Category Archives: Challenges

11,000 KM: ON With the Quest

The Quest For Hope has now taken me over 11,000 kilometers.  It’s led me from Port Elizabeth down to Cape Town, then up the west coast of South Africa to Elands Bay. From there through the length of Kgaligadi, across into Namibia and up into Kaokoland, the home of the Himba.  Then around Etosha and into Zambia at Katima Mulilo and east to Livingstone. Then to my childhood home, Ndola, and from there up through the Copperbelt to Chingola and on to the world renown chimpanzee orphanage, Chimfunshi. From there up the Great East Road to north eastern Zambia and Luangwa Valley, an absolute must for everyone’s bucket list.  Then back south and down to Sinazongwe on the edge of Lake Kariba, the ancestral grounds of the BaTongas who were forcibly displaced when the lake was first created.  As I write this I’m camped in the shade of a weathered fig tree looking out over the lake under the watchful eye of a curious troop of monkeys all hoping I’ll leave the camper door open long enough for them to sneak in for a banana or two.

To date its been a wonderful albeit very challenging and eye opening trip, one that has taken me on an emotional roller coaster with remarkable highs and some very sad lows. The Colonial Africa of my youth has gone never to return and many will say that’s a good thing. Regardless of your view the continents unique wildlife, soaring vistas and colorful people still put Africa very much in a league of her own. I’ve now had the privilege of meeting with some of its leading conservationists and I’ve been tremendously impressed with their commitment, courage and dedication and a sense that there is still some hope for the future of Africa’s wildlife; that its still possible to fan these faint embers of hope back into flames if, and its a very big if, we can persuade the powers that be – most especially Africa’s leaders – that the future protection of their countries wildlife must become one of their top priorities and not merely a useful sideshow for the promotion of tourism.

They need to understand that at the end of the day it’s the wildlife that make Africa so special. Indeed it is the only thing that truly separates Africa from the world’s many other unique and special places. Nowhere else on the planet can you sit on the banks of a river watching elephants graze along its banks, marvel at hippos grunting and bellowing in its shallows while the sound of a lion’s roar cuts through the air. Where you can watch giraffes browse on treetops, hear the thundering hooves of buffaloes, zebras and antelopes of all shapes and sizes, and gaze in wonder as leopards and cheetahs follow the same hunting ritual that their forebears have for thousands of years.  This doesn’t happen anywhere else but in Africa.  It’s a rich and special heritage, but its in as fragile a state as its ever been in, and without a concerted, concentrated effort and strong political will, it will most certainly disappear.

Perusing through all my Facebook posts it may well appear that I’m on an extended vacation touring all the national parks. The fact is that’s where all the game is.  Tragically outside of these parks very little wildlife is left at all.  So if one wants to help save the wildlife then visiting these parks and meeting with the conservationists based in and around them is the best way to proceed.  That’s what I’ve been doing and will continue to do as I gradually make my way back down to South Africa.  I’m now a little over half way through my trip and I’d like to believe that I’m accomplishing what I hoped I would when I first came up with the idea of The Quest – finding, promoting and helping the conservation groups and individuals doing the best work and most worthy of support – and helping to catch some poachers while I’m at it. But as anyone whose been here knows, nothing in Africa happens quickly.  You could change the Mexican “manyana” to “manyana would be terrific” and you’d be right on the money.

Amongst other things the trip has served to reinforce many of my existing opinions while introducing me to new lines of thought as well including the fact that when the first explorers arrived over three hundred years ago Africa must have been as close to the Garden of Eden as anyone could imagine. They discovered a continent where wildlife roamed freely from one tip to the other with an indigenous people who understood and valued their relationship with the animals.  But we couldn’t let well alone and instead we hunted, enslaved, and divided the continent until it bore only a faint resemblance to what it once was.  We paid no attention to traditional tribal boundaries creating countries with the stroke of a pen and a royal edict.  We imposed our will, our religions and our laws on the indigenous Africans and when we finally handed them back the keys, either reluctantly or by force, we had already destroyed much of the fabric that had held the continent together for millennia.

