Thursday, July 23, 2009

The Beaver has landed

My most memorable birthday – in fact the only one I can really remember – was my fifth. It was the day the man landed on the moon, in 1969.

It was a good day all around. I was sick, so I had the day off school (I suppose I was actually sick, as five is a bit young to be faking), which was good, and I remember being very pleased with my present, which was one of those brown cardboard-type school cases. If that doesn’t speak of a poor but happy childhood, I don’t know what does.

Not only was I happy to be home, sick and in possession of a cheap bag, but Neil Armstrong walked on the moon. Very memorable, all round.

My 40th birthday was a good one, too. My first book, FAR HORIZON, had just come out and I spent the day with friends from Australia and Africa on board a houseboat on Lake Kariba. Zimbabwe. Unfortunately, I can’t remember much about it because we started drinking beer at 6am, and finished some time around 2am the following morning.

My 45th, however, is another birthday that will stay with me forever.

I wasn’t exactly sleepless the night before, eagerly anticipating a horde of presents or a big surprise. That doesn’t happen in your 40s. The alarm went off at 6.45am and Mrs Blog, who, unlike me, has a normal job, reached over and turned it off.

“Happy Birthday,” she said.

I’d actually forgotten. “Oh.”

“Do you want your present now?”

Now I was awake, if you catch my drift. “Yes, ma’am!”

Instead, she reached down beside the bed and pulled out one of those girly little gift bags. It was a depressingly small present and, when she passed it to me, depressingly light.

I’m a hard person to buy presents for. Other than a sports car (with someone else paying the on-road costs), lifetime business class travel, and a private game reserve in Africa, there’s nothing much in life I really want. People usually end up giving me books, which I like. Mother Blog gave me Bill Bryson’s excellent Dictionary for Writers and Editors. I’m that hard to buy for. People don’t even bother with ties, socks and underpants – they go straight for the dictionary.

“Be careful opening it,” Mrs Blog said.

Inside the girly bag was a card, with two dogs in a sports car striking a Thelma and Louise pose, and small feather-light package. Even a handkerchief would weigh more, I thought. When I carefully opened it, it contained a piece of paper.

“What does it say?” I asked Mrs Blog. My reading glasses were wherever I had mislaid them last.

I could see at the top of the page a fuzzy logo that looked like the Sydney Opera House. Maybe, I thought briefly, we were going to the Opera. A bit gay, I thought, but no more so than watching Australia’s Next Top Model. I saw an opera once, Madam Butterfly, which I liked. It was a bit like Miss Saigon.

Mrs Blog read from the paper, without the aid of spectacles. Young wives are good. “Sydney Seaplanes… boarding time, 11.15am, departing Rose Bay, 11.30am, for Cottage Point and a three-course lunch at the Cottage Point Inn.”

“OMG. WTF,” I said.

This is something that we (and, I suspect most couples in Sydney) have dreamed of doing for years. Sydney Seaplanes operates a small fleet (squadron?) of smart looking little red and white aircraft that do joyflights over the harbour and take lucky/rich people off to lunch at exotic locations.

Mrs Blog had taken the day off work. We took a taxi to Rose Bay, the ancestral home of the seaplane and flying boat in Sydney. When I was boy (back when men used to land on the moon), twin engine Catalina and four-engine Sunderland flying boats still flew in and out of Rose Bay in Sydney’s eastern suburbs.

The flying boats once took people to England, via about four hundred stops, but in their latter years serviced less exotic places such as Norfolk Island and Lord Howe Island.

The Sydney Seaplanes aircraft are much smaller, but no less glamorous. There is something undeniably posh about a departure lounge on a pontoon. We were met by one of the pilots, a Canadian named Jeff, who soon after introduced us to our pilot, a Canadian named Geoff.

Geoff with a G showed us to our aircraft, which was also Canadian, and called a Beaver. It seemed you had to be Canadian to work for this company, and if you weren’t called Geoff or Jeff then you had to be named after a hardworking Canadian mammal.

It was a tight fit, sliding into the beaver, but once inside I felt like it was where I belonged.

