Category Archives: People

Finding Malacca

My plans have shifted somewhat over the past few weeks, and I now find myself in Singapore, waiting for my flight to Vietnam tomorrow. I left my place of work in Malaysia a month ahead of schedule, favouring more time to travel over extra money. Before crossing the border into Singapore to apply for my Vietnamese visa, I made a quick detour through the fabled Malacca.

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Malacca is a city steeped in history. In the 15th and 16th centuries, it was the centre of the Malay world, until it was seized by Portuguese traders in 1511. The city was subsequently colonized by the Dutch, the British, the Dutch again, and then the British again before Malaysia declared its independence in Malacca at last in 1957. This layered cultural history is evident in the city’s architecture and infrastructure.

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I spent two nights in Malacca, and used my time walking around the beautiful streets and historical sites, exploring the famous Jonker Walk, and sampling the delights of the city’s bustling street food markets.

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Malacca is a charming city, but it is filled with tourists and that always makes me feel self conscious. One morning, I awoke early and went for a stroll to see if I could find local Malacca. I walked across canal bridges and through dirty backstreets to find it, but find it I did.

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Eventually it was scenes of elderly men reading newspapers and women washing clothes outside back doors that made me finally feel connected in Malacca.

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I picked up a kopi to go from a little Chinese corner restaurant, and as I strode through the streets, swinging my kopi packet along with me, I felt like I had made friends with Malaysia. There’s nothing that says you’ve become acquainted with a country quite like the realization that you enjoy slurping strong coffee sweetened with condensed milk out of a plastic packet through a straw.

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Parks and pencils, a lesson in colour

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Sprocket Rocket, Fujifilm Superia 200

I sat beside a rock, switching between quick-sketching passers by, and slowly detailing a drawing of the skyline that I returned to every time I visited the park. It had been my neighborhood retreat; a patch of green overlooking the bustling grey city. Overlooking it, but removed from it, as if offering perspective and distance from the trudge of the high-rise life. Here I could escape into a novel, disappear behind a lens, or immerse myself in my own pencil-point world.

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On this particular winter afternoon, I had retuned to my skyline drawing after a considerable interlude, and I was lost in the shadows and the trees. A small girl appeared beside me, maybe three or four years old, a dummy throbbing beneath her sweet little nose. She must have been standing there for some time, because as I looked up she was ready with her question; head tilted to one side, “What are you drawing?” I held my sketchbook up to the horizon, expecting she would make the connection. Still she looked perplexed. I pointed, “The city skyline. Can you see?”

“But why are there no colours?”

I was enchanted by this little sprite of a child. She plonked down beside me and watched me draw. I had many pencils, but she was right, I had no colours. Nonetheless, she accepted my offer of joining me. Her nondescript lines and shapes, the innocent interpretation of her surrounds was far more imaginative than my own. I was transfixed.

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Unabashed and unconstrained, she assumed a connection with me in a way that is all too uncommon amongst adults; a momentary friendship requiring only the acknowledgement that we are both human. We shared each other’s company as if we were lifelong friends with nothing left to tell, leaving only common knowing and common being, quiet and content.

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In the midst of this magic, a close friend of mine arrived to meet me, and found me sitting cross legged on the grass with a glowing bundle of freedom. She had brought me an apple, which my new friend was also eager to share. And so we sat, three girls, eating apples and enjoying the last rays of sunlight, until the little girl disappeared again, just as quickly as she had arrived.

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Crossing Paths with Epic Explorers in Mwanza: a Tragic Adventure Story

We arrived in Mwanza as the sun was setting. Tired from a slightly nerve racking, twelve hour bus trip, we pitched our tent on the edge of Lake Victoria, stood back and breathed a sigh of relief. This would be our little home for the next three nights, right on the water’s edge in the Capri Point area of Tanzania’s second largest city.

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After twelve hours of unsatisfactory grazing on popcorn, samosas and chocolate creams that tasted distinctly of paraffin, the first thing on our minds was a cold beer and a plateful of food. Our campsite at the Mwanza Yacht Club could not have been better suited to our desires. Within minutes we found ourselves seated in front of a frosty bottle of Safari, devouring massive plates of chili prawns, and gazing out over the vast lake as the evening faded into night.

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Our stamina surprised us that night. Casual mention of how lovely it would be to get out on the lake on a boat turned into a conversation with the neighbouring table, which happened to be hosted by the commodore of the Yacht Club himself. His offer to take us on his private boat the following day led to another round of drinks for all, and soon enough, he was seated at the head of our own table, regaling us with endless, riveting stories of his life in Kenya, and now in Tanzania; of business in Africa; of youth and adventure.

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Some people have a real gift for storytelling. I lost track of the details of all the stories the commodore told that night, for the beer was flowing freely, but I remember distinctly the feeling of hanging on his every word. When we finally teetered back to our little canvas home to retire for the night, our heads full of ideas and wonder, and we had made a new friend who was eager to show us around.

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Having told the commodore that night of my interest in horses, and my plans to travel to Malaysia to teach riding, he had offered to drive me out to see some horses he was looking after the following day. When I woke up, I vaguely recalled the story he had told of two South African long-riders who had set out on a journey through Africa on horseback.

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Christy and Billy with Chami and Nali at the start of their journey

On our way out to the small farm where the horses were living, he filled in some of the gaps. The two riders had set out on a journey from the northernmost point in Africa to its southernmost tip, riding their horses Chami and Ennahali. They had faced unthinkable challenges and setbacks along the way: being held up by the Libyan government while their freedom to enter Egypt was contemplated; a thousand mile swamp crossing aboard a barge, riders eating fish and horses papyrus leaves from the banks of the Nile; political turmoil and suspicions that they were spies or gun runners in war-torn Southern Sudan; typhoid, malaria and tick bite fever, to name a few.