Judging from a western viewpoint but as someone who was born and raised here, I think its fair to say all of Africa is in a dreadful mess.  Much of what we created or insisted on when whites ruled the continent has either been thrown out, destroyed or changed, but too much time has passed and too much has changed for Africa to revert to what it once was before our arrival.  Instead Africa was left with power vacuums that were all too quickly filled by despots only interested in lining their own pockets and those of their immediate tribal members.  We’d left them with guns and wire and plastic all of which they quickly used with deadly effect on each other and with horrific consequences on the wildlife.  They gunned down wildlife by the thousands, entrapped it in wire snares that crippled and maimed it, and poisoned the landscape with hundreds of millions of plastic bags that now blanket every city and many rural areas with a kaleidoscope of non degradable color.  Every natural resource that Africa was blessed with was and is now being exploited to an unsustainable level. Because they were uncertain of their own future wellbeing, Africa quickly became – or maybe it always was – a continent of short term thinkers versus long term visionaries.  Of course there were exceptions to the rule with Nelson Mandela quickly coming to mind.  But its a sad truth that if you give an African a choice between a dollar today or ten dollars in a week, they’ll take the dollar almost every time.

In our rush to make up for our past ill-deeds we have flooded the continent with money and volunteers all hoping to solve or at least mitigate the consequences of our past actions.  This has proved to be equally ill advised and Africa is now awash is NGO money that never seems to make it into the right hands, and well intended programs that have failed miserably because not enough forethought was given to them before they were launched.  In the process we have created a culture of dependency and expectancy.  Not only have they come to depend on foreign aid, they have come to expect it as if it’s their birthright.  For example Zambia’s roads have been allowed to deteriorate to a horrific level and the only reason any good ones exist at all is because they are funded by foreign aid, e.g. the portion of the Great East Road from the Luangwa Village turnoff to Chipata which is currently the best road in the country complete with solar powered street lighting through villages which still lack running water and electricity.  It’s crazy!!

Zimbabwe has gone from being the breadbasket of Southern Africa to pauper status with an economy that is in a complete shambles and a country that lies in ruins while the iron fisted Mugabe still holds all the reins of power. Namibia is really two countries. South of Windhoek huge private hunting reserves are the norm while in the north the country is as horrible an example of polluted, ill constructed and poorly maintained villages that you’ll see anywhere.  And even Etosha, the supposed shining jewel of their wildlife reserves is very poorly maintained and managed.  South Africa, once the richest country in Africa, faces serious social and political issues.  Huge squatter camps ring every city, pollution is everywhere, political nepotism is rampant, and poaching in their game parks has reached such a high level that their managing agency no longer releases any figures at all.  Many of the country’s top politicians have been implicated in poaching schemes and attacks and murders on the rapidly dwindling ranks of white farmers are spiraling out of control.

I’m hoping that Botswana will prove to be the exception to the rule and I’m headed there now to see for myself.  All hunting has been banned in the country and if you bring a gun into the country you are putting your own life at risk as their army has been instructed to shoot suspected poachers on sight.  Amazingly even the elephants appear to know that they will be safe in Botswana as the reports are that hundreds of them have made the long trek from Zambia, Zimbabwe, and Angola to join the ranks of the thousands already there, so much so that the country runs the risk of being overwhelmed by them.

It’s taken me a while to formulate all these thoughts and to write them down in a reasonably coherent fashion.  If they sound terribly negative then I apologize.  Frankly it’s hard not be but if some of the country’s leading conservationists are determined to remain optimistic then the very least I can do is to remain so as well.  One thing I know for sure.  Africa’s wildlife is amazingly resilient.  Give them even the smallest of survival chances and they’ll manage to find a way.  Addo Elephant park started with just eleven elephants and now they have a population that ranges between four and six hundred!  All we have to do is to find a way to give them that small chance.  It’s time for all of us to do a bit, however small that bit might be – trust me every bit counts!

Thanks for reading and my best to you all……..on with The Quest.

