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.

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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.

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 042014
 

Fig, Wasps

Fig, Wasps

by David Bristow

God has been famously, and is often, likened to the great watchmaker: the parts of the biota being so complicated, finely crafted (it might appear), and inter-connected, much like the workings of a clock, only a divine creator could have made and fitted all the pieces together so finely and set it working so precisely. (Maybe God is Swiss, after all is said and done.)

The human eye is often used as an example of God’s exquisite watchmaking, which is not a good thing. A trainee biologist could tell you that the human eye has been constructed back to front; the wiring comes out the wrong way, through the middle of the retina; and the image comes out upside down. If a first-year engineering student submitted that as his design project, he would fail.

So it is left to the brain’s software to make all the needed corrections; it’s like God sending out the Space Shuttle to make adjustments in order to fix the design faults of the Hubble deep-space telescope.

But maybe there is a better analogy in nature itself we could look at to see things finely, minutely and precisely put together. There is a genus of tree in Africa and Asia called wild figs (genus Ficus). They bear fruits in great abundance, and although they are much loved by herbivorous animals, they are not generally considered palatable to humans. Today we watched a bunch of baboons (no, real ones), hurtling wild fig fruits onto a group of 10 tired, belly-full lions that were trying to nap under “their” sycamore fig in Ruaha National Park, which got me thinking about those figs.

The Chinese name for them means “fruit with no flower”, which aptly describes the fruits, which are not really true fruits at all. If you break one open you will indeed find the flowers on the inside, and often hordes of milling insects. Most of those insects will be small, stingless wasps, together often with various worms.

The flowers are pollinated by the wasps, and each species of wild fig will have a corresponding unique species of wasp to which it is host. Or sometimes two species, in other cases three.

An already impregnated female wasp enters the fruit through a small hole at the tip, one that usually goes unnoticed to human eyes (it looks like a dark spot). In the process her wings, antennae and other sticking out bits are usually stripped off her body, rendering her incapable of mobility outside the fig and thus convicting her to death inside: she will eventually be eaten by worms.

However, before her gruesome death (everything has to eat), she will spew eggs out of her ovipositor inside the still unripe fruit. By some working of the biological mechanism, the males hatch first. As an aside, in some reptiles such as crocodiles and turtles, the temperature of the surrounding sand of the nest will determine what sex the foetus egg assumes.

The penis of the male fig wasp is very large, relatively speaking, larger than the wasp’s body. With it he, in fact all the hatched males, go about inside the fig, piercing the unhatched eggs – which will be female by definition, or most of them at any rate – with that rapier organ of theirs, and impregnate the females while still in their eggs. It is somewhere around this time that the mother gets eaten.

The male wasps do not have wings, and they are somewhat larger than the females, so they eat their way out the fruit and are not seen again in our story; their biological work is done and they are expendable as insect fodder.

During all this time the fruit has been ripening and the flowers blooming. When the male wasps hatch the male flower parts, the stamens, have not yet developed. However, by the time the female wasps are buzzing about inside they have, and the female wasps collect pollen on their bodies. Off they then crawl, out the hole through which their mother came in, and fly off to find another fig tree.

When it is time for them to find their own little wild fig nest, they crawl in, pollinate the flowers inside, and the cycle replays. Some of these wasps have parasitic wasp species with longer ovipositors, and some of them in turn have their parasitic wasp species with even longer ovipositors. This is a theme much repeated in nature.

 So, God or natural selection? I’m not sure, but what I do know is that it is not worth going to war over a fig or a wasp.

Sep 112014
 

Way Out of Africa
The Great Rift Valley Lodge

by David Bristow

The Great Rift Valley is a perplexing place, and always has been. People have lived here since there were people, and pre-humans (as well as the ancestors of the great apes) before that. The rifting created great troughs where water collected, and the volcanoes that accompanied the faulting spewed out wonderfully fertile soils. It was all anyone, or any animal, could ask for.

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In times not long past the Maasai were masters of the Rift, or Eastern Rift – there is also a Western or Albertine Rift – but colonial land grabs and later political intrigues have wrenched much of it away. This they wholly resented and it has led to explosive tensions and conflict, often within modern conservation areas.

Today the main Rift Valley region of Kenya is an all too real African scenario, where the burgeoning human population pushes up against wildlife areas and national parks struggle to retain their authority. And beyond all this it is not hard to see why the old colonials fell so hard for the place.

Out of Africa

Karen Blixen did not live near the Rift Valley, but the excellent film based on her superb book was filmed largely around Lake Naivasha. Crescent Island, a private estate in the lake, was used as the primary location. Across the lake on its western shore lies Elsamere, the last home of Joy Adamson. Today it is a small lodge and museum dedicated to the Adamsons, the Born Free story and all the other incredible stories – and animals – of their lives.

Elsamere

Elsamere

She and husband George (her third) led bursting and adventurous lives, with more exploits than you could reasonably fit into 10 or more books, and several films. Joy was variously described as lascivious, neurotic and worse, and in the end it was her irascibility that was her undoing: the cook, with a machete, in the bedroom. George came to grief in a hail of bullets from Somali Shifta bandits when he went to the aid of a group of tourists who had been ambushed in Kora National Park where he lived with his lions.

The Great Rift

Joy was probably all the things said of her. One thing was certain: when this Austrian vamp set her sights on a man, he was a goner. All of them remarkable men! But then ordinary people seldom lead extraordinary lives and it took an exceptional woman to live the “born free” story. And for that she needed an equally strong partner, which she found in the tough-as-old-camel-leather hunter turned conservationist.

George had started out trading goats in Kenya’s harsh northern territory. He then turned hunter, then park ranger, always living a rough life in the roughest of places. When they married Joy fitted right in. But he was rock solid and she was flighty and so their ways parted. Her vices were mainly men while his were whisky and his ever-constant pipe. Still they remained bound to the end by the spirits of the animals they lived with, none more so than Elsa.

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A Lodge With A View

For the past five days and nights (nights mainly, since Roger, Pat and I have been up an hour before sunrise most days headed for Hell’s Gate, Lake Naivasha, Lake Nakuru National Park and various other places of the Rift) I’ve been looking out of my chalet at the Great Rift Valley Lodge (and golf resort). The view is more than generous, and across the lake is the looming 3,000-m Mount Longodot and somewhere in the haze is Elsamere.

The lodge – more like a country, or bush, resort – is by far the best place to stay. Everything about the place has impressed us way beyond expectations. Golfers are expected to avoid hitting the zebras.

If you have the beat of Africa in your heart and its waters in your veins, you need to visit the Great Rift Valley. And if you do then you need to stay at this lodge. Everything about the area seems to vibrate with the essence of all that is wonderful and untamed, both wildlife and human, about the continent. And if you do, a visit to Elsamere should be high up on your itinerary: it will give you new eyes with which to see the place. The documentary they show on the lives of the Adamsons – much of it George’s “home” movies – is likely bring out deeper feelings than you bargained for.

Great Rift Valley

Great Rift Valley