When photographers drive scary

It happens around the third floor-loose coins float in the VW Polo like bubbles, passengers lift in their seats, only to be held back by seatbelts.
What photographer Christopher Collingridge achieves in those frightening seconds, has cost the US government millions of dollars in training pilots and developing planes to get right.
There is a point, as Collingridge guns his car into that centrifuge of tight corkscrew spirals that leads down from level six to ground floor of The Star’s parking lot, when zero gravity is attained.

These astronauts had to do it the hard way

These astronauts had to do it the hard way

Passengers shriek, reporter notebooks flutter and Collingridge floors it just a little more.
Then gravity returns, coins thud to the floor, G forces fall away as Collingridge exits the parking lot to terrorise Joburg’s traffic and continue to scare the bejesus out of the hapless reporter that is on the story with him.
Zero gravity might be an exaggeration but photographers do drive scary.
They turn staff cars into four wheel drives. They say they are chasing the light, a missed photograph is gone forever, they say.
journalism pic
Complain and they sneer. “You can always get the story by phone, I got to be there.”
Offer to drive and they get nasty: “Smillie, if I wanted my grandma to drive I would have asked her.”
The scariest is when police and photographer play chicken. There are occasions when detectives have to head out to a crime scene, and you happen to be at the police station “Can we follow?” is the question.
“Ja, if you can keep up,” is the challenge.
Wheels screech around corners, red traffic lights become meaningless. Reporters close their eyes, or if they want to pretend to be macho, stare down at their notebooks and jot notes. That only brings car sickness.
Then we are there, a cordoned off crime scene, and we are the only media.
“So you made it,” says the detective, with just a sniff of approval.
Sometimes that white knuckled chase through Johannesburg is enough to get the cops to lighten up. They might even give a quote.
Once a couple of detectives allowed us into a hospital, so we could get some pictures of a kidnapped baby being reunited with his mother.
It was an exclusive, thanks to a photographer’s scary driving.

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Musings of an accused

 Graffiti in the Johannesburg magistrate’s court toilet

Graffiti in the Johannesburg magistrate’s court toilet

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Bird mystery solved.

Mysteries in blurred photographs do sometimes get solved.
Last week I posted a picture of a strange bird sitting on the wall of my garden. It didn’t appear in any local bird book and when I approached a couple of ornithologists they too were stumped.

That blurry photograph

That blurry photograph

So I turned to the Internet and asked you guys.
I got a suggestion. Varsity friend Mark Stavrakis said I should post that blurry photograph of the bird on the Facebook Birders site. I did, and in a couple of hours that unusual bird got a name.
What it is, is a Tiaris canorus or the Cuban Grassquit.
This little bird, with its golden collar and black face, is usually found in Bahamas, Cuba, and Turks and Caicos Islands.
It did a lot of flying to get to South Africa, a transoceanic voyage, completed on wings no bigger than the length of a cigarette box. A whole lot of Cuban Grassquits flying in formation heading for Mzansi.
The bird...The Cuban grassquit

The bird…The Cuban grassquit

That is what I would like to believe, but the clue to how it really got here can also be found on the Internet. There are a lot of Cuban Grassquits for sale. So it seems the Cuban Grassquit seen in my garden was probably an escapee from a neighbouring aviary.

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So what is this strange bird?

Like all great mysteries this one stares out of a blurred photograph.
But this is no picture of the Loch Ness Monster, Sasquatch or even Elvis, this is a photo of a small finch sized bird.
It is a pretty bird with a black face and golden collar, and I snapped it while it sat on the wall of our garden, in Kensington, Johannesburg.

That blurry photograph of the strange bird. Click on it to magnify

That blurry photograph of the strange bird. Click on it to magnify

It had been hanging around for a couple of days, but this time I was able to grab a camera and get off a couple of shots.
Why I took those photographs was because I had no idea what this bird is.
I had paged through a couple of South African bird books but nothing.

Finally I fired off an email to Dr Craig Symes, an ornithologist at Wits University with the photograph.
Initially I had held off contacting Craig as I was sure the bird was some common garden variety, easily identifiable. Perhaps it would be embarrassing and I would be wasting Craig’s time.
Surprisingly he replied telling me he had no idea what it was.
He forwarded my email on to a couple of other bird experts and like him they were flummoxed.
One of the suggestions was that it was a Nelicourvi Weaver from Madagascar, this bird had the right colour combinations but it is the wrong body shape.
This is what it looks like: it is about the size of a finch, it has a black face and a yellow collar. The rest of its body is an olive green.
Craig suspects that it is an aviary bird that has escaped from somewhere. This is becoming quite common, he explained.
I haven’t seen the bird for a while, but if anyone out there can identify it, drop me an email.