Africa Week One: Addo Elephant Reserve

I’ve now been back in Africa for a little over a week, and what a week its been.  Last Tuesday I drove out of Addo Elephant Park by the southern gate, a far more pleasant route than the one I took to get there.  I’d entered through the main gate which required driving past several litter strewn townships which was very depressing. The poorer urban areas of South Africa are drowning in a sea of plastic that is growing by the day.  I believe the best way to resolve the plastic litter crisis – and it is a very real crisis – is to monetize it.  Pay local children a few rand (cents) for each pound of plastic they collect, then compress it and ship it to some of the country’s very impressive recycling centers and businesses.  Thato Kgatlhanye and Rea Ngwane founded Repurpose School Bags which is a fabulous concept, and up in Kenya Lorna Rutto started EcoPost which makes fence posts out of recycled plastic (Thanks to my webmaster extraordinaire Judy Shasek for bringing these to my attention). And in Jeffrey’s Bay the JBay Recycling Project is doing great work.  These are just a few examples. But we need to do more, and we must act soon or this scourge may just overwhelm the whole country.

That said the real object of the past few days was to give the vehicle (aka Assegai) a good test in some off road conditions. Happily she performed really well.  She handles like a charm and the extra shocks and springs she’s outfitted with made for a stable and relatively smooth ride.  There are a few puzzling electrical issues that the staff at Schroeder Motorhomes are working on but I’m hopeful they’ll have everything resolved soon and I’ll be back on the road sometime shortly.

addo-rhinoWith a surface area of 630 square miles Addo is South Africa’s third largest park and is the only one that includes a marine conservation area as well.  Their claim to be Africa’s only Big 7 Park is based on the fact that within its boundaries it has lion, leopard, rhino, buffalo, elephant, great white sharks and whales. It was certainly an eye opener in many different ways.

It’s run by SAN Parks, the government entity responsible for running all of the country’s nineteen national parks. It’s a big organization that is not without its problems and maintenance of the multitude of park facilities is not their strong suit.  However they’re working on it as evidenced by the fact they have now contracted  out all of their restaurant operations to Cattle Barons who are doing a much better job, certainly offering far better fare than we had during our last stay in Kruger. addo-wb

What’s truly amazing about Addo are the number of elephants that congregate together in huge numbers.  Each day I counted herds of well over a hundred and twenty all eating, moving and watering together – by far the largest herds of elephants I have ever seen anywhere.  It’s hard to believe that when the original section of the park was founded in 1931, there were only eleven elephants left in an area where they had been hunted almost to extinction.  These days Addo is home to over six hundred of them which is an amazing success story and a testament to the ability of wildlife to recover given the right surrounds and decent protection.

On one hot afternoon I arrived early at Hapoor Dam, a favorite watering and bathing hole for many of the park’s elephants. At first they came in groups of ten or so, and then the groups grew larger and larger until there were literally hundreds of them. Anyone else hoping for a drink at this spot – named after the most dominant male elephant in Addo’s history – was out of luck as the ele’s completely took over.  In addition to a concrete lined drinking pond, there’s a fairly large and deep muddy swimming hole that most of the larger elephants played in with wild abandon, squirting each other and mud wrestling with great glee. addo-elephants1

The smaller ones, and there were lots of them including some that couldn’t have been more than a couple of weeks old, watched anxiously from the banks, unable to negotiate the slippery mud slope down into the water.  Although some of them came close to trying I was relieved that none of them did as clambering back out would have proved too much for them.  As it was it took a real effort from all but the very biggest to get out and it was very amusing to watch all the different techniques employed. The most successful was the “drop to your front knees and slither out” method using their splayed out back feet to propel them along. Hilarious!

After several hours of drinking, playing and standing idly in the hot sun flapping their ears to cool off, some begin to head off up the distant hill from whence they came.  More and more followed and within a relatively short time they were all gone.  With my binoculars I spotted a glint of white half way up the hill and when I focused in on it I discovered an enormous old bull and his guardian mate watching the returning herd.  The white glint I saw was an enormous pair of tusks, several feet in length, quite possibly the biggest I’ve ever seen.  He’s obviously lived a long life by following the mantra discretion is the better part of valor, and I doubt very much that he’d make his way down to the watering hole until well after sunset.

