Johannesburg, finally – absolutely exhausted so fortunately customs is a walk-through – literally. They don’t ask us a single question. Saw one young fellow having his luggage trawled through, but not us. An Afrikaner fellow from Karibu tours was there to pick us up and delivers us to the Randburg Towers in Ferndale, a suburb of Joburg, as it is referred to here. Driver was not very talkative but we peppered him with questions anyway. I'm sure he thought we were unpardonably nosy.
Most obvious and off-putting to us was all the barbed wire. Suburbs were attractive in a semi-tropical way, but every house had a high, cement block wall around it, razor wire on top, sometimes electrified. Even relatively modest row houses are surrounded by barbed-wire fencing. Questioning the Afrikaner about this, it is obvious that he couldn't imagine any other kind of world.
We are staying in Ferndale because Joburg has basically been closed down to whites. All the big downtown hotels, even the huge 4 Star chains, are closed and boarded up. It is not a safe place. There are printed brochures in the hotel room that advertise Johannesburg city centre tours, but we couldn't find anyone willing to take us there. A couple of our travel mates (whom we met later) took a tour of Soweto, one of the largest black townships. They asked their driver to take them into Joburg. He complied, taking them to a downtown high-rise for a good view of the city. The moment they drove up, two armed guards met them at the curb and accompanied them from the car, into the building, and stayed with them until they left again. Disconcerting.
We’d been told that within walking distance of the hotel we’d find the Waterfront Mall, with shops, bars, and restaurants clustered around a man-made lake. It sounded like a destination with possibilities. Being a Sunday afternoon, the place was packed with families enjoying the street entertainment: jugglers, fire dancers, a contortionist, hawkers, and musicians. There are amusement rides, pedal boats, fast food joints and souvenir peddlers. It's a lively scene. Unfortunately, for the shops, there doesn't actually seem to be all that much shopping going on, which would account for all the depressingly empty storefronts. We walked around the lake and settled for dinner at a waterfront restaurant. Except for one man drinking copious quantities of wine, we appeared to be the only customer all evening. Nevertheless, we enjoyed a generous serving of roast chicken with salad and fresh bread - $15 Cdn for the two of us.
It had been a fair walk to get there – several kilometres up and down steep hills, past a ravine with trees, river, grass, a kind of park. But the only people in the park were numerous young males, all lounging about on the grass, around old fire pits, leaning against the trees watching us walk by. It didn't look like anyone was actually squatting there, but in light of all the talk of tourists being targeted for the walking wallets we are – it did put us a bit on edge.
Now, after dinner, it was getting dark very quickly. It does that in Africa. In North America we are accustomed to the sun setting slowly. But the closer you are to the equator the more dramatically it descends. Here in Joburg it was disappearing in front of our eyes and we proceed at a trot, our gait fuelled by nervousness.
We had been warned not to wear any jewellery – leaving even wedding rings at home. That seems to go for the locals as well – very little visible jewellery. We were also advised that shorts are not acceptable (except in the wilderness game parks where guides are accustomed to the white tourists’ penchant for baring their legs and arms). This also seems to be true. In the mall, even though it was a hot day, no one wore shorts.
Africans take a lot of pride in their dress and have high standards for what is considered appropriate. They believe that you show respect for others in how you present yourself and do yourself no favours, for example, if you wear a stained, dirty t-shirt for encounters with officialdom like border guards or police. Even the poorest Africans dress as well as they possibly can, men frequently wearing suit jackets, even to sell souvenirs at curio shops. They are a proud people.
Africans charmingly insist on the pleasantries. Conversations begin with "Jambo" to which one replies, "Habari" and is responded to with "Nzuri",. "Hello", "How are you?" "I am fine". This exchange precedes all transactions, even begging.
Day Two – Johannesburg
Awakened constantly during the night by partying neighbours – very disturbing. It wasn't exactly partying, more just the sound of men in robust and ribald conversation, lots of shouting and laughing. We were later to discover that this late night, all night, style of socializing by men is the norm in Africa. Whether it's in an urban hotel or a wilderness village, the men are up half the night conversing and "sharing informations" as our Samburu guide later told us. It’s the guy thing to do.
From puberty to their mid-twenties, men are warriors – responsible for stealing cows from other villages, slaying their enemy if necessary. Then they marry. When this happens, they are transformed into elders and acquire a new occupation, that of being the man. This means that they spend the day "gathering informations". At night they come together and “share the informations." Apparently this is their primary occupation. I did see lots of mature-looking men herding cows, but now I wonder if they just looked a lot older than they actually were. Africans age quickly.
The breakfast buffet at the hotel: eggs, sausage, bacon, mince, potatoes, toast, cereal, yoghurt, fruit, cold cuts and cheese. These breakfast buffets are included in our tour price so obviously we are not going to starve.
This afternoon we have booked a tour of Pretoria with a local guiding company. The weather is warm but temperate. We are wearing t-shirts, but are not hot. Our clothes dried nicely overnight, smalls waving gaily in the breeze blowing through the open hotel window. Rain is predicted for the next few days, but it is lovely today.
Pretoria is the "administrative" capital of South Africa, according to our Afrikaner guide, Cecelia. Prior to the "reconstruction" she had worked for the government for 18 years in the tourism area, but as jobs were redistributed more equitably over the population, she lost hers. Now she works as a freelance guide. She has no bitterness about the reconstruction, said it needed to happen to re-balance the inequities.
