Thursday, September 29, 2011

South Africa Day 2: Whale Watching in Hermanus

Capetown at Sunrise, Saturday, September 23, 2011

South Africa Day 2: Whale Watching in Hermanus

Saturday, September 23, 2011

After 5 weeks of being with our ship community, Pat and I finally had 3 days to ourselves!  On our second day in South Africa, we took the plunge and rented a little Opel Lite mini-car (small!), willed ourselves over to the left (read: British) side of the road, and headed out of Capetown.  

False Bay and Table Mountain from Sir Lowry Pass

We were bound for Hermanus, the whale-watching capital of South Africa, 2 hours southeast of Capetown on Walker Bay.  South African friends John & Isobel de Gruchy live just outside Hermanus at Volmoed Community (see next blog entry); I first met the de Gruchy family nearly 30 years ago at Holden Village.  They arranged for us to stay in one of the Volmoed cottages for a couple nights, and we were excited to see a new section of the Western Cape.

Hottentot Holland Range, Sir Lowry Pass

After initially getting lost trying to exit Capetown (and getting an unplanned tour of the University of Capetown where John spent his teaching career), we headed east on the N2 National highway (at the unnerving speed of 120 kph).  Our trusty little Opel had no problem ascending the rocky Hottentot Holland Range and soon we were up at Sir Lowry Pass, looking back across False Bay and the Cape Flats to Table Mountain.  Stunning views!

Coastline near Hermanus

From Sir Lowry Pass we traversed fields of apple orchards, wheat, and vineyards, and made our way first to Volmoed Community, nestled in the coastal hills, and then to Hermanus.  We arrived a week before the annual Whale Watching Festival, but were in luck, as we had a beautiful sunny day, and people were spotting whales and their telltale spouts at several places around the Bay.

Hermanus is particularly noted for whale watching because it sits high on the cliffs (it reminded Pat so much of La Jolla north of San Diego), and the whales are able to come within a few hundred yards of shore.  When we first arrived at mid-day, we could see a handful of whales several hundred yards off shore, including several pairs of mother & calf. 

Whale Watchers in Hermanus
We also met the Hermanus Whale Crier – a local who keeps a close watch on the ocean and blows his horn when whales are spotted.  He stopped to chat with us a while, and was delighted to find that we were from Montana: at over 15,000 kilometers from South Africa,
Hermanus Whale Crier
he figured we were probably the farthest away visitors in Hermanus that day (for comparison, the South Pole is only a little over 6,000 km away, and New York and Beijing are roughly equi-distant at around 12,500 km distance)

Southern Right Whale on back
Whale Spouting

Following a fun lunch of local fish and chips, we returned to the watch, crossing tide pools to wave-battered rocks at sea-level, and this time we were rewarded with several whales only a few dozen yards away – amazing!  Several times the whales would roll on their backs and lift their fins in the air, or turn over and slap the water with their tales.

Southern Right Whale Breaching
Southern Right Whale Breaching
Then a little further out own whale began “breaching” – where the whale would hurl itself out of the water vertically, and come down with a crash, sending water flying and drawing cheers from all assembled on shore. 

Whale "Spyglassing"

The most common whale in these waters is the Southern Right Whale – so named by whalers because it was considered the “right” whale to harvest, for both the oil it provided, and because the dead whales floated and could be harvested more easily.

At one point South Africa’s Right Whale population numbered over 25,000, but overhunting over several decades had reduced it to the point of extinction: by the 1930s, only 35 Southern Right Whales remained around South Africa.  An international moratorium on whaling has allowed its population to slowly rebound, and it now numbers over 2000, and is growing at about 6.7% annually.

Its Northern Right Whale cousins have not been so lucky, and now number only about 200, and do not appear to be reproducing, and so may be heading toward extinction.

Sunset over Vineyards above Hermanus

In the evening we returned to Hermanus for another seafood supper with John and Isobel and their long-time friend, Carolyn Butler.  A stunning sunset over the ocean, the growing lights of a chain of coastal villages strung along Walker Bay, and then we headed back to Volmoed where a moonless night allowed the southern stretch of the Milky Way to streak across the sky, ending in Pat’s first view of the Southern Cross.  We slept peacefully that night in our little cottage, appropriately named “Grace.”

Sunset over Hermanus; View from our Restaurant

Monday, September 26, 2011

South Africa Day 1: Responding to Climate Change and Rural Poverty

Blog Entry #20: South Africa Day 1: Climate Change and Rural Poverty

Friday, September 23, 2011

It was hard to contain my excitement and nervousness over this day: the first “FDP” (Faculty Designed Practicum; i.e., field trip) that I had designed.  Knowing a year ago that South Africa would be hosting COP 17, the 17th U.N. Conference on Climate Change (recall the high hopes for COP 15 in Copenhagen 2 years ago) at the end of 2011, I contacted a Capetown NGO working on Climate Change issue with faith communities.

