Witten’s Christmas Letter for 2017

626 Tauwhare Road
RD7, Hamilton
New Zealand 3287
+64 7 829-5887
December 26–28, 2017

Dear friends,

Here we are again: another year of exciting adventures near and far. Undoubtedly the highlight was an action-packed 3½ month holiday in BC, Alberta, California, England, N.Ireland, Zimbabwe, Botswana, Namibia, S.Africa, and (briefly) Ethiopia.

Be warned: this letter is outrageously long. Just take the usual things for granted: Ian’s annual sailing trip with Brian; our busy musical lives with orchestra, recorder groups, jazz groups; long weekends away; Pam’s Zonta; Ian’s work; a trip to Kuala Lumpur and Sri Lanka; and so on. All these continue; you can read about them in previous years’ letters. Pam has a new puppy Dora, a Labrador/Retriever. She’s lively company.

Anna and her kids Riley and Stella still live in Whangarei; we see them there, or here, in school holidays. She’s had a tough year untangling her marriage and starting a new job; we’re hoping that 2018 will bring her more peace and laughter. Nikki and John moved from Sunnyvale to San Jose, which suits them very well, and are thriving; more on them below. We’re all very well. We both turned 70 this year (our house turned 100). No medical episodes or operations (except for a new roof).

Peggy passed away peacefully in July, aged 98. She’d found life increasingly difficult in recent years, and in many ways we’re relieved that she’s no longer unhappy. We were in Canada at the time: Pam had discussed this possibility with brother Graham (for several years!) and had agreed that she shouldn’t return for the funeral. Unfortunately this meant that he bore the brunt of all the necessary tidying up arrangements. Anna drove down from Whangarei to represent our side of the family. Now all our parents are gone and Pam has assumed the role of family mother superior.

That’s it for the news. Now for the holiday. Read on if you dare.

We arrived in Victoria, BC, on June 20. Many friends from our 1980s life in Calgary have gone west to escape those icy winters that were stimulating and energizing when we were younger but become harsher with age. It’s mostly the Brits who have fled: our Albertan friends, apparently hardier, have stayed put.

We stayed with Brian and Shawna for a few days, cycling into Victoria along the “Galloping goose” trail, named after an old narrow-gauge railcar that dates back to the 1920s. Then we rented 4 wheels and went to nearby Salt Spring Island, the first of many ferry trips, to stay with Barbara (also ex-Calgary) and Ross. At the Saturday morning market we met Raffi, a Canadian songwriter/singer who our kids adored way back when—three generations of us still listen to him every Christmas when decorating the tree. Moving on, we took three ferries: from Salt Spring back to Vancouver Island, then a drive north to catch the ferry to Denman Island, then a 10-minute drive across Denman to get the ferry to Hornby Island. You don’t get much more remote than that. Jo and Craig live a life of idyllic seclusion on this tiny island, where the single restaurant is a summer-only fish-’n-chippie (excellent, not surprisingly) and the only pub closes 6 or 7 days a week throughout the winter.

Another 3-ferry day took us first back to Vancouver Island, where we deposited the car, and then the (relatively) big voyage to Vancouver itself, where we stayed for several days with Edie and Paul. Vancouver is a cycle-friendly city—the mayor is a cyclist—and we had some splendid rides along the sea and river, and to the lovely Stanley Park. Another ferry took us to Bowen Island for a lovely day with David, Ian’s former graduate supervisor, where we were lucky to catch up with his daughter and granddaughters—who had grown to look exactly like his daughter when we last saw her. We enjoyed the Canada Day festivities at Granville Island, an old industrial estate that is now a chic arts, foodie, and entertainment spot. And then we picked up another rental car for our trip to Lethbridge.

This leg had taken some planning. We wanted to drive from Vancouver to Lethbridge, but rental companies charge swingeing one-way penalties. Years ago we made the same trip, and historical research revealed that we had used Hertz. But today the Hertz website lists their nearest drop-off for Lethbridge as Grand Falls, Montana—300 km away, in another country. After much clicking we discovered that taking a car from one major airport to another does not incur the penalty—it’s far cheaper to get from Vancouver airport to Calgary airport than to downtown Calgary, for example. So we travelled to Calgary airport, dropped the car off, walked through the terminal building, and caught a Red Arrow coach from the airport to Lethbridge (Alberta has a nice luxury coach company). It worked well.