I later asked Ernesto, our white, South African trip guide for the whether all along the white population had been content with apartheid or did they know it was wrong. He said they knew it was wrong, but that the white South African culture is not into agitating about things. It's not the Afrikaner way. Governing is left to the patriarchal government leaders. Common people just do not see it as their role to create change, demonstrate, or question the wisdom of the leadership.
But common people were aware of world opinion and the ostracism that came with South African adherence to apartheid. This isolation concerned them greatly. When political matters came to a head and apartheid was officially ended, most people were relieved. It was long past time to happen. This opinion was seconded by Cecilia.
As there were only the two of us, she drove us in her own car, a little economy putt putt of some indistinct vintage. She charged us 280 R each (with tip about $65 Cdn each) for a good ½ day of private sightseeing. Unfortunately she wasn't very flexible about changing the itinerary. She had her schedule and she followed it, relentlessly. We found that attitude very common in Africa – the unwillingness to move outside the proscribed program.
So we saw the Voertrekker Monument, Paul Kruger's House, Canadian embassy, university, the Union Buildings (administrative parliament), and more. The Voertrekker Monument is a huge, imposing cement monument of a building on the top of a hill. The location is not significant to the event, just a majestic location that worked. The monument tells the story, in bas relief/ plaster friezes of the history of Afrikaners in South Africa. It is very interesting, particularly with a guide to explain what one is looking at. Having read quite widely about South African history before I came, I found the Afrikaner bias to her spiel obvious and uncompromising. When I challenged her on some historical facts, she didn't appear to know what I was talking about, leading me to believe that Afrikaner education is historically interpretive. But then, what country's isn't?
Impression of Pretoria – dirty. And the guide said that Pretoria is actually very clean compared to Joburg. The air quality in Africa is absolutely abysmal. A heavy grey/brown smog blankets everything, whether in the city or out in the wilderness. The causes are several. First of all there is virtually no pollution control on the vehicles – and there are millions of them, spewing buckets of thick black smoke into the environment. This was the first place I've been where I actually started to think that maybe I should be wearing a breathing mask anywhere near a city.
Second, is the prevalence of wood and charcoal fires as the primary means of cooking and heating. Every little one of the millions of hovels have their own cooking fire and there is no such thing as "clean burning fuel" out here. Finally, there is the African predilection for burning off their fields as an integral agricultural practice. This is probably the primary reason for the thick smog in the wilderness. But even in cities, alongside the freeway, the farmers are burning off fields. We were involved in a humongous traffic jam just outside of Pretoria, because a field fire had run amok, causing vehicles to drive off road to avoid the flames licking the asphalt edges. Driving through flames, was a first for me, but only the first of many firsts that Africa would confer in the coming weeks!
These tours are worthwhile for the "sites" they take you to, but more interesting to us, is simply the opportunity to drive around the city, through residential areas, constantly asking the guide questions about the daily lives and aspirations of the people who live there.
There are many middle class areas of Pretoria that do not look, architecturally at least, all that different than they would at home. The defining difference, aside from the semi-tropical flora, is the barbed wire everywhere – always disconcerting to us, but I don't think those born and raised here even see it.
Another huge difference is the numbers of people trying to eke out a living by selling things at the side of the road or even on the road. Apparently these activities are a legacy of the Mandela years. Prior to that, street hawking was not permitted, but Mandela declared that every person should have the opportunity to set themselves up in business if they chose. I'm not sure that the hordes of youngsters pushing knock-off sunglasses into the windows of cars stopped at intersections is what he had in mind, but it is the reality. If you are not interested you must keep your windows up.
Appearing even more pathetic to those of us cruising by in our securely locked tin bubbles, are the people setting themselves up at the side of the road to sell a bag of oranges, a box of candy, or some old clothes. The clothing "shops" are called "bend over boutiques" and are a legacy of the well-meaning clothing drives of the missionary societies in North America and Europe. According to Ernesto, this is commerce, African style, and the vendors are able to eke out a living in this way because the locals loyally patronize their neighbourhood stalls.
That night we had dinner at the Randburg Towers – strangest lasagne that I've ever had. It was basically mince with a few lasagne noodles and melted cheese on top. I'm sure it was the same mince mixture that they use for breakfast. Had a salad they called "French". It was a little lettuce, lots of cukes, tomatoes, olives and feta, soaked in watered down French dressing. Steve had a steak, which he said was okay, but had a strange sauce on it – very spicy. We later learned that anything that said "peri peri" meant spicy. Important piece of vocabulary to have if you don't like spicy food.
As per our tour dossier, we positioned ourselves in the hotel lounge at 1900 hours to await the tour director. He never showed. Instructions for the next day said that we would leave at 6:40 am. So after meeting some of our equally bewildered tour mates, we wandered off to bed.
Day Three - Johannesburg to Kruger
Our guide and driver, "Ernesto", finally showed up an hour after the stated departure time. Considering that the written instructions we all had indicated he should have shown up to conduct an orientation meeting the night before, it was all a bit disconcerting. As the time wore on that morning, we introduced ourselves to each other, nervously conjecturing about the possibility that we'd flown half way around the world for a tour that wasn't. But he did finally bustle in and hustled us on out to the big yellow van. There was a trailer attached, into which we loaded our luggage. Without further ado (i.e., explanation or apology), we were off.
To start with, we drove into Pretoria, where we saw the same things we'd seen on the tour the day before, more or less.
