The zebra’s arse

We’re in lockdown again and I’m beginning to wonder if we’ll ever get the chance to travel again, to venture beyond our shores. I’ve always thought myself lucky to have had the opportunities to travel, it’s a privilege I’ve never taken for granted. If the borders were to stay closed forever, I could hardly complain, having seen so many places, met so many wonderfully diverse people and experienced so many inspiring cultures. The memories I have are precious. They serve to give me comfort during these trying times, and once again I find myself going through old photos on my virtual travels, reliving the moments that have brought me such pleasure in years gone by. 

Hilltop Camp, Hluhluwe–Umfolozi.

Seventeen years ago, I realised a childhood dream when my wife, Christine, and I travelled to KwaZulu-Natal to visit Africa’s very first nationally protected nature reserve at Hluhluwe–Umfolozi. Established in 1895, the reserve covers a wilderness area of almost one thousand square kilometers, rolling hills and heavily wooded valleys along the Imfolozi River. I could barely contain my excitement to have finally arrived at the very summit of my bucket list as we drove from Durban to Hilltop Camp at the heart of the reserve. My lifelong quest to see Africa’s spectacular wilderness had started on my first day at school. (Just a few years prior) Along with other wide-eyed four-year-olds, we gathered cross-legged on the floor of the library to listen to a student teacher regale us with stories of her summer vacation, a trip to the dark and mysterious continent of Africa.

Photo by Rick Lee

She showed photographs of her safari and continued the African theme later in the day with tales of those early explorers, Livingston and Stanley. Her descriptions of exotic wildlife had me enthralled while kids around me lost interest and fidgeted absently, more interested in their new school mates than the wilds of Africa to which I had been transported. She was a stand-in teacher and I never saw her again, but her tales were the seeds that would lead me to roam around the world as I grew older. I sometimes wish I could tell her how much she had inspired me. 

Photo by Rick Lee

After bringing an end to hunting in the region, the reserve at Hluhluwe–Umfolozi became famous throughout the world when in the 1950’s Operation Rhino was instrumental in bringing the white rhino back from the brink of extinction. Today’s animals thrive under the reserve’s protection and the program has replenished the rhino breeding stock across the continent. A true success story.

I sometimes wish I could tell her how much she had inspired me.

We stayed at Hilltop Camp, established in the 1930’s, and were taken by guides tracking lions on their night hunt, though — thankfully perhaps — the large male we followed did not make a kill and so we were spared the trauma of watching.

Photo by Rick Lee

We watched zebras grazing alongside wildebeest, rhinos wallowing in mud pools, and elephants and giraffes stripping leaves from the trees under the heat of a mid-day sun. Our guide took us up the river to watch crocs basking on the riverside, while villagers washed their clothes and bathed in the same river within sight of the four metre giants. It seems incredible that people can and do live in close harmony with wildlife, even when it poses a danger to life itself. It’s hard to imagine that having crocs in the bath, and lions in the pantry could be seen as a normal and daily occurrence. Normal it may be, but we couldn’t help feeling anxious for the little boy we saw playing on the riverbank nearby.

Photo by Rick Lee
Photo by Rick Lee

The dangers are not to be underestimated but it’s easy to relax in such beautiful surroundings. I’m now thinking back and laughing at the day we joined a 10km dawn hike. The ramble started well before daylight and our guide, let’s call him Bob, had instructed us to wear something warm as the nights could dip down to single digits and mornings were cold. Sleepy-eyed, we woke to the sound of eerie and unidentified animal cries. 

Photo by Rick Lee

We dressed quickly, donned our warm jackets and headed to the Land Rover to be greeted by Bob. We drove to our start-out point as the sky took on that silvery pink morning glow just before sunrise. Other than the obvious excitement and anticipation at what we might see, we hadn’t really given too much thought to the implications of our undertaking. It was only when Bob began his pre-hike safety talk that the reality hit home. We were going to be on foot, exposed to the predators and big game animals that kill for a living and could hurt us if they should choose. Oh yeah, hadn’t thought of that!

