Alien Safari

Yesterday was Mandela Day in South Africa. On this day people of the world are encouraged to  give just 67min of their time to support a worthy cause, as opposed to the 67 years that Nelson Mandela had fought for social justice.

I spent my 67 minutes at a book/dvd sale in aid of an orphanage.

I came across the National Geographic dvd, Alien Safari. It has been posted on YouTube as well, by far not the quality of my Mandela Day copy. Produced in 2009, Alien Safari does not have all the latest on space exploration but it delves into a big question.

Where should we be looking for extra-terrestrial life?

When talking about aliens we immediately think of creatures with similar features to us. We allow a bit of exaggeration where it comes to the size of eyes and ears but when it comes to stature we prefer them to be shorter 😉

Biologists obviously take a more scientific approach.  In searching for extra-terrestrial life they go to places with the harshest environments on Earth, where they have found the existence of extremophiles and thermophiles and where conditions could be comparable to those on some of our solar system’s planets and moons.

Where are these alien creatures lurking?

  • In the harsh environment of Antarctica there is a group of bacteria that can live off the chemicals in air alone. Another group can tolerate extremely high exposure to x-rays even though their natural habitat is 15 metres below the permafrost.
  • Extremophiles live in lava tubes outside Albuquerque, New Mexico
  • Off the coast of Ecuador, in the deep darkness and under the mighty pressure of the Pacific Ocean, communities of worms, crabs and squid are feeding on bacteria that take energy from chemicals erupting from the sea floor.
  • The Yellowstone geysers are home to thermophiles feeding on chemicals dissolved in boiling water.
  • Colonies of 2½cm centipede-like worms were found in methane ice mounds in the Gulf of Mexico
  • Deep in a South African gold mine, organisms are living totally independent of the Sun
  • In the acidic drainage of an old copper mine in California, a microbe community is thriving. One of these groups is described as extremely small and weird.

Scientists believe that we should be searching beneath the surface of salty “puddles” or in lava tubes on Mars. Maybe bacteria are metabolizing the carbon dioxide in the cloud tops of Venus, producing sulfuric acid aerosols. Could Callisto’s icy crust be hiding an ocean, a scuba diver’s paradise? Are microbes skiing on the flowing glaciers of Ganymede? Does Europa have pressure vents similar to those off the coast of Ecuador? What’s breathing beneath the surface of Enceladus, causing carbon dioxide and methane in its plumes of vapour? Are there living creatures immune to cosmic radiation on Titan?

Bless all the scientists that are doing ongoing research. Their findings are intriguing. Although what we’ll find now may be very tiny, let’s not forget where it all began for us.

Ticket to Ride

2011.02.22 FishHoek

Some lateral thinking resulted in one of my most memorable experiences.

I needed to get to Fish Hoek. In my case the obvious mode of transport would have been by my ‘anti-hijack/theft’ vehicle, our 1970 lefty VW Beetle but it was needed at home.
My telescope transporter, the VW Caddy, could have become a target as overnight parking was to be on a curbside.

The planning of this excursion was leaning strongly in the direction of adventure especially when my thoughts jumped to: train!

We all did the train thing during the Soccer World Cup, why not again in just less than a year later?

My overnight bag was given considerable thought. Clothes and toothbrush were necessities and basic camera equipment unquestionable. I decided on no free advertising for Canon, Lowepro or Manfrotto and opted for a ‘street-stroller’ backpack with a proudly South African label.

Some things were less easy to camouflage -the white skin and a dead give-away that spelled old lady, my grey hair. I could have tried an Andy MacDowell make-over but then, what about the legs and, I had to remain focussed.
Looking back though, I wonder why I had not thought of a hoody..

I would just walk the walk and talk the talk.

Few knew of the plan. To pull this off, I needed only positive input and no rundowns of South African crime statistics – especially no horror stories about the state of the South African Railways.

My husband saw me off at Oostersee Station (the “softer” alternative to the Main Line stations). He was extremely excited about his wife boarding the express train from Malmesbury, which was being pulled by a diesel locomotive but then had serious doubts when he saw the coaches, all packed to capacity. I jumped in before the love of my life could say: NO WAY.

No one took much notice of me, the very obvious odd one out. One younger lady offered me her seat. I said I was fine! Standing was no big deal. I did not have to hang on to anything for support as I was squashed in a very correct upright posture, secured from all sides. Three stations later, a seat became available. Being minus ticket (Oostersee ticket office had not opened yet) was no worry. From World Cup Soccer experience I knew about the post journey ticket booth on platform 22 at Cape Town Station.

As the train was speeding along, I noticed the slow-crawling traffic on the N1 all the way back to the Goodwood off-ramp. Most cars had only one occupant. I did a little arithmetic and came to the conclusion that one train length x three lanes of vehicles, were transporting only about forty eight passengers.

I pushed the push, shoved the shove and jostled the jostle with the rush hour folk.

Due to line maintenance on the Simonstown line, my all-stations, first class (as advised) ticket luckily took me as far as Fish Hoek.  By the way, all coaches on the southern suburbs line are identical and have no ‘class’ distinction. You pay the extra fee and pretend to be in first class.

