Monday, September 03, 2007

Inchcolm Island

Inchcolm Island
Not far off the coast of Edinburgh lie a few islands. I’ve seen them a thousand times and always wondered what they were like. So off we went from South Queensferry on a trip to Inchcolm. The sea was un characteristically calm and we swept under the Forth Rail Bridge hearing about the 5000 men (57 dies) and seven year build. It’s a strange structure, red, solid, over-engineered (was built in 1890 just after the Tay Bridge disaster. But it’s not the structure that amazes, it’s the sheer ambition and ingenuity of the Victorians. I’ve seen some amazing photographs of the bridge being built, especially the final links. I lived for years between this and the road bridge but always preferred the old red bridge. I’m told by my friend Ronnie (the real Thane of Fife – CEO of Fife region) that the road bridge is fucked. The supporting wires are snapping away and can only be slowed, not repaired. There’s much talk of a new bridge/tunnel.

Anyway, back to the island. We pass the oil terminal in the middle of the Forth with two tugs on standby and two huge tankers loading North Sea Oil – for expert. It’s piped here to be loaded onto ships. We also pass by the north shore gas terminal. But the island’s the star.

It’s more attractive than I expected, very green with a short, sandy isthmus connecting two masses of dark, rounded igneous rocks. The Abbey sits snugly on the sheltered side of the western rock. It’s Scotland’s best preserved abbey – remember that the Scots took to the Reformation so deeply that it shocked even its continental leaders. Yet here, not far from Calvinist Edinburgh with its statue of John Knox, lies a well-preserved abbey. The original church can be seen along with the cloister, dining room, dormitory, abbot’s house and bell tower. The abbey was often raided by the English so was functional. You can climb up to the roof for some great views. It’s very quiet and, just like Iona, you get a real sense of monastic peace. The island has also been used for plague victims adding a note of sadness.

A walk around the island reveals both first and second world war ruins. Up to five hundred soldiers were stationed here. A fantastic trip and highlight of our two weeks in Edinburgh.

East Lothian
Had a day out at the bird reserves and sights of East Lothian. This included Preston Mill, an iron-age fort, North Berwick, Dunbar and several doocotes! We picked wild brambles to add to our Lucas ice cream and visited John Muir’s birthplace in Dunbar – the man who kick-started the US National Park system and a global conservation movement.

Namibia Day 13 Final thoughts

Truly a life changing experience. Namibia is a huge, laregly empty place so come here for the landscapes, animals and sky.

We were lucky - we had as close an encounter with the famed Desert Elephants as is possible, witnessed Etosha elephants stampede to a waterhole, flew across the desrt and up hte Skeleton Coast, ate under the stars while jackals circled our tents, saw shooting stars, ran down 300 foot sand dunes, and had our fill of lions, cheetas, wild cat, rhinos, giraffes and antelope. I also enjoyed the birdlife.

Final thoughts – don’t bother to take malaria tablets, we neither saw nor heard a mosquito. None of the guides bothered as it was winter and too dry and cold for mosquitos. This seemed like the perfect time to visit as the waterholes were teeming with life and bothersome insects were rare.

Namibia Day 12 Waterberg Plateau

We camped on green grass below the long red sandstone ridge of the plateau. A walk to the summit took us past rock hyrax and baboons, who stood above us squealing their obvious ownership of this patch. At the top a sign warned us to go no further as there were buffalo, rhino and other dangerous animals in the vicinity. The view was worth the climb. Hawk eagles were riding the thermals and the flat plain stretched out as far as the eye could see. A plaque, halfway up. Stated that two Germans had died here while climbing the cliff face.

Namibia Day 11 Etosha

We saw a cheetah on our morning game drive. It was on the other side of the waterhole feasting on an oryx kid, while the oryx mother looked on.

Final night in a luxurious lodge. We had a deep bath for two, a shower under the stars and a beautifully designed room with mood lighting. It was as good as any 5 star hotel I’ve stayed in. The waterhole was a little disappointing but we saw a leopard kill up a tree and lions lounging by the side of a waterhole. In one section of the park we saw lots of Dik-Dik, protected by the dense bush and rocks.

