Friday, October 29, 2010

Nina Griscom's African Adventure - Part II

The crafts krall at the Himba village in northwest Namibia.
Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Today's journey took us up in the air once again, to the Skeleton Coast in Namibia, where the desert meets the Atlantic Ocean. We landed on another barren strip and were driven over a road that resembled a mule track, to the Skeleton Coast Wilderness Camp, 2 hours away into the depths of NOWHERE. This has to be the end of the earth! The vastness of the landscape and the absolute lack of almost any signs of life are mind-altering and breathtaking in its stark beauty. Not a place for those who are not of sound mind!
 
We arrived in time for lunch and after the offering of cool towels, cold drinks, and handshakes (I stuck to the basics at this point), we dined on a delicious lasagna and salad. After getting settled into our more spartan rooms (compared to Little Kulala Camp), we ventured out in the covered jeeps to the sand dunes which were a sea of beige as far as the eye could see. Cocktails at sunset on top of the dunes ... a symphony of unending beige.
Our trusty King Air.
When we returned to camp, everyone changed out of their sand blasted clothes and came to the main camp living room for cocktails! When a male is introduced to 11 females, the hormones go wild. Enter Chris, a white hunter/guide straight out of central casting! Chris was larger than life in all respects: A towering, muscular type, with flowing blonde hair and his left arm cut off below the elbow; thick South African accent, peppered with invectives.
 
Chris had broken down in his jeep on the way to some God forsaken place and had stopped by our camp to wait for the parts to fix his jeep. I can only imagine what was going through his head when he saw our crew!
Chris, a hunter/guide straight out of central casting, with his Jack Russell Terrier.
200 whiskies later, he launched into the saga of how he lost his arm to a crocodile. Even his Jack Russell Terrier had lost an eye to a leopard. I was told that he was the real deal: a man descended from Huguenots who settled in SA and fought in the Boer War. Chris had been in intelligence during the war with Angola. It seemed like he was still fighting his own war in the bush ... and not always winning. Certainly his dog was on the losing side.
 
I opted to play backgammon with my friend Frances, all the whiles having one ear cocked towards these tall tales coming from the table. Retired early, intact.
Chris's Jack Russell Terrier, who had lost an eye to a leopard.
Thursday, September 30, 2010

A late wake up call at 7 AM. Today's schedule sounded relaxed, but ended up being the most exhausting of any day thus far; roughly nine hours driving in the jeeps over what passes for roads in this place. I arrived in Africa with three herniated discs in my back, and by nightfall, I had added another two to the list.
 
Our first stop, one and a half hours away, was a visit to a Himba village. The Himba people still live in primitive huts made of mud and cow dung, and dress in the traditional tribal clothing. I loved the headdresses which had woven leather, bits of fur, and decorative beading. To die for, and just perfect for Fall in New York! The Himba ladies are covered in a red ochre powder which added to the overall effect.
The Himba people live in huts made of mud and cow dung.
The Himba ladies are covered in a red ochre powder.
The males were out tending the herds of cattle and goats, which sustain them. Their diet comprises meat and sour milk, which supposedly has led them to the top of the longevity pile in this region. Note to self: eat more goat!
 
Though basically a nomadic people, this Himba village was stationary and a mecca for tourists wishing to see unadulterated village life. Again, the specter of 11 ladies even made the Himba quizzical. After walking around the circle of 10 huts and greeting the ladies and their children, we raced over to the crafts krall, and started haggling like fish wives over all the hand made items they had on display. One friend chose a tribal spear, festooned with baboon fur. I made a mental note NOT to go through customs with her! I selected a few woven raffia bracelets and a woven basket.

A Himba tribeswoman.
Then back in the jeeps and off to a visit to a nearby local community school, where we visited the kids in their classroom. They were delightful and very welcoming to us. In this particular school, of one classroom, there were 180 students (more males than females) and three teachers. One of the issues that is particularly hard to get around is the subject of attendance. Due to extreme poverty, and long distances to travel from home to class, many parents keep their kids at home to help with herding or chores, and do not encourage them to attend school.
 
Krista spoke with the teachers and community leaders to determine the most pressing issues (the village water pump had been broken for TWO years) and what if anything could be done to help out.
 
