Monthly Archives: August 2012

VII: Graaf-Reinet & Camdeboo National Park

May 31st: Graaf-Reinet, South Africa & Camdeboo National Park

Packing up a frozen frost covered tent is never fun.  Winter has seemed to set in a bit earlier here.  I again had a short drive of about 140km (86 miles) to the town of Graaf-Reinet.  The town itself is set inside Camdeboo National Park, and is one of the oldest European settlements in South Africa.  It is filled with tons of old colonial Dutch buildings.  It is a town I would call quaint, despite its population of over 30,000 people; it often seems more like a town of a few thousand.  I got settled in at an equally quaint home turned guesthouse called El Jardin.  An extremely nice old Afrikaaner couple, Terrence and Nita, ran it.  The rest of the day was spent running errands to the post office, grocery store, permit office, and bookshop, where I found a cheap used copy of a Drakensberg hiking book for later adventures.  The book I was looking for, and subsequently purchased was recommended to me by one of the guys in the Eastern Cape Hiking Club I met in Lesotho titled Around Africa on My Bicycle.  Riaan Manser of South Africa wrote it about his amazing adventure circumnavigating the entire continent of Africa on his bicycle by himself.  The book made an excellent companion on the many lonely nights of camping, and I highly recommend reading it.  I also took the time in town to stop by a couple museums as the town has a good bit of history, both recent and ancient.  I first went to Die Ou Biblioteek (The Old Library) museum.  Half of this museum is home to a nice sized fossil collection of dinosaur bones found in the area.  The other half features exhibits on Robert Sobukwe, a native of Graaf-Reinet, and one of the founding members of the Pan Africanist Congress (PAC).  The second museum I stopped by was Die Ou Residensie (The Old Residency) museum.  This was basically a large collection of old photographs, old cameras, and also a rather huge collection of old guns.  My interests lay in the photographs but I enjoyed the rest as well.  When I came back to the guesthouse Nita told me Terrence had gone to the boys club and would be home at 6:30 and that she would have tea and homemade rusks for me in the morning before I left to go hiking for the day.  Nita was also kind enough to pass along the recipe before the end of my stay, so I thought I would share it with everyone.

Nita’s Delicious Homemade All-bran Buttermilk Rusks

Melt 500g (17.5 oz.) Margarine.

 Add 2 cups of brown sugar; 2 cups buttermilk; 2 eggs beaten;

1kg.(2.2 lbs.) self rising flour; 1 dessertspoon (2tsp.) of baking powder;

 5 cups all-bran.

Mix well.

Place in greased baking pan.

Bake 1 hour at 150°C (302°F).

Cool.

Cut into squares.

Dry out in oven at 60°C (140°F) for 1 hour

Graaf-Reinet

Graaf-Reinet

Top: Ancient Elephant Femur, Middle: Modern Elephant Femur, Lower: Modern Horse Femur

Top: Ancient Elephant Femur, Middle: Modern Elephant Femur, Lower: Modern Horse Femur

June 1st:  Graaf-Reinet, South Africa & Camdeboo National Park

After a quick cup of rooibos tea, a few rusks, and an orange I was off to the trailhead on the south end of town.  The first part of the Eerstefontein Trail, just over 2½ km, takes you between the north ridge of Spandaukop and the south ridge of the Valley of Desolation.  From there I would head in a huge loop of about 9½ km skirting my way along the edge of the Valley of Desolation, and then through the open plains of the Karoo, and back between the two ridges.  I set off from the trailhead about a quarter to eight at a brisk pace to warm myself up in the chilly morning air, taking in all the splendid scenery.  It often felt as if the dinosaurs had left, but all the plants remained.  I had just wound my way between the two ridges and had followed the trail down into the thicker, denser foliage when I first heard the odd noises up ahead.  The sound was a mix between a grunt and a bark, similar to the sound of a choking dog about to vomit.  I was perplexed, a bit tense, and excited.  There are no large predators that could eat me here, but the park is home to a plethora of other animals, one of which I was determined to find out about very soon.

