Since I stopped writing the Stoep Talk column, I have started a new blog. Please follow this link to see what I’m up to lately.
In 2011 global warming caused an iceberg the size of Switzerland
to break off the Antarctic Ice Shelf and begin drifting into the
open sea. I decided to raise funds to land on it and declare it a
After all, nobody owned it. And, given time, its climate will
change for the better as it drifts north into the warmer
Although it was born of global warming, ironically it could well
be the last nation on earth to succumb to it because it is
underlain by 543 718 886 000 tons of solid ice (approximately)
which, if multiplied by the square root of the law of thermal
dynamics, would, even on the equator, take 2 570 years
(rounded off) to melt down to the size of your average ice
I would need a few rugged and enterprising chums to help me
establish a nation. Maybe my five companions with whom I had annually cycled
in Europe in what became known as the Tours de Farce (see Blazing Bicycle Saddles)
would be suitable.
I could envisage us jumping ashore to take possession. One of us would have to say a few
important words – heroic words that would go down in history, such
as, “That’s one small step for a penguin, one helluva leap
Whatever is said, it would have to be said quickly because,
knowing my friends, one of them would preempt it by
saying something like, How the hell do you keep your footing on this stuff?
Of course, before announcing the birth of our new nation, we’d have
to find it a name. This, I know, would entail a lot of argument.
“Iceland!” somebody’s bound to suggest. We’d have to tell him
that the name’s been taken.
Somebody’s then bound to say, “Well, how about Chilly?”
“How about the Republic of Iceberg?” another would cry. Or New Seal Land.
(Personally, dear reader, I’d prefer a kingdom to a
republic. I fancy myself as king – James the First – it has a ring
to it. On the other hand, what if it were a republic? Then I would be president
– the only president in the world whose presidential seal could balance a
ball on the end of its nose.
“How about Schnapps?” another might say.
“How can you call a country ‘Schnapps’?” I would say.
“No, no, I meant let’s have Schnapps to celebrate.”
Somebody would then say, “Let’s rather heat up some Glühwein!”
That’s the trouble with my friends. Here we have
the opportunity to start a country from scratch and with dignity and
provide a shining example of nationhood to a troubled world, and what would they do?
They would set up folding chairs, find some chips and dip and start
shouting “Cheers!” and “Down the hatch!”
I should never have asked them in the first place.
But just think of it – starting a new country with no pollution, no
religions, no crime, no taxes – we can make up our own laws.
I can see us now… standing there in our mukluks, claiming
sovereignty over 45 000 square kilometres of virgin territory,
knowing that wherever we drift we would have fishing rights for
200 miles around. Fishing would underpin our economy – well,
that and the export of ice blocks to countries short of freshwater.
We could develop winter sports resorts.
Our main transport in this new land would be environmentally friendly
because we would mainly be skating around on our backsides,
feet in the air.
Our towns would be built on soil-covered platforms so as not to
accelerate the melting of the ice and our currency could be
sardines. Judging by the price of fish these days, we could start off with an
exchange rate of $12.40 to the sardine.
An international team of scientists is persisting in trying to connect with aliens living in outer space. This week the Seti team in California (Seti meaning “the Search for Extra-terrestrial Intelligence”) announced it would carry on trying to make contact with Aliens despite calls for caution.
The “Alien-hunt facility” has almost 400 signal-detecting dishes in the mountains northeast of San Francisco.
It can transmit into deep space and receive signals.
The question is: what happens if we receive an intelligent message?
The astrophysicists have agreed on one thing: “Don’t answer it!”
They prescribe that “no response should be sent until appropriate international consultations have taken place.”
This decision comes as a great relief to me. The last thing I would want is for Planet Earth to attract the attention of some giant planet which might then send a double-decker space bus filled with lizard-men 70m high in their stockinged feet who come tramping all over us as if we were ants as they search for the intelligent life that replied to their transmissions.
Since space probing by radio waves began in 1959 the most intelligent signal received has been from an electronically operated garage door.
An international team discused how to respond to it for four days.
Ever since scientists set up Seti I have pleaded for Seti to rather go for a KOHDASU policy (Keep Our Heads Down and Shut Up). This is because I fear that if there is intelligent life out there its creatures might be bigger, meaner and greedier than us earthlings. And the last thing we want to do is attract their attention.
They might harvest us to extinction just as we have done to various species on our own planet.
