Returning to Canada, not as easy as I hoped

Christmas day in Norwich was abnormally warm. The temperature rose to 14° C and it was possible to walk around without even a coat on. It then turned very cold, with a layer of ice on the car in the morning, and much scraping before we could go anywhere. I was quite pleased with this. I had cut up a lot of wood for our wood burner in the lounge, so I was able to use some of it. In addition to this, one of my Christmas presents, which I must stress I actually asked for, was a couple of sacks of coal. I had such fun building and tending the fire.

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New Beginnings

The past month has been hectic but rather fun. I left Durban, as promised, on  19 December 2013. That was sad. The last days involved clearing out my office, deciding what needed to be shipped to Canada, stored in the flat, put in the suitcase, or given away. I know that to some extent, I keep my life in boxes. The University of KwaZulu-Natal box is now closed, and, hopefully, the important residual parts are in transit. There is a lot to reflect on, of course. How could there not be after 30 years?

I am extremely lucky to have had the opportunities I did, to connect with people, to build an organisation and support my team’s contribution to knowledge and science which, hopefully, makes a positive difference. I am proud of my own substantial publishing record.

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Terrified in the Treetops

It has been quite a couple of weeks what with one thing and another. Rowan, our daughter and Ben, her boyfriend, came over to South Africa for a three week adventure. This began with them going to Cape Town, to stay with my brother and family. They arrived very late on Tuesday evening off the daylight flight from Amsterdam. Derek and Lynn and the girls looked after them magnificently, and they had a wonderful time.

On the Saturday they flew up to Durban which is where they were to be based for the next two weeks. I was at work at the University and at about two o’clock I became aware that there was a southerly gale blowing. This meant the plane might be early and so I headed for the airport at high speed. Their aircraft was indeed 20 minutes ahead of schedule, but fortunately I was there in time. The beasts had organized their social life well in advance. After having supper with me they headed for a party with one of Rowan’s old school friends. I decided that I would therefore go to the cinema as I didn’t want to be sitting at home, (apparently) waiting for their return. I went and saw the chic-flic movie ‘It’s Complicated’ which I rather enjoyed.

Rowan and Ben stayed in Durban for the Sunday and Monday and on Tuesday drove up to the game reserves in the Hluhulwe area staying at a place the family love: Bonamanzi Game farm. Rowan first went there aged nine months. They reported seeing a lot of game; having an opportunity to visit the cheetah farm (cheetah’s purr); and getting drenched in a huge storm which left their treehouse without power or water. They got back on Friday and we went to a ‘standard’ Durban Manor Gardens Easter party on the Sunday. It no longer involves hunting for Easter eggs, most of the children are now way too old for this. It did involve sitting and talking and catching up with our neighborhood.

On the Monday I went to Swaziland to spend a couple of days doing research, but also to give them an opportunity to enjoy Durban by themselves. I returned on the Wednesday and took Friday off as they wanted go on the Karkloof Canopy Tours. According to the blurb “the canopy tour involves traversing from one platform to another along a steel cable suspended up to 30 meters about the forest floor. The tour comprises seven platforms and eight slides that zigzag down a pristine forested valley. The scenery and bird life are spectacular and the professional guides providing interesting facts about the forest ecology during the tour”.

That is the experience that most people may have; for me it was moments of amazement in a sustained period of sheer terror. The mountain is located about an hour and a half drive away from Durban. At the foot is a beautiful little set of cottages where visitors get their safety harness and a briefing. We then climbed into a Landrover and were driven to the top of the mountain. There were four of us doing the tour and there were three guides to make sure we were OK. Effectively one is clipped onto a steel cable, with a second cable as a safety device. There are two links to the main cable and one to the safety cable so it is very safe

The first slide is short, only 40 meters and is quite easy. Doing this one learns how to brake with the large leather glove on your hand. The second slide comprises of two ropes that disappear into the mist for 100 meters, taking you to the waterfall. Jumping off a platform and sliding down for this distance is not something that comes naturally. For the first three slides I went last. On the fourth slide I was told I was to go first (‘last in first out’ in trade union terms). It was hugely embarrassing because I slid down from one platform for 175 meters; arrived at the next platform; and gently bounced back five meters away from it. We had been told what to do if this happened: monkey climb; put your hands on the cable and haul yourself into the platform.

What we had not been told is what to do if, as I was, you were too terrified to even let go of the harness as you gently swung above the gorge. I tried monkey climbing, but I was shaking too much and so had to say to the guide: “please come and rescue me”. One of them shinned down the rope and hauled me back up catching my hand between two harnesses as he did. I sat on the platform shaking, sweating, pallid, and appalled at what I was doing. The other three arrived and looked at me and made helpful comments like:

“Oh shame”; “You are doing very well dad”, and “Not much more to go”.