Namibia Day 10 Etosha – Lions

This morning we saw five lions, one male, four females stride across the grassland in a line. It was in the early morning light and they looked magnificent. They then sat down in formation, waiting on prey.

They really are the thugs of their habitat. When they come to a waterhole, everyone clears off. There lack any semblence of nervousness.

Namibia Day 9 Etosha

Elephant stampede
Today we saw a dust cloud way off in the distance. Binoculars revealed a herd of elephants literally running across the dusty plain towards the waterhole where we were sitting. It took no time at all for them to be thundering towards us passing literally a couple of metres in front of our truck. They were stopping for no one. Once at the hole they drank and drank. That was one herd of thirsty honchos.

Namibia Day 8 Etosha

Lived up to its reputation as one of the best game parks in the world (if something greater than the size of Wales can be called a park). We almost immediately saw zebra, springbok, oryx, waterhogs, Giraffes and elephants. It's so very different from all those TV programmes. The waterholes here are teeming with life. What must Africa have been like when there were 10 million Elephants compared to today's 500,000.

After settling into our lodge rooms we went on our first game drive and saw lots and lots of antelope. That night at the waterhole, there were literally dozens of elephant, warthogs, a hyena and giraffes.

Game parks now manage themselves, with only elephants or diseased animals being culled. As this was winter, it was dry so the waterholes were very busy and the lack of foliage meant the animals were easier to spot.

Namibia Day 7 Twyfellontyne

Rock Paintings
Two African Black Eagles soared above the red sandstone cliffs where the bushmen had drawn (painted and inscribed) their animals and themselves. Many of the animals were without heads, not an artistic affectation but necessary as that was where the posioned arrows struck. They had to chop off the heads to make the meat safe to eat. The spring must have been the original attraction, along with the lion and horse's head shapes in the rock.

Petrified Forest
A small petrified forest area was worth visiting if not for the fossils, then the palnts. The euphorbia with its posonous white sap that oozed out on just bending the stems.

Cape Cross
The strange atmosphere of fog and sun along mile after mile of sand and sea is so very different from most coasts. We stopped at Cape Cross sea colony where the jackals roamed around hoping to pick up a crushed pup. The seals were defending their pups or frolicking in the waves.

Namibia Day 6 Desert elephants

Off north east to Uig and the Brandenberg Desert Camp, where we set up under a tree with the red, granite, Brandenberg mountains as a backdrop. No sooner had we pitched out tents than a tame Meerkat started to follow us around. There were tracks everywhere and some excitement around the news that Elephants were on their way but at 30 kilometers, it seemed unlikely that they would reach our site in time.

Desert elephants in our camp
Great news. The elephants had been closer than we thought and we could hear them at the waterhole snapping branches and trumpeting. Unfortunately, we couldn’t see them. We settled down for our campfire dinner when suddenly Marcus jumped back. He was literally a metre away from an elephant that was looking at us all in our camp. We retreated towards the bus and realised that the whole group (17 in all) were heading our way. Within a couple of minutes they were everywhere. Literally surrounding us, eating from the tree above our tents, next to our bus, looking at us, wandering past. Twice Murray herded us onto the bus for our own safety. Once after a bull had turned, shaken his head and stamped his front feet. The bulls were enormous and when they reached up into the trees with their trunks, looked truly gigantic. Eventually they wandered off to feed but still within a few hundred yards of our camp. Murray and Marcus had never been that close to desert elephants and even they described it as the experience of a lifetime. This is as good as it gets. The combination of fear, wonder and excitement was absolutely thrilling. They were as curious as us and both groups stood staring at each other. At one point Marcus said, ‘This is not good’. That was the point I got worried.

