Real Neat Blog Award


Petrel41 from the wonderful “Dear Kitty. Some blog” has kindly nominated “robboworldtraveller” for the Real Neat Blog Award. I encourage you to visit her Dear Kitty blog for very interesting posts on politics, science, social justice and much more.  Thank you so much Petrel41, I have very much enjoyed your site and it was so nice to receive this nomination.

The ‘rules’ of the Real Neat Blog Award are: (feel free not to act upon them if you don’t have time; or don’t accept awards; etc.):

1. Put the award logo on your blog

2. Answer 6 questions asked by the person who nominated you.

3. Thank the people who nominated you, linking to their blogs.

4. Nominate any number of bloggers you like, linking to their blogs.

5. Let them know you nominated them (by commenting on their blog etc.)

Petrel’s six questions are:

  1. How do you advertise your blog to others?

I don’t. I love telling travel stories and I’m really surprised that my site has received the following it has. I follow other blogs that I’m interested in or that I feel I can learn from in terms of style and I have found some of those I follow will in turn follow my site but I don’t seek to gain followers, just happy to tell my story to anyone keen to listen.

  1. How long do you spend blogging per week?

About 2 hours at most. I am writing a book and tend to post blogs on stories that don’t fit into my book. I’m not looking to publish anything, just writing because I find it enjoyable so maybe I will end up blogging all my stories.

  1. How many posts do you post per week, on average?

Usually only one.

  1. Which of your posts is your favorite so far?

Probably An African Morning. That has seemed to have inspired the most comments and likes. I didn’t like it when I first posted it but then I don’t like any of my writing at first. It takes a while for me to enjoy my own work.

  1. Why did you choose to create the blog you did?

I started blogging just over three months ago because I wanted to understand how blogs work and also share some of my adventures. I plan to keep blogging until it becomes a chore.

  1. Are pictures or words more important to you? Or are they equally important?

Words, only words.

My questions for my nominees are the same as Petrel’s.

My nominees are a for some travel writers who I think are really talented. They take care not just to document but to take you with them. If you enjoy travel writing I encourage you to check them out:

  1. Ryan, No filter necessary
  2. Fresh Brew
  3. Nikki: writer, kind of
  4. Searching for Elsewhere
  5. Traveholics
  6. The Travelling Diary of a Dippy-Doppy Girl

Pub Crawl?

“Pull the nose up a little Robbo.”

“A little more, that’s it. A little more. Pull the nose up mate….”

I felt the controls move in my hand as the pilot took over control of our light aircraft and touched us down safely at our first outback pub. I have never flown a plane before and it felt a little bizarre to be trying to land a plane now under the watchful eye of our pilot and my white knuckled mates in the cabin behind me.

We circled the pub a couple of times signalling to the publican to leave his only two customers and bring the ute to the airstrip. Some boys had arrived, on an outback pub crawl… by plane.

To keep his licence, Sam our pilot needs to keep his flying hours up which can be an expensive proposition. We struck a deal whereby we pay for fuel, food and accommodation; he takes care of the rest. A cheap way for three of my closest mates and I to fly around outback Australia for five days stopping at some of the country’s most iconic bush pubs. Sam closely guides our take-offs and landings and then throws us the controls.

The redness of the earth below is harsh and undulating and broken by the carvings of long dried waterways. The dirt tracks scouring the sparse scrub below inspired a renewed realisation of the remoteness of some of our destinations. Occasionally the dust from a road train hangs in the air showing us the direction of dirt roads in the distance.

We skirted metres above Lake Eyre racing Emus across the white pan, Galahs guiding our wingtip. We played golf across three state borders at Cameron’s Corner. We circled the amphitheatre of Wilpena Pound in the Flinders Ranges and walked around the Dig Tree in the footsteps of famous explorers Burke and Wills.

We ate kangaroo burgers and quandongs and bush tomato chilli jam. Sitting around a fire at night beneath a black sky shattered into a million stars. We slept underground in reconverted opal mines in White Cliffs, in repurposed shipping containers in Parachilna and in old drover’s quarters at William Creek.

We graced the tiles of pubs like the Birdsville, the Mount Hope and the Prarie. Grand old pubs, with history on the walls. Pubs where you land your plane on the dirt road a couple of hundred metres from the front bar, where the old cockeys pull up a stool next to you to tell you stories of the land. Pubs where the Akubra hat of each local bloke who has passed on is nailed to the roof.

