Monday 20 May 2013

The Impending Expedition to Africa

Dorze Tribe

This year my eldest daughter, the Golden Princess,  turns 21 and it’s rumoured that I shall turn 50 – rumours I strongly deny for all the good it will do. Occy and I agreed that to celebrate such heinously wonderful milestones we should plan a family expedition to the place our children are least likely to travel to on their own in the next decade – Africa. 

The first country we will visit is Ethiopia. We will spend time visiting the ‘Hidden Tribes’ of the Omo Valley. These are various tribes that have resisted Westernisation and still live in a completely traditional way. For thousands of years the Omo Valley in southern Ethiopia was a crossroads for droves of people migrating to new lands. Today, it is undoubtedly one of the most unique places on earth because of the sheer diversity of tribal groups that live in this remote area of the Great Rift Valley. Just the name – ‘The Great Rift Valley’ – conjuers images of great white hunters, Karen von Blixen and Tarzan ;-) The Mursi whose women insert large clay plates in their lower lips, the Hamer who scar and paint their bodies in a mark of their culture and the Karo tribe who paint their faces and bodies with white chalk and mix red clay with butter and feathers to decorate their hair with, are just a few of the fifteen different tribes inhabiting this area. Getting to them is no easy task either as there are no roads as such, only pothole filled tracks, and plan A must always be backed up with a plan B & possibly even C. They are so cut off that they have no written languages or calendars (an Omo “clock” is a string with knots tied to indicate the number of sunsets before a gathering or ceremony).
Mursi woman Photo courtesy of
Hamer tribe - photo courtesy of
Karo man - with the only bit of westernisation that is ubiquitous throughout the valley - the AK-47 Photo courtesy of
 Unfortunately this year the massive Gilgel Gibe III Dam is scheduled to begin operations several hundred miles upriver.  This trip is an echo of our China trip where we sailed down the Yangtze River witnessing the impending destruction of entire villages due to the controversial Yangtze River Three Gorges Dam. In a later trip to Egypt we had witnessed the after effects of the Aswan Dam on the Nile River where the entire Pharaonic temple of Abu Simbel had been moved to higher ground to avoid the impending flooding the dams construction brought.  Although this dam will more than double electrical output in Ethiopia, where less than two percent of the rural population has access to the grid, as many as 200,000 indigenous people who rely on the Omo’s natural flood cycles, and whose land may now go dry, may be displaced. Many of the tribes are shockingly unaware that this is happening.
Admitting I’m having a First World Crisis, as opposed to a mid-life crisis – I’m not rushing off to buy sports cars or find a new husband – Occy decided we should seize the opportunity to get a reality check about what’s really important in life (like celebrating life instead of lamenting turning 50) by doing some humanitarian work in the course of our expedition.  At each village we stop at we plan to offer whatever basic medical services we can to people who may be hundreds of miles from the nearest doctor or hospital. We are asking pharmacies to donate ‘out of date’ but still usable medications and wound care items, particularly things like antibiotic eye drops.

Patients of the Addis Ababa Fistula Hospital
In 1974 in the capital of Ethiopia, Addis Ababa, an Australian obstetrician & gynaecologist Dr Catherine Hamlin and her husband Reginald set up the Addis Ababa Fistula Hospital, the world’s first dedicated fistula hospital built to treat Ethiopian women who suffer from obstetric fistulas free of charge.
A fistula is a tear (hole) that develops between either the rectum and vagina or the bladder and vagina after severe or failed childbirth, when adequate medical care isn’t available, causing permanent incontinence and the social stigma that comes with it.
Women with obstetric fistula are constantly leaking urine or faeces, which causes a very unpleasant odor. They are often times outcast by their families, because they are considered "unclean" and are sometimes made to live in isolation. The emotional toll is sometimes unbearable, and suicide is common among women with this condition.

Around 18,000 Ethiopian women face obstructed labour each year. Half of them will die. The other half will lose their baby and gain a fistula and the terrible consequences of this condition. Training midwives is so important as a fistula prevention strategy – to give young Ethiopian women access to a clean, safe birth with a skilled birth professional by her side. Dr Hamlin’s dream is to provide a midwife in every village of Ethiopia and our family hopes to raise awareness and enough funding to provide training for at least 1-2 midwives (stay tuned and I’ll let you know in the next few weeks how you can help).

Occy is also on a mission to recycle the dressing packs that get used in his emergency department. Unfortunately, at the moment in hospitals around the country these sterile packs are disposed of once they are used once, but could easily be cleaned and re-sterilised. We hope to ship as many as we can to the Fistula hospital. The sub-adults are all very excited about our expedition and humanitarian ‘project’. I think as part of my mission in bringing my children up to be kind, tolerant, helpful citizens with empathy in this world, this expedition will help them to embrace the uniqueness of peoples, cultures and traditions that are more ancient but as valuable as their own, no matter how unsettling or extreme the conditions may be to achieve this. Also to instil in them the ability to want to fight the good fight for what is valuable and precious and should be championed, be that a woman’s dignity or the preservation of a culture or the preservation of an animal – yes, a trek to visit Dian Fossey's gorillas in either Rwanda,Uganda or D.R.of Congo depending on where the families are on the particular day we trek, is also happening on this expedition, but more on that later.
Dian Fossey with her gorillas

Monday 13 May 2013

The Umbraphile Diaries or The Eclipse Chasers

So you all know that Occy is nutty about the weirdest things, in the most endearing way of course. Well the latest nuttiness is that he has self-styled us into Umbraphiles. ‘What’s an Umbraphile’ I hear you ask. Well, it’s officially ‘one who loves eclipses, often travelling to see them’. Last year we were fortunate enough to have a total eclipse here in Cairns and we spent the night before bunking down with friends who live on the beach and having front row seats to the event the next morning. The experience was awesome – the descending quiet over the crowds and birdlife gracing the beach fringe as totality reigned was unforgettable and Occy managed to shoot off some rather good footage of the whole event if you’d like to have a look at it - 'All Expectations Totally Eclipsed'.