Meercat capers
When we retired to our tents Gil lay back to discover the meerkat under her sleeping bag, We had to wake it and try to get it out of our tent. Forty-five minutes of coaxing, and several re-entries later Callum finally trapped it in our bag and lifted it out. The others were fearful of it getting into their tents so the entire Jervis family (all six of them, decamped into a single tent. Meanwhile the meercat had dug a burrow under our tent, under my head to be precise. Jackals repeatedly tried to get him out. We discovered the burrow the next morning, along with hundreds of elephant tracks. They in themselves were huge. They have larger than normal tracks as their feet have to cope with desert sands. There are only 600 of these elephants left in a country three times the size of the UK. We felt so lucky that they had chosen that night to visit that spot.

Namibia Day 5 Swakamund and Namid flight

Kristall Galerie
We visited the Krystal Gallerie which contains the largest known crystal cluster in the world and several more that are of a similar size. The building itself was an impressive piece of architecture, a sort of crystalline entrance with mirror surfaces. The mineral collection was impressive, as was the crystal cave. They rather oddly have a Gibeon meteorite tucked away on a shelf in the coffee shop.

Swakamund Museum
Then to the Museum, one of those old fashioned collections of odds and sods – eggs, bones, cannons, photographs, horns, stuffed animals, camel pegs, guns, shipwreck stuff, postrunner explanation (12 days to run to Windhoek). The old colonial ox cart, pulled by 20 oxen was impressive as was the ethnographic section. The bushmen hunting gear, giraffe patella bowl for poison, tortoseshell boxes, ostrich eggs for water and basic tools were explained well. Well worth a visit.

The beach was wild, with Atlantic breakers and cormorants on the pier. We had a superb seafood lunch at The Lighthouse then headed off for our flight into the Namib.

Desert flying
We joined a German couple and took off on a 2 hr 15 min flight south. We played tag with the other aircraft, swooping down and over and under it. Then at the Kuiseb River our daredevil pilot, went down and hammered us up at treeline level, a couple of metres off the ground up the river bed. That was thrilling. We then climbed and passed some local tribes camped up out of the river bed, to avoid flash floods, the desert research centre, then some dramatic dunes that stretched for miles. We buzzed some Oryx, saw several more groups then reached the pan. The dunes were every hue of brown, orange and red. We passed over some abandoned diamond camps in the middle of the desert. When we reached the coast we saw two seal colonies on the sandy shore then roared up the coast past shipwrecks and places where the waves smashed straight into the dunes. At Sandwich bay we saw Flamingos, the salt pans at Walvis Bay, all pinks and purples, then headed straight for two merchant ships offshore, flipping at the last minute to avoid crashing into them. Evening was at the Napoletana for pizzas and Oryx Kebabs.

Namibia Day 4 Solitaire, Swakamund and Skeleton Coast

A long 7.5 hour drive through lots of landscapes and changes in rocks and flora. We stopped at Solitaire famous for its apple crumble – and rightly so. We had one each and the boys had seconds, at 10.30 in the morning. Old cars and motorbikes gave it a western homestead feel.

The Sheltering Desert
Further on we stopped at a canyon and Murray told us of two Germans who escaped internment by hiding in the canyon. At the start of the Second World War Henno Martin, along with his colleague and friend Hermann Korn, feared internment in a camp for Nazis and escaped into the Namib desert. For two and a half years the two men eked out a living in the harsh environment. They survived on carp and antelope but one eventually got ill. Hunted down by a cantankerous Scot and a camel column, they were eventually caught. Their story is told in a book called The Sheltering Desert'.

We hit the coast at Walvis Bay, an old whaling and fishing port. It has the look of a seamen’s haunt, with afew gambling bars and basic functional facilities, but the highlight was the lagoon with its flamingos, pelicans and seabirds. We had lunch next to the lagoon then drove north to Swakopmund, an altogether different place. Along the road we saw the complex where Bradd Pitt and Angelina Jolie had stayed but far more interesting were the dolphins frolicking in the waves. The sea crashes straight onto the skeleton coast sand here, as it does for hundreds of miles.

