Posts Tagged With: Cape Town

X: Simon’s Town Penguins, and Swimming With Sharks

Simon’s Town from Jordan Bierma on Vimeo.

Doting African Penguins

Doting African Penguins

African Penguin Colony

African Penguin Colony

African Penguin

African Penguin

June 11th:

Sarah said her final goodbyes to the remaining people from her field camp and we walked to the train station to catch a ride down to Simon’s Town.  Things got off to a rough start as we were either given the wrong tickets, accidently boarded the wrong train car, or just ran into a grumpy overzealous train official.  During the ride they checked our tickets, and told us we were not in the right place, and that we would now have to pay a 40 rand ($5) each.  After a good deal of confused looks, and questions we settled on a 20 rand ($2.50) per person fine instead of being taken down to the station for an 80 rand ($10) fine, which is what seemed to be the threat.  After this debacle we arrived in Simon’s Town.  The day would not be spoiled though and we spent the remainder of the afternoon at the local penguin colony.  The south part of town is home to a colony of African Penguins, known locally as Jackass Penguins because their calls are similar to the bray of a donkey.  The penguins strut their stuff on the beach and nest in the dense underbrush on the dunes.  It was in the brush I found a mother with her young chick in their dugout nest.

A Penguin With Big Dreams of Flying

A Penguin With Big Dreams of Flying

Penguin Hug

Penguin Hug

Simon's Town Harbor Colorful Boats

Simon’s Town Harbor Colorful Boats

June 12th:

Sarah and I hardly slept, and were up around 5:45 a.m. practically running down to the wharf in excitement to catch our boat at 6:45 a.m.  We were on our way to look for sharks in False Bay.  It is the only known place where sharks breach the water when attacking their prey, predominantly seals.  We were riding with Chris Fallows, co-owner of Apex Predators, a company dedicated to sharks.  Chris has worked with BBC’s Planet Earth, as well as Animal Planet, The Discovery Channel, and National Geographic.  He is also a naturalist, and the trips provide funding and ample opportunities to collect data on sightings along the way.  The aim is to educate people not only about Great White Sharks but als about the whole ecosystem they lives in.

“Apex Shark Expeditions endeavours to respect the guidelines and regulations in place for your safety and that of the Sharks. Our ethical commitment toward the Sharks and their conservation determine our every decision, and we will not in anyway jeopardize the wildlife and ecosystem. Our mission through our educational encounters is to change people’s mindset and attitudes towards Sharks. This change in the public’s perception is vital to establish an appreciation of, and thus conservation of this amazing species.”

-Statement of shark conservation and ethics on their website:

www.apexpredators.com

-Scientific Research Papers from Apex Predators:

http://www.apexpredators.com/shark-information/scientific-research-papers.html

Simon's Town Harbor (Photo by: Sarah)

Simon’s Town Harbor (Photo by: Sarah)

False Bay Mountains

False Bay Mountains

We left the harbor in the dark, and were soon greeted by silhouetted dolphins leaping out of the water at the boat’s side.  We continued on for about 40 minutes towards Seal Island in the middle of the bay, which is home to a huge colony of Cape Fur Seals, and is frequented by sharks.  The sharks are most active in the morning and often go after small groups or solo seals heading back to the island after feeding out in the open ocean.  We stopped the boat and watched incoming seals and waited for a possible shark attack.  The most vulnerable seal is the one just weaned off their mother’s milk that is learning the ropes of swimming to and from the island.

It was a dream start to the morning, at least from the sharks, and people’s point of view, although not so much for the seal.  In the blink of an eye the shark breached the water and got completely airborne snatching the seal clean out of the water in one fell swoop.  It was over before my brain could comprehend what my eyes just saw, and I felt lucky just to catch a glimpse of such a spectacle.  The second predation was less spectacular but just as quick.  Things calmed down for a while as the boat towed a seal decoy made of carpet to no avail.  I had already gotten my moneys worth and hadn’t even gotten in the water yet.  I was as surprised as everyone else by the third predation that occurred from a distance while we were stopped and reeling in the decoy seal.  This attack was quite the battle.  It was eventually and undoubtedly won by the shark as the splashing water turned from white foam to a deep dark crimson red.  It was now time to drop in the shark cage and the real waiting game began.  The cold water, about 40ºF, had narrowed down the volunteer divers from 8 people to 4 people, with Sarah and I in the first group of three to go in.

