The building of the Royal Yacht Britannia was commissioned by the father of Queen Elizabeth II, His Majesty King George VI. Sadly, he died before it was finished.
It was Queen Elizabeth II who smashed the bottle of wine to christen the ship: “I name this ship Britannia. I wish success to her and all who sail in her.” The Queen then pressed the button at the Clydebank shipyard of John Brown & Company to launch the yacht, ship no. 691, into the Clyde River.
The bridge provides sight and information from the gauges, and it’s the place where orders about steerage are generated, but the yacht is actually steered from the wheelhouse, which is below the bridge. That’s because the bridge is visible to other ships and therefore more vulnerable to attack. The process is: orders from the bridge about direction and speed to the wheelhouse, and then instructions from the wheelhouse to the engine room regarding speed.
The ship’s wheel on Britannia came from a racing yacht that was built for the Prince of Wales (son of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, later King Edward VII) in 1893. After he died, the yacht went to George V.
The captains of the royal yachts were always admirals, right up until 1995. The last admiral-captain of the Britannia was Sir Robert Woodard, KCVO. From 1995 until 1997’s final voyage, Commodore Anthony Morrow, CVO, served as captain.
The ship’s compass is carved from a solid piece of mahogany, and is one of two identical compasses. The other is in Greenwich, in the National Maritime Museum. The pair of compasses began life on the “Royal George” (1817,) then were moved to the “Victoria and Albert” (1855,) and to each subsequent royal yacht, until the Britannia, when they were separated.
By tradition, the royal yacht was a “floating palace,” a family home for the royal family, with friendly faces, family photos, and the rooms used by the family were decorated accordingly. Enormous effort was made to allow the family, Queen Elizabeth and Prince Phillip especially, to feel at home on the ship, such as bringing on Malvern water for tea. The crew, although members of the Royal Navy, were called by their first names while serving on the Britannia.
Daily routine for the Queen included briefings from the Press Secretary and reviewing with the Queen’s Personal Secretary the contents of the government boxes sent daily.
Because of who they were, the ship was also the “Royal Court afloat,” so it had to be equipped for more formal functions. Leaders of other countries were sometimes hosted on board as a state visit. Such an event meant that about five tonnes of luggage (including the royal jewels) had to be brought on board, plus accommodating up to forty-five members of the Royal Household, such as valets, dressers, clerks, right up to, and including, the Press Secretary and the Surgeon.
Below is the drawing room, used for before dinner drinks and after-dinner activities, such as games or music, by the family, and for gathering for more formal occasions during a state visit.
The ship itself required twenty officers and two hundred twenty yachtsmen. “Daily Orders” were prepared and printed each day that had that day’s scheduled activities, times, and other details on them. Any last minute changes were posted on the “Red Hot Noticeboards” around the ship. In addition to being called by their first names, orders were given with hand signals in order to maintain a quiet, home-like atmosphere when the Royals were on board. Serving on the Britannia was so unique that an association of “Yotties” was founded in 1989 for all who had served from January, 1954, through December, 1997.
The crew functioned on an established hierarchy, and each group had their own mess, dining room, and quarters assigned to them. The decorations were done accordingly, with the officers ranking highest.
I have probably gotten these out of order, so please forgive this landlubber if I have.
The laundry room is huge, and seemed large for the yacht, even this family’s yacht. And it was. It was made so large because the yacht was made to be convertible to a hospital ship if there was a war or other large military operation involving casualties, and additional capacity was needed. It was launched in 1953, so, luckily, the need never arose while the yacht was under sail.
Although Britannia never served as a war-time hospital, in 1986, the Queen did send her to rescue British nationals and other persons who were suddenly trapped in the middle of an uprising in Aden, some of whom were injured. Over 1,000 people were rescued from hotels that were being shelled. As a non-military ship, Britannia could enter the close waters without increasing tension in an already tense area or attracting fire.
Edinburgh’s Old Town is riddled with small alleys, singly called “a close,” too narrow for vehicles, that can take pedestrians from one street to another. Sometimes they are a direct route, sometimes they bring you to an open area, a square, or small plaza, and then out the other side through another close, and sometimes they bring you to a courtyard, but you have to go out the same way you came in. Sometimes they are fairly level, sometimes they have steps, sometimes a lot of steps. It just depends.
“The Real Mary King’s Close” is a tour worth taking if you have the opportunity. It is mainly underground, and it is designed to show you how the not-well-off people in Edinburgh lived during the 1600s and The Plague. It wasn’t pretty.
Edinburgh of the 1600s had become terribly overcrowded as people moved to the city, but the city walls held them in. Houses had no room to spread out, so they spread up, sometimes as high as eight stories. Existing houses were absorbed into the new houses as foundations, or simply ground floors. The closes themselves were only a few meters wide – with the tall buildings on either side, daylight rarely made its way in.
There was no indoor plumbing. People used buckets for sewage, which was then dumped into the gutters. The people living on the bottom floors had to live with open sewers outside their doors. Obviously, the higher floors were most desirable – they had windows, after all – and those went to people with some money. The ground floors went to the poorest, who lived there with few windows (and sometimes none,) the sewers, and the occasional cow living in the next room.
And then, 1644 rolled around and brought the plague with it. The rich left the city, but the poor had nowhere to go. Edinburgh lost almost half of its population. Gruesome stories circulated of people being locked into the close, left to die of the plague, but the reality was that they were quarantined and food and water was brought to them. Mary King’s Close was abandoned by 1645.
Our guide, dressed in period costume of the 1600s – 1700s, talked about the plague itself, carried by the flea-infested rats, and the different ways it developed. He also talked about Mary King. She was a widow and therefore able to own property. She established herself as a fabric merchant, and became a person of local prominence, which is why the name Mary King’s Close. The tour is called “The Real Mary King’s Close” because the developers of the tour wanted to emphasize that Mary King was a real person in 17th century Edinburgh, not a made-up character.
Eventually, people moved back in and were living there when city authorities decided to build a new Royal Exchange in order to stay competitive for business, which the New Town was threatening. (“New Town” was close by, more of a neighborhood name than a new city. Things in Edinburgh are still identified by these terms. As the city grew, new area names were added.) The location they wanted was across from the St. Giles Cathedral, where Mary King’s Close is located. They tore down the upper floors and used the lower floors as foundation, where people continued to live and work – people ran businesses from these low-ceilinged rooms.
The last to leave, in 1902, was a saw maker, Mr. Chesney. He and his business were forced out when the Royal Exchange Building, which had become City offices, was extended, and the last buildings were sealed off. These buildings had survived because of the steep grade that they had been built on – as upper floors were developed, the lower floors still had access to the close.
The tour was a couple of hours. To observe the social distancing requirements, there were letters A, B, C, and D painted in specific places in the rooms we visited so that we had two meters separating us. Again, the distance meant that getting to know others on the tours wasn’t possible. Also, photographs are not allowed because we were walking through the foundations of the government buildings above.
