Our house, their habitat

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The inside of our house is home to a lot of animals as well. Not all of them are as cute as Nogg’s cuddly toys.

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Insects:

The dreaded flatties - There are super fast, super big spiders in South Africa called flatties because they sit flat on the walls. They aren’t harmful but they seriously freak Sam out! He thinks they are gross. Katy is in charge of catching and releasing them outside upon request. These requests are fairly regular but they are not always successful due to the quickness and shrewdness of the flattie.

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Shongololos - Millipedes are  affectionately called shongololos here. The name shongololo comes from an African word "ukushonga” which means 'to roll up' because when they feel threatened they roll up into a ball. Noggs likes to touch them and watch them. He can’t quite say shongololo so he calls the shokos.

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Dung beetles - After the rains a lot of dung beetles come out. They find poo, roll it into giant balls, push the balls long distances, and then have babies in the poo. Nice. Sometimes they fight over poo or females will lazily hitch a ride on their mate's poo ball while he pushes it.

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Scorpions - Scorpions are not our favourite house guests but they are part of life in the bush. We sometimes find scorpions stuck in the bathtub in the mornings and scuttling around on the floor at night. The ones with the big pinchers and slim tails are not very venomous and the ones with the skinny pinchers and fat tails are the dangerous ones. We get both. Lucky us.

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Geckos and lizards:

Because we have such a plethora of insect life, we have geckos and lizards that eat them which is jolly good despite their poo getting everywhere. One of Nogg’s first words was gecko and he loves seeing them, although he freaks out a bit if one touches him.

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Snakes:

So far (pounding on wood) we haven’t had a snake in this house. This does happen fairly often in the area where we stay though so we are always keeping an eye out, especially as there are a fair few venomous ones. We did have a snake lay her eggs near our house which hatched everywhere. We found the fresh shells soon afterwards. That grossed Katy out. Sam took photos.

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Small mammals:

Bats - Our house is also a bat hotel. We like bats but they are getting a bit much. They poo and wee all over our porch all the time. They sometimes get caught inside our bedroom and fly around our bed while we are trying to sleep. When we came back from holiday, we found a petrified bat in our mosquito net. One decided to make a home in Nogg’s schoolbag and then flew out when Katy opened it. We had to catch it with a mixing bowl to release it. We do like bats but we wouldn’t mind it they spent more time outside and less time inside. Here is my poem about bats: Fly bats, be free, and roost in trees rather than schoolbags please.

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Birds - There are active five birds nests hanging off the edge of our roof. Now we’re not bird experts but I think they are occupied by cut throat finches (what a cool name like little avian pirates!). They don’t come inside but they do dive bomb towards your head if you walk under their nests (kamikaze pirates, even cooler!!).

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Fossils and freezers: PhDone - the beansy edition

Writing a PhD thesis is tough and it takes a long time. Amy Poehler said, “The truth is, writing is this: hard and boring and occasionally great but usually not. Even I have lied about writing. I have told people that writing this book has been like brushing away dirt from a fossil. What a load of shit. It has been like hacking away at a freezer with a screwdriver.” I mixed the challenges of writing a 411 page thesis with the sleep deprivation of raising a child under two and the demands of running a busy research project. Crazy times. But despite this, I enjoyed writing up a lot of the time. Sometimes it actually was like uncovering fossils...I think. I have never actually uncovered a fossil but I did find a shark’s tooth at the beach once. That was pretty cool. The fossil moments were when everything seemed to come together.

That's until I got near to the end or what I thought was the end. Then it was all screwdrivers and freezers all day long. At this point, I just wanted it done, finished, vamoosed, no matter what it took. It was kind of like pregnancy. Being pregnant was fine until the last few weeks. At that point, I just wanted him out no matter what. I’d had enough.

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At the end of September 2016, exactly 4 years after starting the PhD, I submitted my thesis. It was over! I was elated.

