Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Small Town Living

When we aren't travelling the world we have to take vacations closer to home. And for the last five years, that's often meant southern Utah. It's the most amazing place I've ever been (except for Tajikistan, that's now the top of my list). And it's only 20 hours drive from Calgary.

We liked it so much that we decided we'd like to have a place down here. Lara's always wanted a place backing on wilderness, and I liked the idea of being able to leave stuff down here, and have a place to return to between hiking and canyoning trips. So we settled on Hanksville, Utah, which is right in the middle of nowhere.

That was a couple of years ago, and at the time there was only one house available in town, which was out of our price range (we had a VERY low price range). But there was an abandoned property, and we did have some tools and renovation knowledge. We contacted the owner, and she wanted to sell. So we bought the house. We paid the local contractor to put a new roof on it for us ( it had leaked badly, knocking down all the drywall inside). And there the house sat.

We went around the world for a year, and when we returned it was time to get the house ready to live in. It was almost like a job for us, after a year of travelling. Take this abandoned house and pay ourselves to fix it up and make it nice. The downside was that we ended up here in July and August, when daytime temperatures are often well into the 40s.

The house had no water or electricity when we arrived. Water was hooked up quickly. I went to the town clerk, paid her, and she called the town fix it guy (also her husband) and he came out right away. They needed a backhoe to dig out the old lines, and unfortunately our side of the line was totally ruined. Just a broken plastic pipe.

"We're not responsible for your side. Just ours." Which is where it would have ended in the city. But Hanksville is small, with only 200 or so people.

"I think I have some parts", said Stan, who was driving the backhoe.

"I used to do plumbing in Salt Lake", said Jeff. "We'll get you hooked up."

So they came back and forth all day until the water was running. We turned it on in the house and it sprayed out from several places. The old copper pipes had corroded or frozen. Again, no problem. Curtis, the major, contractor, owner of the local store, paramedic, firefighter, and owner of one of the hotels, had some spare parts. He ran to get them for us, and we managed to cobble together a working toilet, two sinks, and a cold shower. We were in business!

The power was the next challenge. We'd expected to replace the panel box and be done with it. Lara know how to do all this stuff. I don't. But unfortunately, the new box was bigger than the old, and the previous people hadn't left loops of wire. For those of you that don't know, electricians routinely leave extra wire in any fixture so that you have something to work with if you change things out. Professional electricians, that is. But these people had simply been decent amateurs.

Fortunately Gary, our next door neighbor, was more than happy to let us plug into his plug. At least we could run tools. We'd brought a generator along as a backup, but power tools are real hogs, and they kept tripping the fuse on the generator. Drill. Drill. Poof. Damn! The power cord was life-saver.

Back to our wiring problem though. Unfortunately, wires don't stretch. And building codes are pretty specific about connecting wires together. Don't do it. And if you do have to do it, it has to be in a junction box, protected and properly supported. Unfortunately, you can't fit 20 junction boxes into a wall, so Lara ended up buying a bunch of fancy hardware when we visited Ineke, Brad, and their new baby Levi in Colorado. It would have been a great solution except that one of the boxes she got was too small.

Hanksville is, to put it mildly, remote. The nearest home Depot is 200km away, in Richfield, over several mountain passes. Curtis runs a decent hardware store in town and he's great for getting standard supplies, but it's no substitute for Home Depot when you need weird parts. So when something like this happens, you are stuck. Luckily people cooperate, and if somebody is going into town they're often more than happy to pick stuff up. Curtis's crew run into town for hardware pretty regularly, and we've had him pick up several bits and pieces we were missing. He even brought us 30 sheets of OSB so we could replace the rotted floors.

Along with the wiring we also had to repair all the damaged drywall. Caleb, Curtis's son in law, came with a couple of Curtis's kids and they hung and taped and textured all the new drywall. And that was the end of our first trip down. We had to get back to Calgary for a wedding. We had water, but no power yet. And lots of work to do.

We ended up delayed a bit because Lara was sick, and returned in mid July to soaring temperatures. It was disgustingly hot in the house, especially on a ladder, which is where Lara had to work most of the day. She got the panel in though. Getting hold of the building inspector was a challenge. Because the lines had been cut we had to get the place re-inspected. And while he had a phone, we didn't.

The solution was Skype. There is internet in Hanksville, via a tower on a hill overlook town, and even though we had no power we got the internet hooked up. As usual, it was super-easy. Small towns are great that way. We talked to Dan, and he sent someone by the next day to get us all set up. Lara was finally able to make phone calls, but she still had nowhere for people to call her back. She ended up buying a US number through Skype.

