Friday, November 25, 2011

Cherry Festival, published in the Mail & Guardian 25 November 2011

Cheer up at Ficksburg’s Cherry Festival

Ficksburg feels a lot like a frontier town.  Even from the town’s 144 year old steets, the not-so-faraway ribbons of 3km high Maloti Mountains climb into the sky.  The sandstone cliffs perhaps inspire the visitor with the sense that Ficksburg is in a world of its own, further from Bloemfontein than the 196km drive feels.  The Free State valleys weaving under the golden mountains do produce a bounty of apples, apricots, asparagus, plums, peaches and prunes.  Every third week of November, 3 days are set aside to celebrate one crop particular to the region, cherries.  This year marked Ficksburg’s 44th Cherry Festival, South Africa’s oldest and arguably most popular crop fair.  In March, on the opposite of Bloemfontein but still in the Free State, Petrusburg offers the Aartappelfees (potato festival), a big music festival.  But the Cherry Festival is a famously festive, fun and fruity way to get through a weekend when Christmas and December holidays just feel too far away.

Around 30 000 visitors attend each year, many from Gauteng.  Although the festival itself plays out at the local show grounds, in front of a few grain silos and beneath sandstone cliffs, there are plenty of vendors plying their trade to queues of people making their way in and out of the gates.  These pavement traders sell everything from glow-in-the-dark horns to cowboy hats, and cherries by the bucket load of course. 
Inside the gates (tickets cost from R20 for kids to R37 for adults) a small fairground offers rides, including a modest Ferris wheel, for the young ones, whilst the beer tent beckons typically from the back of the compound.  Plenty of food stalls en route to the beer tent offer traditional fare, and the NG Churches’ boerewors rolls definitely hit the spot. A very big white tent is the centrepiece for a myriad of home crafts and stalls, including Gooi Mielies, a company specialising in Afrikaans-themed t-shirts.

Right next door is an open section of lawn covered in plastic chairs, and a modest stadium behind, geared towards a sound stage setup and big screen TV.  This year the likes of Monique, Ray Dillon, Peter West, Gerhard Steyn (Baby Chocklits) and Snotkop took to the stage.  The festival programme also included a very diverse range of activities, including the R10 000 Hole-in-One Cherry Challenge, a Miss Cherry Blossom and Mr Cherry Pip competition, a KFC/Klipdrift Fear Factor, a speed eat, a dog show, a showcasing of horse breeds, a bowls tournament, South African Air Force Freedom of the Town parade, a magic show, wine tasting and ladies Day with Nataniël – both at Imperani Guest House, a 4x4 Obstacle Academy, a fun run, boeresport and a festival staple, cherry pip spitting. Workshops ranged from goose-plucking to ribbon embroidery and cooking with cherries. 

If the festival gets too much, Ficksburg itself is worth a walkabout.  Many out-of-towners may be surprised to learn that the Union Buildings, perhaps South Africa’s grandest building and the seat of political power in this country, was built with sandstone from Ficksburg and surrounds. And Ficksburg sports more than a few sandstone beauties of its own.  Start your sandstone expedition in McCabe Street, and look out for McBrides House (with Ficksburg’s first bay window, beautifully built in 1885).   Cameras should also be pointed toward Ficksburg’s Town Hall, the Magistrate’s Court, Old Post Office and the Dutch Reformed church in Voortrekker Street.
If the sandstone starts to feel a little old, have a look at Helen Dickson’s colourful wild flower windows in the All Saints Anglican Church on the corner of Lang and McCabe Streets.  For something arty, try Die Blikplek in Fontein Street, a whimsical spot that employs 10 to recycle metal junk and scrap.   If the bustle in town is still too much, try the local farm tours for a gentler pace.  Visitors can pick their own cherries, ride tractors through farm orchards, have a look where and how cherries are stored and packaged, and swig on cherry liqueur.  

Another option is the only floating cigar bar in Africa, the White Mischief cruise.  The 3 and a half hour cruise offers some game viewing too, since the Meulspruit slices between sandstone cliffs through a section of the privately owned Thaba Sediba Nature reserve.  Also watch out for Goliath Herons, small, bright Malachite Kingfishers and Fish Eagles.  For something different, check out the Sangoma Caves on the Ficksburg-Rosendal road, close to Versierskerf.  

A good place to stay in Ficksburg for the duration of the festival, or just an incidental overnight visit, is the reasonably priced Imperani Guest House on the hill in McCabe Street.   Whilst it sounds like a single house, Imperani offers 30 rooms, a restaurant and bar, as well as a swimming pool (a godsend in summer).  Imperani is walking distance from the show grounds, and just far enough not to hear late night revelling.  It’s reasonably priced, has adequate creature comforts, including air conditioning, and is conveniently just around the corner from the local Spar.  For the very budget oriented, a camping site is diagonally opposite Imperani.