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But here’s the thing about finishing a PhD, it is not clear-cut. Most people don’t just get to cross it off the to do list when they hand in. I think finishing a PhD is like a TV villain that keeps coming back. The protagonist thinks they’ve defeated the baddie and so they celebrate and relax. But the baddie was just stunned and comes back with a vengeance to attack again. Then the good guy has to fight again. This time maybe he banishes the baddie to a desert island or puts him in a rocket heading towards the sun. But in the next episode the baddie will somehow find a way to boomerang back for revenge.

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My viva in mid-December was the return of the stunned villain. I had romantic notions that the day of my viva would be filled with champagne, joyous congratulations, and revelry. I thought I would feel like a knight who defeated a dragon. This did not happen. Instead, I unfortunately had a bad viva experience and I felt like the dragon burnt me to a crispy ember. It sucked. And on top of that, I had a list of corrections to do. My PhD was not finished. There were more words to be written. I knew there would be, but I thought it would have happened in a different way.

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Towards the end of January I submitted my corrected thesis and last week I heard that my corrections have been accepted and I have passed. Passed as in done, done, done, no more writing. I am a graduand. This is a word I learned from Sam and it means a person who is eligible to graduate, but who has not yet graduated. Sweet weird word. Graduation is in June but as it is in Durham and I am not, I am not planning on going so I will have to wear a bed sheet and a weird hat around the house on my graduation day instead. I already had a graduation in Durham Cathedral so I don’t feel like I’m missing out too much.

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As someone who loves crossing accomplishments off of to do lists and feeling the satisfaction of a job well done, the ever-moving finish line of completing a PhD was hard to cope with. But I’m happy to brandish my pen and cross it off my list now. PhDone.

Mango season

When we lived in England, I can’t really remember a specific time of year that I associated heavily with a particular fruit. You could get any fruit any time you wanted from Tescos. But in South Africa, quite a few fruits are distinctly seasonal which I like. I look forward to the year progressing and eating different fruits in abundance. The strong seasonality makes fruits seem more natural and they become more appreciated. One of my favourite times for fruit is in summer when the mangoes and watermelons are ripe. Watermelon is considered a Christmas food. It feels much more festive with it’s Christmassy colours and sweet flavours than Brussels sprouts. Right now it’s mango season and we live in an area that is abound with mango farms. On the 20 minute drive into town, I estimate about 50% of the land we drive past is mango farms. When we got back to SA after our trip abroad over Christmas and New Years we bought 68 mangoes for super cheap from the farms nearby. Then we drank a lot of smoothies, made and froze cubes of mango puree, and made mango ice lollies for Finn.

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One of our nearby farms had its annual mango family day this weekend and we went along to pick our own mangoes. Finn got to ride on a tractor to the fields which mesmerized him into becoming eerily silent for some reason. Now we have another horde of mangoes to munch happily through.

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Next month, we are planning on going to a berry festival to pick our own raspberries and blueberries. More fruit, more good.

Housing estates with giraffes

We live in a wildlife estate now. A wildlife estate is pretty much a housing estate with wildlife and because it’s Africa, the wildlife is awesome. In my mind, housing estates always sound a bit soulless. I associate them with uniformity and a lack of space and freedom. I lived in a housing estate nicknamed ’Toy Town’ for a year when I was at university. Living there was pretty nice actually. I lived with awesome people, we were right next to uni so I could wake up just minutes before lectures, and it was just a good year in general because lots of fantastic things happened to me. Toy Town was probably a bit more unique than other British housing estates. Its architecture looked like a prop from a miniature train set and there was a stream at the back where I remember a body being found. However, accommodation in Toy Town itself, even with its quirks, was small, squashed, samey, and had quite an artificial feeling.

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Wildlife estates are the opposite. They are big, so big you can’t see a neighbouring house. And there are big animals wandering around. On our estate, there are giraffes, wildebeests, impalas, duikers, warthogs, zebras, and most recently eland. There are a few regulations on how your house should look so there is an element of conformity. The houses on our estate have to have thatched roofs and neutral colors for example. But there is still quite a bit of variation between homes. The bush around the houses is left natural and transitory animals like leopards come through from time to time.