“The Beaver,” Geoff informed us, as he started the engine and we drifted away from the wharf, “was built in 1961. She’s like a fine old sports car that’s been lovingly restored – quite a few times.” It was nice knowing I wasn’t the oldest thing on board. Sort of.

With yachts and cruisers and kayaks all around us the patch of water that served as the runway looked impossibly short, yet Geoff had his little aeroplane off the water quicker than you could say Molsons, or eh, or whatever it is Canadians say.

The weather, I should add, was unseasonably perfect. Sun shining, zero cloud, and about 22 degrees. As the birthday boy I was allowed to sit in the co-pilot’s seat. I looked back and Mrs Blog was grinning from ear to ear. She loves little aeroplanes.

I tried not to smile or laugh every time Geoff said something like, “…this is the Beaver, tracking past Manly,” or something like that. I was desperately hoping he’d say, “the Beaver has landed”, or, better yet, “the Beaver is wet,” when we touched down. (Mother Blog’s birthday card to me read, ‘you are only young once, but you can be immature indefinitely’).

Geoff with a G told us he’d seen some whales playing off Palm Beach on his earlier flight that morning (perhaps while he was taking some movie stars to breakfast or Nicole Kidman's children to pilates or whatever it is rich people do). Sure enough, as he brought the Beaver down a bit and banked slowly over Barrenjoey lighthouse, there were two humpback whales frolicking in the shallows, no more than a hundred metres from the golden strip of shoreline. Could this day get any better?

I’d heard of the Cottage Point Inn, but never been there before. Cottage Point is on the Hawkesbury River, in a national park north of Sydney. It’s the sort of place you pull into in your luxury motor cruiser, or your sea plane. I later found out it has a couple of rooms, too, just in case your propeller falls off, or your pilot gets taken by a shark, or something like that.

We landed bang on midday and Geoff shushed up to the wharf like he did this every day, which he probably does. We were met and shown to the best table on the deck, overlooking the sparkling river. The waitress offered to move the potted tree (it was on rollers) to give us some shade, but not having seen the sun for so long during the cold, wet Sydney winter, we were content to soak up some much-needed rays.

The food and service were superb. I had sardines wrapped in Pancetta for entrée, snapper for main, and a banana pie for desert. Mrs Blog had the scallops, Jewfish, and cheese platter.

A few idle rich people drifted in and out over the three hours we sat eating, drinking and chatting in the sun, though none of them had their own plane.

Sometimes I wish I was back in Africa, and sometimes I am reminded that there is no place in the world like Sydney. This is what’s good about my life – that and Mrs Blog.

Check out Sydney Seaplanes for yourself. Their packages aren’t cheap, but when I think that I had whales, sunshine, good food, good wine, a millionaire’s view of my home town, and the Beaver all in one day – that’s priceless.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Tony Park Parkcast Episode 3 - You Ask, I Answer

In which I answer all those probing, in-depth, tricky questions (but mostly just the easy ones) you have asked.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Two vacancies on the SILENT PREDATOR safari

Attention all! I've had two cancellations (due to unforseen circumstances) on the safari I'm leading to South Africa in September with the Africa Safari Co.

The safari is still going ahead, but the organisers would like to set off with a full complement. If anyone's interested or knows someone who might be, please pass it on and let me know.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Living the dream... vicariously

Now, if you think I have a good life (and I do), living in Africa's great national parks for six months of the year and the land of no bottled water for the remainder, then you should pop over and have a look at this blog on the South African National Parks website.

The blog's author, Martie, is a South African woman who has been living abroad, but has returned to SA to spend a year in Kruger, living her dream. Yes, that's right, a year camping in the Kruger National Park.

Martie posts pictures of the animals and birds she's seen each day, and shots taken in the camps.

If you like Africa, Kruger, or wildlife, you'll love it.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Bottled water... farm invasions... ANTM...

Where to start? There is so little happening in my world right now that it's hard to know where to to start rambling.

I've worked out that I actually blog more when I'm busy. I know for a fact that when I'm in Africa, researching and writing my books, I consciously try and blog each day as a means of getting my brain into gear (and convincing Mrs Blog that I've actually started working, as opposed to... well, blogging).

