Tuesday, 20 March 2012

Thank You!

Today is my last day at Lawyers for Human Rights - Durban!  I cannot believe how quickly the time has gone by.  The work has definitely not been easy, in fact really frustrating at times.  However, it has also been extremely rewarding, both professionally and personally.  The opportunity has been incredible and I have learned a ton - about the world, about Africa, about other people and most importantly about myself.  The wonderful experiences and amazing memories will stay with me for the rest of my life!

Thursday, 15 March 2012

Just a quote

I am currently reading a book called The Postmistress by Sarah Blake.  It is a story about the effect World War II has on two different worlds - "one shattered by violence, the other willfully naive" - London, England and Franklin, Massachusetts .  I came across a quote, which really touched me, that I would like to share with you:
"Whatever is coming does not just come, as you say.  It's helped by people willfully looking away.  People who develop the habit of swallowing lies rather than the truth.  The minute  you start thinking something else, then you've stopped paying attention - and paying attention is all we've got."

Tuesday, 13 March 2012

Ag shame man!

My internship in South Africa is coming to an end.  In fact I cannot believe that I only have two weeks left.  But after close to seven months away, I am very much looking forward to seeing my friends and family.  Just to let you guys know, though, if at any time you have no idea what I am saying when I come back home, this may be why:

Tuesday, 6 March 2012

The Land the 20th Century Forgot

This past weekend we went to visit Lesotho.  There were six of us who took the trip up the Sani Pass into the tiny nation completely surrounded by South Africa - me, Ali, Joseph, Mat, Sabrina and Caroline. 

The day before we left I received numerous warnings by my colleagues about the dangers of driving up the Sani Pass.  Though nervous, I had full confidence in our driver (Ali) and our vehicle (a Toyota Fortuner).  In fact, by law you have to have a 4x4 vehicle in order to attempt the climb up the steep dirt road leading to Lesotho.

As we exited the South African border I realized that this was my first time leaving the country in almost six months.

It took us about 45 minutes to cover the 8 kilometres that led us to the top of the Sani Pass and into Lesotho. 

Because of the high altitude, the temperature here was significantly cooler.  After we got our passports stamped with our Lesotho stamps (who has a Lesotho stamp in their passport anyway?) we drove the 500m from the border to the highest pub in Africa to have lunch.  This was probably the last restaurant/pub/shop that we came in contact with the whole weekend. 

After lunch we continued with our onward journey deeper into Lesotho.  Though the road became a bit flatter, it remained equally challenging.  Driving through the vast lands we only encountered a couple of small villages of maybe thirty huts each.  The few people we came across along the way were usually on horseback, dressed in traditional blankets called Basotho blankets and wool hats that covered everything but their eyes.  There were no other vehicles on the road.

I held on to the instructions that were to guide us to our lodge, though it seemed that there was no need for instructions as there was one road and one road only.  In a place where the easiest measure of distance is time, our only indicator was that we should be looking for a t-junction about an hour after crossing the border into Lesotho.  That hour came and went and we were still crawling along the dirt road paved only with boulders and giant potholes, the remnants of heavy rains and erosion. We soon began to refer to this remote and rural mountainous nation as "the land the 20th century forgot."

We reached the St. James Guest Lodge, a stone building located on a hillside overlooking a small village, in the late afternoon.  Originally forming part of the St. James Roman Catholic Mission it was recently converted into a guest house.  With no electricity, internet signal or cell phone reception, the tranquility of the mountains immediately surrounded us.  This would be the perfectly place to relax and learn about the culture, tradition and way of life of the Sotho people.

With the impending sunset the temperature quickly began to cool.  As there was no refrigerator or any grocery stores in the area, we had to carefully pre-plan our meals and had brought enough food accordingly.  That night we had our dinner by the light of the few gas lamps that were provided for us and by the heat of the fire that was quietly burning in the fireplace. 

The next morning we woke up to beautiful clear skies and crisp mountain air.

