A quick three hours away from the din of Johannesburg, Clarens comes into view. It is a short drive, but Clarens is a world away. As we enter the valley, amazing sunset colors of golden ochre and orange reflect from the deeply eroded sandstone cliffs softly hugging the town. The vivid display seems unreal. It is easy to see why Clarens has become an artists’ Mecca, the setting inspires and attracts creative souls from around the world.
We arrive at the lodge, somewhat unassuming from the outside. I make my way up the staircase into my large room. There is a broad window overlooking a peaceful pond, where ducks and geese merrily paddle around and donkeys softly graze on green grass. The view from my window, past the pond, continues with more watercolor sunset hues.
Tom Cruise once stayed in this room. I am not a big fan, but I chuckle that I have now slept in the same bed as he. Of more interest to me, I notice a large sunken tub in the bathroom, and, since it is winter, I excitedly plan a warm soak before bedtime.
The town of Clarens, although small and sleepy, is hardly dull. It has a plethora of cool restaurants and bars, unique for such a small town. We settle on the highly-recommended Clementines (www.clementines.co.za) because of a huge menu with seasonal specials. We enter the restaurant happy to find large roaring fireplaces, a perfect complement to fine food and drink on a cold winter’s night. Prices are, by American standards, unbelievable.
The next morning at dawn, I peek out of the window to see my enthusiastic brother already bundled up and ready for our pre-scheduled morning run. We run with the rising sun, watching as the day’s colors are added to the sandstone rocks. The town is quiet and peaceful and still asleep. It’s a sight to behold and a great reward for braving the early chilled morning air.
We stroll through galleries and shops highlighting local foods, crafts and art. Clarens is an artist’s haven with many well-known artists either living in or frequenting the village. Boasting over 20 galleries, visitors can enjoy the Art Route or simply stroll from gallery to gallery to enjoy the wide variety of artwork on offer.
Besides the vast array of original paintings, we see amazing original craft work which included leather work, hand-made knives, glass work and soft furnishings. Part of the fun is meeting and speaking to many of the artists themselves. There is a story behind every creation and having that experience just adds to the enjoyment of the art that you may bring home.
Clarens doesn’t stop at visual art, we find amazing cider and gin distilleries and of course locally-brewed craft beer. South Africa invented Pinotage wine, and here in Clarens they celebrate the amazing unique blend with an annual wine festival in the Spring. Pinotage is a gutsy cross between Pinot Noir and Cinsault (originally called Hermitage in South Africa), rarely found anywhere else in the world. Clarens’ annual event, "Pinotage On Tap", has arguably become one of the best wine events in the world.
This one-day festival allows you to indulge in tremendous wine, delicious food, top-notch live music entertainment and amazing company! What more could one possibly ask for? Entry to ‘Pinotage On Tap’ costs R295 per person (about $21, yes you are reading that correctly) and includes a surprise gift on arrival, a wine glass, and endless Pinotage, literally flowing from the barrel taps – and hence the name! If you are unable to make the date for this limited event, not to worry, Clarens’ restaurants serve up similar experiences every day!
We take a break from the day’s action at a local sidewalk café and order a cheese platter and a locally made cider. The enthusiastic young waiter proudly lets us know that we can taste-test all of the cider we want. We took that as a challenge and tasted and created all sorts of combinations. The meat & cheese platter done in true South African style was amazing!
Clarens has much more going on than shopping, eating and drinking. Although we have found that fine food and drinks tend to complement all sorts of outdoor and active pursuits!
Here are some of our favorites which Close Encounters can arrange according to your tastes.
Clarens is home to some amazing horse farms that provide horse riding activities for all abilities. Experience the thrill of clean air in your face as you gallop in the open landscapes and mountains. Hiking is enjoyable on the sandstone hills surround the town, at Swartland or close by at Golden Gate Highlands National Park. For those interested in more adrenaline, you can hike up the back side of a 50-meter sandstone rock cliff overlooking the town and abseil (rappel) down the vertical front face fitted into a rock-climbing harness.
ATV rides are a great way to get out and enjoy more local scenery, ziplining experiences allow you to sail through the trees all year round, and grade 3 and 4 white water rafting in the crystal clear waters of the Ash River is popular. Go up, up and away for a bird’s eye view in a hot air balloon at Hot Air Ballooning SA. A cultural village awaits you and plenty of mind-blowing scenic drives and hiking through Golden Gate National Park. A visit to the “vulture restaurant” cannot be missed.
Our lodge has an outside patio perfect for unwinding with a traditional South African style sundowner drink. The sun retreats behind the sandstone hills, the water on the pond becomes still and we listen to the happy ducks and donkeys prepare themselves for the night in beautiful Clarens.