False Bay (Photo by: Sarah)

False Bay (Photo by: Sarah)

Seal Island and 3 Uncertain Penguins (Photo by: Sarah)

Seal Island and 3 Uncertain Penguins (Photo by: Sarah)

The cage was lowered into the water, the decoy seal thrown in, and the crew went about in a chorus of tapping the boat and slapping the water to make high frequency noises to attract a curious shark.  We slipped into our wetsuits and eagerly waited.  The wait continued and our anticipation and energy level dropped until we found ourselves snacking and feeling slightly nauseous from the constant undulating waves.  It seemed our luck had run dry, and we moved the boat to try one more time.  Again we waited, fearing that perhaps today may not be our day for diving.  We were mid snack when the shouts erupted, and before I knew it I was standing on the deck with people handing me goggles, strapping on a weight belt, and directing me towards the cage without a chance to think about the illogicality of hearing the word shark and jumping into the water.  By the time I did I was mid-air headed through the hole in the top of the shark cage.  Everything seemed to be backwards to what one would imagine being in the water with a shark.  When I was above the water looking level with the ocean it was chaotic, people shouting and pointing telling you the every movement of the shark.  With a deep breath I took a dive under into the cage, and there was not a sound to be heard, and it was extremely calming and peaceful being able to see the magnificent shark materialize out of the blue-green backdrop and swim gracefully under and around the cage.

It was such a fantastic experience I often had to remind myself that I needed to come up to breath.  I am sure the cage had a large part to play in making the situation so relaxing as I probably would’ve been panicked and terror-stricken without it.  Overall the cage did little to take away from the majestic presence of the Great White.  The shark was about 10-12 feet in length and made two very close passes to the cage, giving me the opportunity to actually be face to face with the shark.  In about 20 minutes it was all over, the shark lost interest, and bad weather was blowing in.  It was truly one of the most interesting and fantastic things to see up close, on the shark’s level, and on the shark’s terms.

Getting Ready For a Swim

Getting Ready For a Swim

Shark Cage (Photo by: Sarah)

Shark Cage (Photo by: Sarah)

Post Swim (Photo by Sarah)

Post Swim (Photo by: Sarah)

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IX: Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens & A Return To Cape Town

June 8th:

I woke up feeling better but not a hundred percent.  Heavy rains provided me with the ideal day to reassess my situation.  My wound had healed pretty well, but I could tell it needed more attention.  I took a shower, and then again sanitized my knife, and tweezers to clean the last little bit of the infection out.  I spent the morning reading, finding solace in the book by Riaan Manser as he battled dysentery, and cycled through civil war in Liberia to continue his ride around Africa.  By early afternoon I was feeling much more sprightly and decided to walk around the area I was staying in.  I wanted to explore the neighborhood, but also to look for a doctor’s office to enquire about the cost of a visit.  I was soon sidetracked and I found myself in a little music store.  It contained a great deal of interesting music, and some immaculately hand-made instruments.  If my pockets were deep enough and my bags big enough I would’ve been able to supply a small orchestra.  The most impressive by far was the functioning hand-made electric guitar with its body made from an old gas can.  I then made a couple block detour towards the mosque and the Muslim neighborhood to grab a lunch of samosas.  I finally found my way to a travel clinic that in turn pointed me the way to a general practitioner.  It was only going to cost me 250R($30) to see the doctor, and he was available immediately.  Wanting to put my mind at ease, I jumped at the chance for a relatively inexpensive doctor visit.  I went in and he asked me what was wrong and the details surrounding how I had acquired the bite.  I proceeded to give him my self-diagnosis.  I had thought I had probably gotten the bite somewhere around Graaf-Reinet, and that it looked like a normal mosquito bite for a few days before swelling up, turning black, and killing my skin.  I also told him I hadn’t been feeling great, but nothing too terrible, and I thought it might be an African Tick bite, and I had treated myself with Azithromycin as a precaution.  It seemed I had been one of the easiest patients he had in awhile.  He agreed with basically everything I said, and gave validity to Sarah’s diagnosis of African Tick bite fever.  He also said the antibiotics were the right thing to take and that it should clear up in the next 10 days or so.  The doctor also told me I had made the right decision to come to him for a second opinion and gave me a 50R discount for diagnosing myself.  I left, thankful for the discount, and at ease with the news I would be healthy again soon.  I phoned Sarah for the deserved “I told you so” and took it easy the rest of the day.

