Socks and Underwear

Socks and Underwear: May 2011

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Blogger Catastrophe

That was weird. For some reason Blogger deleted the posts I made a few days ago, along with many others I am sure, and only just recently have the drafts been available to republish. Unfortunately, the drafts Blogger had were a few revisions previous and not the final version I had become happy with. Sure Google has provided me with a slew of powerful, time-saving applications for free that have changed my life for the better and potentially the world but now they were going to make me do more work than I had intended to do for a couple of blog posts. I know what you are thinking, "that's grounds for a frivolous lawsuit" and I was close to going that route but then I realized there is a chance that the posts may be saved somewhere in someone's RSS feed reader. Surely enough, my sister had some copies saved in her Google Reader account. Just like how science is used to correct and update science, Google has come in to save the day for Google's terrible error. Nice one Google, you're all right!

Friday, May 13, 2011

WHS Quest: uKhahlamba Drakensberg with bonus Lesotho Action

After the half marathon in Sabie, a group of us headed out to KZN to hike the Drakensburg. This was a hike I had been wanting to do for some time and I was finally able to get out there and better yet I was going with a group whose company I would enjoy. It ended up being an amazing hike but there were a few sore spots sprinkled in along the way.

Before the pictures of Drakensberg and Lesotho it is worthwhile to detail how we managed to get to the trail head. There were 7 of us which is a kind of magic number for inconvenience. It is too few to buy out an entire taxi without spending twice the normal amount but too many to easily fit in a taxi with all of our gear. Choosing thriftiness over comfort, we made it about a third of the way to our ultimate destination by noon. Most of our driving was still ahead of us and we got stuck waiting for a taxi that was not filling up. We paid our fair, piled our gear, circled around and tried to psychically persuade every traveler to get into our taxi so we could get going (at least I did). Fearing we would not make it all the way on time, we started pursuing other options. A few of us started to seek out someone we could pay to take us all the way to where we wanted to go. It was a long shot but if it worked out, it would save us the trouble of a few more taxi ranks. After some searching, we found a willing driver and negotiated until we finally settled on an equitable price. There was still the matter of talking to the taxi rank.

You see, we already paid the fair to take us to the next taxi rank along the route. An honest and forthright business would be unhappy about refunding customers who decided not to partake in whatever service they were offering but would ultimately refund any money. Since we were dealing with a taxi rank, which takes most of its cues from the mafia, we anticipated problems in getting our money back. We decided to use deceit rather than honesty but I am convinced either way would have yielded similar results. A few tried telling the taxi rank office that some members of our party were feeling sick so we decided to stay in town and therefore no longer need a taxi. The taxi rank refused to give back any money. I suppose we had the option of just leaving our money and getting the hell out of there but like I said we are cheap and it would have justified the taxi's bullying techniques by giving them a cool 630R payday (we have principles to uphold). So we stood our ground and an actual argument ensued. I was not part of the team involved in this process and for good reason. I can be a stubborn and spiteful person and this was one of those situations where it was coming out. I was advocating calling the police, this would have taken hours and probably would have accomplished very little but if it had the slightest chance of interrupting and ruining their day, I was for it. I was willing to camp outside the rank and go into monumental debt by paying each customer twice as much as the fair of the taxi to stay home or walk. I was considering petitioning all of the gas stations in the area to go on a trade embargo with all taxis directly involved and kill their fuel supply. I wanted to start an uprising and squeeze the taxi rank out of existence! Thankfully, it was not up to me to handle this particular situation. It was left to more cheery and hopeful individuals who did not get us kicked out of the rank.

So the argument went back and forth. The taxi rank constitution was quoted to us which was also conveniently never offered for our own perusal. Thinly veiled racism was thrown at us which stung but didn't dissuade anybody. What really sunk us was that a man who had spotted us making a deal for our private taxi tattled. The man who we made a deal with was called to the rank and he had a short chat with the taxi rank officials where he probably had an offer made to him that he couldn't refuse. To no one's surprise, our private taxi was canceled and it was recommended we just work through the taxi rank. Now we were truly cornered and the taxi rank knew it. We had no choice but to go through the entire negotiation process again but this time for more money to go a shorter distance. Eventually after a large amount of grief we finally got on our way. We certainly could have handled the situation better. Maybe we brought it all upon ourselves by not going straight to the taxi rank in the first place but I am not sure we would have gotten a better deal. Perhaps we should have waited to pay the office until we were actually about to go but we only decided that we needed other plans until much later. The biggest lesson learned from the whole experience is that everyone should own cars.