SAFCEI – the Southern Africa Faith Communities Environmental Institute – is a small non-governmental organization directed by Geoff Davies, a bishop in the South African Anglican Church (the church of Nobel Prize winner Desmond Tutu).  Although they are terribly busy preparing for COP 17, now only 2 months away (although to the disappointment of the Western Cape, the meetings will take place in Durban, rather than Capetown), many months ago SAFCEI agreed to host my field class on our first day in South Africa.

With my students & Pat heading to SAFCEI and Goedgedacht.
L-R Back: Shelbi, Anthony, Glenna, Pat, Martin, Will.
L-R Front: Rosie, Kaitlyn, Dan, Logan
Ten of us gathered on the ship shortly after we docked, gathered our passports, passed through Customs, and met Sean, our guide for the day.  A bit disoriented to begin with, driving through Capetown on the left side of the highway (British style), served to remind us we are in another country.

The Green Building
Porch of Green Building at SAFCEI
We drove south of Capetown around the backside of Table Mountain, which dominates the skyline here, to the suburb of Westlake, where SAFCEI has its offices in the new “Green Building.”  The Green Building is just what it says – a new office building constructed according to “green principles” – passive solar design and skylight lighting, local materials, etc. so that it uses only 13% of the energy of a typical office building its size.  And it is aesthetically stunning, with large open spaces, green plants, local bamboo and woods.

Bishop Geoff greeted us when we arrived, but his wife Kate, director of the Eco-Congregations program, hosted us in the morning.  We soon were sitting down to fresh muffins and coffee in the conference room, and Kate explained to us the work of SAFCEI (check out

Kate Davies, SAFCEI
Convinced that resolving South Africa’s tremendous challenges of rural poverty and inequality – the ongoing legacy of decades of apartheid – Bishop Geoff began three decades ago to encourage his fellow bishops to take environmental issues seriously, that resolving social justice and environmental sustainability must go hand in hand.

Hence at the heart of SAFCEI’s work are the twin commitments of Eco-Justice: ECOlogical Justice and ECOnomic Justice.  SAFCEI works on both policy and advocacy, at government and local levels, partnering with government institutions on energy and environmental policy, as well as fostering grassroots commitments through its innovative Eco-Congregations program.

Following Kate’s presentation, we met Liz McDaid, the Climate Change policy coordinator for SAFCEI.  She gave us an excellent overview of energy policies in South Africa, and the challenges of transforming an economy largely run by the “mineral industrial complex” – think diamonds, mining, and coal – to one run by sustainable energy.  South Africa has tremendous potential in this area, with vast solar, wind, and wave energy potential, but coal continues to dominate energy generation.  In fact, just recently the South African government signed on with the World Bank to build the world’s second largest coal-fired generating plant, a big step back in the context of global climate change.

Entrance to Goedgedacht
After our morning with SAFCEI, Kate & Geoff’s daughter Christen, a graduate student at the nearby Sustainability Institute in Stellenbosch, accompanied us to Goedgedacht, (, an extraordinarily innovative rural project working on what it calls an “olive agenda” of green and brown issues: helping rural children to escape poverty and social injustice while also preparing agriculture for the warming and drying climate that already is impacting South Africa.

Looking South to Cape Point from False Bay

We drove a couple hours north from Westlake, initially along the stunning beaches of False Bay where we could look to the right to see Cape Point where the Atlantic and Indian Oceans meet, and to the left over acres and acres of the township shantytowns where the black population was forcibly removed from Capetown under apartheid.

Vineyards near Stellenbosch
Then we traversed the wine country around Stellenbosch, with fields of vineyards nestled beneath the stunning Hottentots Holland mountain range to the east.  This region brings back childhood memories for me of growing up in California’s oldest winery region when vineyards still nestled the San Gabriel mountains of my youth – now, sadly, long gone.

We eventually reached Goedgedacht, where we were greeted with a delicious lunch made entirely from products grown on the farm.

One of the many innovative things Goedgedacht has done is to create a “Climate Path” designed for schoolchildren to walk through the farm and learn about climate change and how we can prevent it.  After sampling a medicinal tea made from local plants, we walked the path ourselves, which also took us through the organic garden where they are working to implement elements of permaculture and biodynamic farming.

Children in the Paths Out of Poverty After School Program
The “brown” part of Goedgedacht’s mission is the POP program: Paths Out of Poverty – and extensive afterschool program in several locales where they work with children to give them nutrition, but also to prepare them to be leaders for the future.

Pat at the main Farmhouse, Goedgedacht
Garden at Goedgedacht

We were all struck by Goedgedacht’s long-range vision: preparing the leaders of tomorrow with the agricultural technologies and crops that will be needed in this region in the future if it is to cope successfully with climate change.  The predictions are that Africa as a continent will be affected up to 200 times in intensity the effects of warming and climate change than the more moderate (but still serious) effects we can expect in much of North America.

