Sunday, January 25, 2009

Who Thought You Could Die of Hypothermia in Sunny South Africa?

Well it’s been a while since I've posted and since I was in the Drakensberg (almost a year), but a few of you from back home have been asking so here you go:

Before I talk about my tale I think it’s necessary to talk a bit about the Drakensberg since it is not only majestic and a must see, but it is also one of South Africa’s eight World Heritage Sites. I’ll keep it short:

The name Drakensberg is Afrikaans for “Dragon Mountain” and they are the highest mountains in South Africa. The "Berg" as it is often referred to, consists of a high 180km long escarpment, in-cut by deep valleys that run easterly toward the Indian Ocean. In-between these valleys, peaks rising to 3300m are found. To the west of the escarpment lie large rolling mountains inhabited mostly by Bashoto herdsmen who live an almost hunter gatherer lifestyle. The Drakensberg also boasts, collectively 40,000 works of Bushmen art scattered throughout the many caves making it the largest of such work in the world. Basically, GO SEE IT or even better GO HIKE IT!!

So, let’s begin (you might need a coffee): I never thought it was possible to die of hypothermia in South Africa. I suppose learning first hand is the best way to find out and to NEVER FORGET!! It also kind of reminds you that South Africa is REALLY not for sissies. Without a question of doubt, this posting goes out to my fearless, and “much more fit than me” hiking companions – Isabelle, Richard, and Aidan. Thanks guys – I wouldn’t have wanted to almost die of hypothermia with any others!!

As I write about my adventures I slowly start to realize that marked paths aren’t my thing. I always seem to get lost. The good thing I suppose is that I’m never alone when it happens so it can’t really just be me…can it?

The plan for the weekend was fun and simple: head to the Drakensberg area to do some hiking and mountain biking. Drive out late on Friday after work, start hiking early Saturday morning, chill Saturday night, MTB on Sunday and then make the trek back home.

The trip started off “almost” as planned. With leaving after work and trying to escape the office we actually ended up leaving a little bit later than we had hoped, but we still arrived at the Amphitheatre Backpackers Youth Hostel, where we were staying, early enough to have a drink and get a good night’s rest.

The next morning was amazing. Breathtaking scenery and fresh air – a good escape from the daily city commute!! We had a hearty breakfast and spent a couple of minutes debating whether we wanted to take a packed lunch from the hostel or not since it didn’t sound too appetizing. Little did we know that taking the lunch was probably our smartest decision for the day. We put on our light summer hiking clothes, got our lunches, packed our day packs, and headed off in the car to where we had planned to go hiking.

When we got to the park entrance, the guy handed us a paper showing four or five different hikes. We paid him the entrance fee and carried on, while studying the map on the way to the car park we decided to take the one that heads to an area called Neptune’s Pool. The hike was about 8km return and a slight workout, but nothing too hectic. The plan was to just enjoy the day and the scenery to make it back at a decent time to enjoy a few drinks, dinner, and then rest up for a day of biking on Sunday.

Little did we know that the map of the four or five different hikes were the only ones we were allowed to take without having a guide accompany us. Regardless, or more like oblivious, we were on our way. It took us a while to find the path, which I suppose should have been an indication as to how the day was going to turn out.

When the hike first started we were confident that we were on track as the path we were on seemed well traveled. Whenever we were unsure of what direction to turn we found a sign. Most were decrepit and buried in shrubbery, but at least we were able to find them.

The paths are nothing like we have back home in Canada and from what Aidan tells me, in Australia. Back home if there’s a trail it’s well marked and well traveled. Little did we know that that was not the case in SA. However, the day was beautiful and we were enjoying it and each other’s company so, despite the questionable paths that kept forming in front of us, we kept trekking along looking for that conveniently placed sign to let us know we were on the right path.

There was a point where we even ran out of path and ended up at a stream. We stopped and decided to cross it as there was really no other alternative other than to turn back. We took off our shoes and socks and hopped across a few rocks, tread through a bit of stream, dried our feet, rebooted and we on our way again, looking for the next conveniently placed sign to appear just as we’d lost hope and were about to turn back.

Shortly after crossing the stream we decided to stop to enjoy the scenery and our packed lunches. We looked for the perfect lunch spot and rested for about an hour. Not sure how Aidan was so dirty by lunchtime…

It wasn’t too long after lunch when our hike started to take a turn. About 20 minutes of hiking along after lunch we actually ran out of path and encountered nothing but water and steep cliffs with sporadic shrubbery. Richard actually scaled part of the cliff to see if there was an alternate route.

