Category: South Africa

Our visit to Maker Station (by )

As a member of two hack spaces (and co-founder, secretary, and treasurer of one), I couldn't pass up the opportunity to visit a local hack space during our visit to South Africa. A quick web search later and I found that Cape Town's hackspace is called Maker Station. I dropped them a message asking if I could drop by and say hi as an ambassador from the UK, and asking them to suggest a time - UK hack spaces tend to have an open evening sometime in the week when random people can turn up to look around and meet people; so I was expecting something like that, but didn't see a time advertised on the Web site. But they suggested I suggest a time, so I did.

If we'd planned this a bit better, we'd have brought stickers (a traditional hack space give-away gift) from Bristol and Cheltenham Hack Spaces, but we didn't - so, instead, Sarah painted a picture from each hack space:

Bristol Hackspace picture Cheltenham Hackspace picture

For those not familiar with them, UK hack spaces tend to be run like a club or society - a constitution document of some kind sets out rules for people to become members, and for members to vote on a board who are in charge of making sure the space meets its legal obligations and controls the flow of money. Usually, members get unlimited access to the space and voting rights in exchange for a monthly membership fee (with some tools that use expensive consumables requiring extra usage fees on top to cover that). The monthly memberships go into a bank account, and the elected board choose to spend that on rent, insurance, electricity, broadband, consumables, and so on, and the money left over each month piles up until it's enough to buy a fancy new tool requested by the members. Most members have day jobs and hack on projects in their spare time, so hack spaces tend to be quiet during the day and busy in evenings and at weekends; and, as I mention above, there's usually an open evening every week for potential new members to come along and visit, which is also the day members come along to socialise, thereby ensuring there's a good population present to welcome new people. There are no paid staff; the board are all volunteers, and members are expected to unlock and lock up if they visit at a time when nobody else is around.

So I was quite interested to find out that Maker Station was different. We were met inside the entrance by Felix, one of the founders. The entrance led directly to a cafe area, with leaflets of hackerly interest lying around, and a range of drinks and crisps and stuff (including Maker Station logo biscuits they'd made in their own rocket oven!) for sale. The space is staffed and open during business hours; the two founders are there during the day as it's actually their day job, and they have two employees to help (the cost of living in South Africa is much lower than in the UK, which is what makes this practical).

Maker Station cafe area

Chatting with Felix in the cafe

Beyond the cafe was the hack space itself. Much of the space is divided into benches (or larger studios), which are either rented by the day in a sort of hot-desking arrangement:

Somebody making things on a Maker Station

...or dedicated to a single user who pays regularly for it, so has extensive tool and work-in-progress storage dedicated to them:

One of the Maker Station studios

People normally used it during the day, but if people were still hacking when 6pm came, they'd keep it open in the evening as well. One user I spoke to there was making a commission for a client, suggesting that the member demographic was more people hacking on stuff for a living than evening hobbyists. Felix and his brother (the other founder) don't quite make enough to run the place from memberships alone; the shortfall is made up by them working on paid commissions of their own in the space. Felix showed us some current projects they were working on, an exhibit for a local science centre and a small wind tunnel for somebody experimenting with wind turbine designs:

Felix shows off a current project

I didn't get the impression there was quite the sense of community that UK hackspaces have, with their busy open evenings and highly decentralised governance; Felix said that he often found himself acting as a "broker" between people who wanted some skill and people who had it or who a good supplier was for something, while in the UK, such connections usually arise organically on the open evening, so I suggested he might like to set up a weekly social slot in the cafe (and maybe a wiki for sharing information like supplier lists, like we have at Cheltenham Hackspace).

I was very impressed by their facilities. A proper cafe! Lots of space! Many, many, tools, including a decent metal lathe, forge, foundry, and welding gear!

Welding stuff Assorted metalworking stuff Big metalworking lathe

Interestingly, they didn't tend to go in for the stock UK hack space tools of laser cutters and 3D printers. It turns out that in Cape Town there are several suppliers who will do small-job CNC cutting and lasering and 3D printing at a reasonable price using high-end equipment, within easy travel of Maker Station. As far as I can tell, it's prohibitively expensive to get that sort of thing done in the UK other than in industrial quantities, which is why UK hack spaces end up buying their own equipment!