Dunedin Star
Here we checked into the Dunedin Star. Apparently, the ‘wreck of the Dunedin Star’ in 1944, a British supply vessel that ran aground on a near shore reef, some 700km north of the then British port of Walvis Bay. It took over 5 months, with the loss of an ocean going tug and a supply plane before the survivors were rescued by land convoy. A rescue tug, the Sir Charles Elliott, ran on to rocks before reaching the stranded ship and two of her crew members lost their lives while trying to swim ashore.

A Ventura bomber dropped supplies on to the beach but crashed into the ocean on the way back to Walvis Bay. The crew not only survived the crash but managed to swim ashore and later find their way to the overland rescue convoy as well. A ship called the Nerina made it to the site, but only managed to pick up 29 survivors. This left 63 on site. A convoy was dispatched from Windhoek but, to the best of my knowledge, had major vehicle difficulties and had to return. A second convoy was sent off. This made it to within three kilometers of the survivors. They trudged the rest of the way. One wonders what the survivors had to say when they saw their rescuers arrive on foot. On the way back, they also collected the airman who had swum to shore from the bomber that crashed into the ocean. The airmen, together with the original survivors, eventually reached Windhoek on Christmas Eve, twenty-six days after the original disaster.

The guesthouse was a bit of a wreck, with locks that didn’t work, badly cabled electricals and an overworked receptionist. A visit to the snake farm saw the boys with a huge python round their neck, much to the horror of some local kids. The entry price horrified them even more. We saw most of the major Namibian snakes and an ambulance driver, who was there explained in glorious and gory detail, how each of the bites took its toll – some paralyse you so you can’t breathe, some poison your tissue and others attack your platelets so you bleed from your eyes and ears. Some have combinations of these venoms. He had treated many victims. There were whale bones, succulents and chameleons in the garden.

Nice little town with plenty of good shops, restaurants, a lighthouse and the occasional drunk. We went out for a huge meal of oysters, game goulash and game steaks washed down with litre jugs of lager, at insanely cheap prices in the Brauhaus.

Namibia Day 3 Namib Dunes

Up at 5.30 am to catch sunset from top of huge red sandune. Boys couldn’t wait to run down the slope and back up to run down again. Black beetles, head stuck in the sand to catch condensation, were everywhere on the sunny side of the dune. We had breakfast at the foot of the dune then drove to an old river bed to walk through the dunes to a huge salt pan. Lizards everywhere and Orxyx tracks. A surprising amount of plants despite the arid climate. Their roots go deep and the seeds can lie dormant for decades.

Back to camp for a doze then a trip to Sesserim Canyon. A dry river canyon with one pool where we saw a sidewinder (snake). Namibia’s rivers are usually dry and get replenished through flash floods. Goshawk in tree next to our tent.

At sunset we drove to a dune that looked out over a vast plain, where we spotted jackals, antelope and ostrich. A lone osprey was on one of the few trees.

Namibia Day 2 To the Namid

Quiver trees
Within minutes of leaving Windhoek we see baboons, springbok and ostrich. Namibia is one huge nature reserve and wildlife is everywhere. There’s always something to see and look out for. We passed through a dry area with lots of Quiver trees high up on hillsides. The quiver tree or "Kokerboom" is indigenous to the hot and dry southern part of Namibia. The plants are succulents and can reach a height of up to 9 metres in height. They have adapted to the extreme environmental conditions by storing water in their trunks. The tree only blossoms for the first time after 20 to 30 years and can reach 300 years of age. The wood is very light and spongy inside. And because the trunk and branches can be easily hollowed out, they were used as quivers by the bushmen (San people) who formerly inhabited this area.

Jackals, hyenas and cracked heads
We had lunch at the side of the road and continued to the Namid park where we set up camp with a view across the grassland to the dark red dunes. We set off on a walk towards the springbok and came across several ostrich. The boys amused themselves catching lizards and gekos. The landscape is stunning and the setting of the sun brought us around our campfire where Murray and Marcus cooked the evening meal in just two pots on a wood fire. A full moon came up and lit up the camp like a stadium. The night sky was ablaze with stars and we saw our first shooting stars of the trip. Jackals circled round the camp in full view. Murray told of a hyena that had bitten the head of a guide two years earlier, cracking his skull.

