At Barney’s Beanery With the Guy Who Created Jaws

jaws posterIn the years I lived in Los Angeles, I occasionally hung out at a legendary West Hollywood eatery called Barney’s Beanery. Mostly, I sat with screenwriters in late middle age, all of us grumbling about the state of a movie industry that either wasn’t interested (in my case) or had moved on to younger writers (most of the others present).

One of those who showed up from time to time was a writer named Carl Gottlieb. Carl wasn’t standoffish, but he was quiet, and, despite his scruffy appearance, he gave the impression there was something about him a little more important than the rest of us lesser mortals. That turned out in its Hollywood way, to be true.

Carl was the principal screenwriter of Jaws, the groundbreaking 1975 classic that established Steven Spielberg as a director and forever changed the way movies are made and marketed—a fact that has been pounded to death in the last week or so as Jaws celebrates the fortieth anniversary of its release.

Scheider, Benchley, Gottlieb on Jaws setDuring our encounters at Barney’s the subject of Jaws never came up. But when I was writing a book about movie stardom titled If the Other Guy Isn’t Jack Nicholson, I’ve Got the Part, I got in touch with Carl and spoke to him at length about his involvement in the movie. To this day, he remains the film’s unsung hero, next to Spielberg the guy most responsible for the movie’s success.

Carl said his involvement with Jaws began one Sunday afternoon when he got a call from his friend Spielberg. Carl had kicked around Hollywood for a while, working as both an actor and a comedian, but at that point he had no screenwriting credentials. Spielberg, who was twenty-six at time, said he wanted to get together at the Bel Air Hotel. Carl knew his friend was to direct a film based on the Peter Benchley bestseller titled Jaws, about a great white shark terrorizing a New England town. In fact, he had already read the early screenplays by Benchley, so he was willing to take the meeting. When did Steven want to get together?

Now, said Spielberg.

Spielberg with Zanuck and BrownWhen Carl arrived at the hotel, he found Spielberg with Richard Zanuck and David Brown, the producers of Jaws. Nobody was happy with the script, and production was about to begin on Martha’s Vineyard. Universal Studios thought of this as nothing more than another disaster movie in the style of the prefabricated products such as Earthquake and Airport 1975 the studio had been profitably churning out.

Spielberg and the producers had different ideas, however. Did Gottlieb have any suggestions how the script might be improved so as to get it away from the usual disaster movie clichés? Drop the Mafia subplot that was in the book, Carl immediately suggested.

The producers liked that, and so the next thing Carl knew he was sharing a rented house on Martha’s Vineyard with Spielberg, daily rewriting the script and helping with the casting of the movie. Carl, for example, pushed hard to hire veteran actor Sterling Hayden, best known for John Huston’s The Asphalt Jungle, and Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove to play the part of Quint, the half-mad fishing boat captain enlisted to go after the great white.Sterling Hayden

A former schooner captain who had run away to the sea at the age of sixteen, Hayden seemed perfect for the role. However, he was having tax problems with the Internal Revenue Service and couldn’t come to the U.S. from the houseboat he occupied in Paris on the River Seine. There was also talk of Lee Marvin as Quint, but no one associated with the production could quite remember if a formal offer was ever made. Zanuck and Brown, having worked with the British actor Robert Shaw on The Sting, decided to go with him.

Joel Grey, who had recently won an Oscar for his role in Cabaret, was lobbying hard for the role of the marine biologist. However, Carl and Spielberg were friends with Richard Dreyfuss who had recently broken through in American Graffiti and The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz. They wanted him.Richard Dreyfuss

The problem was, Dreyfuss had already twice turned down this “fish story.” Carl got on the phone with him. “It’s all rewritten, it’s all changed,” he reassured the actor.

Dreyfuss was in the middle of travelling around promoting Duddy Kravitz, but he agreed to get on a shuttle and come to Martha’s Vineyard for a meeting. “As soon as he walked in the room,” Carl remembered, “he had that beard, those glasses, that hat—the same as the movie—and he was the character.”

There has been  debate over the years about who provided the film’s most famous scene: On the eve of the final shark attack, Quint describes the torpedoing of the destroyer Indianapolis during the Second World War and the subsequent mass shark attack that decimated the ship’s survivors.

Carl said it was the playwright Howard Sackler, himself an avid sailor, who remembered the Indianapolis  incident, and used it in the first version of the script written with  Benchley. Carl liked the reference and as Spielberg approached the filming of the climatic sequence, he lobbied the director to include the Indianapolis reference in the sort of lull-before-the-storm speech that was a mainstay of so many of the war films he had watched over the years.

Robert ShawShaw, a playwright himself, was not happy with the scene despite efforts to bring it to life from both John Milius (who wrote Apocalypse Now) and George Lucas. Finally, the night before the scene was to be shot, Shaw gathered together the various versions, took them away and distilled everything into a single page which he presented to Carl, Dreyfuss, and Spielberg after dinner. With lights dimmed, Shaw acted out the scene for them. Everyone sat in stunned silence when he finished. Carl said not a word was changed when Spielberg shot the scene the next day.