After saying goodbye, we zoomed off to a beautiful shaded spot under some Acacia trees in a dry riverbed, where our guides set up a picnic lunch. Cold beers and chicken tasted fabulous in this gorgeous setting. After an hour, they packed up and we hoisted our selves back into the jeep for the next 200-hour drive. Nothing like a rough African bush ride to promote digestion!
 
Animals galore this afternoon: Desert elephants (slightly smaller than those elsewhere), giraffe, ostrich (who seemed to be racing our jeep), baboons, impalas, et al. It was such a beautiful and tranquil sight. At this point, we were driving through the dry river bed of the ancient canyon, and as we drove along, our guides filled us with fascinating information about the various animal spoor we saw, as well as their habits.
 
We rolled back into camp at 6pm, just in time for ... cocktails! And dinner. Early to bed, as no one could speak after so many adventures and hard road.

Friday, October 1, 2010

Up at 7 AM, and another six-hour jeep ride. I think you are getting the picture by now?
 
Today we traveled to the Skeleton Coast, where the Atlantic Ocean meets the desert. Many a shipwreck has occurred here, as the rocks and tides are formidable. This is BARREN CENTRAL! If anyone were contemplating a murder, this is the sole place on earth a body would go undetected forever. Just in case you wanted to know.
En route to the Skeleton Coast.
On our drive to the coast we traveled via the canyon again.
On our drive to the coast we traveled via the canyon again, and saw magnificent castles made of compacted clay. I am no student of geology, but for those who are, this was very impressive. Saw many beautiful birds, oryx, baboons, and lichen (yes, lichen). Not many creatures can sustain life out here.
 
The light was flat and misty and eerie overall. When we arrived at the coast, our guides set up lunch while we all wandered about looking for shells and skulls of animals. Cold grilled oryx was served for lunch, but I heavily suspected it was the left over lamb from last night. Mystery meat!
Skeleton Coast, where the Atlantic Ocean meets the desert.
Cold grilled oryx was for lunch.
After lunch, I took an hours walk down the desolate beach with a few of the ladies, and came across a seal parked on the sand who appeared like a piece of driftwood at first. When he saw us approaching, he jumped up and waddled down to the shore. Sadly, his head and neck was encased in a green fishing net. It was a real lesson of man's encroachment; even in this "End of the World" spot. Said a prayer for him and hoped he would be able to bite it off eventually.
 
On the drive back to camp, we re-visited some of the huge sand dunes. Just when I thought I was home free, our guides drove the jeeps straight down from the top at a 90-degree angle. Insane, but so much fun!
The red dunes where some of the more adventurous of our party climbed to the top and slid down on their butts.
Saturday, October 2, 2010

7 AM and ready to roll! I loved this place and was thrilled to have seen it, yet the starkness and intrinsic desolation was almost too much to absorb in such a quick visit, and I was ready to head off to the next destination, which was more populated and less barren. This camp drove home the brutality of the wild and the slim margin which constitutes the daily struggle to survive.
 
The King Air took us to a small airport in Namibia, where we cleared customs, and then on to Maun, (the capitol of Botswana), where we cleared customs AGAIN ... and did a quick shopping spree at the shops across the street. You'd be surprised by what one can find at these little stores! Safari clothes, tribal jewelry, African masks, soft drinks et al. Leave your Amex card at home, as it is not taken in this part of Africa. Visa is king here.

Vumbura Camp.
From Maun we flew to Vumbura Plains (a tiny bush landing strip) and were met by our guides in the jeeps. We had gotten pretty good at deplaning in a shake of an elephant's tail, and were ready to go in 10 minutes. The drive to the Vumbura Plains Tented Camp, located in the Okavango Delta, was quick, and we were greeted by the camp staff bearing cool towels, cold drinks, and indemnification forms (sound familiar?). Some of the ladies had caught on to my behavior in the gift shops, and forswore the initiation process in the name of racing to the shop. I guess I should have been more discreet before .. Ah well.
 
This camp was ideal for seeing lots of game as it has never been a hunting camp. As such, the animals are not frightened by jeeps and humans to the same degree as those who have experienced being hunted. This is not to say it is a Disney Park. These are wild animals and are not tamed in any way. It is said that if you live in the African bush, it is only a matter of time before you are taken down by a lion, hippo, rhino, or hyena. I opt for the roads as the number one killer!

