Friday, December 25, 2009

Christmas for the Homeless, 2009

A southeaster was blowing moving the clouds across the sky like horses galloping in the field, pushing all Cape Town's debris on the wind. The “Cape Doctor” had arrived. Gritty sand stung faces and sand blasted eyelids. Aloes leaned on their stalks, quiver trees quivered and the birds huddled in crevices, just trying to keep from being blown away. The wind had been howling for two days.

It was almost noon on the second Sunday in December, the day Central Methodist Mission was going to have a Christmas dinner for the homeless right on Church (Kerk) Street, a brick thoroughfare between buildings, usually home to cafes and street sellers. Previously, the dinner had been held in the Church Street church hall, but the hall only holds 85 people and each year 40 or so more people were fed dinner downstairs by the outside door. So each year, there were ever-growing numbers of people physically fighting for their chance to get in the door because everyone was worried there wouldn't be enough food for them. It was becoming dangerous for them and for us.

So there we were, battling the wind with paper tablecloths stapled to the tables, not daring to put soda into paper cups, working feverishly in the kitchen, waiting for the guests to arrive. We were ready to go.

Despite the wind, we were all very happy. The African Image Cafe (see rooster in above picture) let us use their kitchen to serve from which meant we could move the food from the counter on trays directly out into the street, not up/down a long flight of stairs as had been done previously.

And because of the ever-increasing number of homeless that the church members feed on the street each Sunday, the decision had been made to provide for 200 people.

The guests had started to arrive early, some watching us from 9 am on as we set up the rental tables and chairs. Others showed up at the last minute, but all wanted Christmas dinner: a chicken leg and thigh; spaghetti; a piece of corned beef; rice; beetroot; and tomato, onion and pepper salad, with malva pudding, ice cream and peaches for dessert; a feast. And of course, there were “cool drinks.”

It was time. The CMM team sprang into action. The guests were seated. After prayers, they ate; young, old, families with children, and some men and women who had been on their own for years.

Some we recognized from talking with them each week on the street; others were new, but all were grateful for the chance to sit down and enjoy to a real meal with family and and friends.

There were 210 guests in all.

As they left the adults were given a gift bag containing a toothbrush, toothpaste, washcloth, soap, a banana or apple (depending on whether or not they had their front teeth) and a bit of candy. The children got fruit and sweets.

Sarah, please say thank you to all the members of the Mission Committee at Southminster for helping to provide the monies for the meat, the soap and the washcloths. All was appreciated. Without your help we would not have been able to be so generous.

Each year Floyd and I look forward to this event because in our small way we want to support those who have been helping the homeless in Cape Town each week for the last 22 years. Thank you for supporting our efforts.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

African Rockhounds

Betsy and I have been members of our local rock club since 1977. The Earth Science Club Of Northern Illinois, ESCONI, played a large role in our family’s lives as the older members shared their finds and their knowledge with Becky and Lisa as they grew into young ladies. So it should come as no surprise that we joined a club in Cape Town this year.

The Cape Town Gem and Mineral Club has a narrower scope than ESCONI, focusing on minerals and lapidary. They are quite active, holding monthly sales, swaps, programs and barbecues as well as the occasional field trip. The field trip opportunity was the final straw on our decision to join as it was a “members only” event.

Vredendal is a medium-sized town about a three hour drive north of Cape Town. We were to meet the other members of the club at nine in the morning at the mine. Since we had to drive some narrow roads through mountains to get there, we went up the night before.

You can see our Volvo wagon parked in the middle of the line of cars waiting for the signal to move into the mine.

First, of course, is the mandatory lecture covering safe practices and what we might expect to find in this quarry. Notice the small quartz crystal that the club president is holding. Perhaps that specimen established a level of expectation within
the prospectors?

So we went in to the Vredendal dolomite quarry.

“The Cape Lime Company dolomite quarry is really a series of quarries excavated into the rocky bluffs on either side of a shallow gorge cut by the Wiedo River as it approaches the town of Vredendal. These hillsides have been terraced in various places by the mining activity, exposing the blue-grey dolomite rock, which is extracted and crushed for use in high temperature resistant refractory ceramics.”

