In a shocking turn of events, I found myself driving on the wrong side of the road past fields full of ostriches and citrus trees with warning signs that say “Baboons!”. Less than two months ago, I got a call asking “Would you be willing to come to some place in the southern hemisphere to help us out with an occultation observation?” This put a bit of a kink in my summer plans, in particular a big race I’d been training for, but when this opportunity strikes, grab your bags and hit the road. Adventure is where you find it and there was certainly plenty of adventure to found, as long as you don’t insist on much sleep.
Even in the best of circumstances, I don’t sleep much when I travel. Usually I’m busy with work stuff (whatever that may be) and fill up non-working time exploring. Even if it’s a pretty “uninteresting” location, I’ll get up early and go for a quick reconnaissance run or something. I know this and have accepted it about myself; sleep comes as a third priority. But in order to be functional on an intensive ten-day observing trip to the opposite hemisphere, fraught with all kinds of logistical challenges, managing my sleep schedule would be crucial.
Frankenfurter, Part I:
The logistics of a trip to Cape Town involved two long (10+ hour) flights: Denver to Frankfurt across the Atlantic, then Frankfurt to Capetown down the entire length of the huge African continent. Reverse this on the way back a week later. Capetown and Frankfurt are both eight hours ahead of my usual Colorado Time and I had 8-12 hour layovers in Germany in both directions.
Keeping this in mind, the group of us had rented day rooms at an airport hotel in Germany to catch up on the sleep we didn’t get on the flight across the pond and to work on that 8 hours of jet lag. Sweltering, woozy, and disoriented from a long flight, we trudged to the airport hotel at what felt like 3 am body time.
The lure of shower and a horizontal position was strong… but there was this beautiful forest right across the street from the hotel with an obvious trail leading away into it’s cool, shady depths. I’d never officially been to Germany (airport hotels don’t count), so, predictably, I suited up for a quick 4-5 mile show-the-flag run in this appealing old-world forest. Also predictably, one thing lead to another (and another after that) and I found myself five miles away in the town of Schwanheim on the banks of the River Main. Another seven miles later, lost, dehydrated, sunburned, and very hot stumbling back in the door of the hotel. Flag shown, Germany nominally seen (at least a very specific part of it), time for a nap. I regret nothing.
Living on African time:
The twelve hour flight down the length of Africa went better from a sleeping perspective and I managed a solid three or four hours of airborne shut-eye. Little did I know that this was to become the standard unit of sleep over the next week! We arrived in Cape Town, took a shuttle bus to the hotel and discovered that things had gotten more complicated. Instead of that centrally-located hotel, people had been rebooked in other hotels all over the city.
In principle, we had nothing to do on Tuesday until an all-hands meeting in the afternoon. Cape Town is a beautiful and dramatic setting and my hotel turned out to be nestled up against the northern slope of the impressive Devil’s Peak. Even more than shady Hessian forests, easy access and looming peaks are an irresistible combination to me, so it was no surprise that I was up early on Tuesday and headed out to show the flag just as I did in Frankfurt. Two miles of early-morning city streets brought me to the edge of the forest and the start of the climbing. I followed a decent trail to the Rhodes Memorial, took in a view of the city, then continued up with no clear goal in mind. After a more-or-less random set of trail decisions, I found myself heading east traversing a steep slope through huge trees on a really extensive set of boardwalks. Through no fault of my own, I found myself in the Newlands Forest which had been recommended to me by a fellow trail runner.
I know there are various scrambling routes up the mountains here, so I was keeping an eye out for obvious up-bound routes. However, I was also being conservative in terms of technical difficultly; nothing would be more embarrassing than for this ignorant American tourist fresh off the plane to underestimate the local conditions, tumble to my death, and/or be eaten by roving packs of baboons. (I was terrified of baboons, but never saw even one my whole time in Africa.) With these thoughts in mind, I came across a junction with a big sign for the Newlands Ravine. That seemed pretty official so I decided to follow it until the going got too technical, then turn around and retrace my steps. Newlands Ravine ended up being a steep staircase up a weakness in the rock bands, but it never evolved into the chains and rungs route I’d been anticipating (nor is it honestly likely I would have turned back if it had). The higher I got, the breezier and cooler it became and I quickly found myself at the top, in the fynbos, perched in the wide saddle between Devil’s Peak and the astounding Table Mountain. Cool!
Another thing I long ago figured out is that I will almost always opt to see something new rather than retrace my steps. So, predictably, I continued north across the saddle and, again via a semi-random series of trail choices, found myself traversing across the bare western face of Devil’s Peak and back down to the Rhodes Memorial. Another couple miles brought me back to the hotel and ready for the work of the day. I was neither eaten by baboons, struck by a car traveling on the “wrong” side of the street, nor mugged (something else I’d been warned about). With one bit of adventure firmly under my belt, it was time to do what we’d come here to do.
