We left on a cold Jan. 16th evening, on a 12 hour BA flight almost due south, with only a two hour time difference. I envy Mike’s ability to sleep aloft. The Johannesburg Airport could be anywhere: clean and modern, with pleasant, well decorated shops and many hand made objects, which set the tone for other art and gifts we saw. Nothing was tacky or kitschy, and we were impressed everywhere with the high quality merchandise. (Nothing said “my parents went to Africa and all I got was this lousy teeshirt!”) We saw handsewn pillows, carvings of wood and stone, skins and quills, all beautifully fashioned, in all prices. We’d heard Jo-burg was no place to spend time since there was a lot of unemployment due to copper mine slowdowns and other issues. The airport, west of the city, is as safe as a baby’s nursery, but we didn’t need four hours to kill between flights! I wished we could stuff a trunk with souvenirs for our family, but as usual, we ended up with small things to cram between hiking boots and clothes.
Our connecting flight brought us to Zambia and Victoria Falls. Our knowledgeable Tongabesi guide Mike picked us up in Livingstone (yes, named for the famous Doctor) in time for a pleasant evening at the lodge and drove us everywhere. A mile wide and three times higher than Niagara, the “Thunder that Roars,” Mosi O Tunya, was stunning to behold the next morn, especially after we’d spotted its erupting mountain of spray visible for miles across the plains, well before we heard it. You might like to bungee jump from the center of a bridge high over the river gorge: we saw no queues for that opportunity. Mike wrestled roads in his Land Rover, and we lurched through red mud furrows whenever we left paved roads. (He’d tried the jump, and couldn’t sleep for three days afterwards!) His slick raincoats offered us protection from the spray, but some tourists happily got wet, since it was a warm day. Visitors seemed to hail from every part of the world, mostly armed with cameras. Shrouded in coulds of mist and foam, there were still some craggy rocks visible under the falling greenish torrents, but we were told that soon, as the roaring river became fullest, views often were only of spray. We looked across to Zimbabwe, but because of visas, tolls, and the evils of wily Robert Mugabe, we stayed in Zambia. We looked far below to raging foamy whirlpools and walked paths on the riverside.
Near the falls, a row of craft stalls displayed baskets, skins, and carved objects, as baboons were leaping -- screaming and fighting in the trees behind them. Many souvenirs were appealing, but too large to consider, and too expensive to ship. Carved giraffes were as tall as I. Mike advised us to look at the market in Livingstone for better prices. The people are so earnest and make so little money that I wanted to buy all the goods from all the sellers! They are gentle and pleading, eyes and soft voices beseeching us to buy from them, not from the many others in competition. We were not in the high tourist season, and tourist dollars in any currency can determine for many of these young men if their family eats that day.
Rural roads were never crowded. We passed slender village women balancing babes slung on their backs, packages in their hands, and baskets or boxes on their heads. They had no Nike air cushions, and I wondered about arthritis or flat feet. Africans walk! The soil is red, full of iron like Georgia’s, and often dusty. With few cars or bicycles, trucks heading to market are often piled even higher with human cargo. How many fall off?
We luxuriated at Tongabesi,our lodge beneath a thatched roof, in a large room with three sides, open to the wide Zambezi River on the fourth, with Zimbabwe across. Over our door, the thick thatch was carved into a large animal head, eyes and horn of a water buffalo greeting us at each entry. Lush flowers and vines framed our open space. a red leather sofa, paintings, ceiling fans, and electric lights furnished our spacious room. Behind a curved stone wall our “loo with a view”, with a flush toilet, was open to the river. We slept in a king size bed under a mosquito net, gathered up in daytime, since the area is not malaria free. Our huge sunken bath tub was outdoors just below the room’s open side, formed from the same pink stone as the floor. Its ornate brass faucets matched the sink inside. Imagine soaking in an aromatic hot bubble bath, amid a soft lantern glow, beneath a million brilliant stars. Evening serenades were provided by an occasional grunt or whine of hippos below us. Our steward Treyga would draw a bath and set out everything for the evening beautifully and probably would have been at our beck and call had we asked at 3 AM!
