Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Good News

After a busy trip to Durban, on South Africa's Indian Ocean shore last week, I am taking stock of some of the news in the world. The story I was pursuing is about alternative energy, for a Global Post series called Energy Entrepreneurs.

It's a fascinating world-wide look at incredible possibilities for the future of energy production that any consumer or energy producer would do well to read. Utilizing Global Post's unrivaled group of videographers, the news site has profiled solar energy projects in Guatemala, household geothermal systems in Palenstine, and many other surprising projects that create a sense of how humanity will power itself in the post-oil period. Coming at a time of deep disillusionment with oil in the wake of the Deepwater Horizon spill in the Gulf of Mexico, these are profiles we should all be inspired by.

Pollution Oversight:
The New York Times reports that the Environmental Protection Agency in the US is investigating chemical fracturing's impact on ground water quality throughout the country. In Colorado, beautiful valleys like the Grand have been besmirched with thousands of gas wells, and one of the country's most important waterways, the Colorado River has had millions of tons of waste water from this process dumped into it. Hard questions have not been answered by gas companies like Haliburton and others about the ingredients in their hydraulic fracturing solutions, and from this perspective of a Colorado native, this is clearly unacceptable. Unlikely coalitions between environmentalists and farmers are driving a rethink on the wholesale drilling on our private and public lands, and the federal government should take heed. Anything that gets former adversaries like farmers and environmentalists into bed together should worry gas drilling companies that have again and again chosen profit and secrecy over disclosure and open discussion. Under the Bush administration these companies had free reign, but it seems those days may over. Groundwater belongs to everyone, and if these companies have endangered our future heath and that of our children, no amount of domestic gas production will make up for that.

The Chevy Volt and the Nissan Leaf both go on sale this year. Almost the first fully electric cars that are available to all Americans, they represent the future of motoring throughout the world and the end of the cosy relationship between oil companies and automakers. They also represent a sea-change in attitude that will drive innovation and creation of new options that will move the United States towards greater reliance on all sorts of different types of energy. The cars are the rallying cry of the legions who have been held prisoner by oil. The Volt cares not if it is charged from a solar array, a nuclear power station, or methane power generation from rubbish.

This brings me back to my trip to Durban. This coastal city is a world leader in landfill waste. They create specially designed landfills that take advantage of the fact that landfills generate thousands of tons of the global warming gas Methane. Methane is 21 times more powerful a greenhouse gas as Carbon Dioxide. Every landfill in the world produces methane as a by-product of the breakdown of waste. In Durban they collect this waste gas, pipe it into massive engines and generate enough power to run more than five thousand city homes. In a city of millions, this is a pittance, but the technology is cheap enough to implement anywhere and by preventing noxious gases from escaping, and using them to supplant the dirty coal power that South Africa relies upon, the project is highly successful and self-supporting. In their final coup, Durban turns the old landfills into indigenous gardens and parks that beautify this hilly city by the sea.

Monday, July 12, 2010

African Odyssee- The Pans of Botswana

Mystical Khubu Island. The former king used to sit at the top of this granite spire, looking out over the Makgadikgadi Pans.

The Makgadikgadi Pans

View of Khubu Island

It may come as some surprise, but the winter in the desert wastes of Botswana is not a hot time. Dry, yes, barren, certainly, but not hot. Last night it was freezing cold on the Makgadikgadi pans, and the chilly wind tore through my glacier jacket as if it had come off the highlands of Greenland. We camped on the edge of the Pan, the Hog (My Toyota Truck) parked on the former grassy banks of this inland sea so that we could roll it down onto the flat salt plain in the morning to start it.

These and the Nxai Pans used to be an inland lake a hundred feet deep, but climate change and tectonic plate movement drained the pans thousands of years ago. Now they are a vast inland sea of salt and odd prickly grasses, that is about as empty as places can ever be, except where water still gathers. Water attracts animals of all types, and at night the sounds of lilting jackals mix with lion grunts, hyeana laughter and all sorts of screams and chortles, carrying across the pans for miles.

