Aug 102015
 

Wild Frontiers interview

David Bristow interviews John Addison, co-founder of Wild Frontiers, who hosted the African Icons team in the Serengeti and Uganda’s Buhoma Mountains last year.

 Travel and nature author David Bristow, writer behind the mammoth ‘Africa’s Finest’ and ‘African Icons’ book projects, fesses up: John Addison, the man behind Wild Frontiers safari company, has saved his hide – more than once.

 To quote: “If I was in a real pickle somewhere in Africa and I had just one phone call to make, I’d call John Addison. I’ve done it more than once already.”

 So what is it about Bwana John and Wild Frontiers that makes them stand head and shoulders above their competitors, David asked him recently over ice cold Kilimanjaros.

 First, it is the experience of the team. John met his future wife and now business partner Debbie on an overland safari that crossed some of the most hostile terrain in Africa. First separately and now together they have covered every inch of the places they peddle, and much more besides. They spend much of the year on the road, crisscrossing the continent to keep up to date on all things, but also – and equally importantly – to make sure the cogs of their operation are running smoothly.

 John recounts: “We are not a website selling packages to places which they depict in pretty pictures. We are real people, people who know the place better than just about anyone else. We only sell travel to places we know personally and, in most cases, have our own people based there …” (they employ more than 200 people throughout Africa) – not half bad for a “mom and pop” operator.

Big-Bwanas-Bristow-and-Addison

Bwanas Bristow and Addison check out a wildebeest carcass on the Ndutu Plain of Serengeti, checking for any leftovers, while Memsaab de La Harpe captures the action of video from afar. Pic by Roger de la Harpe.

 Second, he tells me, Wild Frontiers is not only owner-managed, but they run all their own trips, they own camps and vehicles across Africa. They are not, he explains, like 90 % of safari websites that are really just travel re-bookers.

 “What happens when the wheels come off,” he stares me down, implying they can and sometimes do. “You cannot call Expedia and cry for help.” But you can call John, even better Debbie, which I know well enough.

 One of the biggest issues with modern travel, specifically safari travel in wild Africa, reckons John, is that there is actually too much information and not enough knowledge. What travellers really need is a human filter.

 Wild Frontiers operates out of South Africa and into 10 other countries, notably Namibia, Zimbabwe, Zambia, Botswana, Tanzania (including the Zanzibar islands), Uganda, Kenya, Rwanda, Central Africa Republic and Ethiopia. They also have operational bases in Zimbabwe, Tanzania and Uganda in order to facilitate smooth operations.

 So if it’s safari you’re looking for, and you want it wild but as safe as Africa can be, you want to talk to Wild Frontiers. They even host what I call “beer evenings” in conjunction with Cape Union Mart where you can go and talk these things over. Not only that, but they initiated and run both the Kilimanjaro and Victoria Falls annual marathons as investments in local upliftment and destination marketing.

 John and Debbie have been helping people reach their dreams, such as up Kilimanjaro and encounters with mountain gorillas, for more than 25 years. They’re in it for the long run.

But don’t believe me, I’m just a writer. Check out their credentials on their website http://www.wildfrontiers.com/index.php?q=con,296,Our%20Company

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Mar 132015
 

By and by our book is taking material shape. The page design has been tweaked by layout artist James Berrangé, Resolution Colour is preparing final colour spreads to create PDFs for the printers, Tien Wah in Singapore, and Graphicraft is almost done with the sample (or dummies as they are called in the trade), hand binding.

Book blocks, or unbound books, will be delivered to us in Cape Town around mid-May, when the men and women at Graphicraft will begin their work of making completed products.

Within the next two weeks we will have our pay portal live on our website and then our shop will open for business. Anyone placing a pre-publication order will receive a hefty discount on the R3 500-00 ($350-00) retail price. In the mean time drop us a line if you would like to place and order.

But more of this later… for us it is thrilling, beginning to see the product of our planning and labours over the past two years taking material form. And I can say, the real thing exceeds our expectations.

Detail of the African Icons Book Covers

Detail of the African Icons Book Covers

African Icons book in the Graphicraft workshop

African Icons book in the Graphicraft workshop

Garth Middelton and Clive Thomas of Graphicraft, South Africa's go-to binders for high quality work, mull over the choice of materials for African Icons.

Garth Middelton and Clive Thomas of Graphicraft, South Africa’s go-to binders for high quality work, mull over the choice of materials for African Icons.