I proceeded slowly unsure of what I might find around the next bend.  To my surprise it was three large Kudu, and to their surprise, a human, which caused them to go crashing through the shrubs next to me.  The distinctive calls soon became commonplace as they were always one step ahead of me for the first half of the trail.  It was a whole new experience getting to encounter the African wildlife on foot, I got a small taste in Dwesa, but here in Camdeboo I felt much more at ease with the lack of big predators, and the wide open spaces.  The animals were much more skittish when approached on foot and my only glimpses tended to be their rear ends while in flight of the unknown intruder, me.  The only creature I managed to sneak up on was a roosting owl that seemed just as startled as I as I unknowingly approached him.  On foot you get a much better sense of scale as well, not only with the kudu, ostrich, zebra, and steenbok, but of the landscape as well.

Giant Aloe Plants of The Karoo

Giant Aloe Plants of The Karoo

Spandaukop

Spandaukop

At around the halfway point the signage became less frequent and the trail began to thin.  I kept following it until it was just a whisper of a line in the tall grass. From the right angle it appeared to be a trail, but as I soon found out these were often more deceptive than informative.  The signs were also poorly thought out from the beginning, using green signs on a green pole that was roughly the height of the surrounding green grass.  The hike soon turned into a huge game of I, Spy.  The game began easy enough in the open rocks and grass where I could easily climb atop a large rock and pick out the next sign or cairn telling me where to go.  I would then bushwhack a few hundred feet, and repeat, until I made it to the sign.  The trail ebbed and flowed with a few hundred feet of good trail that either ended abruptly or split into four or five other games trails.  I continued with this way finding for about 2km or so until I hit the bottom of the valley I was in.  The next 2-3km was crossing the flat arid valley floor.  The signs seemed to all but disappear, and there were no more rocks to get a good view.  I was fortunately not lost at all, as I could clearly see the two ridges I needed to get back between; it was just a matter of getting there.  I was able to pick a sign out here and there with the help of my camera lens and binoculars, but in the in-between I went with the good old fashion walkabout.  These misadventures often led me to find interesting animals and places, with the most notable being stumbling upon a past nesting area of an ostrich.  The ground was littered with bits of ostrich eggshell, which were astonishingly hard and thick.  I finally came across a dried up riverbed as I was nearing the ridge I needed to cross.  Remembering my previous crossing of the same dried up riverbed on the way in led me back to the trail I need to be on, so I could get out easily.  I carried on through the heat of the midday sun the remaining 2½km back to the car feeling quite beat as I added plenty of time and distance to the original mapped trail with all my extracurricular activities to find my way.

The previous night Nita had also tipped me off about the basaar happening at the large Dutch reform church at the center of town were a bunch of people bring homemade food to sell to raise money for the church.  I had worked up a mighty appetite and hadn’t had a good home-cooked meal in a few weeks.  Nita had recommended the pancakes.  I left the trail with pancakes on the mind and made the short drive to the church.  It was packed with people but I managed to spot the sign that read pankoek and bee lined it to the stand.  It turned out their pancakes are more or less crepes, regardless I wolfed down three of them and a can of ginger beer, which provided me with the energy I needed to finish off my day.  From there I soldiered on, driving up the road to the top of the Valley of Desolation to stumble my way through another 1½km of much better marked trail to get to the overlook point of both the entire town of Graaf-Reinet and the Valley of Desolations huge dolomite pillars.  I then made my way back to the guesthouse feeling accomplished after hiking somewhere between 17-20km.  I was in desperate need of a soak and found relief in the tub as I washed away the day of hiking from my skin.  As I scrubbed away with soap I could taste the salt in the bathwater from my sweat and I felt more like an olive in brine then a man in a tub.

Giant Grasshopper

Giant Grasshopper

Valley of Desolation

Valley of Desolation

Mountain Zebra National Park/ Camdeboo National Park from Jordan Bierma on Vimeo.