Carl witnessed one more piece of film history just before Jaws opened. After a sneak preview at a theater in Orange County, he was standing in the lobby with Spielberg when Lew Wasserman, the chairman of MCA, the conglomerate that owned Universal, and Sid Sheinberg, the president of the studio, decided they would not play Jaws in a few hundred theaters, the usual way movies were distributed in those days. Instead, they would open it in nearly a thousand theaters. That summer of 1975, Jaws became a phenomenon, earning a then-unheard-of two hundred million dollars at the box office.

The decision made in an Orange County theater lobby certainly changed the way movies are distributed. Whether it changed movies in general, however, is open to argument. The more likely culprits appeared a couple of years later when Star Wars was released in 1977, followed by Superman a year later. The studios began to see that fantasy, long relegated to comic books and Grade B movie serials, could be the source of previously untapped profits. Thus the blockbuster was born, to the detriment, many would argue, of the health of movies in general.

What was soon forgotten, as former Variety editor Peter Bart has pointed out, is that those original movies were created by passionate filmmakers with a personal vision, nothing like the cookie-cutter CGI superhero extravaganzas that now dominate the summer box office and which have become the coin of the realm for the major studios to the exclusion of everything else.

Spielberg, of course, went on from Jaws to become the era’s most powerful and successful filmmaker with a fortune estimated (by Deadline Hollywood) at four billion dollars. I lost track of Carl Gottlieb when I left Los Angeles, but it is safe to say he has suffered the fate of most Hollywood screenwriters, has been mostly forgotten, and is not worth four billion dollars.

It is equally safe to say Jaws would not have been Jaws without him. And certainly hanging around Barney’s Beanery during those years in Los Angeles would not have been as much fun.



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Gary Cooper, The Confidence Man, and the Ghosts of Old Hollywood

Confidence Man (Jpg)CoverWhat fascinated me most researching the Los Angeles of 1928 for my new novel, The Confidence Man, was the lost world of movies I encountered.

That was the year, as any film buff knows, sound movies were introduced (most notably for Al Jolson’s The Jazz Singer). With a speed that even today astonishes, the movies underwent a seismic change as they began to talk.

Most of the thousands of silents Hollywood had churned out over three decades disappeared and the stars who made them—and who made fortunes and lived like kings and queens because of them—were out of work and, along with their movies, soon forgotten.

Tracing the last days of a fading, silent Hollywood was like witnessing a civilization crumble overnight, although at least some evidence of that civilization survives in dusty archives.

220px-Lilac_Time_theatrical_poster“Romance Blooms in Lilac Time,” trumpeted the Los Angeles Times on July 15, 1928 in one of the gargantuan spreads, complete with pen and ink illustrations, that were part of the saturation coverage the paper gave to the movies in those days.

“This story of the love of a French maid for an English airman which comes to the Cathay Circle tomorrow night, does more than bring a breath of romance from Normandy,” the story continued.  “It brings Colleen Moore to the screen in her first romantic role…”

There was actually some talking in Lilac Time, although Ms. Moore remained quiet as the French maid, just as well since she was a very American actress who had become one of the most popular stars of the time by appearing not in romances, but comedies.

The Toilers also received huge front-section coverage from the Times. “Deep below the earth’s surface, The Toilers are found,” the paper announced. “This is not a pretty picture. The Toilers, which comes to the United Artists Theater this week, tells a somewhat grim at times, tale of the struggle for sustenance of a group of miners and of the romance of one of them. Douglas Fairbanks Jr. and Jobyna Ralston have the leading roles.”

Delores Del Rio and Charles Farrell were also opening in The Red Dance. Rene Rich was starring in The Women They Talk About. John Gilbert was in The Four Walls, and Clara Bow, perhaps the biggest female star of the era, known as The “It” Girl, was opening in The Fleet’s In.

In an interview in the Times, Miss Bow said she was in fact tired of being The “It” Girl. The paper reported that “Clara is not signed up for any talkies yet, but they have taken a test of her voice, which has been pronounced excellent.”Clara Bow

That wasn’t quite true. Clara Bow actually had a lisp that she could not overcome and although she did make several successful talking pictures, her career was essentially over by the age of twenty-five.

However, one of Clara’s boyfriends, a young former stunt man from Montana named Frank Cooper did okay when pictures began to talk, despite the fact that he was viewed in the industry initially as a no-talent gigolo willing to sleep with every starlet in town. Notice was taken when he co-starred with Colleen Moore in Lilac Time, even though he was no one’s idea of a British airman. Changing his name to Gary helped, as did roles in Wings with Bow and The Virginian, the talking film that made Gary Cooper a star.

The evolution of Frank Cooper from a young Hollywood playboy with nothing much more on his mind than bedding starlets into Gary Cooper, beloved movie icon, was one of the things about the era that most intrigued with me. How did such a dramatic personality change take place? What could have caused it?Coop1

Those questions, as well as the intoxicating drama and romance of that era, provided the foundation for the novel I was writing. To help explain Coop’s metamorphosis, I introduced a mysterious young confidence man named Billy Dice. Billy is hired by the studio to keep an eye on Coop, drive him around, and make sure he stays out of trouble.