And as this venture was officially a pub crawl we felt obliged to drink beer in between….. just to wet the whistle….. flying in the outback can be a thirsty proposition…. you understand.

The Cave

The movement of the water around me echoes the catacomb walls as my panicky hands grapple for the errant regulator caught on top of my tank. I duck below the water trying to loosen the hose but it remains caught. I resurface and call out to the others to wait but they have all started their descent and are already below the water. The cave darkens as I reach for my secondary regulator and deflate my BCD. The last of the torch light disappears under a ledge below me. I am now descending in complete darkness.

My fins hit the rocks on the cave floor as my eyes try to adjust to the irrational darkness. I can’t see the opening, I can’t see anything. I dare not attempt to follow. Even if I could feel my way to the entrance of the cave chamber, without a torch I’d most certainly get lost in the tunnels leading to the outside ocean. I sit there for a minute or two before resurfacing. Alone, floating in the darkness of the cave.

Minutes ago I bobbed in this spot. Rising and falling with the swell, watching the torch lights attach themselves to stalactites as divers scan the inside of the dome. In this pocket of air we were free to talk, to explore, to marvel at the water mirroring blue tinsel across the rocky cupola and casting its ripple of shadows.

I had no hesitation when one of the divers asked to lend my torch. Brad, my kiwi dive buddy left his torch on the boat by mistake and was keen to inspect a coconut crab scaling the rocky wall more closely. Obviously caught in the excitement he failed to bring it back. A point I could have lived with if my regulator hose had not become tangled.

They would be almost out of the tunnel by now; emerging from the mouth of the rocky cavern that swallowed them half an hour before. They would be passing schools of squirrel fish and sweeper fish, maybe even occasioning a banded sea snake. Between equalisations they would be hearing the sweet song of the Humpback whales, their eyes coin-like in wonder.

The tide fills and drops the level in the cave as I sit there in the water alone in the darkness. Entombed. I pull the regulator from my mouth. I need to save my air for when I finally get out of here. The sound of my heightened breathing is disconcerting as it amplifies off the blackened walls.

I wonder how often a group dives this cave? How long could I be trapped here?Hopefully the excitement of the dive does not overpower the Dive Master’s sensibilities that the boat is returning one short. Perhaps Brad will remember his buddy when he finds he has two torches on the boat.

Until someone returns I will wait here in the darkness. Waiting on a light to appear from somewhere below. Waiting and spinning sinister speculations on my fate.

The search for the Pangolin

Today is World Pangolin day and so I thought I would share with you a little bit about my search for this amazing little creature.

Pangolin are the world’s most illegally traded animal. The Asian market uses the scales for jewellery and medicines (most likely for impotence) and drain foetal blood for an elixir to reduce blood pressure. This wonderfully funny looking creature is now critically endangered.

The Pangolin is the only mammal covered in scales (made from the same material found in a rhino’s horn), it can live on the ground or in trees, it eats up to 70 million insects a year and its tongue can be longer than its body. In 2012 Sir David Attenborough chose the Pangolin as one of his ten favourite species he would save from extinction.

I first became intrigued about Pangolin when I was asking a Zimbabwean local about black magic.  He told me a story of a worker at a cotton mill near Harare in Zimbabwe who had found a Pangolin in the bush. The worker didn’t know what the bizarre creature was; describing it as a lizard that walked on its hind legs that had fish like scales. So he killed it.

African tribal beliefs are that the Pangolin is a mythical creature. This belief may partly lie in the fact that Pangolins are attracted to eat shiny objects and as such, years ago, when you killed a pangolin and cut open its stomach it sometimes contained diamonds.

The worker in this story showed the Pangolin to his co-workers who explained what it was and that it was very bad luck to kill a Pangolin because it held magical powers. Because the Pangolin was already dead the workers ate the animal. That day the cotton mill they were working at stopped. Without warning and without explanation.

The German owners of the mill called for their technicians to source the problem but no problem could be found. They engaged electricians from Harare who also could find no problem with the equipment. They had no choice but to call on their German headquarters to fly down experts in the machinery mechanics but they too could find no trace of a problem with the mill. It was a mystery that the mill could be in perfect working order but simply would not turn on.