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VI: Mountain Zebra National Park, South Africa

May 29th: Mountain Zebra National Park, South Africa

I slept in, getting up at half past six.  I had a short couple hour drive about 200km(125 miles) north to Cradock, and just beyond that Mountain Zebra National Park.  The drive was one of the more fun roads I had driven with bending turns and rolling hills that seemed to last forever.  During my drive I worked my way from the lush coastal forests to the arid Karoo.  I made a short stop in Cradock to re-fuel, buy more food, and use the Internet, which unlike most of South Africa was surprisingly quick.  This dusty computer in the corner of a small electronic shop finally gave me the opportunity to get the plane tickets for Sarah and I to fly from Cape Town to Durban after we met up.  I was then off to Mountain Zebra National Park. I set up my dust-covered tent and went for a short hike to get my legs moving again.  In the vast majority of national parks and reserves in South Africa you have to remain in your vehicle when you are in the park, with a few designated areas where you can get out.  It is understandable from a liability perspective for the parks because there are a number of dangerous animals most people wouldn’t want to run into on foot.  It was hard for me to get used to at first since I am used to the freedom to explore in the parks and forests of the USA.  Mountain Zebra National Park was a good mix of the two.  It had cordoned off hiking areas that contained no large predators, and the largest area of the park containing roads for viewing from your car.

After dinner I took a short drive on a couple small loops to watch the sunset, but I found much more to keep me occupied.  Lo and behold about 15 minutes into the drive I found a pair of the elusive Cape Mountain Zebra grazing on the edge of the mountainside.  The Mountain Zebra were hunted into near extinction in the early 20th century with as few as 100 remaining but through conservation efforts after the 1930s the population is now just over 2,000.  The mountain zebra are generally shorter and stockier then Burchell’s Zebra and are built for climbing steep terrain.  They also have a reddish nose and a dewlap, which is a loose fold of skin on their neck, which aren’t found on Burchell’s Zebra.  The rest of the drive the sightings were sparse with a few Kudu and Eland.  The mountains are different then any I have seen before with grassy slopes interspersed with giant rolling bald sections of smooth barren rock.  The sweet thorn that grows everywhere makes the environment seem all that more harsh.

May 30th: Mountain Zebra National Park

One of the most spectacular sunrises yet, I was up at six and was able to get to the top of the plateau that overlooks the park just as the sun poked its head out from behind the mountains.  From the plateau I was able to head out on some short drives to spot animals in the morning light.  I was not disappointed and saw herds of black wildebeest and springbok.  The highlight of the day came around 10 a.m. when I came across a group of about 10-15 buffalo.  The huge, but often shy creatures were packed into a dense thicket and it was hard to get a clear view, but I did spot a few little ones who would occasionally get away from their parents and poke their head out to see what hubbub was all about.  During the heat of the day I relaxed in the shade of my tent to enjoy the mountain views and the smaller creatures of the Karoo.  My favorite being the small mice that would constantly be popping up on rocks checking if the coast was clear.  They also had the amazing ability to navigate up and into sweet thorn trees to munch on the seedpods.  With unbelievable speed they would weave their way through the tangle of massive thorns on the branches.  The tree also provided them cover from hungry birds with the large thorns preventing a safe landing spot.  To cap off the remaining hours of daylight I took a short hike to watch the baboons from afar chase each other around on the giant rocks.  I returned to my campsite for another redundant meal, one which I had the last four meals, of bread, cheese, sun-dried tomatoes, sun-dried fruit and buttermilk rusks.

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V: Addo Elephant National Park, South Africa

Addo Elephant National Park from Jordan Bierma on Vimeo.

May 28th: Addo Elephant National Park, South Africa

I could hardly sleep with the anticipation of a child on Christmas Eve.  I was up just past 6 a.m., had a quick breakfast and was off.  I ended up arriving at the gates about 10 minutes early as I watched the groggy employees start their Monday morning.  I am sure the last thing they wanted to deal with was a wide-eyed American guy raring to go at 7 a.m.  There were hardly any other cars, which gave me the opportunity to better dictate my pace.  There was a heavy fog that had settled in the low-lying areas, which kept my visibility to a minimum.  This added to the experience, keeping me on the edge of my seat as I took each bend in the road hoping to see something pop out of the bushes.  I was treated to the first sighting of the morning with a small group of Kudu grazing off in the shrubs, and I was hooked!  The Kudu is one impressive ungulate, standing probably 5-6 ft. tall to the shoulder with distinct white stripes.  The males are all the more impressive with their large twisted antlers adding another 2-3 ft. atop their head.  As the morning continued, so too did the animals: Caracal, Ostrich, Zebra, Duiker, Buffalo, Warthog, and more.  By about 10 a.m. I had covered only about a quarter of the small parks roads, and I needed a breather so I could take in all that I had seen already.  It had been quite the introduction.