They might collect us in bags for sale in open air markets on Planet Zug selling us by the scoop like loose nuts.
They might carry our skyscrapers and railway trains back with them for their mountain-sized kids to play with – after shaking out all the wriggling little occupants.
Or they might be cold, slimy, smelly creatures who take a shine to us and with hearts overflowing with affection crawl into our beds at night eager for warmth and company.
The one ray of hope in all this is that if we do receive a signal it will probably be millions of years old. This is because if there is indeed life out there it will be on a planet zillions of light years away.
On the other hand what’s to say they can’t travel a million times faster than light or send remote giant controlled vacuum cleaners to suck up and bring home little samples of distant planets – little samples such as London or New York?
It was dawn. There I was, traversing a Zimbabwean swamp (rather intrepidly, even if I say so myself), the water above my boots and the reeds often above my head. I was hoping to flush an African Crake.
I’m a birder you see.
As I have said before, birding is a bit like train-spotting, except that a 600 ton train is easier to spot than a hiding bird. . And birding requires a lot more skill and far greater intrepidness and energy.
In fact it’s nothing like train-spotting and I don’t know why you even mentioned it.
Birds are not just beautiful, they are a mystery. That’s why birding is so absorbing.
[Aside: One of the mysteries, to me, is a typographical one: why do newspapers and other journals use capitals when writing bird names? They’d never write White Rhino or Blue Wildebeest. Yet even House Sparrows and the Penduline Tits, if you’ll pardon me, madam, get capital letters.]
Anyway, the swamp… it was the Monavale Swamp in Harare’s western suburbs, an internationally recognised birding site.
There we saw 40 species of birds, though the crake eluded us. Nevertheless I saw a Senegal Coucal which was a “lifer” for me (a lifer is a species seen for the first time).
Mary, my companion, whose “life list”, at that time, was over 650 birds, way ahead of mine, had seen one before.
We saw many species that people travel across the world to see.
We had booked three nights at each of three famed Zimbabwe birding areas – first around Harare which has an astonishing birdlife. Here we were taken into magnificent Miombo woodlands and forests.
We had flown into Harare and hired a small car and then for the 5-hour drive southeast to the Eastern Highland, a 4X4.
Here we spent three nights at Seldomseen in the mountainous Vumba region bordering Mozambique. It’s a delightful old colonial lodge with terraced gardens and a cathedral-like forest. Three days later we drove 3½-hours north, winding through spectacular scenery to Aberfoyle Lodge in the Honde Valley on Mozambique’s border. The valley is carpeted with tea plantations and deep forests.
These two areas are famous for some of the world’s rarest birds, found nowhere beyond.
We used quite brilliant Shona bird guides at $5 (US) an hour per person. Without their guidance we would have found only a tenth of the 180 species that we eventually found. I notched up an unbelievable 41 lifers and Mary, who’d birded there before, listed 24.
So excited did Seldomseen’s guide, Buluwesi Murambiwa, become that when we tracked down a difficult-to-find Spotted Creeper we’d been following for two hours, he hauled me into position by my collar. Mary, who’d also found a good vantage was pulling me just as vigorously in the opposite direction. I’m going to need a rugby jersey in future.
As both of us are beyond pensionable age we had gone to Zimbabwe with some misgivings regarding our safety. There was no need. Never did we feel insecure. Wherever we went, even in the remotest places, we were met with cheerful greetings and smiles.
Road blocks on trunk roads were manned by trim, smartly dressed policemen and women. They never solicit bribes. They used to. They’d inveigle $10 from passing tourists insisting something was wrong their car or their papers. But just before a tourism convention last year President Mugabe warned that any policeman found soliciting a bribe from a tourist would spend the rest of his life in jail.
They’re quite a contrast to South Africa’s often overweight , bribe-hungry police in their blue upholstery bursting at the seams.
Only once were we stopped. I signed an admission of guilt ($5) for not wearing a seat belt. The policeman’s white shirt was spotless and ironed.
[Footnote: Zimbabwe’s currency is US dollars and South African rands, though very few places accept rands.]
Some time ago, Tracey J Shors, professor of psychology in the department of psychology and neuroscience at Rutgers University in America wrote in Scientific American that brain neurons are constantly regrowing. The more you exercise your mind the more neurons you grow – even in old age.
Apparently exercising the brain is much like exercising your muscles. OK, you can’t do press ups with the brain but you can get it bubbling like porridge by thinking hard.