Eventually word got round the crew of the worker who killed the Pangolin. Some of the men went to the site manager and explained that the killing of the Pangolin had caused the machinery to stop working. The German managers at first dismissed this information but as the days grew to weeks they became increasingly desperate for a solution.

The workers finally convinced them to call in the local tribal chief who suggested if the bosses promise not to punish the worker for his mistake in killing the pangolin, and for a moderate fee of course, he would be able to fix the situation. The German managers reluctantly agreed to payment on result and the chief called in the local witch doctor.

The witch doctor performed a ritual and when he was finished the chief sent the managers back to the mill. The machinery began to work immediately.

 

I have been searching for a Pangolin in the wild for over a decade throughout Africa and Asia since hearing that story and last year I got my best chance yet to finally see one.

My friends and I were staying at Erindi Reserve in Namibia. It was my first time back in Africa since I finished working as an overland tour guide many years ago. The first few days we had been on morning and evening game drives and by night we braii over a fire twenty metres from a waterhole where we were visited by Hippo, Crocodile, Oryx, Springbok, Impala, Blue Wildebeest, Red Hardtebeest, Elephant, Kudu, Giraffe and Zebra. Not bad viewing over our boerewors.

However this day we were to join our guide PJ to monitor a male Pangolin on the other side of the Reserve. We started out through the savannah of Erindi following a weak signal from the tagged Pangolin’s transmitter. PJ uses the transmitters to gather information about the Pangolin to help ensure their survival in the wild.

Early into the drive we encountered an Aardwolf with her cub. Aardwolves are shy nocturnal insectivorous mammals. It is extremely rare to see one at all, especially in the middle of the morning. Two Aardwolf cubs peek from the hole in their midden and curiously glance at us before darting away and returning. We unfortunately must interrupt this beautiful moment, we have a more pressing engagement with the Pangolin.

We continue through the scrub when we spot a Lion pride of nine. PJ identifies this pride as one led by Etosha, a strong and aggressive matriarch. Always a blessing, we must give appropriate time to appreciate the majesty of this animal. As we sat transfixed to the scene metres in front of us, two new males approach the pride.

PJ turns to me with an excited look.

“Takeover?” I ask. He nods back with a grin. This was truly a rare experience and one that sent thrills through our group. Traditionally the approaching males will kill all the cubs, bringing the lionesses in oestrus so they can start to build their own pride.

We watched on for hours as the lions tactically positioned themselves and attacked. However, after an aggressive and violent start, Etosha was too powerful and the males submitted, leaving her pride in tact. We still had a long way to go and had burned valuable Pangolin time. A detour that no one regretted.

One more stop to fearfully admire a three metre Black Mamba that crossed the path of the vehicle. I am told if a Black mamba bites you it is best to find a shady tree and lie down beneath it… dead bodies don’t smell as much in the shade. We watched on and followed slowly alongside the snake that seemed unphased by our presence. The Pangolin signal was strong, we weren’t far, so we said goodbye to the terrifying Mamba, all hoping we would never see one this close again.

Eventually we made it to where the transmitter was sending its signal but it appeared the Pangolin had already gone underground. We found fresh spoor as we walked around an Aardvark hole. We could smell the Pangolin, on musk, deep in the hole but he wasn’t coming out to meet us this day.

On the way home we found another pride of five lions. This one PJ said was led by Shadow. A 230kg male who terrifyingly got his name from his habit of following people home. We again sat transfixed to the pride before the declining sun cast a caramel hue across the savannah and beckoned us home. Diligently watching we didn’t have Shadow on our tail.

We eventually got back to our camp after an exciting day in the Reserve. Once again the Pangolin had eluded me.

Bizarrely, I kind of like that though. I love that nature isn’t on demand. Many years I have spent roaming the wild, looking for the Pangolin. Each trek leading me through breathtaking scenery and chance encounters with wildlife. It occurs to me, the experiences I have had in search of the Pangolin have contained some of the most deeply enriching and exciting moments.

I hope I see a Pangolin one day. Regardless of whether I am lucky enough to spot one though, given my encounters on the way, searching for this magical creature may bring some of the most rewarding times of my life.