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Mandela’s notes

While the current news cycle fixates on a dying old man, it is good to be reminded of what Nelson Mandela did for us. Some of those reminders are in the objects he left behind.
One of these artifacts I saw last year, here is the post.

Writing those first drafts of history is a cliché lumped on us journalists. But this here is a real first draft of history.

Nelson Mandela’s scrawl, notes jotted in an exercise book. A speech imperfect in its scratched out words, perhaps written on the fly.

The jottings of a speech

“It is an ideal for which I have lived; it is an ideal for which I still hope to live and see realised. But if it needs be it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die. “

A first draft that was to change when Mandela gave it voice from the dock on April 20, 1964.

The final two sentences of a famous speech.

That was the first day of the opening of the defence case in the Rivonia Trial.

A world changing speech seen in its raw form, before it was cleaned up and eagle eyed by a lawyer. The nucleus of an idea already there.

This is a piece of history, that now sits in the Wits Art Museum, in Braamfontein and is part of a display of 90 artefacts to celebrate 90 years of the university. Nice to witness.

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Death by a thousand panics

Every day Nelson Mandela dies a score of times in our newsroom.
He is killed off when a reader phones in to say they have just heard …

Journalists gather around the TV during another panic

Journalists gather around the TV during another panic

Twitter, that Ted Bundy of social media, has killed off the former South African president more times than anyone else. But it always gets to resurrect him in the next retweet.
The more sudden deaths come from obscure overseas newspapers that state life support machines have been switched off but attribute this scoop to no one.
It makes for strange times.
The seemingly more credible rumours fuel minor panics in the newsroom. Reporters gathering around TV terminals, trying to read something from the laconic utterances of official spokespeople and spin doctors.
Waiting for that statement that will end an era and bring in a time of deep sadness.
But it doesn’t come. A message saying he is still stable is enough to kill the panic and bring relief.
Then it is back to a normal newsroom, or what normal is in these times.

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When the day nearly came

In our newsroom it is called Operation M.
Now Operation M is bit like the US president’s football, that emergency satchel that contains the codes and authorisation for a nuclear attack.
What Operation M is is the paper’s plan for when Nelson Mandela dies.
It details how journalists will deploy across the country, the supplements that will go into the paper, the nitty gritty of how we will cover this big story.

Journalists gather outside Nelson Mandela's Houghton home last week

Journalists gather outside Nelson Mandela’s Houghton home last week

For a long time this dreaded document lay hidden in the paper’s computers waiting for its day.
Last week I saw that document for the first time, held tight in my news editor’s hand.
Just moments earlier a photographer had come into the newsroom and had said he had heard it from a source that Mandela had died. There had been other such rumours over the last couple days, with Mandela in hospital, but somehow this time it seemed real.
Soon the President would appear on TV to tell the nation the news.
Everything will start moving fast as Operation M kicks in. Journalists will be called and told to come to the office. The country will mourn and we will record it.
President Zuma didn’t appear but the rumour refused to die.
Two hours later on the streets of Melville I bumped into another photographer. Wide eyed he was looking for a spot where people will empty into the streets once they had heard the news. Zuma, he said would be addressing the nation in five minutes. We rushed to find a TV in a restaurant.
“How is Baba?” A patron in a restaurant asked a waiter, when he heard why we wanted to change the channel on the TV.
Again Zuma was a no show.
The former President lived.
Now a week later, Mandela appears to be a lot better, but Operation M remains. And one dark day soon it will be activated.

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This is CSI Africa!

Jasper* doesn’t know the faces of the men he hunts; he recognises them from the soles of their shoes.
He gathers shoe prints left in the dust, like other men collect stamps, or rare coins.
There is a whole database of them on his cellphone, photographed and stored alongside pictures of some of the rhinos the owners of those shoes have slaughtered.

Pelvis of a poached rhino, that lies on the other side of the Kruger fence. Picture: Chris Collingridge

Pelvis of a poached rhino, that lies on the other side of the Kruger fence. Picture: Chris Collingridge

There are the prints of the man who walks with his feet splayed like a duck. There is an assortment of footwear worn by the men who make their living killing in Kruger National Park.
It is not only their feet that tell their stories – it is also what is disregarded on the track.
He finds cigarette butts, the tins of fish they have eaten and the muti they have offered for a good hunt.
“Someone is supplying money or rations. This is organised, guys are recruited with firearms, food,” he says.
He also sees their cruelty.
“If the rhino has been wounded, they won’t use another bullet, they will use the hatchet to strike the rhino’s back to break its spine.”
The rhino will still be alive when poachers hack off the horn.
“The squealing must be horrendous.”
Often the eye of the rhino is also slashed, a superstition meant to ensure a future successful hunt.
Jasper is not alone: from Massingir in the north to close to the Lebombo border post to the south are people fighting the rhino war from the Mozambican side.
They are a thin line trying to plug a border that is over 150km long, trying to stop poachers before they reach Kruger.
Some are better equipped than others: they have anti-poaching teams that can mount patrols.
Others have to rely on the lackadaisical assistance of the Mozambican army and police.
This comes down to who has the best bush skills – trackers pitted against poachers. It is CSI Africa, the joke goes.
While there is co-operation between South Africans and the private poaching units, the complaint is with the Mozambican authorities.
“In Mozambique, poaching is usually just a misdemeanour,” says Tom Milliken of Traffic, which monitors the illegal trade.
*Not his real name

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Bigfoot versus the rhino

This is Part 2 of the expose we did on rhino poaching on the border of Mozambique and South Africa.