Felix seems to be really good at community outreach and education - something we're looking to expand at Cheltenham Hackspace, not to mention a speciality of Sarah's, so we were interested to hear about that. Here's a video of Felix giving a talk to students about prototyping. One thing that impressed me was that he runs things he calls "disassembly workshops"; take a pile of unwanted appliances, and unleash a bunch of children on them with screwdrivers (and some expert help) to tear them apart. This is fun in itself, and provides an opportunity to learn how the things you're taking apart work, as well as building skills in using the tools and working out how to get things to bits.

Once you have a pile of bits, depending on the age range and abilities, you can let the kids stick the bits together to make art to take home - or teach them electronics by wiring them up to do new things, maybe even so far as building robots out of the mechanical and electronic parts.

Here's some photos from a recent disassembly workshop they did: 1 2 3 4 5.

We enjoyed our visit to Maker Station. It was refreshing to see a different take on the usual hack space financial model, and interesting to see how the differing economics of South Africa affected what a hack space needed to be and could do. And Felix was inspiring as an educator and speaker! I'm keeping a close eye on his Twitter feed for good ideas to use in my own sci/tech outreach activities 🙂

Before the lens… (by )

There was the brush...

The Garden

I took a little set of travel water colour paints and a sketch book with me to South Africa, and I painted, generally from memory. I also sketched in pen bits I saw around me especially when the camera kept running out of battary!

Wallace the Cat

Lynn an Lionel's garden or a montage of bits of it anyway 🙂

Water Colour of Alaric's parents garden

I know you are all eager to see the photos of penguins and lions but I thought I would share the paintings and the non-annotated pen sketches. Turns out I can't help but keep a field book and I will confess I had to keep reminding myself that correct angle and scales were not needed for photographs either!

Mary's friends old and new - water colours

Here at least are some paintings of Mary's animal friends 😉

penguin and giraffe

Now I wasn't taking particular care with the paintings, or sketches part of it is trying to over come my fear of being watched when creating art. I loose my ability when I feel I am being scrutanised.

Beach imaginings

On the plane I looked out of the window and imagined what it was going to be like - I looked at the layered sky and tried to hold the image until we got to the hotel. I also tried to think of what symbolised the journey.

A plane journey

Also I am still learning how to paint water colours - still learning how to paint and draw one handed (though I am determined to get left hand back properly at some point!).

Flowers in the garden south africa

There were lots of plants and flowers and landscapes to paint. Alot just at the house itself.

Mountain on the sea

I found myself thinking of the exquisite pictures that Darwin and other naturalists produce and whilst at Lynn and Lionel's I read a book about whales by artist Noel Ashton. I know I can not produce those sorts of images at least not without taking a long long time on each and then colouring pencils would be my choice. But I wont to learn water colours and I want to get better at live drawing and quick drawing - to get my freedom of the mad dash image back.

film sketches

I like doing precise things but also to just take the impression and the feel of the thing. I love mucking around with styles and mainly I was aiming to just capture the essence of the day.

Hopper Penguins Cape Town

The Aquarium offered me birds as well as fish and a rookie mistake with a flat battery and no camera.

Blue the penguin Cape Town

I loved the variety of shapes and colours everywhere - I was worried I'd have a large seizure and forget it all, all this wonder so I set about capturing as much of it as I could - I took nearly 2000 photos!!!

Cowfish South Africa

Cowfish are yellow by the way but I only had a green pen on me for the sketching. I had a limited pallet with the water colours too but that was fine really.

The mountains at dawn

And of course there are a couple of kids stories I have written which I feel can only be illustrated by a certain style of water colour painting and so I need to learn how to paint that style.

painting the polished rocks

I also wrote a few more whilst out there and had ideas for even more!

Unconformities and synforms

Rocks of course feature heavily in the painting, drawings and photography - well I am a geologist by training... love.

Ammonite mug painting

This ammonite mug was my favourite coffee mug and was there most of the time I was painting.

