Bird’s eye view of a wildfowl state – Brookings

The weekend was fast approaching and I had one more day of work on the Monday to finalise everything before I caught the overnighter back to London from Dallas.  Gray kindly invited me to join him for the Saturday and he would show me some of the countryside.  He lived not in Sioux Falls but in the town of Brookings, about a 50 mile drive up the I29 to the north.  I drove steadily up the Interstate; I always do despite the roads being huge and empty, the troopers have little else to do but find an excuse to book a foreigner for speeding.  I29 ran along  ground which was higher than that to the west, and I began to realise the humpy bumpy terrain around EROS was part of a fat ridge, barely 100m above the rest of the plain, but enough to make a difference in an area of little relief. Only the Sioux River cut through it.

I took the Brookings exit and drove along a main road into town; it was the usual anonymous mix of gas stations, eateries and motels.  Then they dissolved away and I was in a pleasant urban landscape.  Gray met me at his favourite coffee shop and, since I had skipped breakfast that morning,  we had a muffin and cappuccino.  Gray was a calm, thoughtful guy, and he looked totally at ease here; this was his usual habitat.  He said he preferred the small town feel of Brookings to Sioux Falls, but it was no hick town.  Brookings was the seat of the State University of South Dakota so had a sizeable student body, as well as the staff, and had attracted in a wide range of people, including several of Gray’s colleagues from USGS.  It also had a number of art galleries and museums; more than you would expect for a town of barely 20,000 permanent residents.  We visited one, the Agricultural Heritage Museum.  When I had been a schoolkid in Liverpool we had spent a couple of terms learning about American history which included a big part about the enclosure of the Great Plains and the life of the homesteader.  The grainy old black and white photos gave a rather bleak picture of life out here, and there was no denying it was tough, but this museum had brought it to life with full colour exhibits.  Everything was here from the life of a South Dakotan from the 1850s to the Second World War.   As well as scrupulously restored farm equipment, from mammoth traction engines and tractors to ploughs and harvesters, there were all the domestic items; mangles, cleaning brushes, preserving jars, beds, chairs, and most revealing, photographs, letters and mementoes of the people who had lived through this period.  As well as the glass cabinets and mounted exhibits, rooms had been set up as an example of how all these pieces came together in the draughty old log cabins that people lived in out on the plain.  Apart from the fact the artefacts were in pristine polished conditioned, you could imagine the family had just stepped out for a moment for a walk.

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As if the family were still there

The Highest Country in the World – Heading to Roma

We were there first time in the winter, as the temperature differences we were experience might have hinted at.  Spring was in the air though, and I saw trees with a delicate pink blossom in so many back gardens and fringing fields.  I was told they were the peach blossom, a delicacy in Lesotho.  They decorated what was otherwise a dull brown landscape, the bare fields had no crops in, the rocks were clear of any moss, and the dirt roads were the same colour as the soil.  We were grateful for any colour we could see.

That is not to say how gorgeous the scenery looked on this bright sunny cold morning, with the blue sky as a backdrop to contrast against the land…. it was just a little monotone. Roma itself nestles at the foot of the first serious step up of altitude, so the backdrop to the city is a stunning set of escarpments and the odd stand alone mountain.  Immediately striking of these were how similar they were to the Basotho hat building and headgear that were a symbol of the country.  A plug of hard square rock atop, a uniform scree all round that formed the cone.

Southern Africa is the place in Africa where you see the locals all covered in clothes – wrapped up in balaclavas, scarves, sheepskin coats, moon boots, and the cold of a Lesotho winter made everyone put on everything they owned and head for the nearest fire.  At this elevation, it took people much longer to warm up than in Maseru.  I wondered how they coped up in the true highlands.  Even when we reached the university we found the lecturer we had come to meet huddled around a three bar electric fire.

The Other Mauritius – Moka and Eureka

Several of these are no longer privately owned and a few are open to the public.  On my first weekend alone I went to one of these; Eureka in Moka.  I should mention about Moka first.  It  is a small place, if you drive up the motorway out of Port Louis you could almost miss it as you get close to the conurbation on Plaines Wilhelm.  But it holds a special place in Mauritius; it houses the campus for the University of Mauritius, as well as the Presidential Palace or State House.  And sheltered in the lee of the northern mountains, it has attracted a number of high end villas.  The streets are paved with gold in parts of Moka, or at least with the profits from the sugar trade.  Nearby a new development was being built next to the motorway.  Ebene was once just another sugar cane plantation but high rise gleaming tower blocks were already starting to appear on my first visit, and they were joined by hotels and high class shops over the few years that I visited.

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Cyber City

  It was being marketed as Cybercity, and was developing a big push to get technology in government up to date, and reach out to development, marketing, call centres and other internet dependent businesses to congregate there.  Funny how use of a technology that should not be geographically dependent was being concentrated in one area.

Eureka was a hark back to a different era, but at its height was as much at the cutting edge as Cybercity was striving for now.  The house itself looked very simple from the outside.  It was a two storey building, the upper floor integrated within a high roof.  The lower floor was almost completely surrounded by a wide veranda.  The rooms were well appointed with both practical and ornamental artefacts, all of good quality.  The dining room had a heavy oak table and almost medieval chairs, which was surrounded by an array of glass cabinets.  The wooden floors creaked with every step frighteningly shaking the crockery in the cabinets.

As I say the practical elements were once the height of technology.  In the bathroom, instead of just the metal bath there was a gantry from which the bather could add more hot water.  The sink was set in a sumptuous slab of marble.

I walked round the small lawns and down a footpath into a gorge where the River Moka gurgled across the rocks and fell over ten feet in a powerful force.  It was a world away from the small villages hidden at the foot of the cane fields.  I’ve visited a couple of other plantation houses over the trips; the same picture emerges from all.  You wonder at the opulence and see it as the height of tropical living, but you can’t help to also wonder at the sacrifices and injustices at the huge number of slaves or indentured workers who strived to let these owners live this way.