Each evening brought cocktails served around the bonfire at river’s edge. We were serenaded one evening by five men in matching printed shirts, welcoming us in harmonic song a cappella. One of our smiling waiters played big and small bongo drums for me. On our last evening, our dinner was served out on a river float by lantern light, ferried by waiters from a silent canoe. Their dark skin was nearly invisible until they suddenly slipped alongside, offering delicious food. The South African wines are wonderful and never ran dry!
Treyga did daily laundry, folded the African patterned bathrobes we were supplied, and awoke us with a tray of coffee in the morning before we walked down our stone path to riverside breakfasts. He’s seeking to gather a bride price—three cows, payable to his father in law—so he can marry. If his father can’t help, he’ll go to his uncle. He’ll probably aim to be a driver and guide like Mike, but must serve in all the other camp jobs first. Both men are well educated and speak excellent English, and both are only sons, which is one reason for the emphasis on scholarship by their families. I finished The DaVinci Code after we left, and mailed it to Treyga, since he’d inquired about it.
Hippos and crocs fill the river, which is why no one swims, but Mike explained that sometimes a medicine man can bless an area so the crocs stay away. I asked what happened if there were bad medicine. That never happens! (Could the medicine men bless away other pests? Mosquitoes? ) I recalled that the biggest animal causing human death was hippos, not crocs, as we putt-putted around rocks and rocklike things that suddenly opened their huge mouths or snorted in a big burst of spray. The crocs we saw were smallish. Hippos can be very biggish!
We took evening rides with Mike or Quentino in a small green motorboat beneath the clearest skies I’ve ever imagined. The river grew glassy. There is no air pollution, and the nuance of color as the skies darken was fantastic. We putted past groups of busy yellow weaver birds building their grassy hanging nests, baboon families playing in the trees, and waterbok drinking at the shore. The brilliant male weavers build nests to lure their drab colored ladies, who shred and rip whatever doesn’t suit them. We looked for elephants in vain, but they were in Zimbabwe, Mike said. There had been a terrible drought, causing farmers to kill calves to save their mothers and abandon planting grain, so although we weren’t delighted with the rains meeting us, everyone else was ecstatic.
We visited a 700 year old Mukuni village on Sunday afternoon. We were the only white people we saw, but the chief often issues invitations to visitors, and we felt completely comfortable and welcome. An English speaking villager named John conducted us around. Mike told us that over 95% of the tribe spoke no English.
The chief and his family lived behind a high straw fence woven in patterns and had a phone. His sister was the queen, by custom. Nearby is the tree under which Dr. Livingstone met the chief’s predecessor. Villagers lived outside this fenced royal compound in straw huts with pointed thatched roofs, as they have for centuries. We saw an extremely tidy community of several thousand, dirt floors swept clean, dishes washed and piled on shelves, a few chickens occasionally. There were very few livestock seen anyplace, even goats, and the main food is a porridge eaten twice daily, delivered by the government. We saw a few small fields of maize struggling to grow, surrounded by tall grasses. There were no tractors, plows, mules, or horses. On the roadside and in many other places, we saw signs saying “Say yes to condoms.”
Everyone seemed content and friendly, and we were invited to drink some of the white beer villagers were brewing from maize and sorghum, fermented after a few days in tall metal vats. We declined. We watched a pre teen girl as she stood pounding grain into a pulp. She pounded a long thick post into a deep wooden pestle. John explained that before this invention, she’d have been bent over the large grinding stone we saw on the ground nearby. (Oh Sears appliance department! Where are you?) Village women over thirteen sleep in separate quarters. I used the “guest bathroom hut” before we left, which had a padlock on the door. I peed into a slight depression in the swept dirt floor, and had I not brought my own Kleenex, might have used the paper that I imagined was inside a plastic bag handily hung from the ceiling. I was glad that I only had to pee, but the area was clean and there was no odor.
In Livingstone, we saw several young men, bare chested and tribally dressed in sort of fluffy hemp shorts, inviting the town to their coming of age ceremony later that week. They had stayed in the bush together for months learning about wisdom and maturity. Girls have a similar ceremony for a shorter time. The town is named for the Scottish explorer and missionary who discovered the Zambezi and mapped much of that area, and we visited a museum with many of his keepsakes as well as local objects dating back to stone ages. When Dr. Livingstone was not heard of for awhile, curious New York newspapers sent Mr. Stanley to find him. That was 1871.
Before leaving Tongabesi to fly to Johannesburg, we had two adventures. One occurred at lunch, and one on a game drive, where we saw a zebra become instant bird food.