Cycad painting

This is a cycad or "dinosaur tree" it is not the best but I can tell what it is and I put dots underneath it as we saw many cycads on the day we had our faces painted.

Sunset on the beach South Africa

If we ever manage to get back to South Africa - something we would all dearly love then I would also take my sketching pencils and my mapping pens/fine liners (as well as a spare battery for the camera and a back up camera!).

Candy Skull and Surf

Catching the mood also meant being inspired by the place and one such place was the Redemption Cafe in the Biscuit Mill. I loved the skull prints they had on the walls and it got mixed up with the surfing Jean had done as we talked over lunch.

Surf Board painting close up

The image was a montage of thoughts that wanted to be together.

Flower painting

There were things we did not manage to do and see including getting to the Cradle of Mankind and a few more sanctuaries and we hardly touched the museums, galleries or theatre stuff.

Mountains and trees below Table Mountain

Textures can be hard to achieve in water colours I find so I did quiet a bit of experimenting - mainly at the side of the pages but I did do a few pictures that were all about texture.

Malacite imaginings

Some paintings had multiple layers of wet and dry paint which reduced how quickly I could produce the image I wanted.

Live On beach sculpture at dusk painting

I painted the mood of sunset below the mountain in front of a wonderful pizza place. But most of the paintings where merges and mixes of what I had seen, I have taken many photos which I plan to paint more detailed and accurate images from now that I am back in the UK.

Birds on rocks painting

But I still have a head full of images so am still painting straight from the brain!

Beach scene

I would have liked a chance to find more local literature to read or listen too 🙂 I read most of a collection of Speculative Fiction which contained local authors and will be ordering a copy if I can to finish it.

Water colour of Seed pods

Even without getting to galleries etc... we saw some amazing artworks but more on them later 🙂

2 Weeks Away and Back Again :) (by )

So we finally managed it!!! We went away as a family for 2 weeks! We went far away.... far far away to another hemishpere. We went to South Africa, first time out of the country with the kids, first uninterrupted holiday for me and Al EVER - even our honeymoon in Wales was punctuated by work stops to internet cafes!

I bought rocks...

Amethyst and Raw Tigers Eye

The girls bought rocks...

Tri-coloured Goldstone

Alaric bought rocks....

Raw Amethyst et Al

I took photos of and told everybody who would listen about rocks (lit. I have taken hundreds of photos of rocks!!!).

rock beads

The rocks were pretty...

Rainbow rocks

Really we did get alot of rocks...

Did I mention the rocks?

mineral chips

The girls came home with some new friends 🙂

South African Cuddlies

We all did!

Pretties from South Africa

Lots of trinkets 🙂

Holiday Table Centre

And clothes! We took very little with us so we could buy cloths and things... well we bought lots of cloths and books and rocks!

Stuff from South Africa

This was Mary's first buy 🙂 At Cape Point where the seas meet where there were baboons and rocks!

Lighthouse snowglobe

It was amazing!!! I was petrified on the way out, planes... terrorism, pilot error, blood clots, I knew it was stupid I knew the most risky bit was the bus journey from our house to the train station. But it was still there, as it was I'd checked the blood lot thing out (I had blood clot issues due to pregnancy and wasn't allowed to fly but I was unsure as to when that restriction was supposed to end). Then there was the Gluten Free thing - seriously me and Mary are hard to feed - add in that I also can not have bannanas and strawberries and what not...

Turns out South Africa is MUCH MUCH MUCH better at catering for this stuff and not cross contaminating you than the UK is!!! I think this is because they are already catering for a range of food needs so it was little hassle for the restuarants and cafes to add another variant. (There were multiple options for dairy free milks and gluten free pizza crusts!!!!).

And the flights were great and I caught up on films I'd missed in the cinema. Though big plane rides (which I find less stressful as turbulence tends to be less) result in me having seizures 🙁 To be fair on the way out there was a stress as the car to take us from the hotel to the airport in Amsterdam was delayed (we were over nighting). And lighting and patterns in the airport began to make me feel not great so I had like a mini seizure thing and so was struggling when I got on the plane (and made us even later so we were like the last in the queue but at least the queue was still there!). I switched off my little screen and stuff but everyone elses was on and the lighting on the plane and it kept switching back on for announcements etc...

