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.

This is not a path!

My family and I were reminiscing over Christmas lunch when the subject of my emails home from my first overseas trip came up. It was 15 years ago now. Thought it might be fun to share an excerpt from back then. Hope you enjoy. Merry Christmas.

This is not a path!

This was the constant cry from Michael John Robinson, intrepid explorer and mountain biker.  We pick up the story of our hero as he is joined by fellow explorers Dean and Gary, setting out to traverse the Isle of Wight on a bike riding expedition.

Our exploration team set down in the port township of Ryde. The tune on all our lips was the Beatles song “He’s got a ticket to ride, he’s got a ticket to ri-i-ide.” We waved to locals as we sang and cruised out of the town. It was the kind of morning that made it important to acknowledge our fellow man. Off we set for the sunny seaside village of Sandown which was a mere 15 clicks away.

Half way to Sandown however the novelty of the song had well and truly lost its shine.  My bicycle was a heavy framed boneshaker from the seventies with a bony seat, tread-less tyres and gears that enjoyed skipping for no apparent reason.

We made it to a cosy Bed and Breakfast in Sandown owned by a likeable English chap named John Robinson. I asked him if I can call him “Robbo” and he replied “you most certainly cannot”. I told him that’s what I am called and he brushed it off, changing the topic to his garden and how we are not to park our bikes on it because he had won the Sandown Garden Competition three years running.

Let me give you a tip. You don’t have to be Don Burke to win the Sandown Garden Competition. The state of the garden is what first drew us to this B&B because it looked like the cheapest place to stay… in the world.

That evening we had a couple of hours until sunset and we could see some big white cliffs in the distance so we figured we would ride over to them, check out the view and return back before dark. Seemed simple enough.

 We took the coastal path.

 It seems though that the English do not know what a path looks like. I know what a path looks like and it doesn’t look anything like a near non-existent trail, crawling with rabbit burrows and diggings with giant saffron thistles thrown in for laughs. My bike was not built for this kind of off-roading. We pressed on however despite my protests to our exploration team and anybody along the way that would listen that this was not a path.

It was a gruelling ride but we finally made it to the top, the boys checked out the view. I checked out the freshly punctured flat back tyre. We found the puncture, repaired it and turned for home. The sun was now dipping distrustfully below the horizon.

The incident happened about 8pm I guess. There was a slight breeze from the ocean. The moonlight looked to have covered the water and surrounding terrain in tinfoil. Any remnants of the goat track we were picking our way across were now not visible at all. We got to a part of the descent that had troubled me….. ever since I struggled getting up it a few hours before. A hill, so steep I initially confused it as the cliffs we had seen from the B&B. The other two boys paused for a brief moment before giving out a “yahoo” and like lightning they were away, disappearing into the half light.

I slid to a gravely halt, alone, pausing in an extended moment of introspection. The fear beading on my forehead and tracking its way down to the corner of my eye.  In that instant I had what I could only describe as a brain explosion and began pedalling madly down into the abyss yahooing also.

It became apparent to me seconds into the downhill run that I was going way, way, way too fast for my skill level to have any semblance of control. I pump the brakes, but since my tyres were slicks, meant for the main roads and proper paths, this just had the effect of sliding my back tyre out and back in a wobbling fishtail effect.

Keeping my cool, I decided to pedal myself out of trouble. Just then the gears popped from first to last, my pedal caught the lip of a rabbit burrow and it was then that I noticed my bike flipping over my head leaving me cartoon style in mid air.

It is never the fall that hurts, only when you hit the ground, and this was no exception. It was an ungraceful fall. A spectacular fall. A fall that was surely similar to the original fall that spawned the word akimbo.

I rolled, bum over head, feet over navel. Through the thistles. Possibly near the path, who could tell. Finally I came to a halt. I lay there for a minute or two, skin itching from the burr patch I was catapulted into. I looked down at my knees they were bloodied, checked my elbows same result. Rubbed the bruises on my back, legs and shoulder. Spat the dust from my mouth and wiped the claret now trickling down the side of my head.

 I once again muttered that this is not a coastal path only this time adding a few expletives. After five to ten minutes it was clear no one was coming to my aid so I picked myself up, pronounced myself alright and continued down the hill. This time walking next to my bike.

Dean laughed so hard when I reached the bottom that I thought he was going to have a heart attack. Little did we know that this was to be my one and only bingle and my jolly friend Deano was on the brim of three.

That night we decided to have an early one because 70 km of mountainous terrain lay waiting early the next morning. Another brain explosion saw us get to bed at about 4am after checking out the local nightlife for “one quiet drink.”

Up at 7am and after a lovely breakfast made by John Robinson, who still wouldn’t let me call him Robbo, we departed.

Not much more to tell you, we saw a lot of amazing scenery, visited a castle and some abbey ruins and arrived back in London completely exhausted. Long gone are the days of jumping on my BMX off the side of gutters, my bike skills are not what they used to be.

