Tembo the Elephant

Besides elephants, rhinos, hippos, buffaloes and various types of antelopes today in Kruger Park, we came across the perfect specimen of Afrikaner redneck, Arthur, pro big game hunting, anti arm-control and pro-Trump. I should have taken a picture of him. But, missing that I’m sending one of me with Tembo the elephant. It might look more like a tree trunk than an elephant, but I swear it’s an elephant, the photographer just had a warped sense of perspective.

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I swear, it is a real elephant!

Tembo is a tame elephant. Intelligent and sensitive, with eyes to melt your heart, he is accustomed to stand patiently and put up with us, pesky tourists. Hazyview éléphant oeil_8414_previewOf course, I could have pretended that I tamed him from the wild and coaxed him into such accommodating behavior, but I strongly suspect that nobody would have believed me. In fact, we visited an elephant camp where they rescue injured or orphaned animals. Tembo had an interesting history of escaping a reserve after fighting with a rogue elephant who had opened a breach into the fence. The rogue’s intention being to come after Tembo’s sister which the latter gallantly defended. Followed a series of misdeeds and more fights until he was brought into this camp where he retired from his misspent youth.
Anyhow, I wish the photographer had caught the whole elephant, rather than just a leg. It would have been more… credible.
This elephant camp had nothing to do with the one in Laos where I found myself a few years ago, the only visitor to ride the elephants in the mountain at night and pick them up at dawn, muddy and dusty, for a much needed early morning bath in the freezing river.IMG_0569
Talking about freezing, you can probably tell, from the way I’m dressed, that it’s not exactly warm here.
We arrived last night in the Machadodorp area, on the Highveld plateau at about 2,000 meter altitude. It looks somewhat like the English countryside, as if it had been photographed with a wide-angle lens, the same rolling hills, greenery and horses grazing, but expanded, stretched out to a very far away horizon. Except that in England, the same scenery would have been compressed, closed in.g1907604

We stayed in Kloppenheim, a sumptuous country estate. my huge room could have belonged to an English manor: fireplace, French doors opening to a terrace overlooking an endless panorama, heated bed, bathtub with boiling water:french-country-bedroom-ceiling-light-decor

And TV5 relating the latest shenanigans of Saudi Arabia: Have they kidnapped Harari or did he, as a supporter of Saudi Arabia, seek refuge in Riyad ?
But… no Internet!

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Swaziland?

You knew nothing about Swaziland?  Neither did I, let alone remember the name. I kept confusing it with Botswana.

A little over one million souls and a king and queen ruling team, except that they’re not husband and wife but mother and son. It’s always like that in this matriarchal society, you become king on virtue of being your mother’s son. The Queen is chosen and the son follows.

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H.M. King Mswati and H.M. the Indlovukasi (literally the Great She-Elephant) of Swaziland

He doesn’t marry but takes concubines (13 at the recent count) and being the king’s son doesn’t give you a right to the throne.

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King Mswati the III and his wives


We met one of those strong women this afternoon, the Umphakatsi village chief. Quite a personality!IMG_0501

On the picture, I’m wearing a pareo at the very effigy of King Mswati III. You make sure not to put it on upside-down or inside-in, that would be disrespectful. And women shouldn’t wear pants in the village. IMG_0512Not that it would offend men, because there aren’t any to be seen. Apparently, the stay in the shade, drinking and playing cards, women doing most of the hard work.

A long walk in the Milwane reserve this morning. A chance to get moving mostly, as the animals remain elusive to say the least: a few wildebeests far far away, a couple of zebras, a lonely warthog, several tame antelopes and many termite hills. It’s like being home: lantanas and termites!Lantanas

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I discovered that the woody, granulous termite excrements that I sometime find in the least appropriate corners of my house ( as if there were appropriate places!) are essential to the savannas’ ecosystem. Without them as fertilizers, the herbivores would starve as well as those who feed on them. Termites’ social organization is similar to ants’, except perhaps that termites feed on fungi grown on what they collect. They might also be the inventors of the first air. conditioning system as they manage to keep the nest at a fairly stable temperature ranging between 27 and 31 C.