At the Union Buildings we stopped to view the crafts in the street-side market. A bit of a waste of time, considering that we were in the first hour of a six week trip and were not about to start lugging ten-pound soapstone hippos around this early in the game. After we'd been there awhile, some of us realized the need for a "Ladies". As Ernesto appeared to be moving towards the van and our only experience of him to date had been of someone who was somewhat abrupt and always in a big hurry, we were concerned about hiking what seemed to be several blocks away to the nearest "Ladies." Would he leave without us? Seemed liked a realistic concern.
Fortunately, the "Men’s" was unoccupied, and naturally, directly in front of the van. Despite the language barrier, the needy ladies looked knowingly at each other, gave their shoulders a "what the hell" shrug and nipped into the men’s' restroom to use the closed stalls. Wouldn't you know it – instantly two of the local men appeared out of nowhere and this big one was urinating (with his back to us) when we came out of the stalls. Well, he was just so visibly and verbally appalled and upset with us. It was obvious that we had really offended him by using the men’s' facilities. Even as we were driving away, we could see him there on the edge of the sidewalk, scowling vociferously, arms held up, imploring the deities, loudly proclaiming the ruination of civilization.
As we drove out of the city, we were struck by the overwhelming and highly visible poverty. For twenty kilometres, as you are coming into or out of any major town, there are endless rows of shanties – just packing cases, corrugated tin, boxes, bits of old lumber – whatever they can find and heap together into a hovel of a home. Apparently, since Mandela came into power things have improved to the extent that many of these shanty towns have power, clean water (one tap every city block or so) and long drops (outhouses) at the end of every third or fourth street. In some cases the government has also built grey cement block housing and this is no doubt a huge step forward, although still looking very bleak to us.
Still, with all that, I witnessed something powerful and amazing. As we were passing one of these shanty towns, I saw a group of women gracefully wrapped in brightly-coloured kangas, dancing and singing. Their dancing style is most likened to what westerners know as line dancing, except that instead of a line, the women move in a block. They dance as if choreographed, synchronizing the steps of the dance, clapping their hands in rhythm with the music of their voices.
It is a soul-stirring performance, inspiring a smile that is born in the heart then bubbles up to break over the face. It's a marriage of music and movement that raises the spirits immeasurably. Which, I guess, is the point. It was an amazing thing to witness …this music in the midst of misery …. the spirit of Africa ….one of many scenes which tear at the soul and take root in the heart.
Over the weeks I also came to examine in my own heart, what is inherent in the word misery and to understand that we each have our own context for it. For me, living in a leaky cow-dung hut, no shower, cows blood for nourishment and opening my legs for any smelly herder who chose to plant his spear outside my door would be misery. For a Samburu woman this is normality.
For her, misery could well be no cow dung hut, being forced to shower every day, eating frozen pasta dinners and being humiliated because no man would stand his spear outside her hut. Misery can only be defined within the context of one's own culture.
It is inappropriate to evaluate the lifestyle of another culture like the Samburu or the Maasi by measuring with the values of one's own culture. They are proud people and they value their own cultural practices and lifestyle.
This is treacherous territory for the heart. Third world countries need our assistance and we need to give it. A world populated by the very rich and the very poor is not a good or safe place for any of us, even the rich. Joburg, with all its barbed wire is a microcosm of the world we are creating if we persist in going down that rich/poor path.
There is virtually no public transit in the Joburg/Pretoria areas. As a result, people are moved between jobsites and homes by minivans. These are unregulated, privately owned and operated, not subject to licensing and extremely dangerous because they are not maintained. We were told of one minivan accident that resulted in the deaths of 16 people. The brakes were constructed of rope. They are deathtraps. People pile into them, fill them up, then pile in another 10 people. We saw them flying down the highway, with up to three men hanging out the door – fingertips gripping the drip rail, toes clenched to running boards, ass hanging out in the wind. These overloaded deathtraps were flying down the freeway at 120 kilometres per hour.
Deathtraps they might be, and people know that, but the people do not want the government interfering with regulations because there are no alternatives. Outlawing the deathtraps would, in most cases, mean there was no transportation and distances are too far to walk.
Fortunately we are traveling in a tour van, which seems to be running very well. Passing these overloaded minivans however, is a disconcerting, even embarrassing experience. See the ten-seat minivan, packed wall to wall with 25 Africans. See the eighteen-seat tour van, comfortably accommodating fifteen well-fed white tourists. See what I mean?
On the way to Kruger Park today we stopped at an interesting Dutch restaurant – lovely setting beside a lake, open-air, thatched roof. The restaurant served nothing but pancakes, great huge plate-sized pannekeok. I had one with apples and syrup. Very good. Others had them with seafood, chicken, other savoury fillings. The restaurant also sold big net bags of oranges. Everyone was gobbling these down, declaring them the best they'd ever had.
Descending steeply from the high veld to the sea-level valley increased the heat to an almost unbearable degree. It’s very close. Heat is rolling in through the windows, like opening an oven door. My head is pounding. I'm flushed, shaky, suffering some heat exhaustion perhaps. It's very abrupt, traveling so quickly from the temperate highland climate to the heat of the valley floor. The seats are also hard and too narrow, but remembering the minivans, I admonish myself for being so spoiled.
The tour guide, Ernesto, speaks French most of the time. This is annoying because he forgets to translate. Most of the people on the tour are French, but we paid our fare too. It doesn’t escape me that this may be how Francophones feel much of the time in my own country, Canada.
Arriving finally at the Lower Sabie Rest Camp within Kruger Park, the afternoon cools down quickly and I recover instantly. We're sleeping in cabins overlooking the river. I am transfixed by the sight of elephants rummaging through the foliage on the far bank. Amazing. Real elephants just a short swim away.