Photo by Alexas Photos

It’s quite sobering to know that there’s nothing between you and a hungry pack of hyenas, no fence to stop a charging buffalo or angry elephant. “If we are charged by any of a dozen possible wild beasts,” said Bob, “don’t run.” Don’t run? I looked at Christine’s white face, drained of all blood and enthusiasm. Don’t worry, I tell her. They have to say that stuff to keep the lawyers happy. Bob continued. “Keep your eyes locked on their eyes and back away slowly. Trust me. Whatever you do, do not run,” he repeated emphatically. Our group was a small one made up of two other couples. “Can they smell fear,” one of the guys chirped in. “Only if you poop your pants,” said our guide cheerfully. Christine was not amused by his humour.

Photo by Albrecht Fietz

In for a penny, in for a pound, we put our fears aside and followed our intrepid leader into the wild. We walked in a single line with Christine immediately behind Bob and me following at the rear of the line. Ten kilometres is a long way in the African bush. The terrain, sometimes challenging, took us through dense thickets of acacia, across dried up creek beds and through waist high grasslands.

It’s quite sobering to think that there’s nothing between you and a pack of hungry hyenas

It was during one of these long grass sortees that I became a little nervous. Lion territory. We had seen them the previous night from the safety of a Land Rover, as they stalked through the tall grass. Now, here we were traipsing through that very same terrain. Bob was a stout enough fellow, but he hardly looked capable of fending off the various attacks he had so painstakingly warned us about. He carried a bolt action rifle, for emergencies and only to be used as a last resort. Fine, I thought, but I wondered what his criteria was for last resort. 

Photo by Rick Lee Our guide Bob

The sun had risen now and with it the temperatures rose quickly. Bob set a brisk pace, making us sweat at the exertion. I took a moment to strip my jacket and tie it around my waist. As I did so, my imagination began to wander. I could see lions lurking in the sway of the grass, leopards waiting to pounce on the straggler of the group. Every movement in the breeze, every shadow seemed to signal an imminent attack. I hurried to rejoin the end of the line and it was then that the horrible thought hit me. When grabbing something to wear in the darkened hut, I had unthinkingly chosen a striped tee-shirt. I looked down at my garb and gasped. Zebra’s arse! I must have looked like a zebra’s arse, waddling through the undergrowth at the end of the line. All I needed was a long black ponytail and the disguise would have been complete. I looked up and saw Christine had stripped off her own coat and was now resplendent in fluorescent pink. I imagined the wildlife laughing at us. Two clowns in the bush, what an appetiser!

Photo by Katja

I’m here to write this little memoir so I obviously survived to tell the tale. It’s one of those stories that gets told every so often and we have a good laugh about it. However, and on a more serious note, on our return to camp that day we were informed about the death of a guide in the months prior to our visit. While conducting a similar hike within the reserve, he was charged by an angry male elephant. Like Bob, he had had his rifle but chose not to use it on the elephant. It seems his idea of a last resort was for the benefit of the wildlife he served to protect.

Photo by Rick Lee

Our time in Africa was an amazing experience and one we shall never forget. We saw an incredible diversity of wildlife just as it’s meant to be seen, in its natural environment without bars and cages, thriving alongside local communities who have long since learned to coexist. As if to demonstrate that closeness between the people of Africa and the nature that surrounds them, and with our stay at an end, we had left camp before daylight and were driving the three hour road to Durban. We had a flight to catch down to Cape Town. The sun had not yet risen when we saw two cats walking down the middle of the road. Okay, you guessed it! I’m not talking stray tabbies here, these were the real deal. Mesmerised, we watched two majestic male lions sauntering along the road as if nothing could be more natural than to take a stroll before the morning traffic.

Photo by Rick Lee

We watched for several minutes and caught a few grainy photos in the breaking light until they peeled off into bushland. The encounter was thrilling. Minutes later we passed three local men walking along the same road; perhaps they were on their way to work. I’m reminded that such habitats, as those in Africa, are under great pressure around the globe. As humans expand their domain, that of the natural world shrinks in equal measure. But I’m given hope by what I saw in Africa. Life can coexist in close proximity, man and beast, each just going about their daily routines, each respected for their place in the world.

Anyone can make an ass of themselves but it only takes a silly mistake to become the zebra’s arse.

Lee

Same, same, same.