Visitors approaching Ficksburg from Bloemfontein ought to know that the speed limit is 100km/h, and there are around half a dozen speed cameras at various locations on route.  At present there are also a number of mandatory stops on the road, due to construction, which can extend travelling time by around 45 minutes.  There are also two wonderful roadside stalls beyond Thaba Nchu, around 30 kilometres outside Ficksburg.  Whilst driving on the maloti Route keep an eye out for black shouldered kites haunting the telephone wires, and gorgeous widowbirds (with long black tails) flapping across the Free State’s yellow veld like large black commas.  Cherries turn up at your window well before you arrive in Ficksburg, so be sure to roll down your window and get your first taste of the good stuff early on.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Once Upon a Falling Star - Published in the Mail & Guardian (November 18, 2011)

Once Upon a Falling Star - by Nick van der Leek

A very long time ago, something earth shattering happened on a landmass we know today as the Free State.

In fact, as far as we know, it is probably the most earth shattering event subsequent to the creation of the moon that has ever taken place on Earth. If the big sky plains of the Free State seems a strange place for an earth shaking event, the event itself could not be more bizarre, spectacular and indeed, bone rattling.

For background, remember that the earth is estimated to be 4 500 million years old, and the moon 4 450 million year old (created when a planet destroying 3000km wide rogue rock collided -- a glancing blow to the present north pole -- into our molten planet). Then, 2 023 million years ago, some people believe that a UFO 10 kilometres wide, or about the size of Table Mountain and traveling at 200 000km/h through space, made a bullseye for the present-day northwestern Free State.

The collision caused a magnitude 14 earthquake on the Richter scale, 100 000 times more powerful than the 1979 Tangshan earthquake (the largest 20th century earthquake by deathtoll). A portion of the earth's atmosphere incinerated, molten rock and acid rain fell over a large area, and tsunamis several hundred metres high swept the Earth's oceans.

The entire planet cooled down over the next few years as a huge dust cloud enveloped the planet. An event that changed the fate of all life on earth lasted just 4 minutes. It is hard to believe the whispering veld between Welkom in the south, and Johannesburg in the north, is the setting of a cataclysm that changed the fortunes of all living creatures today.

But while the furious impact near Vredefort is the largest and oldest that we know of, impact craters on the moon are up to six times larger. And while a majority of scientists agree that either a comet or a large asteroid pummeled the gentle Free State plains, a vital piece of evidence remains at large.

Some skeptics have noted that an extra-terrestrial body would have deposited one of the heaviest elements at the site, a substance known as iridium. (Because of its exceptional hardness, iridium is used, for example in the iridium alloy nib of the Parker 51 fountain pen).

Read the remainder of this article.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Latest Photojournalism: The World's Most Advanced Bicycle

The ultimate answer to our fuel efficiency needs?
BY  Nick van der Leek , 27 September 20110 comments
In March 2011, Formula One’s McLaren and bicycle manufacturer Specialized released the Specialized McLaren Venge.In March 2011, Formula One’s McLaren and bicycle manufacturer Specialized released the Specialized McLaren Venge.

Right now, the global bicycle market is a $61 billion industry: 130 million bicycles are sold annually around the world; two thirds are made in China.

As recently as 1965, the production of bicycles and cars was the same, at 20 million each. Today, there are around one billion bicycles in the world, or twice as many cyclists as drivers.

Curiously, early bicycles tended to be adopted by the fashionable elite, a form of conspicuous consumption. The introduction of accessories (often more expensive than the original product) also first appeared in the bicycle industry.

The invention of the bicycle predates both the automobile and the aeroplane, and advances in bicycle tech – including ball bearings, spoke-tensioned wheels, chain-driven sprockets, gears and pneumatic tyres – eventually played a key role in the development of both. The birth of the bicycle says much about not just the accelerating pace of human innovation, but also where the mother of invention, necessity, can ultimately lead us.

The year without summer

The invention of the bicycle can be traced back to a string of likely and unlikely events. In 1550, Germany was utilising wagonways, roads comprised of wooden rails and the precursor to today’s railroads. Horses pulling wagons over wooden rails was a more efficient process than over dirt. By 1776, iron had replaced both the wooden rails and the wheels.

In 1804, the first steam-powered engine appeared in Merthyr Tydfil, Wales. The technology behind the steam locomotive was intended to gradually replace horsedrawn carts. But at the same time, starting from 1790, solar activity suddenly decreased and global volcanism increased, culminating in the most powerful volcanic eruption in human history: in 1815, Mount Tambora on the island of Sumbawa, Indonesia, ejected 160 cubic kilometres of debris into the atmosphere.

The world experienced severe climate aberrations the following year, which unleashed crop failures and concomitant food shortages across the northern hemisphere. That year, 1816, which is infamously remembered as ‘the year without summer’ and the ‘poverty year’, also ushered in the end of subsistence agriculture – a methodology that had sustained human beings for millennia. But beyond the 71 000 dead, 1816 saw another vital population decimated due to starvation – horses.

Read the rest here.