In a town full of confidence men and women—and Coop himself is something of a con man in his early years—Billy fits right in. He gets himself involved with a beautiful flier and mountaineer named Nell Devereaux, has to confront a nasty Cuban dictator named Gerardo Machado, deal with various gangsters, including a rat-faced young hood from the east named Georgie Raft, and generally try to figure out how much of his life is real and how much of it is the illusion he has created for himself.Bow and Raft1

The result of all this intermingling of fact and fiction is The Confidence Man. I began working on it when I lived in Los Angeles seemingly in another lifetime, and have toiled over various versions ever since.

In the course of the writing, I spent hours at the Margaret Herrick Library, the exhaustive achive of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences on La Cienega Boulevard  in Beverly Hills, a treasure trove for anyone interested in the history of movies. I also poked through the voluminous film collections at the  School of Cinema-Television at the University of Southern California.

Doing the research for the book was part of a transformative period in my life. I met and married my wife Kathy during this time, and, thanks to her, poured my heart and soul into the writing of The Confidence Man, finally able to explore deeply held feelings about love, the winning and losing of it, the movies, and the magic they contain that has sustained me in so many ways.

Confidence Man Cover 3DThe print version of The Confidence Man will be available soon. But meanwhile, it has now been published as an e-book available on Amazon. You can click HERE to download your copy.

The time described in The Confidence Man is, of course, long, long gone. And yet, every once in a while as I left the Margaret Herrick Library after a day of immersing myself in ancient movie lore,  I would encounter Los Angeles at dusk suffused in a crimson light—the light, incidentally, that so brilliantly informs Roman Polanski’s Chinatown.

At those moments, with night falling, I would stop and in a curious but very real way find myself transported back to that forgotten world when the movies were beginning to talk. Even in contemporary Los Angeles, I discovered that the ghosts of Old Hollywood were very much present.

They haunt me still, living in The Confidence Man.

Download The Confidence Man HERE.


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I Have Seen The Future and It Looks Like Dubai

South africa Dubai Final Days(Apr.21-23,2015) 193 In Dubai, almost everything looks as though it was built yesterday. Everything else will be built tomorrow. As it turns out,  just about everything was built, if not yesterday, the day before.

The entire waterfront area, chock-a-block with soaring, architecturally mind-blowing spheres that don’t so much reach for the sky as aim for the stars, did not exist before the beginning of this century. In 1979, the World Trade Center was Dubai’s tallest building and everyone thought that it was crazy to build something like this in the desert, far away from the city.

Now the trade center is dwarfed by the buildings hugging around it, and it is at Dubai’s center.

As for tomorrow, you can’t take a photo in this city of two million without a construction crane getting in the way. The international airport, a gleaming massive configuration out of a science fiction writer’s wildest fantasy, currently lands two hundred planes a day and through the night.

South africa Dubai Final Days(Apr.21-23,2015) 207

That’s not enough, apparently. In order to accommodate the visitors anticipated for the World’s Fair here in 2020, they are building a second airport that will accommodate one thousand planes a day.

The Dubai Mall is already the largest in the world with over one thousand shops drawing seventy million visitors a year. That’s not enough, either. The mall is currently expanding to accommodate—so it is claimed—one hundred million shoppers a year.

You think America is the new world? Ha! Think again, pal. The East is the new and thriving world. We’re the old world with a crumbling infrastructure, bad internet, lousy taxis, and a few spaces that are not filled with advertising. You cannot spend any time in Dubai without starting to suspect you have seen the future and the future is nowhere near where you live.

What does the future look like? Kind of like Blade Runner without the grit and grime and lousy air, but with lots of Jumbotron-type television screens and huge billboards encouraging you to buy sleek cars and expensive watches you will never be able to afford.

The future works. The public toilets are pristine and constantly being cleaned, the taxis are immaculate and driven by polite drivers, the bus shelters are—get this—air conditioned.

The future gleams and shines, reflected in vast towers just visible through the haze of an overcast day that fails to obscure the glittering sheen of a perfection that, on the surface at least, dazzles.

In the future everyone is rich or had better be rich so those watches can be bought and the cars purchased. There does not seem to be a lot of room for the poor in this New World. After all, what can the poor buy in those shopping malls?

In North America, the mall is an endangered species,  but here in Dubai, it flourishes. You have only to visit the Dubai Mall on a Friday night to see that. You can hardly move for the surging multitudes. Friday night at the mall is practically a national pastime, and it isn’t only the Dubai Mall. Just down the road, the Mall of the Emirates contains five ski hills, in case you miss the snow and the cold, or, more likely, have no idea what they are. You can actually go skiing—there are lifts, and if you don’t have your ski equipment with you, that’s okay, they will happily supply it.