Fortunately at this point we were given a small chocolate and a drink, the energy was absolutely necessary. There were three slides to go and I have to admit that I went in tandem with one of the guides who took responsibility for controlling the speed as we flew down those aerial rope-ways. What an experience. Rowan and Ben think it was one of the best things they had every done. I think I was insane. I hate heights at the best of times and this was clearly way way out of my comfort zone. They told me that the views were spectacular. I can’t comment, my eyes were closed for parts of the journey. At the end of the tour we were given a free drink and toasted sandwich, (they laughingly call this a delicious Midlands meal in their brochure). I am still processing the event!

From there it was back to Durban for Rowan’s final evening and we took the Brauninger family (who are old friends and had seen a great deal of Rowan and Ben) out for dinner. I had thought it would be possible to get a table for eight people at one of my favorite restaurants. This was completely not the case on a Friday evening. We ended up at a restaurant on Davenport Road.

The evening had the potential to be a complete disaster. Rowan, Ben and I walked down from my flat to the restaurant to get just there after 7.15pm. We informed the manager that we had a booking for 7.30pm. He denied it. Brigitta who had made the booking arrived shortly after, and the manager admitted that they had taken the booking but someone else had commandeered the table. We were put in the lounge area, sitting on leather cowhide seats. These were untanned and hairy which didn’t work for those people wearing shirts or shorts as the back of one’s’ legs were prickled and tickled.

It took nearly 40 minutes before we got a table and in the meantime the waitress came and got one drinks order at a time and brought us one drink at a time. The wine was red and hot an attribute one does not want. The day did not improve, the manager informed us that it was better to be inside under the fans than outside in the breeze, it would be cooler he said, members of the party wanted to smoke and went outside and report that this was definitely not the case. However when they were outside they had overheard the manager speaking about our party, being quite uncomplimentary about us, a complete lack of professionalism.

Eventually, an hour after we got to the re, we given a table, seated and orders taken. By this stage everyone was bad tempered and hungry. The food came and those of us who had order side dishes found we got meager portions. Rowan had a meal which had pesto on it which she detests. She said if she wanted pesto she would have ordered it.

Just as the food started coming from the kitchen, the switch on the distributor board on the pole outside the restaurant tripped, and we were plunged into darkness. Because the kitchen cooks with gas they were able to bring our means but it meant that their extractor fans ceased working and the inside of the restaurant gradually filled up with greasy smoke. Rowan, a vegetarian, went to the rest room and came back feeling quite nauseated. “Dad I walked through a cloud of meat”.

It was the only restaurant on the street affected in this way and was badly handled no apology just blame for the city council. Patrons were expected to simply carry on as though nothing had happened. Although that wasn’t quite the case because the waitress came over and said “Our computers are going to go down, please would you mind paying your bill now?’

We were paying cash so this was irrelevant. She carried on pushing until she had the money in her hand. By this time everyone was extremely irritated. I went to the manager and asked, “How much will you charge me for a tub of ice cream”.

“Why? Won’t you stay here”, he said.

So I told him why we would not in clear terms. All’s well that ends well though, we went to the flat and had ice-cream and several more bottles of wine. On the Saturday Rowan, Ben and I went over for breakfast to Mitchell Park; the weather had changed, it was grey, overcast, cold and a strong wind was blowing from the South. I dropped them at the airport at about 12.30. They flew to Johannesburg and then had to wait for 10 hours in before getting on the plane to Amsterdam and then connecting on the flight to Norwich. I got news, on Sunday that they had arrived back safely after an adventurous and I think very much fun time in South Africa. It was quite strange having company for this amount of time and probably rather good. They got in a decent amount of beach time which I think they very much appreciated.

Of course while all this holiday fun was going on here in South Africa we have had three major events. The first the murder of Eugene Terre´Blanche, a right-wing Afrikaner Weerstandsbeweging leader. He had spent some years in prison in the 1990s and I can’t say his passing was greatly mourned by anyone. The second issue has been Julius Malema who has been severely reprimanded by President Zuma over his inflammatory behaviour. All this against a backdrop of us moving closer and closer to the World Cup. This stadia are complete, South Africa is ready but sadly it seems as though many fewer tourists than expected will be arriving for this event. I fear that Fifa has oversold and under delivered on the World Cup.

Lions In Lusaka And Down In Durban

Mercifully planes usually leave on time, so I am feeling slightly hard done by at the moment. I travelled from Norwich to Amsterdam on Sunday 31st May. The check-in for the flight from Norwich is at 05h10 in the morning, a brutal time to have to be awake and functioning. The plane leaving Amsterdam was about an hour late, a pain because we only got to Joburg at 10pm. Although I was spending the night at the Intercontinental Hotel right next to the terminal,I had to be up again the next morning at 05h00, the Monday flight to Lusaka was at 06h30!

Then coming travelling back to Joburg and Durban two days later we had to leave the hotel at 06h45, so I had my share of early mornings.

All the other flights were on time, and so when I left Durban a few days ago on Sunday I felt quite good.  I need to keep my Gold frequent flyer card on South African Airways so decided I would travel with them, instead of the usual KLM flight to Amsterdam followed by the short hop to Norwich. It means taking a trains and tubes from Heathrow to Norwich.