All the while, I wished that I could expose my camera but would the lady, clearly postpartum, struggling onto the train at Mowbray, holding her little son’s hand while her husband carried a new little bundle, have appreciated the intrusion?

Did the student with the Apple laptop need a grey haired lady taking pics, on top of the fact that a hobo-looking guy was hanging over his shoulder, co-reading his emails?

As the train approached Muizenberg, the beauty of nature enveloped my senses and dispelled my pre-programmed fear. I assessed my situation in a blink,what the hell, out came the camera but I was not quick enough to shoot Muizenberg’s stretch of beach and wild waves dotted with surfers.

With adrenaline rushing, I tried to keep my balance as the train picked up speed and jolted to a halt at each station. I felt the fine spray of the sea against my skin while recording my wild ride to Fish Hoek in continuous shooting mode and forgot about being mugged and all the rest.

As the train came to a halt at Fish Hoek station, my camera went back into its hideaway in my ‘street- stroller’ backpack with the proudly South African flag. I was just a regular commuter. My youthful exhilaration crept back into the protection of my soul as the inspector at the check-out stamped my ticket. I had done it.

For most South Africans, going by train is just an everyday routine and a necessary means of getting from A to B. For me it was an extreme adventure.When I wrote this I promised myself that I would take more train rides to Fish Hoek and maybe include the route to Simonstown as well.

I may not get around to doing this one but I hope I will always feel these sudden urge to take a walk on the wild side.

Pied Barbets in my Garden

It all began when we had to take down a huge Euphorbia Ingens, commonly known as the naboom, as it was becoming hazardous. While we were at it, we lopped a second smaller tree as well. The large trunk went to a garden refuse site (big mistake – we should have kept it!)  A honeysuckle was planted to camouflage the remaining naboom trunk.

The creeper flourished. The naboom died providing an attractive abode for bumblebees and wasps.

A few years went by. It was a beautiful Saturday morning. Something about the smooth rhythm and constant hammering of a neighbour doing woodwork sparked my curiosity. The typical Saturday morning sounds turned out to be coming from a pied barbet which had, by that time, carved quite a substantial hole in the naboom trunk!

Male and female took turns to prepare the nest. They took extreme care with the size of the hole, chiselling bit by bit, hopping in and out and testing it for size. So it came to be that we had our first barbet family living beneath the rambling rose gazebo which was my 50th birthday present from my husband and where I was going to spend hours reading or having tea or whatever. I was obliged to donate my gazebo to the barbets.

The cycle of knock-knocking, brooding, hatching, cleaning and resting has added a certain rhythm to our lifes. We have and seen many broods hatch from that hole.

To remain happy and entertained, the barbets eventually needed new nesting logs. I bought sisal logs at the nursery but although they enjoyed chomping holes into those, they always preferred the original hole. We should have never discarded that Euphorbia Ingens trunk. I would have had an abundant supply of nesting logs.

I embarked on nest maintenance, removing the decayed top third of the trunk, covering it with an upside down plastic plant container to keep the inside of the log dry. Eventually after two more seasons I had to take down the whole trunk. One part (which included the original nest) I could use as a log and secured that on a pole.  Barbets will only construct a nest in a hole about two-four metres off the ground and the log has to slant slightly.

From then on I kept my eyes peeled for any cacti, palm, acasia or other suitable hollow wood logs. I sometimes wonder what the people in my neighbourhood think when they see me walking down the road with logs and all kinds of dry branch material. Recently the car attendant at our library came to my rescue when he noticed me struggling to fit a log into my VW Beetle. From now on he will also be alerting me if new “old” logs become available.

Barbets don’t like fresh and green. It’s dry and hollow they’re after but never brittle. The logs have to have a substantial circumference – sometimes they squeeze many birds in one nest during winter.

From my window I have a bird’s eye view of what’s happening in the nest. I have seen them breed about three times in one season – two chicks at a time. Seeing a chick peeping from the hole for the first time is so special- peeping just a little further each day, diving back into the nest at the slightest flutter of a leaf, moth or insect. Once the chick has surveyed the world and decided its ok out here, it pops out of the nest and follows the parents to a nearby branch for its first proper flying lessons. I was totally devastated the first time I noticed the parents refusing the youngsters entry into the nest as soon as they had flown the coop. It is the regular routine. One or two nights maximum and they have to make their own sleeping arrangements. This is why extra logs with extra holes are vital. Even more interesting is that the youngsters from the last brood are allowed to stay as long as they like! I can only think that with winter approaching, the extra “duvets” in the nest are most probably quite cosy. Once this last little family has bonded they leave the nest temporarily. This is breathing time for the nest – to rid it from parasites, I suppose.

During this time I do “home maintenance” They do check-ups while I’m at work. Well after sunset one of the barbets does the last inspection to see whether other birds are not attempting a take-over of the nest. They are not as vocal during this nest resting period as in the breeding season. I always wait in anticipation – will they accept my new log contructions or not. It would be a truly sad day if they stayed away for ever.