So I went into a deeper/bigger siezure and was embarrassed and did not want to talk to anyone as my speech was slurred. But I slept and carefully watched films with the brightness on my screen turned down and looking away for bright flashy action and fight scenes - avoiding films that had caused past seizures.

On the way back I got to the end of the flight before having the seizure, as in I was getting off the plane - scared the poor flight attendants :/ They have a new LED lighting system on the plane and were still working out how to us it. This did mean I was then stuck at transfer in a bit of a state, unable to talk properly and standing and walking hard etc... people kept trying to help which was lovely and embarasing.

Seizure was bad enough that I got some sort of weird cramp, spasm thing with my leg and now 2 days on my leg still hurts. It also meant Alaric was looking after me and the girls and trying to get us on the right vechile at the right time. Hence we ended up stranded at Paddington on the way home for 4 and a bit hours so we had pizza hut and it was good.

This means the travel there and back was a little stressful - the way out was a mini adventure of it's own which I shall shortly relate 🙂 (allbeit in another post).

And I had little mini seizure things if I looked at the sea too much and when we drove at night in the city and when the sun was shining low etc... but each time I learn better ways to avoid and cope and yes I was scared about traveling with it, I don't want to hit my head again but I can now tell when things are going arey and falling down is actually pretty rare. Muscle spasm things have happened twice as far as I know. Lynn's friend has the same issues and finds a sun visor helps so I borrowed one of Lynn's and that was a real help!

Anyway yes innoculations were painfiul, yes we couldn't really afford a holiday, yes it was scary getting on that plane, and it was a time of political unrest for the country.

HOWEVER.... it was mind blowingly AMAZING!!!!

We got to see family we'd never met, Alaric got to spend good times with his dad, the girls got to see the grandparents they tend to physically see every 2 yrs approx. and the country is full of wonders!!!

We saw a whale giving birth, seals in the harbour, penguins feeding their babies and deciding to swim with Jean, Jean surfed, we rode in a cable car, Mary loves giraffes as in the cuddly she chose to take with her was her giraffe, she was kissed by a giraffe, we saw where the oceans meet, I scared Alaric by disappearing on the mounting, we went to the places of Granny Lynn's childhood and learnt about her parents struggle, she got an award whilst we were there, there was singing, there were cycads (the "trees" of the dinosaurs) and dolphins and art fairs and the Maker Station (a hackspace). I painted and sketched and wrote some stories, I watched humming birds that flashed in the sun and read speculative fiction written by people living just up the road. I met artists and was climbed on by a little bright yellow monkey, Jeany surfed and taught Alaric and Grandpa Lionel to body board, we had a party with some local kids who came to play with the girls, we got painted and our hands washed in rose water, I discovered that Zulu mythology holds the same elements at its heart that Celtic mythology and Greek mythology does.

I found I could still read a landscape, could still see the stories the rocks wanted to tell. Jean spent ages talking to the lion rescue lady and... and.... it was not as foreign as we were expecting, the urban areas had a... well Dagenham vibe to them. Seriously it was like the old docklands and surrounding areas but with palm trees and random creatures like mongooses and baboons appearing. I think it's a port thing... all ports are the same on many levels.

As I said I have a bizillion photos and plan to do proper little writes ups of it all. I noted what we did each day in my note book - filled up the one I bought with me and bought another 3 whilst out there including one that smells of mushrooms in a non-rotten way. I also plan to paint more pictures from my photos now I am back but will share the ones I did as quick sketched there in Africa.

Also there is the question of the curry. Turns out the curry Alaric always thought wasn't real curry, the sort of curry I grew up with, that I cooked for him... is Cape-Malay curry. I thought mum had been taught how to cook it by a friend but it turns out her father was in South Africa at various points I don't know if that was as a member of the Merchant navy or as a fisherman but either way he bought curry back with him so it is indeed South African curry which is just bizar!

We owe a big big thankyou to Alaric's parents for hosting us and encouraging us to get our bums out there!!! You will all now be bored stiff with holiday pics and vids!!! You have been warned!!!

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