“In one particular location there are at least two parallel quartz veins which host all the interesting mineralization. The veins in the “quartz” quarry are about 1m apart, undulate somewhat, and vary in thickness from a few centimeters to pockets up to 0.4m in diameter. The pockets contain the well-crystallized mineral specimens, while the intervening vein material is often very sheared, with the appearance of being crushed. When they have been excavated, it is clear that the pockets are elongated pod-shaped features within the veins. The quartz veins also underwent both shearing and tension, to create the voids, which subsequently formed the crystal pockets. The pockets themselves are filled with orange sandy clay into which crystals project from the walls, with some “floaters” or loose doubly terminated crystals in the clay itself.”

“Excavation of the pockets is hazardous because the rock above the veins is severely fractured by explosives used to break open the face. In some places the vertical quarry walls are several tens of meters high, so the risk of falling rocks is considerable, especially with people working on the face at various levels. It is mandatory that anyone working on the quarry face must wear a hard hat. The pockets may be narrow, but some of them reach at least 2m in length and diggers sometimes can only be identified by their shoes. The soft sandy clay is dug out using a variety of tools, including discarded pieces of iron found around the quarry. Loose crystals are recovered from the clay itself, while crystal clusters must be pried off the pocket walls.”

Some of the clearer quartz crystals include red, golden, or black rutile (TiO2) needles. We found one but needed some bright sunlight and imagination to really see the needle.

There are many other collectible minerals along with the quartz crystals. Crystals of dolomite, calcite, and adularia feldspar (shown) are also found both in the pockets and scattered on the ground as a result of the mining operations.

We also enjoyed the base rock with frequent displays of the dendrites you find in limestone formations. They look so much like actual moss growing on the rock.

We had a great time, made some new friends, got scraped up a bit – altogether terrific.

The quotes in this journal entry are from an article in the March 2006 edition of the South African Lapidary Magazine, used with permission of the editor (Allan Fraser) and the article author (and our good friend, Duncan Miller).


Sunday, August 23, 2009

Springbok - Part 4

We wanted to visit another flower zone on this trip so we set our sights on visiting the Atlantic coastal area in the Northern Cape. Initial investigations led us to believe that we needed a 4x4 for the trip. Pricing out that option led us to another – hiring a guide and their car for the day would save us money. It turned out that we didn’t need the 4x4 but we did need the guide.

Leaving Springbok, we drove west toward the Diamond Coast and the company-owned town of Kleinzee. De Beers has been mining there under strict security for 80 years. It didn’t take us long to get into the security zone and we began to feel comfortable with our decision to take a guide.

We drove through a small town whose inhabitants all worked at the mining operations. It was quite some distance from the mines so they were bused to and fro.

The weather toward the coast was cooler than inland so the flowers were not as far along. Nevertheless, there were some spectacular shows.

This compound bloom is about twice the size of your thumbnail.

As we approached the mining area itself, security became tighter. Our guide talked us through this guard and gate into the town of Kleinzee.

The mining operation in this location involves huge machines scooping tons of river deposits into trucks which then drive to the processing facilities.

There are towers, conveyor belts, heavier security and the eventual towering mine dumps.

The glittering diamonds are almost gone and desperate ghost towns are left clinging to the last signs of life. The only customer in a Kleinzee supermarket said the industry had left the area looking as if a nuclear bomb was dropped on it. De Beers has cut operations, reducing staff from about 3,000 to 250.

Schools, recreation centers and houses stand mostly empty. This empty house in Kleinzee is one of many. The town waits for De Beers to “proclaim an end to its life as a privately owned mining town.” Then the individuals will be able to purchase their homes from the mining company and get on with their lives.

De Beers is spending in the area of 60 million dollars in a restoration effort. Grappling with how to leave the town, De Beers is partnering with conservationists who are working to reinvigorate the area through tourism, fish farming, wind turbines and other industries. It is estimated it will take 30 years to get to the point that you can’t see that mining happened in Kleinzee. Isn’t it amazing what we are doing to the earth we have been given?


