African Diary: Epilogue Townships & Tea Bags

by Bob Sparrow

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Jill Heyes

If you’ve read my ‘African Diary’ series you’ll know that I wrote briefly about the ‘townships’ or shanties that line the freeway for miles outside of Cape Town and throughout South Africa.  These shanties were created principally in the Apartheid Era, which ran from the end of the 1800s until the early 1990s (yes, 1990s!), when blacks were evicted from their property and relocated to the shanties .

An accurate count of how many people are living in shanties today in South Africa is difficult, but it’s somewhere in the 8-10 million range.  They live in shacks made of tin, wood and brick, have little water, which is of poor quality, sewage is an on-going problem, electricity, if they have it, is achieved illegally through exposed power wires, presenting a constant danger to inhabitants, especially children.  Schools are ill-equipped and inadequate and many children end up dropping out and joining  gangs, which are prevalent among the teens living there.  Believe me, it makes one feel pretty grateful for what we have and very sympathetic to the plight of the shanty inhabitants.

One person who saw all this and decided to do something about it was Jill Heyes, who came to South Africa from England and lives in Hout Bay near DSC00168Cape Town.  Jill taught crafts at a local church and regularly passed by the shanties on her way to and from home and was horrified at the poverty she saw.  One day while having tea with a friend, they were discussing the living conditions in the shanties and trying to figure out what one person could possibly do to help.  Her friend looked at the tea bag in her cup and got an idea.

Original T Bag Designs was born.  Jill started a business making crafts out of discarded tea bags and in the process hired people out of the shanties to create and make these crafts.  That was over 10 years ago, today her business is thriving.  Several who have come to work for her have now earned enough money to buy a home and move out of the shanties.  You can see a short video on Jill’s inspirational story on You Tube at the following link:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=M5VH6UAgMIk

You can also visit their website at:  http://www.tbagdesigns.co.za   and buy something!  Then you’ll know that you helped create one of those great smiles that you see in the pictures on their website.

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African Diary – Part 4 Victoria Falls and Out of Africa

by Bob Sparrow (back from Africa)

Africa 442

Victoria Falls

I have that feeling that our time in Africa is going way too quickly as we head to the last leg of our journey, Victoria Falls – one of the ‘7 Natural Wonders of the World’.  Our trip from Notten’s Game Reserve necessitated an evening layover in Johannesburg since there is only one flight a day into Victoria Falls from ‘Jo’burg’, as it’s known to the locals.  Arriving in the late afternoon and leaving the next morning only gave us enough time to wipe the elephant dung off our shoes, visit Nelson Mandela Square and gradually acclimate to having electricity in our hotel room.

 Zimbabwe, formerly know as Southern Rhodesia, was colonized by the British in 1890; our hotel, the Victoria Falls Hotel, took us back in time to the turn of the century, when it was built by the Brits during the construction of the Victoria Falls Bridge in 1906 as part of a grand plan to run a railroad line through the heart of Africa from Cape Town to Cairo.  If I described the hotel as being grand and colonial, in an elegant, Edwardian sort of way, neither of us would know what I was talking about, so just look at the pictures.

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After walking the meticulously groomed grounds of the hotel, we were whisked off to a sunset cocktail cruise on the Zambezi River, where we witnessed a playful ‘bloat’ of hippopotamus, a sun-worshiping crocodile and a spectacular sunset.  One of our fellow cruisers was a rather arrogant young American, who didn’t fit in too well with the rest of the animal lovers on board, as he was bragging about the hunting trip he had just completed where he shot an elephant, a buffalo and something else, maybe it was his wife, I stopped listening.  He was either very quiet toward the end of the cruise or he was that thing we saw bobbing in the water at sunset heading for the falls.  I’ve included a spectacular picture of the sunset that evening, but honestly it doesn’t do the sunset justice.  We head back to the hotel for dinner.DSC00532

 The hotel is steeped in the history of explorer, missionary and liberator, Dr. David Livingstone and the famous meeting with Henry Stanley in the middle of Africa.  The balmy evening allowed us to enjoy our dinner at one of the hotel’s outside restaurants.  Before dinner a local tribe provided entertainment with their singing and dancing to traditional music.  Sensing that Apple didn’t have these songs in their ‘iCloud’, I purchased their CD, my fourth of the trip.

Africa 384 copyThe next day we loaded up for our ‘Barrel Ride Over the Falls’ tour – just kidding, it was already fully booked.  We did take a tour of Victoria Falls, whose original name translates to ‘The Smoke That Thunders’ and even though there was not a cloud in the sky, we wore rain gear and got soaking wet.  A ‘congress’ of baboons apparently signed up for the same tour we did as they followed us to the various viewing points along the falls.  They were amazing – the falls, well the baboons too.  Even if I told you that an average of about 38,000 cubic feet of water goes over the falls PER SECOND, you probably still couldn’t imagine that much water – I didn’t even know that water came in cubic feet, all I know is that it’s a lot of water.  The falls width of 5600 feet and height of 350 feet make it the largest sheet of falling water in the world.