After breakfast we decided that we would spend the day pony trekking and visiting the nearby village.  I was quite disappointed to learn that ponies are not actually the miniature horses with silky long tails I had seen on TV when I was little.  Though my "pony" kept on stopping to graze (likely because I had no idea how to control it) this was a fantastic way to see the village and experience the landscape.

In the late afternoon our guide, Elias, took us to visit the nearby village.  The tour basically consisted of going to a local shebeen, where some of the local villagers had gathered to socialize.  A shebeen is a small hut from which a person sells homebrewed beer.  In Lesotho, shebeens are marked by a white flag waving outside their doors. 

The shebeen we visited was owned and operated by Grandma.  She was responsible for selling and serving the homebrewed beer, which we all took turns tasting.  It wasn't that bad.

We spent some time at the shebeen meeting the local people and trying to communicate with them as much as possible.  For the most part they were really friendly, though they all wanted to have their picture taken so they could get some money from us.

At the end we decided that we couldn't give some people money as then everyone would ask us for money.  Instead, we decided to buy R20 worth of beer from the shebeen, which is the equivalent to $2.50 CAD.  With the price of beer at R2.50 per litre, our R20 bought all the beer that Grandma had to offer.  The locals were all quite happy.

On our way back home we saw a number of the villagers chewing what looked like sugar cane.  We asked Elias whether we would be able to get some.  Elias responded that this is not sugar cane but maize (corn) stalks.  He told us that the locals use their teeth to completely peel a piece of stalk and chew on its insides.  As we were curious to try it, Elias asked one of the villagers to get us some.

As dusk approached and the air began to cool, we decided to drive to the top of the nearest hill to see the sun set behind the mountains.  There was something very special, beautiful and almost magical about that moment.

After spending a really fun night by the fire with really good friends and a couple of bottles of wine, it was time to head back to Durban the following morning.  It took us a couple of hours to get back to the top of the Sani Pass.

At the top of the Sani Pass we enjoyed some hot drinks and bought some souvenirs before having the Lesotho exit stamps entered into our passports. 

The drive down the Sani Pass was even more nerve-wrecking than the way up, though equally impressive.  It was time to travel through time back to the future.

Wednesday, 29 February 2012

"Let Me In"

I don't normally blog about work, because of the confidential nature of my consulation with individual clients.  Yet an interesting thing happened yesterday that I just have to share with you.  I previously wrote about the problem of access to the asylum process in South Africa.  This problem is ongoing.

Yesterday Vee, one of the other interns at LHR, was doing some monitoring outside the Department of Home Affairs' Durban Refugee Reception Office.  She noticed that a large number of newcomers were not allowed inside the fence and were upset that they were not given the opportunity to apply for asylum.  She advised them that if they need any legal assistance they could come to Lawyers for Human Rights.

So as I am sitting in my office and having my coffee Vee comes back and tells me that there is a group of 40 Ethiopians on their way to LHR.  Now, I have committed to taking care of all the access matters, so this was a bit overwhelming.  I asked her if she was sure and she told me that she saw the entire group walking our way as she drove back from Home Affairs.  Holy s@#t

As the clients started coming in, our receptionist was instructed by our office manager to close the door, forcing the majority of men to wait outside the fence of the Diakonia Centre.  Vee and I decided to deal with all the matter simeltaneously.  So we bravely went outside to face the crowd and take everyone's name.  As we nervously held our clipboards, we realized that we weren't faced by an angry mob, but by a number of desparate men who were looking for help.  In fact, they had already written their names and ages on small pieces of paper and orderly approached us in groups of five.  As we made sure that we had documented all of them, we told them that we would address the matter with the Department of Home Affairs.  The final total was actually 70 people.

We heard stories about men who spend the night outside Home Affairs to ensure that they are at the front of the line when the doors open in the morning.  We also saw a client who told us that because of his size it is really hard for him to push through the crowd in order to get through the gate.  He was, however, successful in touching the gate during one of his attempts. 

As the day wore on we had some of the clients return to ensure that their names had in fact been placed on some sort of list.  They also tried to ensure that friends of theirs who were in a similar predicament also made it on the list.