There are shopping malls everywhere, and God help us all, they are building more, although what exactly they are going to put in them is anyone’s guess. Does the world, let alone Dubai, really need another Zara outlet? Apparently, it does.

Not so long ago, Dubai was a pearl diving village on the edge of the Persian Gulf fallen on hard times. All that changed when oil was discovered in the 1960s. Now Dubai is the commercial center of the seven Arab states that make up The United Arab Emirates.

sheikh_mohammed_jpgSheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum rules with a more or less benign hand, although there have been raised eyebrows over the treatment of the thousands of construction workers who must be brought in to help realize the sheik’s grandiose dreams, and environmentalists are up in arms over a number of issues including water consumption (huge, and it never rains), and the arbitrary way an entire crescent-shaped island was created off the coast.

Lest you have any doubts that Dubai remains very much a Muslim country, you are reminded there are over five hundred mosques. During the holy month of Ramadan, things tighten considerably and you can’t even drink water in public.

Arab dressOtherwise, though, everything is comparatively free and easy. You see plenty of people wearing traditional Arab garb—the thawb for men, the hijab for women—and the tourist brochures and guide books urge women to dress conservatively. Even so, large numbers of young women in various states of western dress don’t seem to have got the message, and no one seems unduly alarmed.Dubai(shorts

Supposedly, one can’t drink except in the five-star hotels that cater to foreign tourists. But everyone flocks to the hotels on weekends and drinks anyway—the number one cause of traffic accidents here is said to be drunk driving.

Not surprisingly, Dubai’s much more conservative neighbors can’t wait to visit. “This is paradise for them,” says one local. “Here they have freedom.” Each weekend the well-heeled from Saudi Arabia and Qatar drive the thirteen hours down Sheikh Zayed Road to enjoy some of what they can’t have at home.

Burj Kalifa by NightOn a Friday evening the Dubai Mall teeming with shoppers, the traffic hopeless along Jumeirah Beach Road, one gives in to his touristy impulses and arranges for a sunset visit to the Burj Khalifa, the silvery sphere dominating Dubai’s skyline that is the world’s tallest building at 2,716.5 feet.

However, even with a reserved time and elevators that rise and fall with such speed you don’t feel  you are moving at all, the crowds are so thick that it is well past sunset by the time you are finally allowed onto the 124th floor observation deck. Everyone is crowded at the windows taking selfies, obscuring the view of Dubai by night.

When you do glimpse the city twinkling in long, colorful necklaces of light far below, the thought again occurs that you are seeing the future. Sort of like an image on one of those Jumbotron screens. Makes you want to buy an expensive watch in Dubai.

Dubai at Night




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Celebrating (Canadian) Film in the Age of Ultron

grand_seduction_ver2_xxlgLast year a Canadian film titled The Grand Seduction arrived, and then quickly departed theatres in Canada and the United States.

The film, directed by Don McKellar, deals with the efforts of the citizens of a small Newfoundland fishing port fallen on hard times to attract a doctor. Ireland’s Brendan Gleeson was in it along with Canada’s Taylor Kitsch as the young doctor, and  Newfoundland’s Gordon Pinsent, stealing every scene in which he appears.

It was something unusual for a made-in-Canada film, a smartly-written, well-acted, solidly crafted, quirky little movie whose ambition was simply to entertain audiences and not win a spot at the Cannes Film Festival. I’m involved in the fledgling Milton (Ontario) Film Festival, and when we showed The Grand Seduction as a Saturday night gala earlier this year, it was a big success. The audience loved it.

So why don’t Canadians make more movies like The Grand Seduction and why don’t they get more attention when they do? I’ve been trying to figure that out for the past forty years or so without much success. I tried to figure it out again yesterday on National Canadian Film Day.

In case you missed it, NCFD was an attempt, according to its website, “to throw off the shackles of fear and insecurity, stand together with Canadians from coast-to-coast and pat ourselves on the back for something other than various ice-related sports and sports-related donut shops.”

A fine ambition and I hope NCFD was a great success. Not to throw cold water on  anything, but it is worth pointing out that the quest for a Canadian film identity remains as elusive today as it did all those years ago when I was writing about movies for The Toronto Star—more so now than ever.

Atom EgoyanAs the Canadian director Atom Egoyan pointed out in the Star, film generally is an endangered species these days. You can imagine where that leaves Canadian films, in English Canada at least, never a healthy species.

Ironically, we have constructed all the bells and whistles around a film industry. We have a world-class film festival in Toronto, and there is a multi-million dollar film temple in the form of the Bell Light Box in downtown Toronto. There are numerous production complexes dedicated to the making of movies. We even have a Canadian Film Center, founded by Norman Jewison, where one can learn how to write, direct, and produce movies.

The one thing we don’t do in connection with the movies we seem to revere, we don’t actually make movies. No big deal, I suppose, except when you don’t create the thing you are celebrating, it does tend to get in the way.

If you do happen by the most fortuitous of circumstances to navigate the horrors of independent film financing and production and get a movie made, good luck in persuading anyone to distribute your masterpiece either in a movie theatre or on television.