As I emerged after the tour, I was standing across from St. Giles Cathedral, blinking into the daylight.
Edinburgh’s St. Giles’ Cathedral was founded in the 12th century, but this building was begun in the 1400s and completed in the 1600s, although significant changes were made in the 20th century. The church began as a Catholic church, but became part of the Church of Scotland in 1559 during the Reformation. John Knox was its minister, and is buried in the church, along with other notables.
Ah, the Anchor Close. Anchor Close is named for a tavern that used to be here, which was best known for hosting the “Chochallan Fencibles,” an 18th Century drinking club. The drinks fueled the intellectual debate, or so the guides would have you believe. Maybe it’s so: the club was founded by William Smellie, who edited the first edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica. Intellectual debates or not, I’m sure the drinks fueled the volume. And, of course, Robert Burns was a member.
The inscription above and the plaque pictured below are the same place. David Hume lived here in 1751. He was an economist and philosopher, a major figure of the Scottish Enlightenment. Two of his best known works are “A Treatise of Human Nature” (1740) and “An Enquiry into Human Understanding” (1748). He challenged the then-current beliefs, and was considered a radical. “I have written on all sorts of subjects,” he wrote, “yet I have no enemies, except all the Whigs, all the Tories, and all the Christians.”
Riddle’s Close is even with the street face on Lawnmarket Street, but when you walk into the short tunnel, you are underneath a building constructed in 1727. Emerging from the short tunnel, you are in a courtyard that has been there since 1587, and used to be the front building. There is yet another courtyard to be found behind that, but there was no additional date given for that, so it may be contemporary to the 1587 buildings.
James VI attended two banquets here, both honoring Queen Anne of Denmark’s brother, Ulric, Duke of Holstein. Queen Anne was James’ wife, and Ulric was the envoy of the Holy Roman Empire. This was in 1598, before Hume’s time, and a few years before James VI of Scotland became James I of England (1603.) The house belonged to a wealthy merchant in Edinburgh. It’s been restored and is now available for hosting events, if you are so inclined.
Riddle’s Close is notable for another visitor as well. “Fringe Festivals” began in Edinburgh, and have become widely known. They are artistic events, mostly performance arts, organized outside of traditional performance organizations. Riddle’s Court became a Fringe venue in the 1950s, and this is where Maggie Smith gave her first public performance. The rest, as they say, is history.
A person could spend the better part of a month exploring the collection of closes that are part of Old Town, and discovering their history. Someday, maybe.
I rode the LNER train from London to Edinburgh, almost five hours. The United Kingdom does a great job with their trains. They are pleasant to ride and have useful schedules, even now, during the pandemic. Passengers had to scan their tickets in order to enter the boarding area, so no conductors came around to check tickets. There were a few attendants in the area, available for any issues that might arise – confusion over seats or luggage or such.
I relaxed in my seat as scenes of England and Scotland moved past my socially-distanced window, leaving the suburbs of London, stopping at large villages, and passing rural scenery that looked “just like the pictures.”
I had reserved an AirBnB centrally located in Old Town. I arrived to find there was a mix-up, and my place already had a resident. Enterprising entrepreneurs have made a business of managing multiple vacation rentals through AirBnB, so there were options available. I was reassigned to a place on Simpson Loan, next to the University of Edinburgh, an upgrade from the place I had reserved, so no complaint about that. On a map, it looked to be a longer walk to visit places, but, as I have learned, Old Town is very compact and easily walked for most people. Being in a university area had its benefits, too, as there were several coffee places and a well-stocked Sainsbury’s (grocery,) to boot. My apartment overlooked an open, grassy area belonging to the building next door, and both buildings were adjacent to “the Meadows,” a large park with paths for bikes and pedestrians and playing fields for games of soccer or rugby.
The next morning, I followed a path, the Middle Meadow Walk, that led from the Meadows toward “the Royal Mile.” Along the path were a couple of old logs, and a sign. The sign said that these logs were water pipes.
Hard to believe in the middle of this rainy summer, but water in old Edinburgh was sometimes a problem. Maybe dry summers were more frequent then, because the sign said that the “draw-wells were frequently inadequate during dry summers.” People walked a long way out of town to get water. To remedy this, a reservoir was built at the top of Castlehill, and water was fed from there to various parts of Old Town (and later, New Town,) by way of underground pipes.
The first pipes were made of lead (!), but they became too expensive, they were heavy and hard to work with and maintain, so they were replaced by wooden pipes. Elm trees were used because they did not absorb much of the water. The logs were hollowed lengthwise with an auger, and then sharpened at one end to allow a tight fit when put together. By 1790, however, the wooden pipes were replaced by cast iron pipes, piping the water to a dozen masonry well-heads, five of which survive around Old Town, such as the one in Greenmarket.
Even this improvement was not perfect. People had to queue for their turn to get their daily water, sometimes late into the night. Well-off citizens would hire a “water caddy” to get a place in line for them and wait for a turn. Waiting at the well ended by 1822, when water was piped directly into the houses.
Middle Meadow Walk ended when it became Forrest Road, which carried car traffic and was lined with small shops. At the juncture of Forrest Road and Candlemakers Row, stands an old church, now known as “Bedlam Theatre,” closed for the time being because of the pandemic prohibition of crowded venues.
Across the intersection from the Bedlam is a statue of a small dog called “Greyfriars’ Bobby.”
According to local record, Greyfriars’ Bobby, a small dog, followed the remains of his master to the Greyfriars Kirkyard (“kirk” being the Scottish word for church) and stayed. The statue was donated, and pays tribute to the dog’s “affectionate fidelity,” lasting from 1858 to 1872, when the dog passed away.
The entrance to Greyfriars Kirk was next to the Greyfriars Bobby pub. I have always enjoyed a good graveyard, during the day time, at least, and the gate was open.
Many of my ancestors came from Scotland – Sinclairs, Alexanders, Johnstons, Kennons, and others – so I was on the lookout for familiar names. I didn’t find any that belonged to my family, but I found a few that appeared in the Harry Potter stories – McGonagall, Moody, Erskin. I thought it was an interesting coincidence, but when two young men stopped to ask me if I had seen the Tom Riddle headstone, I learned that J.K. Rowling apparently often walked through this particular kirkyard, so that the names were not just a coincidence. I wasn’t much help to the two looking for Riddle. I hadn’t seen Tom Riddle, but I was able to tell them where it wasn’t, because I had walked up and down the rows behind me, quite methodically.