The previous day’s highlight started just after first light. I was one of the first out of camp at 5:30 and just by chance decided to take a small dirt road I hadn’t driven down before.  Coming over a small rise I almost ran into a spectacularly well muscled female lion walking along the road followed by her two large cubs, about six months old I would guess.  Upon seeing me she headed up the bank followed at a distance by the two youngsters.  Then I heard a grunt off to my right and looking up the hill I spotted a magnificent black maned lion watching us all intently from the prone position.  I’ve not seen that many black maned lions and he was spectacular!  A huge specimen in the prime of his life with a long flowing mane that framed his huge head as he looked down of us.  The female passed behind him and disappeared into the thick brush while one of the cubs headed directly up to him and gave him what could only be described as a huge hug before he followed his sibling and mother into the brush.

Now all my focus was on the male and I determined I might get an even better view of him if I backed up and took an alternate route up the hill that would give me a good side view of him.  Just as I got there he started roaring followed seconds later by more roars from another location up above and behind him.  There were two of them and from my new position I could now see them both! He too was adorned with a fabulous black mane leading me to think they are probably brothers.  Both of them were quite content to lie and watch the action augmented every now and then with some hair raising exchanges of roars and grunts.  Happily I was able to record the end of one such exchange which I’ve attached for your enjoyment.  Trust me if you’ve never heard a lion roar while you’re out in the bush, its sound and an experience you’ll never forget!

I left Addo – as I often do after spending time up close and personal with this continents incredible wildlife  – feeling absolutely blessed.  Seeing these animals in their natural habitat is such an extraordinary experience it never gets old.  It reinforces my desire to do everything I can to help preserve them for future generations to enjoy as well.  It’s no easy task as their habitat is under increasing pressure from human encroachment not to mention the poaching epidemic that continues to decimate the ranks of rhinos, elephants, lions, cheetahs and pangolins, and sadly many others too.

It seems to me that there are three priorities that we need to address if we are to save our wildlife, and they all have equal import.  We must dry up the demand for poached animals of any kind.  The demand is primarily fueled by the Chinese and Asian market many of whom continue to believe that rhino horn has medicinal qualities which is patently false, and also by those who see ownership of a small bit of horn as a status symbol which is even more repugnant.  There are several prominent Chinese athletes and celebrities doing all they can to persuade their fellow countrymen that their insatiable appetite is driving these animals to the brink of extinction.

We must protect the animals from the ruthless poaching gangs that operate almost with impunity in some areas.  People on the front lines risk their lives as they confront the poachers who all too often have officials in the highest offices, including the very security forces running the anti-poaching squads, on their payroll.  Payoffs, bribery, and corruption are commonplace throughout Africa but nowhere is their impact felt more than in the wildlife conservation arena.

We must persuade the indigenous African youth that the wildlife of Africa is a unique and special heritage that exists nowhere else on earth and that it is well worth preserving. Many of them grow up in poor urban households that have no exposure to wildlife at all.  Others in rural areas regard it as a threat; a snake bites a family member, an elephant tramples their crops, a leopard or lion kills the family’s only goat.  Persuading them to take a benevolent approach to wildlife requires providing them with alternatives to killing it out of hand.  They need to reap the rewards through increased employment opportunities and profit sharing plans.

In my travels around Southern Africa and my meetings with leading conservationists and local leaders, I plan on discussing these issues to see how they feel and what they believe can and must be done.  It’s all a part of The Quest For Hope and I’ll be doing my best to keep you all updated on my progress, no easy task for an old man who is anything but a technophile!

Thanks for following along, and thank you for all your support and encouragement. Onwards…..

 

 

Customizing the Truck: 4.2 Diesel Toyota Landcruiser LC79

It was during my last trip to Africa, a wonderful self drive through Kruger, Sabi Sabi and Motswari that I really became aware of the limitations of rental 4×4 campers. Almost all of them are set up with roof tents or fabric sided pop tops. While those work fine when one is staying in secure designated campsites, they offer no real security for anyone camping in rural or urban areas where thieves are always on the look out for easy pickings. If I was to undertake a major expedition traveling by myself through several different countries, my security would have to be a major concern.