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‘Today’s Special’

After the tour we walked into town to get a bite to eat, but my picture of ‘Today Special’ tells you why we decided to wait until we got back to the hotel to eat.  We were told to never eat warthog in a month with any letter in it.  We continued walking to the middle of the Victoria Falls Bridge, which was the scene of a bungee jumping accident last year when the bungee cord detached and dropped an Australian woman into the water 360 feet below.  The bungee operator responsible for the accident, Cecil “Oops” Newman, no longer works there, but someone did do a jump while we were there watching – crazy!

On our way back to the hotel we stopped at a ‘craft market’ to bargain with the locals for their handmade wares.  I rationalized my poor negotiating skills as wanting to help boost their economy by paying, according to my wife, somewhere between 6 and 7 times what the craft was worth.  But who can put a price on a hand-carved African mask from Zimbabwe?  Apparently I couldn’t.

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View of Victoria Falls from hotel

Even though I’m writing this while in Africa, you won’t read it until I’m at the chiropractor’s office getting my back adjusted after the 40 hour trip home.  Yes, it’s a long way getting there and coming home, but was it worth it?  Oh yeah!  The people, the places, the animals, the things we experienced, (Did I mention the people?) made it the trip of a lifetime!

A big thank you to Jack and JJ Budd, our travel companions, who did a similar trip two years ago and kept us from making ‘rookie travel mistakes’, to our travel agent, Lenni Curl of First Travel of California in Laguna Niguel, who secured us great accommodations and got us on all the right tours, and to David and Mia Notten for their gracious hospitality at their ‘family’ game reserve in Kruger National Park.

And thank you readers, especially you blog subscribers, for vicariously taking this incredible journey with us and thank you for your wonderful comments.

 

 

 

 

African Diary – Part 3 On Safari

by Bob Sparrow (still in Africa)

All animal photos are mine . . . but you can look at them.

notten'sFrom Cape Town we flew into Mpumalanga International Airport (yes, that’s spelled correctly, I think they forgot to buy a vowel) in Nelspruit, then took a two hour ride to Notten’s Bush Camp in the Sabi Sands Game Reserve in Kruger National Park for the ‘safari’ portion of the trip. There are many Bush Camps in Kruger Park, but I can’t imagine any being better than the one where we stayed – Notten’s.  It’s family owned and operated; the current proprietors are David and Mia Notten; it was David’s grandfather who bought the land in 1964 as a family retreat; David’s father and mother, Gilly & Bambi (no, I’m not making these names up) opened their home up and started the camp in 1986 and subsequently handed it over to David and Mia.  There are some great family photos of the three generations on the wall in the meeting room.  We saw pictures of Susie, who heads the serving staff, when she was a baby with her mom and dad andjeep grandfather, who was hired by David’s grandfather back in the 60s.  There’s a picture of Thomas, our game drive ‘tracker’, who arrived from Mozambique at 13 and started working at Notten’s as a gardener – he’s now 43.  David’s cousin, Dale also works at the camp and cooked us a delightful barbeque on our first night.  David and Mia, both personable and friendly were always on hand to accommodate our every need, and what made us feel most welcome here was that everyone immediately treated us like ‘one of the family’ – a really nice feeling when you’re 10,000 miles from home in the African bush.

A unique feature of Notten’s was that there was no, or little, electricity.  There was one plug per room to charge cameras or computers, but all the lighting was by kerosene lamp or candle.  No television, no clocks.  We started out missing the conveniences of lights, electrical outlets everywhere and a little TV at night to catch up on the news, but after four nights we ended up missing the charm of our candle-lite room and the sounds of the savanna at night.

2013-05-24 09.14.27Dinners were a special event at Notten’s – tables in the eating area, which were separated for breakfast and lunch into tables for 4-6, where all pushed together in the evening so everyone in camp (20-24 max) ate together at one long table, thus promoting the sharing of stories about where people were from, places they’d been and places they were going.

The food was incredible – I’m going to try to duplicate their bananas French Toast when I get home, but I have a feeling I won’t quite capture the essence of it.  Their lemon meringue pie was like nothing I’ve ever tasted . . . only better.  OK, I think you get the point, the accommodations and staff were awesome, let’s move on to the reason we went there – the animals.

We arrive in camp around 2:30 in the afternoon and one hour later we were on our first ‘game drive’.  Game drives are conducted by a ‘tracker’ driving a 6-8 passenger open-air Land Cruiser, with a ‘spotter’ sitting in a seat attached to the hood.  A typical game drive lasts about three hours and covers miles of dirt and off roads, throughout the savanna and bush – wherever the animals happen to be.