What do England, Belarus, China, Kenya and Chile have in common? They all have McDonald’s of course. As do over one hundred other countries across the planet. A quick walk around almost any major city and you’re sure to come across the famous golden arches. They’ve come to symbolize the relentless march of global brands. In fact, if the collective global brands had a brand, it might well be symbolized by the McDonald’s clown.

Photo by Lyman Gerona

There are now countless others, names that have spread the globe and are as familiar to our everyday lives as those of our family and friends. Apple, Coca-Cola, Microsoft and Nike, relative newcomers like Amazon and Google. It wasn’t always that way. When we left England for a new home in Canada back in 1982, international franchises and fast-food chains were still something of a rarity in the UK. While McDonald’s was leading the way, Pizza Hut had only just begun introducing the English to pizzas at its new restaurants and almost nobody had heard of Burger King beyond the capital of London. When we arrived in Canada it was like we’d arrived on a different planet. Even in our small town of Owen Sound, there were fast-food chains strung out along avenues as far as the eye could see. Burger King, Harvey’s, Dominoes, Kentucky Fried Chicken, Dairy Queen and Taco Bell to name just a few. Overwhelmed by the array of famous brands, it was something to write home about.

It was something to write home about

There was no slowing the progress of franchised food brands across the world. In just a few short years, the folks back home would be yawning at our tales of such choice. By the end of the eighties, Pizza Hut had a hundred stores in the UK, McDonald’s almost four hundred. It wasn’t just food outlets that jumped on the franchise bandwagon. Clothing, cosmetics, entertainment, all found a place at the table. The spread of brand names across the globe has been unstoppable ever since. Whether you live in Tokyo or Dublin, Buenos Aires or Cape Town, chances are you can walk into the same Burberry or Foot Locker, Mecca or Body Shop, and find the same products. Sadly, there’s a price to pay for ready availability of all these brands and it’s not necessarily at the checkout.

Photo by Jonathan Marchal

It used to be that travel was an adventure and a visit to a foreign city, a quest to discover its hidden delights, its unique charms. Even between the towns and cities within our own country borders, one could find diverse identities, evident in the local offerings of stores, products and restaurants. Admittedly, our destinations still have their history, their unique architecture and places of beauty. But, little by little, the diverse ways of life that so enthralled the traveller are disappearing. Towns and cities, even in remote communities, follow the same patterns of global conformity so that everywhere we go we find the same names, the same branding, same products, same, same.

Photo by Kirsten Ruggero

There will be many who’ll applaud the spread, people who like the predictability of brands. Faced with a choice of the unknown or the familiar, they’ll opt for the names they know. Everyone knows what to expect from a McDonald’s no matter what they think of the quality. You know what you’ll get whether you’re in Moscow or Manchester.

Photo by Aleks Dorohovich

Local food from an unknown outlet might prove to be a disappointment, so choosing a Big Mac avoids the risk. It’s a pretty poor solution but it’s the rationale at the heart of the franchise success.

Photo by Sofie Layla Thal

In the process, we’ve lost the joy of discovery, the excitement of finding that special place to eat or shop, that delightful plate of food that portrays the region’s cuisine. For every huge brand that opens its doors, there are a dozen locals that close theirs. It’s a huge loss to local culture. We opt for large shopping malls and mega-retail precincts – each identical with their big-name brands – over the unique diversity of the local high-street, local shops and eateries. Am I alone in thinking this is not progress, that we are all the poorer because of it?

Photo by HauiM2

Living the high life

There’s something magical about mountains. They’ve inspired authors, poets and painters for centuries, been a place of pilgrimage for some, escape for others. It’s no wonder that in many cultures they are worshiped as living beings, such is their power to elicit emotional responses. It’s just a natural reflex when we say that the very sight of them takes our breath away.

Photo by Rick Lee

My own love affair with high ranges began as a child, rooted in the passion shared by my parents. Mum and Dad had long been devoted mountaineers and fell walkers. They met during WWII in an army camp where they were both stationed in Northern Ireland. Such was their love for the mountains that they spent their honeymoon on leave climbing the mountains of the English Lake District and dreaming of a place amongst them to call home. Once they had a family, they took every opportunity to head north from our home in Liverpool to the mountains. The mountaineering genes soon took root in me, my sister and three brothers. Mum and Dad even named my older brother, Michael Mallory, after one of Dad’s mountaineering heroes, George Mallory, an English climber who died while trying to conquer Mount Everest.