Pincushion Protea Close Up

Pincushion Protea Close Up

Protea Bud

Protea Bud

Aloe

Aloe

Common Shuttlecock Sugarbush

Common Shuttlecock Sugarbush

Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens

Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens

June 9th:

The antibiotics were really kicking in and I was feeling great again.  Unfortunately the early morning weather did not agree with my bright and sunny disposition.  I was able to pick up my laundry and get some more reading done until a break in the clouds just after noon.  I decided to give it a shot, and caught the bus to Kirstenbosch Gardens, one of the last places I really wanted to see before leaving Cape Town.  It is one of the world’s oldest botanical gardens and is home to over 9,000 different species of indigenous plants of South Africa.  It is perfectly positioned, butted up against Table Mountain with the lower portion of the garden landscaped, and the upper portion left to the native plants of Table Mountain.  It also has a vast network of walkways, footpaths, and trails that give you access to almost anywhere, and you never feel over-crowded with people.  My original plan was to continue up from the gardens through Skeleton Gourge, but the late start to the day put a damper on that.  I was however more than happy wandering around the huge gardens.

June10th:

I repeated the walk, train, and minibus taxi ride down to Tokai to meet Sarah.  It was her last day of field camp and the place she was staying was kind enough to give me a free nights stay since some of the other students left a day early and I could fill their room for the night.  It was great to finally meet up with Sarah again.

Southern Double-collared Sunbird on Bird of Paradise Flower

Southern Double-collared Sunbird on Bird of Paradise Flower

Southern Double-collared Sunbird Feeding

Southern Double-collared Sunbird Feeding

Helmeted Guineafowl

Helmeted Guineafowl

Southern Double-collared Sunbird Tongue Out

Southern Double-collared Sunbird Tongue Out

Southern Double-collared Sunbird Ready To Fly

Southern Double-collared Sunbird Ready To Fly

Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens, Cape Town, South Africa from Jordan Bierma on Vimeo.

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I: To Cape Town and Beyond

Cape Town and beyond from Jordan Bierma on Vimeo.

Oude Molen Community Garden

 

Sarah and I arrived tired and exhausted from our 20 hours of travel from Chicago to Amsterdam then from Amsterdam to Cape Town.  Passing over the Alps we were treated to clear skies and great views of the French Alps.  We continued into clouds over the Mediterranean Sea, the Sahara, the Sahel, and the tropical jungles of the Congo before descending into darkness for the rest of the flight to Cape Town.  After getting off the plane we parted ways, each of us off to our respective destinations. Sarah went off to her geology field camp, and I was taken swiftly to a mental hospital, to be clear, an abandoned mental hospital on the outskirts of Cape Town, which had been repurposed as an eco village.  Oude Molen Eco Village contains living quarters, a farm stall, restaurant, guesthouse, and a working farm.  I awoke the first morning to the cock-a-doodle-doo of a rooster in a new and different world and was presented quite the welcome as I stepped out the door.  The clouds had just broken, the rain stopped and the sun emerged to create a spectacular rainbow stretching from the top of Table Mountain down to the heart of Cape Town.  My first morning got off to a slow and gradual start.  The night before I had been picked up from the airport by Helen, one of the two owners of Oude Molen, and discussing my previous farming work back in the states at Growing Power in Milwaukee.  She told me about her partner, John, and his ambitious plans to add a large aquaponics system to his permaculture garden.  Helen had told John about my arrival, and he was eagerly awaiting me with tea in the morning and a number of questions about installing and running aquaponics systems.  A good deal of my first morning was spent with John, which was nice as I could help him with what I knew and pick his brain a bit about Cape Town and South Africa before I set out on my own.  In the afternoon I made my first foray into the city of Cape Town, catching the train for 6 rand (about 75 cents) into the city.  It was a bit of an information overload, like the first time in any unfamiliar city, and I spent the afternoon running errands, and finding a cheap cellphone to keep in touch with Sarah so we could meet up easily in 4 weeks time.  Not normally being a big city person I am usually keen to get out as soon as I can after flying in, but Cape Town is definitely one exception.  It is as if you took the mesas of western Colorado and put them in San Fransisco, and then added it’s own unique landscape.  It is a city for everyone, and probably one of the most beautiful cities I have ever been to.