Now I should amend this slightly to say we don’t make or see English Canadian films. In Quebec, audiences actually attend local movies (The Grand Seduction was originally a Quebecois film, La Grande Seduction, a big hit), although when I lived in Montreal there was much grumbling among Quebec filmmakers that local hits did not play well outside the province, even in French-speaking countries.

Canadian films in the rest of the country—cue The Grand Seduction—are mostly ignored. Homegrown movies account for a miserable 1.6  percent of the Canadian box office, down from a high of about three per cent back in the 1980s.

It’s unlikely to get better any time soon. As Egoyan reminded us this week, this is not a great time for the movies.


If you want to know what’s wrong, stick around Friday when Avengers: Age of Ultron is unveiled in countless multiplexes to a movie-going public eager to flock to see actors in tights playing comic book heroes saving the world in a cosmos of computer-generated effects. The original Avengers is one of the highest-grossing movies of all time. The latest edition is expected to make over one billion dollars worldwide before it is finished.

Not surprisingly, Hollywood wants to make more of this sort of thing, not less. No one is interested in making a Grand Seduction. Everyone wants the next X-Men (don’t worry; they are currently filming the next X-Men). What was once the mainstay of low budget black and white programmers (miss you, Buster Crabbe), has become a mega budget business and about the only reason Hollywood still exists.

Warner Bros. recently announced it will make no fewer than ten movies based on its DC Comics franchise. The Marvel arm of Disney studios will release eleven of its superhero movies between now and 2019. Prepare to be inundated with this stuff.

Ironically, the medium I grew up loving with such passion, has been creatively superseded by that supposedly vast cultural wasteland known as television.  From The Sopranos (the series that started it all) to Mad Men, from Breaking Bad and Boardwalk Empire to Justified, Bates Motel, Downton Abbey and Broadchurch, these shows and many others form the vanguard of a revolution in TV drama unlike anything since the introduction of talking pictures.John-Hamm-Mad-Men-deal

This remarkable creative flowering has left movies looking old and tired, locked into overworked three-act formulas with predictable outcomes. Movies—and I hate to say this—have mostly become a bore. You can guess without going near a theatre this weekend how Avengers: Age of Ultron is going to turn out. I defy anyone to guess what’s going to happen as Mad Men finishes its run.

So how did I celebrate National Canadian Film Day? Well, I recalled the first time I met a young filmmaker named Atom Egoyan. I fondly remembered attending one of the first screenings of Goin’ Down the Road, and I thought about standing around the set of The Grey Fox, two ground-breaking Canadian films of which we should all be proud.

After that, it occurred to me that it might be a better idea to concentrate on innovative ways to finance and distribute more Canadian films rather than all this other stuff that has nothing to do with actually getting movies made. Of course, that’s the hard part, isn’t it?

Then I sat down and watched the final episode of Justified.

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On Safari: The Lion Sleeps, The Elephants Poop, and the Leopard, the Elusive Leopard…

NuzzlingMichael’s searchlight picks out the lion materializing suddenly out of the darkness. A couple of females and their five cubs.

Sighting female lions is not so unusual out here on the savanna or bushveld that is part of the Kapama Private Game Reserve, forty-eight kilometers from Kruger National Park in South Africa. But coming across a lioness with her cubs, that doesn’t happen so often.

Your intrepid correspondent has landed here in the Africa that you think of when you think of Africa to track what they call the Big Five: the lion, elephant, cape buffalo, leopard, and rhinoceros. Originally the term was coined by big game hunters identifying the most difficult game to hunt on foot.

However, these days, most of the shooting is done with a camera. Sorry, Ernest. If one arrives at the game reserve with a certain amount of skepticism, it quickly evaporates in the rush of excitement at seeing these magnificent creatures close up.

The lions have climbed atop one of the termite mounds that are littered along the roadsides in the reserve. They appear to be on the hunt for a warthog, warthogs favoring termite mounds. They are tense with concentration, frozen in place, waiting.

Lion on a Termite Mound

They don’t seem at all upset by the presence of humans shining a bright light on them. From the look of things, they could care less.

“They see us all the time,” says our guide, a bright, dedicated young man named Jacques Du Doit who goes by the name Jakes. “They know we’re not a danger to them, so we’re just part of the scene and they ignore us.”

The lions become tired of waiting around for the warthog to show, and saunter off, crossing right beside our vehicle, the cubs following. One playful straggler, after lingering near us for a time, hurries after them.

giraffesEarlier, giraffes presented themselves for a photo opportunity, and a small herd of zebras seemed in no hurry to do anything but have their picture taken. For an unrequited city slicker, no particular lover of nature, all this is an experience both exhilarating and curiously emotional.

Animals you have spent a lifetime seeing only in photographs or as background for everyone from Johnny Weismuller as Tarzan to Meryl Streep and Robert Redford in Out of Africa are abruptly close to the end of your nose, so dramatically real the sight of them leaves you in a state of—there is no other word for it—wonder.