Well, I won’t bore you with termite talk as you can easily find the information on internet.

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A “little” termite nest

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Crazy Race

Arrived in Durban at noon.

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Jacaranda-lined avenue

This trip so far has been a crazy race.  I don’t usually pick such hyper travel companions.

Truth is I’m mentally, if not physically, exhausted, have no time to write, let alone to think.

So I took the day off today!

Enough is enough!  “I vant to be alone”( Greta Garbo).

Up at 5:30 to see the elephants; IMG_0569 the rhinos;Hluhluwe rhinocéros blanc_5787the giraffes;IMG_0463 (2)buffaloes;Botswana Parc Chobe Buffle_6258_previewwildebeests;Parc Kruger gnous_7018warthogs,Botswana lodge Phacochère et bébés_4014_previewall that in a semi-coma. I declined the visit to the Zulu village (fake in my opinion) and a second safari in the afternoon.

Went back to my tent  after breakfast and slept until 11.

Being a pathetic photographer, it’s only because the animals were rather lethargic themselves that I managed to catch them in semi-action.

Today is pretty good though, the lodge is practically empty, I just had lunch in blessed aloneness.

I’m sitting on the wide veranda overlooking the savanna with its acacia trees and listening to the songs of weaver birds and sing-song Zulu talk of the personnel.  It almost sounds like very fast-spoken Italian.

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Zulu Nyala Heritage Hotel

My travel companions are no younger than I am, but they all seem to be on some sort of crazy mission, as if it were their last trip: they have to see everything, go everywhere non-stop, rush from one destination to another and comment everything . You’d believe they’ve never seen anything, perhaps have I seen too much… Let’s say that I prefer to see one thing and see it well.

I usually organize my own trips, rent a car and keep some time to loiter, do nothing, get lost, absorb, listen… This time we have some sort of a mini-van.

Well, live and learn.  Organizing a trip takes a lot of time and trouble but it’s worth it, you hold the rudder and sail your ship at your own rhythm.

Moment of grace this afternoon: As I was walking under the yet to be identified tree where the weavers have set up their GQ.  The little guys were busy fluttering in and out of their woven egg of a nest.weaver-bird-nests-img_6552c2a9maria-de-bruynres Fluffy, tiny yellow and black creatures.  Hluhluwe lodge Tisserin intermédiaire - Lesser Masked-Weaver_5983_preview (1)

Sounds of the night: some huge croaking frog or toad; something like two bamboo sticks knocking against each other; the birds have gone to sleep.Botswana Parc Chobe paysage coucher de soleil_3168_preview

It doesn’t take much to make me happy, to make my day.  The aloneness and little yellow birds. Walking fast on a red earth road, this morning, the endless savanna and nothing else ahead of me, except for the occasional baby antelope.terre rouge

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Baby Roan Antelope

 

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Capetown – October 2017

I don’t have the impression to be in Africa yet. Big western style cities;

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Capetown

manicured gardens;

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Kirstenbosch Gardens

Disneyesque hamlets restored to evoke their European or Malay origins but failing to be entirely convincing;

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Franskhhoektown

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Malay Quarter – Capetown

otters and penguins difficult to conciliate with one’s idea of Africa;

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Hout Bay

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Boulders Beach

 

hordes of tourists everywhere and so many smiles and hellos from people who might have every reason not to smile. That makes you wonder how sincere they are. They look and sound sincere though.