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We first encountered a male, female and baby rhinoceros and drove to within 15-20 feet of them and watched them grazing – they gave us a casual glance and went back to the job at hand – eating.  Shortly thereafter we came upon four lions, three male, one female; we were told that the males fought over the female and we saw the ‘winner’ and the female go off to . . . make more lions.  One of the spurned suitors dejectedly limped off into the bush.  We first heard the sound, then saw a cloud of dust in the distance, we then witness a herd of approximately 400 Cape Buffalo stampeding right past us.  When the last one had passed us, we saw the reason they were running – there was a leopard trailing them waiting for a baby Cape to get separated from the herd, thus providing the leopard with dinner.  But the herd was keeping a close eye on the calves, so no Buffalo Burgers for the leopard tonight.  We saw the leopard disappear into the brush and heard growls and hisses and then saw a honey badger running out of the brush and the leopard smugly walking out behind him with what the honey badger thought was going to be his dinner, a large king rat that he had killed.   Thomas, our tracker, told us that a honey badger, pound DSC00353for pound, is probably the fiercest animal in Africa, and that he could have kicked the leopards ass, but perhaps he had rat for lunch, so he reluctantly let the leopard have it.  It was now dark as Thomas headed the safari through a maze of dirt roads, without streetlights I might add, back towards camp.  After driving about 20 minutes, he stopped; we knew every time he stopped it was because he spotted something he wanted us to see.  We just sat there in the dark wondering what we were supposed to be looking at.  “Look over there,” he said, as he flashed a spot light to our right.  We turned and no more than 15 feet from us was a large bull elephant just standing by the roadside.

What an incredible first drive; we join the ‘Big Five, First Drive’ Club – I just made that club up, but amazingly on our first game drive we saw all of the ‘Big 5’ animals (Elephant, Lion, Leopard, Cape Buffalo and Rhino – members of the Big Five were chosen for the difficulty in hunting them and the degree of danger involved, rather than their size).

DSC00376The next day I took the opportunity between drives to do a ‘bush walk’ – it was just Thomas and me wandering through the bush, he is obligated to take a rifle with him on all such walks.  As we walked along, we came across 6-8 giraffe, he showed me the tracks and scat of various animals as well as some interesting vegetation, like a weed that you can wash your hands with – it acts just like soap when you rub it between your hands.  As we walked along through the bush I asked a number of questions about the flora and fauna.  My last question was, “Have you ever had to use your gun?”  To which Thomas, stopped, looked me in the eye and replied in a very somber way, “Yes, just last week.”  I froze in my tracts as I now imagined all kinds of animals charging us and Thomas firing at them until he ran out of bullets.  “What were the circumstances?” I asked.  He replied calmly, but in a serious tone, “Last week there was a man who asked too many questions, so I shot him.”  Then he broke out in a big smile and told me he’s never had to use the gun.

We had two more days in the Game Reserve – a game drive in the early morning (6:30 – 9:30) then back for breakfast, and a game drive in the afternoon (3:30 – 6:30).  Aside from more ‘Big 5’ sightings, we saw, hippos, giraffe, impala, baboons, wart hogs, wildebeest, hyena a myriad of small furry animals and birds that we’re still trying to figure out what they were.  We had a leopard come right next to our vehicle – I literally could have reached down and petted him – but I thought better of it.

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On our last drive, as night was falling, the three Land Cruisers from Notten’s all stopped out in a clearing in the savanna for cocktails and appetizers around a campfire.  A full moon rise added to the magic of the evening as David pointed out the ‘Southern Cross’ constellation – the first time I’d ever seen it.  The Cosby, Still & Nash song by the same name echoed in my head . . .

When you see the Southern Cross for the first time,

You understand now why you came this way

‘Cause the truth you might be runnin’ from is so small,

But it’s as big as the promise, the promise of a coming day

 We were promised another day, but not at Notten’s, our promise was as big as Victoria Falls, which was our next destination.  The next morning we were off for Zimbabwe.

Next Monday: African Diary – Part 4   Victoria Falls and Out of Africa

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African Diary – Part 2 Cape Town

by Bob Sparrow (from Africa)

“It’s not about the destination, it’s about the journey”

 Getting There

Whoever uttered the above quote never flew from Los Angeles to London, London to Johannesburg and Johannesburg to Cape Town on a journey that included 26 hours of flying and 17 hours of lay-overs.  I think I experienced a bending of the space-time continuum – I may have even spent some time in the Twilight Zone; I’m not sure where I was; I wasn’t even sure who I was.  All I know is I left Los Angeles at 5:00 Friday afternoon and arrived in Cape Town, South Africa at 3:30 Sunday afternoon.  Somebody owes me a Saturday!

Being There

12A

12 Apostles Hotel & Spa

I can’t remember the last time I stayed in a suite at a Five-Star hotel . . . OK, maybe never.  I can tell you it’s nothing like camping in the desert.  But when we checked into 5-Star The Twelve Apostles Hotel & Spa those long hours getting there just seemed to . . . nah, my back still hurt“The 12A” as it’s affectionately called, sits on the coast, by itself, between Cape Town and the Cape of Good Hope, and it is magnificent!  Our oceanfront suite allowed us to sit on our deck and watch the sun sink into the Atlantic – and all this time we Californians thought the sun always sank into the Pacific.  The facility, the location and particularly the staff, were marvelous.  With “The 12A” as our base, and with the help of our expert guide, Craig Ziman, we squeezed in as many ‘points of interest’ that we could in three days.