Johannesburg – The man with the big feet would leave his flip-flops at the fence.
Barefooted he’d slip across the fence into Kruger National Park, alone, carrying a .375 calibre rifle fitted with a silencer.
On his back was a bag filled with bread, water and an assortment of pills he would later crush up and smoke with tobacco.

BIG BUSINESS: Bigfoot was caught with a hunting rifle and a silencer. He undertook 10 sorties into Kruger National Park looking for rhinos.

BIG BUSINESS: Bigfoot was caught with a hunting rifle and a silencer. He undertook 10 sorties into Kruger National Park looking for rhinos.

Some of the pills were for heartburn, and he never really explained why he smoked it.
For protection against the rangers, a muti string hung from his rucksack.
On the Mozambican side of Kruger National Park, the poacher’s big feet were well known.
His barefooted tracks in and out of the park had been seen often.
Anti-poaching units working the Mozambican side of Kruger had wanted to catch the man to see if he was as big as his feet promised.
But before the poacher with the big feet got near the fence, he had to pass a test.
As a young man wanting to earn money as a poacher he headed to the shebeens of Mugude.
There he met the middlemen who looked for recruits willing to chance the section rangers, dogs and helicopters.
But they had to find out first if he could shoot.
In the bush he was handed a rifle and told to shoot at a Coke bottle. He hit the bottle, so was asked to demonstrate his tracking skills.
Children learn to track from an early age in this part of Mozambique. As herders they know their cattle not by name but from each unique cloven imprint left in the dust. Bigfoot knew how to track.
In the area where Bigfoot operated, Kruger’s rusting fence is sometimes nothing more than four strands.
After slipping off his flip-flops – barefoot is quieter – Bigfoot would make his way to a pre-arranged meeting site to the other two members of his poaching crew.
They had crossed into the park from other points along the fence.
Their foray into the park could be at night, or sometimes even in the middle of the day. Once together, their search for rhino spoor began.
They had to be careful, not only of the rangers, but of other poachers.
If Bigfoot had bumped into other poachers, he said he would have killed them, and taken their horn.
But he claims he never did meet any poachers in the large park.
When he moved at night, Bigfoot picked out stars in the expanse of the Milky Way and used them to find direction.
But even for someone with Bigfoot’s bush skills, finding a rhino was potluck. He said he only shot one rhino.
The kill was at close range in thick bush, he was less than 30m away. A hatchet was used to hack the horn off and they raced for the border.
Bigfoot made 10 sorties into Kruger. His luck ran out on the 11th.
A rival syndicate ratted him out. Night ambushes and roadblocks were set up.
The following morning the tired officers were drinking tea during a break when one of them noticed Bigfoot and a friend walking towards them.
Bigfoot gave up easily
The anti-poaching unit discovered he was as tall as his feet had suggested – nearly 2m.
Then Bigfoot did something unexpected – he snitched.
He told his captors where the pick-up car would be netting two of his accomplices in a Hilux bakkie with an anti-poaching sticker on the vehicle.
And Bigfoot wasn’t finished talking.
He told how he would slip across the border, how he was recruited, how he used those stars.
Bigfoot was handed over and arrested by Mozambican police.
He has been sent to Maputo to stand trial for possession of an illegal firearm.
If the charges stick, his large feet may have left their last spoor on those tracks leading to Kruger. – The Star

*This story has been pieced together from what Bigfoot’s captors heard. However, some officers are cautious of what he said – his loose tongue has made some suspicious.

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The town that thrives on rhino horn

I know it has been a while, but I guess it is time to fire up them blogs again.
So let me start by posting some articles of a series I wrote for The Star newspaper. Some of you might have read them before, then again some of you haven’t.
Recently I headed into Mozambique to write a story on rhino poaching.
We travelled through the border lands that lie just across from The Kruger National Park.
What I saw scared me.
Poachers openly operate on this side of the border. Law enforcement authorities turn a blind eye, and the few trying to stop the slaughter have to plug a border hundreds of kilometres long. This is their story.
Stopping rhino poaching will require a huge commitment from the Mozambican government and frankly they don’t give a damn.
So here goes.