I was far from done for the day though.  I still hadn’t seen any elephants, the namesake of the park.  Fortunately I did not have to wait long, about an hour later I came upon a watering hole where they all seemed to be at.  There were about 15-20 elephants all congregating around a small dirty pool of water.  It was very surreal at first approaching the elephants in my car.  They are so massive they often look out of place in the landscape; everything around them is dwarfed in comparison.  As I inched my way closer the secure feeling of being in a car disappeared as the adult elephants were easily twice the size of my vehicle.  The herd was made up of elephants of all sizes, with the smallest ones often getting lost in the tangle of legs they weaved through.  I sat parked for a while enjoying the chaotic watering hole scene.  Elephants jostled for position and warthogs with their little ones scurried around looking for any opening they could duck into before having to dodge a swinging trunk shooing them away.  After everyone had their fill the group split in two, with half heading south into the thicker vegetation, and the other half crossing the very path in front of me, feet from my car.  I at first sat clenching the steering wheel, foot on the clutch, ready to make a speedy exit lest one of the elephants decided my car would make a perfect toy.  A couple passed so close I would look out the front window and only see legs and a hanging belly.  I was soon at ease, as they seemed to fall into perfect formation. They proceeded in front of me, heading north, into a thicket for a feast of foliage.  I was left quite stunned, unsure of what I should do, wondering if perhaps the whole scene in front of me had really just occurred.  I double checked with my camera to verify, and then decided to plunge into new territory I had yet to explore.

The rest of the drive I passed more of the animals I had seen in the morning along with black-backed jackal, mongoose, red hartebeest, and a countless number of birds.  Each time I passed an animal I was captivated by their presence, and with some of the looks I got in return it is quite possible the feeling was mutual.  The ostrich is one animal that could make the hardest man smile.  Its presence and everything is does seems unnatural and awkward but it’s a joy to watch.  I spent 9 hours in the park and left satisfied, exhausted, and my battery drained on my camera.  I retired to my room for a shower, and a dinner of bread, cheese, green olives, apples, oranges, and granola while preparing for my journey north to Craddock, home of Mountain Zebra National Park.

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IV: Dwesa Nature Preserve, South Africa

Dwesa Nature Preserve from Jordan Bierma on Vimeo.

May 23rd: Maseru, Lesotho to Bloemfontein, South Africa

Again my early start was thwarted by the inefficiency of minibus taxis.  I was up by 7 a.m. and made the 5km trek to the border, and walked back across to South Africa.  I was across the border by 8:30 a.m.  The fate of the rest of the day was in the hands of the minibus game.  I knew it would be a long wait as I peered into the 21- seater with only 2 spots occupied.  For the next 4 hours I patiently waited in the minibus taxi as each seat slowly filled.  The only upside to the ride was the driver was much more competent behind the wheel then my previous drivers.  It had become a reoccurring theme that relatively short distances, which could be covered quickly under normal circumstances, turned into daylong adventures, a 1½ hour drive into a 6 hour excursion.

I finally arrived in Bloemfontein around 2pm and splurged a bit on a room because I couldn’t find anything in my price range. Bloemfontein itself was a nice city, nothing special to see, but it seemed to lack the underlying racial tension found in some other areas of South Africa.  I couldn’t complain too much though as I took advantage of the nicer accommodation.  It allowed me to re-charge in a variety of ways.  I had a bed for the first time in 4 nights, and felt the warmth of a hot shower for the first time since I left Cape Town.  The downtime I had gave me an opportunity to reevaluate the rest of my trip.  I decided on giving up the useless public transportation and renting a car.  Having a car would allow me to get to national parks, and other out of the way areas of the country which I really wanted to see, and which would be next to impossible to see using public transportation.  A car also provided me with a way to get to slightly cheaper, more out of the way places to sleep, and I would now be able to carry more food and self-cater more often then on foot.