 Seeing There

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Table Mountain

Table Mountain – it’s a must to take the gondola to the top and spend some time checking out the spectacular views of the cape below from various points.  You can even repel down part of the way if you choose – I didn’t choose.  Cape Point – better known as the Cape of Good Hope, where the currents of the Atlantic and Indian Oceans meet was a bit disappointing in that you really couldn’t tell where the Atlantic Ocean left off and the Indian Ocean began – I suggested they should dye them different colors – I don’t think they were listening.

Ever stay up nights wondering exactly who fought in the Boar Wars?  We visited the Castle of Good Hope, which is filled with military memorabilia where you can find the answer to that question.  We visited a penguin beach, yep, penguins in South Africa, as well as the Waterfront (shopping and restaurants), Camps Bay (more shopping and more restaurants), the diamond district (guys, don’t let your wives go shopping there!), where we learned that most diamonds naturally come in . . . you guessed it, a diamond shape.  We also took a trip out to the wine area of South Africa, conveniently called The Winelands.  

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“Township”

Juxtaposed to the quaint, up-scale villages and elegant homes in The Winelands are the shanties, euphemistically called Townships, which line the freeway for miles leading back into Cape Town.  The shanties are a 10 x 10 foot room made from aluminum siding and plywood with no running water and public port-o-potties for bathrooms.  We were told that over one million people are living in such conditions.  Apartheid has ended and there are many wonderful sights here, but this is a clear sign that the complete development of South Africa is still a work-in-progress.

The Best Reason to Go

It’s about an hour’s boat ride from the Cape Town Waterfront District to Robben’s Island, where Nelson Mandela spent 18 of his 27 years of incarceration. The prisoner’s living quarters varied from one room jammed with 30-40 prisoners, to a single 8 x 8 cell, to something smaller, that were previously used as dog kennels.  Food was bad and sparse; prisoners were forced to work 8-10 hours a day in lime mines on the island and were often physically and mentally tortured for various reasons or for no reason at all.  Solitary confinement was worse.

Robben-Island

Robben Island cell

Our tour of the island’s prison was conducted by a former prisoner who talked about conditions in the prison.  He said, “They tried every way possible to beat us down, they torture us and treated us like animals, but in the evening we were able to gather together for about an hour or so and we would use that time to educate ourselves – there was a saying, ‘Each One, Teach One’ – that way those who could read taught others to read, those who knew math taught other to do math and so on.  The main thing we continued to reinforce with each other was that whatever they did to us, we were not going to let them break our spirit.  At night, if time and guards allowed, we would sing, we would dance, we would do little plays for ourselves – anything to keep our spirit alive – that was the most important thing, to keep our spirit alive.” 

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“African Spirit”

We came away from Robben’s Island amazed and inspired, but what we didn’t know was that we were about to experience that ‘spirit’ on our boat trip back to Cape Town.  We started our return trip sitting on benches on the outside deck of the boat, but as the sun went down it quickly cooled and we moved inside.  Soon after we came inside, a middle-aged black man stood up and started singing in a native language, other blacks, men and women, quickly joined in and although they didn’t all know each other, they all knew the song and each would either join in singing the melody, harmonies or a background beat – they sounded as if they’d been rehearsing this routine together for years.  It didn’t take long before all the black men and women were up singing and dancing in the aisles.  We few whites on board just stood, listened and watched in amazement.  The music was so infectious, I tried to join in, and with the help of the black gentleman standing next to me, I learned a couple of words and joined in the singing.  If my skin color didn’t give me away, my voice and my dance moves did; I soon realized what I should be doing is recording this – so I did.

As we prepare to move to the next phase of our journey, the safaris, we are amazed at all the wonderful things we saw in and around Cape Town, but what I will remember most are the people – their great smiles and wonderful dispositions.  I’m not sure how they do it, but I’m thinking it has something to do with that great ‘African Spirit’ that will not be broken.  Perhaps it is about the journey.

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Next: African Diary – Part 3  Game Drives

 

 

African Diary – Part 1 It’s A Jungle Out There

by Bob Sparrow

Lion     I hear a low snorting sound just outside my tent . . . or was it inside?  I lay perfectly still and slowly open my eyes and furtively search the darkness for movement.  I hear rhythmic breathing and feel the warm breath of an animal on my face – or am I just imagining it?  As my eyes adjust to the darkness I see the rustling of the canvas tent next to me.  The snorting becomes louder, the breathing heavier. What’s out there . . . or in here?  My imagination is running wild.  We were forewarned that the ‘Big 5’ (Lion, Elephant, Cape Buffalo, Leopard and Rhinoceros) are curious animals and might wander into camp looking for food.  I wondered: Am I food?  I slowly rolled over to glance in the direction of the breathing . . . it was my wife.  I wake up in a cold sweat in my bed at home.