Unfortunately it looked like we could go no further so we turned around and headed back in the direction we came.

We arrived back to a clearing about 30 minutes later. It was around 13:00 and we weren’t quite ready to head back to the car and end our day of hiking in the mountains. We came to a sign that had a few marked paths and decided that the one called Contour Path would be a good one to start on. It wasn’t on our map, but not knowing that we required a guide for the path or even how long the path was, we set off with the thought in our minds, well mine anyways, that we could always turn back if we needed to.

So off we set for the contour path. It was a bit tougher than Neptune’s Pool and me being in the shape I was in struggled through some bits, but was loving every second of it.

After about an hour of some insane paths (ie. non-existent ones) my lack of fitness was starting to kick in and I was struggling, but nonetheless forging ahead.

At the time I’m sure it didn’t seem like I was enjoying myself as I would occasionally stop to blurt out to the fit bunch "are you f***ing kidding me?” But ahead we forged and as it was starting to get late, we also intensified the pace.

We hiked until we had about two hours of daylight left when we started to seriously question where we were and how much further we had to go. We had Richard who was looking at a map we were no longer on and Aidan with his GPS saying “we are here and we need to be there, but I’m not sure what’s in between.”

It was at this very moment when I managed to find cell phone reception at a clearing we reached and I decided to call my friend Liani. Her and her friend Maria had hiked the entire Drakensberg range a few years back and for some reason I recalled it taking them quite some time.

Liani informed me that it took them 9 days to hike the trail we were on with a guide and asked me why I was asking. Right when I told her we were lost, as luck of the day would have it, I lost my cell phone reception leaving Liani in a mode of panic. I didn't really know what to do at that very moment so I wrote an sms saying we were going to find a place to sleep for the night and sent it to her hoping she would get it as we hiked along and got to an area with reception.

We managed to find an area where we scaled down to a river. As much as I wanted to turn back I knew that we wouldn't make it off the mountain before dark and so we decided to forge ahead in hopes that we could find an out. We walked in rapid rivers waste high for a few kilometers, with no time to take socks or shoes off. After about an hour we decided it would probably be best to find a place to settle for the night and found a leaky covered area (I would call it a cave, but it was far from that) to sleep in. We spent the last hour of daylight finding leaves to make it a bit softer and drier and filled up our water bottles with the fresh river water to settle in for the night.

It was a long night with Richard shaking like a leaf, rocks under Aidan's hip and back no matter which way he turned, water dripping on Isabelle and I (Isabelle had it worse), and all of us soaked to the bone from walking in the river. We had half a granola bar and some wine gums for dinner and saved our apples for breakfast.

Aidan and I started discussing the various noises we were hearing which did not make me feel all warm and fuzzy inside, but we soon realized it was Richard's snoring so I suppose some of us got some sleep!! We woke at the first sign of daylight, filled up the water bottles, had our apple, put on our soggy socks and shoes, and started heading down the river hoping there was a clearing and no waterfall at the end.

It was a bit stressful and nerve-wrecking with Richard's knees giving way and the intensity of the rapids we were walking through and the cliffs to each side. After what seemed like forever (I think it was about 5km in the rapids) we were led into a clearing and back onto a path that would lead us back to the start of our outing. Good thing too because they were about 30 minutes from sending out a search party. As soon as we reached the opening the sun came out and it ended up being another amazing day!!

Needless to say we were lucky!! When we got back we found out that a lot of people actually get lost in the Drakensberg and some never even make it out. I definitely have to give thanks to Liani and Maria for all the concern and efforts to find out where we were to send help our way and sorry for the worry I put you guys through.

This is a map of the route we ended up completing when all was said and done. It’s a bit hard to see, but it’s the path in red that Aidan downloaded from his GPS. At the bottom of the picture, where it goes from grey to green is where we managed to scale down the side of the mountain and spent the night in our cave before hiking out along (and by along I mean through) the river.

Looking back it was one of the most memorable and best weekends I’ve had in SA. Being with Aidan, Richard, and Isabelle made all the difference. Everyone always stayed in good spirits and just enjoyed every minute of it, joking around and enjoying the scenery. What an amazing bunch of friends. THANKS GUYS!!