 

In summary:

  • Bike riding around the Isle of Wight – very recommended.
  • The coastal trail up to the cliffs at Sandown – not recommended at all.

P.S. I got a full time job that I’m supposed to start tomorrow but I’m too tired so I think I’ll be a no show and sleep in. It was a very dodgy commission based sales job so I think my time will be better served looking for something else.

 

The Road to Cunca Rami

Brick houses next to concrete houses next to wooden shacks, women bathing and washing clothes in roadside drains or some flowing water source. Water buffalo straddle the road demanding you go around, people sitting seemingly in the middle of nowhere and someone is always “fixing” something roadside.

I pass cars with names. Titanic, ATOYOT, Naughty Kiss, Predator, God Bless. Through fields, some of indistinguishable crop, some flooded, others tiered with rice. Clothes drying on bushes in front of houses, seeds drying on tarps. Children all wave, some try and slap your hand as you pass as if knowing the trepidation with which I was riding my scooter. Every child sings out “”mister mister” as I ride by.

15000 rupiah gains me a coconut a guy in an army uniform (who was not in the army – he was a barber) had to cut down fresh from the tree. It was massive. There must have been a litre of coconut water in there.

Houses disconnected, no running water, no electricity. Pride in home displayed by bamboo picket fences. Patios immaculately swept. Rubbish everywhere else disappearing to only jungle for miles, occasionally a guy is on the side of the road…. that’s it.

I sit here blessed, looking upon the pool with Cunca Rami’s tiered waterfalling adding a natural soundtrack behind giggles of Sanka and Ardus as they sat here with me on a large rock above the water. I had met a Dutch guy who spoke the language and deftly negotiated the price with my two experienced guide chaperones, Sanka and Ardus, 10 year old twin brothers who happened upon me at the start of the trail.

The trail down was harsh on my knee, but stripping down and diving beneath the cool fresh waters, surfacing under the falls provided an indescribable sense of freedom. A Spanish traveller joined me under the falls. His name was Santiago and he was from Catalan. I couldn’t remember much Spanish anymore and found myself in any company repeating my mantra “Estoy apprendiendo Espanole por seis or siete sumanas.” Which I think means “I have been learning Spanish for 6 or 7 weeks.” I haven’t. We share experiences of similar waterfalls, particularly one we had both visited towards the Burmese border out of Chiang Mai. His friend nuded up and lay by the waterside on a rock.

Cunca Rami is 75m high and located almost 50km from Labuanbajo. The hike there takes about 30 minutes from the road where there is no discernable markings to indicate the trail, leaving you to make a couple of passes before deciding, with consensus of other travellers and some locals to incur the forest there. The hike through the mountainous vegetation can be a little tough at times, very humid. The emerald green pool at the bottom though a satisfying reward.

The hike back up takes 45 minutes and there is no reward. Ardus took my daypack for the last leg out. Both boys found it hilarious when I finally succumbed and sat down to rest, only to find when I started again I was 20 metres from the road. Both boys watched me with the cheesiest of grins for that last 20 metres.

Back at my bike I bumped into Santiago and “the nude” again. They invited me to come with them to Sano Nggoang. It is a lot further into remoteness and they are continuing so I woiuld have to find my own way back alone. I decide Ill find some lunch then meet them there. After all, what could go wrong?

About 12 km past the last village I ran out of petrol. My bike lost power coming down an “offroad experience” and seized. Someone didn’t check the petrol and ran out at the most inopportune time. The bike gained power momentarily at the bottom of the hill, just in time to throw me over the handle bars as I fought to slow down and straighten.

Bleeding from the shoulder, knee, feet and hand I picked myself up. It was a long hilly walk back to the last village and just then a dark storm cloud eclipsed the sun. I poured the last of my water over my wounds and scrubbed to clean them .

The locals this far from Labuanbajo spoke no English, and anyone driving past me with space on their bike tickled at my catastrophe. Well, you wanted adventure.

I was left with no choice but to start pushing my bike through the mountainous heat. For hours I pushed. Pushing and bleeding. Bleeding and pushing.

Eventually I met a guy who I gave 50,000Rp for two water bottles of petrol, but mostly for helping me push the last 500 metres to his friend’s roadside stall. For this payment, him and his mates all but hailed me the greatest man alive from their response . I know I paid over but to be fair it was only $5.00.

Back at Labuan Bajo, crimsons, purples, oranges, reds, yellows and blues of all different hues filled the sky and reflected from the rippling waters. Boats returning and setting out added intrigue to beauty. The sounds of competing mosques filled the air. The boys have stopped playing soccer on the foreshore. The bay looking a little like Ha Long. As the water illuminates around the islands in view in one final show before the sun sets, I can honestly say I don’t believe I have seen anything more beautiful. I reach for my Anker from my balcony table, briefly tend to my leg wound and breathe in what a photo could never capture and mere words could never describe.