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The epic route!

After passing the halfway mark, and Billy having struggled severely with his health through Southern Sudan, he sought medical help in Kampala, and was diagnosed with Acute Myeloid Leukemia and returned to South Africa to seek medical care. But even this didn’t stop the intrepid duo: sixteen months later, they returned to Uganda to retrieve the horses and continue their journey.

imageOn the 28th of January this year, having overcome what seemed like all the hardships the world could throw at them, the travellers suffered the most heartbreaking tragedy. On their route alongside the road outside a small village in northern Tanzania, surrounded by a crowd of happy villagers cheering them on, they were struck by a bus that had swerved out of control whilst passing a truck on the road. The collision killed Christy and 25 of the bystanders. Chami managed to narrowly avoid the impact, but both Nali and Billy came away with badly broken legs.

The horses were taken in by the commodore and his friends, and against the advice of every vet they consulted, they nursed Nali and tended to his broken leg. These were the horses we were going to see.

As we neared the little farm on the edge of the lake, we slowed to a halt beside a small store, and the commodore wound down the passenger window. No words were exchanged. A woman scuttled into the store and returned with a handful of carrots. The commodore greeted and thanked her as he payed for his purchase. She waved as we drove off.

The horses will remain on the small farm in Mwanza under the care of the commodore and his friends until Billy is in a position to decide whether he wants to continue and complete the journey alone, in memory of Christy. Should he persevere, Nali will be unable to continue as his mount, his leg having been too badly damaged to carry weight. But Billy may choose to have him stay abreast of the journey in a trailer, symbolically keeping the travelling team together as they press on to their final destination, carrying Christy in their hearts.

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As I petted Nali and Chami and listened to the commodore’s stories of their recovery, I was moved by the sheer generosity of horses, their willingness to obey their masters, allowing us to condition their bodies and minds to perform great feats of physical precision and brilliance; to carry us on long journeys; or to victory in bizarre competitions. And here were two such generous beasts, travelled from Tunisia all the way to Tanzania with their riders through harsh and unforgiving Africa, only to be unceremoniously taken down by a reckless bus on the side of the road in Isela.

I hope Billy decides to continue the journey to Cape Agulhas, and if he does, I would like to be there to shake his hand and to welcome him and his phenomenal horses home. I have been deeply moved and inspired by their epic journey through Africa. I feel privileged to have crossed paths with Chami and Nali in Mwanza, and to have heard just a little part of their incredible story.

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Meeting Chami, Christy’s phenomenal little horse, in Mwanza.

You can read more about Billy and Christy’s tragic accident here, and visit their blog, African Footprints, for awe inspiring stories and pictures from the road.
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Once Upon a Bus Stop

Buses are a great way to travel in Tanzania; you get to see so much of the countryside, meet engaging people and observe interesting parts of everyday life along the way. It takes some skill and determination to find the right bus company and get a good deal on your tickets, but if you’re up for the challenge, it’s well worth it.

On our three week trip in Tanzania, we took four 10 to 12 hour bus rides on four different carriers. Our experiences ranged from a terrifying trip on a rattling, dilapidated tin can that was something out of Jurassic Park, to a cushy, spacious coach with an onboard magazine, television entertainment and a complimentary beverage. In spite of the variety in coach quality, the competence of the drivers was reliably consistent. Their frenetic hooting and violent swerving around the shoddy roads was alarming at first, but once we realised the sheer skill of these drivers, we learned to trust them completely.

The best part of travelling by bus in Tanzania is the bus stops; they’re such vibrant, colourful places. I love the contrasting energy of departing travellers waiting anxiously for their journeys to begin, and arriving travellers excitedly hurrying off to their final destinations, glad to be safely back on terra firma. And then there are the vendors, entrepreneurial traders, frantically peddling their wears, even banging on the sides if busses to get the attention of passengers, and running alongside moving buses with baskets help precariously above their heads. Samosas, cassava chips, cashew nuts and cold drinks, sunglasses and trinkets, bottles of cooking oil and hand crafted wooden spoons. Finally, there are the taxi drivers, waiting like vultures to catch the next arrival and seize the business of an onward journey. I like to just sit still for a while, and watch the never-ending activity bubble and simmer around me as I await the start of my own journey.

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Portrait of Zaheera

There’s something special about visiting places where you can’t speak the local language. It strips you of your most basic communication tool, leaving you to rely on fundamental human connections and to establish understanding in new ways. Of course it’s also great to learn some of the essential phrases in the local language, but when you’re able to connect with someone in the absence of words, the feeling is magical.

Meet Zaheera, my friend for a moment.

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Another National Arts Festival

At last my journey has begun. A few months of reflection and planning have finally transformed into an adventure, and so far it has been wonderfully wild. While i gather my thoughts and organise my photographs from Tanzania, let me share some pictures from the few days I spent at the National Arts Festival in Grahamstown before I left.

I’ve been very privileged to attend almost every NAF for the last 20 or so years, having grown up in Grahamstown. You might think this kind of ease of access would breed contempt, but I can’t think of a year when I didn’t thoroughly look forward to and enjoy the festival. This year I was only around for a few days, but I still managed to see some fantastic shows, musical performances and art. Somehow, though, the most precious experiences are the ones that aren’t planned: the little busker that can only play two notes; the local field band you stumble upon on your way to an exhibition; or the tiny dancer that doesn’t realise that anybody’s watching. You may also notice that I have developed a subtle obsession with children.

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