Of course, from then on, I looked for Harry Potter names as well as my family names. For family, all I found was one man whose middle name was Sinclair. There were lots of given names “Alexander,” but none whose surname was Alexander, Johnston, nor anything else sounding familiar. For my family, the kirkyard was a bust, but I finally did find Tom Riddle. It was in the farthest corner, and it was “Thomas Riddell.” His son, also Thomas Riddell, was there, too. For an author making up a plot, it’s not a far stretch to reach “Tom Riddle,” a more mysterious iteration.
There were other things about the Greyfriars Kirkyard that were notable, too. One more “Harry Potter” thing, the inspiration for Hogwarts, supposedly: the George Hariot School. It can be seen from the back gate of the kirkyard.
The Greyfriars Kirkyard was also the location of the Covenanters’ Prison, rather ironic since the church was where the Covenant was signed, February 28, 1638, and one of the co-authors is buried there.
Religion and politics do not mix well, no matter what the century, it seems.
John Knox led the Scottish Reformation in 1560, based on the teachings of John Calvin. Mary I (Mary, Queen of Scots) disapproved because she was Catholic, but did not actively suppress the Reformation. When James VI gained the throne, and then the English throne in 1603 as James I, he was convinced that Presbyterianism was incompatible with monarchy. “No bishop, no king” was his belief, but rather than war, he used diplomacy. By the time he died in 1625, the Church of Scotland had bishops.
Charles I (later beheaded by Oliver Cromwell and his followers) was less diplomatic, and tried to force the Prayer Book of 1637, a slightly modified version of the Anglican Book of Common Prayer, on the Church of Scotland. It caused riots, and precipitated the National Covenant, which protested the new prayer book and other liturgical innovations, setting those who signed the National Covenant in opposition to Charles I.
A thousand of those signers were put into the Covenanters’ Prison in the Greyfriars Kirkyard, defeated by Government forces at the Battle of Bothwell Brig. They were held for more than four months with no shelter, and only 4 ounces of bread per day.
Some prisoners died, some were tried for treason and executed, some escaped, and some were freed after signing a bond of loyalty to the Crown. Those who were persecuted and died under Charles I are memorialized by the Martyrs’ Memorial on the wall of the Kirkyard, and in the Greenmarket. In the longer arc of time, although the Covenanters lost the Battle of Bothwell Brig, they won the war.
After spending a couple of hours in the kirkyard, I continued walking along the main road, George IV Bridge Road. I passed The Elephant House, which had a sign in the window claiming it was the “Birthplace of Harry Potter.” It’s a cafe/coffee house, so I presume that means that J.K. Rowling spent time in there, writing her stories. They didn’t specify, nor was there anyone to ask – they were closed for the pandemic.
Further up the road, there was a road that turned downhill, lined with little shops, curving around as it wound downward. I spotted the small shops, and decided to explore.
It was Victoria Street. Merchants in Victoria Street are happy to proclaim that this street inspired “Diagon Alley” in the Harry Potter stories. There are even a couple of places that claim to have inspired specific stores in Diagon Alley. I was beginning to think that Edinburgh had developed their own version of “Washington slept here.”
Victoria Street morphs into Bow Street as it passes the curve, and ends in Grassmarket, where people once bought and sold horses and cows – Cowgate Street is adjacent to Grassmarket on the far side. Now, the grass is gone, and it’s covered in cobblestone, edged with pubs, cafes, and a couple of clothing stores.
The pubs and restaurants have put as many tables outside as they can, and they were filled. Tables outside don’t have to be as strict, but they are still at a distance of 1 meter. The tables inside are at a 2 meter distancing. People, including tourists, are required to wear face coverings indoors in most places. Obviously, eating establishments can’t require constant coverage, and hence the greater distance when people are in a confined space.
The Bee Hive Inn was where I waited for the “Literary Pub Tour” last Sunday evening. The upstairs of the pub allowed our group to spread out but still hear. The tour consisted of me, a three-person family from Birmingham, England, and two actors, both nice guys.
The two actors, who stated at the outset that they were actors not scholars, were our entertainment, and we had a grand time listening to them argue good-naturedly about the social and anti-social qualities of Sir Walter Scott, Robert Burns, and Robert Louis Stevenson, and reciting from their works. Their clear favorite was Robert Burns, and they performed works in English and in Scottish, which is not Gaelic, but rather English in the strong Scots dialect.
They were serious about not being scholars. As we walked from Grassmarket to Victoria Street, we passed the monument to the Martyred Covenanters. I asked one of the actors what the Covenant was about, hoping for some history on it, but he didn’t know what it was about, only that the spot was where many were hanged.
We ended at a pub – where else? – and had a glass as we answered some questions about Scott, Burns, and Stevenson, the “older generation,” and J.K. Rowling, part of the “new generation.”
Their scholarship notwithstanding, they were fun, their stories about the authors were humorous, and the family from Birmingham and I had a good time with them. Social distancing was the order of the evening, and the group was small to make that easier. I didn’t get to know the people from Birmingham at all – that kind of traveler collegiality is the victim of social distancing.
By this time, Old Town Edinburgh had worked its way into my imagination. It is utterly charming – narrow alleys, twisty cobblestone roads, and turreted stone buildings abound. It’s easy to see how Edinburgh added inspiration to J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter stories. I found myself thinking what life would be like if I was living here.
I am not complaining. I want to make that clear. I have been to London twice before on more hurried visits with different agendas when everything was open. I had to manoeuvre through crowded crowds of people and their children, for not very satisfying views of well-known sights. I haven’t had that problem on this visit. I expect that it will change soon, perhaps even by the fall, when I will return to London.
The title is a minor exaggeration. There are things open, but they are not tourist sights per se. Cafes, hotels, stores, pubs, and many restaurants are open, so as a visitor it is quite possible to survive, although finding a place to sit down and rest your feet for a few minutes is challenging. Most cafes (and all Starbucks) are takeaway only, and there are no seats available. Some cafes are able to provide “socially distanced” seating, but I’ve only found two – one with partitions and one with enough space for appropriate seating. Even then, their main business was takeaway.
Buses are running, and taxis, and some Tube lines are running, but most of the Tube stations are still closed, and generally, public transportation is discouraged. Fortunately, I am a walker, and so far, I’ve tallied about four miles per day. I know by reading the directional signposts that tell me how far it is to my destination. And, by George, it’s really good for me, right?
The great thing about walking around London is that I can stop whenever I want and look at the buildings. It is easy to become overwhelmed by the incredible decorations – lions, friezes, brickwork and stained glass – it is a serious feast for the eyes. These buildings (below) were all on the same street, on the same block, near Oxford Street.
I took a shopping day on Monday, and walked to Selfridge’s, which is on Oxford Street. It’s a large department store that has changed their business model by sub-leasing parts of their store to other enterprises, such as Topshop, Lululemon, and Sweaty Betty, and the jewelry counters were all sublets. Some parts of the store are still Selfridge’s, I assume, but it was hard to tell. I ended up making several visits during this week.