But in the here and now, with a few weeks more of being in between books with little to do, I've faffed my way into a blogging standstill. Except for now, of course, because I'm feeling so guilty that I decided I must write something for you, all four of you remaining Legion of Fans (LOF) (and I fear that includes the relatives).

The only two things I can think to write about are bottle water and farm invasions - both of which have left me feeling thoroughly pissed off this week.

The important one first.... this week Mrs B and I received grim news that friends of ours in Zimbabwe have just had their farm invaded - again. They've been lucky (after a fashion) these last few years in that they have actually been allowed to keep farming, after being kicked off their land for a while in the early days of the invasions.

It's a complicated situation, and I don't want to into details for fear of identifying them and upsetting someone, but the upshot is that they've been able to hang in there on their property while others all over the country were evicted.

I'm not starry-eyed about the power sharing deal brokered between ZANU-PF and the MDC, and I don't think I even dared hope that with Mugabe still in total power in all but name only that there would be any sense injected into the land debate. What's happening, I guess, is that across the country there is a rash of last-minute land grabs (as in what's happened to our friend).

At least I hope it is a last minute grab. If it is, and our friends can hold out without bowing to this particular invader's threats of violence (threats of death to their African employees, so far), that they might be able to survive until some semblance of order does actually return to the country.

I remain, or at least I try to remain, optimistic for Zimbabwe. Africa's a roller-coaster and today's basket case country is tomorrrow's powerhouse. Mozambique was coming out of a long and bloody civil war when I first went to Africa in 1995 and today it's peaceful, welcoming, and, in its own way, forging ahead. It's still poor, but it's on the up. By contrast, Zimbabwe was peaceful and relatively prosperous when I first visited it in 1995. Now the country is gasping on its death bed.

But I am optimistic. In the years since Mugabe gave into demands for compensation by the veterans of the liberation war and allowed/encouraged/facillitated the farm invasions and subsequent land grab, Zimbabweans have flocked to the polls in a series of ill-fated elections.

Despite being beaten (literally) and bowed, opposition politicans have seen their votes increase and steadily added to their tally of seats. Voters have risked and suffered intimidation to exercise thier democratic right.

No matter whose figures you believe from the last election, the indisputable fact is that voting in Zimbabwe now cuts across racial, tribal and socio economic lines, and people who were once steadfast supporters of Mugabe's government have fallen in with the opposition.

Once there is real change at the top in Zimbabwe (that's a euphemism for someone departing, one way or another), I believe Zimbabwe has the potential to emerge as one of the continent's strongest democracies - perhaps its strongest.

Too many African countries have become one-party states in the post colonial era. Zimbabwe was one for many, many years following independence in 1980. South Africa is still one.

People sometimes ask me, "why hasn't someone just killed that man (in Zimabbwe)?". My answer is that no matter what you think of the man at the top, the very fact that no one has killed him speaks volumes about the decency, honesty and faith of the people of Zimbabwe.

Many people believe that if they continue to do the right thing, peacefully turning out to elections and exercising their democratic right to vote, that one day the incumbent government might live up to its end of the bargain and allow free and fair elections, free of violence, and accept the result.

Real change will come to Zimbabwe. Real peace and real democracy will come to Zimbabwe. I'm sure of it. I just hope our friends can hold out until it does.

Meanwhile, back in Australia, in my home state of New South Wales, we have a Premier who has decided to ban the sale of bottled water in plastic bottles. This ground-breaking initiative is because one tiny village, Bundanoon, got some favourable press for voting to ban the sale of bottled water in its town in protest against a drink company wanting to tap into their ground water to extract spring water.

There was also a hoo-hah about reducing the number of plastic bottles going into land fill. Our fearless Premier jumped on the bandwagon and decided that an announcement about banning the sale of a legal product (I think water is legal to sell and if people want to pay for it, I believe they have the right to, and bottlers and shops have the right to make money out of them) was a wise decision for the future betteremnt of the State. Talk about a case of too many politicians and too few issues... (that's Australia for you).

The Premier used the bottled water issue much in the same way that Robert Mugabe used the land issue - that is, to distract the general public's attention from a screwed-up economy and a poor-performing government.

Sure, we're talking about different degrees here, but the strategy's the same. Give me a f-ing break.