Work and other four-letter words:
Over the next five days, there was precious little time for any sort of extended fun. We practiced with the telescopes in Cape Town; received, researched, and stressed about our deployment assignments; drove north to Clanwilliam (insert various adventures); and spent way too much time rearranging plans on the fly. I managed a short walking tour of Clanwilliam before our deployment site and other plans were scrapped and half of our team had to drive all night across the Karoo.
None of this was made any easier by living on “African time” which is much more relaxed than what we time-crunched, caffeine-addled astronomers are used to; dinners tended to take two hours minimum, three if you wanted to actually get your bill. Much of the rest of our time was taken up driving back and forth to shuttle people between their various lodgings, waiting for this or that to take place, and stressing about the weather and equipment. Very little of it was spent sleeping.
Despite the challenges brought about by this organic and ad-hoc planning style, thanks primarily to the energy, drive, and creativity of the various teams of volunteers, we managed to get our observations on Thursday and Friday nights. Thanks to a re-deployment which required zero travel, I even managed to relax for a few hours with my morning coffee on Friday afternoon. Sleep still wasn’t being had in large amounts.
Emergency Safari Situation:
Right after the big event (5:09 on Saturday morning), I crashed out with the knowledge that, for better or worse, the occultation had happened and maybe we even observed it. Scant hours later (maybe three?) there was a knocking on my door. “Get up!” said Simon, “we have an emergency safari situation!” I vaguely recalled that someone from our team (R.J. maybe?) had arranged for a tour of a private game reserve on the way back to Cape Town. Sleep was seductive, but I’d already had my now-standard three hours and I was in Africa here. I was happy to let someone else make some plans and it didn’t seem right to go all the way to Africa and not see the famous wildlife. Tally ho!
After a couple hours of driving southward, eight of us arrived at the Buffelsfontein Game Reserve. 500 Rand each (about $40) got us a guided tour of the game reserve in a truly impressive vehicle with our tour guide Willi. We saw all sorts of properly African wildlife; giraffes, zebras, wildebeests, ostriches, and half a dozen other species of assorted ungulates. We got to go “meet the cheetahs” which, to our surprise, entailed actually going into their large enclosure and getting within probably five meters of these beautiful, large, very speedy predators.
“That’s the sound they make when they’re happy.” said Willi about one cheetah regarding us and growling softly. “That’s the sound my cats make when they’re really mad,” I muttered under my breath. “I know I can’t outrun that cat, but there’s nine of us tasty humans in here and I’m pretty sure I can outrun at least a couple of them!”
After a spot of tea, we came back out to feed raw chickens to the cheetahs. Cheetahs like chickens quite a lot and they devoured them with dainty glee (with us safely outside the fence this time). Next, we did the same for the lions. I’d never appreciated the differences between big cats before, but as much as cheetahs are startlingly big in person, lions are that much bigger. Anticipating their daily chicken feast, the lions were growling and roaring and here we were in a small building separated from them by no more than a couple meters of air and a sturdy fence. While my family emigrated from Africa several thousand generations ago, the nearby sound of lion’s roar replete with all the sub-sonics, goes straight to some primitive Australopithicene part of my brain as the scariest thing I have ever heard in my life. It was all I could do to not drop ballast and sprint. Whoa!
More work ensued back in Capetown: cleaning, sorting, and repacking of telescopes and finally some blessed sleep! With our flight out of the country coming in less than 24 hours, Trina, Christian, Henry and I decided to knock off early and “do tourist things” in Cape Town. Besides my jaunt up Newlands and some driving around through some obscure parts of the city, I hadn’t really seen much of this world-famous town. Thus it was wonderful to have a nice, stress-free evening wandering around the Waterfront. It reminded me quite a lot of Baltimore’s Inner Harbor. Pretty and touristy and probably quite expensive (by African standards). Drinks, music, and an interesting array of tasty foods.
Early next morning, our last in South Africa, the same group of four met up at breakfast and drove the remaining bakkie through the city and up to Tafelberg Road. We parked at the well-marked trailhead and started up Platteklip Gorge. Platteklip is the most obvious and probably easiest route up Table Mountain from this side… which is not to say that it’s easy. The route is non-technical, but still gains 2100’ in 1.2 miles, a grade similar to that of a very long flight of stairs. Unlike my climb of the equally steep Newlands Ravine last week, we were on the dry side of the mountain and out in the open most of the time. The sun rose as we began our ascent and it quickly became warm. The city spread out below us framed by Devil’s Peak on the north and Lions Head on the southwest. We encountered many flowering proteas (national flower of South Africa) and other exceedingly strange plants from the unique Cape Botanical Kingdom.