Hyde Park is huge, and I still haven’t been through all of it. Monday, I had stopped at the Italian Fountains on my way to Selfridge’s. It was sunny then, as you can see. Tuesday, I decided to explore the west area around Kensington Palace.
Hyde Park began as acreage that King Henry VIII acquired in 1536 so that he would have a handy place to hunt deer. It’s not clear when the character changed from hunting ground to park, but it was probably in the 1690s, after King William III and Queen Mary II moved into Kensington Palace.
The palace itself began life as a mansion built in 1605 by Sir George Coppin in the village of Kensington, outside of London. In 1619, it was purchased by Haneage Finch, the 1st Earl of Nottingham, and became known as Nottingham House.
It was when William and Mary ascended the throne in 1689, becoming William III and Mary II, that Nottingham House became Kensington Palace. King William suffered from asthma, and Whitehall Palace, then the royal residence, was located too near the fog and floods of the River Thames, so they looked for a better location. They bought Nottingham House for twenty thousand pounds, and instructed their Surveyor of the King’s Works, Sir Christopher Wren, to expand the mansion.
William and Mary moved into Kensington Palace just prior to Christmas, 1689, and the palace remained the primary royal residence for the next seventy years. Queen Anne added the Orangery (now a restaurant,) and Queen Victoria was born in the palace in 1819. The state apartments were opened as a museum in 1899.
Kensington Palace is owned by the Crown Estate, which makes the palace available to the reigning monarch and her descendants “to use as they wish,” mainly as living quarters. Currently, there are about sixty people living there, notably the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge in a four-story apartment within the palace, but there are other royals, military, courtiers, and staff that live throughout the palace complex.
Approaching Kensington Palace from the Hyde Park side, there is a lovely statue, a tribute to Queen Victoria honoring her fifty years as queen. The plaque notes that the statue is “the work of her daughter,” but doesn’t name her. One source said it was Princess Louise. The tribute was given by Queen Victoria’s “loyal Kensington subjects.”
Because the parks are right next to each other, it took a couple of map readings for me to realize that what I was calling “Hyde Park” was actually two entities: Hyde Park and Kensington Gardens. Kensington Gardens is adjacent to Kensington Palace, and extends from the palace to West Carriage Drive, which seems to form the boundary. On the other side is Hyde Park. Kensington Gardens has the Prince Albert Memorial and the Diana Memorial Playground, whereas Hyde Park has Speaker’s Corner and the Princess Diana Memorial Fountain. The two parks have separate park offices, but for the casual user, they are functionally one big park, and it is a very popular place.
Anyone who pays attention to English history knows of Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha, who was married to Queen Victoria in 1840. They had nine children. Prince Albert had an active interest in the arts, science, industry, and commerce, and, with Henry Cole, was instrumental in organizing the “Great Exhibition of 1851,” a showcase of industry and science, the largest of its day. Between May and October of 1851, about six million people visited the exhibit, which was held in the Crystal Palace, built for the occasion.
Prince Albert died in 1861 of typhoid fever, and Queen Victoria had this memorial built for him. The decorations immediately surrounding the golden statue reflect his interests – commerce, science, arts, and industry, and the four corners of the steps symbolize the reach of the British Empire at that time – the continents of Asia, Africa, America, and Europe.
Colonial issues acknowledged, but the memorial is still a beautiful work of art.
And, across from the Albert Memorial, is the Royal Albert Hall. The capacity was originally designed for 8,000, however, reconfigurations brought the number to 12,000. Current safety standards have reduced the number to 5,272. So, still not really known, Beatles notwithstanding.
From the Royal Albert Hall, I walked on to Buckingham Palace, passing the Wellington Arch circle on the way, where several memorials have been placed.
The emblem of the United Kingdom contains imagery dating to about 1200. The three lions came into use during the time of Richard I, the Lionhearted. His father, Henry, incorporated the lions that came from the coat of arms of Eleanor of Aquitaine in France into the lions already in the Plantagenet arms. The Celtic harp in the lower left division symbolized Ireland. After the Republic of Ireland was established, it was retained to symbolize Northern Ireland. The upper right division is the lion of Scotland, a traditional emblem, although their national animal is the Unicorn. The Unicorn occupies an equal place with the English lion because the two countries were joined under James I of England (James VI of Scotland) after the death of Elizabeth I. The coronet-collar and chain on the Unicorn is traditional, and was used even when Scotland was a separate kingdom. Unicorns came from Celtic mythology, symbolizing purity and power, but at the same time, were considered dangerous animals and untameable, and therefore held in check by a chain.
The land for St. James’s Park was acquired in 1531 by Henry VIII, and in 1532 he built St. James’s Palace adjacent to his newly acquired deer park. It has served as the official Royal Court since it was built. Even today, ambassadors present their credentials and are recognized by the Court of St. James.
From St. James’s Park, I walked on to Parliament Square.
I become fascinated with the details of these buildings. I know that the decorations include figures and images that are significant to the people of the country, but I don’t know who they are. I’m sure somewhere there’s a key to who they are or what they symbolize, and what their place in history was. (The pictures are dark because it had begun to rain.)
This church building, consecrated in 1523, is the third built on this site. St. Margaret’s has been the church of the House of Commons since 1614. It has windows that commemorate Caxton and Milton, who worshipped here, and Sir Walter Raleigh is buried in front of the altar. After about 900 years of service as a parish church for the people of Westminster, St. Margaret’s is now under the care of the Dean and Chapter of Westminster, by Act of Parliament in 1973. It is still in regular use for worship and music recitals.
The sign nearby says that “Visitors are welcome to this beautiful church.” But not right now. Like everything else around Parliament Square, it is closed, but I am hoping to catch it – along with many other things – on a return trip this fall.
Westminster Abbey, formally titled the Collegiate Church of Saint Peter at Westminster, was founded as a monastery in 960AD under the patronage of King Edgar and direction of Dunstan (later St. Dunstan.) King Edward re-endowed the monastery and built a stone church in honor of St. Peter the Apostle. That church was consecrated on December 28, 1065. Edward died a few days later, which precipitated the arrival of William the Conqueror in 1066, the first English monarch to be crowned in Westminster Abbey. The remains of King Edward were first interred in front of the High Altar, but were moved to a special shrine within the Abbey after he was canonised in 1161 as St. Edward the Confessor, the first Anglo-Saxon saint.
Henry III tore down Edward’s church, except for the nave, and built the current Abbey. Timing of reigns and sovereigns worked out, so that all of the coronation ceremonies have taken place in Westminster Abbey, even though the building itself changed dramatically. The only monarchs not crowned in Westminster Abbey were Edward V and Edward VIII, because neither of them were crowned at all. The history of Westminster Abbey is intertwined with English history, and is an interesting read all by itself.