As I mentioned earlier, once we reached an opening, with no more rivers to walk through and no more cliffs on each side the worry disappeared, the clouds cleared, the sun came out and the scenery was just as stunning as the minute we arrived. I’ve included pictures of some of what we passed along the way.

This last one could be debated as being scenery or not, but I thought I would end this tale with the state of Aidan’s pants by the end of it all. I know we went through a lot and roughed it a bit, traveling through the rivers, sleeping on leaves on the ground, but again, I’m not so sure how Aidan got so dirty…

The End!!

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Captivating Cape Town

Well there are few words I can muster to describe the beauty Cape Town possess so best I just leave it up to pictures. My friend Liani and I went there at the beginning of April to see a Louis Carver concert. She's a South African singer and is absolutely amazing!!

It was a short trip, but a fantastic one. Liani, this one's for you.

Friday, September 19, 2008

My First 100 Billion Dollars

It was pretty neat when I first moved to SA and started making a six-figure salary (gotta love that exchange rate - hahahaha) when little did I know I would soon be a billionaire!! I have to thank my good friend "Princess Shormila" for just giving me the 100 Billion Dollar Bill.

Princess Shorms, this one if for you. I miss you buddy!! (That's my friend Steve in the background there - he's just trying to steal some of the lime light I think). It's kind of funny because we both worked in the same office in Canada, but didn't really become friends until we both moved to our South Africa office. Small world and I really don't know what I would have done in SA if she hadn't been around.

The tiara actually says Drama Queen, which is probably more suited for Shormila than princess, but I suppose everyone deserves their day - hahahaha!!

As neat as it is, the 100 Billion Dollars is actually quite a sad situation. It's from Zimbabwe and if you could see the small print on the bill it says: ONE HUNDRED BILLION DOLLARS on or before 31st December 2008. Issue date 1st July 2008.

There are no water marks or anything on the bills so it's fairly easy to forge (at least that's the word on the street). Apparently, you can't even get the money from the Zimbabwean banks as they don't have any so the forge ability isn't so bad since the black market is one of the few places you can actually get money from.

If you go to the latest foreign exchange sites, you get the following Notice: The Zimbabwe government redenominated the ZWD on August 1, 2008 at a rate of 10,000,000,000 old ZWD to 1 new ZWD. No new currency code has been issued, but the old ZWD currency remains legal tender until December 31, 2008.

Regardless, to get a real feel for the situation, the 100 Billion Dollars today is worth 10.37cents Canadian, 9.93 cents American, or 78.92cents in South African Rand.

This is an article I found on the internet. It's dated June 15, 2008, and needless to say, the situation has gotten worse since. (I'm not sure how internet plagerism works, but hopefully this information is sufficient: Copied on September 19,2008).

Images like this seen on the left are being beamed across the world showing how bad the situation in Zimbabwe is. The local currency in Zimbabwe has become virtually worthless. The central bank in Zimbabwe continues to print more money and thus continuing to fuel inflation. It got to a stage where they deleted three zeros from the currency but that does not seem to have helped as the zeros continue to pile up. It is said that one US dollar will get you one billion Zimbabwe dollars. Now if you look at the image, there are a lot of $200 000 Zimbabwe dollar notes. In real terms, that one $200 000 note is only worth $0.0002 US dollars! No wonder it is being thrown in the bin.

Zimbabwe is said to have the highest inflation in the world. Most statisticians and economists have stopped trying to calculate the rate of inflation in Zimbabwe as it continues to spiral out of control. Zimbabweans are calling for a change and they hope to have one come the presidential runoff election on June 27. Many think that a change in government could help revive the Zimbabwe economy. A strong Zimbabwe economy can only be beneficial for the South Africa economy.

The question on many people’s minds is; if there is a change of government in Zimbabwe, how long would it take to turn around the Zimbabwe economy? It certainly would not happen overnight but it would not take rocket science to restore the Zimbabwe economy. Agriculture was one of Zimbabwe’s main drivers and if the agricultural sector in the country could be restored then Zimbabwe will already be on track for a turn around. A quick fix way to stop the spiralling inflation would be to ‘dollarise’ the economy. Instead of charging products and services in Zimbabwe dollars, everything will now be priced in US dollars. This would help stabilise the inflation and usher in a new local currency for Zimbabwe. There is no doubting that Zimbabwe would need assistance from the international community and there are many donors ready to help Zimbabwe get back on track.