 

Prey

I crawled up the sand away from the other divers desperately clutching at my chest. My breaths shallow, useless, unable to satisfy my burning lungs. I rolled to my back, sand and saliva mixing grainy on my face. Trying desperately to fill my tightened lungs with air I gasp and swallow as I wrestle my wetsuit to my waist.  I whispered to myself, ‘Moses is right; this may be all in your head.’

 

Moses and I rolled off the bow at Silk Cayes, three pronged sling spears in our hand. We signalled our descent and ducked below the white caps to the calmness of a slow ocean current. Normally an advocate of taking only memories and leaving only bubbles, today we were diving with a purpose. There was a predator on the loose. One that needed to be eradicated.

Lionfish are introduced in the Caribbean. According to local legend a resort’s fish tank broke so they threw the Lionfish into the ocean. From there, having no predators, the Lionfish have multiplied in numbers and are eating all the reef fish on the Belizean coral reef. They can consume thirty juvenile fish in a minute and can reduce certain species of fish by up to 80% in an area within a five day period. Against all other instincts, today I am a hunter.

The coral in the clear warm waters off Belize inspires an inner tranquillity. Angelfish and Parrotfish brighten the scene, Jackfish school in a twisting cloud that bends and reforms as we pass and a lazy Grouper watches on as we scour the gradient of the reef.

Lurking in the coral recesses, the Lionfish hang in suspended animation, rocking gently on the ebb and flow. Their beautifully striped red, cream and black colouration and elaborate fins a warning to their protruding venomous spines.

The Lionfish venom won’t kill a human, but it will make you wish you were dead. I keep a respectful distance as I line my shot.

At first I wasn’t very accurate and managed to “scare” more than I speared. But as we traversed the lower realms of the reef I got the hang of it and soon was dragging a couple of dozen in the bucket behind me.

I looked across to a Black Tipped Reef Shark trailing to my right. Black Tipped Reef Sharks are generally not aggressive. They are beautiful, timid and social. Since making my way to Belize to dive the Blue Hole I had many wonderful up close encounters with these curious sharks.

At six foot and over a hundred kilograms I was genuinely excited to see this shark moving in and out of my periphery. Black Tipped Reef Sharks are quite harmless…. except when you are dragging a bucket of dead fish behind you and then they are considered extremely dangerous.

As this dawns on me, I look behind me. Another shark emerged and another and above another. Four sharks, excited by the smell of the blood of the fish in the water. Casing us.

One by one, they came into sight and then disappeared into the blue. No longer objects to be marvelled at. They were now vicious and energetic hunters, their eyes beady and foreboding, focussing on Moses and I. The hunters had become the prey.

I tap the fins of Moses ahead, signal that something is wrong and raise my hand flat, sideways and vertical against my forehead. He points at his eyes and signals we move ahead. The sinister outline of their pointed snout and blackened dorsal prowling across our perimeter, skirting the margins then darting away.

We flee across the base of the reef, escaping the predation of a pack of menacing sharks. Through the watery depths, my heart racing, fins kicking double time. Sharks following frighteningly close.

I look again to my air supply. As this was my first spear fishing experience, I had failed to fully appreciate how quickly you can use the air in your tank as you exert yourself at depth.

I signalled to Moses again that something was wrong. This time signalling that I only had 25 bar left in my tank. I cursed myself for my stupidity. An advanced diver I knew better than to get myself in this situation. I looked up towards the surface as a figure casts an alarming shadow. 25 bar wasn’t enough to get me to the surface with an appropriate safety stop.

We signal to each other to head towards the surface and to stop at 5 metres. If we don’t wait there for 5 minutes we put ourself at great risk of decompression sickness.

Suspended in the blue we float, bubbles trailing to the surface. The sharks return, circling below us. I count five now. My tank is nearly exhausted, the sound of our strained breathing and my heartbeat in my ears the only sound.

As my tank empties I grab Moses’ emergency buddy regulator and we both pull the remaining air from the one tank for the rest of our safety stop, silently keeping a watching eye for the sharks. It was getting quite tough to pull the air through the regulator from Moses’ tank into my lungs when Moses signalled it was time to surface. Moses looks at his watch, gives me the OK and I start to ascend.