It was during the time of Elizabeth I that the modern administrative structure of the Abbey was established: a Dean and Prebendaries, responsible to the Sovereign, not to an archbishop or bishop. It is a “Royal Peculiar.” The Dean and Chapter were tasked with much of the civil government of the City of Westminster, a responsibility it had for over three hundred years, which probably explains the religious figures present on the decorations of the Supreme Court building, pictured earlier in the blog. The civil responsibilities were relinquished in the early 20th century, although the Abbey still has an annual service for Judges at the beginning of the legal year. Two other annual services are a thanksgiving for victory in the Battle of Britain, and the marking of Commonwealth Day.
Thursday, I walked through Hyde Park on my way to Mayfair, Grosvenor Square, and Fortnum & Mason.
That’s most of what I saw during this visit to London. Many things I wanted to see are still closed, the museums and palaces, and who knows when the theatres will be open? Still, walking around so much was entertaining by itself – Notting Hill, the Covent Garden Square, Mayfair, Oxford Street, the parks, Chinatown – everyday Brits doing everyday things. And the cabbies, always talkative.
Tomorrow, I will take the LNER train from King’s Cross Station to Waverley Station in Edinburgh, so I can explore Scotland for a while.
On Independence Day, July 4th, my self-isolation was done, and I could wander as freely as anyone else in the UK, so, of course, I did.
I had a list of errands, things I wanted for my stay here. My first stop was (drum roll here) a bookstore! Foyle’s, to be exact. To keep track of my plans, I have been using an 18-month desk calendar. The monthly planner works well for me, being able to envision a larger chunk of time. But I was coming to the end of the calendar, which ends August 31, so I had been looking for a replacement that wasn’t in Arabic or Ethiopian. I figured the UK would be the place, and when I discovered Foyle’s bookstore nearby, I checked it out online. Foyle’s had an 18-month calendar, a different brand, but conveniently beginning July 1, so a pretty good fit. It will end December 31, 2021.
Foyle’s is a lovely bookstore, three floors of different subject areas – philosophy, cooking, science, thousands of books, just waiting for someone to pick them up and give them life. I always struggle to resist. I could have spent hours, but I knew that I didn’t need to buy any books. Well, I gave the travel guidebook section a good go, but the only book I liked was very heavy – glossy photos weigh a lot, so I passed. Any book I bought would live in my suitcase for months. The calendar was a success, so that was my purchase.
I spotted a Starbucks about a block up the street – Charing Cross Road – and stopped in for the first “grande mocha, no whipped cream, please” I’d had in weeks. It tasted just as I remembered, such is the benefit of corporate coffee.
I walked, coffee in hand and mask over face, to the church yard of St. Giles-in-the-Fields, the church I described in an earlier post. The church yard had big trees, scrawny grass, and benches with workmen from the area’s construction projects seated on them, taking a break. The people with dogs (there were several) were sitting on a low wall just by the church. They were regulars. You could tell by the ease of their chatting, and their dogs knew each other.
St. Giles has seen better days, but it still has dignity. The doors were shiny with glossy black paint, and the steps were in good repair. No broken windows.
I sat on one of the empty benches, away from people, so I could drink my coffee without my mask on. It was peaceful, the dogs scampering around, their owners chatting, and the four workmen smoking cigarettes together – they were not “socially distancing.” A woman came into the park, pushing a stroller with a little boy, about 12 months old I would guess. She got him out and held his hand as he walked around, a little wobbly on the uneven grass.
Coffee done and disposed of, I walked along Charing Cross Road on my way to the Piazza, an area of spendy shops and cafes in Covent Garden. I was headed to a specific store there. Along the way, I walked down to take a photo of the Palace Theatre, where “Harry Potter and the Cursed Child” was, or had been, playing. All of the theaters, along with concert halls, and such, are still closed.
At the Piazza, I took care of getting a U.K. SIM card for my phone, which was the primary errand, and then wandered around, window shopping. I don’t buy much anymore.
There was a puppeteer playing to the scattered crowd. His marionette was a skeleton. He was a pleasant distraction. Cafes were open, and many had seating outside, which is what I chose. I ordered the incredibly over-priced avocado toast, with hummus and goat cheese. It was beautifully presented and very tasty – it was an interesting combination, and filling. The avocado was soft, and had been piped onto the toast over a layer of hummus, with small chunks of goat cheese on top.
I learned from the carving on the church, behind the entertainer, that the first Punch’s Puppet Show was played near this spot in 1662, reported by Samuel Pepys.
On my way to the Piazza, I noticed a building I had seen from my balcony down one of the side streets. After lunch, I went to investigate further.
Curiosity satisfied on that point, I checked out the other side of the road, where some pubs had opened, but shops were a mix of open and closed. The hat shop ladies sported their wares, but were available “By Instore Appointment only:”
After my day of freedom, it was time to return and prepare to move to my next “home” in London.
My welcome to London this time includes fourteen days of “self-isolation.” The “self” part implies that it was of my own choosing. No, but under the shadow of the Covid-19 pandemic, I understand the reasons, and I complying.
I rented a small apartment in Covent Garden, on New Compton Street. It’s on the sixth floor. In the back, it has a balcony overlooking Shaftsbury Avenue, which has a respectable view.
In the front, overlooking New Compton Street, is a broader terrace, which is communal among the four apartments on the sixth floor, but everyone seems to have staked out the “turf” in front of their apartment with benches, chairs, and planters. To their credit, they have divided it equitably, and it encourages caretaking, so all in all, it works.
St. Giles-in-the-Fields, known as the Poets’ church, is in the London Borough of Camden in the West End, and is part of the Diocese of London, part of the Church of England. The present building was built between 1731-1733 in the Palladian style, the first Palladian style church in England.
The first recorded church on this site was a chapel attached to a monastery and leper hospital founded by Matilda of Scotland, wife of Henry I, in 1101. At that time, the hospital, monastery, and church were well outside the City of London, along the main road to Tyburn and Oxford.
During its first two hundred years, it was supported by the Crown and administered by the City of London, but this changed in 1299, when Edward I ordered that St. Giles would be administered by the “Military and Hospitaller Order of Saint Lazarus,” one of the chivalric orders that survived the Crusades. By 1539, leprosy had abated, and the monastery ministered to the indigent until closed by Henry VIII. Henry closed all monasteries that year, and took over whatever assets they held.
In 1547, the first rector was appointed, and “in-the-Fields” was added to the name. The church building was in deep disrepair, and the succeeding structure was Gothic in style, built 1623-1630 by the Duchess of Dudley.
Another hundred years, and that building was replaced with the current one, which is 290 years old. Apparently, maintenance has improved. It was a major site of burial for the Great Plague victims of the 17th century. Burials of the first victims were in 1665. By the end of the plague year, the poor parish of St. Giles listed 3,216 deaths from plague out of their 2,000 households. Can you imagine?