The cabins are modest, but perfectly adequate. This is malaria country so screens cover the windows and we are reminded to wear long sleeves and spray on the repellent. The cabins feature comfortable beds and a warm-water shower in a private bathroom. All this within the peaceful natural setting of Kruger Park. Out walking later I notice that within the camp there are also many tents and campervans. The camp is surrounded by a fence. The fence doesn’t look like it could actually keep out a marauding elephant or a determined lion, but a fence is a fence.
In the late afternoon we head out on a game drive and see giraffes, hippos, wildebeest, buffalo and impala. Driving through the game park in a van is not what I expected. I am feeling very removed from the animals. It would be nicer to sit up high in one of those open-air vehicles that I see some people in. They are sitting on a kind of stepped up, stadium-like platform affixed to the back of a truck. They have a canvas roof but no sides. Can lions leap?
We went for dinner at 7:30 pm. Dinner is a set menu, served in an open-air kind of restaurant in the rest camp. Huge meal. Started with soup, then salad, then fish, then chicken, then a humongous steak, then dessert – a bread pudding with custard sauce which we came to recognize as the definition of "dessert" in South Africa.
It was shocking though, that night, because as we came around the corner to the restaurant, everyone in the campsite was gathered around a small television set in the bar.
Two airliners had flown directly into the World Trade Centre towers in New York City, killing thousands of people. Another airliner flew into the Pentagon and another into a Somerset, Pennsylvania field, obviously a mission prematurely aborted.
This was so surreal and unbelievable. What would happen next? Should we be heading for an airport to get home? What is happening at home? We need to know more. Tucked away in a game park in the middle of the African wilderness we are probably the safest people in the world, but we worry about those at home. Uneasy, but knowing of no way to be helpful, we resolve to continue the trip for now.
We are awakened at 5:30 am, on the road by 6:00. Out on the game drive till 9:00, then back to for a huge bacon and egg breakfast. Then, since the weather has cooled the guide believes that the animals will remain active all day so we head back out again to look for them.
During the drive we make it as far north as Skukuza Camp where we have lunch. It is also an opportunity to access a telephone and talk to our sons at home. It was 3:30 am in Vancouver and I thought I would only be able to leave a message, but both awoke instantly and were anxious to talk.
Apparently North America is in chaos. All the American airports are closed, so with Vancouver 50 kilometres north of the U.S. border, our international airport accepted dozens and dozens of full U.S. flights. Over 7,000 travelers had to be accommodated in the city and people are opening their homes to them. The border is in a complete lockdown with no word on when that might change. Still, everyone at home is fine and we assured them that we are too. At times of uncertainty like this, one wishes they were home, but as that is particularly not feasible during this period of restricted air travel, we'll try to focus our attention on enjoying this incredible piece of God's great earth.
Driving down a narrow, dusty dirt road near the end of the afternoon, I spotted several elephants off to the far left, just emerging from the tree cover. I alerted the driver. He stopped, and we stayed still. First there were two, then four, then more. One by one the family revealed itself, ponderously but oh so silently moving across the grasslands in single file. Eventually there was an amazing string over more than 30 females, many with little ones bumbling along beside them.
For such huge animals they move on their large padded feet in virtual silence and with their poor eyesight, were probably not even aware of us, watching just feet from their path. They passed directly in front of us, one by one, over the road and into the bush on the other side. It was awe inspiring. I knew that in Africa we would see animals, but I had not anticipated how intimate the experience would be.
Earlier we had seen numerous giraffes, munching the fresh foliage off the top of trees. Graceful, curious creatures, they sometimes had to be shooed off the road because they would just stand there in front of our truck, unblinkingly regarding us with their big brown eyes. And in a sadder, but realistic encounter with nature, we viewed the body of a downed giraffe to the side of the road; satiated lions dozing off under a shade tree while dozens of gruesomely ugly vultures noisily tore at the entrails.
We also saw wildebeest, impala, jackals, zebra, zillions of colourful birds and when we were returning to camp, two large male lions lying right at the edge of the asphalt road.
From yesterday's heat, the temperature has plunged to very cool, a drop of probably 20 degrees centigrade. It confused the animals. The guard said he expected the lions were lying on the road to absorb the heat of the asphalt as it is unusual for them to be lying so close to where many vehicles travel. It was amusing to note, in seeing lions at such close quarters, that these were "real" lions as opposed to the movie star good looks of the lions posing for brochures and postcards.
Real lions are scarred and beaten-up looking in the face, with scraggy-looking manes and the long, jagged souvenirs of past battles scarring their flanks. They are the real thing; lions who sleep in the rough, kill for their meat and fight for the right to mate.
We're off through Zululand today, traveling along the Mozambique border. This is an extremely impoverished area, depressing looking cement block buildings, many of them unfinished and looking like they never will be. There are no attempts to make their homes attractive ….no flowers, no gardens, no painted front doors.
Driving down the road, increasing quantities of plastic debris at the side signal that one is approaching a village. Within the village, the plastic garbage sits in heaps, bags scattering in the winds that howl through here.
The roads are abysmal, even major highways are marked by potholes big enough to swallow a small car. The van is constantly swerving to avoid them, frequently unsuccessfully. We disappeared into one pothole with such violence that one of the men bounced high and hard enough to cut his scalp on the overhead bins, while the grill fell off the front of the van and a part of the trailer hitch tore off. We stopped in the next town to weld it back together.