Vumbura Camp is African Safari luxury at its best! And after the solitary, somewhat spartan nature of the last camp, I was verrrrry ready for a heaping portion of comfort. Per usual we unpacked and met in the main area of camp for cocktails at sunset and dinner. I crawled into my bed relatively early to the sounds of hippos screaming in the river, baboons playing slap and tickle on my roof, and tree frogs carrying on vociferously. Ear plugs, Ear plugs, Ear plugs!
 
A note to the wise: Essential to take Malarone pills every night, as Malaria is rampant and not to be taken lightly. Aside from a dream life in Technicolor (which I kinda like), there are no side effects.
Vumbura Camp, African Safari luxury at its best.
Sunday, October 3, 2010

When the 5:30 wake-up call came, I decided to roll over and play dead, which wasn't far from the truth! I decided to spend a morning in camp reading and writing and just enjoying the beautiful surroundings. I couldn't face another jeep.

Little did I know then what a bright idea this was.

The dreaded and deadly Black Mamba snake.
When the ladies returned to camp some four hours later they were in a state of near hysteria. Apparently, during the game drive, one of the (uncovered) jeeps had hesitated for a second while shifting gears over a bump, and a Black Mamba snake (one of the deadliest in Africa) was surprised in its sleep.

In a nanosecond, it raised itself up, ready to strike, two feet away from one of the girls, and if not for the driver's quick reaction to immediately accelerate, she would have been a goner.

I am not a snake person ... not at all ... so even the recounting of it felt like a neurotoxin entering my blood stream. Apparently the bite of the Black Mamba is so toxic that the victim has no chance of survival, as the venom is uber deadly and immediate in its effect. This incident definitely served to put me and everyone else on high snake alert; all antennae UP!!
 
I noticed that the guides loved to boast and brag about all manner of exploits in the bush, but mention the Black Mamba, and all conversation ceased. No humor there.
 
The afternoon held a special treat: a helicopter ride over the Delta. The bush is so vast in terms of square miles that it is impossible to grasp the immensity of it by foot or in a vehicle. So the vantage point from the air really helped me to appreciate the enormity and beauty from another perspective.
Our helicopter ride over the Delta.
We saw hippos lolling in the river, herds of elephants munching foliage, galloping giraffes and elegant storks and herons feasting on fish from the copious rivers and water holes.
The afternoon light was golden and clear of any smog or filter; pure wild beauty that has defied encroachment thus far, and deserves to remain as such forever!

Dinner, cards and backgammon at camp. Frances Schultz, my dear friend, who was responsible for introducing me to Krista Krieger and asking me to join this safari, is a card sharp and a master backgammon player. Despite her seductive southern wiles, she is a killer, and I lost to her time and time again, with much cursing and laughter on both sides!
 
Frances, the card sharp, and me.
A sound sleep with the usual attendant animal orchestra outside my tent ...

Monday, October 4, 2010

Sad to leave the spectacular Vumbura Camp, but the prospect of visiting the famous Mombo Camp, next up, is alluring.
 
After a beautiful early morning game drive, we boarded the King Air again (by this time I had initiated a competition between our pilots as to who had the best landings ... nothing like a little pressure on the dear fly boys), and had a 10-minute flight to a community (the Okavanga Community Trust) to visit the Seronga Primary and Secondary schools.
 
I had taken the decision to leave my Butchie leather hiking shoes behind in lieu of wearing my chic camo colored flip flops. Boy was I sorry about that decision when I saw we had to walk on boiling hot sand for 20 minutes to get to the community. Nevermind ... all part of a days work.
 
This government built school was led by a man right out of the comic strips! When we asked what sort of things he needed for the students, his first response was TVs and AC. There were no desks, few books and a million things in a state of dilapidation. The kitchen was inoperative due to disrepair, and the JoJo cans used to store water (at 5k a pop) were also inoperative (4 out of 12 were working). When we queried as to why they had not repaired them, a lame excuse was given as to how the government had a procedure that must be followed. No sense of initiative present. Very discouraging. Self reliance is a theme which needs to be strongly reinforced.
The Seronga Primary and Secondary schools.
A visit with the students. There were no desks, few books and a million things in a state of dilapidation.
Back into the King Air and off to Mombo Camp, 10 minutes as the crow flies. Mombo is one of the star attractions as far as luxury camps go. Also, tons of spectacular game viewing.