In South Australia there is legislation which provides for a refundable deposit on bottles. In parts of Europe, according to a show I saw on TV recently, plastic bottles are washed and re-used. Now there's an ida.

In poverty-stricken Zimbabwe you can't buy a bottle of beer or soft drink without returning an empty. Why can't our politicians learn as much about recycling from Zimbabwe as they can about political strategy?

(Oh, yes,,, ANTM? What does that stand for? Why, America's Next Top Model, of course. Not as good as the Aussie version, as the contestants tend to be strippers and crack-hos, rather than fresh-faced teenagers, but I do worship the ground Tyra Banks walks on, so we will persist with the next season of the American version, starting this Tuesday on Fox8).

Tuesday, July 07, 2009

Democracy in action... good triumphs over evil

I speak, of course, of tonight's frankly stunning final of Australia's Next Top Model.

The judges had cast their votes and the score was four to three in favour of the petulant, tantrum-chucking Cassi, with Tahnee (the favourite in the Blog household), watching her modelling career drift away like her very unfortnate last-minute nosebleed. Alex Perry, how could you?

Like millions (I'm sure) of other Australians Mrs Blog and I were galvanised into action early on in the show when the first judges' votes came in. Tahnee was down three-two at that stage, so Mrs B and I texted our votes.

The end result? People power triumphed and Tahnee won such an overwhelming majority of the viewers' votes that it was enough to unbalance the judges. She won!

I let out a whoop of joy.

Afterwards, it got me thinking about Africa. Here I am, living in Sydney, and the only thing of any concern to me in my day-to-day life, in between writing books, was which 17-year-old was going to win a car and a modelling contract.

This is what makes Australia a good country to live in - our (relative) lack of troubles, strife, and our excellent voting system.

And it's also what makes me want to get back to Africa. Soon.

Well done, Tahnee. Your country salutes you, and Mrs Blog and I salute you, you fine young Australian.

Thursday, July 02, 2009

Back to Africa...

Yes, I hear you scream... "get back to talking about Africa. We don't come here to listen to you talk about Australia's Next Top Model, Mr Blog, or listen to your pathetic excuses for not visiting Melbourne or Brisbane..."

I hear you, Legion of Fans (LOF)... loud and clear!

Unfortunately, it's still two months and nine days before fly back to Africa so you, like me, will have to be content with a few re-hashed pictures and a bit of day-dreaming (unless, of course, you live in Africa, in which case you could very well be day dreaming about coming to Australia).

Above is a sunset shot taken at Tsitsikama National Park, South Africa, from my cabin at the Storm's River campsite. What a sensational place it was, too. Spectacular views and very different to the bushveld where Mrs Blog and I usually hang out.

Moving north, we find ourselves on the tranquil waters of Lake Kariba, between Zimbabwe and Zambia. Cue the bird... I think if I could live anywhere in southern Africa if would quite possibly be Kariba, where man and wildlife live, literally, side by side (that is if the man hasn't eaten all the wildlife by now). I'm planning on going back to Kariba on my next trip.

The pesky pied Kingfisher - hardest bird in the world to shoot (with a camera, that is. Pretty easy with a .22, though, I reckon, as they hover for a quite a long time before diving for their prey.) I bagged this beauty in Kruger, near the Sweni Bird Hide.

Not roaring... yawning. Lions do two fifths of bugger all, all day long, so one opening its mouth is a big treat. You can just about hear the "oohs" and the "ahhhs" from the other onlookers around me as I shot His Majesty, mid-yawn. Check those teeth.

All this is making me want to get on that plane, get back to Africa and crank-up old Tonka the Land Rover.

What will I look at for now, though, as I shivver my way through the Sydney winter?

I know, how about...

Forget the the African bush (for now), for the claws, teeth, (fake) fur, and big hair will be flying next Tuesday night as our own Big Cat(ty) Diary, Australia's Next Top Model, reaches its nail-breaking finale.

It's a showdown between the charming, lovely, peronable Tahnee (pictured above... Tahnee's aim in life is to be a Victoria's Secret model - true) and the whingey, whiny, tantrum-chcking boganista, Cassi.

Will good triumph over evil in the circle of life?

(I really need to 1. get back to Africa, or 2. find some work to do until my next book).