And it was worth it. From Vancouver we took the slow road, stopping at Sushwap Lake where we spent happy family holidays in the 1980s, and at Golden, picnicking at Illecillewaet campsite, another favourite spot from long ago, and walking to the “Meeting of the Waters,” the confluence of two deafening glacier-fed torrents. We planned a side trip from Lake Louise to Moraine Lake, but the road was closed because the carpark there was full(!); Lake Louise was also packed with traffic, and as we drove past Johnson’s Canyon on the scenic route to Calgary not only was the carpark full, but cars were parked for miles along the roadside. Banff National Park has become unpleasantly popular, exacerbated this year because entry is free to commemorate Canada’s 150th anniversary. But the day was saved by an icecream at our favourite spot in Cochrane. A real trip down memory lane.

We love visiting Joan and Wolf in Lethbridge. We spend some days together, then they head off for a little holiday while we stay home and cat-sit. Lethbridge is small-town Canada with a reputation for being boring. But nothing could be further from the truth! It epitomizes the yin and yang of prairie and mountain, and—for us—the yin and yang of outdoor life and music, for Joan plays harp and recorder and musical soirees were on the agenda most evenings. Lethbridge’s Penny Coffee House makes the best ever cinnamon buns, clearly medicinal—and good fuel after a long bike ride.

We spent a day in the foothills studying flowers and hoodoo-like rock formations. The next day we headed further, almost into the Rockies, with a small group of friends to learn about Blackfoot edible and medicinal plants from Ryan Heavyhead, an expert in native culture. He’s an eloquent and inspirational speaker (let’s face it, anyone who has learned the Niitsitapisskska’takssin language must be pretty good at talking). He showed us scores of traditional foods and remedies: leaves, berries, tubers, even bark that you rub for sunscreen powder. Ryan has been a key figure in repatriating “medicine bundles” from American museums back to the First Nations people where they originally belonged and to whom they have tremendous spiritual significance. In fact, his family is the keeper of the Blood tribe’s “beaver bundle,” and we learned about associated rituals and ceremonies. Also a few stories about Napi, legendary cultural hero of the Blackfoot tribe and an inveterate trickster.

We realized Pam’s long-standing ambition to canoe across Cameron Lake in Waterton Park. The far side is in the USA, but completely unreachable except by boat. There a glacier descends almost to the lake, and we clambered out of the canoe and walked on slushy snow—illegal immigrants! Another day we realized Ian’s long-standing ambition for Pam to canoe through the marvellous sandstone canyons of the Milk River to Writing-On-Stone Park, passing by ancient rock-wall petroglyphs that are also inaccessible except by water. Pam found the canoeing rather too exciting at times, and at one point she mutinied, walking along the bank while Wolf and Ian shot one of the more interesting rapids.

The Milk is one of two rivers that come up from Glacier Park in the US. It cruises along through southern Alberta before turning south to re-enter Montana and join the Missouri on a long journey to New Orleans. The nearby St Mary’s carries on north, joining the Oldman and South Saskatchewan rivers, all the way to Hudson’s Bay. On entering Canada the two flow very close together, and it’s hard to realize, there on the flat, bald, prairie, that you are actually standing on North America’s major north-south watershed. In an earlier Christmas letter (2004) we described America’s cunning plan to siphon water from the St Mary’s into the Milk and use it for irrigation later, after it re-enters Montana, which was foiled by Canada’s plan to build a “spite canal” in the other direction. An international water rights dispute—in 1902!

In fact the Oldman River, which runs through Lethbridge after joining with the Belly River, should really be called the Belly, because that contributes the major flow. However, the prudish ladies of Victorian Lethbridge, scandalized by the impropriety of that name, prevailed.

We did some hikes in Waterton Park: to Bertha Falls, evoking memories of Pippa (Ian’s sister) and John years ago, and Bertha Lake; and (for Ian) a mountain-bike-then-hike to Goat Lake. We visited our all-time favourite spot, Police Outpost Provincial Park in the very south of Alberta, where Pam’s ashes are destined to be scattered (but not yet), and did our traditional walk to the 49th parallel and hopped over the barbed wire fence: illegal immigrants—again! A sign threatens, in officious gobbledygook, the direst of consequences to anyone foolish enough to trespass into American territory, and we were appalled to find that sometime in the last two years a security camera had been installed on a post nearby, complete with solar panel and transmission aerial. After Ian’s traditional urination we turned around and hopped back across the fence to safety, past the sign that says “Welcome to Alberta.” We had kept our eyes peeled for drones.

