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:

Thursday, 9 February 2012

"Cape Town is the place for me"

This past weekend I went back to Cape Town.  My parents were scheduled to fly in on Saturday night and spend a few days there before visiting me in Durban.  As Ali had gone home for Christmas, this was her first time there.

Before picking up my parents at the airport, Ali and I had decided to go skydiving.  We were both so excited (and nervous, but mostly excited).  Right as we arrived at the hangar, we were told that the wind had just picked and they had stopped jumping about half an hour earlier.  They had tried calling us but my phone was off.  Of course it was off.  I was so excited (and nervous, but mostly excited) about skydiving that I had forgotten to turn it back on after our flight into Cape Town.  Naturally we were extremely disappointed.  But that's ok, because we rescheduled for Monday morning (the only possible option).

So instead we decided to visit a cheetah rehabilitation program just off of Stellenbosch and it was AMAZING.  The cheetah was just like a gorgeous oversized cat, that happens to also be the fastest animal on earth.

Me, Ali, Enigma the cheetah and a staff member

As we drove away following our visit, Ali goes, "I am allergic to cats.  I wonder if I am also allergic to cheetahs..."  Shortly after her face got a bit red, "Yup I am allergic to cheetah."  But come on, how cool is it to know that you are allergic to cheetah.

After picking up my parents from the airport, which played out like a scene from "Love, Actually," we were ready to explore the Cape Peninsula. So we woke up early Sunday morning and began our tour by driving through Camps Bay and Hout Bay.

Somehow our tour managed to coincide with some sort of bicycle race that made the drive through the narrow winding road along Chapman's Peak quite difficult.  Ali, who was the designated driver, managed exceptionally well.  She didn't get distracted by the beautiful scenery and pristine beaches that we drove by or hit any cyclists along the way, so she gets thumbs up from me!

Right before entering the Cape of Good Hope Nature Reserve, we stopped outside an ostrich farm.  One curious ostrich quickly approached us hoping that we may have food.  Little did he know that he would immediately become a model for my dad's extensive picture-taking.

The Cape of Good Hope Nature Reserve was absolutely stunning.  Though Cape Point is not the southern most point of the African continent, as is commonly misconstrued, it is definitely breathtaking.  Legends of explorers, sunken ghost ships and raging storms that we had read about in our guide books added to the timeless feeling of this part of the world. 

After Cape Point, the next stop on our tour was Simon's Town.  A colony of African penguins (or Jackass Penguins as they are unfortunately also known as) has settled and resides on Boulders Beach, located a couple of kilometres south of the town. People can visit the colony and even have the opportunity to swim with the penguins by the little cove beach.  Ali was incredibly excited as penguins are her favourite animals.  In fact, here would be a good time to point out that she has everything penguin - penguin towels, penguin keychain, penguin travel buddy.  Apparently every year she also sends out penguin Christmas cards.  So I am confident in saying that our visit to Boulders Beach was likely one of the highlights of her internship in South Africa.  I must say that the penguins were incredibly cute.  They looked like they were all dressed up in their little tuxedos with nowhere to go.  In fact I think this picture looks like a penguin wedding.

"You may kiss the bride!"

We were very excited to go in the water with the penguins, however we quickly changed our minds.  Two reasons: 1) the water of the Atlantic Ocean was freezing cold, 2) penguin poop.

After our peninsula tour, we quickly changed, had a bite to eat and prepared for our climb up Table Mountain.  Just enough time had passed from my last visit to Cape Town to forget how awfully tiring the climb was the first time around.  To add to that, the sun was still pretty strong and the weather was quite hot.  As we began our ascent up the Platteklip Gorge we quickly ran out of water, but remained in good spirits.

Though the estimated climbing time was 2.5 hours, we managed to get up to the top in exactly an hour and a half.  I must say I am very proud of my parents for being in such an amazing shape.   Finally making it to the top after the strenuous neverending climb gave us such a sense of relief, and fulfillment, but mostly relief.

Of course the view from the top was once again amazing!

On our second night in Cape Town we stayed in an area called Camps Bay, which Wikipedia calls "an affluent suburb of Cape Town."  It is located on the opposite side of Table Mountain from the City Bowl, where we had previously stayed.  The area was trendy, busy and beautiful.  It felt like we were in Miami, the Caribbean and the French Riviera all at the same time.  We had dinner in one of the many restaurants lining the main street.  The seafood was fresh and delicious.

On Monday morning I woke up bright and early as I was excited (and nervous, but mostly excited) to go skydiving.  Until I heard the distinct sound of thunder in the distance.  Within minutes a crazy thunderstorm passed over Cape Town, complete with lightning and heavy rain.  So I thought, "Great!  If a little bit of wind interferes with jumping I can only imagine what a lot of rain can do!"  The only thing is that within the next hour the weather proceeded to miraculously clear up - sunshine and blue skies.  It was just in that key hour when we needed to leave to make our reservation that the weather had been so awful.  To add salt to injury the guy running the skydiving centre actually called me to ask whether we are still coming because they are in fact jumping.  By this point it was too late, as the drive up takes an hour, Ali had her Robben Island tour booked for 1pm and I had to catch my plane back to Durban.  So skydiving - FAIL!

