Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Looking Back on 2017

Sorong, December 13th, 2017

Once again the earth has rotated 365 times on its axis and completed one more revolution of the sun, and the Christmas and New Year holidays are rapidly approaching, providing a good chance to look back over what has been an eventful, emotional year.

2017 began for Terri and me in a lovely campground in northeastern South Africa in our beloved pickup truck Stanley, having just left Swaziland.  We didn’t even manage to remain awake until midnight on Dec. 31st!  We started the New Year with a swing through KwaZulu-Natal:  the wonderful imFolozi-Hluhluwe National Park, the battlefields soaked with blood, history and myth and the lovely Drakensberg.  We were plagued by rain, though, and eventually we decided to make a break for it away from the persistent rain.  We made it across the Orange Free State, then dashed across breathtaking high-altitude Lesotho to Port Elizabeth.  We had transmission issues to deal with there, but we weren’t able to resolve them on the spot, so we drove north without a functioning 4WD, topping up the oil in Stanley’s transfer case, to revisit the magical Kalahari, this time on the South African side of the border.  We camped for a few days at Leeuwpan in perfect isolation under the stars, visiting the impossibly cute meerkats of Meerkat Manor by day and braaing meat over the coals of our fire by night.  

We also stopped into the South African side of the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park, where we couldn’t get a reservation at one of the magical wilderness campsites, but where our daytrips into the park yielded a rich haul of lions and our first cheetahs in 8 months, along with a big gaggle of baby ostriches and plenty of tortoises.

From there, it was time to head to the country that most travellers, including ourselves, find the crown jewel of southern Africa:  Namibia.  We fell in love with this country:  its huge empty spaces, its stark desert beauty, its remote corners and its wildlife.  We moved relatively quickly through the country’s south, past its iconic Sossusvlei dunes and its flamingo-studded coastal metropolis of Waalvisbaai to the capital, Windhoek, where we watched Roger Federer win the Australian Open, and booked Stanley in for major surgery before heading north to Etosha, its most famous national park.  

Etosha did not disappoint, despite apocalyptic rain that had us wondering about the wisdom of driving around the muddy tracks in two-wheel drive.  Encounters with hyenas and rarely-seen aardwolves were among the highlights, but soon enough we were back in Windhoek, dropping off Stanley at the Gearbox and Diff Doctor and hoping for the best.

We flew to Johannesburg in the middle of February to do a week’s work running a tour in and around Kruger National Park.  It was hectic but fun, and we flew back to Windhoek with a bit of spending money for the last few weeks of our tour.  Stanley had been repaired, expensively but expertly, and we put him through his paces driving along a series of slightly hair-raising desert tracks in the northwest of the country.  We drove a little-used track through a completely uninhabited desert that gave us several nights of unforgettable camping under the desert stars next to a crackling campfire.  

Neither of us were huge fans of deserts in the past, but Namibia converted us to the wonder of arid landscapes.  We saw many signs of the desert rhinos that roam this area, but we were never lucky enough to spot them.  Eventually we headed north to the Cunene River along the border with Angola for some birdwatchingm spending time with the flamboyantly adorned Himba people along the way.  

The drive out through a torrential downpour, along a clay track glassy with slick mud, was the most white-knuckle driving of all of Stanley’s Travels, and I have rarely been so glad to see pavement as I was when we reached asphalt at the end of a long, tense day. 

We drove east along the Kavango River, heading once again towards Livingstone, Zambia, and it was on the way that we were robbed in a campground in the town of Rundu, costing us a couple of pairs of binoculars and my entire camera setup.  I was gutted, but at least I still had the photos.  Saddened, we continued on to Livingstone and one final visit to the Olive Tree Learning Centre, Terri’s ongoing project for the past decade.  It was heartening to see the new classrooms, built the year before, in use, and to see so much positive energy in the staff and the students.  Then, sadly, it was time for the long drive back to Windhoek, via lovely Ngepi Camp and its birdlife, and via a couple of last bush campsites.  In the middle of March we parked Stanley in a storage facility near Windhoek airport and headed our separate ways, Terri off to see family in New Zealand and then on to Bali, and me back to Thunder Bay to help care for my father as he battled cancer.