As we fin to the surface I look around, I cant see the sharks. There is only one thing worse than seeing a pack of frenzied sharks in your midst and that is not seeing them. Then Moses’ watch starts sounding. This was his dive watch telling him it was not safe to surface yet. We waited another minute but his dive watch was still going crazy. Moses signals for me to surface. I pause. We can’t ascend too quickly after diving so deep but there was no choice, we had no more air. I look down, still can’t see the sharks.

I sat on the back of the boat as we made our way to the nearest island. My chest tight, unable to take a full breath, lungs felt like they were burning. Moses sits next to me explaining he thinks his watch is broken, “we are ok, no problem, we are safe up.” I wasn’t so sure. “Its no problem Robbo, this…” he points at my labouring chest, ” this in your head.”

 

I lay on the beach, half in the water. The sun warming my tanned skin. The fire down the beach wafting grilling Lionfish and the flow of the wave gently rising to my navel. The clouds above stretch across the blue, interrupted by a palm fidgeting and rearranging its shadow. I roll my eyes closed, concentrating only on my breathing. Deep, slow, I breathed.

Eventually I return to the group, a plate of Lionfish awaiting me. The crew and some local islanders enjoying the merits of our excursion in a postcard perfect scene. I pull up a patch of driftwood near Moses. “You ok Robbo?” he enquires.

“I think so Moses, I just had to give myself a good talking to. I’m alright now”

“We will go down again then after lunch?” He queries, picking at the remains of his fish

“Absolutely mate, I wouldn’t miss it.”

The Pofadder

We start on our afternoon walking safari through the Okavango Delta, the sun still hanging high in the sky. A light breeze occasions our sweaty skin providing a momentary reprieve to the oppressive heat. The dry open fields of bush and savannah grassland framed by fingers of delta water carving through the dryness.

Ahead of us an unsuspecting Pofadder basks in the sun, camouflaging itself in the dryness of the grass. Bitis arietans, is a particularly aggressive biter and is answerable for more fatalities than any other snake in Africa. Preferring to bite rather than avoid confrontation it releases a cytotoxin venom, which in the remoteness of the Delta is likely to result in a best case scenario of the victim losing the limb this viper strikes.

We head out along a thin trail carved by animals through the savannah grass. Master, a member of the local Bayei Tribe and expert tracker in the Delta helping me lead the group. He has been training me to track animals through the bush, to decipher the subtle notes of broken twigs and tracks. I recall my many failed attempts when I started this training. At each track in the dirt he would point.

“Wildebeest?” I would look at him like a student eager to please his teacher

“No Robbo”

Hartebeast?”

“No”

A sounder of warthogs run by, tails in the air as a guide to the scurrying suckers following an impatient mum. The babble of the Delta waterways close by, keeping inconsistent time, occasioned by a stirring bush. The whisper of the breeze through the Mopani trees only interrupted by the coos of tourists spotting something big in the distance.

Our group stops momentarily to observe a cohort of zebra grazing across the expanse. No fences, no vehicles, in a line we pause to appreciate the wildness of it all before starting out again. We try to keep our footfall light on the dusty track, eyes keenly scanning the scene for hints of wild in the dry savannah.

The Pofadder ahead recoils, ready to strike.

Overhead the shrill and ominous cries of an African Fish Eagle, the sound of the African wild, signals the danger unfolding. The grass reaches up, slowing our steps, pulling us at our legs in an attempt to prevent our path to the wickedness ahead. But a sinister trap had already been laid and we were about to be under attack.

The Pofadder strikes. Silently, swiftly. I saw nothing, heard nothing, only the barking and high pitched braying of the zebra as two long fangs inject a venomous cocktail deep into the fleshy skin. The victim jumps back in a terrifying and futile panic. Kicking out as the Pofadder recoils, resets, pausing as the heavy feet of our group push up the trail.

Again the Pofadder strikes. A new victim now. Master and I turn to see the terror in her eyes as the serpents powerful thrust sends frantic and repeated blows to the ankle of one of my female passengers.

This second attack however was thwarted. The Pofadder’s mouth was still full of frog. Its first victim kicking, sheathing the viper’s fangs. The girl jumps away with a shriek and the Pofadder retreats back into obscurity in the grass.

Our hearts race frantic. We stand there all scanning the ground for further terror before composing ourselves to continue cautiously forward. A close escape. Fortunately for us, not so fortunate was the poor frog.