Jan 212015
 

Thonga Beach Turtle

Thonga Beach Turtle

By David Bristow

What cut of meat is that, the Argentinian woman wanted to know of probably the best piece of beef I – and seemingly she – had ever eaten. Loin, I thought. Not that we were there for the meat. It was just that the food at Thonga Beach Lodge has maybe the best food of any lodge I have visited, and I have seen a lot of lodges in the course of researching African Icons and all my previous books.

We were there for the turtles, leatherbacks and loggerheads that come ashore to nest on the beaches of Thongaland between Kosi and Sodwana Bays each summer. There are five species of turtle found in the coral waters here, including hawksbill, Ridley’s olive and green, but only the loggerhead and leatherback females nest here. Just why, no-one can say for sure.

Driving on beaches in South Africa is not allowed, except if you stay here (or one other lodge in the area) where you are allowed to join turtle searches during low tide. You stare ahead for the tell-tale tracks: two sets mean you are too late and the hard-shelled reptile has already laid and returned to the sea. One set and it’s pay dirt – it’s just hauled ashore.

In his book ‘Between the Tides’ (which you should buy), George recounts the time when, during the paranoid apartheid years, a security forces officer burst into the parks board bungalow to declare the country had been invaded by a large amphibious tank. How the conservationists laughed; the man had not before seen the tracks of a leatherback, which can attain a mass of around 900 kg and a length of around 3 m.

The whole process of coming ashore, digging a nest hole above the high-water mark, laying a batch of around 100 soft-shelled eggs, covering up the hole and returning to the ocean, takes an hour or more. It’s an extremely moving experience and I have seen big men shake with emotion and even shed a tear. Dr George Hughes started tagging turtles for the then Natal Parks Board (of which he was later chief) in 1964, one of the longest running research and conservation programmes in the world.

He regularly visits the lodge where he conducts turtle talks and tours. The first part of the job was to stop people here – and later all along the Mozambique coast, and then the Indian Ocean islands – from killing the turtles for meat and soup, and digging up the eggs for an easy feast. All the turtle species that occur here are highly endangered and without the tireless work of what is now called Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife, there might well be none left today.

Even more than the turtles though, this has been my favourite beach lodge in South Africa since I first visited it nearly two decades ago. In fact its been my favourite beach since I first visited it as a teenager several decades ago. The powder-soft sand, rich intertidal pools, the warm Indian Ocean, dense dune forest, the lakes and grasslands that roll away to the west contribute to an almost overwhelming nature experience.

The lodge sits on a prime site in the iSimangaliso Wetland Park, a World Heritage Site due to its amazingly rich biodiversity, including the largest estuarine lake system in Africa. When it came to choosing icons for our book, iSimangaliso and Thonga Beach were shoo-ins.

And wait till you try the coffee crème brûlée! And the scuba diving here is not too shabby either. The only thing you won’t eat here is turtle soup, even though George Hughes was unable to stop the Lord Mayor of London serving it at his annual banquet.

Thonga Lodge Deck

Thonga Lodge Deck

Dec 172014
 

A Not-So Trashy Trailer Park

Grand Daddy Boutique Hotel

Grand Daddy Boutique Hotel

How cities change. You have to wonder what founding father Jan van Riebeeck would have say about what became of his struggling little outpost in the cusp of Table Bay. And yet in more than a century the building at No. 38 Long Street (corner of Castle) has not for one day changed its function. Planned in 1894 as the Hamburg Hotel by one of Cape Town’s most prolific architects of the day, Anthony Mathius de Witt in German Renaissance style, the building opened as the Metropole Hotel the following year.

It then underwent a make-over in 1900 under architect William Black who removed much of the German Baroque detail. The original mansard roof, dormer windows, quaint pediments, the corner tower and crowning cupola were removed and pointed red brick and stone work were plastered over. Fashion, then as now, does not endure sentimentality.

In 1928 architect Mello Damstra oversaw the removal of the wrought-iron verandah replacing it with the existing concrete ones, and adding the projecting concrete balconettes and window hoods evident today. Early in the 21st century the building re-invented itself as the Grand Daddy Boutique Hotel.

Current owners Jan and Jaci van Hetteren (she of Jaci’s Camp in Madikwe Game Reserve), have repurposed seven shiny silver Airstream trailers on the rooftop terrace, five stories about street level. The “proudly South African” décor you’ll see today is the work of Capetonian interior designer Tracy Lynch. She was also responsible for the interior of the “Love of Lace” Airstream Trailer: in 2014 each of the seven trailers was given a unique theme by a different designer of note.

And yet, through all these changes, not to mention those of the world around it, for 120 years the hotel has never stopped providing board and lodgings to visitors to the “tavern of the seas”. The vintage elevator is said to be the oldest working “lift” in the Mother City.