Monday, August 18, 2008

The “Real” South Africa

It’s not to say that the South Africa you see on my blog, or the South Africa that I write about, is not the “real” South Africa, but I know for a fact that the expat version of the story and experience is much different from those that actual live here and were brought up here. Those that have seen the changes and transformations over the years, that in many ways are good, but in many ways leading South Africa in a bit of a downward spiral.

I wish I had more insight into it, but I learn as I go and I think it’s only fair to direct readers to a blog that shows and tells more of the “real” South Africa. My good friend Liani travels around SA by pedal bike or hiking in a movement that her and her friend Maria started called Go4Good.

Unfortunately some people that were helping them out stole their idea and everything of the past few years they have put together. The new website that stole their ideas and all the stories and what have you called themselves 4good and although Liani and Maria are not doing it first hand, they have an amazing attitude towards it regardless because in their minds the website is doing what it was intended it to do: To spread good and to help people help each other.

Anyway, I digress a bit. They have since persevered and found a new direction to do the same thing and spread more good and help people become aware of the issues that this country faces. I urge all readers of this blog to go see Liani’s blog at It’s a fantastic blog and has a little something for those passing by wishing to learn more about South Africa and for all the locals that want to make a difference.

To give you a bit of flavour and to follow in my plagiarising ways, here’s a taste of what it’s about:

“We have travelled a total of 13 515kms around South Africa, in 1 year and 7 months. We have done so on bicycles, accompanied by a dog in a basket in front. We have also hiked the Drakensberg, Magaliesberg, Transkei Coastline, and canoed the Orange River. We left, in search of enlightenment, change and purpose, and found so much more. We continue along our journey, hoping to share what we have learnt.”

It's South Africa Unplugged as she likes to say!!

Liani, this one’s for you!!

Maimed by a Cheetah

OK – so they don’t lie when they say South Africa is NOT for sissies!! We headed out to the Cheetah Park for the day. The tour was all good and dandy until the end of the day when you can “pay extra” to pet the cheetahs and boy did I get my “extra” for my pay as when I went to pet the cheetah, it decided to pet me instead!!

Can you believe it?

You really shouldn’t. I just felt that all of you back home were used to the near-death experiences as opposed to the classic me injuring myself that I didn’t have the heart to tell you that I actually just minorly injured myself. For all those that do not know me, injuries are an important part of my life. In fact they make me who I am today – a 30 year old walking, arthritic, tendonitised, ligament torn mess. I suppose you could say I am a 30 year old with the body of a 60 year old, but it’s all good though because I feel 16!!

I am not sure if you can relate at all, but I manage to injure myself more getting onto and off of my bike or getting it into or out of my car than I do actually riding my blasted bike. I actually maimed my arm (ok scraped) on the pedal crank while loading my bike into the car. I like to tell people that I was attacked by a cheetah though. I mean really, how often do you get a wound that would actually let you pull off a story like that?

Vic, this one’s for you – thanks for laughing at me. It was actually his suggestion that I go into a long detailed story about getting mauled by the cheetah, but that’s all I could manage. Didn’t want to give them too bad a wrap as they are really stunning creatures.

Just back to the Cheetah Park for a minute though. It truly is a place worth visiting if you’re in the area. ( Their mission statement that I took from the website is, “To ensure the long term survival of the wild cheetah and its ecosystems through the implementation of a National Management Plan by means of integrated conservation programs, research and education.” That picture is an actual one I took, but from a safe enough distance. We did get to pet them and they truly are amazing creatures. My favourite in fact – the fastest land animals alive!!

INCLUDING the ones with arthritis and tendonitis I imagine!!

Friday, August 8, 2008

30 Years Old…Seems Cause Enough to Jump Off a Bridge, No?

I’ve completely lost track of order, but that’s ok – an adventure that is for certain an adventure is definitely an adventure to tell.

I only remembered about the bridge and my birthday when I was posting about the many different self-induced, near death experiences I’ve had in SA and for some strange reason, doing the highest commercial bungee jump in the world followed by a helicopter tour of the coast came back into memory. It seems so long ago.

This one goes out to my good friend Julie. Thanks for taking the plunge with me!!