As for why it was known as the Poets’ Church, John Milton’s daughter, Mary, was baptized here in 1647. The online history of the church says that the children of Lord Byron and Percy Bysshe Shelley and Mary Shelley were baptized here also. It didn’t give the year.
I was curious about the phrase, “the children of Lord Byron and Percy Bysshe Shelley,” so I did some research. It seems that Lord Byron fathered two daughters (no sons,) and the Shelleys had a daughter and a son. Lord Byron was married to Anne Isabella (Annabella) Milbanke. Anne was a highly educated and very religious woman, an English mathematician. Their daughter, Ada, was born in 1815. It was probably this child of Lord Byron that was baptized at St. Giles, although it does not specifically say so.
The church is still active, with, in normal times, a regular schedule of services. The Poetry Society holds their annual meeting in the Vestry House. No doubt, that contributes to the church’s nickname.
Saint Giles, the historical person, was a Greek Christian hermit from Athens, born in 650 AD. He spent most of his life in Provence and Septimania, France. He founded the abbey in Saint-Gilles-du-Gard, presumably named after his death in 710 AD. The tomb became a place of pilgrimage. His feast day is September 1.
I came to Madagascar with a completely open mind, with no expectations except to see lemurs and chameleons. I was intrigued by the idea of new wildlife and a new culture.
Like many, I had watched the animated feature, “Madagascar,” where African animals in a New York City zoo want to go to “the Wild.” They, a hippo, zebra, lion, giraffe, and four delusional penguins, end up in Madagascar. The irony, of course, is that none of those animals exist in Madagascar, nor are there any elephants, rhinoceros, leopards, or antelope, or any other animals that we know from Africa, not even monkeys or apes. The animal life on Madagascar is unique, and so is much of the plant life. The reason lies in the geology of long ago.
Madagascar, like much of the dry land on Earth, was once part of the “supercontinent” of Gondwana. There was another supercontinent called Euroamerica, and they were once part of Pangaea. Geology is a very long story, so I am skipping to the “good parts,” but the rest of the story, at least what we know so far, is easily discoverable through books, videos, or online, if you’re interested.
Gondwana was formed by the collision of smaller land masses millions and millions of years ago. Madagascar, a separate land mass from Africa or India, was sandwiched between them as the African and Indian land masses collided. Africa, part of West Gondwana, began to separate from East Gondwana, which was comprised of Antarctica, Madagascar, India, and Australia, and then East Gondwana began to break up. All of this was unfolding between 165 – 96 million years ago, depending on what one reads, but we can safely say it happened a long, long time ago.
When Africa pulled away, it formed the west coast of Madagascar, and then Madagascar broke away from India about 88 million years ago, forming the east coast. The Seychelles and Reunion were part of the disintegration of East Gondwana. Even though we usually associate Madagascar with Africa, geologically, it is more closely related to India.
Today, most of Madagascar is tropical. A thin strip along the eastern coast is tropical rainforest. The tropical rainforest is bordered on the west by mountains, where the weather is more temperate in temperature and rainfall due to the higher elevation. On the western side of the mountains lies the tropical savannah that takes up about half of the island. In the very south-southwestern portion of Madagascar, it is a steppe area, arid and hot. All of it is beautiful.
I had reserved a room at a guesthouse, Tanana Maeya, in Antananarivo, and Nyhasy, the young man in charge, met me at the airport to bring me there.
I appreciated Nyhasy meeting me. The plane was so late that it was getting dark by the time we landed, plus, I do not enjoy negotiating taxis. I had not been able to get any cash at the airport – the only ATM there was not working – and so my next task for Nyhasy was to help me find an ATM.
But it wasn’t just the airport. None of the ATMs that we visited were working. Ultimately, as it grew later, Nyhasy lent me some money by buying me a pizza (which I thought was pretty decent since he didn’t really know me) before he dropped me at the guesthouse.
The next morning, Nyhasy walked with me around his neighborhood. We continued searching for a working ATM between sightseeing. His aunt, who owned the guesthouse, did not accept credit cards, so I was concerned, not just about eating, but also paying my bill at the guesthouse. No ATMs were working on Sunday, either, and I ended up borrowing cash from Nyhasy so I could eat.
As my experience grew, it became clear that Madagascar runs on cash. This is because the internet infrastructure is so weak that processing is not reliable. In the capital, Antananarivo, I found that hotels could process, and the banks’ ATMs – when I found one that accepted Mastercard – were reliable, but hotels were not reliable outside of the capital, and the banks’ ATMs were not always working. ATMs often ran out of money or the system was down. If I was going to need more cash, it was important to visit an ATM in the morning, and don’t wait until Friday.
I had arrived in Madagascar just a day after Pope Francis arrived. There were banners everywhere, welcoming him to Madagascar, and especially Antananarivo, the capital city, often referred to as “Tana.” I thought I might see him go by in the “Pope-mobile,” or in a secure SUV caravan with heavily tinted windows. I never saw him at all, except on the TV news. They showed scenes of the Pope waving at crowds, but it was all in Malagasy (no English station, not even the BBC,) so I have no idea why he was there or what he did or when he left.
Where we walked is called the Ville-Basse, and it is where some of the region’s administrative offices are. These were built by the French, who had absorbed Madagascar into their colonial empire in 1897. French is still an official language, along with Malagasy, one of the native languages. English is not an official language, but in the cities many people know at least some English. Before the French built the roads and buildings here, the area was reclaimed swamp land, a place used first for growing rice, then drained further and used to garrison soldiers for the kings and queens.
The young men on the outside run along with the minibus, shouting their route (not everyone reads) and looking for customers. Having gotten everyone who is interested, he then jumps on board and the bus speeds up to the next stop. There is a route, but no schedule. Experienced riders know that the bus arrives about every half hour during rush hour (yes, there is one,) and forty-five minutes to an hour in off-peak times. Frequency is dictated by how fast the bus fills up and the amount of vehicle traffic.
Football, as we Americans know it, is played only in the United States. In the rest of the world, soccer, called football by everyone else, is the most popular sport. Madagascar has had a football team since about 1974. They built “Stade Municipal de Mahamasina” in 1986 to house their team, and Madagascar hosted the seventh Ocean Island Games in 2007. In 2019, Madagascar played in the quarter finals of the Africa Cup of Nations, but they haven’t made it into the World Cup playoffs yet. The stadium seats about 22,000 people, and regularly hosts rugby games as well as football, plus the occasional live music event.
Lac Anosy was created in the mid-1800s during the reign of Queen Ranavalona I, no doubt to help drain the land as she had ordered the reclaiming the area to station soldiers. Today, the artificial lake has an island in the middle, with a causeway that connects it to the southern shore. A large stele was raised in 1927, constructed to honor the Malagasy soldiers who died fighting for France during WWI. The angel was added in 1935, designed by a famous French sculptor. The guidebook describes it as a “black-winged angel,” but it looked to me as if the angel and her wings were gold-colored.