The lift stops one floor short of the rooftop terrace. After a short flight of steps “up there” you’ll find the Sky Bar and Pink Flamingo open-air mini cinema showing modern classics. Pulp Fiction anyone?

Nov 242014
 

The Very Best Cup in the World

Coffee is the social glue of Ethiopian culture. You don’t just pop in for a quick cup at a friend’s house. The coffee ceremony is to these people what the tea ceremony is the Japanese.

Wild coffee is still gathered in the highland forests: Ethiopia is where coffee originates and wild coffee is the very best, I promise you that. First the beans have to be roasted over a charcoal fire in a metal urn. That takes about half an hour. All the while into another pot with coals frankincense is thrown and the smoke from that fills the room.

When the beans start to toast they have to be tended carefully, because that is when you determine whether you want a light, medium or dark roast. Dark is the only way here. When the beans are all blackened the roasting pan is taken off the fire. A tall clay coffee pot filled with water is put on the fire while the beans are spooned into a stone mortar and pounded extremely finely using a metal, crow-bar looking pestle.

This takes up to 10 minutes, all the while the frankincense is replenished. Personally I thought the smell of roasting coffee beans was adequate, but you cannot change a culture that is at least 4,000 years old. Frankincense, myrrh as well as coffee was exported from here to Egypt and Persia as far back as 2,000 BC, it is written.

The finely ground coffee is then spooned into the coffee pot and left to brew for a few minutes. It’s nearly time. However, you cannot serve coffee on its own. A platter of chachabessa – chapatti like flat bread – is passed around. It in turn is served with a spicy barberry sauce.

While we were staying at the Mountain View Hotel in Lalibela (we went there with Vast Ethiopian Tours), hotel manager Moges Fentaw invited us to participate in the coffee ceremony in the dining room, before the other noisy guests filled the room and proceeded to gulp down the day’s brew.

The best cup of coffee we have ever had - a Coffee Ceremony at Mountain View Hotel in Lalibela. Ethiopia.

The best cup of coffee we have ever had – a Coffee Ceremony at Mountain View Hotel in Lalibela. Ethiopia.

We were also treated to the special, first brew – there would be a second and a third fill for the punters, but that first one is the piece de resistance of the coffee world. It was not bitter at all, as we had expected it to be, with a hint of dark chocolate.

This is how it’s bean done for thousands of years, and no upstart cup served in Milan, Seattle or Cape Town comes close.

Nov 242014
 

A Lodge Like No Other

Talk about remote. From Addis Ababa it’s a seven-hour chiropractic drive to Bale National Park. Once there you’d hardly expect to find a bed, let alone a fancy lodge. But your wildest expectations would be exceeded when you – finally – arrived at Bale Mountain Lodge.

Bale Mountain Lodge in Ethiopia.

Bale Mountain Lodge in Ethiopia.

We had heard the mountains were quite something, and that we might get to see the elusive Ethiopian wolf. Something indeed: on the drive over the Sanetti Plateau and then winding down through the Harrena Forest, we notched up more endemic bird species than I could fit on one page my notebook. And we saw a wolf, trotting through the snow-white heather, its deep red coat shining out of the misty gloom of that otherworldly habitat.

View of the Bale Mountains from Bale Mountain Lodge. Ethiopia.

View of the Bale Mountains viewed from Bale Mountain Lodge. Ethiopia.

The lodge is the dream made stone and timber for Guy and Yvonne Leverne, he formerly a career officer in the British Army (and OBE for his peacekeeping efforts in Africa). Soon after they were posted to Ethiopia a family incident caused them to reconsider their lives and goals. First was taking an early retirement package, and then came searching for the place to make new lives for themselves.

Bale was not the first place they looked, just the last. Once found, they poured their prodigious minds and labours into creating a lodge that, although less than a year in operation, stands alongside the very best safari destinations on the continent. And green? It’s positively emerald. “There is still room for improvement,” admits the jovial but always humble Guy, “but we are as green as we can be.”

The family unit, Jackal House (named for the family of golden jackals that lives in the woods behind), is a straw-bale construction. Then, in the treeline looking out above the stream that provides the lodge with power, are four timber chalets including a fairytale treehouse.

There is no grid to be off in their neck of the woods, so their power comes from an innovative micro-hydroelectric plant: there is more water than sunshine, hence the abundance of woods. They repurpose, recycle and reduce like crazy. No water in plastic bottles, and even the wine they serve is local: rather tasty Rift Valley red and a white, which is far more refined than the South African plonk (Culemborg and Drosty Hof) that is served up elsewhere in the country.