Botswana is really IT if you are interested in seeing the BIG 5 ... and all manner of bird life, which often goes unsung in the face of the more glamorous primates.
 
Frances and I were sharing accommodations (tent 8) and were both very happy to unpack and get organized. Much time and effort goes into sorting out ones cameras and various lenses! Frances is an old Africa hand and as such brought along a brownie camera (not really) as an after thought. She is a beautiful painter and was constantly drawing on her sketch pad and then later filling in with her water colors.
Mombo Camp accommodations in Okavango Delta Botswana.
The writer deep in thought at Mombo Camp, taken by her trusty tent-mate, Frances Schultz.
After a long lunch at camp, we took off for a golden light afternoon game drive, where we came across a pride of 22 lion, having a postprandial nap in the bush. Two cubs, who had no interest in sleeping, were frolicking about, biting the tails of their mothers. Female lions in a pride usually come into estrus at the same time, and as such give birth simultaneously. The cubs are reared to consider all the females as MOTHER, and take the breast milk from any and all of this population.
 
We spent an hour watching the pride from the jeep, only several yards away, and witnessed the cubs going to each lioness in search of attention, milk, or play. The males were sacked out! The pride had taken down a wildebeest the day before and were exhausted after a major feast. Nearby were 2 vultures, patiently waiting for any sign of left over meat or the possibility of a new kill.
Two cub frolicking about while the adults were taking a postprandial nap.
One of 2 vultures waiting for any sign of left over meat. Carmine Bee-eaters.
An African bush elephant.
That possibility became more realistic with the arrival of a family of elephants. We eagerly awaited to see what would happen. The male lions sat up and cast a cursory glance at the herd, but then went back to sleep, sated by yesterday's kill. Should the elephants have transgressed the territory of the lions, the picture could have been much more violent. Fortunately, the ellie's continued far apace and peace reigned.
 
Back to camp for cocktails and dinner. Tonight we were treated to a barbecue in the boma, which means an enclosed area. The staff built a wonderful fire in the center and we had a delicious buffet meal of roasted meat, stewed vegetables, and salads.
 
Outside of our tent, a lone male hippo lives in the river. He seems to have been ostracized by his clan and as such was bellowing up a storm.
A termite hill.
Tuesday, October 5, 2010

This was the day where I felt all of the dryness and heat which is Africa at this time of year. It was unrelenting and even the most stalwart among us were ready to break!
 
The early morning game drive was billed as a three-hour drive, but turned into a marathon of six and a half hours. At 6:30 AM the air is thin and cool, but approaching 9 AM it becomes dry and murderously hot. As we drove along we saw lots of Elephant, Water Buffalo, the pride of Lion from yesterday (still sleeping after a night out hunting), Vervet Monkeys, Baboons, Warthogs, Lilac Breasted Rollers (the most beautifully colored birds imaginable), Carmine Breasted Bee Eater's (another gorgeous small bird), an African Wild Dog (almost extinct), a dazzle of Zebra, Wildebeest, Impalas, Giraffe, Herons, Saddle-billed Storks, and a lone Croc. Not a bad morning!!
The pride of Lion still sleeping after a night out hunting.
A lone croc.
A Vervet Monkey. A baboon.
Saddle-billed Stork.
An African Wild Dog. Its species is near extinction.
A baby ellie. Baobabs are often known as the upside-down trees.
We begged our guide to take us back to camp as planned, for a little down time, but he had other ideas. At this point, Krista had taken a shawl and wound it around her head in the name of avoiding all the dust which was kicking up.

Krista all wrapped up ...
I was simply numb by all the bumpy driving and the days of travel. This is not to say that I/we were not thrilled by all the spectacular things we were privileged to see! We were simply at the end of our tether ...
 
Our guide drove up to a lovely dry river bed where we disembarked. Lo and behold, the staff had set up a formal in-the-bush luncheon for us, complete with champagne, which I immediately quaffed! 
 
FINALLY, we were driven back to camp. but, on the way back, our guide got a radio alert telling him there was an elephant in camp who had crashed through the wooden walkway into a tented room.