We passed through the borders of Swaziland today, enduring at least an hour of officialdom at each end. Historically, Swaziland has been economically blessed by the lucky choices it has made. During the Anglo Boer War, Swaziland sided with the British. Accordingly, it has enjoyed protectorate status from the Brits, resulting in very high literacy, productive agricultural practices, lucrative business ventures and a resultantly prosperous economy.
While the homes are modest by North American standards, they are multi-roomed, immaculate, surrounded by gardens and obviously benefit from the pride of their owners who paint and adorn them. A very different environment from the bleak and garbage strewn villages of Kwazulu Natal we had driven through earlier today.
We had lunch on the Mozamibique border in an ethnic restaurant specializing in curried seafood. When we arrived, our guide spoke with the owner, inquiring into whether or not they had sufficient food to feed us that day. In Africa this is not a given. The owner replied affirmatively, although considering that it took well over an hour for the food to arrive on the table, the necessary ingredients may actually have still been alive and swimming in the river at the time of the asking. Still, lunch was proclaimed "exquisite" and we were satisfied. Our bill for lunch, including coffee and three excellent ice cream bars, was 38R, about $6.50 Canadian for the two of us.
Our final destination this day was to be Mkuzi Park, a place that our guide was personally unfamiliar with. It was now growing dark and the Park is some miles into the mountains, down what can only be described as a goat trail. It had been raining and there was some concern about sliding off the road, as African dust and dirt turns into a greasy gumbo when it is rained on. But we made it, arriving at the park gates at 6:00 pm, the sun already down and the dark night impenetrable.
There was no one at the park gate office, nor at any of the facilities along the road. We were to stay in a tented camp here, but no one knew where. There were no lights. The van slid off the road and got stuck. We all piled out and after much pushing and splattering of mud freed it. The driver unhooked the trailer and left it behind, rendering our vehicle considerably more manoeuvrable. We drove on. Eventually we came to a cabin with lights and the guide was able to secure directions to our accommodations.
It was a difficult
night. We were
hungry by this
point, and we
had not seen
Earlier in the
day Ernesto had
stopped at a
shop and purchased
some food for
a barbeque but
it was now late
and all were
tired. As he
dropped us off
at our tented
camp he informed
us that he would
come around in
an hour or so
and leave us
a piece of steak
for our dinner.
We looked at
each other and
exactly we were
going to do with
a hunk of raw
sirloin. We spoke
buns we'd pondered
the shop earlier
that day, but
looked a little
What was more, we were cold. A tented camp is a unique, "made in Africa" structure. It's basically a big cabin-sized tent on top of a platform. In the back they attach a washroom constructed out of bamboo poles. This is well-ventilated, as there is no roof, just a flap of overhanging canvas. There is a front deck to sit on and admire the visiting animals and an outdoor kitchen to cook one's meals at. In warmer weather it would have been enchanting. Unfortunately it was drizzling and cold, we were muddy and very hungry. We'd been warned not to venture about too much because there were no fences separating us from the animals and some of them were predatory. Great. Not that there was anywhere to wander off to. We heaped all the blankets onto one twin bed, climbed under and held onto each other until the chattering stopped and we felt cosy again.
Just as we were starting to wonder what a microwave would actually do to a hunk of a steak there were footsteps on the front deck. Come for dinner! Some of our fellow travelers, more resourceful than we, had gotten a good grill fire going for Boer sausage and steaks. Others were slicing up the luscious sweet red tomatoes. Someone else was toasting bread and another was pouring the wine.
It was feast. The toast and tomatoes made the best bruschetta I've ever enjoyed. The sausage was succulent, the steak delicious. The wine, a very fine vintage, indeed. It was a wonderful meal, shared in a spirit of conviviality and good cheer. There is nothing like genuine hunger to stimulate the taste buds or an ordeal overcome, to bond a group of travelers!
The night passed well, with morning awakening us to the sounds of the jungle. It is magical, lying there tucked up and cosy in your cot, listening to the sounds of the birds. In Africa the birds sing. I know that at home we think our birds sing, but now I know that they don't. Our North American birds have a two or three note repertoire, but in Africa the birds sing actual melodies. Magical.
Wakening, we become aware of a steady munching sound just outside our tent. We peek through the screen to see a kudu, normally a shy and skittish creature making breakfast of the foliage outside our window. On game drives we had tried to get close enough to this animal to take a photo and they'd always bounded away. But here he was, inches from the noses we had pressed against the screen, oblivious to our presence.
Being that we were going to be in the tented camp at Mkuzi for two days, I decided that I'd better brave the shower. Goodness it was cold! Not just the water, which flowed from a barrel overhead, but the wind whistling through the bamboo slats. Little did I know that over the next six weeks I would come to regard this early experience with a cold water shower as downright luxurious!
We discovered that there was, indeed, a café in the park, although breakfast was a stingy little bran muffin and instant coffee. Not so different from a normal breakfast at home, but we had already become spoiled by the bacon and egg buffets we'd been provided with in previous camps. No matter, the souvenir shop featured a display case full of chocolate, se we stocked up. Over the weeks I came to appreciate that the one thing that could absolutely be counted on in Africa, was the availability of Cadbury’s chocolate.
In Mkuzi we saw many of the same animals we'd seen at Kruger, but here the highlight turned out to be a rhinoceros, munching lunch right beside the road. Rhinos are notoriously shy about revealing themselves in the open so this was a real treat. We also discovered that the only real predators in this park are animals like rhinos or buffalo. There are no lions or other big cats. I wish I'd known this the night before, as the long walk back to our tent after dinner was a heart stopper. When there is no moon, it is very dark.