After a long day of exploring in this interesting and inspiring town, my brother and I find ourselves sipping wine and sherry in the cool air. We excitedly discuss our travel plans and reflect back on our days experiencing this hidden treasure. The memories are unique and personal.
It is a great little town, unvisited by most tours, and it was quickly included in our “African Soul" itinerary because of the meaningful experiences and activities it adds to your South African Safari.
I have myself been inspired and catapulted into getting involved in conservation, by attending events where I have met ordinary people doing extraordinary things with their lives. Working hard to make a difference to ensure that we leave this world a better place for now and for future generations.
It is so easy to go through life thinking that your small effort does not matter. But it does, and your effort can inspire others and the ongoing effects can be endless.
I love to hear stories about people. Where they came from, and how they got to be where they are today.
I met Anna by chance. Although I don’t believe anything happens by chance. There always seems to be a reason for every interaction we have. Sometimes these “chance” meetings come out of inconvenient situations.
As in this case, when Air France lost my bag. My bag happened to contain supplies for one of the anti-poaching units in Hoedspruit, South Africa. After much blood, sweat and tears, I actually did receive my bag back. I had received a phone call from the baggage claim at Johannesburg International Airport, the night before I was flying back into South Africa.
I delivered the bag to Anna from Rhino Revolution. Anna was not the original intended recipient of my bag, but she had offered to meet up with me to deliver the bag. We immediately felt a connection and at that time I knew that we would meet again.
Anna works for Rhino Revolution (www.rhinorevolution.org), which is a small community-based operation that has a rhino orphanage, pangolin ICU and sponsors rhino releases, tracking and dehorning (dehorning being one of the measures implemented in South Africa to try to deter the ever-increasing rhino horn poaching). It is estimated that every 10 hours in South Africa, a rhino is brutally murdered for nothing more than 2-3 kg of keratin, much like our hair and nails. Rhino horn fetches upwards of $100,000 per kg, contributing to the fact that wildlife trafficking is a $20 billion a year revenue, proven to fund global terrorism.
I completed my trip and returned home. A month later I attended a rhino fundraiser, and I felt a compelling need to get involved welling up inside of me.
I contacted Anna again and our relationship began to grow. I asked her how a young girl from the United Kingdom had landed up working at a rhino orphanage in a small town of South Africa.
This is her story.
Anna arrived in South Africa to work with African Dream Horse Safaris, combining her love for horses with the bush. Then followed 4 years working with Dr Peter Rogers at his practice, ProVet Wildlife Services. Here she gained invaluable knowledge and experience of surgical procedures, emergency and routine healthcare and laboratory testing for various small animals as well as wildlife. With a background in horse racing, she followed Rhino Revolution’s Mounted Anti-Poaching Unit and jumped at the chance to join the team.
She fell in love with the horse trails through the bush, the complete tranquility of stargazing and sitting round a campfire at night, and being surrounded by animals in every aspect of day-to-day life.
She told me that she works in rehabilitation, as it is so unbelievably rewarding seeing the difference made in the lives of animals in need. That effort should be made towards conservation, and preserving the natural ecosystems in place.
The areas in conservation that she works in include sponsoring of rhino dehorning as an effort to prevent/deter poaching, rescuing and rehabilitating orphaned or confiscated/poached animals to be released back into the wild, and providing anti-poaching security to released animals and at the same time monitoring activity and behavior through patrols and camera traps to collect data on the individuals.
She Is also involved in a conservation-based education program in the local communities, whereby they fund trips, lessons, equipment, transport, teacher salaries etc. to provide for groups of children from 11 different schools in disadvantaged areas. Teaching these young lives skills, education and empathy towards nature and wildlife.
The hope is that this will prevent poaching, if the future generations have more compassion and understanding.
The children then have the opportunity to be a part of dehorning on reserves in the area, to visualize and participate in the operation itself, reiterating everything they learn in class. Anna says she loves what she does and especially the work she does with monitoring both rhino and pangolin, and working alongside world-renowned wildlife veterinarians in dehorning operations.
Not only does Anna do all of the above, during her spare time she volunteers for HALO (Hoedspruit Animal Outreach), a NPO working with community dogs and owners to provide education, nutrition, medical care and vaccinations for dogs in harsh conditions.
Unbelievably, she also works with Khaya Hanci Horse-trails, a project that rescues horses from abusive homes, slaughter auctions or neglect, and rehabilitates them for loving homes or horse-trails on Moholoholo Mountain View Reserve.