While governments stall and procrastinate, leadership in preparing for this is taking place at the grassroots level in many places and ways.  But as Kate Davies reminded us, much of what Southern Africa will face in coming years is being shaped by policies – or the lack of them – coming our of our Congress.  “Surely there must be some reasonable people in your House of Representatives?” she asked?  Perhaps time will tell.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Capetown! Dawn to Dusk

Blog Entry #19: Capetown!  Dawn to Dusk

Friday, September 23, 2011

Sunrise over the Western Cape, South Africa
Lionshead looms over Capetown suburbs
Pat and Rainbow over Atlantic
Dawn on the South Atlantic rose over Capetown!  What a stunning sight it is to approach this southernmost part of Africa from ship: Table Mountain and a long line of peaks rising from the sea.  Sunrise came over the Hottentotholland Range to the east, shining on the buildings lining the waterfront, among them Capetown’s gleaming new soccer stadium, built for the World Cup South Africa hosted in 2010.  A rainbow shown over a storm out on the Atlantic, and breakfast on the deck with Table Mountain rising behind us – what a treat!

We seem to have arrived early as the captain had our ship make a broad circle outside the Harbor, which gave us a wonderful 360-view of the region, including Robben Island to the north, where Nelson Mandela spent 18 of his 27 years in prison.

Pilot Boat guides us into the inner harbor at dawn, Capetown

Shortly before 8:00 am we entered through the narrow portal to the inner harbor and docked.  Pat and I gathered our group of students for our field day looking at religious responses to climate change and rural poverty (next blog entry).  While driving through the city, we saw signs everywhere of twin passions in South Africa: the new South African flag representing the democracy they struggled for so many years, and the Springboks rugby time, currently competing in the Rugby World Cup in New Zealand (if you watched the movie Invictus you have some idea of the place of rugby in South Africa).

Pat & Dan with Darwin in the Capetown Harbor

We returned to the ship just before sunset and again enjoyed a meal with a stunning backdrop as the lights of the city slowly came on.  The Capetown skyline is as stunning at night from the water, as during the day.  Tomorrow we head southeast along the coast to Hermanus, to visit John and Isobel DeGruchy, old friends from Holden Village, and watch the southern right whales in their annual migration.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Neptune Day: Crossing the Equator at the Equinox

Blog Entry #18: Neptune Day: Equator & Equinox

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Neptune and his Court
Our first day out of Ghana, many of us on the ship passed a milestone: crossing the equator for the first time on a ship.  Even more special, we crossed 0 degrees Latitude (the Equator) at roughly 0 degrees Longitude: on the Greenwich, England Longitude line which runs through Tema, Ghana, and divides the world into Eastern and Western hemispheres.  And what’s more, we crossed almost exactly at the Equinox, so we went from the last days of summer in the Northern Hemisphere, to the last days of Winter in the Southern Hemisphere, and we are now enjoying the first days of Spring as we approach Capetown; Autumn got eliminated entirely this year! (we’ll pick it up again when we cross the Equator again in a few weeks on our way to India).

Celebrated as “Neptune Day” on the ship, we were greeted early in the morning by raucous sounds from the ship hallways where the crew members were dressed in various aquatic costumes and ringing bells and playing instruments to rouse us from our slumber.

We were to report immediately to the pool area of Deck 7 where most of us were to lose our ignominious status as “Pollywogs” – ones who have never crossed the Equator at Sea – to Shellbacks – tried and true ocean voyagers.

Baptized with Fish Guts from the Crew

Will Avery kisses the Fish!
There at Poolside King Neptune had assembled his court, and he directly his orderly to baptize each of us by pouring fish guts over our heads (ugh), then dunking in the pool. 

Pat kisses the Fish
We then departed the pool to “kiss the fish” of the Royal Court, and swear loyalty to King Neptune and his Queen. 

Dan & Pat Baptized with Fish Guts
Plunging into the Pool

Following this many of the newly minted Shellbacks celebrated further by getting their heads shaved – so just as I was getting names down for many of my students, they have reappeared in completely different visage!

Dan's Vertical Shadow at Noon on Equinox
The other remarkable phenomenon about crossing the Equator at the Equinox, is that at noon, the sun is directly overhead, so it casts no shadow on objects.

Waves nearly reach the Lifeboat

Two days after crossing the Equator the seas became noticeably rougher as we moved into the South Atlantic.  Stirred up by winds that blow north from Antarctica, waves are high and winds cool and blustery as we head south to Capetown. 

Waves reach our cabin window
Teaching classes by day and sleeping at night have become quite the challenge as the ship rolls from side to side under us.  Seasickness is now rampant on the ship; fortunately Pat and I have largely escaped it, and the biggest challenges consist of walking down hallways, remaining on one’s feet in the classroom, and not rolling out of bed at night.

We are only 12 hours away from landing in Capetown, South Africa!  My only other visit to Capetown was in 1992 when apartheid was still the law of the land.  I look forward to being back and seeing what changes have occurred 17 years after South Africa first elected Nelson Mandela and began democratic government.