Be sure to check out the full GALLERY of images that show each stage of this story

When I returned to the States I began looking in earnest for viable options. I flew down to the Overland Expo in Arizona to check out the latest and greatest in overland vehicles and the selection was impressive. There were trucks and jeeps of every size and shape on display. Huge Unimogs capable of traveling over virtually any terrain costing several hundred thousand dollars would certainly provide adequate security but apart from the cost, just changing a tire would be a monumental task. The size and weight of the vehicle would limit its ability to cross rivers on small bridges and primitive barges. And if one did get stuck good luck getting it out on your own!

Over the next few days I looked at everything, discussed the pros and cons with all the experts, and left with a huge pile of catalogs and several potential options, or so I thought. Back home I wrote down all the things I was looking for in a vehicle and came up with the following list.

It had to be big enough for me to comfortably live in for several months at a time but small enough that it could negotiate small bush tracks and not appear so overly ostentatious that it would attract a crowd wherever it went.

It had to be a Right Hand Drive, the norm for most African countries. If you’ve ever tried driving a left hand drive in a right hand drive country you’ll know how dangerous it can be, especially when you’re traveling by yourself. Pulling out to overtake or to go around anything can be suicidal. You simply can’t see what’s coming until it’s too late. Some manufacturers offer special cameras that let you see the road ahead but I wasn’t convinced. Africa is already full of crazy drivers – I didn’t want to add to that number!

It had to be a diesel – they really are the best for extended low speed driving through the bush – and it had to be capable of running on African diesel, a high sulfur formula that would quickly clog the filters in any modern American truck. And of course it had to be a four wheel drive.

It had to be easy to work on. African mechanics are incredibly talented at fixing just about anything but if it requires a computer to analyze it, or special parts to fix it, chances are you’ll be stuck for a long time. Even if you’re a talented mechanic, traveling with the requisite tools and replacement parts for American made trucks is a very difficult thing to do.

It had to be wired for African electrical requirements. Unlike the USA where 110 volts are the standard, in Africa it’s all 220 volts or more. This can be a very big deal in a campsite situation and not something I wanted to have to deal with. Besides every appliance purchased in Africa is set up for 220 further limiting ones options.

It had to have sleeping quarters inside the shell of the camper. Pop tops and camp on top options, while offering great views and comfortable beds don’t provide the level of security I was looking for. I wasn’t worried about the wildlife, I was way more concerned about the temptations these options would offer to those looking for an easy break in, and Africa has more than it’s fair share of thieves and thugs.

It had to have direct access from the camper into the cab. I wanted to be able to get the hell out of Dodge if things went south and I found myself in a situation I needed to leave in a hurry. Having to exit the camper to access the cab totally defeated the object of the exercise and eliminated slide in campers as an option as none of them offer cab access from the inside.

As I worked through my list I realized it pretty much discounted every American manufacturer, at least any that I could afford. Driving or shipping a vehicle from Europe, which has the same power base as Africa, remained an option, especially some of the very nice German campers, but with prices starting at $300,000 they were all out of my league.

I came to the conclusion I had to search for a vehicle within South Africa. The problem that this presented was finding one that met with all my requirements. There are plenty of overlanders who sell their vehicles at the end of their trip and oftentimes that’s in South Africa, but buying a used four wheel drive is always a dicey option especially one that has been driven several thousands miles in the bush.  Besides that I couldn’t find any that met with my criteria.

anew2

By this time I was pretty certain of one thing.  The best vehicle for the job was the 4.2 Diesel Toyota Landcruiser LC79.  It’s as tough as nails, easy to work on, and almost as easy to find parts for.  Its not the most high powered vehicle but it has a reputation for running forever. It would however be no easy job getting one as this is also the favored vehicle of the ISIS army and they have been actively buying every one they can get their hands on.  They’ve been so successful in this regard that President Obama had to ask Toyota to take measures to prevent them from buying any more!