By the afternoon we were able to get ahold of the office manager at the Department of Home Affairs.  She informed us that because of their limited resources their office only has the capacity to take in 40 newcomers per day.  So we should just tell people to keep trying.  Hopefully our 70 clients get access to the asylum process at some point.

Tuesday, 28 February 2012

"Please Keep God's Window Clean"

To conclude my parents' whirlwind tour of South Africa, we visited the Blyde River Canyon.  Though difficult to compare canyons, it is thought to be the third largest in the world, after the Grand Canyon in the US and the Fish River Canyon in Namibia.  It includes a number of spectacular natural features that are absolutely breathtaking.

There were two things that were immediately obvious to us as we checked into our lodge - the significant altitude change and the temperature drop.  After having spent a few days in the heat of the Kruger National Park we did not mind a bit of the crisp and fresh mountain air.  The lodge owner warned us that there is a cyclone coming from Mozambique and the cloud cover over the mountains may be significant.  As we were working with significant time constraints, we decided to spend our afternoon visiting the waterfalls in the area and take the next morning to go to God's Window, Bourke's Luck Potholes, the Three Rondavels, and the Pinnacle (Think those names are amazing?  Wait until you see the physical features they refer to.)

We first visited the Berlin Falls as it was the closest one to our lodge.  The shape of the falls has been compared to a candle as it starts off really narrow in shape and then broadens up into a cascade as it drops.  

The Berlin Falls

Our next stop was the Lisbon Falls, which was even more spectacular.  At 92 metres, it is the highest waterfall in the area.

The Lisbon Falls

The third waterfall we visited was the Mac Mac Falls.  It was declared a National Monument in 1983.  Although initially it was a single stream, apparently enthusiastic gold miners blasted it with a significant amount of dynamite in their attempt to divert the river in their search for gold.  The explosion created the two streams of the waterfall seen today.

The Mac Mac Falls

Though we wanted to see both the Bridal Veil Falls and the Horse Shoe Falls, the only access to them was via a dirt road that only looked suitable for 4x4 vehicles.  So, our last waterfall was the Lone Creek Falls.   To get there we had to walk through an indigenous forest that resembled a rainforest.   When the trees finally cleared we found ourselves at the base of a spectacular waterfall.  The different vantage point allowed us to appreciate Lone Creek in a different way.

The Lone Creek Falls
After our waterfall tour, we returned to the town of Graskop to get our groceries for dinner.  With the supermarket only open between 4 and 6pm on Sundays, we had a small window of time to get that done.  As the next day was going to be a long one, we returned to our self-catering chalet to get some much deserved rest.

The next day we woke up bright and early.  We were really excited to see God's Window as we had heard much about this amazing feature of the Panorama Route.  I must admit that the name had prepared me for the most beautiful sight I would ever see.  This is what God's Window is supposed to look like:

And this is what we actually saw:

I guess God works in mysterious ways.  In any event, personally I really liked the garbage cans in the area.

After God's Window we visited Bourke's Luck Potholes.  My parents and I found that this was probably the most incredible feature of the Blyde River Canyon.

The Potholes are essentially  the result of millions of years of swirling eddies of water causing extensive water erosion where the Treur River meets the Blyde River.

The Potholes are named after a miner named Tom Bourke who found a bit of gold in the area, but never actually got rich as a result of it.

After the Potholes, we visited the Three Rondavels.   This natural rock wonder resembles three traditional African huts, known as rondavels.  The Three Rondavels probably offers the most spectacular view of the Blyde River Canyon.  From here we could also see the Swadini Dam. 

We were actually quite lucky.  When we initially arrived, the Three Rondavels were completely absorbed by the impending cloud cover.  Yet it seemed that within minutes the clouds lifted offering us a beautiful view of the far wall of the canyon.  As we were leaving, the clouds began to once again ascend over the hut-like formations.

As we had a little bit of extra time we decided to drive back and give God's Window another shot.  As I previously said though, God does work in mysterious ways.  And perhaps seeing fog through God's Window is what it is really about... 