This story actually goes back a few days before my birthday. I suppose going back to New Year’s Eve is the best place to start. My friend Julie had just come back from holidays in Canada and wowza was I glad to see her. Christmas was long and lonely and it was fantastic to see a familiar face and have some good company. Exhausted as she was from her trip she still came out and ventured with me for the rest of the holidays and somehow the weekend after for my birthday as well. We weren’t really sure what to do for New Years, but knew we wanted to stay in the area so we did a quick search and shortly ended up with a packed two days…One of the joys of living close to the Magaliesberg!!

There’s so much to tell, but I’m just going to jump into it, hopefully with few words and lots of pictures. The plan was to head out to the Elephant Sanctuary on the 31st of December and then to do the Magaliesberg Canopy Tour on the 1st of January before heading back into work on the 2nd. We had a pretty chill New Years Eve at the sanctuary. Had an amazing lunch, a few drinks, learned about elephants (amazing creatures), and even took them for a little stroll. We finished the night with our “last supper” for 2007.

Julie Walking an Elephant

Last Supper for 2007

I’ll get to the bridge just now, but first the canopy tour!! I can’t really say enough about the Magaliesberg. I know I have a lot of South Africa still to explore, but WOW, there’s something about it that just keeps me coming back and it’s so close to where I stay and work that it really doesn’t seem fair to be so spoiled with such breathtaking views and things to do. The Magaliesberg mountain is said to be 2.4 billion years and the second oldest in the world.

This next part is a bit of a plagiarism from the canopy tour pamphlet, but I figure they know it better than anyone…"The Magaliesberg Canopy Tour consists of 11 platforms built high within the rock faces of the kloof (cliffs) and joined by 10 slides up to 140m long and 30m above the stream below."

Here are some pictures to give you an idea of the canopy tour and the stunning kloof!!

All in all it was a fantastic start to the New Year and little did I know that soon enough it was going to get a whole lot crazier. We met some people who were in our canopy tour group and they began talking about other canopy tours in South Africa. They were telling Julie and I about how they went to one in a place called Knysna after which they headed to go bungee jumping off the highest commercial bungee jump in the world. The bridge is called Bloukrans Bridge. I informed everyone having the discussion that as crazy as I might be, bungee jumping is something I will never do – EVER – doesn’t seem right if you ask me, the physics of it just doesn't seem sane, but what’s that saying? Never say Never?

Ironically enough I had concert tickets to see a phenomenal South Africa band called Watershed in Plettenburg Bay, which isn’t too far off from Bloukrans Bridge. By this time our friend Jessie had also just come back from a European Christmas vacation and somehow, for some reason unbeknownst to me, Julie and I devised this interesting plan…

Work on the 2nd and the 3rd to catch up a bit, fly to George (on the coast close to the concert and the jump) on the Friday, pick up a rental car, tour the area, see the concert on Saturday, jump off a bridge on Sunday, take a helicopter ride along the coast right after, and then drive back home for work on Monday, or was it Tuesday? Can’t remember really, but the pictures below tell some of the story.

The concert was at a place called the Barnyard theatre. There are many all around SA, but this one in Plettenberg Bay was the original one from what I understand. It's a fantastic concept. Small venue, picnic tables, bring your own food and booze and party it up!! The lighting is a bit crap in some of my pictures, but hopefully you get the idea. That's Jessie "cutting the cheese" and Julie tucked in behind.

We spent the day shopping, visiting the monkey sanctuary, headed down to the Bay for a while and then off to the concert. Here are some pictures of the area for you.

The next morning was the heart attack 30th birthday. All I have to say is 216m. They say you actually get three of the highest jumps in one jump. The first is 216m and the fall after the initial recoil is equivalent to the second highest bungee jump and then the fall after the second recoil is equivalent to the third highest jump in the world.

To be honest with you I had no idea if I was going up or down or even alive for that matter. All I could remember was seeing valley, ocean, valley, ocean, valley, ocean x about 1000!! It was amazing though. I have to do it again I think. I didn't really know what to expect and it was so crazy that I don't really remember all if it. Below is a picture of the bridge. You take a slide (like the one on the canopy tour) to the center of the bridge below the actual road and they have a whole system set up including a DJ pumping the music to get your heart going a bit faster!! It is really amazing. To be completely honest with you, the scariest part of the whole thing was walking back after the jump alongside the bridge. The grating was the thinnest they could find I'm sure and all you see is rock and water below.

On our way out we saw a building that said helicopter rides along the coast and thought - why not? Can't really say too much about it outside of breathtaking.

Best everyone gets used to me saying things are breathtaking, because sunny SA may not be for sissies, but breathtaking it is.