille–choux pastry filled with custard, and crispy layered pastry, likewise filled with custard

 Macarons–classic meringue shells with pistachio, chocolate or vanilla cream filling

And Crêpes Suzette, so tender and sweet, it was comfort on a plate.

Oo lala. So fancy.

For those who are partial to savoury tea treats, there was a ‘pata negra’ tasting (Spanish ham, named for the hoof colour of the pigs from which it is made), caviar tasting, and often tiny little toasted French sandwiches.

Creme Caramel is always a favourite of mine and this was no exception. The photo doesn’t look so attractive, but the flavour was delicious. Also, a favourite was the lemon tart. So clean, crisp and just sweet enough. This came in two forms, a single serving tart with meringue topping, and a simple tart with no topping. I preferred the simple tart but somehow missed getting a good photo of it…probably ate it too fast.

I also would not refuse this almond and nut tart if someone sat it in front of me.

The pièce de résistance, however, was the chocolate tart. It really was perfection. The filling was rich and velvety, the pastry crisp and light. Merveilleux. (I learned the French word for ‘marvellous’ just so I could complement the chef)

Food and wine wasn’t the most important reason we chose this trip, but it was certainly a major contributor to our enjoyment. And too much of a good thing can be wonderful, n’est-ce pas?

Tristan da Cunha…

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After the Captain’s tale of the Somali pirates, most of us would have followed him anywhere. So, when we approached the first of our supposed excursions around the Tristan da Cunha group (Gough Island) if he had said ‘Jump!’, to get into the zodiacs, we might have done it! However, the seas were rough and it was decided it was unsafe for our planned excursion, so we would have to view the island from the ship. The ship was manoeuvred as close as safety would allow and through the mists we could see it was a wild and not easily accessible place.

The mists are clearing…
Another bit of good fortune for our afternoon excursion.
Exploring around Tristan da Cunha’s rugged coastline.

The next day was better for excursions and during that day we also got a look at the community of Tristan da Cunha…from afar. After exploring the coast of the island, it was nearing the end of the day and the light was gorgeous. Most of us gathered on deck to enjoy the light and the splendid sunset.

Marcus and Laura and the community of Tristan in the distance.

This photo, taken on that glorious sunset evening, shows Marcus Bergstrom, from Sweden, and Laura Jordan from France, both Naturalists. They also had excellent command of English, were licensed zodiac drivers, and were excellent photographers. Marcus was the ‘bird guy’ who loved Albatrosses, and Laura has an Instagram feed (@laurajordan_) specialising in photos and videos from this cruise and others. There were ten naturalists in all, some with many years of education and experience and who spoke several languages.

During our visit to Tristan da Cunha there was a very sweet little background story developing. Our local expert, Conrad, had been supposed to stay at his home on Tristan once our tour of the islands finished. However, the town was not even allowing him to disembark! And worse, the town, whose speciality is fresh lobster, was not going to supply the lobster our chef had ordered! This was dire. Conrad would have to accompany us to CapeTown and figure out how to get home later. There are no airstrips so his only choice would be sea travel. Our very creative thinking crew hatched another idea. The afternoon, after we had completed our zodiac cruises of Tristan, we saw a zodiac with Conrad ripping through the waters back toward the ship. In the boat, piled around him, were bags of fresh lobsters, and his lovely wife huddled against him to accompany him for the remainder of his quarantine in CapeTown, however long that might be. His wife had loaded the lobsters and then herself into the zodiac to join her husband and preserve everyone’s safety. Knowing what we do now, we think Conrad and his wife were probably not able to leave South Africa. I guess we will never know.

Before leaving the archipelago we had excursions to the other two islands in this group, Nightingale and Inaccessible. To be perfectly honest, our schedule was now so different from plan A and plan B, I have no idea which of these photos were from which island. Normally when I am confused I just check the metadata on the photos and it will have the place name. But in the Southern Ocean, the photos mostly just say ‘Southern Ocean’. Helpful. It doesn’t really matter, they were very close together and both quite wild and, as the name of the latter would indicate, mostly inaccessible except by zodiac.

I couldn’t believe I captured this photo of an Antarctic Tern with the island in the background. Antarctic Terns have a wingspan of about 3 feet, so a relatively large bird, but compared to Albatrosses, quite small!
The rockhopper penguins are everywhere in this region.
The water was so clear and a beautiful colour, but it was the seaweed I loved. It was growing up from the floor of the ocean and had amazing textures. Those little bulbous pieces are full of air and help the seaweed float so it can reach the light.
Seals and more seals.
The coastline was full of caves and alcoves growing lichens, fungi and tussock.
These Antarctic Fur Seals had found their own little rock pool, perfect for splashing.

COVID-19 news was becoming more and more worrisome with each day. At about this point in the trip, again, the Captain called everyone to the theatre, this time, at 9.30 in the evening. I was beyond tired and Don agreed to attend and tell me the outcome. Based on recent experience we thought it would be serious. It was. The Ponant company had decided to ask all ships to go to the nearest port, disembark passengers and head for home port in Marseilles. This turned out to be extremely good judgement on their part. We were still four days from CapeTown which was the soonest we could get anywhere. All of the crew except for 21, would also have to disembark there, as would those passengers who had been supposed to take the cruise on to Durbin and the Seychelles. The anxiety became palpable. We compared stories of where we were supposed to travel next and how we might amend our plans, while sharing with each other any information we had. Good access to internet meant that we were aware of the rapid changes in conditions since we had departed Ushuaia, but there was not a single thing we could do except communicate with our travel agents and revise plans, until we got to CapeTown. We weren’t even certain if we would be allowed off the ship once we arrived, but somehow the crew kept smiling, all the while working on our behalf behind the scenes.

when is she ever going to end this saga??…soon my pretties, soon…