This is all rather rushed and much too fast for my own contemplative rhythm. I need to be alone. I need silence. I’m not complaining, I’d just like to be able to hear myself think a little bit, decant what I see, assimilate it. It’s been difficult so far. I always remember Africa as I first saw it in 1975: the huge empty spaces;

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Masai Mara – Kenya

scenery evoking prehistory as one imagines it, being practically alone in the Ngoro Ngoro crater;

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Ngoro Ngoro Crater – Tanzania

in the reserves, the noble Masai defiling spear in hand along the roads, their cattle in tow.

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That was a time when you felt you had pieces of the world all to yourself. I think I’m a bit nostalgic…

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Crique Angèle, the very best hike!

At breakfast, I observe a brightly-colored caterpillar: coral and black. It’s very busy trotting on its many little legs, applying saliva to the dining carbet’s banister and sometimes rising its little head which is hard to distinguish from its fan-shaped tail, a bit like a lobster’s tail. ChenilleCuriously it will turn into a dull colored moth while the fluorescent blue morpho butterfly starts as an ashen caterpillar.morpho

At the beginning of the 20th Century, Guyanese prisoners were given the task to catch those mythical butterflies, then used to dye US $100 bills. The three of us leave at 9 for our expedition. We should be at the creek by 12:30. Much more than we bargained for. There is a path to Crique Angèle, but since it’s not often used, it is obstructed by branches, fallen trunks, roots and invaded by vegetation and treacherous lianas that wrap themselves around your ankles. A certain type of root forms traps like croquet hoops, if your foot gets stuck in one, it’s fast plunge forward.jungle We walk on a thick carpet of dead leaves and fallen palm fronds. If you’re not careful feeling the ground with your walking stick, a soft muddy spot may suck in one of of your feet. It can sometimes be quite muddy and slippery allover, particularly in the descents, but Nathan precedes us, hacking us a way with his machete.IMG_1213 Black flies the size of hummingbirds are constantly buzzing about us but they don’t seem interested in biting. Nathan fashions a fan of noisy palms to ward them off. Stick in right hand, fly swat in the left, we are equipped. We are also quickly drenched in sweat, going up and down hills.  This is not his kind of thing but I cannot renege my Amerindian heritage and forests and jungle throw me in an ecstatic, meditative state, so much so that as we cross a creek on a tree trunk, I miss a step and fall into the creek with my backpack. It’s not very deep, but deep enough for me to swallow a mouthful and get even more soaked than I already was.jungle1 I’m mostly worried for the contents of my backpack but no choice but to keep going.

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Wet and filthy, we reach the creek on time and this is heaven! Five hours away from all civilization, a creek to wash in, as I’m quite dirty by now;

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a cascade (which stole my rubber tongs) with myriads yellow butterflies fluttering over in a disneyesque scene; a “carbet” (open shelter) to hang our hammocks and wet clothes that may or may not dry and Nathan’s good sandwiches and rum punch.Crique-Angel037IMG_1220 Of all the hikes I’ve done in my life, this is by very, very far, the best. Hard camping but talk about exclusive! There is absolutely nobody around! The boys have lit a fire and we’ll roast a baby peccary for dinner.IMG_1201 Tonight, we’re sleeping deep into the heart of the jungle. Monday, August Crique Angèle I can’t say that we slept all that well. That hammock has me tossing and turning to find an approximately comfortable position. We leave after breakfast and the trek back seems a lot harder on the way out than in, even though it’s only half as long. The sun is out today and created patterns of light and shadow that mask obstacles. All in all, we have walked 25 km since yesterday. My still wet shoes are not that comfortable either. We are grateful to see Manuel waiting for us with the pirogue that will take us back to the “semi-civilization” of Saut Athanase.

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Saut Athanase, French Guyana

On the road again… To Regina this time. I drive. For those who might be familiar with Maui’s road to Hana, this road is a close contender.