I’m headed to Africa this week, so my imagination may be turned up a few notches, but if you, like me, thought all the dangers were out in the African savanna, think again.  Like any good traveler I’ve been doing some research on points of interest that I’ll be seeing over the next couple of weeks and while I’ve learned what the ‘Big 5’ of African wildlife are, I’ve compiled my own ‘Big 2’ that I’ll be looking out for as well:

  1. Man
    1. S. Africa has one of the world’s highest rate of murders, assaults and rapes       
    2. Over 17 million people in sub-Saharan Africa have died of AIDS
    3. Around 50 people are murdered in South Africa every day
    4. Drivers                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                    

                                 i.  Cab drivers will scam you, rip you off, take you for a ride

                                 ii. Safari drivers have little to no regard for you back or kidneys

        2. Mosquitos – Every 30 seconds someone in Africa dies of malaria

mosquito    Sounds fun, doesn’t it?  Those at the South African Chamber of Commerce will tell you that all major cities around the world have high crime rates.  I looked up – New York, in the summer when crime is the highest, has about 50 murders a month.  But I know that if I stay away from the wrong people and wrong places in Africa I’ll be fine – as long as they stay away from me.  Here are the ‘Big 5’ ‘animals’ I’m going to try to avoid:

  1. The Robber
  2. The Mugger
  3. The AIDS carrier
  4. The Malaria-infested Mosquito
  5. The Cab Driver

Indeed, it is a jungle out there.  So why go to Africa, you ask?  It is a beautiful country with an incredibly rich history and lots of amazing animals – and I want to see where Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie get their kids.

All kidding aside (I really wasn’t kidding) below is the abbreviated itinerary for your Man-on-the-Savanna to bring you an up-close and personal look (from my warped perspective) at Africa.

 LAX to London

London to Johannesburg

Johannesburg to Cape Town (Finally!)

Cape Town site seeing (3 days)

Sabi Sand Game Reserve – (3 days)

Johannesburg – 1 day

Victoria Falls, Zembabwe (2 days)

Home

If any of my writing gets lost in translation it’s because there are over 2,000 languages spoken in Africa (This is one of many ‘interesting tidbits’ that I’ll be reporting back to you with).sardines

Signing off from LAX where I will be packed, sardine-like, into a metal tube floating through the sky for the next 26 hours.

 

FINDING ‘HOTEL CALIFORNIA’

by Bob Sparrow 

Eages

The Eagles

I recently watched a documentary on my favorite band, ‘History of the Eagles’ on the Showtime Channel. If you’re an Eagles’ fan this is a must see; even if you’re not, it’s still great music history.  So the first week of April as we headed out to Palm Desert for our 19th year of enjoying our timeshare, I was mixing my metaphors, dangling my modifiers and juxtaposing the reminiscing of the Eagles documentary and the looking forward to my hedonistic week in the lush environs of Palm Desert.  It created a strange concoction in my head – I present it forthwith.

                                                On a dark desert highway, cool wind in my hair

                                                Warm smell of colitas rising up through the air 

For the uninitiated, colitas is the small, sweet buds at the end of the cannabis plant that makes for what was colloquially known in the ‘70s as ‘good shit’.  This week we’ll enjoy the sweet smell of a good cabernet.

So I called up the captain, please bring me my wine

He said we haven’t had that spirit here since 1969

Hotel2

Marriott Desert Springs Hotel

It’s hard to think of the Eagles and not think of their biggest hit, ‘Hotel California’.  There have been many interpretations of the meaning of the lyrics of that song, the most common is that it’s an interpretation of the high life in Los Angeles.  So this week I’m loosely translating it to represent my decedent week in the desert where we eat at great restaurants, drink expensive wine and play luxurious golf courses.  Because it combines Life in the Fast Lane and a Peaceful Easy Feeling, I have concluded that the Marriott Desert Springs Hotel is my ‘Hotel California’.  The lyrics echoed in my head . . .

                                                                                                              Welcome to the Hotel California

                                                                                                          Such a lovely place, such a lovely face

                                                                                                        Plenty of room at the Hotel California

Any time of year, you can find it here.

Marriott mirror Yes, you can find it there in Palm Desert, but you may not want to find it ‘any time of year’; in the summer it’s not such a ‘lovely place’, but in early spring – awesome!

One of the great features of this timeshare is that it’s an hour and half’s drive from home; so no airports, delayed flights, missed connections or airplane food; and yet once you’re there you feel like you’re in a whole different world – perhaps because you are.

Some dance to remember

Some dance to forget

And there are some of us that have just forgotten how to dance altogether, but the images dancing in my head of desert nights, desert skies, desert flowers, desert sunsets silhouetting Mt. San Jacinto in the distance and billion stars in the sky are simply magnificent.

Relax said the nightman, you are programed to receive,

You can check out anytime you like, but you can never leave

Actually check-out is by 11:00 a.m. or you’re subject to late fees, but after a week of ‘Desert Decadence’, it’s time to go home.Hole #2

Hotel California ends with, if not the greatest, one of the greatest guitar riffs in rock and roll history, I’ll conclude with:

  1.  Find your Hotel California – ideally a few hours drive from your home, but in a totally different       world
  2. Listen to some Eagles music, if you don’t have any, GET SOME!
  3. Enjoy a week of indulgence; you’ve earned it . . . probably

Back home and the lyrics that are now echoing in my head are: My diet starts Monday!