One of the rooms at Bale Mountain Lodge - A treehouse in the beautiful forests.

One of the rooms at Bale Mountain Lodge – a treehouse in the beautiful forests.

The kitchen and menus were set up by a Gordon Ramsay-trained friend, who in turn installed his own hand-picked protégé at the lodge. Don’t expect haute cuisine l’Ecosse, but rather a kind of local fusion. Remember that Ethiopia has its own everything, having been isolated from the outside world for the better part of two millennia, and that includes its splendid food.

As we were packing to leave, rather reluctantly, Guy and Yvonne heard over the scratchy Internet that they had been judged runners up in the Safari Awards as the best new lodge in Africa. Reason enough to open a bottle of Rift Valley red.

Serious nature lovers need to get there.

Nov 242014
 

From Out of the Strength Came Forth Sweetness

Honey plays a central role in the food of all pre-industrial societies. The Western World’s oldest text, the Old Testament or Talmud, tells of much about honey. For the Bushmen of the Kalahari it is edible gold. You could kill a person for raiding one of your hives. Even today in Ethiopia wild honey is a basic food group.

Could we have some butter for out breakfast toast, we asked waiter Habtamu Getachew in the Mountain View Hotel. (There are no surnames as we know them. Getachew is his father’s name; children, boys at any rate, take their father’s name as their surname.)
No butter.
Could we then have some margarine (yuk)?
No margarine.
What could we have then?
Honey. Wild honey.
Okay fine. Lovely. And why are you looking so tired.

Our waiter Habtamu Getachew at the Mountain View Hotel in Lalibela, Ethiopia.

Our waiter Habtamu Getachew at the Mountain View Hotel in Lalibela, Ethiopia.

Turns out Habtamu had been up all night at church, at a service to which we had been invited but ducked out of. We’d been up at around 4:30 am each day to get to the stone churches to get the photography done before the noisy tourists arrived at 9 am sharp each day. Which is when we’d retire back to the hotel for breakfast.

Habtamu told us whenever he has a day off he walks about five hours to his family home down the valley, not far from where King Lalibela was born at Kudues Harbe. There he goes and collects wild honey. Honey in this place is much than just sweet food. Honey is the only food that never spoils, it has a mild antibiotic action and can be used to cover burns, among its many wondrous properties. It is quite simply nature’s wonder food.

When a young minor prince was born, nearly 1,000 years ago in the north of the ancient kingdom of Axum, a swarm of bees surrounded the crib. “Lalibela” cried his royal mother, “the bees recognise his sovereignty!” There was a belief that animals could foretell important events.

The child was named Lalibela. He did eventually become king and it was he who, apparently, directed by God, built the 11 stone churches here that are now a World Heritage Site and one of the man-made wonders of the world. They are hewn from the volcanic rock mountainside. But what is most amazing about them is how they were constructed.

Actually they were deconstructed – the rock had to be tunnelled into and then, instead of building from the ground up, all the negative spaces inside the subterranean churches had to be chiseled away. Conceptually, it was a feat of extraordinary genius. From the strength of solid rock, was wrought fantastical architectural sweetness.

Nov 172014
 

Chef Solomon Getachew

Chef Solomon Getachew

Beating The Heat in the Kitchen

When the Levernes were looking for a chef to work at their new lodge in Bale Mountain National Park, their foodie friend in Addis Ababa Guy Fenton knew just the man for the job.

Solomon Getachew had trained at some of the larger hotels in Addis Ababa, including The Hilton, and then worked for a mining company in the dreaded Danakil region. It is not so much the heat in the kitchen that will get you, as the heat in the Depression: the Danakil Depression is one of the hottest places on Earth.

From there Solomon joined a catering company back in Addis run by former Gordon Ramsay trained chef, Guy Fenton. The nature of the work, however, was sporadic doing parties and embassy functions, so when Guy Fenton (so as not to be confused with Guy Leverne) heard there was a permanent job on offer he recommended Solomon.

“After working in Danakil, Bale did not seem so remote,” chuckles Guy Leverne. Apparently the idea of working there does not appeal to all, or apparently any other, urban-trained chef in the country. Trying to track down a relief chef for Solomon over the Christmas period was proving problematic for Guy (Leverne) on the day we arrived there.

Because of the connection, some guests assume they will be treated to haute cuisine a L’Ecosse, which is not the case. Guy (Fenton) helped set up the kitchen and design the menus for the lodge, but by the time you get there the Ramsay connection is three degrees of separation distant. What you will get at Bale is a lot of fresh local produce, including salads, vegetables and fruit.