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Widlife estates have big fences and gates for security. These keep the animals in and outsiders out. As with much of South Africa, these gates reinforce aspects of a polarized society divided by inequalities and also allude that access to nature is only available for certain socioeconomic groups. Buying a house in a wildlife estate (frequently a holiday house) is often for the rich. I found a recently published list online of the top 10 wildlife estates for South Africa’s super rich (https://businesstech.co.za/news/lifestyle/149231/top-10-wildlife-estates-for-south-africas-ultra-rich/). Two of the estates listed are in Hoedspruit.

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We are definitely not super rich and we are renting what we think is probably the smallest, most basic house on our estate. I think we are probably one of the only houses on the estate who don’t employ a domestic worker or have a pool. But for us living here is luxury. We love having more space and a safer living environment for our son than the tent. Here is a set of before and after photos showing Noggs playing in the tent and in the house.

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We love that we can enjoy the benefits of living near a town but still remain in the bush and see amazing wildlife daily. I think that more housing estates worldwide would benefit from giraffes and zebras. It would certainly make them feel less mundane and be beneficial for the environment. On the flip side of the coin, it is difficult thinking about what gated estates in South Africa symbolise about society and as an individual, it is hard to know how to begin to tackle problems such as poverty and crime. As a result, I think many people living in gated communities in South Africa try not to look too closely beyond the walls. When there are beautiful animals wandering around inside, it makes this quite easy.

Guess who's back...I'll give you a hint, it's not Slim Shady or Arnie.

It’s been a very long time since we posted here. We got a bit bogged down in work, childrearing, and studying. As new parents we were also sleep deprived. Almost two years into the parenting gig, we still are, but we have started to accept this as an unfortunate state of normal. Someone recently told me that they missed our blog, which was nice to hear. By bringing it back, it feels like a way to reconnect with ourselves after the hecticness of the past two years and to share our story again.

A lot has happened since we last wrote - our boyby became an independent being who can walk and sort of talk. He mainly says ‘car’ but we hope his vocabulary and interests will broaden, otherwise he might not get too many dates in his teens. After five years running the Primate and Predator Project, we moved off the mountains and onto new opportunities. We now live in the lowveld near Hoedspruit in a house with actual walls. Consequently, we are no longer covered in mildew in the rainy season and we no longer suffer from heat stroke or hypothermia (depending on the time of year) from living under a tin roof surrounded plastic bin bag walls. Actual walls are amazing! Giraffes, wildebeests, impalas, nyalas, warthogs, and zebras live outside our new house. Katy passed her PhD finally and Sam is starting a new job. We are happy.

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Just don't be last!

I recently ran the Skukuza Half Marathon in order to raise money for some of the community engagement work that the Primate and Predator Project does. I posted previously about raising money to sponsor a livestock guarding dog to reduce conflict between humans and leopards, so I wanted to update you on how the race and fundraising went. I haven’t taken part in a running race since I was at middle school. All the pupils had to take part in an annual “cross country” race around the school grounds. No one really cared who won, the real action was the battle between the two slowest kids (it was always the same two) for not coming last. The loser was ridiculed for the rest of the year, but at least their punishment didn’t involve getting eaten…

The stakes were a bit higher in the Skukuza half marathon, held in Kruger National Park, South Africa. A vast wilderness approximately the size of Wales, the park is home to a vast array of free roaming wild animals including approximately 1,700 lion, 1,000 leopard, 3,000 spotted hyenas, 120 African wild dog, 120 cheetah, 14,000 elephant, 37,000 cape buffalo, and 10,000 rhino. At the start of the Skukuza race the announcer said “Beware of wild animals and do not separate from the group. We have had problems with this in the past!”. Predators like to pick off the slow, the sick and the weak from the back of the herd. The rules of the savannah, it turns out, are the same as the rules of the school yard: if you want to survive, you don’t need to be the fastest, just don’t be the slowest!

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I run at Lajuma, but here in the mountains it is so hilly that I only run at about 7 km/h. That speed in the Skukuza half marathon would get you disqualified - they cut off the race at 3 hours and pick up any stragglers in a Truck of Shame™ (or at least that’s what I would cal it) for their own safety. My goals for the race were twofold: 1) don’t get eaten; and 2) not to be on that truck.