Nyhasy was a very nice young man who worked as an accountant and managed his aunt’s guest house. His aunt was a flight attendant and was frequently gone. The guesthouse was on a side road, and had the advantage of being quiet, but it turned out (which was not clear in the listing) that I had rented one of three bedrooms (en-suite) in the lower apartment unit. The kitchenette, dining area, and lounge area were common use areas. While I was there, two couples and a couple of young men traveling together came and went, guests in the other two bedrooms. My room didn’t feel very private, and I wanted to be closer to downtown, so I ended up moving to a hotel called the “Saka Manga.”
The Saka Manga, which means “Blue Cat” in Malagasy, was a boutique hotel, with a variety of differently styled rooms and twisty passages through the hotel area. It had a pool that no one swam in and a pool side cafe, in addition to a full-service restaurant, so living was easier. It was two blocks from a working ATM. And, it was not very much more expensive than the Tanana Maeya.
Saka Manga did not have any immediate contacts for city tours, so they directed me to a public park, sort of a city square, where the tourist office was located. It was a not very long walk along very narrow streets filled with one-way traffic bouncing over cobblestone pavement.
By this time, I had been in Africa for about six months, and had grown accustomed to walking in streets, right next to moving cars, watching both the traffic and where I put my feet. There are occasional accidents, but surprisingly few, considering the tight quarters we all maneuvered through.
At the tourist center, there were maps and brochures about Tana, and they had organized tour itineraries for the city, with fixed prices, although guides always welcome gratuities. I hired a guide to meet me here at the park in the morning. The afternoon was very hot, and I preferred to walk in the morning.
I needed a break from the hot sun before walking back to the hotel. I found a small cafe and sat, drinking a Coke and looking through the brochure for the tour and watching life go on around me. Five streets all came together here, ending at the park. Lacking any clear direction, cars were bumper to bumper, and building security guards made tips by reserving parking spaces in front of hotels, banks, and businesses. Selling parking spaces was a developed cottage industry in Tana.
I had one more task before heading back, I remembered – replacing my phone. I found a promotional offer at the bank with a viable ATM. It wasn’t great, frankly, but it would carry me through Madagascar and it was cheap. Now, re-armed with mobile communication, I set off to relax with a drink and dinner by the pool.
I am one of those people who arrives at the airport about five hours in advance. I like to avoid stress whenever it is possible to do so. Hence, I leave with plenty of time in case of traffic, in case I’ve forgotten something critical, in case the driver takes me to the wrong terminal, in case I can’t get my phone to produce my reservation code, in case the airline can’t find the reservation code, or in case of multiple glitches, even minor ones – all of which have happened to me at one time or another.
I arrived at the Johannesburg airport, O.R. Tambo Airport, at about 5:30 a.m. for my 10:00 a.m. flight to Ivato International Airport, in Antananarivo, Madagascar.
O.R. Tambo Airport is a reasonably nice airport. The Emerald Guesthouse where I was staying is near the airport (but not under the flight path, except for one daily flight) and ran a regular shuttle to drop off and retrieve guests. The airport had restaurants and a decent, small Woolworths grocery store, so it was handy for me to hop on the shuttle and get dinner in the early evening during the few nights I was in Johannesburg. The Guesthouse area was otherwise residential, and, while the people were very nice, their food was not great.
The idea of spending four hours in the airport was fine with me. There were shops and restaurants and a bookstore (always good for an hour or two,) so I arrived early. I took care of changing my extra rand (the South African currency) into U.S. dollars, checking on my flight (on schedule,) and then stopped in the restroom before proceeding to the local coffee shop serving espresso.
It was when I started going through my daypack to find my wallet that I noticed my phone was not there. I looked through it twice more, finally taking everything out and putting it on the table until the bag was visibly empty. I had my wallet, I had my camera, I had everything – except my phone.
I shoved my wallet, camera, etc., back into my pack, grabbed my suitcase, and walked quickly straight to the restroom where I had been. I realized that when I checked my mail on my phone, I set it down on top of the TP holder, and then washed my hands and walked away without it.
I edged through the cluster of housekeeping staff at the entrance to the restroom and checked the stall where I had been. Nothing. I checked all the other stalls, but still nothing. I could hardly believe it. I had had that phone for about five years (I don’t upgrade instantly) and had never left it anyplace before, except one time in Upstate New York. I asked the staff if they had seen my phone, but the people still standing there said they hadn’t seen it.
I spent the next couple of hours reporting the phone lost to the information desk, talking with the airport police, and checking and re-checking the airport’s lost and found. I kept hoping some good person had found it and would turn it in. Everyone I talked with was very nice, but no one turned my phone in.
Eventually, I had to get on the plane to Madagascar. I was coping, but it was hard. It was my iPhone, and it had my contacts list. I used it to check emails and What’s App messages. Sometimes it was a handier camera than my DSLR, so there were photos on it. Because of the unreliability of African internet service, not all of the photos were backed up to iCloud, or even to my iPad.
I still had my iPad. I had gotten into the habit of downloading my camera’s memory card to my iPad each evening, so I had those photos. They had not all backed up to the cloud, either, but I had the iPad and my memory card. The missing photos were the more spontaneous kind, the selfies, the “quick before they disappear” animal shots, photos from museums that didn’t allow DSLR cameras, but allowed mobile phone cameras because how could they stop them, and at least two photos I had promised to email to fellow travelers.
Luck was just not with me that day. The flight I was on had taken off, then about twenty minutes later it had to return to O.R. Tambo because of a problem with the emergency exit door. Apparently the seal around the door was leaking. I was sitting two rows back from it, and I could see the flight attendants looking closely at a gauge on the door. I assume it was a pressure reading of some kind. They moved the people in those first two rows to seats in the back of the plane. Okay, then. If the door blows, will I have time to brace myself?
We landed without incident, however, and it was unknown when we would be taking off again, so no one was allowed to leave the gate area. I sat down with my iPad and realized that I had a “Find My Phone” app. I should have thought of it before, but I’d never had to use it. I entered all of the information, and waited.
It took a few minutes, but it came up with a location! Technology is amazing. In another few minutes, it had the street address. It was close to the airport, too. This made me suspect the housekeeping staff, but, in fairness, who knows? I emailed the information to the policewoman to whom I had reported the missing phone.
She and I stayed in touch by email, even after I arrived in Antananarivo, because I would be returning to Johannesburg after my visit to Madagascar. She said that she did go to the address, and the address belonged to three apartment buildings with twenty units each. It was then that I knew I was never going to get the phone back. I used the “erase” feature in the Find My Phone app, and wiped it clean.