Ah yes, and of course we cycled in Lethbridge, enjoying the high prairie air but not the sweltering heatwave nor the smoke that occasionally swept across the Rockies from forest fires that had by then invaded BC (we just missed them).

A surprise discovery was the scuzzy-looking General Store in the one-horse town of Twin Buttes (population 10). Its unprepossessing door leads you straight into Mexico! Excellent Mexican food, and an amazing kitchy atmosphere, right there on the prairie in the shadow of the Rockies. Another surprise was nearby St Henry’s church, standing on a small prairie hill in the middle of absolutely nowhere, with magnificent panoramic views. Apparently in the late 1800s Nebraska was becoming too crowded (!!) and some German settlers succumbed to the temptations promised by a Canadian government pamphlet extolling opportunities in Alberta. They built the church in 1906, and we met the son of the first person to be baptized there, by none other than Father Lacombe (famous in Alberta). Sermons were preached in German, and the church was named after the last member of the Ottoman Empire, Heinrich, Duke of Bavaria from 995, who became Holy Roman Emperor from 1014 until his death in 1024.

We love the remoteness of Southern Alberta and feel a great connection with it. It’s full of surprises.

The Red Arrow sped us back to Calgary, where we stayed in our old neighbourhood with Chris and Carl and felt very much at home. While other parts of the city have grown, nothing much around here had changed. We enjoyed being wined and dined by former neighbours. We cycled around—have to keep active to stay in shape! Although it was hot, the rarefied air at 1000 metres made it comfortable, though even small inclines rendered us breathless. We hiked in the mountains, which were as restorative as ever—though the smoke from the BC fires made views hazy. And, continuing our canoeing theme, we visited a small but fascinating exhibition of paintings in Calgary’s Glenbow Museum that depicted voyageur explorers, generations of recreational canoeists, Inuit prints and even a stunningly beautiful real-life modern birch-bark canoe.

Leaving Calgary in our posh(!) RentAWreck, we drove to Lake Louise and up the Icefields Parkway to Jasper. Our favourite road ever! And on the way we stopped for our favourite hike ever, up to Helen Lake with views across to the (much diminished) Crowsfoot glacier. We frequently did this with the kids, and one year encountered so much snow we had to dry our socks on the now-legendary “Sock Tree” … though on every subsequent trip we argue over exactly which tree it was.

Jasper is famous in family lore as the location of our scariest-ever bear encounter, where 30 years ago five energetic young bears shared our campsite. We enjoyed a less nerve-wracking trip this time, staying just outside the park in an Airbnb in nearby Hinton because of the impossibility of booking Jasper accommodation in the summer.

Then on to Camrose, country music blaring from the car radio, coffee and donuts all the way, for a crazy long weekend with Marie and Jim, dyed-in-the-wool Albertan friends from the 1960s. We arrived one evening for the inevitable bottle of John Jameson’s nectar, shared with their extended family, and the next morning were whisked off to a campsite at Elnora in the boondocks of eastern Alberta, sharing their small trailer for a night, surrounded by huge campervan rigs belonging to Marie’s siblings. We relished the family craic, and were honoured to be invited to attend a family wedding. We sort of gatecrashed, really, but received a typical warm welcome of strangers by country farming people.

Nearby Dry Island Buffalo Jump is a little-known secret gem, even more dramatic than the better-known Head-Smashed-In Jump near Lethbridge, a UNESCO World Heritage Site that we have visited often. And not far away is the Gopher Museum at Torrington, an incredible collection of stuffed gophers arranged in all sorts of poses—a wild west stickup, jazz group, fire brigade, along with the corniest of corny jokes. Strange things arise when whiling away those snowbound Alberta winters, and each small hamlet contrives to seduce passers-by into visiting a “must see” attraction. This was the best!

From Camrose, via Rocky Mountain House and Cochrane (for another icecream at MacKay’s) to stay with Saul and Judy in Canmore. Everyone’s so fit here that the BMI of residents must be half the national average. We did our best to keep it that way by cycling to Banff and back and along the Bow River. Many bears, black and grizzly, frequent the area, and you have to carry bear-spray while cycling (it’s not like mosquito spray; you point it at the bear, not at your skin). We avoided bears, but Pam lodged her front wheel in a tree root and took a spectacular fall. No bones were broken, and her pride soon recovered. The next day Ian hiked the Iceline Trail at Takakkaw Falls with Saul and Judy while Pam nursed her bruises. Later, he got his come-uppance by taking a few tumbles while having a super-exciting mountain bike lesson from Saul.