After that whole debacle, the rest of the journey was a breeze. We hopped another taxi and then got a ride the final distance from the owners of the backpacker we were staying in. I slept well that night. The next morning we got our first glimpse of the mountains we would be hiking and everything was right with the world. Here are the photos from the hike.

It should be apparent now that I like signs. They are helpful to tourists such as myself. For my money, there is no better way to indicate certain information, like the name of an area.

The intrepid travelers set out into the wilderness. We got a bit of a late start after we bought our maps and figured out where we were on the maps and where we were going and what all those squiggly lines meant. We then had a few pre-hike beers. The clerks at the reception office did not look like they were placing a lot of confidence in our abilities. They were probably preparing their statements for when the news broke that 7 Americans died minutes after leaving the parking lot.

Up and up and up. The first day was hard, allow me to explain why. The elevation change for the first day was a little more than 1000m. This was the start of the hike meaning our packs were fully loaded. Also, two days prior most people ran a half marathon, one guy ran the entire ultra-marathon, and some walked and ate a lot of candy. So there was some fatigue and candy withdrawal.

That's a pretty cliff isn't it? How about a long story about the hike up to the point where we could see this cliff? There was a serious problem during our first day. As was mentioned, we started late and the hike was difficult. Naturally, people started to spread out according to hiking pace. The plan was to get to the top and camp there since the trail seemed easy enough to follow and it would make the next day easier. The problem started when those in front only made it to the top around dusk and those in the back were only beginning to make the ascent of the steepest part of the trail. The most fit of the group went down to check on the ones behind but they insisted on going ahead, they were fine but justed needed more time. Camp was setup at the top of the pass and dinner was prepared. Occasionally we would look down to see how far along they were by their headlamps. It was about 8 o'clock meaning it was fully dark, it had been rainy and windy for the past couple hours, the temperature dropped about 10 C, and a thick fog rolled in. The last time they were spotted it seemed they were about 30 minutes from the top. In hindsight, people should have gone down at this point to meet them and make sure they got up safely. Instead we waited and they still had not arrived and their headlamps could no longer be spotted. Emergency mode set in and everyone at the top started to panic and assume the worst (one or both injured/dead). Without cell phone reception to call, people went down and did a few sweeps to find our friends but we didn't hear or see them. A search party in the dark would only get someone else hurt so we decided to wait until morning to search again. At daybreak, one last sweep was made before we would have to get help from the park and luckily they were found coming out from behind the rock they slept behind. They had gotten disorientated and wisely decided to find a safe shelter for the night back down the mountain. I had thought for sure that this would be the end of the hike. Surprising, the two who spent the night exposed were undeterred and were actually quite chipper about finishing. In my opinion, this earns even more rugged survivalist points for the two than the night out in the elements does. This was the most dire hiking situation I have ever experienced and thankfully everyone was uninjured in the end.

After finding our comrades and deciding to finish the hike, it was agreed we would take a rest day or in hiker parlance a "zero day" (i.e. zero miles/kilometers hiked). During our zero day I did a little exploring. Our campsite is way down there in the middle. It was beautiful alright but the geography being what it was, we were in a wind tunnel all night. It is orders of magnitude less fun than it sounds.

Flowers gone wild! Notice how much I talk about flowers these days? All you flower lovers should be satisfied by now.

Lesotho has a pretty great natural defense that at one time might have been a huge strategic advantage. Lesotho is however, completely landlocked by South Africa. South Africa drinks Lesotho's milkshake, it drinks it right up! Is it still acceptable to say that?

I did not get any good pictures of the Basotho shepherds. These guys (only guys) were all over the place and were for the most part nice and kept to themselves but a few were incredibly irritating and rude which really put me off meeting any more shepherds. The sheep tended not to be a problem other than funking the valley up with their wet wool smell. I took this picture because this sheep looks like a total badass.