And WHOSE room do you suppose that was??? YES, mine! I wanted to sock the SOB (ellie). Sure enough, he had taken out a big strip of the walkway and knocked out the electricity for the entire camp.
Mombo camp where the elephant cruised through my walk way ...
Frances and I took a circular route to the pool and decided to read and nap there. But NO, yet another Ellie presented itself and threatened to take out that section too. The talented maintenance guys repaired everything very quickly and we shut ourselves into our room immediately for a brief nap.
 
Early to bed for us!!

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Today was the beginning of our return home, albeit via Zambia to see Victoria Falls and a sunset cruise down the Zambezi River.
 
Back in the King Air, (Darryl was slightly ahead in the landing competition), and off to Zambia. YES, more customs to clear in Botswana and then in Livingstone (Zambia). This time, as we disembarked from the plane, I heard a very loud horn, and turned to see where it was coming from. I was stunned to see a pilot in the cockpit of a large commercial jet, waving to us, and honking his horn. Never knew jets had horns. The pilot certainly did ...
Along the Zambezi for a tranquil sunset cruise.
We drove to another Wilderness Safari camp, 20 minutes outside of Livingstone, called Toka Leya. This camp was very pretty by virtue of its setting on the river, but somehow lacked the authenticity and comfortable sophistication the other camps provided. But who cared ... we were on our way home.
 
Around 4 PM we embarked on the small boats which were to carry us down the Zambezi for a tranquil sunset cruise. It was tranquil until a Booze Cruise boat came alongside. Definitely a sign of the encroaching world to come tomorrow morning when we were returning to the US.
 
Despite the beauty of the river and the delicate birds flitting about, the proximity to a large town somehow diminished the natural aspects of our float, and I felt that I had left the wilds far behind me. I craved that extraordinary landscape of the bush, the romantic sense of isolation in an untouched place of beauty, and the seduction of well edited comfort and luxury which allows one to flirt with the wild, but not pay the higher consequences of a full out life there.
Our last dinner at Toka Leya. Wilderness Camp.
Thursday, October 7, 2010 — Final day

In a way, this camp was the perfect foil for the re-entry to come. It lacked the intensity and great heart of Africa as we had seen it. This was a thin atmosphere that served only as a lingering scent of what was left behind.
 
Our last visit was to Victoria Falls. A beautiful sight, and one of the classical 7 wonders of the world. But slap me for being jaded, it paled in comparison to all that we had seen and experienced. Too many vendors along the pathways, too many tourists, too many bungee jumpers, and kayakers below in the canyon. I was unmoved, and ready to leave while all my vivid memories were intact.
Tourist attraction at Victoria Falls.
We boarded the King Air for the final leg to Johannesburg, South Africa to catch our flights home. Darryl made another perfect landing, which evened the score between him and David!
 
Our pilots were superb, and became like younger brothers to us during our safari. They did their jobs superbly and thanks to them, we arrived safely at all of our many destinations. They also learned a few things about cards, thanks to Frances Schultz, and were good sports in all realms. They will be missed by all of us.
The wondrous Victoria Falls on the Zambezi River.
How to sum up such a remarkable experience (one cannot simply call it a trip)? That is for wiser heads than mine. I can only say that I wish every person — young and old, rich or poor, could have this opportunity. It was exhilarating, moving, sobering, and arduous.
 
I am so grateful to have had this opportunity. It will be embedded in my heart and mind forever, and I am certain that in some hard moments ahead, I will quietly lie in my bed and recall the sights and lessons I have taken with me; the natural and unaltered beauty and the unfiltered laws of nature which cannot be changed nor coaxed into submission.
Click here for Nina Griscom's African Adventure - Part I
I am suggesting a packing list which works well for safari in Botswana, Namibia, South Africa, and Zambia. However, it is important to take into account any outdoor activities which are planned on trips such as this! Footware is KEY to comfort and the ability to enjoy your trip.
 
The mantra here is pack light! And bring a bag which does not have rollers or a hard leather surface. I bought an Orvis canvas bag for approximately $350, which worked really well on safari and can be used for many years to come in any capacity. It was roughly 33 inches long by 12 inches tall and was very flexible in terms of accommodating my copious gift shop purchases along the way. I bought a khaki green one, which I love. It was perfect for the trip. I opted for the embossed initials offered on the Orvis website (www.orvis.com).
 