Photo by Denis Lee circa 1963

Times were hard in those early years, but camping was an affordable option for a large family. Every summer we’d travel to Cumbria on the bus, each child carrying their own sleeping bag and camping paraphernalia. We would share a large canvas tent – it weighed about 70lbs – and Dad would lug it on his back along with his rucksack and cooking gear. We’d endure the English summer rains – Cumbria has the highest rainfall in the country – for a chance to don the hiking boots and head for the summits. Undeterred by weather, we trod a path through the high country, seven ducks in a row, and learned to enjoy the simple pleasures derived from overcoming the challenges these high mountains set before us.

Photo by Irene Lee

In my youth the pull of mountains continued. I’d hitch-hike with friends to camp amongst the peaks, sometimes pitching our tent high in the mountains, waking in the early dawn to find our campsite shrouded in mist, washing our faces in the icy mountain streams. It’s a feeling of isolation and tranquility I’ll never forget. Of take-your-breath-away moments in the mountains, I have many memories. One such experience occurred while climbing with a friend on Glyda Fawr in Snowdonia, Wales. Conditions were treacherous with freezing rain and mist. A thick layer of shiny ice covered every rock and boulder; we really should have aborted the climb and retired to a warm pub in safety. Nevertheless, challenged by the harsh conditions, we pressed on to the summit, knowing full well that there would be no panoramic views of the Welsh countryside, only the satisfaction of reaching the top in difficult circumstances.

It was like stepping into Heaven from the cold abyss

Fifty feet from the apex we emerged from the mist. ‘Topping out’ they call it, a halleluiah moment of revelation. It was like stepping into Heaven from the cold abyss, popping our heads through a trapdoor to see a new world emerge in all its glory. Stretched before me, a carpet of fluffy white cloud spread to every horizon beneath a pure blue sky. Only the summit of Snowdon – Wales’ highest mountain – poked through the clouds like an island in some fantasy world of cotton wool seas. At the time I had yet to fly in an aircraft and it’s a view I’ve since observed in the comfort of an air-conditioned cabin many times, but on that day with the rocks of the earth firmly beneath my feet, it was a sight that left me speechless and has stuck with me as a vivid memory ever since. 

Topping out! Photo by Gianni Crestani

My wife and I followed in Mum and Dad’s footsteps, spending our honeymoon hiking the fells of the Lake District. My own children were raised climbing those same mountains. We too spent our family vacations camping and hiking the high country. My wife shares that same love and we have had the good fortune to climb in the American Adirondacks, the Canadian Rockies, the Swiss and German Alps and volcanoes in the Pacific among others.

Photo by Rick Lee

It’s easy to understand just why mountain analogies are used to describe life’s challenges. It’s all about conquering things much bigger than ourselves. We set ourselves a challenge and slog away until we beat it. Like some of the physical peaks I’ve climbed, there have been many daunting challenges in my life. There were times I thought of giving up on some before refocusing and forging on to the top. Sir Edmund Hillary – another of Dad’s heroes – once said: “It’s not the mountain we conquer but ourselves.” Testing ourselves is something unique to humans. It’s in our character to strive and overcome. When ever the going gets too hard, I look to others for inspiration. I see those who face daily battles of immense proportions fighting back from terrible injury or illness, hardship and loss; these are the true heroes and it always brings back perspective to my own life with its peaks and valleys.

Photo by Rick Lee
Photo by Rick Lee

It’s in the blood this passion I have for the ranges. Mum and Dad achieved their dream, their own private mountain conquered when they retired to a cottage in their beloved Lake District. Dad rests in a little church yard looking up to the fells. Mum was still climbing those high peaks well into her eighties and passed on aged 96. Her ashes are scattered on the mountains she loved so dearly.

Photo by Christine Lee

I retain an old canvas haversack from my teenage years and we’ve carted it around the world for decades. My wife has tried to throw it out many times and each time I’ve rescued it from the dustbin. She says she will bury me in it and that’s ok with me. When the time comes, I’d like my ashes to be packed in the old bag (not talking about the wife here) and carried to the summit of my favorite mountain where it should be buried for eternity amongst the peaks that have inspired my life.   