We ended up getting the inspector over because he was in town anyway, looking at a job for Curtis. He dropped by our house, looked at the wiring, and was very impressed by how professional a job Lara had done. We were good to go. Caleb came over in a back hoe and dug a big trench for us, and two days later Garkane came to hook up our power. They were likewise impressed. Apparently homeowner jobs are a bit unpredictable. They told us that a while earlier they'd done a job and had the meter-base fall right off the wall on them. They came in 3 trucks, and ran new wires the size of my wrist to our house. We were in business! Lara turned on the fuses. And everything worked!

While all this was going on I was doing what I was best at, which is destruction. I tore out the carpets and old rotted floors and put in new OSB. I tore out plumbing we didn't need. And I tracked down all the places where cats had lived. While the house was abandonded the basement door had come off have a very distinctive odor. Not a good one. The basement door had come off while the house was abandoned, and the house had become a big den. One of the basement rooms was full of feathers even.

As I sit here, Lara has gone to town for 3 days. She borrowed a trailer from another neighbor. It's probably a $2000.00 trailer, and he just said "No problem. Take it." So now she's gone to Salt Lake to pick up carpets, a water heater, a new stove, a fridge, and hopefully a swamp cooler to keep the place more comfortable. Salt Lake is 4 hours drive away, so she spent a few nights there.

Everyone has been incredibly helpful so far. We really enjoy knowing all the people in town, and all the ones we've met have been very friendly. Many people here are pretty conservative. This is Mormon country after all. But there are enough tourists coming through that the community doesn't seem insular. It's nice people, helping each other out because that's what you do in a small town. And if we need something, then people stop what they're doing and give us a hand.

Things are looking really good here now. The ceilings are painted, the new plumbing is all run and is just waiting for some parts. There are clean new floors waiting to be covered. It's starting to feel like a home. We're looking forward to being able to share our place with people.

This will be our vacation home. But we want to share it with our friends. If you ever find yourself in Southern Utah (and believe me, if you like outdoor stuff you really need to do this at some stage of your life), then you should give us a call. We'd be happy to lend you a key.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Playing with a cheetah

Lara and I both love cats. A lot. We had two cats before we left on our travels, and whenever we stop at a B&B or guest-house we are always happy if they have a cat for us to play with. So when we found out that the neighbors at one of the places we were staying in Namibia had a pet Cheetah, our ears perked up.

In Namibia, the neighbors actually meant a farm 15 km down the road. We got directions and drove out there to have a look for ourselves. A gravel road led to a collection of buildings surrounded by a high fence. There didn't seem to be anybody around and we stood at the gate for a moment wondering whether to go inside. And then we spotted it. A full grown cheetah, laying on the ground not 10m on the other side of the gate.

At the moment a young woman in her early twenties came out from inside the farm and greeted us at the gate. We explained we'd heard about the Cheetah and she invited us in. We chatted with her as a cat the weighed as much as either of us sauntered over and flopped at our feet. Apparently Cheetahs are fairly common in Namibia and they cause a lot of problems for farmers because they are killing machines when they get into a heard of sheep. This one had been raised from an infant.

At first both of us were a little bit hesitant around such a powerful animal, but the Cheetah didn't seem to care. It acted more like a house cat, except that its purr was so loud that it seemed more like the growl of an angry wolf. It flopped around, let us scratch it behind the ears, and generally seemed to enjoy being petted. It purred nearly constantly.

We hung out for a little while, playing with the cat and asking questions about life on the farm. After about an hour the parents came home ( the farm is a multi-generational affair) and we were invited to stay the night and join them for dinner. We happily accepted the generous offer and had a great dinner where we learned a lot about life on a rural Namibian farm. We even participated in the local farm-life, going out to manage the cattle in the evening, and helping feed the baby sheep in the morning.

All the while the big cat just hung around like a normal cat. Or nearly normal. It had an unnatural interest in the dog's puppies (who were kept safely behind a fence). It also apparently couldn't be trusted around small children, who it saw is prey. We quickly learned to feel completely safe though, and soon it seemed fairly normal to sit down for coffee with a cheetah laying on our feet.

Cheetahs are the only big cats that can be "safely" domesticated, mainly because they are built for speed, not power, so they aren't as strong as lions and leopards. Still, they are amazing animals and we had a great respect for just how formidable a hunter a cheetah would make.