Smoke from the BC fires made the mountains hazy, sometimes completely obscuring them—we felt sorry for tourists who had come for the views. We could smell and tastes smoke on the air, and our car was covered in a thin layer of ash, rather like the volcanic dust when Ruapehu erupted back home in NZ. Many trails and campsites were closed, though fortunately the fires never made it across the Great Divide.

The Canmore Folk Festival was excellent, as usual. We had tickets for the entire weekend and had a blast, meeting up with old friends and making new ones. Several American groups performed; not a Republican among them, judging by the introductions to their songs.

Then off to San Jose to visit Nikki and John for a couple of weeks. But no lazing around! No sooner had we arrived than Nikki whisked us off for a few days on a road trip round northern California, up through the baking hot interior, a swim in Lake Shasta, and back down along the coast. We spent Pam’s birthday in picturesque Sonoma, in the middle of California wine country—the wine was not wasted on us. Sadly, many of the lovely vineyards in the area have now been destroyed by the recent California fires. Furthermore, Ian had a hemp milkshake and Pam had marijuana chocolate, all perfectly legal in California. What devils we have become!

The next week Nikki took us to Big Sur, south of San Jose. We had never been before, and Ian had long been fascinated by Kerouac’s “beat generation” adventures. (Have you read On the road? Do. Big Sur? Don’t.) In February the area had been ravaged by floods, mudslides, and storms, and is still cut off, but a campsite at the north remains open and that’s where we stayed—in Nikki’s little tent. (She slept in the car.) It was lovely to be camping again, with a real fire and toasted marshmallows, the smell of pine needles all around. The coast is spectacular; we looked down on Kerouac’s now inaccessible beach from a flyover high above. But the crowds! We must be real country folk, because we felt hemmed in by people, on and off the roads, in the parks and campsites. Traffic in California is even worse than in Auckland! And the infrastructure has broken down, with bumpy, crumbling road surfaces—much worse than in developing countries like India or China. Oh USA, what have you come to?

We really enjoyed San Jose, with great restaurants and bars. Nikki and John live just a couple of blocks from Japantown, with enormous sushi “boats” and mochi icecream (new to us). It’s much more culturally interesting than Sunnyvale, where they used to live. Oh yes, and just a couple of hundred metres to a cycle path, where we did a bit of exercise. And we caught up with some old friends: Peter and Margaret from CA; Aly and Nathan from NZ.

Leaving Nikki and John (sniff sniff), we flew to Frankfurt and Dublin, picked up a car and drove to Pippa’s lovely house on County Down. We had a restful 10 days here with her extended family, plus a few dinners with old friends. And some cycling, up and down those steep drumlins.

Close readers will have detected a cycling theme in our year so far. That’s because the next step was to pedal from Victoria Falls to Cape Town.

Apprehension mounted as we took our malaria pills, drove back to Dublin, flew to Heathrow, then to Addis Ababa on Ethiopian Airlines (excellent, at least on international flights), where we greatly admired glorious African hair-dos in the airport waiting room, and on to Victoria Falls in Zimbabwe. Heading straight for the swimming pool at our lodge we spied our friends Chris and Hilary, who joined us on this trip, and met the other New Zealanders in our cycling party of 11 (plus a lady from Germany)—and our lovely, considerate, eloquent, well-informed, Afrikaans guide and African driver. While eating breakfast next morning we heard wild elephants trumpeting in the street outside, which set us up for the excitements to come.

We were relieved to find no super-fit young athletes. Almost all of us were between 65 and 74, though it soon transpired that the others were avid cyclists. The next morning, with great trepidation, we met our bikes. Along with four others Pam had an e-bike, which took a few days to become fully acquainted with—but she soon became a whiz, occasionally pulling Ian along in her slipstream. While the rest were saddling up, one person took his bike on the road for a spin, hit a pothole heavily disguised in sand, and had a nasty fall—no broken bones, but cuts and bruises that had to be bandaged and re-bandaged throughout our 3-week trip. It was a salutary reminder to be extra careful.