As we reached the upper cliff bands, the gorge narrowed, engulfing us in alternating sunlight and shadow as we switchbacked continuously upward. At one point, a spring on top of the mountain spilled over the northern rim, but the swirling updrafts in the gorge turned it into a fascinating multi-directional rain fall glinting in the morning sun.
With one final stairway through a notch no more than two meters wide, we emerged on the summit of Table Mountain. To say the contrast with the gorge was extreme would be accurate. Suddenly, we were standing in the middle of lush marshland complete with chirping frogs, strange horsetail-like reeds, and boggy ground, all perched impressively 3000’ above the ocean visible to the south and east. We started hiking northeast half on boardwalks, half on shelves of rock through the marshland, marveling in this weird, peaceful place.
After a mile or two, we came to Maclear’s Beacon, the official high-point of Table Mountain and the site of an enormous cairn. It was here that Sir Thomas Maclear worked to measure the curvature of the earth in the 1800s. Time was pressing, so we hustled back the way we came, past the top of Platteklip and toward the cable car terminal on the other end of the Table. As we went, we passed more and more people, most of whom had ascended via mechanical means. This included a large group of our colleagues who we greeted and mocked for having slept in and taken the easy way up the mountain. Nevertheless, we were not too proud to take the easy way down. It was a briefly spectacular ride down the cable from the summit back to Tafelberg Road in about a scenic minute. What a great tour of this iconic, spectacular peak!
Frankefurter, Part II
Another all-night flight down the length of Africa and another landing in Germany, this time at what actually was a bleary, weary hour of the morning. The jet lag this time was only from an accumulated week of stress and excitement as well as another short bit of plane-sleep (the now-standard three hours). With another eight hours until the final leg of 20,000 mile journey, a half dozen of us took the train into the city and wandered around dazedly. While it was nice to stretch our legs along the Main and see the medieval-ish Romer Square, Frankfurt doesn’t seem to have much to recommend itself to a casual traveler. I mentioned that we’d gone in to Frankfurt to a German on my final flight and he replied “Why would you do that?”. Or maybe I’m just tired of traveling and tired in general and ready to be home. There is a limit to adventure-finding; a limit to when I would rather just go back to the airport and relax with no more decisions to make.
A Tale of Two Africas:
I’ve now been to Africa twice and the contrast between visits could not be more different. In 1998, I visited my Peace Corp Volunteer sister in Togo, West Africa. It was a full third-world experience; I got very sick twice, had to constantly worry about what I ate and drank, and I could hardly communicate with people. The pace was generally pretty slow and relaxed (and I got plenty of sleep). While always interesting, there were certainly parts which were very definitely not fun.
21st century South Africa was much less of an Exotic Foreign Adventure. I never worried about water quality and whether it was safe to eat the food. I could communicate with nearly everyone (South Africa has eleven official languages, but all of the people I spoke with spoke excellent English). By and large, South Africa felt very much like parts of the US. There were the obvious differences such as which side of the road you drove on, the color of the money, the different road signs and so forth, but you get used to that pretty quickly. However there were still occasional “Africa moments”–little bits of jarring reminder that I’m not in the USA anymore: seeing a field full of ostriches or a group of colorfully-clad women carrying bundles on their heads. Little bits of wonder and bafflement.
We were there for a job, not just site-seeing. Some of my favorite parts of foreign travel are doing “regular things” which are familiar, but different in surprising little ways. We went to grocery stores and the Home Depot-equivalent. We learned about having to “tip” the “parking attendants” to keep your vehicle safe from break-ins (bribes were usually only 1-2 Rand or about 15 cents). While exciting and scary, it was an experience to drive large vehicles through unfamiliar city streets. I loved meeting the locals (what locals I did) and hearing unfamiliar languages. There’s still quite a divide between black and white; even 20-years post Apartheid, it’s still very clearly a country struggling with greater inequality issues than other first-world countries. I wasn’t there long enough to really see the nuances, but it was pretty obvious that white and black occupy different social, economic, and geographic realms.
Travel is wonderful and broadening, even last-minute travel like this. It was amazing to go in knowing pretty much no one on this team and come out, after a week or more of shared intense experience, with some really good friends. I look forward to returning to South Africa in the future in a more relaxed and contemplative manner. For that matter, I look forward to spending more time in Germany (though possibly other cities) when I have more time to absorb all the things it has to offer. But first, I’m going to go sleep for about a month.