As it turns out, however, buffalo are nothing to sniff at. They kill many, many people each year. It is extremely important not to startle them, so on that basis we were instructed to make noise and wave our flashlights around while we walked in the dark. I wondered how it could be that this would not startle them, but the theory is, that if they know you are there, they will back off because they are more scared of you than you are of them. Yeah, right. A 750 kg buffalo with a lethal three-foot rack of skewers on his skull is afraid of me. I instructed Steve to unholster his Swiss Army knife and keep it where the buffalo could see it so they would know that we were armed with more than pocket lights.
Driving through this park we also visited a small village. The huts were unlike anything we’d seen till then. They were perfect domes, covered from peak to floor in thatched grass with a small, bend-over door. Frequently, there was a screening wall in front of the door, protecting the privacy of the inhabitants. It was also explained to us that the short “bend-over” nature of the door puts intruders at a disadvantage. Seems like a smart idea.
The villagers were not much in evidence, with the exception of a few young mothers and children, operating a shop stocked with hundreds and hundreds of carved wooden bowls and serving trays as well as some basketry. We bought a bowl and took photos of the beautiful children. To me this seemed a fair exchange. I know that most of the others in the group disagreed with me. They took photos at will, and did not feel compelled to make purchases but to me it only seemed fair. The bowl cost me about $2 Cdn. Not much out of my pocket, but a significant amount to them. The photographs of their beautiful children were what I really wanted and paid for.
That night we repeated the barbecue. Again, it was good, although with an appetite now blunted by candy bars, I would no longer describe bruschetta made of toasted sandwich bread as "the best I've ever had!"
Day Eight - Zulu Village to Drakensburg Mountains
It was so cold during the night that we slept with all our clothes on, including fleece jackets and wool toques.
The aspect of travel that probably gives me more enjoyment than any other, is that of being "surprised", of being repeatedly stimulated to replace assumptions with reality. Some people call it "broadening one's horizons." Whatever words one describes this mind-expanding experience with, I do believe it is the drug that keeps me hooked on traveling. And this cold weather thing in Africa was one of the most remarkable "shattering of assumptions" scenarios that I've ever experienced. I had always assumed that Africa was a hot and sweaty place. I was only convinced to bring my fleece and toque because we would later be traveling to Ngorogoro Crater in Tanzania, which, at over 6000 feet was guaranteed to have a cold and inhospitable climate.
I am still convinced that a great deal of Africa is hot and sweaty, and apparently that is true of the lowveld coastal areas. But a great deal of Southern Africa also sits on a higher altitude plateau, the highveld, and this altitude keeps the climate considerably cooler than what one would expect. I have a distinct recollection of passing through the equator (yes, there is a sign!) and stopping for lunch just minutes later. We huddled around commiserating with each other, collars up, curled up fingers turtled into our sleeves. At the first opportunity, we retreated to the van, which although it did not offer a heating system, it did provide relief from the vicious wind.
In another area, later in the trip, we passed through the equator again, this time at a lower altitude. Although far from "hot and sweaty", we were comfortable in our t-shirts. And yes, water does go down the drain in one direction on one side of the equator and in the opposite direction at the other side. There were actually ranger-type guys there to demonstrate it. Or maybe they were just wearing ranger-type clothes. Entrepreneurship is alive and thriving in Africa. With buckets, funnels, and water, these fellows were ready and waiting when we pulled up to the "You are crossing the Equator" sign.
We had a science professor traveling with us at this point and she insisted that it was all a big hoax. Apparently she had tried the "water down the drain" thing in her hotel room when she first arrived and sometimes it funnelled clockwise and sometimes it funnelled counter clockwise. No matter. It was an interesting demonstration and if the guys at the equator have a scam going, so be it. Initiative should be rewarded!
But back to Mkuzi. Although the night was chilly, our wool toques prevented what body heat we mustered from escaping through our scalps so we slept well. My husband, who did the Scout leader thing when our boys were young, has done a fair bit of winter camping and is adamant that a wool toque and dry socks are the secret to a cosy night, irregardless of how much snow piles up outside the tent. He seems to be right. We didn't have any snow in Mkuzi so half way through the night I was so hot I had to tear the woolly toque off my sweaty head.
In the morning we packed quickly because we’d been promised a hot buffet breakfast down the road!
This was true. After traveling for an hour through picturesque mountain villages, we came, eventually, to the Ghost Mountain Inn. By then the sky had cleared up, and it seemed like this luxurious lodge was sitting in it’s own puddle of warm, tropical sunshine. There were flowers and cacti and colourful little birds flitting about the gorgeous manicured grounds.
The Inn was very posh, the staff all stiff and starched, with the elocution of upper class British butlers. We hauled our creased and crumpled bodies out of the van, looking like the grubby interlopers who would be shown the door as soon as the boss arrived. I’m sure that would have happened if we’d been on our own, but the reservation had been made by the tour company and would be honoured.
Breakfast was fabulous. Endless pots of hot coffee, eggs any way you like ‘em, potatoes, bacon, sausage, hot cereal, cold cereal, yoghurt, toast, croissants and Danish pastries. Although it had only been 48 hours since the last breakfast buffet, we fell on this one like diet club refugees.
After breakfast we walked the grounds, marvelling at the warmth and exotic bird life. We were all for hanging out at the Inn until the lunch buffet was laid on, but Ernesto persuaded us to get back in the van.