Nyalas (a kind of antelope) gambol outside the window of your hotel room. A vervet monkey darts into the dining room, leaps onto one of the buffet tables, snaps up an apple and then disappears outside with his prize. The animals mix nicely with the kind of luxurious amenities that a five-star, thatch-roofed luxury resort specializing in what it calls ecotourism provides. The Kapama reserve spreads over thirteen thousand hectares (approximately thirty-two thousand acres). Civilization has come to this part of Africa in a big way—Kapama is only one of the many reserves abutting the Kruger.

Time was when most of these places catered to men with guns intent on killing big game. That’s all gone now. There are a lot more people with cameras than there are Hemingway wannabes so the resorts have adapted accordingly. Still, there remains the thrill of the hunt—except now you’re shooting endless pictures with your digital camera.

Safari Day#5 Afternoon&Evening(Apr.19,2015 013Your guide, in this case, Jakes, awakens you at five thirty in the morning. At six A.M. the lodge provides coffee and then at six thirty it’s out to the open-air Toyota Land Cruisers that seat nine and seem able to navigate just about any terrain the bushveld can throw at them. Jakes works with Michael Makanze, a tracker who sits on a seat mounted on the front left side of the Land Cruiser, a precarious perch that enables him to look for tracks and signs of game.

The animal poop that litters the landscape—the part they never show you in the movies—often provides valuable clues. On one occasion, Jakes and Michael come across elephant poop the size of small boulders. Fresh and stinky, evidence that elephants are nearby. Sure enough, not far away, a herd materializes, swaying slowly out of the bush.

Elephants On Parade

This morning Jakes and Michael pick up fresh leopard tracks along the road. This is a particularly exciting possibility. Of the Big Five, the leopard is the most elusive. Notoriously shy, few get a glimpse of him on these safaris.

Off we go after our elusive prey, hurtling along the series of confusing dirt roadways that crisscross the reserve. The day is overcast and cool. We pause to marvel at a small herd of elephants lumbering along. Game sightings are abundant, but Jakes and Michael are intent on finding our leopard.

Eventually, after much toing and froing and inspection of leopard tracks, we come across our boy, nestled in an off-road thicket, barely visible. Nearby, panicked monkeys send up a cacophony of noise warning of his presence.

A moment later, the leopard slithers away through the underbrush and we glimpse a disappearing silhouette. Not much, but still, it counts: We have seen the leopard.

Sort of.

The Land Cruiser returns to the main lodge at nine thirty A.M. There is breakfast, followed by an extravagant lunch. On safari, no matter how close you come to the animals, you are never far away from a good meal.

At three thirty we are off again into the bushveld. Jakes and Michael have decided to resume their search for the leopard, but along the way we will stop to view anything else we come across.

At dusk, that includes a large male lion with a full mane sprawled on the ground next to his lioness mate. We come to a stop a few feet away. The lions ignore our presence. We are right on top of them, but they could care less.

The two lions nuzzle affectionately. The female licks at the male’s face. He doesn’t seem to mind that at all. Having been properly licked and nuzzled for a time, the male struggles to his feet and makes his way lazily to a nearby copse of trees. They have recently killed a wildebeest, and the lion settles in and begins to munch away at the carcass. The sound of his dining, the crunch of flesh and bone, fills the air.

When he finishes, the lion rises and moves back toward his mate. He comes right up to the Land Cruiser, feet away. He gazes up at us and for a moment—a very unsettling moment—we are staring into the yellowy eyes of the storied king of beasts. It’s the only time in Africa I was truly nervous.The Lion

Jakes quickly moves the Land Cruiser out of his way.

As we drive off, Jakes gets word of the leopard. This time he has been spotted in the far reaches of the reserve. By now, night has fallen. Jakes picks up speed and we go crashing along roadways, Michael’s searchlight cutting through the dark, the adrenalin rising. I am on the hunt. Hemingway with a camera.

Then, suddenly, there’s the leopard, at rest in a clearing, caught in a shaft of light. He blinks a couple of times, but otherwise, seems happy enough to pose for photos. The bushveld’s most elusive prey, tonight, is ready for his close-up.

But not for long. The leopard quickly tires of having his picture taken, rises, and starts off down the road, the Land Cruiser following.


Then, something totally unexpected.

Behind the leopard, two young male lions have appeared. These two predator species hate one another—each view the other as competition. This could mean big trouble for the leopard.

As the lions stalk forward, everyone tenses. The leopard, however, seems oblivious to the danger closing in on him. You are tempted to shout a warning. Honk the horn. Something. But that is man intruding, and out here, that’s a big no-no. The drama must play out as it plays out.

Now the lions are right behind the leopard. He seems doomed. Still, he doesn’t seem to realize what’s about to happen. All unfolds in excruciating slow motion until, abruptly, the leopard finally realizes the trouble he is about to be in.

He springs off the road into the underbrush. The lions charge after him—no more slow motion, everything happening at lightning speed.