 

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Wonders in the Desert – Family

by Bob Sparrow

I was amazed again by the wonders of the desert on my journey last week, but this time in a totally different way.  Those who have followed us here know my fascination with places like Death Valley and Joshua Tree; last week’s journey took me to another desert, the Sonoran in southern Arizona, and the wonders I saw there were our brother, Jack’s kids and grand kids – no hiking and camping on this trip.

SuzAlDashBut the first stop along the way was to my sister, Suzanne and her husband, Al’s beautiful home in the private golf community of Desert Highlands in Scottsdale, about as far from camping as I could have gotten.  Linda and I made the stop in Scottsdale on our way to Tucson not only to see Suzanne and Al, but to see if it was true what they were saying about their new dog, Dash

It didn’t take long to see that it was true, Dash was now in full control of Suzanne, Al and all that goes on around the house . . . no, make that their lives.  It was easy to see why this dog commanded such attention – he is adorable.  When I found us all talking baby talk to the dog, I knew it was time to hit the road.  We headed south, confident that the newest member of our family had his owners firmly in control.

Watsons

Abby, Colin, Katie, Shelley

Look up the word ‘family’ and you’ll find everything from ‘a taxonomic group containing one or more genera’ to ‘a loose affiliation of gangsters in charge of organized criminal activity’.  What you should see is a picture of the Watson family – Colin, Shelley, Katie, Abby and Murphy, the dog.  They are a fun-loving family full of caring, intelligent, thoughtful, humorous, loving people.  Add in nephew, Matt and kids Jackson and Madelyn, and you’ve got quite an assembly of people I just love being around.  Matt is a single dad who has his own physical therapy business; he is an intelligent, spiritual man who has a serious side, but is also one of the funniest people I know.  My cheeks hurt from laughing when I with him.  And I’m related to them all – which some say adds credence to the ‘me being adopted’ theory.

Murphy

Murphy

Katie (15) and Abby (12) both play tennis, very well, I might add.  They’ll be stars of their high school team, probably earn scholarships to a highly regarded academic college (they’re both straight A students) and enjoy the game of tennis the rest of their lives.  Unlike most kids and parent involved in youth athletics these days, they have neither the illusion nor the desire to become

Matt's family

Jackson, Matt, Madelyn

professional athletes – rather refreshing. If ever my faith needed to be restored in our youth, our future, it was – in straight sets.

After spending a very enjoyable ‘family’ weekend, we stopped in Phoenix on our way home to have breakfast with Linda’s sister and her husband, Starlet and Donnie, who, you guessed it, are great people!

I have come to enjoy the wonders of the desert; the mild days this time of year, the gentle nights; always amazed at how things not only live in this environment, but flourish.  And so it is with family there; I enjoy the smell of Matt’s chicken on the barbeque, the noise of kids at play in the pool, Colin’s British accent, Shelley’s make-you-feel-comfortable style, but mostly I enjoy the wonder of family and feel so very fortunate that Linda and I are so blessed with great family.

Donnie & Starlet

If you’re reading this on Monday morning, most of you know that I will be a bit preoccupied with my immediate family – daughter Dana is undergoing heart surgery this morning.  I’m looking forward to next writing about her successful recovery.

 

Another Walk in the Park: JOSHUA TREE NATIONAL – Part II

by Bob Sparrow

Joshua-Tree treeSaturday morning:

Anyone that tells you they slept like a baby in a sleeping bag in a tent on a windy night in a public campground is lying, or the baby was colicky.  The night passed slowly, but I knew I’d feel better in the morning after a cup of coffee and a nice warm shower.  I settled for a cup of coffee, there were no showers.

We’ve got three key destinations planned for the day, so we set out early for the first one, The Hall of Horrors.  ‘The Hall’ is a natural tunnel through a large rock formation, that is not easily found, but once found, is spectacular.

Here is a video of our trip through the Hall of Horrors as found on YouTube – it is really cool.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=g3NuhY3oN7c  (click on or copy and paste into your URL)

Our next hike was the loop to the Lost Horse Mine. To quote the parks literature on the mine, “the story of the Lost Horse Mine if filled with cowboy gunLost horse mine fights, cattle rustlers, horse thieves, the lure of gold and some sticky-fingered miners”. Surprisingly there were a lot of gold mine in the Mojave Desert, over 300, but most were very unproductive, the Lost Horse Mine was an exception.  Over 10,000 ounces of gold and 16,000 ounces of silver (worth about $5 million today) were mined between 1894 and 1931.  We had perfect weather for this 6+ mile hike and found the history of the mine and the area around it fascinating.

Our final destination for the day was Keys View – thank goodness it was drivable as we were low on water, but had plenty of wine; so we drove there before sundown, snapped the neck off a bottle of Pinot Noir and enjoyed the view.  There was an interesting picture on a plaque at Keys View showing what the view would look like if it were smoggy – I guess Southern Californians are used to seeing things that way, so they didn’t want to disappoint anyone who made the drive up there and found that the air wasn’t something you could sink your teeth into.  keys view

Our view on this day was crystal clear. To the south we could see the Salton Sea, and beyond was a mountain at the US-Mexico boarder.  In front of us some 5,000 feet below was a very visible San Andreas Fault, running the length of the Coachella Valley, from Palms Springs to Indio.  In the distance you could see Mt. San Jacinto and Mt. San Gorgonio, both over 10,000 feet and snow-capped at this time of year.  Finally, we could see the bottom of our wine glasses, which meant it was time to head back to camp for a hot shower and dinner.  Oh yeah, just dinner.