The barbets feed mainly on insects, worms and moths but during breeding season they like apple and even go to the birdseed feeder from time to time. We have a rubber tree that bears small fig-like fruits and they love those and I think it was this source of food supply that may have attracted them to the old decaying naboom log.

So far all but two of “our” barbet chicks have survived. The two that died were caught by a neighbour’s cat while taking flying lessons. We heard the parents calling for help and then we saw the lifeless little bodies. That was a very sad day. I’ve lost count of how many barbets we have had in our garden. We’ve become so accustomed to their calls and pecking that it would be strange if they were to leave.

My camera is not pointed at the hole in the log for hours on end anymore, taking pictures while watching the parents prepare the nest, taking turns on the eggs, constantly feeding, constantly removing pooh and the first glimpses of the little ones. I know the routine off by heart and just leave them be, except when their calls seem distressed. We assist in shooing away cats or Lesser Honeyguides who may be threatening the nest. They accept our “help” but that’s as far as it goes. If we were to interfere too much, they would leave for good.

It is nest resting time at this time of writing. I have erected an additional log. Will the cycle continue?


My first taste of Movies

My first taste of movies was on home cinema. Up to this day I do not like any slapstick comedy which involves pie throwing, slipping, face slapping, falling ladders, tipping paintbuckets, hair pulling, eye poking, “tit-for-tat” fights or trio’s named Moe, Larry and Curly!
I know that to pull off this style of comedy requires great timing, overly animated facial expressions and nifty acrobatics. Still slapstick comedy would not be my choice of movie including the ones with ‎Stan Laurel‎, ‎Oliver Hardy or Charlie Chaplin listed in the cast.

Being five years younger than my sister, made me wise to the world of a teenager before my time. I witnessed her go through puppy love stages and was allowed to go along to home parties (as chaperone and tattletale) and to proper cinemas.

Polyanna was an obvious favourite but “Tammy” with Debbie Reynolds left a huge impression. How modern teenagers would laugh at the innocent portrayal of Tammy falling in love. A series of four Tammy movies were made between 1957-1967. It’s the first one (Tammy and the Bachelor) that I remember very well. I sat in a huge Loquat tree and sang ” Tammy’s in Love” over and over again. I bet I would have fallen from the branch out of fright if love had really come knocking at that young age! The “old hootie owl, hootie-hoo’s to the dove” was most probably the only part in the lyrics that I actually understood.

I hear the cottonwoods whisperin’ above
Tammy, Tammy, Tammy’s in love
The old hootie owl hootie-hoo’s to the dove
Tammy, Tammy, Tammy’s in love
Does my lover feel what I feel when he comes near?
My heart beats so joyfully
You’d think that he could hear
Wish I knew if he knew what I’m dreaming of
Tammy, Tammy, Tammy’s in love
Lyrics by Ray Evans

Luckily Saturday afternoons spent at the Alhambra or Colloseum opened up a whole new experience. No more slapstick – an eight years old was on her way to becoming a serious moviegoer.



Born just before midnight

Neither VW Golf nor Lenny Kravitz were around when I was born, but what must be one of the best VW television commercials (For the love of the Drive) has taken me back to a day in 1952.

I was born in Vredendal, a town in the northern Olifants River Valley in the Western Cape province of South Africa. From then on the15th of December was circled on every year’s calender as an important date by familie and maybe a handful of friends. [note: we were three siblings – I was not born nr one but filled the insignificant middle position!]
What I know about my birth is that I was born just before midnight and one of my early childhood friends just after midnight in the same nursing home (as those establishments were called back then) Up to this day I have never forgotten this bit of (useless)information, although I bet astrologists would love to dig up all kinds of weird and wonderful personality traits. My friend and I had totally different personalities but I’m quite certain it had to do with genes rather than two, either side of midnight, events.
A memento that I have cherished and one that miraculously did not land on a dumpsite, is a little gift card signed “The Oettles, Lausanne. Vredendal”
From the looks of things, the chubby baby in old photos seemed to be happy and adjusting well to life in her world.

Maybe a Memoir

A few weeks have gone by and while staring  at a blank page, my mind just keeps wandering off to days and events long gone by. It will take tremendous effort to harness  a specific day’s thoughts and pin them to a specific date and time. Maybe I’m just to wild at heart, name it rebellious, to be bound between the leather covers of a journal.

I want to write – it is an exhilirating experience. Should people my age not perhaps rather be writing memoirs instead of  keeping diaries (as we used to call journals when I was a teenybopper)?

Maybe I should write a mémoire. Carol’s Memoir – now that sounds ridiculous.  I associate a memoir with famous people or people with extraordinary achievements or people who have lived through extraordinary circumstances. Oh horror! Now I’ve read that writing a memoir is narcissistic, like taking a selfie and posting it on every social media page.

Door slams, blank page – my mind is slipping into the past again: “Reflections of my Life” – now that’s a  title that sounds more like me.

The changing of sunlight to moonlight
Reflections of my life
Oh, how they fill my eyes
The Marmalade-