The Photojournalist in the Pans

Driving is treacherous and not recommended except on marked tracks. Without rain parts of the pans carry the prints of cars for decades after they zoomed past. The salt hides a primordial ooze beneath it's crust that can be deep enough in places to swallow a truck whole.

Climate change is writ large here, and although this particular type of climate change is from our far distant past and not linked to human causes, it is a dry and withering example of what parts of our planet could look like when our climate changes. Trees are only found on the former banks of the lake, undulating in the distance and levitating off the ground with the mirage as the cool still air of the day mixes with the hot reflected sunlight.

People lived here, and still do. Outside of the protected areas of the pans, which is most places, there are cattle and sheep farms, and more and more trees are going the way of the ax. Botswana is richer than most countries in Africa, and its obvious that barbed wire has become very useful to the people here. Nevertheless its possible to blast out on a track into the these vast wastes and get as lost as your are willing to be. Lost is realtive term here, where tracks lead kind of everywhere, and a simple compass is enough to make sure that you head in the right direction.

The last night in the pans we visited Khubu Island, a granite outcrop that has been home to Boababs, succulent trees, and groups of people throughout the pre-history of southern Africa. It has gained almost mythic proportations, with "have you been to Khubu Island?" the litmus test for a well travelled adventurer in Africa. It fell into a sorry and trashed state over the last decade, as uncontrolled tourism saw people dumping their rubbish here, but now it's possible for people to visit through the help of the local people, who benefit from travellers who stay at their modest and clean camp on the island, which depsite it's name is actually more of an isthmus out into the pans.

It is a fitting place to end our trip, sitting at the King's seat, high on a granite spire, watching the sun sink over the barren whiteness of the pans.

Clarity, self-awareness, personal growth, these are things many people seek when they travel, and in this place, surrounded by nothing, they all seem more attainable, -and the view is amazing.

Our last desert campsite in the Pans.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

African Odyssee: Northern Botswana

A shy elephnat passes our camp in the last light of day near the Okavango Delta, Botswana.


The roads of northern Botswana can have a detrimental effect on your vehicle.

The Hog deep in the bush at Bone Camp (splintered femur mandatory).

Is is a landing strip? A road? Our mystery path traversing northern Botswana.

Livingston, Zambia, near Victoria Falls was, I believe, was the place I entered some of my journal. We have been traversing the areas that make up the KAZA International Peace Park. Our car battery died about three days ago, so we have been scouring the countryside we have been passing through for camps that allow us to give the hog a small push. It has made for slightly stressful but interesting times, and for about three days, we saw no one, not a 4x4, not a plane. No Cellphones, no internet. Nothing. I would love to give all the details of this place but I suggest to find a place that yourself, it makes it much more satisfying. We may have bent a few rules, and passed a few do not enter signs, but for sure I never saw them.

So now we are near Maun, in Botswana, and the Okavango Delta scatters light across the ceiling the of the airy Audi Camp bar, where I managed to pick up some Wi-Fi access. We have camped with crazy-looking and acting honey badgers (Badger Camp) lions sounding off in the distance while we cook dinner, (Lion Camp), and once got tenderly passed by a considerate elephant, who left his dropping, but no other sound as he passed in the night.

Moremi National Park and the Okavango Delta is flooded, delightfully so, and outside its border we watched shy creatures sip water at forest water holes. The animals are all scattered crazily in the distant areas of the delta by the biggest floods in fifty years. The delta is swollen, ripe with rain and from dozens of miles it's scent wafts upon the desert winds.

I will put together a small section of my journal when we get back to Johannesburg in the next week. Today we are leaving our wired comfortable pit-stop and heading into the pans of the Makadikadi. It will be wet. How wet and how far we can drive will mostly depend on nerve and the state of the flood, because when the Okavango is wet like this, it spills over into the pans, and turns them into a tropical paradise of long flat lakes filled with zebras and flamingos, but treacherous to 4x4 vehicle travel.

Friday, July 2, 2010

Into the KAZA: Victoria Falls

Victoria Falls By moonlight. A time exposure of about 20 seconds at F8

Today we are off to Kasane from Livingstone, Zambia. It has been great to see the falls again and enjoy the nature. This morning Sebastian, my travel partner in crime, woke me up while watching elephants cross the Maramba River in front of our campsite. Nice to hear their tais flicking and the sounds of their passage so close through the bush.

There is a decrepit old ferry crossing the lower Chobe River where Zimbabwe, Namibia, Botswana and Zambia all meet. This is really the heart of the KAZA park, and there has been talk of a bridge here for years, but for now, the old ferry will do us nicely. In the chaos we hope to slip through with one of the trucks and end up tonight in Kasane, a Botswanan town right in the middle of a wilderness area, where elepahnts sometimes roam past the local Shopright supermarket.

The Hog continues to run well, but the roughest most hardcore driving is still to come, so its off to the bush!

Thursday, July 1, 2010

African Odyssee: The KAZA Park

Jeffrey Barbee
Livingston Zambia

In 1858, as artist Thomas Baines and the rest of Livingston's Expedition approached the roar of Victoria Falls through dense vegetation they could hardly have imagined that they were about to discover one of the seven natural wonders of the world. As he sat down with his paints to sketch the falls, Baines could not have known that these images would launch a worldwide plan of conservation making Victoria Falls the centerpiece of the world's biggest wildlife park. The Kavango-Zambezi Transfrontier Conservation Area, Shortened to KAZA, is the most ambitious conservation plan of it's kind ever attempted.

On the 18th of June, 2010, the German government allotted twenty million Euros to the Peace Parks Foundation to support KAZA, the latest in a series of g payments that are slowly helping to establish the biggest conservation area in the world. The area embraces the countries of Angola, Botswana, Namibia, Zambia and Zimbabwe, making up 29 million hectares, roughly the size of Italy. More than thirty national parks and conservation areas already exist within the boundaries of KAZA, and the project is bridging the gaps in the protected areas and creating jobs, employment and more opportunity to the local communities.

Some of the popular places the park covers are Victoria Falls, Hwange National Park in Zimbabwe, The Okavango Delta, and the Chobe River system. But less known, and less explored are the Eastern Parks of Angola, closed to travelers for thirty years by conflict and land-mines. The mines are being taken out, and the Angolan authorities say that as the mines are removed, the elephants are quickly taking back areas of bush where they were never found before.

Elephant Lands
And this is elephant territory. Actual numbers are hard to pin down, but it is estimated that the area holds as much as a third of Africa's remaining elephant populations. Chobe National Park is expected to be one of the "seed" parks for the area. It is well managed, with good buffer zones that allow the free movement of animals in and out of the park. And authorities is Botswana acknowledge that the sooner they get some of their elephants out of the park, the better. Chobe has been terraformed by the beasts. Former woodland is now grassland, the trees have been eaten, but other habitat has also been created that harbors other animals that prefer grass rather than trees. Nevertheless the park is without a doubt beyond it's elephant capacity, and as more safe areas around it are established, as it becomes part of the greater KAZA Park, elephants are moving into these new areas.

Although KAZA was one of the first Transfronteir Parks ever imaged, it has been one of the longest in the making. Not until Angola's Bush war ended eight years ago was it possible for the country to even discuss the possibility of inclusion in the park. Zimbabwe's shaky political situation also prevented the process from moving forward, and historical antagonism between Namibia and Botswana has not helped. However, the park seems to be bringing the countries closer together and now there is real movement forward, with the money from the Germans showing how much the international community believes in the project.

As this massive park moves from conception into implementation, communities will be incorporated into the park. It is from these communities that workers, guides, scouts and mechanics will be hired, providing people with an alternative to subsistence agriculture. Vivian Nchope lives outside of Livingston, and he has worked for local hotels as a tree planter. He makes wood crafts in his spare time to sell to tourists who come to see Victoria Falls. "This park is so important to us, we need to benefit from our wildlife, and stop cutting down so many trees for firewood, if you ask me, making a park like this will be great for the area, and maybe it will bring more tourists."