Thursday, August 20, 2009

Springbok - Part 3

I promised animals. There were no lions, tigers, wildebeest, elephants, hippos or crocodiles available to us on this trip. However, we did encounter herbivores, carnivores and omnivores. You can explain those words to your offspring – or they can explain them to you.

Since the trip was to Springbok, it is only appropriate that I show a picture of a herd of Springbok. They differ from Impala (the fast food of choice for predators in
Kruger) in that they are smaller and more strikingly marked. They also taste good.

While inside Namaqua National Park we saw termite mounds and dassies, but you’ve already seen pictures of those so these are just reminders.

On the way out of the park we encountered a plant that those familiar with the genus Hosta might find familiar. Of the many varied interactions between plants and animals, one of the most unexpected is pollination of flowers by rodents. Flowers of Massonia depressa (Hyacinthaceae) are visited at night by at least four rodent species, including two gerbil species.

I found the plants quite interesting, but then, I have a collection of Hostas. These are large plants with a single leaf as large as a foot across. It’s difficult to believe they can survive in the blazing-hot summers in this area, but they do and they thrive.

An additional spotting as we left the park was a streak across the road. At least it appeared as a streak until I stopped the car and got out the camera. Many times a Meerkat will appear in a group but this one must have been out hunting. It was nice of him/her to pose for me. (This is the carnivore.)

A bit further down the road we found our omnivores. Goats will eat anything but this baby was doing what nature designed him/her for.

Back in Springbok, in the Geogap Nature Reserve, we were extremely lucky to see this magnificent animal. There is a small herd of Oryx in the park but they are a bit camera-shy. No, I don’t know how they taste.

What happens when the visitors leave at 4pm and the park closes? Do the animals come out to graze in peace and quiet?

I’m really stretching for material here by showing this cluster of caterpillars munching on foliage. Life goes on in large and small scales.

Only one more critter sighting on this trip. We stopped to fill up with petrol and noticed a small pond with some trees and a lot of activity. A colony of Weaverbirds had set up their nests and were busy with whatever it is they do.

Next journal – DeBeers


Thursday, August 6, 2009

Springbok - Part 2

Namaqua National Park

Visitors from around the world come to this place every year for the late winter - early spring flower show. We have been twice and touched only a very small part of the park. There are campsites and roads accessible only to four-wheel drive vehicles and ours is a station wagon with very low clearance.

Access to the park is a process. We leave the lodge in Springbok and drive 65km south to the little town of Kamieskroon ( The N7 is a main highway, two lanes for the most part, through hills and small mountains in this section, so the drive is not taxing.

We did a drive-thru in Kamieskroon. It seems a quite normal small town with this picturesque church. South Africans take the security of their children seriously as you can tell by this fence around one of the local schools.

At Kamieskroon we exit onto a gravel/dirt road toward the park for another 17km. This is a much more exciting drive past farms and through streams and puddles.

The flowers are the big attraction for this park and for the entire area. The weather becomes quite hot and dry in the late spring so these blooms are taking advantage of the winter rains and cool temperatures. It’s time to bloom, be pollinated and reseed. Mats of orange, blue, yellow, red and white cover the flats and hillsides.

That rock in the picture? It’s really a termite mound as you can see below. When the termites finish with the mound other critters move in. No, we didn’t see which critters.

Aardvarks, porcupines, snakes, rodents – all tend to use shelters like these.

There are some great vantage points within the park. Here Betsy is taking advantage of one of them.

Meantime I’m taking pictures of some of the other wildlife who are trying to catch some rays. These are dassies (yes, there are two – see the one peeking over the rock ledge?), rock hyrax, the closest living relative to the elephant. They’re about the size of a big housecat.

Let me close with a few photos of the daisy-like flowers from the area. Cape Daisies (Osteospermum) and Gazanias are two that can be bought at garden centers in the US.
I’ll deal with some of the more unusual flowers in a later journal edition.