The three disappear into the darkness, and we fear the worst. No way can the leopard escape his adversaries. But then, a moment later, the lions are back on the road, sauntering along, as if nothing happened. Somehow, the leopard has gotten away. Jakes thinks he leaped safely into the branches of a tree where the lions can’t follow.

We sit there, stunned and drained by what we have just witnessed, relieved that our elusive leopard has survived.

We head for home, Michael’s searchlight moving ceaselessly, the wind in our faces, the night growing cooler.


night flight


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Township Tourism: Welcome to the New South Africa

Langa TownshipIn the new South Africa, the poor and the oppressed have been turned into a tourist attraction.

The townships on the flatlands outside Cape Town once were a symbol of the worst excesses of apartheid, the white supremacist South African government’s attempt to permanently separate the races by evicting thousands from urban centers and forcing them into squalid settlements.

The townships are stark reminders of the enduring legacy of apartheid. But rather than pretend they don’t exist, enterprising local entrepreneurs have opened the townships up to tourists.

Welcome to the era of Township Tourism. Yesterday’s state-sponsored atrocities have become today’s major tourist attractions.

Thus, you can also visit Robben Island, a flat piece of scrubland set down in Table Bay. This is where you find South Africa’s most notorious prison, housing political dissidents since the seventeenth century, the place where Nelson Mandela spent eighteen years of his life before being released in 1992. The prison itself is now closed, and has been turned into a museum, a World Heritage site, and Cape Town’s most popular tourist destination.

Mandela's CellEach day, boats bring fifteen hundred visitors from around the world anxious to see the tiny cells where Mandela and other political prisoners were housed. Guided by former Robben Island inmates, you are taken through a maze of one-story stone buildings and courtyards—the B block containing the cell where Mandela was housed and the particularly stark C Block where troublesome prisoners were placed in solitary confinement, sometimes for years, unable to speak to anyone, not even the guards.

There is, of course, a Robben Island gift shop where you can buy souvenirs, everything from key chains in the form of—you guessed it—a key, to T-shirts and coffee mugs. The guide on the first leg of the tour, a bus trip around the island, tells jokes and wants to know if anyone is celebrating a birth or an anniversary.

Our guide inside the prison doesn’t tell jokes. A tall, raw-boned man wearing dark glasses, he was housed on Robben Island for six years during the eighties after being beaten and tortured.

The key chains and shopping bags aside, there is something profoundly moving about the experience of being inside these cold grey prison walls, the physical reality of man’s calculated inhumanity to his fellow man. It is also a reminder of the eventual failure of the totalitarian state, the inability of one group of people to subjugate and separate the members of another group.

Or is it?

Robben Island Prison  Today

Khonaye Tuswa, whose name everyone pronounces as Conor, is one of the young entrepreneurs bringing tourism to the townships. He argues that apartheid in a way succeeded because townships like Langa, where we are visiting this morning, instead of being dismantled at the end of apartheid, have become permanent fixtures on the South African landscape.

The difference now, Khonaye continues, is one of attitude. Because township residents can now own their homes, something they could never do during the apartheid era, there is a renewed sense of pride and community.

Khonaye cleverly promotes his tours not as a chance to see how the poor of South Africa continue to suffer, but as an opportunity for outsiders to witness the spirited optimism of people moving forward with their lives despite their limited circumstances.

The message reaffirmed repeatedly by Khonaye and his township partner, Zingi, is one of hope—and patience. Rome was not built in a day, Zingi says as he leads us through the streets of Langa, teeming with residents out on a Saturday morning. The townships won’t change overnight either, and change has certainly been slower than anyone would have hoped thanks to a corrupt central government. But change will come, he asserts passionately.

Langa residents have become used to celebrity. Several movies have been shot here. Clint Eastwood came to direct scenes for Invictus with Matt Damon and Morgan Freeman. Denzel Washington ran over the township rooftops to escape bad guys in Safe House.

The reaction from the locals to all this outside attention runs the gamut from indifference to friendly waves, and cries of “The white folks are here, the white folks are here!” The children, thrilled to have the distraction of visitors, eagerly pose for photographs.Township Kids

Originally built to house eight thousand residents, Langa bursts at the seams with over fifty thousand, including the squatters living on the outskirts in jerry-rigged huts without electricity or running water. From the outside, this is often the unattractive face of the townships.

As our guides are eager to point out, however, once you enter, the face begins to change into a more settled community. While one street features the corrugated metal huts often seen in township photos, another looks like any suburban neighborhood lined with neat, clean bungalows.

Still, for all the passionate optimism of people like Khonaye, the country remains sharply divided along the racial fault lines formed by history and the original architects of apartheid. The blacks reside mostly in townships like Langa.

Up the road, the irrepressible Kobus Oliphant, former school teacher, preacher, paralegal, driver, and guide, shows us around Stellenbosch. This is the town, located in the wine country, set against dramatic mountain vistas, where Kobus was born and grew up in a “colored” Afrikaner community, higher on the social scale than the blacks in the townships, therefore much more residential and established.