The best part of the experience though was meeting the lovely farm family. Even without the cat it would have been one of the highlights of our trip. The opportunity to cuddle a man-sized ended up just being a wonderful bonus.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Endless Early Mornings

Africa is not a place to visit if you hate mornings. We've ended up waking as early as 4:30AM 3 or 4 days a week for nearly a month now.

In the game parks the reason is that morning and night game drives are the most likely to spot good animals. By 10 AM it has warmed up to the point that most animals are hiding in the shade until it cools down again in the evening. So inevitably we end up waking up before sunrise so that we can start driving as soon as they open the roads. If we go with a park vehicle on a guided drive they often leave an hour earlier so that you can catch the sunrise out in the bush.

In Nambia the problem is the brutal heat. In Sousousvlei, the famous sand dune park, the temperatures hit 55 degrees. In the shade. We are here in the Namibian fall so it is is a little cooler, like mid 40s. Still horribly hot though. By 11:00 the temperatures are intolerable and the heat haze and high sun have made photography pointless. So in the desert, like in the game park, there is a strong incentive to get up before the sun so that you can see things when the temperatures and light are at their best.

What's that in the water?

Nambia's climate has been a little crazy the last few years apparently with drastically increased rainfall in many areas. It's beautiful in the deserts right now with everything covered in the most dazzling green and gold grass which blows white fluffy seeds everywhere. The seeds are so thick that they lay along the sides of the road like snow.

In the north, in Caprivi strip there has been extensive flooding. Not only has this wiped out many villages but it also has created extra hazards. Apparently the flood waters are full of crocodiles and hippos. In the paper last weekend it said that several people have fled their flooding homes only to be torn apart by crocodiles.


African Safaris

Almost everyone who comes to Southern Africa will visit a game park. Seeing elephants, lions, giraffes, rhinos, zebras and other animals in the wild is an experience not to be missed, and South Africa and Namibia have some of the best parks in the world.

We spent about 7 days in game parks up to this point and we feel we have a much better idea what it is all about that we did previously. The experience can be both wonderful and frustrating and it is important to set your expectations.

Seeing the game is both easier and harder than you would expect. Different parks have different concentrations of animals. We visited Kruger and Hluehlue in South Africa. In Hluehlue we saw numerous rhinos- so many that by the end of the the three days in the park we didn't slow down unless they were close to the road. In Kruger I don't think we saw any.

The most common animals are the bucks: springbok, zebras, impala, gnu, etc. You see them everywhere, in such quantities that it becomes a bit numbing after a while. But even with these you can drive half a day and see none. There's some luck involved.

Baboons, hippos, and crocs are very common. Elephants and Giraffes are also easy to spot simply because they are so large. We had some great elephant sightings where they crossed right in front of us on the road, and more than once we had to reverse as a big bull elephant chased our car backwards, trumpeting and waving it's trunk. Very cool stuff.

Cats are the big prize, and they can be very hard to spot. They are nocturnal so the best bet is to go on a night drive, which the park can arrange for you at a fee. The drives are fun, in an open vehicle where you shine spotlights into the bush. About 50% of night drives spot cats, but we did 6 drives and only saw cats on one of them. That was a lion sighting, and the whole pride crossed the road not 10 meters from us. We had an excellent guide for that one who somehow spotted them when nobody in the vehicle had, even though he was driving, and then reversed to wait for them. In our 7 days we spotted only the one pride of lions and two leopards.

Time of year also has a lot to do with it. Water is the big limiting factor on game, and during dry times the animals tend to congregate at watering holes. We were there after rains so the animals were spread out a lot more, and the grass was tall making it harder to see animals hiding in the bush. Apparently in the dry season you can just camp at a watering hole in you car and watch all the animals come past.

The hardest part for me was the huge amount of driving. You aren't allowed to walk in the park except with an armed ranger on a game walk, so you end up driving most of the day looking for stuff. It doesn't feel like as much of a nature experience when everything has to be done from inside the car. The hikes are a welcome relief but they cover little ground and you are less likely to see good game because the animals are more scared of people on foot.

Apparently your viewing chances increase if you go to one of the private luxury lodges that have sprouted up around the national parks. They have less terrain and tend to know where all their animals are. Some of them have even radio collared some of the animals so they can take you right to the lions. The downside is that prices START at US$400 per person per night, and can easily go up to $2000.00 per person per night. In Kruger you can get by on about $100.00 per day if you do a couple of drives and sleep in a the less expensive places.

