As a South African, there are many things about my country which make me extremely proud. One of these has to be the Sterkfontein Caves, located just outside Johannesburg. I had the opportunity to visit these ancient caves a few months ago, and was humbled by the immense global significance of the caves to our understanding of the origins of people on our planet.
The Sterkfontein Caves are the most famous of the 15 major fossils sites which make up The Cradle of Humankind, an area covering about 47 000 hectares where the 2.3-million year-old fossil Australopithecus africanus (nicknamed "Mrs. Ples") was found in 1947 by Dr. Robert Broom and John T. Robinson. The Caves are owned by the University of the Witwatersrand, whose scientists have been responsible for the main excavations.
What's remarkable is that, despite the many highly qualified and experienced scientists working on the site since its discovery, one of the most significant finds was made by a mere schoolboy, Gert Terblanche, in 1938. He found fossils, including a damaged skull and half a jaw bone, which were later confirmed by Dr Broom as an entirely new genus and species - Paranthropus robustus – dating back over two million years.
Don't ever underestimate what you are capable of. Learn the value of just starting to do something – you may be amazed at what you will achieve.
Many things have been said and written about the joys and benefits of travelling. As someone who has travelled extensively, I can honestly say I have loved the places I have been to, the experiences I have had and the people I have met – many of whom I am still in contact with. But as wonderful as travelling can be, Roman philosopher Lucius Annaeus Seneca may well have been right when he said,
"Everywhere is nowhere. When a person spends all his time in foreign travel,
he ends by having many acquaintances, but no friends."
As part of my sailing adventure I spent a lot of time in Antibes, France, I met a vast number of people who, like me, were also working as crew in the luxury yachting industry. I was always bumping into people I knew while on shore leave there, but, as lovely as it was to see them, I really began to appreciate the value of lasting friendships, as opposed to the many acquaintances I met on my travels.
At the end of the day, it is those friends with whom you have spent time, been with in times of need, stood by in times of trouble, nurtured and cared for, who will be with you in the long run.
One of my favourite places to visit in France is the Villa Ephrussi de Rothschild in Saint-Jean-Cap-Ferrat on the French Riviera. Built in the early 1900's by Baroness Beatrice de Rothschild, the villa is today the only great house on the Riviera open to the public. It is an extremely impressive example of the magnificent summer residences built by the very wealthy of the day, but it is the nine themed gardens in which it is set which are the true masterpieces. Strolling visitors will be surprised and enchanted by the exact symmetry of the formal French garden, the lush vegetation of the Spanish and Florentine gardens, the fragrant profusion of the rose garden, the rare trees in the exotic garden, and the archaeological remains in the Stone garden. I was really struck by how the Baroness's dream villa and its magnificent gardens are still bringing joy to thousands of people from all over the world over a hundred years later.
Something worth doing is worth doing well. The Baroness built something beautiful, which took many years to complete, but she made sure it was exactly as she wanted. Her determination to get it right has left us with a lasting legacy which will continue to bring pleasure to people for generations to come.
Ronda is one of the oldest towns in Spain. Its origins can be traced back as far as 700AD, although the "modern" town dates back to the 11th Century. The "old" and "new" towns are built on either side of the spectacular, 100m-deep El Tajo Gorge, and are linked by a series of bridges, one of which was built by the Romans and is still in use today – albeit only by pedestrians. The main bridge – also still used today – is the Puento Nuevo, an architectural marvel built between 1755 and 1793. The bridge is one of the most photographed in the country, and to me stands out as symbol of the incredible power of the human mind and spirit. It was built over 250 years ago, without the help of computer-aided design or high-tech equipment – something modern engineers and architects would never dream of attempting.
The successful completion of this bridge is a huge lesson in what human determination and vision can produce. We are so often hindered by our beliefs about what we can and can't achieve, and don't always reach our full potential simply because we tell ourselves we can't do it. But if we don't impose limitations on ourselves, there's no limit to what we can achieve.
I was visiting the ancient town of Porto Vecchio, Corsica. Under a beautiful, shady tree in the town square was a board with a map of the town and relevant tourist information. In the bottom right hand corner of this board, the words, "Attention! Achtung! Warning! Arachnoide Corso Terrificus Vecchio Mortelum" had been pasted.
I was looking at the map and wondering about the odd words when a huge, brown spider slowly lowered itself down from the tree onto the map. I only noticed it only when it came in line with my face, and although I was startled, I am fortunately not scared of spiders, so I just looked at it curiously. It was then I noticed it was, in fact, plastic, and there was a thin line running from its back up into the tree. Following the line with my eyes, I discovered it ended over the road at pavement café, where a group of four men sat drinking beer and manipulating the spider. When they saw me looking at them they roared with laughter. They knew their game was up.