Fortunately, we were able to see the Pinnacle, which is just a few minutes drive down the road.  The fog just appeared to stay away from it.  The Pinnacle is a free-standing rock formation that independently and stubbornly towered over the canyon. 

With my parents' flight home and my flight back to Durban both scheduled for that evening, it was time for the four and a bit hour drive to Johannesburg, passing through beautiful towns such as Pilgrim's Rest and Dullstrom. 

After everything I have seen and experienced so far, I am convinced that with its remarkable diversity and natural splendour South Africa is one of the most beautiful and amazing countries in the world!

Friday, 24 February 2012

Rhino Poaching

Rhino poaching reached record highs in 2011. 

Though poaching was an issue of global concern that I had studied about in school, for me its critical implications did not crystallize until I came to South Africa.  Since I have been here I have had the opportunity to encounter both a black and a white rhinos in the wild on more than one occasion and I must say these creatures are majestic. 

White rhino at Hluhluwe-Imfolozi

What is devastating is that these animals are regularly killed because of the dollar value of their horns.  Poachers saw off a darted rhino’s horn, leaving the creature to bleed to death.  The trade is mainly fuelled by the high demand from Asian medicine markets, especially in China and Vietnam.  Rhino horns are thought to have powerful healing properties.  Scientists, however, maintain that rhino horns are made from the same material as fingernails and have no proven medicinal value.  Regardless of that, BBC reports that the price of rhino horn is now in the region of £35,000 ($55,000) per kilogram.

South Africa is home to70 to 80% of the world’s rhino population.  As a result it has become the target of what the WWF calls “organized poaching gangs”.  Though the black and white rhino populations are growing healthily, in 2011 a record of 448 rhinos were poached in South Africa.  That total included 19 black rhinos, which are considered to be critically endangered, as less than 5,000 remain in the wild. 

Black rhino at Hluhluwe-Imfolozi

I think that being aware of an issue and being concerned by it are ultimately two different things.  It wasn’t until I got to meet a rhino and got to see how protective it is of its family, and how caring it is for its young and how calm and gentle it is when it doesn’t feel threatened that I was truly touched by how devastating its predicament is. 

White rhino at Kruger National Park

WWF reports that more than half of South Africa’s rhino deaths took place in the Kruger National Park.  When my parents and I were in Kruger a few days ago we were really lucky to encounter both black and white rhinos on more than one occasion.  However, we met an old man, who told us that he has lived just outside the park his entire life.  He would go into the park occasionally to marvel at the beauty of the animals and look for species he hadn’t had the opportunity to see before.  He told us that in 40 years of driving through the park he never once saw a rhino.  Maybe he was just extremely unlucky.  He probably was.  But let’s make sure that in the future the world is not equally unlucky.

Wednesday, 22 February 2012

The Big Five

With my parents visiting me for two and a half weeks, I finally had the opportunity to go to the Kruger National Park.  Kruger is one of the largest game reserves in Africa, covering just under 20,000 squared kilometres.  The park is designated as an International Man and Biosphere Reserve by UNESCO.

The 10 hour drive from Durban to Kruger was absolutely worth it!  We spent three nights in the park and had an amazing time.  Two of the rest camps we stayed at were particularly spectacular.  Lower Sabie Rest Camp is located on the banks of the Sabie River.  We stayed in a safari tent overlooking the river nearby a tree that appeared to be full of angry monkeys, who did not stop fighting with each other.  The whole night we could also hear the loud cries of hippos in the distance.

When we went for our coffee in the morning we could see a herd of elephants bathing and splashing in the river.

Our hut at the Olifants Rest Camp was located on top of a hill overlooking the Olifants River.  As this was the dry season the river was largely dried up.  All I could hear in my head was the voice of the National Geographic guy saying, "The river has now dried up.  The animals must fend for themselves.  They must move on in desperate search for water.  The journey will be difficult but necessary..."  Luckily we came prepared.