The latter unfolded as we drove past vervet monkeys, baboons, wildebeests, impala, and rhinos with our guide Mike in the smallest game park in Zambia. We had noticed a lone zebra with a droopy head, and thought he looked sick or tired. Most zebras travel in groups, so their combined moving stripes confuse predators. Toward the end of our drive, we saw circling vultures, and suddenly we came across the reason, amid an avian feeding frenzy. New visitors with vast wingspans flapped in every few seconds as though we were on the landing strip at LaGuardia, and raced straight for the zebra’s belly, pushing aside other eaters to thrust their heads deep in to the soft parts that are “first dibs.” We learned that the birds must wait for a leopard vulture to slit the belly of a new carcass. (I hope this one was really dead before they started!) Two tall Maribou storks strutted before a horizontal log behind the raging feeders. Atop the log young smaller birds—whose wingspan was shorter than six feet or so-- hopped more or less patiently, awaiting their turn. They perched in a row like expectant customers awaiting Act I on opening night.
The second adventure, at lunch, began at a new very shi-shi riverside hotel, a stone’s throw from the thundering falls, built on the site of an older grand hotel. The setting was gorgeous, with wood paneling, verandas and perfect wide lawns leading to the river, with pool, bars, and public rooms looking like a glossy travel ad. From their dock, we rode in a twin engine small shiny aluminum boat to an island literally balanced at the edge of the falls. Our driver Donald was a sprightly short man, who smiled and sped a curving path around sharp black rocks, visible and otherwise. If we’d gone straight, the boat would have been sheared like a tin can.
On the island, we dined in elegance at a huge wooden table under a large tent during a downpour, which didn’t disturb our servers Isaac, Samson, and Agnes. We were the only guests, since another couple hadn’t shown up. The rain ceased, so off we went to our loo, a thatched hut down a grassy path, open and facing the river, with a small chemical toilet and a pretty table with a ewer and basin. (Our second loo with a view!) On one side was a changing room, to put on bathing suits. We paid extra for this lunch on the island expedition, which included a swim in a little pool formed just before tons of water hurtled over the top of Victoria Falls.
We were barefoot, and as we ooched and ouched, working our way across very sharp rocks on very tender feet, I recalled children coming off the school busses, in their uniforms and backpacks, but shoeless. I believe Africans’ seasoned soles are like Timberlands, and ours are like tissue paper. “Just walk like an elephant!” merrily sang out our guides, as they helped both of us lumber painfully into the rushing river, swollen with the heavy rains. We had not studied the walking techniques of elephants prior to this journey, but tried setting our feet flatly down as best we could. The water’s force thrust us towards the falls on our frequent stumbles. Donald swam ahead to the pool, easily holding a red plastic bag with our camera over his head, glibly looking back and grinning, waving it back and forth from time to time to encourage us. As we grimaced and staggered, I wondered how many tourists flew over the top of the falls each year!
I decided I liked a rocky little island en route, seeing how much trouble Mike was having ahead of me, and vowed to our guides that Yes!! I was quite happy to stay there, the warm river pouring over my legs under cloudy summer skies. I wished I’d worn my Tevas, but they were back at the lodge. Water shoes would solve our problem! I watched pale Mike limp along, guides assisting him on both sides, forming some peculiar Oreo cookie! I thought if I should plunge over the roaring falls, I’ve have had a great life in the interim, and my friends would be impressed! I watched the guides dive straight down into the little pool, white soles of their feet disappearing into the water, black legs sticking up into the air as they played. They leapt up to wave to me and laugh, and photographed us both.
The next day, Mike’s legs were covered from top to toe with cuts, scrapes, and bruises, but I haven’t had to apply for widows’ benefits. The falls would soon be at their strongest when the river is full, and tour guides said they would stop the swim soon.
As my Mike finished packing for our departure, I went with our guide Mike to a nearby school, originally set up for Tongabesi employees. Now, a few years into the project, there are several classrooms, starting with preschool, and ending at about third grade. The children had just started back from summer holidays, and were outdoors milling about on a break. There were several tidy white classrooms, a separate loo building, several toys, and the African teachers seemed pleasant enough. The small tidy library was full of books, though many were dogeared or old. I saw one computer in that room, a laptop that belonged to a white administrator. I heard one class reading and one singing as I left, and saw some printing workbooks. The place seemed cheery, with flowers planted all around, and the children were well behaved. I remembered my correspondence with the Maryknoll missionary nuns from high school when I considered my life’s work. I suppose nowadays the Peace Corps works with the same third world people, minus vows of celibacy!