We did not follow a trail once we had made it into Lesotho. We followed the escarpment for large sections but at times it took some honest to goodness map reading. A couple of the fellas handled most of the orienteering and they did a bang up job. I would have gotten us to the end eventually but also would have gotten us lost about 15 times and with fewer people than we started with.

The swings in temperature during this hike were formidable. The evenings and mornings were quite chilly. That first dose of sunlight in the morning was wholeheartedly appreciated. I made the mistake of bringing my light summer sleeping bag which was not quite up to snuff. I used the double zipper feature where you can walk around while still wearing the sleeping bag. I looked the fool but I needed the warmth.

The hiking spread; walking speed, leg length and stamina, thins everyone out. Plus, everyone gets tired of looking at each others stupid faces all day.

It took us 5 days to finish, I might be wrong here because I don't actually remember, it's easy to lose track us such things when hiking. We entered at Giant's Castle and made it to Sani Pass to go back into South Africa. I snapped this in a hurry because I was ready to sit down indoors.

This caption contains nerd references, if you are not into that sort of thing, just move along. I got into big trouble in little Lesotho for taking this picture without asking the owners permission but he wasn't there and I needed to take a picture with this hat. He backed down after I blasted off some lightning bolts.

Being the highest pub in Africa and the only pub for probably a 20 km radius, the owners felt comfortable charging whatever the hell they wanted for everything. Ubuntu was not factored in when they decided on prices for their delicious warm rum drinks with little slices of lemon.

This was taken before the journey down Sani pass. We got into trouble again because we didn't go to the border control office as soon as we got there. The guy was just being a blow hard because he probably doesn't get too many chances to assert his authority. Fresh from our hike, we were not to be messed with, but in this instance it was better to just say we were very sorry and move on back to South Africa.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Long Overdue Thanks

KLM was a success. The fund raiser made more money than it did in the previous year. As far as I know, this has been the trend since the program started. I think in part this has to do with the growing number of Peace Corps volunteers in the country but that's not important. What is important is that the ability for the organization to provide quality education grows. Thank you to all those who donated on my behalf or on anyone's behalf, you have done a good thing.

The race was much like it was last year. The picture I took of the beginning of the race is almost identical to the one I took the year before. The weather was uncooperative. It rained buckets for the ride up the mountain (and for those crazy enough to attempt the ultra marathon). It was then overcast and foggy for most of the day. Also like last year, I decided to walk. I really took my time this year and stopped at each station where water was given to the runners. These stations provide much more than water though. Most of the stuff is probably ignored by the actual runners because eating it would give cramps rather than stamina. I was not in any danger of running so I ate all that was available which included: gummy bears, candy bars, fingerling potatoes with delicious garlic mayo dip, biltong (South African beef jerky) and in one instance beer. Near the end, I wasn't even hungry or thirsty but I still grabbed handfuls of everything I could because it was offered. It was a very leisurely half marathon, so leisurely that the group I was with didn't complete the course in the allotted time and the finish line attendants refused to give us medals. I think one lady in particular really enjoyed withholding any form of congratulations, she seems to have been the wrong choice for that particular job. My feelings were not harmed in any way.

After the race there was a delicious meal along with awards for various fund raising goals. It was an excellent time and a great way to meet the volunteers that have come in after our group. The whole event was pulled off without a hitch and the Murphy's (main organizers) should be proud of their work. I am pretty sure it was the best Longtom event there ever was or ever will be so I am not too sad that this was my last one but in years to come I hope groups try to reach the level of Longtom 2011.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Cape Town Assortment

These are parts of Cape Town which I found interesting and I thought I'd throw them together into one post. It's really just a bunch of random pictures of the place. After this post I will be done talking about Cape Town for a while. I reserve the right to resume my praise at any point so don't think I'm done forever.

Cape fur seals sunning their blob-like selves. I don't think these seals have seen Planet Earth because a great white could have exploded out of the water and annihilated them at any point. They need to be much more vigilant, not one of them is on lookout.

The four peace prize Nobel laureates of South Africa (Albert Lutuli, Desmond Tutu, Nelson Mandela and Frederik de Klerk). Is the dignity of the statues undermined by the giant red coke man celebrating in the background or is the hilarity of the giant red coke man restricted by the serious guys in the foreground? This is probably one of those questions that humankind will never be able to answer.