Apparently during breakfast the French contingent in our group had persuaded him to make a diversion from the schedule and take us to a Zulu Cultural Village. We Anglophones did not know anything about this until we pulled up in front of the village and were told that it had been decided. I couldn’t decide whether I was more miffed about not being consulted or more interested in seeing the village.
The visit was a bit strange and awkward. Apparently the Zulus put on several shows a day and we had missed the 9:00 a.m. show. It was now 11:00 and the next show would not be until 12:00. But our guide did not want to wait. He argued and argued with the villagers, basically strong arming our way into the show. We followed him, to sit and watch the final ten minutes of a dance demonstration. After that he showed us around the village, to the obvious consternation of the Zulu who live there. His point was that we were 15 people each paying 50 Rand and they should be pleased with this unexpected bounty and cooperate. But from what I’ve observed, South Africans in general are uncomfortable deviating from "the schedule." Spontaneity seems to have been drummed out of them, black or white.
Feeling somewhat embarrassed about our obviously unwelcome intrusion, we looked around. It is a fairly large, functioning village with tool and weapons manufacture, a spiritual leader, medicine lady, and so on. The young women produce copious quantities of elaborate bead work which they both wear and sell. While single they dress scantily, only a short mini skirt type garment decorated with beads. Once married they cover up from head to toe, literally. An elaborate hat is sewn into their hair and apparently never taken off. They sleep with their heads on a neck pedestal so that they don’t crush this formidable looking head gear.
Roberto, one our travel companions, a single fellow with his eye on the girls, got his 50 Rand worth by having his photo taken with all the bare-breasted young women.
My husband got his 50 Rand worth by squatting down and sharing a hookah pipe with the grizzled old chief. One of the women wanted to know if my husband was as useless as the chief. I wasn't sure what she meant, but she explained that nothing ever got done around the village because the chief was always so stoned he couldn't or wouldn't make decisions. I informed her that in our culture indulging in the weed was something we tended to do in our youth, and by middle age most men were effective decision makers. And if they weren't, their wives were there to give them appropriate direction. We shared a hearty laugh over this.
I enjoyed watching a young lad, on his own behind the huts, amusing himself by making pictures. Pens and papers are scarce in Africa so children draw in the dirt. In this village the soil was hard-packed and sandy so it took well to the sharp stick he was using. It reminded me of myself as a child, drawing in the wet-packed sand of the sea shore.
There is a lot of controversy about these kinds of “cultural villages”. One of my travel mates contemptuously dismissed it as the MacDonalds of Zulu culture. I believe that evaluation is too simplistic.
Yes, the dances and the beadwork and the medicine lady are staged for the tourists. Assuming "authentic" Zulu culture is still practiced, I imagine that we would have to trek, by foot, a long and arduous route into the wilderness to observe it in an indigenous setting. Not something most of us would be willing to do, assuming we would even be welcome. Cultures evolve in response to changing realities. That is true for all cultures, as we who struggle to maintain a growingly tenuous connection to the culture of our own roots know. It is true whether we are Zulus or Japanese or Germans.
What cultural villages provide is a structure, a museum if you will, in which to preserve the culture as it was. They serve a valuable purpose because without them, the culture evolves ever closer to homogeny with those that surround it. If we are interested in preserving windows into the past, for all people, we need these cultural villages, whether they are "an authentic tea house" in Tokyo, a Hudson Bay Fort in Canada or a Zulu Village in Africa. When tourists pay to visit these museums they enable us to preserve the practices and artifacts of our cultures. Do Zulus still live like this? Some may do, but more probably live in the cardboard and corrugated tin shanties on the edge of big cities. Is that the genuine Zulu culture travelers want to see?
After purchasing our souvenirs in the curio shop (of course!) we get back on the road. We have a long way to travel today, our final destination will be Golden Gate Park in the Drakensburg Mountains. It is a beautiful drive over rolling hills of variegated foliage. We pass charming villages of ochre coloured mud huts with thatched roofs, goats and chickens, ducks and children all stopping their activities to stare at the strange yellow van full of foreigners. African children in particular, are very friendly, always stopping to wave energetically and shout friendly greetings.
Charming or not, the villages are all obviously impoverished and people live at subsistence level survival. Occasionally one sees something that belies that, such as a satellite dish. We asked about this. Apparently some men leave their villages in their youth, go to work in the mines and occasionally do very well, earning themselves a pension. In their old age, they return to their roots, build a fine cement block house, have the electricity brought to the house and install the luxuries of life, like a satellite dish.
We continued driving through the day, stopping for lunch in the afternoon at a Kentucky Fried Chicken outlet. South Africa has all the North American and European chain restaurants, as well as a plethora of restaurants serving standard North American style fare. Although in other countries it’s easy to enjoy more indigenous African food, you have to work at finding more interesting ethnic fare in South Africa.
By early evening we were climbing into the high passes of the Drakensburg Mountain Range. This is a stunningly beautiful mountain range, “Africa’s Alps” they say. What we saw was certainly stunning but as we climbed we quickly lost sight of the scenary because it was snowing. Yes, this was concerning. Our van was not equipped for that kind of travel.
We departed early this morning in mixed, but infinitely warmer weather, the . snow having turned to rain. By mid morning the sky cleared and we traveled out through the Drakensburg Mountains in a blaze of glorious sunshine. What we saw of those magnificent peaks is awe inspiring.