The Kruger National Park is home to the "Big Five".  This is a term popular with safari-goers, though it was unfamiliar to me until I arrived in South Africa.  The members of the Big Five are: the lion, the leopard, the elephant, the rhino and the buffalo.  The term was coined by hunters, who chose these animals not because of their size, but because of the difficulty in hunting them and the degree of danger involved.  Nowadays, however, seeing the Big Five quickly becomes the goal of most safari-goers.  Including me.  And mom and dad.  In our three and a half days in Kruger we were extremely lucky in being able to see all of these majestic animals in their natural habitat.

1. Lion:  The lion was one of the first animals we encountered after entering the park through the Crocodile Gate Bridge. He was just taking a nap on the side of the road.  There were a number of cars stopped around him and a number of impatient tourists admiring his beauty while hoping he would soon get up and do something exciting.  Mom and dad realized only later that seeing a lion is pretty rare.

2. Elephant:  A few minutes after seeing the lion, we found ourselves surrounded by a herd of African elephants who were crossing the road.  Though this was our first elephant encounter, it was by no means the last.  Not only did we see a ton of elephants in Kruger, we were actually charged at by two of them.  The problem was probably either the threat posed by our scary looking VW Polo rental, or, in the alternative, my dad's insistence to get close enough to the animals to take great photos.  I have a sneaking suspicion it may have been the latter.  African elephants in general are known to be quite aggressive and to be honest my mom was quite terrified every time we encountered one.  The scariest instance was probably on our last day when a herd of elephants had blocked the road.  There was probably close to a hundred of them, including little ones.  We waited patiently for them to move on.  When we thought it was safe for us to pass one of the elephants ran in front of our us, flared his ears, and forced me to drive in reverse for quite a distance before I had a chance to turn the car around and drive back to the main road.

3. Buffalo:  We encountered the third member of the Big Five on the very first morning as well.  We decided to venture off the main road and do a loop, before proceeding to drive to our first rest camp.  As we drove down the dirt road, we found ourselves surrounded by a herd of buffalo.  They were calmly grazing and appeared to be not the least bit concerned by our presence.  In fact I was convinced that buffalo are actually quite gentle animals until I was proven wrong by a bull who charged at us on our way out of the park three days later.

4. Rhino:  We were lucky enough to see both black and white rhinos at Kruger.  Black rhinos are especially difficult to spot as they are solitary and shy and are usually hiding in the bushes.  They are also critically endangered with less than 5,000 remaining in the wild.  My favourite encounter with the rhinos at Kruger was when we went on our sunset drive from the Satara rest camp.  As we stumbled upon a family of rhinos, they got scared of the safari truck and started running.  I'm not sure if you have ever seen a rhino run, but it is too cute and funny at the same time.  Though the rhinos were afraid they were still trying to make sure that the family stayed together and the baby rhino was protected.  As we drove off one of the rhinos stood behind our safari truck and pointed its horn at us, as if to say, "I'll show you who you are messing with.  That is right. Drive away!"

5. Leopard:  I have been hoping to see a leopard since my very first game drive in South Africa, though I had pretty much accepted that it will likely not happen.  A leopard encounter is extremely rare.  In fact Mat said that the safari guide he had over the holidays told him that in eight years of doing safaris he had only seen a leopard twice.  I must admit that in Kruger mom and I spent a lot of time looking at trees searching for leopards but to no avail.  On our last day as we were driving towards the gate, we saw a number of cars stopped on the side of the road.  There was an elephant in the distance and so I assumed that is what everyone was looking at.  Except that the cars were stopped on the wrong side of the road.  So I pulled over beside a small safari truck and asked the driver what they were looking at.  "A leopard," he responded calmly.  Me:  "A leopard?  Where?"  The driver:  "Over there in that tree."  At this point I must have gotten so excited that I don't actually remember what happened next.  I don't even think I thanked the driver.  All I know is that I must have taken close to 50 photos of the leopard in the tree.  But I wasn't alone.  There were a few other cars full of people also ferociously snapping away.  After a few minutes, the leopard gently stood up, jumped down from the tree and calmly walked away.  It was absolutely amazing!

Though I feel that the Big Five quickly become the object of desire for most safari tourists, there were so many other majestic and fascinating animals and birds in Kruger that I was equally excited to see.  Here are some of them: