Sunday, February 16, 2014


We know it's been a while, but enough people have asked us what it was like here when Mandela died, so we figured we share our rather limited insight. There is literally no way to understate the effect of Mandela's death on South Africans, black or white. Imagine (you USA natives) if George Washington had died in your lifetime (and didn't own slaves but had rather freed them). 

Our local friends' reactions were quite varied, but all sort of inspiring. Almost everybody had a story about meeting Mandela in school or at work. Our friend Kelvin, bartender at the campus pub, took some of his quite limited annual vacation time and hopped a taxi with friends to ride the 1000km (one way) to see Mandela's funeral in Qunu. Our buddy Andrew took his two little kids down to Nelson Mandela's house so they could put flowers on a makeshift street shrine that had developed, and at Andrew's birthday party we lit off hot air balloons in honor of Madiba's life. 

It was Andrew that suggested we go down to Mandela's house and see the scene in the street. It's hard to believe in these days of security threats that you could still get right up to Mandela's (albeit heavily fortified) wall, but we were able to drive easily into his neighborhood, park nearby, and walk past his house. These pictures are from that experience.

This street shrine is backed by a rickety chain-link fence, and Mandela's wall is the yellow feature in the background.

Literally thousands of bouquets, handwritten signs, and candles from people of all walks of life and all nationalities had appeared by this third day after Mandela's passing.

Some of the tributees were somewhat surprising.

The crowd outside was incredibly peaceful and the scene was truly moving, even for us outsiders.

Americans don't generally know this, but the Communist Party was (and still is) well tied to the ANC political party that Mandela was the head of. They had a robust presence outside his house, running this communist flag to and fro on regular intervals.

With the peaceful crowds, the enormous police presence resorted to doing what it does best.

The shrine stretched for about half a block around the main intersection on Mandela's street.

South African media and international media had been well set up for days, even months before Mandela's passing (with his hospitalization we all knew it was coming), and had built something of a tent city adjacent to their vans.

Ever the entrepreneurs, South African small businessmen weren't far behind the media. 

This is an ANC rally car.

In parks along the way to Madiba's house, small wreaths and other memorials had been set up, although it wasn't clear if they were sponsored by the government or private enterprise.

Finally, this video (if it works) shows the almost non-stop singing of old political songs by ANC party members in the street outside.

Madiba's memorial service got some embarrassing international press, given the selfies, the fake sign language guy, the traffic, etc., but Kelsey listened to the whole thing on local radio and said it was moving, powerful, and Obama's speech made her proud to be an American. 

Vacation in the Magaliesberg (by Midas), and a new light bulb for the kitchen (by Jonah)

Hello everyone. Things had been getting pretty boring around the house lately, so last week we packed up for a few days and took Mom and Dad on vacation to the Magaliesberg.

The Magaliesberg mountains are very old, says Dad, so they're not very high and make for good hiking. Dad also told me that they don't have any monkeys living in them, so I was pretty excited because I don't like monkeys.

It took us about an hour and a half to drive to the farm cottage we rented. Dad has been driving slow these days because the police sent him some things in the mail and Mom got mad at him and said he had to be more careful.

Here we are at Saamrus Guest Farm. Our cottage is in the background and it was called Hoep Hoep. I don't know what that means but it's funny that it rhymes with poop.

Mellie and I were pretty chuffed to check the place out. The porch was pretty cool - you can see how excited Mellie is about it. On the right you can see our spacious bathroom.

This is the living room - Mom and Dad wouldn't let me sit on the couches so I can't tell you if they were comfortable but they don't look like they were.

And here's the kitchen. Dad kept hitting his head on the thing with the candles in it.

And here's our bedroom which you can see has a pretty sweet window for barking at stuff. 

And finally, this is the bathroom that Mom and Dad used. It was awesome because the tub was full of interesting spiders, there was no hot water, and you could see people on the road from the window!

There are a lot of other cool-looking cottages on the farm but Dad said our car couldn't drive to them so we had to stay at the bottom of the hill near the neighbors.

Okay, let's talk about what we did for fun. Mostly, we went for some walks. Here we are at the start of one.

Mom said we were doing very good, so she let us wander off our leashes.

And that's how we found this dry riverbed. I didn't like this place because there were lots of ticks.

Another fun thing to do was to stare at stuff from the porch and sometimes bark at it.

Mom and Dad liked to do this too.

Birds are fun to bark at, like this Black-Shouldered Kite and this African Grey Hornbill.

There was also a nice pool at Saamrus, but Mom wouldn't go in because it was full of cool dead crickets and shongololos and also me and Mellie couldn't go in because the sign said so. We still like Kimi's pool the best.

Mom and Dad also spent a lot of time making food but they didn't let us try any so I can't tell you if it was good.

Even though we got a lot of ticks, Saamrus was a pretty cool place to hang out for a while, but we missed our friends in Johannesburg, so we had to come home. We'll let Dad tell you about what happened when we got back.

One of the glaring flaws in our kitchen was the lack of any light over the main cooking area. Fixing that situation requires turning off the main breaker (since the entire house is run on two circuits), something I hadn't wanted to do at night. Since we got home from vacation in the early afternoon it seemed like a perfect opportunity to remedy this situation. You can see in the background how excited Midas is about being home.

Unfortunately, the only way to access the house's wiring is via a single man-hole above the shower in the bathroom.

Lacking a ladder with 10 foot ceilings means we had to "make a plan" as the locals say - Safety First!

And away we go!

I'm not going to lie, it's pretty creepy up there. But I'll spare you the details. After about an hour of wiring, only one crack on the head from the rafters, and nearly going through the suspended ceiling, I was ready to install our new fixture.

This also required some ladder improvisation skills. 

Nothing is so tiring as working over your head. What's worse is the massive wedgie that I can't attend to because I'm balanced on a stool over a wire baking rack and holding 220v in my left hand.

Ta-dah! We can now tell if food is burning, if water is boiling, just what it is we're actually eating for dinner, and how close the knife has been getting to our fingers. Additionally, I now know that this fume hood terminates blindly next to bone-dry wooden rafters in the attic, so we'll keep our flambeeing to a minimum.

Sunday, February 2, 2014

Shack life

In late November, Tyler was passing through Johannesburg and stayed for a week to do some specimen work at the National Museum in Bloemfontein. Together with my graduate students Kimi and Blair, we drove down to Bloem together and elected to stay just out of town at the Emoya Private Game Reserve.

Since we were all working off limited grant budgets (and because of sheer curiosity), we rented ourselves one of the affordable shacks in Emoya's "simulated shanty town". Emoya has been on the receiving end of some terrible press about these shacks (see, but I'll hold my comments until the end. 

Full disclosure: many of the best pictures in this post were again taken by my graduate student Kimi Chapelle.

Three cups of coffee, Choiniere driving, and no breakfast make for a bit of roadside chumming just off the N1!

Here's our shack at Emoya.

Of course.

Unlike real shanty towns, this one's got wi-fi.

The collections at the National Museum are not for the weak - here's Blair pulling another dino' in a box off a dusty shelf.

This huge meat-eating dinosaur footprint in the collections at the museum is one of the hundreds found in the Clarens Formation (more on that in the next post). Kimi's hand for scale.

Back at our shack, we enjoyed the benefits of being on a private game reserve, such as giraffes at sunset and friendly knee-lickings from the resident warthogs.

Of course, there was big game at the museum, too! This fellow, Melanorosaurus, is an early sauropod dinosaur

Melanorosaurus has one of the better skulls from an early sauropod dinosaur, which means its perfect for resting your hipster sunglasses on...

...or studying intensely.

This pot-bellied pig might want to lay off the pies. We never even saw its feet. Tyler did notice, however, that it had been snacking on the discarded bones from someone's roasted ham! Cannibal!

Our wonderful friends Sanet (to the right of Tyler) and Jaco (to the left of Kimi) happen to live just down the road from Emoya, and we spent two great evenings drinking wine on their porch and celebrating their upcoming nuptials.

And they even gave us a preview of their first dance for their upcoming wedding.

As our last salute to Bloemfontein, we stopped for breakfast at one of the best restaurants in the Free State, called Iewers Nice. Not only is their menu cheeky, but Iewers Nice serves what may be the most delcious breakfast foodstuff on the face of the planet  - kaaings. 

I had to blatantly steal this picture off the internet because I was in such breakfast bliss that I forgot to photo document the beauty of kaaings. As you can see above, they're just rendered fatty bits of either pig (as above) or lamb belly (as is more traditional). Served with a poached egg, some cornmeal grits called pap, and tomato relish, they're enough reason to visit Bloemfontein on their own.

What can I say about staying in a simulated Shanty Town? Did I learn more about the desperate poverty that many South Africans live in every day? No. Did I enjoy staying in a modestly priced place with a definite theme and easy access to dowtnown, restaurants, bars, and giraffes and rhinos? Immensely. Do I think it's worth getting worked up about what is clearly just a wacky-budget-backpacker's-type hotel that provides a number of decent jobs for poor people in the Bloemfontein area? Certainly not. I will be staying there again.