One of the only clear pictures I snapped of Table Mountain. Also, a nice scene of the waterfront. Fortunately, there is a real table in the picture so the table-ness of the mountain can really be judged. In my opinion, they nailed it.

The back/side of table mountain from Camp's Bay beach. Really nice beach but the water was frigid so I only dipped half a big toe. I would bet the surfer's love it down there without any of the pesky swimmers to look out for.

The main drag of Simon's Town which is on the other side of the Cape Peninsula from Cape Town. If you consider the entire Cape Peninsula to be a miniature representation of the United States, then Cape Town is like a NorCal beach city and Simon's Town is like a quaint New England coastal town. That is what I see in my mind anyway because I have not been to either of those places in the United States.

WHS Quest: Cape Floral Region

People ask me all the time, "why don't you write more about flowers". I am kidding of course because no one has ever asked anyone that question. Nevertheless, this post is about exactly that subject. The next World Heritage Site on the list was the Cape Floristic Region. This was a tough one to visit because it is not really one small place but a very large area which features a giant classification of things (Cape Floral Kingdom). This means that there is not a sign to easily verify my witnessing the Cape Floral Region/Kingdom which I am sure most of you are pretty upset about. The following picture is the only thing I know for certain is a member of the Cape Floral Kingdom. That there is a King Protea which is pretty massive as far as flowers go. It is so very massive and intimidating that it is the name of the South African National Cricket team. But enough cricket, back to the botany!

I should tell you some pretty interesting facts to get you up to speed on why this is considered World Heritage material. Well, Wikipedia can give you interesting facts about just the fynbos which is a part of the entire Cape Floral Kingdom:

Of the world's six floral kingdoms, this is the smallest and richest per area unit. Contrast it in size with the Holarctic kingdom, which incorporates the whole of the northern hemisphere apart from the tropical regions. The diversity of fynbos plants is extremely high, with over 9000 species of plants occurring in the area, around 6200 of which are endemic, i.e. they do not grow anywhere else in the world. This level of variety is comparable to tropical rainforests or large islands and is unique in a relatively dry continental area. Of the Ericas, 600 occur in the fynbos kingdom, while only 26 are found in the rest of the world. This is in an area of 46,000 km² - by comparison, the Netherlands, with an area of 33,000 km², has 1400 species, none of them endemic. Table Mountain in Cape Town supports 2200 species, more than the entire United Kingdom. Thus, although the Fynbos comprises only 6% of the area of southern Africa, it has half the species on the subcontinent – and in fact has almost 1 in 5 of all plant species in Africa.

This picture is a good representation of the fynbos (Afrikans - fine bush). The point is that from afar, it is very underwhelming and it all seems like scrub brush. But in reality, when you get a closer look, a lot of it still is pretty unimpressive but sometimes there are some really cool looking things to look at so drink it in.

I am sorry that I don't know what most of any of these plants are and cannot even say if these are unique to the Cape Floral Kingdom or not. My plant knowledge is pretty sparse and this post has made me realize that I quickly run out of things to say about them. That shouldn't stop any of you though, I encourage you all to go look at some interesting plants and then learn about them. Then if you want you can make a blog post about it and show me how you are supposed to talk about floral kingdoms.

I wouldn't say that the Cape Floral Kingdom is the most interesting part of South Africa but it makes the top 20 I'd say. In any case, it was a pleasure to stop and smell the fynbos for a while.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Cape Hope of Good Point

About halfway through the vacation, we rented a car which made it much easier for us to do some traveling outside of Cape Town. Our mission for the day was to go to the end of the Cape Peninsula and inspect. The area is a National Park and is well kept and even offers a 2-3 day trail that basically goes around the whole peninsula. There wasn't time for the hike but we managed to see many of the popular spots.

Authentic Cape Point sign. Note that this is not the southernmost point of Africa. That is located on Cape Agulhas but Cape Point has historical significance so it is still has bragging rights as far as Capes go.