Rain dogged us back to Joburg, where we were met by Sheryl to drive to our camp near Botswana. She is tall, white, and determined to start her own transportation company and stay in South Africa, even as several of her family and friends are bailing out as soon as possible. They look at Zimbabwe and shudder. Because of the heavy rain and tough going en route, we took the long way, and thus had five hours to discuss issues before arriving at our lantern lit camp.
Jaci’s Camp, at the edge of the Madikwe Nature Reservation and the Kalahari, became our favorite stop because of the game drives, morning and evening with Joe, a young white South African. In the dark, he’d tap on our door at 5 or 5:30 and after coffee or juice, we’d climb into the back of his tiered Land Rover. If it was rainy, there were huge lined army green ponchos to keep us warm and dry. (The summer weather was pleasant, hot in the sunshine, cool in the evenings.) If the weather was nice, i.e. dry, we’d climb out for coffee in the mornings, wine in the evenings, after Joe picked a safe place. He always carried a two way radio and rifle. The rides covered mountain and desert areas, plains and rocky areas, and lasted for three or four hours. There were never more than six of us with Joe, a constant font of information and humor. The area has several geographic varieties of mountain, water, plains, rocks, and thus harbors many species.
Our room was huge, about eight feet above the ground. It was built around some trees and amid others, with a high thatched roof, and this time we had a king size bed, huge indoor tub, double sinks, and an outdoor overhead circular shower on the balcony. The huts were connected via very long wooden walkways, and at night, pitch dark under millions of stars, the way was lit by lanterns hanging from the railings. On the deck outside the folding wood and glass doors, we worried that we wouldn’t be able to use our table and chairs, but the rains stopped and we read in the sun beneath an occasional vervet monkey. Meals were elaborate, and on the last night we ate in the boma, at small tables in a circle around a blazing campfire, instead of in the open-sided dining room under a thatched roof. I sat between Mike and a Dutchman who had just bought a camp nearby. Most of the other guests were English.
Each day brought exciting new finds. We startled a huge tusked elephant, who didn’t let us delay him (her?) pushing over a huge fully grown tree with just a few vigorous head butts. Wherever there are elephants, there are acres of ravaged trees. Our beast proceeded elegantly to strip off the bark, using tusks and feet, and to search in the roots for goodies. We saw young lions eat a warthog they’d killed, sharing it and lying around afterwards, some with paws up in the air like kittens, or folding themselves up on one another. (Warthogs are 12% of a lion’s diet, Mike read. I loved the baby warthogs, so cute you want to stuff one in your backpack!) We saw dung beetles, pushing and pushing their enormous load, or a puff adder, a lazy but deadly snake, in the road. Impalas and wildebeests seemed more commonplace when we saw waterbuk, springbok, red hartebok and other rare animals.
One of the great surprises of Africa was the enormous number of new birds. We’ve seen photos of hornbills, but the rollers, European bee eaters, bright aqua kingfishers, eagles, various hawks, tiny wrens and hundreds of other species amazed us both. We’d never seen these birds nor heard their names before.
The lodge even had a gym, outdoors with some exercise equipment, but no guests were to walk there alone, for safety. A second lodge, slightly older than ours, was past the gym, perhaps a quarter mile away. We flew back to Joburg from a small red dirt airstrip on which we’d earlier seen wildebeeste, and changed planes for a change of pace in wine country, where we rented a car and drove on the left. Our cottage nestled in 160 acres at Constantia Uitsig, which means Constantia view in Dutch. The area, still heavily Dutch and very beautiful, green and manicured, with tidy vineyards climbing up the hillsides and yet minutes from downtown. We were coddled in our Victorian room, with its huge bed, and happy to indulge in the two fine restaurants and gorgeous gardens. It was nice to have TV to catch up on news, and the place even had its own cricket pitch. Whenever we drove in, erect gate guards in snow white pith helmets snapped to attention and saluted us English style, palm out, which Mike loved!