After much additional research I was able to locate a firm in the eastern Cape who claimed to have the ability to convert these Toyotas into four by four campers and when they sent me photos of their work, I was sure I had found the right company.  They also agreed to help me locate and purchase a Toyota, and after spending a considerable amount of time going over all of my equipment needs and desires we signed a contract and began searching the country for our vehicle of choice.

anewIt took six months and when it arrived it was white instead of the hoped for beige.  The dealer was apologetic but said if we chose to wait for the right color, it could easily take another six months or more.  We decided to go with the white – a color that many wild animals are very wary of – and we would have it sprayed khaki at a later date.

And so the work began.  The first thing they did to my lovely brand new truck was to take the bed off and cut it in half!  They needed to extend the base by 15 inches to accommodate their custom camper shell that they would build out of high impact resistant, corrosion free GRP material.  The first photos I received were more than a little alarming but not to worry they said, we’ve done this lots of times! acutchassis2

Fast forward almost eighteen months from the date they took delivery and the vehicle is almost totally complete.  I can’t wait to take delivery of in January to put it through its paces on a couple of short test drives before I set off on The Quest.  I’ll go over all the equipment we’ve outfitted it with in another post.  For the moment enjoy the pictures of the work as it unfolded.

Lion Gallery

lion-brothersThe image shows two young brothers at a crucial juncture in their lives. Sometimes when young lions get kicked out of the pride they were born into – generally by their own dad – they team up in their search for new territory. They are generally two to three years old when that happens. These two are about five and shortly after this photo was taken they were attacked by one or two very big lions who were trying to take over their territory. The blond was beaten very badly. We found him two days later hiding out in some bushes badly wounded. The other was nowhere to be found. We left shortly afterwards not knowing what became of them. Africa can be a very cruel place.

Enjoy the gallery of images we have collected.

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Majestic Cats – Lions and More

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On to Africa

ele1When I turned twenty one I was living in California thousands of miles away from my family in South Africa. For the past few years I’d been slowly working my way around the world and it was the first and only time I ever received a letter from my father. Mum was always the designated letter writer but on this auspicious occasion my father decided a letter directly from him was warranted. In it he encouraged me to put whatever God-given talents I had to good use and he ended the letter with the following quote:

“No man is born into this world whose work is not born with him. There is always work and tools to work withal for this who will, and blessed are the horny hands of toil. The busy world shoves angrily aside the man who stands with arms akimbo set and waits until occasion tells him what to do, and he who waits to have his task marked out shall die and leave his errand unfulfilled. Our time is one that calls for earnest deeds.”

This was pretty heavy stuff for me to digest especially as my primary focus at that time was getting to Hawaii to surf its legendary big waves. However over the years I have spent an inordinate amount of time reflecting on this quote and wondering what my particular task was intended to be. For as long as I can remember I have loved all forms of wildlife and throughout my professional career I’ve always endeavored to introduce it into my presentations. However until quite recently I’ve never been willing to devote all of my time and energy and resources towards its conservation. Living in Hawaii for twenty eight years it just didn’t seem like a viable option, but with the passage of time my perspective changed.

As I travelled back and forth to Africa and saw first hand how quickly things were changing and how drastically the wildlife was being impacted, I grew more and more convinced that I needed to join in the fight against the greed and corruption that was decimating this extraordinary heritage. When you reach a certain stage in life one’s strengths and talents are self evident. Mine were obvious to me. I was very passionate about wildlife and my public speaking skills were as good, if not better, than most. How to put these to work for wildlife conservation was the question I struggled with for many years.

Thanks to social media I was being inundated with reports from a host of organizations and individuals all committed to saving Africa’s wildlife. All of their time and expertise were devoted to the cause with occasional fund raising trips abroad. I had the opportunity to listen to several of them and it became increasingly obvious that in most instances public speaking was way outside of their comfort zone. It is after all an art form in itself, one that I have spent years refining and practicing. And the more I listened, the more I realized what my task would be. I would offer my time and talent and become a voice for these organizations, or at least for the ones I felt were doing the best work, making the biggest difference, and deserved the most help. To do that I would need to spend a considerable amount of time traveling through the bush, visiting as many of them as possible, seeing them in person and working with them on the front lines.

And it was out of this that The Quest For Hope was born.

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