Dr. Chuck Wagon had prepared a delightful repast featuring cooked-over-the-fire chicken and his ‘special potatoes’ . . . and some more wine.

Hiking affords one a lot of time to just walk and wonder, not bothered with interruptions or to-do lists. Hiking in the desert is particularly inspiring as one sees this abundance of flora and fauna and wonder why and how they manage to not just survive, but thrive in this environment.  Josh sunset

To me the desert is amazing; it is so desolate, yet filled with so many wonders.  No one made the Indians, miners and ranchers stay in the desert, but many remained and managed to carve out a living in this seemingly god-forsaken place.  The reality is that it’s not god-forsaken, there are an amazing number of things living in the desert.

We sit around the campfire as the sky turns incredibly black and the star shine literary like diamonds.  We can hear some critters in the distance and the popping of the logs on the campfire.  It was a good day . . . no, it was a great day! 

  • Camping fee: $10 a night
  • Entrance to the park: $15
  • Sharing stories around the campfire with Trail Boss, Greeter, Sparky and Chuck Wagon: Priceless

Campfire at Lake Cumberland

 

 

Another Walk in the Park: JOSHUA TREE NATIONAL – Part I

Cholla Cactus

Cholla Cactus


by Bob Sparrow

It was all I could do to make a left turn when traveling southeast on Interstate 10 through the Mojave Desert.  The usual right turn takes me into the Palm Spring/Palm Desert communities where for years I’ve gone to relax, play golf and perhaps partake of a margarita, maybe two.  But last week, turning left took me into Joshua Tree National Park where hiking and camping replaced golf and margaritas.  ‘The Boys’ and I planned to camp and spend the weekend hiking just to see what was shakin’ around the San Andreas Fault, which runs through the park.  Even though I’ve lived within two hours of ‘Josh’ (we’re now on a first-name basis), I had never been there.  Apparently I’m not the only one late to this party, Joshua Tree was a mere National Monument (at slightly larger than the state of Rhode Island it was quite a large monument!) until as recently as 1994, when it finally became a National Park.

‘The Boys’ are:

Sparky, Avalanche, Greeter, Trail Boss

Sparky, Avalanche, Greeter, Trail Boss

Patrick ‘Trail Boss’ Michael, who plans the trips, draws the permits, has all the trail maps, plans the menu and   brings the firewood.  He’s an engineer by trade – what a surprise!

  •        – Bob ‘Sparky’ Pacelli, who insists we each carry a walkie-talkie even though we never get more than 20 feet from each other during the entire weekend.  The only time the walkie-talkies were used was when he heard from a trucker on Interstate 10 trying to get lucky.

Rick ‘Greeter’ Sullivan, the friendliest man on the trail; greets everyone he meets with his big, easy smile. If he’s at your campfire make sure you have plenty of wood, ‘cause he’s got plenty of stories.

Richard ‘Chuck Wagon’ Wade, who is not a hiker, but asked if he could come along and cook.  Hell yeah!  Since he’s a forensic doctor with a degree from Harvard, we respectfully call him Dr. Chuck Wagon.

– My nickname is ‘Avalanche’ because I used to come down a hill fairly quickly, that was then, now they’re thinking about changing my name to ‘Lava Floe’ or ‘Petrified Rock’.

Dr. Chuck Wagon

Dr. Chuck Wagon

We entered the park at the Cottonwood Springs entrance, which is at the far southeastern corner; our campsite was at the Black Rock Nature Center, which is at the far northwestern corner, so it allowed us to drive through the middle of the park (about 65 miles), stopping along the way when we found something interesting.

Bra & Shoe Tree

Bra & Shoe Tree

The first interesting site we saw was the rare ‘Bra & Shoe Tree’ (photo left).  Nope, not sure how they got there, but I’d appreciate it if the person who put them there would call my wife and explain – she’s not sure what kind of camping we were doing.

Our first stop was right inside the gate where there is a good long hike (Lost Palms Oasis) and a good short one (Mastodon Peak).  Given that we had ‘miles to go before we sleep’ we took the shorter hike, which took us past the old Mastodon Gold Mine and ultimately to Mastodon Peak which provided us a great view of the Salton Sea and the namesake rock, the one that looks like a mastodon.

 

Joshua Tree is filled with all kinds of interesting rock formation, many are named after what they look like – Skull Rock, where we stopped to hike

skull rockand have lunch, is a good example. The rock formation in the photo below didn’t have a name that we knew about, so we made up one: ‘Four Frogs Fornicating’ – if you look at it long enough and from just the right angle maybe you’ll see it, but probably not.  I don’t think our name will make it into the National Park Registry.