Capetown sits at the base of Table Mountain, which is much much bigger than I’d imagined, taller and broader. Repeatedly, driving through neighborhoods of beautiful homes, walls overflowing with bougainvillea, hibiscus, plumeria, oleander, Norfolk pines, palms, and thousands of round blue agapanthus lilies in bloom, I thought surely I’d migrated to La Jolla! The beautiful blue Victoria and Albert harbor waterfront, sandy beaches, and vineyards set against mountains make an average city look like ugly stepsisters at the ball.
The harbor is busy commercially, but tourist friendly in the extreme, with wonderful shops and restaurants. It’s impeccably clean, and seals swim lazily between business and pleasure boats. There were beautiful flowers and plants. Out of town, the shantytowns were a total opposite, hell as opposed to heaven, packed with higgely piggely shacks, corrugated iron patchy roofs, cardboard windows, a bit of laundry flying, and plenty of litter. I pity the child born there. A tall post might have an electric connection, and from that emanated countless interwoven heaps of wires.
We had a foggy first day at Hoyt’s Bay, but nearby was an outdoor craft show and charming little mall where we ate Italian food as it rained. I shopped at a charming French woman’s boutique. The next day, after a “Topless Tour”, passing through older parts of the city and surrounding beach areas on our topless open air bus, we noted that the sunbathers weren’t using the cold ocean. Our open bus eventually climbed to the top of the vast mountain overlooking city and sea. Mike took the cable car upward to the very peak, partly obscured by clouds, and splashed with colorful parachutes of hang gliders. In the blue sea far below sits flat Robbin Island, a name meaning seal. Nelson Mandela spent 18 of his 27 years there in prison; now it’s a tourist reminder of ugly racist memories. I somehow lost a new shirt and a walking stick while I enjoyed a high altitude ice cream and waited for Mike, watching tourists from all over hop on and off the busses, cameras at the ready in this beautiful mountain location.
We drove south to the Cape Peninsula National Park at the Cape of Good Hope, marked by a lighthouse on the mountaintop. The light is the strongest in the nation, built only after many ships wrecked 600 feet below. A weather station welcomes school tours and visiting scientists. As part of a world meteorological organization global watch, it monitors methane, ozone, and greenhouse gases. A funicular carries tourists up the steep incline far above blue seas edged in pure white foam. The next stop south of here is Antarctica. I thought of explorers like Capt. Cook and his men leaving warm climes and taking furs with them as they sailed south toward the pole. Signs warned us against feeding baboons, and several bold creatures leapt onto cars as we walked to gift shops and restaurants. Lunch outdoors was kudu and springbok that the waiter assured us were grown for that purpose on game ranches. They were tender and tasty.
En route southward, we stopped at Simon’s town, an old Victorian port, and returning northward, we stopped at Boulders Beach to see the little African Penguins, sometimes called jackass, because they bray. They waddled about, many sitting on eggs, and we were very close because of the wooden walkway throughout their preserve. I’d thought penguins belonged in colder climes, but no. They eat pilchard and anchovies, and from a precarious state, their colony is now flourishing. We saw many small boats and fishermen.
Meals at Constantia were fantastic. The area is surrounded by other high quality winery restaurants, so we tried Cape Malay at the elegant Cellars-Hohenort Hotel, surrounded by fabulous gardens. We visited a shopping mall to use email, and it might have been in California. We drove into other beautiful places, many with shops and wine tastings, and oohed and aahed at the rugged countryside. Everyone said South Africa was beautiful, and we agree.
Our next stop was at a small nature preserve, Grootbos (Big Bush or large forest in Afrikaans from the Dutch, who colonized the area before English wars took it away). We were perched on a hilltop overlooking the sea amid indigenous Western Cape milkwood forest. The area, once a cattle ranch, has regrown under German owners offering daily jeep nature drives and seaside walks. Meals were served indoors or al fresco from a thatched dining building with a gift shop and classroom. We slept in an elegant cottage with deck, high ceilings, oriental carpet, and fireplace. We barely touched the fresh fruit basket in the room because the meals were so grand. Outside our door was a pond, insuring frog serenades. There were 10 other luxury cottages, but elsewhere in over 3000 acres the owners were building another lodge, equally large. There were also quarters for some of the help nearby, but invisible in the greenery. A beautiful swimming pool sat next to the lodge, but though we were tempted, we never got a dip since there was so much else to do!