View of Table Mountain from the east

View from Table Mountain

The next day in Cape Town I made the most of being a tourist and got an early start to ride the cable car that takes you from the base to the summit of Table Mountain.  From the top you get an excellent view of the city and the surrounding bays, and is a good point to start hiking.  Table Mountain is over 3500 feet above sea level, which by mountain size seems pretty small, but it shoots straight out of the sea making the sheer rock faces look all that more daunting.  The cape peninsula also provides the perfect microclimate for the fynbos, which is the name of the biome found in the area.  The fynbos is home to its own unique floral kingdom and has over 9,000 different species of which over 6,000 are endemic, existing only on this little sliver of land in South Africa and nowhere else in the world.  Needless to say I spent the whole day exploring the unique landscapes on and around Table Mountain.  Scattered around on top of Table Mountain are little dassies, also known as rock hyrax.  They are about the size of a guinea pig, and are very interesting creatures with their closest living relative being the elephant.  They have very rubbery pads on their feet with sweat glands to help them stick to rocks while climbing almost vertical pitches.  They also seem to be one of the lazy animals I have ever seen, and on a nice sunny day you can find tons of them sprawled out on rocks just soaking up the sun.

Looking down on Cape Town from Table Mountain

Lionshead from Table Mountain

Proteas on top of Table Mountain

Lazy dassie sunbathing on top of Table Mountain

The next day, May 17th, I awoke early, stopped to say my goodbyes & well wishes to Helen & John, and then took the quick train ride again from Pinelands Station to Cape Town.  My original plan, based on the routes shown on the map above the ticket window, was to ride the rails northeast from Cape Town to the city of Bloemfontien, and from there venture into the small mountainous country of Lesotho.  To my surprise, although I caught on very quickly afterwards, all the routes on the map had been cut except one, Cape Town to Johannesburg.  After some deliberation I decided to purchase a ticket to roughly the halfway point, which would take me to the city of Kimberly.  Kimberly is a diamond-mining town and was home to Cecil Rhodes, and the De Beers Company.  It is about 80km north of Bloemfontein, and was my best bet for a jumping off point.  I bought the ticket and then waited for about 45 minutes as it was “processed” by the lady behind the counter while I waited on the benches.  I finally got the ticket and lugged all my gear down to sleeper car 11H and found myself across from a short, stocky Afrikaans man. He repeated the same routine of drinking a beer, snacking, and napping for the first 8-10 hours, which was then followed by a lumbering sleep with a snore that put the train whistle to shame.  I on the other hand spent the first 8 hours pretty much glued to the window watching the landscape slowly change from the capes fynbos, to the vineyards of Paarl & Stellenbosch.  The train stops as we passed through the wine lands were filled with hawkers selling fresh grapes to the passing train cars. I was easily won over by the one vendor’s shouts of “get the sweetness! 5 rand! Taste the sweetness”. I got 2kg of grapes and was not disappointed as the sales pitch lived up to its name as I mowed down the fresh grapes.  The vegetation slowly thinned out into jagged peaks covered in thick shrubs, and eventually into the sparsely covered karoo with its rocks, shrubs, and prehistoric looking succulents.   It was a dream come true, at least the daylight hours, as the train acted as a never-ending safari, with the only downside being I couldn’t stop when I wanted to take a picture.  Passing through the wine lands I was fortunate enough to spot a caracal not far from the track lurking in the brush. When the land gave way to the karoo it was open season as I spotted a number of springboks, ostriches, and elands.  As night fell I began to prepare myself for my arrival in Kimberly.  It was a 17 hour train ride with a projected arrival time of 3:30am, a tricky time indeed as nothing is open and I couldn’t very well go meandering around town in the dark alone with all my belongings.  I went to sleep around 8pm and was up about a quarter to three.  As 3:30 came and went, and the train hadn’t made a stop I began to feel a bit uneasy.  I set out to find a train employee to find out where we were.  I finally found someone who told me the train was running late, although they had no idea how late.  Afraid to go back to sleep and miss my stop I stayed up until we finally arrived in Kimberly 3 hours late at 6:30am.  Being late was actually beneficial though, as it now made my 3:30 am arrival dilemma null and void since the sun was now beginning to rise. However, it did cost me a bit of time I could’ve spent sleeping had I known the actual arrival time.