May 24th: Learning to drive…again/ Bloemfontein to East London

When I went to pick up my rental car in the morning I received unexpected but excellent news.  They were out of the basic models of cars, so I was receiving a free upgrade.  I soon was sitting comfortably in my brand new looking white Volkswagen Polo Vivo.  The night before I had plotted my exit route out of the city, so I could make as few turns as possible to get out of town.  I got it down to two turns.  After squaring away all the paperwork I threw myself into the fires of left-sided driving.  To my surprise it came quite easily and I was soon comfortable.  The most difficult things to get used to were: shifting gears with my left hand, backing up looking over my left shoulder, reaching for the seatbelt over my left shoulder, and coming around blind turns in the road, while fighting off that feeling of impending doom that bubbles up from your belly.  After making my two turns I was cruising on the N2, which would take me from Bloemfontein down to South Africa’s only river port, the coastal city of East London.  As soon as I was cruising down the interstate it was as if a huge weight had been lifted off my shoulders, and it wasn’t because my backpack was in the boot, but because it was my eyes peering over the bonnet.  Having a car meant freedom, and endless possibilities.  I was no longer at the mercy of the fickle minibus taxis.  I could stop anywhere, if I was hungry, or if I had to go to the bathroom.  I wasn’t clutching my backpack in front of me anymore in case I needed to deploy it as an emergency airbag.  A 6-hour drive had never been more enjoyable.

The landscape opened up soon after Bloemfontein into vast plains predominantly dotted with cattle and sheep.  The metric system also gave me a nice mental boost along the way.  I kept imagining the kilometers being miles and it made me feel as though I was traveling further and faster than ever before in the USA.  Upon my arrival in East London I contacted my friend I had recently made in Lesotho, Dr. Andres Dupressis, who had insisted I spend the night at his place when I passed through.  He lived in a cozy coastal villa perched up on the bluffs overlooking the Nahoon River flowing into the ocean.  I was quite spoiled for the night, and was extremely grateful for his generosity.  It was a good rest that I needed before another stretch of camping.

May 25th: Dwesa Nature Preserve

After a short bit of way finding to get myself out of East London I hopped onto the N2 headed north.  It was a relatively short drive to Dutywa and from there things got a bit hairy.  The main thoroughfares were well signed, and I made the mistake of thinking the smaller roads would be consistent.  From Dutywa I headed southeast to Willowvale, the last decent sized town on the way.  The tarmac ended in Willowvale.  The only directions I had, was that I should continue on the lone gravel road past Willowvale, and look for signs.  It was a much different situation when I arrived.  When I got to the end of town there was a split of two gravel roads, with no signs.  I consulted the maps I had which only showed one road, and decided on the road to my right, since it seemed in better shape, and seemed to be headed more in the direction I wanted.  It was slow going over the unpaved road in my rental car.  After about 10km the road split again, and again with no signs.  I now was just going by my gut and picked the more travelled looking road.  This continued as the road split about every 10km.  After about 30km of slow mazy driving I started to get the sinking feeling I had gone wrong somewhere.

This area of the Wild Coast is home the Xhosa people, and also a stone throw from the birthplace of Nelson Mandela.  It was a designated homelands area, or Bantustan, during apartheid.  It is similar to the establishment of Indian reservations in the USA, an area specifically designated for a single ethnicity.  The people here are predominantly black and much less English is spoken compared to the large cities.  I knew I would be in for a treat getting directions as my Xhosa vocabulary was greatly lacking.  I flagged down the next oncoming truck I saw and played the usual game of charades that occurs between two people who can’t fully understand each other.  It slowly became apparent I was indeed heading the wrong way.  I was on the road to Qohora’s Mouth, not Dwesa.  I had, according to the man in the truck, made the wrong decision at the first split in the road at the end of Willowvale.  I slunk back into town trying to not gain any attention, but it was all in vain as I lapped the main drag of Willowvale searching for any sort of sign to point me to Dwesa.  I finally stopped by the police station to see if they could point me in the right direction.  I was reluctant at first to go after hearing mixed stories about the police in South Africa.  There were 3 officers standing outside the station who could not have been friendlier.  They deliberated awhile about which route was the best to take before telling me about a tiny little turn off by the gas station that I had missed.