I sent a message thanking her for her efforts, but I understood that it was a dead end, thanks anyway, have a nice life. The police officer then emailed me to see if I was interested in writing about her life story. I allowed as how I was mainly a travel writer, and someone else would be better suited to writing about her adventures. I may have passed up a best-seller, you never know, but I wanted to put the whole episode behind me.
Viewing wildlife was my prime reason to visit Africa. I don’t know how anyone can resist after watching National Geographic nature series, especially those narrated by David Attenborough. So when my last 24 hours of Kruger NP came around, it was with some sadness that I watched the elephants, giraffes, zebras, kudu, lions, hyenas, and all the animals that had become familiar sights during my time in Africa. This would not be the end of wildlife, but this chapter was getting ready to close.
After visiting the rehabilitation center, we returned to Marc’s Treehouse Lodge. Late in the afternoon, we were invited to an evening game drive around their private reserve, one of a couple dozen reserves that give Kruger NP a larger area for animals to roam.
We boarded a game drive vehicle. These are ubiquitous in the parks of Africa – usually a ten-seater with benches or seats arranged in tiers that allowed the people in the rear to see over the heads of people in the front. Once settled, we went off to see who was out for an evening meal.
Photographing animals is challenging. I counted twenty-eight photos of this mother and baby rhinoceros in my photo collection, and that doesn’t even count the ones I had already deleted because of blurry focus or just bad photos. Of the twenty-eight I kept, a lot of them look very much like this one, except the mother is in front of the baby, the mother is behind the baby, the baby is further away, the photo is darker because the sun was sinking, or other variations. I was always driven to keep pressing the shutter because animals move, sometimes suddenly, and I always hoped I would get that “National Geo shot.”
I learned along the way from an actual NG photographer I met in Botswana, that those shots are often staged by crews who locate the animals, can get closer than the average tourist, of course have all the equipment in their vehicle(s), and know from experience how to approach the animals to (generally) get a good setup for a professional photographer or high-paying amateur. Plus, because they are not part of a tour, they can be patient for opportunities.
Still, the photos I have been able to collect give me a lot of pleasure, looking back over the places I have been and things I have seen, and they jog my memory. I am able to play the scene again in my head, and that’s the best part.
Photographing in the dark and around nine other people also trying to photograph the subject was challenging, but I came out with “genuine” photos of a leopard searching through the dark for a meal.
After following the leopard for about twenty minutes, he disappeared into an area where our vehicle couldn’t follow, and we called it a night and returned to the lodge. I never had any trouble sleeping. Riding in the vehicles over rough ground and the excitement of spotting the animals took up a surprising amount of energy, and made for a good night’s rest.
Early the next morning, we were off to a game viewing drive in Kruger NP, the final drive.
HOW DO YOU SPOT A LEOPARD? With difficulty. This was one of my two favorite leopard finds. In my travels, I was lucky (and my guides were good) in seeing a leopard twice in Kenya, and once in Kruger NP in South Africa.
We arrived in Johannesburg where I spent a couple of days before flying away. I was sad to leave South Africa, but I was excited to be going to Madagascar, which was a decision I made in Rwanda.
Moholoholo Wildlife Rehabilitation Centre was on the program. I was leary of this destination because, in my travels, I have been to some “wildlife centers” that were uninteresting and sometimes sad.
Moholoholo was different. We were welcomed by our guide, Moses, into a small classroom building, and given an introduction to the center. It was clear that Moses enjoyed his work – he was organized, knowledgeable, and smiled easily and often. He explained the rehabilitation work provided by the Centre, but told us that we would not see any of the animals that they planned to release back into the wild. Animals that were able to be released were kept away from humans so that they would stay wild.
Moses explained that they had failed with one particular bird who had come to the Centre as a fledgling. He said the ground hornbill had “imprinted” on humans, meaning that the bird thought he was one of the humans rather than a bird. Nonetheless, if he (the bird) thought you might be a suitable mate, he would try to offer you some food as a way of courting you. “Ground hornbills mate for life, so, consider that before you decide whether or not to accept!” he joked.
Africa is filled with wildlife, familiar yet different, and the birds of Africa are no exception. Eagles, hawks, storks, flamingos, and dozens of smaller birds populate the parks. Some tourists come with seemingly encyclopedic knowledge of the varieties, but I am not one of them. The photographs below that are not labeled are the ones “that got away,” meaning I didn’t catch their names. The birds are still interesting, still familiar yet different, and part of the colorful weaving that is Africa.
Southern ground hornbills live throughout southern Africa, are about three feet tall, weigh between five and seven pounds, and have a wing span of about four feet. They can fly up to 18 miles per hour. Males have a wattled neck that is all red; females are red with a patch of violet-blue. Males will inflate their wattle when trying to attract females, and can emit “booming” calls that are often mistaken for a lion’s roar.
These birds are carnivores who live in groups of between two to nine birds. They hunt for food by walking slowly through the grass and brush, eating seeds and fruits, insects, toads, rats, squirrels, and even small monkeys.
Only the dominant male and dominant female breed. They are monogamous and pair for life. In captivity, they can live up to 70 years. The other members of the group are mostly male, and caring for the chicks is their responsibility. The female lays one to three eggs, but usually only one survives.
Southern ground hornbills are, like so many animals, losing habitat, and this threat has classed them as “vulnerable.” They can live in woodlands, grasslands, and savannas, as long as there are trees around to roost in and build their nests in.
Humans are also a threat in other ways. The hornbills attack their reflection in windows of houses and businesses, asserting territory or dominance, and are big enough to break the glass. They can be injured in that way, or simply killed by the people to get rid of the “pests.” Hornbills are used in rituals and traditional medicine, and yet a third human threat comes from land mines. Hornbills are big enough that as they poke the ground looking for rats or squirrels, they detonate land mines left from past rebellions and conflicts.
Africa has eleven species of vultures. Eight of them have declined by about 62% in the last thirty years. Globally, vultures are the most endangered bird species.
Vultures can strip a large carcass in just a few hours, which helps keep the environment clean and disease-free, not to mention recycling nutrients.
Threats to vultures include:
Power lines: Vultures’ large wing span makes it difficult to turn quickly and avoid power lines. Loss of food supply: Humans have encroached on wildlife areas, resulting in a diminished food supply for vultures (and others.) Direct poisoning: Poachers poison vultures to prevent them from alerting rangers to the location of a poaching victim. Indirect poisoning: Farmers poison the predators who prey on their livestock, and vultures die when they consume these carcasses. Traditional medicine: Some believe that some diseases can be cured with vulture body parts, or that consuming vulture body parts will give them paranormal visions.
There are several lions that spend their days at Moholoholo. They don’t seem to mind, and Moses is at ease, but careful, feeding the lions through the fence so we can get a better look. Lions, even these comparatively tame ones, reek of power. Their muscles ripple through their bodies. The male lion’s paws are huge. It’s easy to imagine that a single blow from an angered lion could kill a person.