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The start of the race was delayed due to rhinos on route. A couple of minutes later the organisers played the sounds of a lion roaring, signalling the start of the race. Along the way I saw rhino and hippos. There were armed guards patrolling the route to keep the runners safe, and a helicopter to keep an eye out for dangerous animals and chase them off the route. I ran, ran a bit more, and kept running until, just under two hours later, someone gave me a beer and said I could stop. The race was sponsored by Castle lager, so at the finish line they handed out free beer. There were also people handing out drinks to the runners during the race too - water, energy drinks and even beer along the way!

 

title After: beer at the end of the tunnel!

The race was fun but it ended up being part of a strange triathlon. We were hosting a group of international studnents at Lajuma at the time of the race, so I was working on a very tight timeframe. So in two an a half days I had to drive 1,500 km (roughly the distance from London to Lithuania), run the half marathon, then teach statistics all Sunday as soon as I returned. I was a bit tired.

But it was all worth it. We managed to raise R8,000, which should pay for a dog, it’s vet costs, and make a contribution towards food for the first year. We plan to partner with Cheetah Outreach, who will bring their expertise in placing dogs with farmers. Hopefully we will be able to help a local farmer live side by side with leopards without the need to kill them. And I didn’t even die once.

Happy Zombie Jesus Day

Since we’re not religious at all, we like to consider Easter as Zombie Jesus Day instead. It makes the holiday more meaningful to us since we like zombies and that is most likely what Jesus would have been when he rose up from the dead. Sadly this year Sam and I are not together to celebrate the holiday so this blog is about my experiences up north, not Sam’s who is still in South Africa. Only two weeks to go till he gets to the UK though! NewImage

I am back in the UK at the moment waiting for our own ‘miracle' to happen. Boyby is getting big now, as am I at 35 weeks. Less than five weeks to go till the due date now…Boyby is definitely nocturnal and bounces about all night like a crazed bushbaby. In the mornings he sleeps and then in the afternoon he slowly wakes up and gets ready to party again.

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I’ve been having appointments with the midwife since I came back to the UK and all is looking good. There is a smiling tap in the toilets at the midwife's and I like that.

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It’s nice being back in the UK. There are heaps of Easter chocolate in the shops and spring flowers blooming and the weather is starting to improve.

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The PhD baby is also progressing well but isn’t due for quite awhile. I go to the postgraduate office in the Anthropology department everyday to analyse data and write. I’m writing up in the same office where Sam wrote up his PhD which is nice. Everyone is really lovely and it’s good being around other PhD students who are going through the same experience as me. I know quite a few of the PhD students here either from Lajuma or from when I started my PhD in 2012 so it’s been a nice social situation as well.

Here are a few photos of the glorious weather in Durham on Easter Sunday.

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Warm enough for sandals!

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Here is someone I spied enjoying the sun with his dog. It’s not always bleak up north!

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More Tentacle...

In preparation for boyby’s arrival (which is getting close now…less than 7 weeks to go till the due date!), we were really lucky to have lots of amazing people help us expand our home. For the past 3.5 years we had been living in a posh safari tent house (aka the tentacle) but it was pretty small. At one point before the project office was built, we had all the project equipment packed in our 5 m x 5 m home as well as all our things. We love the tentacle but sometimes it was a bit small and having only one room that is essentially the bathroom, kitchen, dining room, study, living room and bedroom isn’t always the easiest. Here’s the original tent: P1070263

When we found out about boyby we knew that he wouldn’t fit in there with us and the Schrodes as well. Apparently babies need quite a bit of stuff! So Ian made a plan to build us an extension. And lots of other lovely people helped to make it happen (a huge thanks to Russell, Dale, Ticha, Ephraim, Robert and Oldrich!).

Sam and I asked if we might be able to have 2 more rooms - one for the baby and one for our bedroom. We thought that these rooms would also be made of canvas or plastic walls but Ian surprised us with homemade bricks. Bricks are a luxury for us because mice and shrews can’t live in bricks and you can lean on bricks. We felt like the luckiest people ever.

Here are all the lovely bricks!

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The workers started clearing the foundation in early December. It quickly came together. Everyday something new had happened and it was exciting to come home to a wall or a door or a roof even.