The view of Cape Town from Table MountainIn Cape Town, the white Afrikaners live on the east side of Table Mountain; the white people of British origin are on the west. You do not see many blacks in either part of town, other than in service jobs.

A tourist visiting Cape Town for the first time sees little of this racial divide. Mostly, one is greeted by friendly, helpful people providing services at prices unheard of in North America in a beautiful European-like city against the picture-perfect backdrop of Table Mountain, Lion’s Head, and Signal Hill. Driving through seacoast communities like Sea Point and Camps Bay it is not hard to believe you are in the South of France. Coming down from Signal Hill at dusk you could be on the Amalfi Coast.

Little wonder those who live outside Cape Town say it is not the real South Africa. The real South Africa is, as one artist I talked to in Hermanus, a tourist town along the scenic Rotary Way, “a country descending into chaos.”

The harsh reality of South African life can intrude even in Cape Town. One night as we leave a seaside restaurant after yet another of the superb meals Cape Town offers, we encounter a man on the ground in the parking lot being administered to by emergency medical personnel. Not far away, a woman sits calmly holding a baby. A small boy, her son, trembles beside her.

The woman says the man on the ground is her husband. She stabbed him because he beat her every day. She was tired of it, she said, so she plunged a knife blade into his chest.

The first responders working to save the man are not happy at the presence of intruders. This is not a tourist attraction late at night in Cape Town. This is life and death.

You are angrily reminded there is still a difference, and sent on your way.

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Toto, We Are Not In Kansas Anymore…

CComing into Cape Town

Evidence, Toto, we are not in Kansas anymore:the captain of our Boeing 777 announces that the flight to South Africa from Dubai will be longer than usual because we must fly around war-torn Yemen.

You begin to understand you are in a part of the world where things are not quite the same. You are a little closer to the day’s headlines than you were before.

Dubai, part of the United Arab Emerites, on a map, no more than an afterthought attached to the vastness of Saudi Arabia. Iran glowers just across the Persian Gulf; Iraq rips itself apart at the far end of the gulf, a little more to the west.  Looking at a map of the region to get your bearings does not calm the nerves.

My seatmate en route to Dubai is Reza from Toronto who is setting up an office for an Iran power company in anticipation of the loosening of the international sanctions that have hobbled the country for years. Does he really believe the recent U.S.-Iran agreement will bring an end to the restrictions?

“To some of them,” he says. “My company wants to be out in front of this, and not be left behind when the sanctions end.”

He left Iran twenty years ago, fed up with the repression. His brother owned a pool hall in Montreal, and although he seems the most unlikely person in the world to do it, with the help of his brother Reza got into the pool hall business in Toronto.

But now, given the shift in things, he finds himself working for the very people he tried to get away from two decades ago. He flies to Dubai every three months. They have rented an apartment for him and offices close by.

The South African authorities aren’t so concerned about the amount of money you are bringing into the country as they are in making sure you haven’t been anywhere near an Ebola outbreak. To reassure them, you fill out a page-long questionnaire. They may feel better, but it’s a slightly unnerving reminder for the visitor.

Out of (South) Africa (Apr6 to 8,2015) 023These days, it seems, the East never sleeps. That has its good and bad aspects. In Dubai at four o’clock in the morning, the airport is hopping. Apparently, there are no noise abatement laws forcing a cessation of flights after midnight.

Passengers throng the science fiction movie-ready concourses. Everything is open, the duty-free shops selling five thousand dollar watches, the boutiques hawking designer purses, fine restaurants complete with hostesses working to entice customers for a very late meal. All the peoples of the world appear to have gathered at this time of the morning, distinctly Arabic, but at the same time very Western, too, a melting pot of cultures.

Not far away these cultures clash violently. Here they intermingle and shop.

The flight to Cape Town seems endless, the plane going east to bounce off the toe of the Arabian Peninsula to miss Yemen and then more or less following the east coast of Africa south, far, far south—down through the Equator, further south than the visitor has ever ventured before.

Even though we dodge Yemen, we do manage to fly past sometimes notorious hotspots: Mogadishu in Somalia and Mombasa in Kenya. Not so much further west lies Rwanda and beyond that the troubled Congo. These places simmer thirty-five thousand feet below, out of sight, but somehow close by and certainly not out of mind.

The troubled world evaporates for the moment with the first look at the rugged sandstone beauty of the South African landscape coming into Cape Town from the north. Out the right side of the plane, fabled Table Mountain overlooking the bay and reducing this city of nearly four million, to no more than a jumble of toy buildings scattered around the base of the mountain.Out of (South) Africa (Apr6 to 8,2015) 033

Up close, Cape Town pulls into clearer focus enough to understand we are being transported to Burgundy Estate, one of the northern suburbs. Our apartment is lovely, but the compound in which it is located is surrounded by a high wall, topped with wire and signs warning “Danger Electric Fence.” More evidence that we are not in Kansas anymore. But then, that’s the idea.

The adventure has begun.

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