Instead I ended up going on a sightseeing tour of Cape Town with my parents.  We started off at the V&A Waterfront.

Nobel Square at the V&A Waterfront

The tour took us through some areas of Cape Town where I hadn't been before, including the Company Gardens, Woodstock and District Six.  District Six was named the Sixth Municipal District of Cape Town in 1867.  In 1966 it was declared a white area under the Group Areas Act of 1950, and by 1982 some 60,000 people were forcibly removed from their homes and their houses were flattened by bulldozers.  Sound familiar?  Likely because either (1) you are aware and concerned about human rights issues, (2) you are South African, and/or (3) you watched a movie called "District 9" about aliens directed by Peter Jackson that was actually inspired by these real life events.   To this day District Six remains a desolate and empty area though there have been talks and a move to have some of the residents returned. 

At the end of the day Cape Town is now a wonderful and vibrant place.  It is definitely one of the most beautiful cities in the world, where people are friendly, kind and easy-going.  In fact, after spending a few days in Cape Town my parents agreed that I should go on internships more often.  They decided that I should go to Southeast Asia next, preferably Cambodia or Laos.  I told them I would think about it.

Before our sightseeing tour ended I heard a song, the lyrics of which stayed with me:

"Cape Town is the place for me, its charming climate suits me to a tee, Durban is pretty and so is Joburg city, but Cape Town is the place for me..."

Friday, 3 February 2012

South Coast Cruzin'

Before I tell you about our interesting trip to the South Coast this past weekend I would like to introduce you to the three new LHR interns.  Vee is from South Africa and has recently completed her studies.  Sandra and Divya are from Australia and are here for exactly 23 work-days.  They are part of a bigger Australian group  who are all working with various NGOs.

Vee, Sandra and Divya

So here it goes.  The Australians had planned a trip to the South Coast for this past weekend.  The plan was to stay at a backpackers called The Mantis and Moon, which prides itself on offering treehouses as an accommodation option.  Unfortunately two of the three treehouses are being renovated.  Ali, Vee and I decided that it would be a great idea to go down the coast with the Aussies.

The bar at the backpackers

The first thing on the agenda was a 'booze cruise'  which was advertised on the backpackers' website.  It boasted cruising down a river nearby the Oribi Gorge, a seafood buffet including a vegetarian option, snacks, and an opportunity to watch the sun set in the horizon.  The cost was R170, so just over $20 per person.  The only thing was that we were supposed to bring our own drinks, but that (at the time) seemed reasonable.

What I expected:  a wonderful, relaxing and fun afternoon that would include good food, drinking and wonderful scenery.

What actually happened:
Well let's just say that for this so called 'booze cruise' not only did we have to bring our own booze, we didn't really cruise...

Ok here it goes.  So we hire a taxi to take us to the cruise.  The taxi didn't really seem to know where it was going.  The backpackers puts us in touch with the 'captain' whose name is 'Rooster'.  Ok I know.  That should have already told us something.  So Rooster tells us to go a bit further down the road from where the taxi had taken us and we would find him.  We go further down the road and he flags us down. 
So we get to the right place and we walk towards the river.   I realize (apparently not quickly enough) that this is the boat that would take us on our cruise:

And this was the captain - Rooster:

And this was the 'first mate' - Rooster's brother (whose actual name seems to escape me):

And that the cruise basically involved going to the other side of the river where the boat docked for about an hour and a half giving people the opportunity to swim in the river. 

Oh and the water in the river looked like this:

After that we went back across the river to get the 'seafood buffet'.   The buffet consisted of deep-fired calamari, popcorn shrimp and french fries in a few take-out containers.  The vegetarian option consisted of, ready for this, lettuce.  Luckily by this point we had all been drinking for quite awhile and were having a great time.  Why?  Because there is something really amusing about finding out that we actually paid R170 each to hang out with a couple of dudes on a barge for four hours, drinking booze we bought ourselves and eating deep-fried food and/or lettuce.  We actually laughed really hard about it. 

Oh and by the way I have no idea who the guy in the pink hat is or how he got there.

The next day as we were checking out of the backpackers, the owners asked us how the booze cruise was.  Our answer, ""  At which point the owners told us that Rooster is a professional surfer and made it sound like it was an honour for us to hang out with him.  Yup, definitely an honour.

Anyhow.  Oh Sunday, Ali, Sandra, Divya, Vee and I decided to drive down to the Oribi Gorge, which was by the way absolutely beautiful.

The Oribi Gorge is a deep canyon carved by the Umzimkulwana River.  It is located about an hour and a half south of Durban.  Apparently the sandstone cliffs are more than 365 million years old.  The scenery was amazing!

 There was a spectacular waterfall dropping more than 100m into the gorge.

Very adventurous visitors have the opportunity to do a canyon swing, plunging from the top of the waterfall into the canyon.  For those of us who are a bit less adventurous there was a suspension bridge going over the gorge, which I thought was also quite terrifying.

Another fun and exciting weekend.  Next up - Cape Town!