Road to Hana

Road to Hana, Maui

One hairpin turn after the other. But it’s going pretty well, except for my passenger who seems ready to faint. Nevertheless we make it, park the car in front of the Gendarmerie (police) and get on the pirogue to Saut Athanase.fleuves_-_crique_gabriel We have to cover 40 km to get to destination, that is nearly two hours of pirogue on the l’Approuague river. The river is mirror smooth and reflective, a black-billedCoumarou flower toucan flies over, but apart from that lonely apparition, not much fauna to be observed.Black-billed_Mountain-Toucan Then suddenly, Alfonso, our Brazilian pirogue driver warns of rapidly moving waters. Rare phenomenon, the river suddenly ascends to a higher level, two meters higher as if we had to go up a water staircase, step by bumpy step. In fact, it’s as we were climbing a cascade in reverse, negotiating rocky moguls. Nothing too threatening but enough to send us carefully jumping and zigzagging between stones. The pirogue driver has to know every stone and the depth of water to safely wend his way between them.saut Then it’s dead calm again, alternating with more variations in levels. Some of the basaltic rocks are blooming with feather-shaped pink flowers.

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Coumarou flower

The scenery is indeed wild, untouched, spectacular, but the installations at Saut Athanase have suffered with time and the change of owner and we find them rather dilapidated. You can either sleep in a “carbet”: a shelter with a roof but no walls where you’re provided with a hammock or in a bungalow.

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A carbet

Well, things do change and we’re back in squalor: a torrid bungalow with no A/C, holes in the mosquito screens, a furry, none too clean bedspread, with wool pillowcases, no sheets and a door that doesn’t lock. It’s very much like summer camp for underprivileged children. But, hey, we’re accustomed to that stuff. We’ve seen worse. On a positive note, lunch with three French couples and the son of one of them, is delicious: rum punch, salad, smoked peccary stew and sugary sweet pineapple. Apparently, if you take a male banana bud, take away the blossoms inside and chop the outer layer, it will flavor the sauce you cook it with a smoky taste. I’m not so sure about that but worth a try. The French just left and we now have the run of the place. The camp at Saut Athanase is basically run by a father and son team: Manuel and Nathan, from the Karipuna tribe in the Oiapoque region in Brazil.

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Nathan

At 4:30pm, Manuel asks if we want to go fishing. I say “¿Perdon?” As usual, I’m distracted and I try to decipher his French sentence as if it were Spanish. It takes me a few seconds to readjust my mind to the proper language. “Fishing? Why not?” Back on the pirogue. It bites. I catch a pirai, a small silver fish with a patch the size and color of a lemon slice behind its gills. I feel sorry for it. I don’t like watching him agonize in the bottom of the pirogue. I beg Manuel to hit its head somehow and put an end to its misery, but we have no gloves, no appropriate tool and catching the fish by the tail to hit its head against the boat is tantamount to catching a wet bar of soap.Fish Manuel catches two cumarus, large flat-bodied fish and a few smaller ones. I don’t like that. I pull in my fishing rod and, sitting on a life-jacket in the bottom of the pirogue, try to meditate the fish away. It seems to work. No more biting. I’m quite pleased with myself. Everything is perfectly peaceful, except for bird cries, parrots cawing and the whistling of… ocelots. Manuel explains that ocelots have the ability to imitate various bird and animal cries to attract their prey. Never knew that, how clever of them? A flight of parrots quickly goes overhead.Parrots

On the shores, the jungle is as dense and vividly green as moss. Occasionally, the high purple top of a “bois-vache” (cow-tree that gives a sweet milky sap) peeks through the foliage. An immense rainbow, neatly painted on the sky, widely straddles the horizon. Several times, we approach the shores, duck under the low hanging branches, lianas brushing against our faces, as Manuel hangs the smaller fish we caught as bait for larger catches. We’ll find out tomorrow if he’s had any luck. The sun is setting and crossing the rapids at dusk is a risky enterprise as you can barely see the rocks hidden a few inches under water or barely touching the surface. Hitting a rock might be fatal as the shores offer no refuge and passing the night on a rock is none too appealing. …….. We meet Nathan in the kitchen, it’s only the two of us, Nathan and his father. Nathan is cooking and we chat around our rum punches. Nathan is 25, already has three children, the first one fathered when he was only 13. He’s extremely bright, mature, knowledgeable and his fish couscous is to die for. Tomorrow, we are leaving with him for a two-and-a-half hour uphill hike to Crique Angèle, a hard to reach destination in the middle of the jungle, five hours away from all civilization.

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Cayenne and the Salvation Islands

We will definitely leave our Airbnb rental, which had bad vibes including a cat, and take temporary domicile in Cayenne, in the pretty and well-located Hotel des Palmistes where we stayed on our first night.  It’s a colonial house, classified National Monument.  After 5 weeks of hardship, we decided we deserved it and that luxury is a much better option.place-des-palmistes

Everything in Guyana, except for its nature and rivers, l’Aproague, le Maroni, le Kourou et l’Oiapock, seem miniaturized, pristine and well-maintained: the towns, houses, narrow roads.  French organization after Brazilian chaos.  This is not the Third-world anymore, but it’s not the First either.  Guyana is populated with small civil servants from the Metropolis with boosted pay, who stay a few years to accumulate a nest-egg; scientists and engineers working on the Space Center in Kourou and a largely subsidized population of unemployed Guyanese.  One could say it’s a welfare state keeping up with appearances, thence the absence of quality consumer goods and upscale restaurants.  But after Brazil, everything here tastes like ambrosia.

We drove to Kourou yesterday.  I mean I drove to Kourou since my friend forgot his driver’s license.  I warned him that I have a very personal style of driving and that it was not for weak natures.    I guess he didn’t know what I meant, but hearing him hissing, whistling and emitting diverse tsk-tsking sounds indicated that my style is making him pretty nervous.  To be honest, driving here with all those blasted roundabouts and tortuous roads makes me pretty nervous too.

In Kourou, we took a Guyavoile catamaran and sailed to Saint-Joseph Island, one of the three island off Kourou having been the sites of penitentiary colonies since late 19th Century until 1958 when all were dismantled.  Guyavoile-1Hard to believe that those islands of breathtaking beauty could have been the theatre of such misery.  Saint-Joseph Island is by far the most beautiful tropical Island I have seen and I’ve seen many.  The reason for that might very well be that nature has reclaimed its rights upon the old penitentiary, that the island is left to the maintenance of two soldiers from the Foreign Legion (one Mongol! and one Pole, that’s probably why they’re called the “Foreign Legion”) and tourism limited to strolling on sandy lanes through the jungle of banyan and coconut trees and swimming in the clear turquoise, but dangerous waters off the beaches.  You can’t swim very far because of a strong undertow.  We could have begged for hospitality to the two legionnaires, just for the privilege of passing the night on the island but didn’t…IMG_1214

We had to get back to the catamaran and that part of the expedition might have been the most pleasant, I don’t remember feeling any less than ecstatic on a sailboat.  After I find my spot near the mast, I need nothing else from life than being rocked as in a cradle, preferably with a good book.  The Planter’s Punch was not bad either.

We disembarked on Île Royale and had lunch in the one hotel on the Island. From our table overlooking the ocean, we could see Devil’s Island with the little house where Dreyfus, accused of high treason, was held in solitary confinement for nearly 5 years before being granted his rehabilitation and reintegration into the French Army.  He apparently wrote more than a thousand letters from Devil’s Island.  I wish I could set my hands on them.  To be researched…

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Devil’s Island with Dreyfus’ detention house

The prison director’s mansion has been turned into a museum.  Suddenly a flash: a large brown “animal runs on top of the banister surrounding the terrace.

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Île Royale, Prison Director’s mansion

Is that a dog?  A small pony?  I can’t see too well.  As I go out, I discover a capuchin monkey.  He stops for a moment, looks at me and scuttles away.

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To be followed…

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