This week Far North Queensland was at the epicentre of yet another solar eclipse, this time an annular eclipse and the perfect place to be for four minutes something of annularity was about 450kms north of Cairns at place called Musgrave – a camping ground and not much else. So, as self-styled Umbraphiles we packed up the car with twins and camping gear and headed North onto the red dirt road.

Red dirt road
But hang on, what’s the difference between a total solar eclipse and an annular solar eclipse I hear you ask. Well , a total eclipse is where the moon passes in front of the sun and obscures the entire sun for anywhere between few seconds to a few minutes. An annular eclipse (is not something that happens every year, that would be an annual eclipse and solar eclipses do definitely not happen every year) is where the moon covers all but a bright ring around the circumference of the sun. Solar eclipses can only occur when there is a new moon and there are also two other types of solar eclipses – partial and hybrid. A partial eclipse is obviously where the moon only crosses part of the sun surface. A hybrid eclipse, also known as annular-total eclipses, usually begin as annular, transform into total, and then revert back to annular before the end of their track. In rare instances, a hybrid eclipse may begin annular and end total, or vice versa. For more science junkie information on eclipses head over to the NASA site.
The week before our journey started Occy asked me to phone ahead to book the camping site:
‘Can you ring and book for Thursday 9th of May. It might already be booked out. There’s probably going to be hordes of eclipse nutters up there, the place’ll be swarming with them – we might not even get in!’
So I dutifully rang the Coen camping grounds:
‘Hi, is that the Coen Camping Ground?’
‘Errr, well, yeah, I suppose so, whatever’.
‘Well is it or not? We’re coming up on Thursday for the eclipse and wanted to make sure you had room’.
‘An eclipse hey? Well we aren’t normally open this time of year but I suppose we could open for ya.’
Obviously there were NOT going to be hordes of eclipse chasing nutters up there!

   The road heading north out of Cairns is bitumen for approximately 250 kms as far as the one horse town of Laura. After that it’s red dirt and wildlife. Brahman cattle meander along the road, wild pigs as black as soot scamper away, kangaroos stop to look whose passing and crowds of crows and eagles squat by fresh road kill.   Occy stopped to let a rather large perentie (monitor lizard) pass and Lionboy said: ‘I was chased by one of those once. I was also chased by a cassowary!’ The perenties might not be more dangerous than a painful nip but cassowaries are a different matter – they can easily disembowel you with their sharp claws.
After driving thru numerous creeks overflowing across the road we reached Musgrave an hour before sunset and Monkeybuns declared that she was definitely NOT putting up a tent in the dark, which it would have been had we gone on to the old goldmining town of Coen. We surveyed the surprisingly green grass of the Musgrave roadhouse camping ground, noted there appeared to be other potential eclipse nutters encamped there and decided that this would have to be the place.
Musgrave campsite with swarms of bats flying over at sunset
As it turned out it Musgrave had much longer annularity than Coen but for some reason hadn’t shown on the eclipse pathway map so it was serendipitous that we’d ended up there.
Tent erected, self-inflating mattresses inflating and sleeping bags rolled out, Occy fired up the barbie (that’s Aussie for BBQ) and we cooked some snaggers (sausages) and steak to have with our salad.
The twins organised a campfire and sat around making that disgusting infiltration from America – Smores – one simply isn’t enough! Put 2 marshmallows on the end of a long stick and hold them over the fire till they toast then pop them on a lattice biscuit with 2 pieces of chocolates and clamp the whole lot together with another biscuit and enjoy this delicious anti-Paleo treat. Meanwhile up in the heavens the Milky Way gave a spectacular display and boded well for the next morning.
Occy was up bright and early erecting his tripod along with the other nutters (about 40 in total) whilst I took the kettle off to the ladies toilets to plug into the power.
Viet Namese coffee makers
We’d bought Viet Namese individual coffee makers from Hoi An and we enjoyed a cup of freshly brewed coffee with our Paleo granola (you can watch Occy as his alter-ego ‘Dieter’ making it with Monkeybuns on her YouTube channel ThePaleoLifestyle) as we watched the moon moving into ‘first contact’ with the sun through our eclipse glasses. 
First contact descending straight down photo by Occy
Photo by Occy

Photo by Occy

Photo by Occy

Exiting -Photo by Occy

 Just before annularity a bank of clouds appeared out of nowhere and swept across the sun but fortunately they became wispier as they were moved along by the wind and I managed to snap this on my iPhone.
My iPhone shot of annularity
Well pleased at another eclipse under our belts we packed up camp and headed for home.
Urban Termite Sprawl
Passing termite mounds that looked like craggy Scottish castle cliffs and delicately lily padded Billabongs, we had just come off the dirt road and onto bitumen when the car started vibrating fiercely.
Occy pulled over to check the damage – yep, a completely shredded tyre in the middle of nowhere and in the middle of the day under a burning hot sun. Never fear, umbraphiles are here! And I whipped out my trusty umbrella to shade Occy whilst he slaved over a hot jack.
Luckily we had an emergency spare, embarrassingly plastered with yellow stickers saying ‘DO NOT EXCEED 80kms’. We pootled the rest of the way back to Cairns like we were out on a leisurely Sunday drive with other vehicles hurtling past us and the twins saying ‘Are we there yet?’.
View down towards the coast driving back to Cairns