What an inspiration this young lady is. I realize we can’t all be as involved as this young lady, and it’s easy to shy away from getting involved at all.
But I urge you to take your little “rock”, whatever your cause, find your inspiration, put it on the scales and eventually all of our little “rocks” will tip the scales of life, and we will start to make a real difference in this world we call home.
“I don’t care about rhinos”. These words leaped out at me, glaring at me from my phone. This was a reply after sending out an invitation to a rhino fundraiser we were promoting. The words hit me in the face like a splash of ice-cold water. How could someone possibly say that? My initial reaction of shock turned to anger and then to a questioning outlook. These words did not come from a thug, a poacher or an uneducated person. Rather an intelligent and accomplished surgeon.
Why would he say this? Why would he not care? I starting hatching a script to reply to him.
If I threw a bunch of statistics at him. Rhinos are critically endangered, less than 27300 left globally. Being brutally poached at a rate of 1 every 10 hours of every day. Would these facts change his mind? Or how about the fact that Rhinos are a keystone species, along with bees, sharks, sea otters and starfish. Would these facts impress him?
Let’s go deeper, Rhinos, a mega-herbivore, are a keystone species who play an important role in ecosystems. Rhino grazing helps maintain savanna grasslands, which in turn supports numerous other species, reducing biodiversity. Rhinos have been around for millions of years and here we are, in their last 5 minutes of their survival. Would all of these astounding facts change his mind?
The world of wildlife poaching is orchestrated by ruthless crime syndicates, willing to kill animal or human if we get in the way of their 20-billion-dollar yearly revenue. Now listed as the 4th most profitable illegal enterprise, which has now been proven to fund global terrorism. As in the case of drug trafficking, the threats from poaching and wildlife trafficking include not only a wide range of environmental and economic threats, but also political and national security threats.
Or maybe he just sees so much human suffering and has become desensitized, or possibly and simply, his heart is just “3 sizes too small.” Whatever the reason, this man has clearly stopped caring. He is not alone. Society as a whole seems to have rapidly descended down the same path. Our social interactions have also become more abstract. A lot of direct interactions have been replaced by social media and the “like culture”.
We also live in a world where “quick fixes” make us feel better about ourselves. Make us feel like we are doing our part. But does contributing $5 a month to whatever cause, or bringing in canned goods to a food drive mean that we care? It sure makes us feel better about ourselves, doesn’t it? Allows us to continue on our journey, feeling like our contribution has made a difference. That $10 grocery donation bag at the grocery counter, what about the rest of the year, is that family not hungry the entire year? Shouldn’t we be “caring all year”?
I also use the example of a nurse. Caring, compassion, and empathy are commonly mentioned when considering the characteristics of a professional nurse. The patient is in the hospital. They expect nurses to be skilled at their job, to keep them safe, to be able to help them return to their former life. But what they really want from them, is to feel cared about. To feel that someone values them enough to take the time to care. When they get home, I am willing to bet, they don’t say “Hey, that nurse really did a good job putting in my IV”, what they will say is “The nurse really cared about me as a person, she was really compassionate”. Never will I underestimate the healing power of caring and how it can carry the sickest or most downtrodden of us through the worst of times.
I do feel a shift happening. Our twenty some year olds and often younger, as in the case of the “Zero Hour Movement”. The mission of the Zero Hour Movement is to center the voices of diverse youth in the conversation around climate and environmental justice. Zero Hour is a youth-led movement creating entry points, training, and resources for new young activists and organizers (and adults who support our vision) wanting to take concrete action around climate change.
Let’s take our example from our younger generation, who are taking ownership for and reclaiming the current concerns and doing great work. Another fine example is Greta Thunberg, who is receiving a lot of criticism for her outspoken views on climate change.
So I propose to you, that we have to help people to learn how to care. If we want to live in a more compassionate and caring world, we need to both teach and model it to all. I propose a combined approach. Education, example and relevance. Approach each person differently, in a way that they can relate to.
In the case of this seemingly self-absorbed surgeon who may or may not have lost the ability to care, will he ever be able to express compassion and caring, maybe not, but possibly to take the approach of relevance would be the best option. How does this relate to him? “Do you care about terrorism?” The easiest way for a person to feel detached from a cause is failing to see the relevance to their own life. Sometimes this is willful ignorance, such as ignoring the proven health effects of smoking. Sometimes it is a genuine lack of knowledge. What about the scenario when the cause really won’t affect the person directly? Try and communicate how it could affect someone they care about.
So, the next time you have to take your shoes off at the airport security line, or stand in silence on September 11th to remember the precious souls lost on that day, think about the rhino that lost their lives by getting their face hacked off to fund the very thing that caused these and so many ruthless acts of terrorism that plague our lives daily.