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One of the most exciting moments was when Ian cut through the plastic sheeting side wall of the tent to connect the preexisting area with the new rooms. I was sure that floods of mice and shrews and snakes would come pouring out but nothing that dramatic happened.

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Schrody was quite interested in all the goings on.

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Towards the end of January we went to Namibia for a week and Ian told us they would try and get everything finished by the time we got back. When we got home I felt like I was on one of those house makeover shows on the telly. It was done and it looked amazing!!

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Since then we have been furniture shopping and decorating the place. Here’s our new living room. We bought a second hand sofa and we bought this beautiful coffee table made by Colleen Wall from recycled wood pallets. Thanks to my Dad for helping fund some of our new furniture such as our new wardrobe, chest of drawers / changing table, sofa, coffee table and baby crib.

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This is our new bedroom! It has proper walls so when you lean back in bed you don’t have to worry about ripping through the plastic sheeting and landing in the garden. This makes watching movies much more relaxing.

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I hand sewed the Venda themed curtains for our bedroom and the baby’s room.

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And here is boyby’s room! I did some predator themed artwork on the walls for him. Sam helped with painting the wall a more calming baby blue.

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It is supposed to be the baby’s room but Schrody has decided otherwise. We’re not sure how she is going to cope when we have to kick her out of the crib in a few months. There might be a cat fight literally. Baby versus cat.

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We are so happy with our new bigger home which is still called the tentacle but is now largely un-tented. More tentacle = more good. Thanks to everyone who made this happen.

Boyby

Sam and I are expecting a baby in May which is exciting. It’s a boy, or a boyby as we have been calling him thus far after Peep Show (Mark Corrigan: "Sophie? Jeff says - he says that - the baby is a boyby. Is it a boyby?")

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Everyone’s been pretty amazing about it. The boyby isn’t even born and thanks for our amazing family and friends, he already has had a room with real walls built for him and received adorable clothes, toys and accessories to carry him about in. I’m sure when he’s born he will be grateful...or maybe not, but we certainly are!

The boyby has been to four countries so far and we are confident that he will continue to be well travelled once born. The boyby has come along on several helicopter flights looking for hyaenas and helped with baboon collaring. He’s been along while I’ve been tracking collared leopards and been hiking in the mountains. So not too bad a start for someone who hasn’t breathed air on his own yet. 

I am now in the final trimester (week 29) and have about 2.5 months to go until our May 9th due date. The pregnancy has been fine - not too many complaints! A bit of tiredness, lots of eating (I think I must have consumed at least 15 boxes of cereal bars)  and some trouble sleeping but other than that it hasn’t stopped me doing or achieving too much. I think Sam will be glad when there aren’t a million pillows in our bed which I nest myself in with. The boyby is kicking loads and is pretty awake at night especially. I think he must have got that from Sam who is much more of a night owl than me.

We are planning on having the baby in the UK since our insurance won’t cover the birth costs here after 32 weeks so I will be heading back to jolly old England in a few weeks. 

Sam has been taking a photo of my growing bump every week since 7.5 weeks. Here are the photos so far!  

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More boyby news to come and also photos of our amazing new tent / house extension! 

Namibia

Sand dunes. Wildlife. Wide open spaces. These are some of the images that are conjured up when we think if Namibia. At least for me. For Katy it has always been that t-shirt that her dad brought for her after a visit when she was a nipper. So off we went to Swakopmund. Photos! IMG 4624

Mussel beach. Boom boom!

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Namaqua chameleon

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Namib dube gecko. Their feet are webbed like snowshoes, so that they don’t sink in the deep sand.

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 Dunes!

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Katy in the namib dunes!

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View of the desert and the Atlantic, just before skydiving

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Incoming!

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 We kayaked with cape fur seals!

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Then they came to swim with us!

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Quad biking in the dunes

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Still quadding in the dunes

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Sand boardoing!

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 Mammal! We saw a srpingbok in the Dorob National Park.

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The welwitschia is the national plant of Namibia. They are rare, and it could be easy to mistake them for a dying, wilted plant. But they are unique, rare and important - they are the only species in their family, endemic to the Namib desert in Namibia and Angola, and can live for over 1,000 years. They are depicted on the Namibian coat of arms.