The historical political and cultural isolation of the country has led to it developing entirely its own cuisine. The staple is injera, a spongy bread-type of food made from fermented teff (a cereal with a small black seed). You use it to mop up the spicy lentil, chickpea and vegetable sauces, as well as tibs, or roasted meat.

Every so often Solomon will produce a traditional injera bayoyanet, or platter. But for the most part it is more Ethiopian-Western fusion food (a style I just created). The desserts, though, are entirely Western and decadent and we’re sure Mr Ramsay would approve.

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Nov 172014
 

God's Roof

God’s Roof

Not-so God’s Roof

By David Bristow

There is much to admire and be amazed by in Lalibela. But apart from the Euro-trash and Canadian camel-driving tourists (see post here), there is one other aspect to the place that begs comment. It is the roofs over the central complex of stone churches, namely Betemedhanialam (House of the Saviour), Debre Michael, Debre Sinai incorporating Debre Mariam, and Golgotha, wherein lies buried the great King Lalibela.

After 1,000 years out sun and rain the churches were in need of some TLC. In 1954 the Ethiopians covered them with hideous wood and tin roofs. Then it was declared a World Heritage Site and the UNESCO problem solvers stepped up.

They replaced the old ones in a super modern style that vaults the churches and reduces them to also-players. There is nothing subtle about those roofs. They pay no homage to history or the inherent spirituality of the place. The new ones exhibit high-tech solutions that would gladden the heart of any engineer, but not so much that of an architect or historian.

The huge flying slabs are supported on great steel pylons that rest on the surrounding stone. Where they need more weight on the footings, instead of using – oh, I don’t know, how about stone? – they have placed metre-high cubes of stainless steel. I know this from the horse’s mouth, so to say: engineers believe they have a contract from God to pave our entire planet. Which is exactly why we also have environmental scientists to try to keep them in check.

You would think, given the nature of the site, the rocket scientists at UNESCO might have commissioned an architect as inspirational as an IM Pei, or a Frank Gehry. Maybe a gentle curve, or a wave, supported from outside the main hewn-out area. Maybe it would have included some iconography and other historical references other than the super-modernist, angular edifices that now dominate this ancient site.

It looks to me like a solution arrived at by a committee of bureaucrats (or, to quote another astute observer of modern society, a confederacy of dunces). Certainly not inspired by God, or the angels that apparently helped carve out the churches.

It looks like UNESCO has gone and built an airport when all that was needed was a carport.

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Nov 172014
 

Tourists in Heaven, from Hell

Tourists in Heaven, from Hell. Wish they were all as respectful as this one…

The Tourism Blight in Lalibela

Roger, Pat and I were discussing the Canadian tourists at the breakfast table at Mountain View Hotel in Lalibela. The town is the spiritual heart of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church. Normally such nice and restrained people, this group was loud and, quite frankly, offensive. The men dressed mostly in shorts, T-shirts and sandals, most of the women in tight, half-mast leggings with the camel toes and panty lines clearly showing.

They had absolutely no sense that they were in a very conservative and most holy place. To them it was just another Disney experience: Ooooooh, ancient stone churches and poor devoted people, how cute! If they were Christians would they go to mass in a cathedral at home dressed like that? I doubt it.

But they were not the worst. On our first day in Lalibela we attended an annual ceremony to honour King Lalibela’s successor, Nakotolab (four kings were responsible for building the amazing churches and each has his holy festival day). I noted Russian, German, Italian and French groups. Most were dressed similarly inappropriately and many thought it acceptable to barge through the ceremonies and point their cameras and mobile devices right into the faces of the high priests as they chanted holy incantations.

It is regrettable for the very many nice Europeans, but we could think of nothing kinder to call these barbarians from the so-called civilised world than Euro-trash. (You can tell the Germans from the Russians from a distance because the Russians wear much thicker socks with their sandals.) Funny in a way, but they were much better behaved, relatively, than the French or Italian speakers at the festival.

Lalibela is a very poor place, very devout and – it appears – very tolerant of outsiders; they need the money desperately. Walking in the streets every person seeing a priest will approach him; he then produces a cross, touches their head, they kiss it and sometimes his hand. There are around 900 priests so it’s a constant thing. Tourism money is helping keeping the place viable, but at what cultural and spiritual cost?

The Ethiopians have every reason to wish they could have retained their isolation from outside influence and moral decay as they were able for most of the previous 2,000 years. Someone needs to cast the first stone at the tourism delinquents who are ruining it for everyone else.

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