Night script
One could read the night’s script by examining the tracks around the camp in the morning. Tons of Jackal prints and lots of antelope.

Namibia Day 1 Windhoek

Arrived on what looked like a bush airstrip at 6.30 am and straight into the capital, Windhoek. Even on the way in we saw baboons and hornbills. The city has a colonial feel (in this case German) but the main drag has a couple of shopping centres and it seemed like a safe and relaxed sort of place.

Meteorites in mall
There’s an interesting set of meteorites set up in the Post Street mall. These are the famous Gibeon meteorites that fell over some 200 square miles on the east side of the Great Fish River in southern Namibia. As they cool at only one degree celcius per 1000 years in zero gravity they have a crystalline metallic structure not found on earth rocks. The original meteorite is estimated at roughly 4 by 4 by 1.5 meters and descended through the Earth's atmosphere along a northwesterly trajectory at a low angle of 10` to 20` from the horizon. It fragmented high in the atmosphere, and these fragments show thermal alteration by melting of the outer surface. This covered the fragments in smooth outer layers, or was pulled off in places by the drag of the atmosphere, leaving an uneven mass with deep, spherical cavities on the outer surface. These well-developed thermal alteration structures prove that the fragments had an extended flight through the atmosphere before being deposited.

We stocked up on supplies, bought some incredibly cheap S African wine, changed some money at £1 to N$14 and off we went to Arebusch Lodge n the outskirts of town. We went for a walk up the riverbed to spot birds. Lots to see especially the Cape Starlings and go-away birds. Had a cooked meal and were briefed for the trip. Murray Lewis, our guide for the trip, has spent two years in Kruger Park and some years in conservation in India. He seems very knowledgeable. He speaks to his aid in Africans, but both speak good English as well as two ‘click’ languages. These languages are interesting as they are the original languages of Southern Africa. Bantu expansion from the north and colonial expansion from the south and Germans from the coast, squeezed the local Khoisan people almost to extinction.

I have a couple of books with me that give some insight into southern Africa, ‘Guns, Germs and Steel’ by Jared Diamond and ‘The Lost World of the Kalahari’ by Laurens Van Der Post. I also bought ‘The Namid’ by Mary Seeley and ‘Birds of Southern Africa’ by Needham, in Windhoek.

Diamond’s books is a classic. His hypothesis is that Africa, having a N-S axis, developed much more slowly than Eurasia, with its E-W axis. There is little or no record of domestication of plants and animals south of the Sahara. So, despite man having originated in Africa, and been there the longest, development was slow. Africa’s 1500 languages give us the clues we need in terms of population movements. The Bantu moved down from the north and the click languages show that originally the Khoisan people existed as far north as Keyna, where remnants of these languages still exist. The sole domesticated animal from Africa was the Guinea Fowl.

Post’s book is his tale of seeking out the last of the bushmen with their unique culture. They existed in the harshest of environments by having adapted physically to their environment. Small, loose skinned, high boned, eyes slanted and Mongolian in appearance, they could run down antelope and store fat in a condition called steotopygia. Tales of hunting elephant by slicing through their back foot tendon, ostrich by holding a neck/head on a stick, hippos in staked pits, birds by glue and the thrilling chase of an eland across the desert make the book a vivid read when you’re in the desert. Brilliant botanists and chemists they made extensive use of pant and animal poisons for hunting (careful not to coat the tip as they could be scratched). Their games, music, dance, painting (we were to see these later), water sources from sip wells and storage in ostrich eggs was fascinating.

Seeley’s The Namid, is a detailed account of the flora and fauna of this region with its unique beetles, succulents, birds, reptiles and desert elephants. I decided to do a bit of bird-watching on this trip as Namibia is famous for being so very different. So it proved.