The lighthouse at Cape Point. It has been continually failing the Flying Dutchman for centuries and in doing so dooming generations of sailors. I bet this is a cautionary tale in lighthouse keeper school but a shred of respect needs to be given for its consistency.

The Dias Cross. I lifted this straight from Wikipedia:

The Portuguese government erected two navigational beacons, Dias Cross and Da Gama Cross, to commemorate Vasco da Gama and Bartolomeu Dias as explorers who as mentioned were the first explorers to reach the cape. When lined up, the crosses point to Whittle Rock (34°14.8′S 18°33.6′E / 34.2467°S 18.56°E / -34.2467; 18.56), a large, permanently submerged shipping hazard in False Bay. Two other beacons in Simonstown provide the intersection.

My buried treasure sense is tingling furiously so there is almost certainly buried treasure at Whittle Rock. I am going to go back and find it Goonies style.

Sister heading back to NYC. It's funny because she can't actually walk back because there is an ocean separating Africa from North America. I think there are also other reasons why she can't walk back but it's mostly because of the ocean.

There is a lighthouse keep far off on that little sliver of land. The path out there was closed for some reason but from this distance it looks like a lonely, miserable and treacherous place to live but who knows, there might be a pinball machine inside.

The ostriches were not alarmed by the car sneaking up on them. That whole head in the sand thing is grade-A baloney. It's true that they are silly looking animals though. I think we all need to agree on shifting some of the mockery off the platypus and put it on the ostrich.

Cape of Good Hope which is very close to Cape Point. As the sign says, the area has the distinction of being the "most south-westerly part of the African continent". I think things are starting to get out of control handing out awards like that. Reel it in, direction awards.

We played the game where we were being Portuguese explorers who just landed ashore. I think in general the best way to do that is to have a stern look on your face because exploring is important business and scurvy hurts.

We went hiking to the beach. It was an overcast and blustery day which for some reason seemed appropriate to explore the area. I think the place originally being called the "Cape of Storms" has something to do with this. Sidenote: The name was changed to "Cape of Good Hope" because the other name was too depressing and scary-- now that is some clever re-branding.

*Bonus Turtle Picture* Almost flattened him driving out but was able to stop in time. It was also important that I inspect it as well and take several pictures because I like turtles.

Biking Under the Influence

An hour subway ride away from Cape Town is Stellenbosch, one of the most famous regions for wine in South Africa. We did a bike tour through the area appropriately called "Bikes n' Wine". It was a nice little excursion that included just the right amount of riding (~10Km) and drinking (2 wineries and 1 brandy distillery). The day was a total success; there was plenty of delicious wine, the guide was knowledgeable and friendly, and the weather was perfectly comfortable.

The area was not spectacular but offered a pleasant atmosphere. We decided on the easiest tour which turned out to be an excellent idea because we had been pretty active up to this point (see Lion's Head and Table Mountain Hikes). It was much nicer to focus on the wining than the biking anyhow.

It was imperative that I took a serious picture on this little wooden suspension bridge. I think you all understand why. Also the guide recommended we take pictures of us biking so it didn't seem like we were getting sweaty from drinking wine. I'm not biking but that is definitely a bicycle helmet in my hand there so that counts.

I have now forgotten almost every thing about this mountain chain. I do remember that the outline of the ridge sort of looks like a man (Simon van der Stel?) lying down on his back. To the left is his head and then he's got a pot belly and then was a lot clearer when I was there.

My favorite part of the ride took us right next to a vineyard. I was a little surprised because this was South Africa, the land of security fences, and there was nothing stopping me from hording all the grapes I could manage. Grape thieving must not be a very lucrative criminal enterprise.

So much fuss over these little guys. The grapes were very sweet which means they were close to harvest time. Soon enough those sugars will be transformed into alcohol by fermentation. I could be a winemaker!

The first and best tasting at Spier. The winery was enormous and offered around 12 varietals. I don't remember what this wine was but my favorite was the Pinotage which is a South African specialty.

One of the wineries had a cheetah sanctuary which was a pleasant surprise. The urge to rub the cheetah's tummy was pretty strong at this point. I resisted because I know that's how cheetahs' draw in most of their prey.

We couldn't help but let our blue blood ancestry come out while brandy tasting. It was a sumptuous way to end the tour.