Kabok, Western Mozambique – You can’t find this town on Google Earth, and it appears on no maps.
From space all it is is a scatter of buildings that straddle the only tar road that cuts through this remote part of western Mozambique.
The place is known as Kabok and for a town that appears to have nothing, it sure is going through an economic boom.
And from a dirt track we could see Kabok’s new-found wealth first- hand. What we were looking at was Kabok’s millionaires’ row, where the untouchables live.

The area around Kabok is poor, and scarred by wartime remnants. This is a typical reed house, different from the brick structures rhino poachers have built for themselves with their new-found wealth. Picture: Chris Collingridge

The area around Kabok is poor, and scarred by wartime remnants. This is a typical reed house, different from the brick structures rhino poachers have built for themselves with their new-found wealth. Picture: Chris Collingridge

“This is a rhino town,” explains the anti-poaching officer who is acting as our guide.
He wants to remain anonymous.
On the tar road, a red hatchback speeds past, the driver’s head snaps to the side and takes a good look at us. We have been noticed.
“He is a poacher,” says the anti-poaching officer.
Two minutes later, the red car drives past in the opposite direction; he eyeballs us again.
Others along the tar road stare too. The poachers, pointed out by the officer, stand out.
Their style of dress says city, their clothes are bright and clean, they sport new jeans, some have neck chains.
No faded paper-thin cotton shirts, like the rest of Kabok wears.
They loiter around spaza shops, they swagger.
But we are here to see millionaires’ row. In front of us, dotted on a slight rise, are Kabok’s mansions – the houses the rhino poachers built for themselves.
In neighbouring South Africa, these mansions would be called matchboxes. Most are flat-roofed, single-storeyed structures.
Some look similar to RDP houses. But what separates these homes from the usual reed houses in Kabok is that they are made from brick.
This part of Mozambique is dirt poor and the remnants of the civil war scar the landscape and the psyche of the people. War amputees wander the dirt roads.
The new Kabok has been built on the horns of the hundreds of rhinos slaughtered just kilometres away in Kruger National Park.
It is not alone – there are other towns spread along the border that lines Kruger National Park.
They are the staging posts for rhino poachers.
“That house there with the pink curtains – he is a poacher,” says the officer. “You see that white house there, that poacher was shot dead, but his family still lives there.”
This brick house in millionaires' row, complete with a satellite TV dish  while to the rest of the world may seem a humble abode  is a far cry from the reed house below. It was built by poachers. Picture: Chris Collingridge

This brick house in millionaires’ row, complete with a satellite TV dish  while to the rest of the world may seem a humble abode  is a far cry from the reed house below. It was built by poachers. Picture: Chris Collingridge

There was a time when the bordering Corumane Dam supplied the community with its main source of income – fishing.
Now, under the silvery full moon, fishermen ferry poachers across the lake, rowing them up the Sabie River and dropping them close to the Kruger fence.
In South Africa Kabok has long had the reputation of being a haven for robbers and hijackers who take refuge across the border.
Rhino economics filters through the town, the anti-poaching officer explains.
Everyone gets a piece of the pie, builders are paid to construct those houses.
Spaza shops have sprung up, some built with rhino money.
The funeral industry, it appears, gets its cut too.
Then there are the guns for hire.
“There are those who come from Maputo to hire people in Kabok to poach,” explains the officer.
And the majority of residents in the Kabok mansions have become middlemen.
They now recruit younger men to do their hunting.
We drive along the dirt road, we turn a corner and there is the red hatchback. The driver is standing next to three other men at a spaza shop.
Again he stares, but this time smiles and waves at the anti-poaching officer. The officer waves back.
They know each other.
There is little the officer can do to catch this untouchable.
We drive on.
On the outskirts of the town we park and watch.
The sun has slipped behind the wall of the Corumane Dam, and in the late afternoon light herders drive their cattle along the tar road into town.
A black Landcruiser glides past.
“That man there is wanted in South Africa and now stays in Mozambique,” says the officer.
“He is a poacher.”
We later learn that the man in the Landcruiser is Frank Ubisi.
For two years he was wanted by the SAPS, Captain Oubaas Coetzer, the spokesman for Skukuza police station, tells us later.
He was caught in Kruger in 2010 with a hunting rifle, but later escaped from custody.
Last February he was caught at the Lebombo border post trying to smuggle the body of a poacher across the border.
He paid a fine of R10 000 for possession of an illegal firearm and was deported to Mozambique.
Ubisi’s Landcruiser draws to a stop outside a collection of reed shacks alongside the road.
The door opens and a man, perhaps in his late teens, struggles out.
His T-shirt is stained with mud, his hair coated in dust. He limps slowly to one of the shacks, opens the door and disappears.
I am flabbergasted.
“He is a poacher, he has come back from Kruger,” I say.
The officer shrugs his shoulders and gives a smile.

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