We have one more park to go to, the world famous Etosha pan. Etosha is a dry flat desert with a couple of watering holes that attract mind numbing quantities of animals. Unfortunatley Nambia's climate has gone completely haywire the last few years and the pan is flooded by unseasonable rains. Many people we talked to saw nothing at all in Etosha. We are holding of for a few weeks hoping things dry out a bit, but we heard that there is so much water it might be six months before things go back to normal.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

How many people can you fit...

Lara and I were joined in Cape Town in late February by our friends Ian, Lynette, and Sandi. The plan was to drive all the way up through South Africa and into Namibia in the car Lara and I had bought specially for this purpose. So, with some trepidation, on the morning of March 1 we all brought our packs down to the parking lot of our apartment building and piled them by our car.

A 1995 VW Jetta.

Lara carefully loaded the trunk with packs, arranging them as tightly as possible. A few minutes later the trunks was full, but there was still a full-sized backpack on the ground, as well as several other bags. We had tried to find a roof-rack, but had been unsuccessful, so somehow we would have to make things fit.

That is where Ian came in. Through some miracle of physics Ian managed to repack the trunk so that all the gear of five people could fit inside. We had to lean on it to close it, but somehow it worked. We looked at the car. Only the bottom 3/4 of the rear wheels were visible. And we weren't even inside yet.

We loaded our five people inside and backed out of the driveway. Scraaaappeee! Admittedly it was a little bit uneven. Scrape. Scrape. Every time we hit a bump we scraped the hitch in the back. We were glad to have the hitch though. It protected the bumper, which rode only a few inches above the ground.

We managed to struggle along remarkable well until we hit a dirt road a few weeks later at which point the poor vehicle just couldn't handle the weight. We bottomed out so badly we cut a cable underneath, and we had to stop regularly to get everyone out so we would get extra clearance.

In the end we decided to get new springs for the car. The first set unfortunately did not make any difference. They were better, but the car still rode right down to the rubber when fully loaded. So later the same day we bought a second set at a custom spring place. We arrived 30 minutes before they were supposed to close but to our amazment they agreed to stay open late to fix our problem.

Now our car sits nice and high! Ian is still the only one who can pack it though.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

The Jaws of the Beast

When we aren't travelling, both Lara and I both drive cars that are over 12 years old. Our washing machine and clothes drier are reconditioned. Many of our dishes date back to my college days when I got them from friends. Our TV is a big box instead of an expensive flat screen. We still have luxirious lifestyles by world standards, but compared to many other Canadians we live very modestly. If the world is to survive environmentally there will have to be more people like us. The planet can't afford for all of us to buy new appliances every four years.

Yet it has become increasingly obvious in the last few months that the economy of the planet is based on the opposite assumption. Our whole economic system was built around the assumption that people will relentlessly consume, buying new goods whether they need them or not. And when that consumption stops, the whole world teeters on the edge of a spiral of economic ruin. If we don't buy a new car every two years people who make cars lose their jobs. Then they can't afford new TVs, which puts TV makers out of work so they can't buy washing machines.

Governments around the world are now trying to get consumers to spend again. In many countries you can get money from the government if you throw away perfectly good products like cars and appliances and buy brand new ones. It's ridiculous, but our very livelyhoods depend on this cycle continuing.

The conclusion is inescapable. The environmental movement is doomed because a culture of recycling and reusing and making do with less is only sustainable against the backdrop of a larger culture of mass consumerism. If you are recycling paper or bottles or cans you are now the enemy; you are depriving people in the forestry and mining industry of their jobs. How can we both cut greenhouse gas emissions and increase car sales? How can we cut the destruction of forests while increasing the consumption of timber? How can we cut the mining of metals while increasing the sales of appliances?

I wish I could see a way forward from here. But it is hard. Perhaps we will still invent technologies that allow us to consume at ever increasing rates while lowering our impact on the Earth. But right now things look grim. We've built a world economy around the idea that our lifestyle will continue and the rest of the world will join us in our wealth. Yet we face an environmental crisis that requires huge drops in consumption of natural resources.

The sad thing is that eventually we will face this crisis anyway. Each time we turn the crank and feed another ecosystem into the maws of the ravening consumers we get closer to the point where we will run out. Eventually there will be nothing left to feed the beast, and then we will have to make do with less. Maybe we will reinvent our economies. Most likely it will happen in stages, with huge dieoffs from famine and environmental disasters in poorer areas, while those of us fortunate enough to live in places like Canada continue to struggle along with what is left.

Grim thoughts on a beautiful Cape Town day.