I had expected to find my father frail and bed-ridden after his thyroid surgery, but instead he picked me up at the airport and drove us back to the house.  He was in remarkable shape and spirits, and it seemed plausible that he could recover from the surgery and live many more years to come.  I devoted myself to writing blog posts and brewing beer for the first time in a decade, as well as to playing tennis, convinced that my services would ultimately not be needed.  Sadly, though, the pathology report after his surgery revealed anaplasty, a rare, highly aggressive and universally lethal form of thyroid cancer, and although he started his radiation treatment feeling well and riding his bicycle to and from the sessions at the hospital, within a week the anaplastic tumour overtook him and he began a rapid decline.  

My sisters flew in to see him before he got too bad, as did my cousin Hein (all the way from the Netherlands for only 4 days!) and we had poignant final games of cards and Scrabble.  My mother flew up from Ottawa to help me take care of my father over the final few weeks, and the end eventually came on June 27th, a little over three months after my arrival in town.  It was sad to see the end of my father, who had always been a tower of physical strength, but at least it was mercifully quick. 

The funeral, on July 7th, was a surreal affair, and soon gave way to the herculean task of cleaning out the house that had 46 years of accumulated possessions crammed in every nook and cranny.  One of the few edifying results of all this labour was finding old photo albums that we hadn’t seen in decades, if at all, and digitizing them for posterity.  It was fascinating to see my father’s life illustrated with pictures, and enlivened the otherwise grim task of getting rid of books, furniture, clothing, papers and even our beloved upright piano.  Finally, at the end of July, my mother and I closed the door on an empty house and drove my father’s car, hauling a full U-Haul, to Ottawa.  The trip provided closure for me on Thunder Bay, which had always been my anchor in an otherwise very itinerant life, and I have to confess that I felt a little adrift.

At the beginning of August, only a week after getting to Ottawa, I flew to Indonesia, where I’ve been for the remainder of 2017.   Terri owns a house in Lipah, on the northeast corner of Bali, overlooking the ocean, steps from the beach and great diving, and I spent the next three months diving, eating well, getting back into shape and writing.  I am now almost finished the manuscript of a travel book about my Silk Road bicycle trip, and although I wish I were already done, I feel as though the past few months have been spent in the perfect antidote to those months spent watching my father’s final decline.  

I bought an underwater camera in October and spent the next month learning to use it as Terri and I dived most days.  It was an idyllic existence, and my only regret is that I didn’t entirely finish the book, although only about one-eighth of the journey remains to be written about.  I hope to finish it off over the next few months.

We had a steady stream of friends visit over our time in Lipah, and it was great to take them all diving.  Terri had just finished her Divemaster course and had learned all the divesites in the area, and was a marvellous guide.  Soon, however, Mount Agung, the 3000-metre volcano overlooking Lipah, began to rumble into life and our friends (and all other tourists) began to give Lipah a wide berth. 

Terri went to Switzerland in early November, and I headed to Gili Trawangan in mid-November to do my scuba instructor course.  I liked the other students on the course and had fun, although the course was a bit stressful at times and I thought for a while that I had failed my Instructor Examination (I hadn’t).  I didn’t much care for over-commercialized, overpriced and rather tatty Gili T in comparison to our genteel lifestyle in Lipah, though, and it was a relief to return to Lipah (if only for a single night) two days ago.

While I was on Gili T, I accepted a volunteer job teaching diving in Raja Ampat, the diving hotspot of far eastern Indonesia which I visited in 2014, just off the western tip of New Guinea, and Terri accepted a position running the volunteer camp on Arborek Island.  I am on my way to Arborek today to start work, and we hope to be here over Christmas, New Year’s and the first few months of 2018, dividing our time between diving and community work (mostly teaching in the local schools).  It promises to be a new, challenging adventure for us:  just what Terri and I like best!

So I hope that 2017 was good to you and those you hold dear, and that 2018 will prove even better.  I don’t know what the upcoming year will bring, other than my 50th birthday and further adventures, but I look forward to finding out.  For me 2017 was a sobering year, with my father's demise bringing home to me the impermanence and fragility of human existence, and making me determined to make the most of the time we have.

Merry Christmas, Happy New Year, Season’s Greetings and a huge hug to all of you, and I hope that our paths cross somewhere in the world in the upcoming year.

Graydon and Terri