Mounting our bikes for the first time, we cycled to Victoria Falls a few miles away. In an earlier year’s adventure we had seen Iguazu Falls at the junction of Argentina, Brazil and Paraguay, which is extremely impressive—far more so than poor little Niagara. But Victoria Falls is absolutely spectacular, breathtaking, magnificent. You see the cloud of spray from afar; in the rainy season the water is apparently completely obscured. In the local language it’s called Mosi-oa-Tunya—the smoke that thunders—and we were told that you can feel the ground shake beneath your feet miles away. Stretching for 2 km along a huge, seemingly bottomless, gorge, water pounds relentlessly over the edge. We strolled along the other side of the canyon and marvelled at the great sight. Spray … rainbows … thunder. It was awesome.

The next day, up early, we cycled to Botswana. We were impressed by the border inspection: we were screened for Ebola, wheeled our bikes through disinfectant to guard against foot-and-mouth disease, and could pick up female condoms for free. Once in Botswana we cycled to a village and ordered lunch at a little store operated by the loveliest people (with excellent English). They were unfazed by a motley crew of 11 foreigners who didn’t even know what the currency was called, let alone what it was worth, and dealt with us with good humour and broad smiles. Here we put our bikes on the trailer and drove in air-conditioned comfort to Chobe National Park.

Here, as elsewhere, we stayed in a splendid, luxurious, lodge. Our trip had a camping option that we were glad we hadn’t taken. We had assumed it would be glamping, with permanent tents and camp beds, but not a bit of it: campers had to set up scrappy little tents each night and break camp before dawn the next day. Apart from two nights in this first lodge every stop was a one-night stand: hard work for campers. We got used to having our own attractive little cottage for two, whose steep thatched roof reached almost to the ground to afford as much shade as possible. We had a huge bed with mosquito net (not really necessary, but we used it for the novelty), spacious sitting area, large bathroom. The décor was often vibrant African colours and fabrics. A few steps away was the bar and dining area, similarly decorated and equally attractive.

You don’t cycle through game parks: as someone said, we would be meals on wheels. We left before sunrise in a 4x4 game viewing vehicle for a morning safari. We were lucky to encounter a pride of lions a few hundred metres distant and spent an hour watching them, fascinated: three cubs gambolling like kittens, two teenagers sulking around, and two very alert moms. (Males stay separate.) A jackal lurked nearby, hoping for a cheap lunch. Eventually the group got up and started strolling towards us. We held our breath as they got closer … and closer …. Our driver had previously warned us not to stand, to avoid attracting unwanted interest by breaking the vehicle’s visual profile. The seven lions approached us single file and crossed right in front of our jeep, just yards away. The last one stopped in the middle of the track, turned, and gave us a long, long stare. We held our breath. Not a muscle moved except for Pam’s trigger finger (on her camera). After what seemed like an age the lion turned and loped along after the others. We breathed again.

Driving on, we spotted elephants, hippos, warthogs, giraffes, crocodiles, baboons, and birds—hornbills, fish eagles, and vultures, plus many smaller varieties. Later we saw a secretary bird, apparently a very unusual sight. This was all new to us; we marvelled at everything. Towards the end of the safari trip we stopped for tea and rusks. Rusks? The last time we had them we were teething! But everywhere in Africa rusks are what you have with tea or coffee instead of biscuits or cake. Think of them as biscotti.

That afternoon we visited the same area by boat. Hundreds upon hundreds of huge African elephants, with ears like tablecloths. Hippos lazing around in the water, each one’s head resting on another hippo’s back. Zebras, and many species of antelope: springbok, wildebeest (gnu), hartebeest (from the back their horns look heart shaped), impala, oryx (later in the trip, oryx steak became a favourite meal). We are now beginning to become a trifle blasé. Elephants were surrounded by flocks of ibis (ibises? ibi? ibes? ibides?), which apparently serve to control parasites such as ticks and flies. So many varieties of large animals, peacefully grazing together. Elephants have inefficient digestive systems, and many other beasts relish the huge mounds of elephant dung.

Next morning, on the road again. We encountered two women walking by the roadside carrying vessels on their heads—maize, we learned later. After conversing with our guide (and for a small consideration) we were invited into their kraal. This is a traditional African village comprising a few huts enclosed by a primitive picket fence constructed of rough palings. The huts, all circular, are built of branches with the gaps filled by mud and straw. Roofs are thatched with dried reeds, and a man was up there repairing the thatching. There was an extensive vegetable plot, also with a picket fence, and a few goats and chickens ran around. We were interested to see that many kraals had a portable toilet outside the enclosure. We admired the young mothers’ intricate braided hairstyles, while their children were fascinated by our straight white hair.