Upon leaving the train station I found no taxis, and no buses. Figuring I was perhaps too early I decided to set out on foot to find a place to stay.  I headed about 3km northeast to where a reasonably priced place was supposed to be, only to find out it was another 5-10km outside the city.  With only my feet to carry me I found it too impractical to be so far out of town because it would’ve been about a 20km round trip walk if I needed anything while I stayed there.  I backtracked the 3km I had already walked and continued south down the main drag another 2km, all this while carrying my 40-50 lbs. of gear on my back.  The weight I was carrying and the fact I had only eaten grapes for the last few meals, albeit vast amounts of grapes, on the previous days train ride was taking its toll.  I ended up heading into the tourist information center another half kilometer south for a break, and to see if I could get a better map and find some more information.  While I was in my last ditch effort to find an affordable place to stay, two backpackers stumbled in looking as worn down as myself.  They were Lance & Kristi, a couple from Illinois who were on their last leg of a 4-month trip through southern Africa.  They had run into the same problem I had a couple days ago, and had settled on an overpriced under construction guesthouse on the south side of town ironically named “Stay a Day guesthouse”.  They only intended to stay a day but had become virtually trapped in Kimberly and were on their third day of attempting to leave.  It became increasingly apparent that public transport had suffered some major cuts since 2010 when South Africa hosted the world cup.  Guide books, ticket offices, websites, everything lists all these trains, buses, taxi routes, etc. but when you enquire about them, or worse, when you assume they are functioning, when in fact they don’t exist anymore.  The only public transport left are mini bus taxis, which are unreliable, inefficient, and can be dangerous.  This is why the couple from Illinois was on their third day of attempting to leave Kimberly.  They were headed the same route I intended to go on the next day departing from Kimberly to Bloemfontein, and on into Lesotho.  The catch with mini bus taxis is that it must be full, completely full, every seat must be filled and are often times beyond the recommended capacity to depart, otherwise you just may not go that day.  This is what happened to them the previous two days.  Fearing this was a distinct possibility for me since I was planning the same route out I made a executive decision to join Lance & Kristi.  Whether I was the weight that tipped the scale in their favor or if it was just their lucky day, the mini bus taxi filled up for the hour and a half jaunt to Bloemfontein.  I learned two important things on my first mini bus taxi ride.  The first being that there is no place to stow baggage (although some do occasionally have little trailers) so everything you have must fit on your lap.  The second is that, seemingly, all the South Africans like to ride in the jam-packed mini bus taxis with the windows up with no airflow. As I soon found out when I was politely asked to “please close the window, the air is getting in my nose”.  Confused and now uncertain about where air was supposed to go and the function of the nose on my face I held tight for the short drive to Bloemfontein.  After the first success and with no real reason to stick around in Bloemfontein, and luck on our side, we found a mini bus taxi headed to the border of South Africa and Lesotho with 3 seats left.  We all squeezed in and headed to the border town and capitol of Lesotho, Maseru.  After the border formalities and a taxi ride around Maseru we were finding accommodation to be quite tricky again.  The one affordable place we found happened to be booked with all the 40 beds taken up by a church group.  The owners were kind enough to recommend us to another place, which ended up being nicer, cheaper, and closer to the city center.  It also happened to be an Anglican church with whom the owners were part of. We arrived and told the people at the church who had sent us and they fixed us up with rooms in the priest training center next to the church.  Maseru contains about 400,000 people in its massive sprawl, which is almost 50% of Lesotho’s population.  Lesotho is one of the poorer countries in Africa, and has an extremely high percentage of its population with HIV/AIDS, somewhere around 25%, and with the life expectancy of around 40-50 years, the majority of the population is quite young.  In stark contrast to other poor nations though, it has a literacy rate of about 85% and from my brief walk through the city that afternoon people were extremely friendly and welcoming.

Sunset over the karoo from the train

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