Escape to the Country

It’s been a while since my last blog. My computer crashed and had to go to computer hospital. Thankfully, my friend is a doctor and though my faithful Dell showed no evidence of a virus, the poor PC had to undergo radical reconstruction surgery. Like me, it’s getting on a bit and needs these regular updates to keep it going, but thanks to Doctor Whizz, my ageing Dell is now running like a spritely newborn and performing its duties with ease.

Photo by Annca

Speaking of viruses, I for one have had enough already. So far this year we’ve had devastating fires and pestilence; thankfully we live on a hill because it’s been raining nonstop for two days and floods are now imminent. I’m waiting for a plague of locusts to descend on the Southern Highlands and eat all our veggies from the garden plot. It’s a year of biblical events and I need to escape!  If only we could just fly away to some paradise, far from the Covid crowd and just chill. “You’re a writer,” I hear you say. “Just use your imagination and you’re on an exotic isle somewhere.” True, but I’m after the real thing, a warm breeze tickling the hairs on my skin, the fragrance of frangipani wafting in the night air, the rhythmic crash of waves against the rocks as a full moon rises. I want to sip on a tequila sunrise and watch the stars twinkle above the ocean, a steel band playing Kokomo at the beach bar in the background. D’oh! You’ve got me doing it, haven’t you; that imagination thing?

Photo by Rick Lee

Imagination is a powerful mode of transport. With travel options at a premium right now, I like to look back on times when we were able to venture far afield and to savour the precious memories I’ve accumulated. It’s a good time to take out the old photos and videos and relive the adventures of years gone by, and to dream of journeys to come when better times return. They will return.

Photo by Rick Lee

For now, we have to make the most of what we’ve got and memories can serve up a vivid escape from the day-to-day reality of this awful pandemic. I’m looking through my thousands of photos, one and a half terabytes of priceless moments, thankful once again to Doctor Whizz for making sure I had backups before Dell went down.

Photo by Rick Lee
Photo by Rick Lee
Photo by Rick Lee

A snap of local children takes me back to a village in Vanuatu, a stark moonscape image brings me to the rim of a volcano on Tanna. When I see the sky reflected in rice paddies, I’m transported back to Bali or the world heritage village of Shirakawago in remote Japan. A short video of a cigar maker takes me back to a steamy night in New Orleans, listening to live Jazz until dawn in the French Quarter. I can smell the cigar smoke in the humid night air as I enjoy it over again and pledge to return one day.

Photo by Rick Lee
Photo by Rick Lee

Red sands glow in the United Arab Emirates, while the sight of rolling hills in Tuscany brings back the smell of pecorino cheese in the village of Pienza, pizza and red wine at a trattoria in Florence. These captured moments can be as real now as they were at the time. It’s that imagination thing again.

Photo by Rick Lee

There are other ways to escape confinement. Think local. There’s more than we imagine right on our doorstep. Unless you’re unfortunate enough to be confined to quarantine, in lock-down or isolation, a walk in the park can be just as therapeutic, a walk in the country even better. There’s something about nature that automatically provides an escape. It’s hard not to live in the moment when surrounded by such beauty. Even a garden can provide a myriad of distractions, there in every detail observed at close quarters. The veins on a leaf, the petals of a flower. The iridescence of an insect’s wing.

Photo by Rick Lee
Photo by Rick Lee
Photo by Rick Lee

It’s deep into winter here in the highlands. I’m watching trees thrashing in the wind and raindrops hanging like tears from empty branches; not the best time to go for a walk. But, from the window of my cosy office, I can see the first daffodils are splashing their brilliance on a miserable grey day, a show of hope, a sign of brighter times to come. A Crimson Rosella is fighting the wind to cling on to a branch and a Kookaburra, fluffed up in a ball of feathers, is waiting for a worm or a lizard to stir in the leaf litter. Spring is a month away but there’s a promise of better times in the air, times when we can emerge from isolation and travel this wonderful earth once again. Until then, I’ll open up the album and use my imagination to escape to the country. Any country will do.

Photo by Rick Lee

    

Any country will do