“We should not need to have a ‘Save An Animal Day’, save from what? It is in fact save from who? It is human kindness, compassion and caring that so desperately needs to be saved.” - Paul Oxton
I felt proud of myself that I had done my due diligence, researched the "right" sanctuary. I had confidently ruled out some other organizations that were not a sanctuary and felt good about my choice. This was a bucket list item for one of my guests, so I was happy that I was going to be able to provide this experience for them.
After an informative presentation with the guide, we went to the next area to wait for the arrival of these amazing animals. Our hearts were leaping with excitement and anticipation.
As they slowly walked down through the trees with a guide next to them, they took their "designated spots" in front of us, as they had so many times before. These animals now seemed 10 times larger in person. I happily snapped pictures and videos, with everyone squealing in delight at being able to touch the legs, trunk and then the grand finale.....a big suction cup kiss on the neck from the trunk of the elephant.
After a while, my excitement started to wane, and so did my enthusiasm and I felt a "sick" feeling in the pit of my stomach. The realization of these "trained" animals hit home. They graciously obliged and performed all that the guides asked of them, assisted occasionally with a tap of a stick or a stern voice. I wondered why they did not just crush us into oblivion? What was I thinking? We had arrived here under the pretense of a sanctuary. How were these animals ever going to be able to be released back into the wild, after this much training and human interaction?
The show continued, with "walking with the elephants", riding the elephants and then of course a further plea for donations. Later on the trip, my two brothers and I met at the lodge to discuss the current trip, past trips and future trips. We talked about our experience at this interaction, and my older and wiser brother said "Is this really what we want to be promoting?" My thoughts went back to the interactions of rolling around with lion cubs, flooding Facebook with our pictures, or our "Christmas picture" stroking a cheetah, and my immediate answer was a clear and firm ABSOLUTELY NOT!
Wild animals are steeped in myth and legend. They’re powerful, elusive, dangerous, and yet stunningly beautiful. So who wouldn’t want to seize the opportunity to see them up close, or even interact with them first hand?
Traditionally, this need has always been fulfilled by zoos, circuses and aquariums. But in recent years, there has been a proliferation of operations across the world that offer far more intimate interactions with dangerous wild animals. These include activities such as closeup “selfie” pictures with animals, cub petting, walking with big cats, riding of elephants, feeding of monkeys and birds, and a host of other similar interactions.
Many of these operations shroud themselves with a cloak of respectability by using emotive keywords such as “conservation”, “rehabilitation” and “education”, and in doing so garner themselves sympathetic donations and tourist dollars. But the reality is that wild animals and birds don’t naturally interact with humans, and in many cases are being forced to do so by using particularly brutal methods.
There are some of these organisations that truly do have the best interests of the animals at heart, and which subscribe to the strict principle of the “three Rs” – Rescue, Rehabilitate and Release. They can usually be identified by one simple rule – they don’t allow intimate interaction between humans and the animals in their care in any way or form.
There are a number of outright lies that are being constantly perpetuated by the more irresponsible side of the industry. For example, it is often claimed that young animals used for petting have been orphaned by poaching or hunting. This is patently untrue; in most cases, these animals have been bred in captivity, then ripped away from their mothers soon after birth. This induces the parent animal to come into season soon afterwards, creating an artificial situation almost akin to a production line, and providing a constant supply of cuddly baby animals to be fawned over by paying patrons.
Another common untruth is that the animals are released into the wild when they become older. This almost never happens, for many reasons. The animals are often genetically deficient because of inbreeding, they could carry diseases not usually present in the wild, and most of them would be unable to feed or care for themselves. The majority of them end up being sold into captive breeding programs, zoos, circuses or, most often, “canned” hunting operations.
In the case of elephants, the situation is even worse. Wild elephants will naturally flee from any perceived danger or, if cornered or threatened, will attempt to stomp their attacker into the equivalent of strawberry jam. The fact that captive elephants used in interactions such as touching, walking and riding don’t usually do this boils down to just one thing; pure, unadulterated fear. The exceptionally cruel methods used to “train” elephants, usually when they are very young, is enough to induce a lifelong submission to the unnatural activities which they are obliged to endure.
So think long and hard about this before you cuddle a lion cub or ride an elephant. By supporting activities such as those outlined above, you will be perpetuating the suffering and misery of the very animals that you profess to love and support. There are thousands of game and nature reserves throughout the world that provide an opportunity to see these magnificent creatures in a natural setting; an experience far more rewarding and satisfying than a quick pic with a drugged tiger or a baby cheetah.