Tuesday, April 07, 2009

on the road in south africa

sunset on a walking safari with chris, owner of mosetlha bush camp

Hitesh and I set off early from his B&B in Rivonia, tucked into his little rented Yaris and zipped northwest across the superhighways into the South African bushveld. Tasked with navigating our journey, I wasn't sure if the road signs were pointing to furniture bins at IKEA - Roodesport, Zeerust, Swartruggens - or actual places. My mind started shuffling again outside of Jo'burg, attempting to place the landscape - some mix between Tuscany and northern California - rolling yellow hills dotted with cypress. We stopped off at a gas station. I filled up on Lunch Bars and water. Hitesh dove into his vegan stash of nuts and Green&Black chocolates. We both brought music, but didn't even attempt to turn it on, as two professional bullshitters in a little Yaris on a road trip, we simply chatted for the entirety of the 5 hour ride. We had much to catch up on.

I first met Hitesh back in 2007, after having a few phone calls when a friend put us in touch to talk about conservation issues in Kenya. He'd already started writing his forthcoming book, Authentic Ecolodges, and our paths crossed one evening in Kampala as he was wrapping up visits to an ecolodge in Zanzibar. Hitesh is a Kenyan citizen, and a trained architect and landscape architect, with all the fervor of an avid environmentalist. He's the world's leading expert on ecolodges, and walks the walk more than anyone I've ever met. I've always been interested in ecotourism, more as a tourist than anything else, but this time our crossing paths was more strategic than originally intended.

The Ohio State architecture program kicked off its spring Uganda studio at the same time Hitesh and I were traversing the South African landscape. 14 students began researching building materials, climate issues and culture in northern Uganda, in the attempts to collaborate with One Mango Tree tailors to design a green, off-the-grid production facility. Over our four days in Madikwe, Hitesh and I discussed community ownership models (visiting Buffalo Ridge, an ecolodge in the reserve fully-owned by the local community), ventilation improved pit toilets, water-heating methods, alternative energy models, and site planning. Who knew that an ecolodge, meant for a traveler's enjoyment, could so fully inform the design of a production facility? We stayed at Mosetlha Bush Camp, a fine example of how people can (and do) coexist with ecosystems without destroying them. I can't wait for Hitesh to share his insight and experiences in East Africa with the Ohio State students.

On our way back to Jo'burg we got a bit lost in the yellow hills so close to Botswana, listening to Habib Koite and planning our next journey. At OR Tambo the next morning, Hitesh headed off to a full moon-lit massage at an ecolodge in Namibia, and I back to Kampala. Home.

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