The road through the park has a good number of pullouts and informational plaques that help explain what lies in front of you, like a beautiful Joshua Trees forest, or a row of those pretty, but prickly cholla cactus or just a collection of interestingly-shaped rocks, many of them with rock climbers on them.

Since ‘Dr. Chuck Wagon’ wasn’t getting in until the next morning, after we got to our campsite and pitched our tent, we decided to go into town for dinner.  Town, in this case was Yucca Valley, although we could have opted for the bustling burg of Twentynine Palms.  We were told about a place just out of Yucca Valley called ‘Pioneertown’, where a movie set of a western town was built in the 40’s and a number of western movie and tv series were shot there staring the likes of Roy Rogers, Gene Autry and the Cisco Kid to name a few.  We had dinner at an old western saloon there called Pappy & Harriet’s.  OK, we weren’t exactly ‘roughing’ it, but we did drive back to the park after dinner and retire to our tent for the night.

Four Frogs Fornicating

Four Frogs Fornicating

 

 

Coming on Wednesday – Part II 

                                  Treks to the Lost Horse Mind, Keys View and the Hall of Horrors

Catalina: Hamilton Cove, Glenmore Plaza Hotel and the ‘Other Side’

by Bob Sparrow

photo (89)Twenty-thirteen portends to be an unusual year for me, perhaps even paranormal, what with all the ‘other side’ things that helped usher in a year with a 13 in it.  No, I’m not superstitious, but like Michael Scott, I am a little ‘stitious’.  While most New Year’s days I’ve watched the sun set into the Pacific Ocean somewhere along the ‘left coast’, this year I welcomed in the new year on the ‘other side’ watching the sun coming up over the Pacific from Hamilton Cove on Catalina Island – truly a unique experience.  OK, truth is there haven’t been too many years when I’ve even seen the sun on New Year’s Day, but that’s another story.

If you’ve never been there, Hamilton Cove looks like it belongs on the ‘other side’ of the Atlantic, perhaps on a Greek island coastline or hanging somewhere off the Amalfi Coast in Italy.  I suppose if you have been there, it still looks that way, but as if getting away from it all in Catalina wasn’t enough, several of us wanted to get away from the people who wanted to get away from it all – to the ‘other side’ of Catalina.  I discovered that Catalina is a little like the moon, in that most people only see one side, although I can tell you now from experience, that the ‘other side’ of Catalina is not dark . . . photo (95)unless you go at night, then it’s really dark.  Like the moon, it’s not easy to get to the ‘other side’ of Catalina, you have to have a pass that gets you through the gate on the road to the ‘other side’ that goes through the infamous ‘Airport in the Sky’, Catalina’s private airport where planes don’t really take off from the runway, the runway simply drops out from under them after several thousand feet and, presto, they’re airborne.

glenmore plaza hotelWe were fortunate to be in the company of one Michael Amoroso, whose family has lived on the island for over twenty years and owns and operate the Glenmore Plaza Hotel, ‘the second oldest continuously operating hotel in California’, so says Michael’s brother, Jimmy, who manages the hotel.  I thought it odd that a hotel in this relatively remote location would have such a distinction so I asked Jimmy Jr., Jimmy’s son who works at the hotel, “Whose #1?”  He replied like someone who’d studied hotel history his entire life, “The Hotel del Coronado.”  I decided to see what Google had to say on the matter:

  • ‘Oldest hotel in California’ – the Benicia in northern California – est. 1852
  • ‘One of the oldest hotels in California’ – Murphy’s in the gold country – est. 1856
  • ‘One of the oldest continuously operating hotels in Calif’ – National Hotel (also in the gold country) – est. 1859
  • ‘Largest resort hotel in the world’ – Hotel del Coronado – est. 1888
  • ‘Second oldest hotel in California’ – so stated on Google about the Glenmore Plaza Hotel, but it doesn’t say who’s first or when the Glenmore was established.  Wikipedia probably got their information from Jimmy Jr. too.

I also found on Google a picture with a caption that said, ‘Second oldest hotel in California’ – it was not a picture of the Glenmore.

Meanwhile, back on the road to ‘the other side’, just before reaching the airport we see a buffalo standing alongside the road.  I’ll tell you the photo (92)history of how buffalo got on the island . . . another time.  After a brief stop at the airport, we start down on the western slope of the island; the paved road turns to dirt.  We drive past El Rancho Escondido, a ranch, Michael tells us, started by the Wrigley family back in the ‘30s for breeding Arabian horses – another story too long to tell here.  We also pass a vineyard – yes, another story.  The road leads us to a west coast inlet called ‘Little Harbor’, where there is no man-made harbor, but a small campgrounds and no campers, no nothing except a beautiful uncluttered coastline, which is pretty much what all of the ‘other side’ of Catalina is.  We walked along the beach on this beautiful January day and enjoyed the fresh air, sunshine and solitude.

little harborOur return to civilization is uneventful except for the stories Michael tells us of the ghosts that   inhabit the island.  Back in Avalon we thank Michael for exposing us to the many stories and sides of Catalina, particularly ‘the other side’.

 

 

 

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