I watched the men playing their joke for a while – they would roar with laughter every time a tourist screamed when the spider dropped down in front of them. They were still playing their joke a few hours later when I came back to the square. It was great to watch the good, clean fun the men were having. Their laughter was infectious, and their joke made my visit to Porto Vecchio that much more memorable. I will never forget it
Don't take life too seriously – make time to have fun and play – it makes life memorable and is good for the soul.
I spent one memorable New Year’s Eve in Monte Carlo, Monaco. I was standing in front of the Grand Casino, surrounded by flashy cars and flashy people. Men and women were dressed to the nines in the most exclusive designer wear, and decorated to the hilt in gold and diamonds.
There was an atmosphere of celebration and festivity, culminating in a frenzy of hugging and kissing at the stroke of midnight. Friends and strangers alike were coming together to welcome in the New Year. Champagne in hand, I was loving every minute of it!
I spotted a tall, well-muscled and handsome man and, embracing the festive spirit evident all around me, I boldly went up to him, threw my arms around him and kissed him, wishing him “Bon Annee!” – Happy New Year in French. Unbelievably, he turned to his friend standing next to him and said, "Oh boy! This is the place to be!" ....in Afrikaans!
I groaned. Of all the men I could have picked, I pick a boy from home.
It turned out he was on a rugby tour from Pretoria. We chatted for a while and then moved on. He later became my bodyguard for the evening, protecting me from an over-enthusiastic Italian man, who wouldn’t take no for an answer. I realised then it was good to have a “boy from home” around.
Sometimes you need to travel far away to really appreciate what you already have at home.
On an outing one day while visiting family in Lusaka, Zambia, we drove past a huge traffic island which had been landscaped with grass and pretty flowers – an oasis in the middle of the chaotic, centre-of-town traffic. I was amazed to see a wedding party posing for photos on this island, seemingly oblivious to the traffic hurtling around them – old buses belching exhaust fumes, dilapidated cars with people waving and cheering out of the windows, souped-up sports cars hooting their horns...At the time, I thought it was hilarious.
On reflection, however, I was humbled by the profound lesson –
I realised that if the photographer was clever with his camera angles, he could avoid capturing the traffic in his shots, and it would look as though the bride and groom had been photographed in beautiful gardens. The wedding couple would no doubt look at their photos with pride and fond remembrance.
Life is what you make it – so make the most of what you have, and don't allow the less-than-perfect to mar your day, or your life. Rejoice in magnificent simplicity, and don't place value on the trappings, but rather in the significance of the occasion.
When visiting the Grand Canyon, in the USA, I took the opportunity to join a guided, overnight hike down to the bottom of the Canyon. While water is usually available from taps along the route, there was a problem at this particular time, so we had to carry our own with us. It was thus a very precious commodity!
On the way back up the next day, I was almost at the top when I met a woman who had slipped on the loose gravel, grazing her knee and hand. She was feeling very miserable, as she had only just started her hike and had a long way still to go. I had some plasters in my back pack, so I stopped to help her, using some of my precious water to clean her wounds before putting the plasters on. This little bit of attention really cheered her up, and she was able to continue her hike in a much better frame of mind.
Sometimes, even the smallest gesture can make a really big difference.
While in America, I visited notorious Alcatraz - the legendary former maximum security prison, which struck fear into so many, and inspired such movies as The Rock, The Birdman of Alcatraz, and Escape from Alcatraz.
On the day I was there, a former inmate, Jim Quillen, was there promoting his book. I listened, fascinated, to the stories he told. I was most inspired by a story he told about the way he kept from going insane while spending days in the pitch darkness of solitary confinement. He would pull a button off his shirt, throw it up in the air, and listen to it fall. Then, after turning round and round until he was dizzy, he would get down on hands and knees and feel around for the button. When he found it he would start all over again.
I was stunned at this level of creativity in the very worst of conditions. At his refusal to give up hope, and by his unwavering faith in God, family and freedom. I was humbled and inspired. It was a life lesson I will never forget.
An evening spent in the town of Amalfi, Italy, is delightful. The narrow, winding cobbled streets leading from the central piazza with its magnificent cathedral, are packed with interesting shops, bakeries, cafés and art galleries – all tucked away behind stone walls and up little stone stairways.
But the true delight of Amalfi is to be seen sitting on the deck of a yacht. Gazing across the calm waters, the town of Amalfi, ascending up the mountainside, is the most beautiful sight to behold. In the evenings, the mountain, in inky blackness, twinkles with lights. The view is exquisite. I have sat for hours just gazing in awe at the breathtaking sight.
Sometimes, to really appreciate the beauty of something (or someone), we need to step back and get the bigger picture. Without details to distract us, we are open to see a vision of beauty and magnificence, impossible to see when we are caught up in it.