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So why not do an impression?

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 Just like Flamingo Land!

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And finally we touched back down in stormy Johannesburg.

US and AAAAAAA

Last month we went to the US to visit Katy’s family. And we took some photos. Here are some of them.

We had 6 hours while we changed planes at Heathrow, so we had the chance to catch up with Sam's mum and sister who came all the way up from Cornwall to see us for a few hours. What would you do if you could spend a few hours in England? There was never really any debate - we headed for the pub! And on the way we happened to wander past Windsor Castle while they were changing the guard. It was a very British affair.

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Next stop - Seattle! We headed straight to the cabin owned by Katy's family on the Puget Sound, which had great views of the ocean and Mount Rainier. When Katy's dad asked what we would like to eat we said seafood - and seafood we ate! Oysters, lobster, acres of clams (even at the baseball game)! I seemed counter intuitive that the unit of measurement of clams was acres, but who are we to argue?

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Asking americans not to shoot at a sign I suppose is like telling Brits not to get drunk and rowdy. It only ever makes matters worse.

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The Pie Minister has spoken.

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It hurts my soul that Americans are largely unaware of the sheer and absolute joy that is meat pie. Fruit pie is fine but it a poor shadow of the tour de force that is the meat pie. I was chuffed that we managed to find an excellent meat pieary in Seattle. A shop in Freemont called Pie. Lap it up if you go there.

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I finally met Katy's brother David and sister in law Jen and our nephew Patrick! It only took 11 years. And we had seafood!

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There is a troll living under the road in Seattle. you can lean on him. He doesn't mind.

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Americans are nice but they don't day abooooot enough so we went to Canada. Victoria to be procice, to see some friends from Durham, Patrick and Betsy. We had fish tacos while watching the seals!

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Time flies, especially when you are eating seafood and pies, so off we bezzed back to Africa. But again we had a few hours in Heathrow - this time it was Sam's dad that we coerced to the dirty south to visit us. It was my birthday so here we are fighting over my birthday pie (cakes are for southerners).

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Thanks so much to Jack for bringing us to the US, Terri for having us, Katy's family for visiting us in the US, Sam's family for coming to London to see us in blighty, and the Russell for granting us time away from Lajuma!

See you later, world.

Looking for my leopard

"Scenes so lovely must have been gazed upon by angels in their flight."

These nice but slightly gay words were chosen by David Livingstone to describe Victoria Falls after he saw them in the mid 1800s. Where better to take a road trip when our old friends Tom and Sally came up to visit us for a week. On our way back we would traverse Botswana and visit Chobe National Park and the Makgadigadi salt pans in search of large hairy animals.

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But first we needed some choones. Sorted.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_n4YURQWt-c First stop: Bulawayo, where we used to live. We just stopped long enough to meet some friends and try on a pith helmet, before forging on to the falls.

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The falls are found near the point where where Zimbabwe, Zambia, Botswana and Namibia meet. At 108 m tall and  1.7 km long, Victoria Falls is the world's largest sheet of falling water. Locals call it Mosi-oa-Tunya (the smoke that thunders) because the spray raises 400m into the air, and can be seen from 40 km away, before it falls back down as localised rain that soaked us all to the bone. Katy won the wet t-shirt contest. There are rainbows everywhere. Even the moon makes "moonbows". Maybe that's what inspired Livingsone.

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Taking high tea at the Victoria Falls Hotel, with amazing views of the falls and the bridge, Sally was in her element. It was all rather colonial.

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At the Boma restaurant Sam ate the meat of 10 different animals! mmmm... animals. IMG_1732

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After eating all the animals, we crossed the border to Botswana to look for leopards and other animals  in Chobe National Park. We never found a leopard, but we did find ourselves surrounded by enough elephants and managed to give Sally a phobia.

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At The Makgadigadi Pans Game Reserve and Nxai Pans National park we found eerie salt pans, baobabs and even got to watch lions and cubs.

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The road signs in Botswana were pretty accurate.

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Cheers Tom & Sally. See you in London!

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