Later that day we entered the Caprivi Strip, a narrow arm of Namibia that extends eastwards between Botswana to the south and Angola to the north. Our lodge was on the Kwando river, and that evening we had a boat trip through a network of waterways to see the magnificent sunset, and elephants crossing the river to reach their sleeping place. But—excitement!—we had a shipwreck! Our boat’s steering mechanism broke. We were stranded on the muddy bank of a crocodile-infested river in the middle of nowhere, the only visible means of transport being wild elephants! So we tucked into the beer and awaited developments. Which came in the form of a rescue boat to take us back to the lodge.

The next night we stayed on the bank of the Okovango river, a mere stone’s throw from Angola. Kids cross every day to go to school in Namibia. Along the path from our little hut to the bar and dining room were signs warning “beware of hippos”, “beware of crocodiles”—and the campers amongst us took care not to drink too much liquid in the evening. Here we visited another small village and were introduced to a 50-year-old grandmother who was looking after her four grandchildren while her daughter was away for several weeks at a stretch working in the nearest town. We also talked to a family sitting in the shade of their hut waiting for their dinner to cook on a small stick fire. The large pot contained nothing but maize, and had been simmering for hours. This was their one meal of the day, to be shared between the seven of them. If any was left over, the two youngest children would take it to school for lunch the next day. The oldest daughter, about 15, aspired to become a nurse. If she succeeded in gaining a place, her training would be paid for by the government.

Etosha National Park, one of Namibia’s largest game parks, was another highlight. Stricken by drought for years, the main feature is a huge dry salt pan (“can be seen from space”). Animals tend to congregate around watering holes, and of course the herds are stressed. In the remote distance were a lion and lioness—copulating, we were told, but by the time we spotted them, ever so indistinctly, they must have been basking in post-coital glow. We saw giraffes, zebras, ostriches—and, incongruously, a German fort dating from the late 19th century when Namibia was called German South West Africa. Again, no cycling here; our driver and guide took us on our own tour.

We cycled 40–80 km almost every day. Typically we woke around 6:30 and left at 7:30, either on our bikes or in the van for a couple of hours. When the van slowed to a stop conversation hushed as we reluctantly reconciled ourselves to the idea that this was where the effort began. Once on our bikes our leader liked us to stay in a group, but inevitably some raced ahead and others lagged behind. The van followed in the rear, picking up anyone who wanted to stop. The signal was to stop and put your fist on your helmet; the driver would flash past with cheery wave and huge smile before relenting and stopping for you. Meanwhile the leader raced up and down on his bike (boy was he fit), offering encouragement and keeping in touch with everybody. Eventually the van overtook the group and we heaved a sigh of relief, because this signalled an impending halt. By the time we reached it, cold drinks, energy bars, and fruit would be on hand. Eleven of us huddled under a leafless tree, fighting for whatever meagre shade it offered.

It gets hot. When the temperature rises to 42C you really have to stop cycling, no matter how gung-ho you are. This typically happens in the early afternoon. Then we’d all pile into the van, bikes on the trailer, and drive from there.

We were supposed to rest every hour or so. But inevitably some dissatisfaction arose as the fittest people whizzed miles ahead, delaying our break; while others pedalled along disconsolately, just in front of the van. Our leader handled the complaint sensitively by bringing it up for discussion, and the group agreed that the fastest riders must stop after 45 minutes, preferably turning back to join their slower colleagues. Pam claims that at first the non-ebikers looked down snootily at their power-assisted comrades, but came to appreciate them over time as they realized how much it helps to follow closely in their draft.

Our group got on famously together. We were all similarly minded; perhaps being Kiwis helped. We ate every meal together for three weeks, and got to know each other pretty well. Toilet stops in the desert were signalled by leaving one’s helmet on a rock.

We spent most of the time in Namibia, and will spare you a blow-by-blow account. Damaraland: day after day of desert, stretching as far as the eye could see. The Namib desert is extensive but by no means flat. There are always mountains in the distance, arid mountain ranges, and we traversed a couple of high passes. We saw the occasional ostrich and jackal. There are small desert elephants, but we didn’t see any. We did see the world’s largest meteorite—66 tons—which, surprisingly, made no crater. Namibia is mineral-rich, and we stayed one night in a near-defunct tin mining town, now mined out and rapidly becoming a ghost town.