My constant driving through Willowvale had not gone unnoticed, and by the time I stopped to talk to the police I had amassed quite a following of curious people.  Everyone was interested to where I could possibly be headed, and many were hoping to hitch a ride if I was headed their direction.  Willowvale is the only grocery store for all the villages, so a good deal of people walk or hitch rides up to 60km if they need to get into town.  Once my final destination had been found out a great deal of chatter erupted among the following cohort of mine, until I had four people standing at my side.  Before I had finished getting directions from the police officers the group had already delegated who would be riding along with me if I chose to give anyone a lift.  Now under most circumstances I would never pick up people hitching, especially alone in a foreign country, but I made this one exception.  The four people who had been chosen consisted of two very elderly gentlemen each with 4 bags of groceries, and two middle-aged women each with arm loads of belongings.  I was reassured by the police officer saying that they would be able to give me directions since they all lived along the route to Dwesa.  I went from a lone traveller with an empty car to a packed full South African bush taxi in the blink of an eye.  I was also now equipped with a phenomenal four person Xhosa GPS to guide me through the maze of gravel roads to the coast.  The drive progressed, as did my Xhosa, which caused riotous laughter from the backseat as I struggled with the clicking sounds of their language.  It was about a 60-70km drive to get to Dwesa, all of which was unpaved, so it made for slow going, and one by one my passengers left me.  Each one giving directions for the next few turns ahead before offering money for the lift.  I refused the money, and thanked them for the help in guiding me on my way.

I finally had found myself rolling up to the gates of the Dwesa Nature Preserve late in the afternoon after what turned out to be a very action-packed day.  Dwesa is really the epitome of the wild coast and is one of the few places where the camping is open, and part of the reserve.  It is a relatively small chunk of land dedicated mainly to the preservation of coastal marine life, but it is home to a plethora of other species as well.  I made a quick dinner of apples, bread and cheese before I set up my tent near a troop of vervet monkeys.  I figured if anything big and scary came during the night the monkeys would make a commotion and alert me to it.

Young Vervet Monkey

Young Vervet Monkey

Vervet Monkey

Vervet Monkey

Male Bushbuck

Male Bushbuck

Vervet Monkey Snacking

Vervet Monkey Snacking

Dwesa Coastline

Dwesa Coastline

Kormorant

Kormorant

May 26th: Dwesa Nature Preserve, South Africa

I opened my eyes to a starry night sky and high hopes at about 5:30 a.m.  As I waited for the sun to rise I packed up all the gear that I needed for the day.  I set off at first light in hopes of catching some of the wildlife on the beach at dawn before they went back into the labyrinth of forest that covered the hillsides.  The only thing I found was a fantastic bright pink sunrise, which made the early morning start worth it either way.  I followed the coastline to the Kolobo river mouth and turned inland along the banks of the river until it became too narrow for my comfort.  There are crocodiles, Cape buffalo, rhinos, and leopards here that I did not want to encounter in any tight spaces on foot.  I had made a pretty conservative plan for my hiking for this same reason.  I was a stranger in a new land and unfamiliar with the terrain.   I predominantly stuck to the coast, and only went inland to follow the route curving along the bluff that overlooks the ocean.  I did end up finding a few bushbucks, and a medley of birds and insects to keep me enthralled throughout the day.  I did not run into a single other person the entire day and I had the coast all to myself as far as the eye could see.  I made the most of it until a strong Antarctic wind blew in after lunch.  After dinner the local vervet monkeys treated me to a fine show for the second night in a row with a special encore presentation by a bushbuck and her little one alongside grazing at dusk outside my tent.  If I was more well versed in hiking through the bush I could have easily spent another few days exploring the preserve.

May 27th: Dwesa à Addo, South Africa

There was an awful argument between vervet monkeys as I awoke before my alarm to the bickering, chatting, and frolicking in the tree above my tent.  I was unable to get back to sleep, so I threw on my headlamp and started packing up camp as the sun was rising.  I then creaked and crawled my way back through the maze of rough roads testing the limits of my little rental car, which was now caked in dust.  The car and I exalted a collective sigh of relief when we finally hit the tarmac back in Willowvale.  From there the short journey north to Dutywa were I took the N2 west back towards East London and beyond to Addo Elephant National Park.

Dwesa Nature Preserve

Dwesa Nature Preserve

Dwesa

Dwesa

Hornbills In Flight

Sacred Ibis In Flight

Kite Spider

Kite Spider

Mass of Insects

Mass of Insects

Unknown Butterfly

Unknown Butterfly

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Gianaclis Caldwell

Cheese, Cheesemaking, and Small Dairy

Around the world with Weston & Dana

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