The trip back did not start well. I worked at the University in the morning, up to about 11h30 and then went home to pack. I was booked on the 16h55 flight to Joburg. As I had arranged to meet the Principal of Waterford School for dinner, at 17h00, I knew I had to get an earlier flight – and decided the 15h40 would work. My planned steady, measured packing, with a shower at the end and a reasonably early arrival at the airport to change my ticket was thrown into complete disarray. I know, to deal with failing memory and the fact I travel so much, have a checklist of things I must take. Running through it I realised I had left my flash disk with all the documents I was working on, at the office. Under normal circumstances it is a 35 minute round trip. I did it in 22 minutes. I left the flat in a cab at 14h45. I made it, albeit drenched in sweat!

However things really deteriorated in Joburg. Laurence and I had our meeting, and very useful it was too. He drove from Swaziland just for this, although we also had a meal, which turned out, with hindsight, to be a good decision. I then wandered through to the departures lounge in our magnificent new airport.

For the past three years, or more, O. R. Tambo airport has been undergoing massive renovations and expansion. This is in part to cater for the 2010 soccer cup. It has been amazing, and impressive as the airport has continued to function without too many hitches, albeit a degree of dust, noise and inconvenience. It has been worth it, the new facilities are magnificent. The arrivals halls are huge, clean, airy, and efficient. This has had a knock on effect on the staff. They are friendly, helpful, smiling, and happy, so unlike any airport I have been to in the last few years. Normally the attitude is that you have done something wrong until proven otherwise.

“Why do you’, said with contempt, “want to come into our country. How are you going to exploit us and misuse us?”  We seem to have a virtuous circle developing in South Africa, long may it continue. There is still work to be done, in particular there is a temporary international Business Class lounge, which is crowded and has no toilets on site.

The boarding time for the London flight was scheduled for 19h35. I did some shopping and wandered to the gate. A great deal of nothing was happening. After half an hour I went up to the First Class lounge and asked the receptionist if she knew what was going on, explaining at the same time that the business lounge was not particularly pleasant.

“That is OK, sir “, she said understandingly, “We are not busy you can sit here”.

And that is where I was until we boarded at 23h00. The problem was a ‘relay’ controlling power to the business class cabin and it meant there was no in-flight entertainment, nor would the seats recline. It was finally fixed for almost all the seats but not 5D or 5E. I, of course, was in 5D!!

So what were the good things? Well I normally travel on KLM and I was cursing my decision to go on SAA, until looking at the screens, I saw that KLM’s flight had been cancelled. If I had been doing my normal route I would have had a 24 hour delay! I was in business class and that meant that I slept on a fully reclining seat. I was not travelling with babies or rug rats, although there was a small infestation at the front of the cabin. There are such swings and roundabouts in travel and most of it is not anything one can control.  One has to grab what pleasure you can, and the fact that my bag was among the first off the plane at both Joburg and Heathrow was a small victory!

The Swedish International Development Agency reference group meeting was held at Chimanuka lodge about  30 minutes drive from Lusaka http://www.chimanuka.com . It is a delightful spot. The owners have excellent rooms and conference facilities. They have farm land in the area, but the lodge is centred in a game farm. On the property there is also a cheese factory. It is possible to have a game drive and a tours of the cheese factory. They also have, in a separate, and one hopes, very secure enclosure.

I have to digress here and tell of an event that happened when I was about four years old. We lived on a cattle farm outside Nairobi in an areas close to game reserves. One of the lions developed a taste for, easy to catch cattle, and so the young British farmers decided that said lion had to be shot. The story goes that they sat in a hide near the carcase of the last kill all night. Just before dawn, at the time the first birds start clearing their throats, they gave up. Walking along the road they were swinging the torch and suddenly, caught in the light, was the lion, eyes and teeth gleaming. Somehow one of the chaps managed to get his rifle up, and with a lucky shot, killed the lion stone dead.

There was much excitement in the community. The staff of the little pre-primary school I was at, decided that it would be fun if we were taken to see the dead lion. Indeed I recall being placed on its back and having my photograph taken. I would like to think I was an unusually sensitive child, but that may not be the case, just my wistful thinking. This outing made a deep impression on me. When I have nightmares involving animals it is always lions that feature prominently.

So back to events in Zambia. After a day of meetings we decided to go for a walk. It was dusk, a beautiful African evening. We walked down toward the lion enclosure – and I could hear them roaring quietly in the distance. We got as far as the dam and watched the dying sun. It was idyllic, thorn trees and clouds reflected in the water, standing listening to the chirp and croak of the frogs and the various noise of the African night. Suddenly the lion roared about 20 metres away on the other side of the fence. I leapt two metres into the air and my pulse was racing. I managed to play cool, and we nonchalantly walked back, with me taking comfort from the knowledge that while I could not outrun a lion, I was pretty confident that I was faster than at least two of our party.

It was really good to be back in Southern Africa and I felt so comfortable, which is probably a bad sign I need a challenge and a change.