In the middle of the desert is Twyfelfontein, a luxury lodge situated at a spring with ancient petroglyphs nearby. (The name in the Damara language is written /Ui-//aes). It’s hard to describe the shock of seeing this stunning lodge with luxuriant grass lawns and a helicopter pad, surrounded by mile upon mile of inhospitable arid desert. And near here, in that inhospitable, arid, unpopulated desert, hundreds of miles from the nearest settlement, we had a serious breakdown—the trailer brake broke. Things looked bad for an hour or two—the AA doesn’t reach these parts—but after much effort our driver and guide saved the day by dismantling it and fixing a jury rig.

One farm we stayed at had three pet cheetahs and a couple of pet rhinos. Garfield, the tamest cheetah, would sit beside you licking your leg and purring loudly as you stroked him: it felt rather dangerous. His ears pricked up alarmingly at the movement of a floaty summer dress worn by one of our party; she was rapidly escorted out of the paddock. You could also stroke the rhino: much like stroking a rock.

Though the route was on public highways, we encountered few vehicles. We cycled on a mixture of sand and fine gravel, often corrugated (water bottles sometimes leapt off the bike). You tried to weave a route that avoided the worst corrugations, sometimes approaching too close to the piles of loose sand by the roadside and losing control, fishtailing, struggling to stay upright. Pam’s oft-repeated mantra—through gritted teeth—was “fishtailing is fun, fishtailing is fun …”. There was just one serious fall, when a heavy e-bike fell on top of its rider; she had to retire for a day to let the bruises heal. We encountered occasional people by the roadside, sometimes a kraal or village where children would greet us eagerly, sometimes roadside stalls. There might be a display to attract the attention of rare travellers. One man rushed to the roadside with a cart pulled by three donkeys. He made a little cash charging for photos, and wanted to take us off to see desert elephants. We felt a bit like a traveling ATM machine!

We saw women from the Herero ethnic group, wearing fantastic hats, sitting by the roadside at Singer treadle sewing machines making traditionally dressed dolls to sell to tourists. These people take pride in their cattle, and their culture requires women to wear hats shaped like cow horns, although we didn’t realize that at the time. We also saw semi-nomadic Himba women, naked from the waist up, who cover their skin and hair with a mixture of ochre and butterfat to protect themselves from mosquitoes and the hot dry climate. This gives them a distinctive orange or red tinge, which they consider desirable because it symbolizes both earth’s rich red colour, and blood, the essence of life. It also cleanses the skin, as water is too scarce for bathing.

In the southern part of the Namib desert are the famous sand dunes at Sossusvlei. Deservedly a popular tourist attraction, they march for miles along both sides of a long tarmac road. (Tarmac! Hadn’t seen it for weeks.) The shadows from the blazing sun on the smoothly wind-sculpted reddish dunes create a surreal landscape of uncanny shapes. The dunes are permanent, identified by numbers rather than names. We climbed dune 52. Surprisingly, the sand is extremely fine and makes a silky shushing sound when you disturb it, pouring like liquid.

Hey—this is way too long; we have to stop. Must just mention the Fish River Canyon in southern Namibia, second largest in the world (after Arizona’s Grand Canyon). And the stunning contrast between arid rocky desert on one side of the road and lurid green vineyards on the other when we came within irrigating distance of the Orange River that separates Namibia from South Africa. And watching our All Blacks thrash the Springboks 57-0 on a lodge bar TV; that night Pam ordered springbok pie (really). And the reservoir, almost empty despite it being the end of the rainy season, outside Cape Town—which is projected to be the first major city to run out of water (in May 2018).

On reaching Cape Town our little group disbanded. We stayed one night with our friend Gil and her kids, then left for Addis Ababa and London for two nights—we realized that this was the first time in aeons that we had slept in the same bed on consecutive nights. Ronnie Scott’s for jazz; a night in Bletchley for a seminar at the Open University; up to Sheffield to stay with Brian and Rosaleen and for Ian to collect an Honorary Doctorate from the OU; two nights in Hong Kong; and home. Phew!

It was the trip of a lifetime.

May peace be with you despite 2017’s political annus horribilis, and best wishes for next year.

Pam and Ian