For a two-week safari this is what ladies will need:

4  short-sleeved cotton tee shirts in a range of olive/light khaki colors  (buy from J. Crew or the Gap as you will want to throw them out when you get home).
 
2  lightweight cotton, long-sleeved shirts (1 olive and 1 light khaki). I bought mine from J Crew. Most of the camp gift shops sell these.
 
3 pairs of long cotton jeans in khaki and beige. J Brand Cargo pants are perfect. J. Crew has great ones too.
 
1 pair of jeans to wear at night ... no flamboyant colors ... navy or grey or khaki.
 
2 pairs of cotton shorts (mid thigh which you can roll up), in olive or khaki to wear in the day. Got mine at J. Crew.
 
1 set of small, powerful binoculars.
 
1 tiny, powerful flashlight.
 
extra batteries for the flashlight.
 
1 olive or khaki cotton hat with a brim (safari look).
 
2 pairs of sunglasses.
 
Malarone pills for Malaria (get a check up and prescription from your doctor before traveling!).
 
An assortment of Ziploc plastic bags.
 
Several small packages of Kleenex
.

2 cotton sarongs for evenings.
 
2 white cotton or poplin tailored shirts.
 
1 pair of flip flops. You will LIVE in these.
 
1 pair of ballet slippers in a neutral color to wear at night (I brought my Tory Burch slippers).
 
1 pair of Merrill sneakers, which are made of netting, and are light and easy to walk in.
1 paper hand fan (Chinese) ... very useful in a small plane or a covered jeep.
 
Chargers for all your cameras, phones, and Kindles/iPads/iPods.
 
Sun block!
 
Make up in a small Ziploc bag (mascara, lip gloss, eyebrow pencil, liner, and a tiny bottle of foundation with SPF).
 
Chiffon scarves for using as belts or wrapping your face when the dust gets terrible. Great for protecting your chest from the sun!
 
1 belted cotton safari jacket in beige or olive. I bought a great one from Beretta on Madison Ave in New York. T.M. Allen on Madison Ave in the 70s is another treasure trove of safari clothing and accessories!
 
1 Fleece vest in an olive color is very comfortable for cold morning game drives. No need to spend a lot ... Orvis or LL Bean have them at a great price. Get one with a zipper front and 2 pockets.
 
2 pairs of cotton socks (khaki or beige).
 
1 pair of light cashmere gloves (only if your hands get cold) I did not use mine.
 
1 neutral colored (beige) pashmina scarf for cold mornings and chilly cabins in airplanes.
 
A Kindle is indispensable, as there is plenty of down time at camps, and in the air. Reading will be your best recourse!!!
 
2 cameras! I brought a Canon G10, which was great and multi functional, as well as an Olympus Pen E P2, with a 500mm zoom lens. It was very hard to focus with this lens, so I suggest a Nikon with a big zoom instead.
 
3 chips for your cameras. They don't have them in the bush gift shops.

1 bathing suit  (not your skimpiest bikini!).
Something to sleep in.
 
6 pairs of underwear, and 3 bras (they do laundry at each camp).
 
2 light cashmere sweaters: one cardigan, one V neck ... in neutral colors. I brought along an old Prada cardigan, and a V neck sweater from my friend Cathryn Collins, who owns I Pezzi Dipinti. Wore both of them every day. Tuck a chiffon scarf into the neckline and you are totally safari chic!
 
A watch which you are willing to lose.
 
A pair of hoop earrings.
 
2 belts: one brown leather and one khaki leather.
 
An olive green/khaki canvas shoulder bag for cameras that can double as a hand bag.
 
A canvas/leather trim carry on bag for your flight. I brought a fabulous one from Aeron (www.aeron.com).
 
Sketch pads and pencils.
 
A journal.
 
Face creams, eye drops ( it can be very dry!!), and sleeping pills!!
 
Rollers, if you want to bother (all camps have hair driers), and a round brush for blow drying hair.
 
Africa does NOT accept AMEX cards, and favors Visa!
 
Bring $2,000 cash and rely upon credit cards for the rest of your shopping at camp gift stores.
 
All camps have adapters for electric devices.
 
Wi-Fi is only available in limited places, so bring a SAT phone if you MUST connect to the outside world. These can be rented before departure.
 
I highly recommend South African Airlines. A top carrier in all respects.
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