We learned a bit about botany and fire control, identified a few interesting plants and birds on beach or cave walks, and from Land Rover drives with Silence. He is a well informed and humorous young African in short dreadlock braids, bumping along up and down hillside paths amid proteus and erica fynbos (“fine bush”) plants. There are over 600 plant species. Many are indigenous and endemic, growing no place else on earth. A small school on the property holds a dozen adult native students for a year, and they will be offered jobs elsewhere upon graduation. Our young waitress, quick with a giggle, was to spend six months waiting table in Dublin and London a few months hence. The dining room was run by two young men, one black and one white, extremely professional and competent. We ate three wonderful meals a day. Health benefits from walking and climbing were probably ruined by the champagne that our tall guide Igna popped open midroute! I believe the girl was a blonde mountain goat—and barefoot! Her name comes from her father’s, Ignatius.
At another season, whale watching is a big draw, but since it was summer, we took a boat out to Dyer or Seal Island (smelly, but packed with noisy seal families) and en route watched wetsuited adventurers in boats near us climb into shark cages. The tall metal cages don’t completely submerge, so one bends or squats to be underwater with the sharks. Their boat chummed the sea to attract mammoth white visitors. I had never seen seals leap from the water into the air like dolphins before.
We drove past beautiful mountains to the point at Cape Agulhas where the Atlantic and the Indian oceans meet. En route in a Napier coffee stop we chatted with retired Army Major Visser, who claimed to be the major domo, the butler, and the barrista. His obvious delight in chatting up the visitors overshadowed his duties running a small shop. He had an oversize mustache and a twinkle in his eye and loved showing Mike his military collections.
Roads were quiet, modern and beautiful amid hilly farms and ranches. The ocean point was marked by a red and white striped lighthouse and a plaque, and nearby on the lawn a mongoose family played. They look like ferrets. I wished I had paints handy for the striking lighthouse against the blue sea and sky.
Our last stop was Franschoek, in gorgeous wine country where I had my Heidi moment. Instead of mountain chalets, sixteenth century white Dutch houses with curved gabled roofs peered out from greenery and vineyards. Vines ran up craggy Drakenstein Mountains boosting South Africa’s claim as eighth largest world wine producer. Our hotel, Le Quartier Français, was noted for fine food in an area known for dining excellence. Dinners were accompanied by a pianist, and breakfasts were outdoors around a large fountain and gardens. But if they drop your dinner with a crash and you wait a long time for another, don’t you think they should at least comp the dessert?
The town, meaning French Quarter, was named by French Hugenots fleeing the king’s persecution of Protestants in the late seventeenth century. It was small and surrounded by wineries, mostly open to visitors. As in the larger cities, there were guards for the parking lots, and not much chance to wander after dark, except on quiet walks near the hotel. We finally used our bathing suits at their pretty pool. Nearby, La Couronne and La Petite Ferme, the Little Farm, serve exquisite lunches with stellar mountain views. We left for the Capetown airport just as dawn broke over the rugged peaks, and were soon back in London.
South Africa is as large as Spain and France, so we saw only a bit, and high end at that. Tourism has brought money into poor economies and assisted entrepreneurs. Game parks are removing fences between each other, giving animals more room to wander. (Kruger Park is as big as Wales!) Poachers actually threaten the welfare of fellow villagers who have jobs depending on animal sightings, and is on the decline we were told.
On our entire African journey, we met a Kiwi nurse from Seattle, an Australian family with three boys, some South Africans, some Brits, and few Americans, but almost always dined alone, as did all the guests. If we could do it over, we’d stay longer on safari and in Capetown since we barely explored the area. There wasn’t a single dirty restroom on our visit. Although it was summer, we never suffered intense heat, and nights were cool. We brought back CD’s of Ladysmith and the Soweto String Quartet, and also one by Abie Thomas, who played jazz trumpet for us in Capetown harbor. I took photos, and hope for paintings. One disappointment for me was the inability to hear much African music: every guide and book forbade our visiting towns at night! Nearly all whites conversed together in Africaans, with us in English, and with the staff in English or a major tribal language, perhaps Zulu or Swana. The unemployment rate in SA is 30%, because copper, gold, and diamonds are impacted, but in Zambia, the unemployment rate is 75%.
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