New neurons come and go so that if you sprout a bunch of them after some heavy thinking but afterwards revert to watching television while drinking beer the new neurons will die off from neglect.
I have always been interested in the brain and often pop upstairs onto my cranium and talk to the boys in the various departments.
After reading Professor Shors article I popped upstairs and knocked on a door labelled “Pondering Division” and entered (not that I have to knock of course – after all I own the place).
Everybody leapt to their feet and tried to look busy.
I gave a boss-like nod of acknowledgement to those assembled before asking the Head of Pondering (I call him, Hop),“Hop, how’s the neuron situation up here?”
“They’re coming in slowly,” he said. “Every time you write a column three more come tumbling down the chute. On the rare occasion you write about something intelligent or that is rather creative, a whole lot of them can come down.”
I told him about scientists experimenting on rats and pigs and finding that mental exercise keeps the brain constantly topped up.
Then it occurred to me: “Why use rats and pigs to gauge what makes humans tick?” Five or six shiny neurons come rattling down the chute.
Hop said, “What would you rather they use – earthworms?”
As my mind grappled with this question a single shiny ball rolled out of the chute and rolled across to the floor.
I told Hop about cognitive neuroscience – even as I pronounced this 20 neurons came bouncing out – and I told him about the imminent advent of brainchips.
I explained how one day I could have a chip inserted into my brain and then, without using my fingers, I could operate my pc while eating a hamburger with both hands. One’s thoughts alone could activate one’s computer which would instantly reveal what you were thinking.
“It worries me,” I said. “What if you are having a terribly private thought and the boss walks in and sees your screen – or, worse still, what if one’s wife walks in?”
An avalanche of little balls emptied into the room so that workers were skidding about on them.
HOP said, “Don’t ask me, I just work here.”
Scientists dealing with neurons find that alcohol retards the growth of neurons and that physical exercise stimulates growth – though the neurons die if not used fairly soon.
We are born with countless billions but once a child starts passively watching TV or idly playing on a laptop for hours on end the neurons die and one becomes first a teenage turnip and later a parliamentarian.
This is a brief and hasty note to say we are back from the wilds of Zimbabwe – having spent our time mostly in the Eastern Highlands on the Mozambique border – nine days of birding in woodlands and cathedral forests and amid spectacular scenery.
There was not an uneasy moment and we felt perfectly secure at all times – security being my major concern before setting out.
I must now catch up with my columns etc but I must first put on record that even in the remotest areas we felt relaxed and secure and were greeted everywhere with smiles and greetings. Everywhere.
Incredibly, I found 43 “lifers” (species I’d never seen before and many of which are found only in small isolated habitats on the border. Mary who’s Southern African life list was already way beyond my own, saw 25 species new to her. (We used local birding guides daily).
Apart from the wilds …
Harare is in a state of decay with appallingly potholed roads and permanently broken traffic lights as well as rusting non-functioning street lights. Mutare too is in an advanced state of decay. Yet city and town drivers show no impatience despite traffic conditions and although taxis and cars cross through uncontrolled intersections half-a-dozen at a time rather than one by one, there’s no hooting or signs of aggression.
Beyond the cities the highways are excellent and the quality of driving is good.
Zim, we decided, is a wonderful country – despite its politicians.
Its remaining whites – although their quality of life and their properties have greatly deteriorated – show a great spirit. We came across no whinging. The Shonas – despite their poverty – are cheerful and well dressed.
I feel quite elated having rediscovered our northern neighbours. They’re nice people!
(I should add that our expedition was totally unsponsored and that we flew into Harare and so avoided the notorious Beit Bridge border post.)
Since my last post I have been assured that motoring in the remoter parts of Zimbabwe is not as bad as some make out. Nevertheless my (female) colleague and I, both on the wrong side of 60, feel rather vulnerable.
We are wondering if it would be safer to hire a driver. This would be for the six days that we’d be birding away from the Harare region where we will have a guide with us.
The e advantage of a driver would be to have somebody to look after the vehicle shouild we stop at the roadside to do a bit of birding or if we visit a popular tourist site – and we’d have somebody who speaks Shona should we run into trouble. On our last day we have to drive from Aberfoyle to Harare airport (5 hours).
A major disadvantage is that only one of us could then sit up front – birding from a back seat is useless.
Can somebody with experience regarding birding in Zimbabwe, espescially in the Eastern Highlands, advise us please?