Ernesto tells us that he skis in these mountains, as well as those in Lesotho, the mountain kingdom we are traveling into today. He spends all night hiking up a mountain … strenuously earning the glorious reward of swooping into the rising sun over pristine powder. Gazing over those glistening slopes I can only imagine …the passion in his voice makes me a believer.
Winding through the mountain passes towards Maseru, the capital and only large city of Lesotho, we pass through picture-perfect villages, their rondavel-style huts plastered in smooth, milk-chocolate brown mud. These modest huts are neat and clean, with brightly painted doors and window frames. Homes are often encircled by a loose fence of some description, confining a few goats, a dog and some colourful roosters. There must be hens too, but true to the gender politics of African culture, they are probably too busy scratching up bugs for the family to be strutting their stuff in the front yard for tourists. Friendly children with big bright smiles are everywhere, waving energetically as we pass. We wave back just as enthusiastically, matching them smile for smile. The people's pride in their homes and their children is obvious and heart warming.
As one approaches Maseru, however, there is a startling difference. The roadsides are increasingly strewn with the debris of a thousand shopping trips, flimsy white plastic blowing about in the wind. Heaps of tin cans and garbage litter the roadside. I ask Ernesto about the contrast between the tidy homes in the country and the garbage in the city. He tells me that in the countryside people have pride in their homes and villages. They take responsibility for them. In the city people expect the government to clean up, which means no one does.
He takes us, for a special treat, he says, to the cathedral in Maseru. It is Sunday morning and as we sneak into back-row pews, the choir is singing. Soaring is perhaps a more accurate descriptor as their soulful spirits visibly take wing through song, swooping and soaring like so many joyful swallows around and about the magnificent arches of this stunning house of God. The interior is immaculately maintained and cared for. The grounds outside the doors are a different story.
In 1999, Maseru was the site of a violent political uprising. With the city in chaos, the Lesotho bureaucrats asked the South African government to step in and help it restore order, which it did. But the people resented the presence of the South African military, referring to their arrival as "the invasion." They reacted with a terrible anger in dreadfully destructive ways. Buildings were set on fire, homes and businesses were levelled and the city horrifically scarred. Although the cathedral itself did not appear to be touched, the grounds have taken on the look of a war zone …craters of gravel, broken cement work, upended walkways, devastation and wanton destruction.
Inside however, the resonating voices of the cathedral choir erase the ugliness outside the doors. The sanctuary is huge, and it was full, the congregants dressed as always, in their colourful best. In Lesotho many wear what is known as the Basotho Blanket in place of a coat. These beautiful blankets are thick and warm, featuring distinctive, colourful patterns. I would have loved to bring one home, but even folded up, the bulk of it would simply have been too much to carry around for a month.
I don't know how long the service actually continued on for. There seemed to be a kind of drop-in thing happening, with people coming and going throughout the hour that we stayed. Every time someone new opened the door, a gangly young fellow in a brown suit hopped out of his seat and, standing in the middle of the aisle, coaxed them, via the wiggling middle fingers of his outstretched left hand, to come deeper into the congregation and be seated in pews close to the front. It didn't always work. Some, like us, preferred to be unobtrusive and settle in at the back. Others, proudly sashayed down the aisle to the front, their colourful Basotho blankets swaying like peacock tails behind them. When we arrived, the singing was in full swing and when we left, the service was still long from over, congregants coming and going, seemingly as the fancy struck them.
By early afternoon we had traveled more deeply into Lesotho, arriving in the southwest mountain village of Malealea. We were booked into the lodge there, well known to adventurers for its glorious trekking and backcountry terrain – by foot, by pony, or by 4WD.
The afternoon was still so sunny and warm that we couldn't bear to be anywhere but outside, so we dumped our bags and headed out for a hike to the gorge. This is actually the shortest of the available treks, but at several kilometres one we believed we could accomplish before the sun descended.
Our guide, David, was a local boy of about 16, patient on the steep bits with some of us, who of course, wished we'd done a little more stairmaster at home. Actually, the first one up the trail was usually Jette, a mature woman in her late 60s. We called her the "mountain goat of Lesotho" because she always seemed to be first to the top, patiently waiting with David for the rest of us, trudging up one footfall at a time.
Natural scenic beauty was a given, of course, but in addition to that, being Sunday the Apostolics were marching in the valley below us. The adherents of this religious sect cloak themselves in startlingly pure white robes, so the sight of hundreds of them, snaking through the valley in an undulating line of blinding white was striking. As they marched their voices reverberated through the valley and over the slopes as a kind of rolling chant. Frankly, it was a bit spooky.
While most Africans are warm hearted, welcoming people, there is a perceptible element of hostility to white skin from the few. It never quite disappears. When several hundred locals are marching and chanting, the uninitiated like ourselves are not certain whether it is because they are warming up for worship or revving up for a massacre. This was probably a silly idea, but Africa is such an alien environment for me. As a North American I do not know what the rules are here. When am I safe, when am I not? When I don't understand what is happening around me, something inside me trips the alert switch.
We asked our guide, David, what the people were doing. He told us they were singing to the mountain but was markedly evasive about answering further enquiries. He followed their progress intently, continually returning to a place where he had a clear view of what was happening in the valley below. His apparent concern intensified my own discomfort. Perhaps it was just interest that I was misinterpreting as concern.
Eventually the marchers achieved their objective, an open field that stretched like an apron held out before the mountain towering over it. Here they settled in and it was the last we saw of them as we carried our trek around the back side of the mountain .
We came, finally, upon a single house and barn, situated on a promontory, overlooking valley vistas that in any other country in the world would have marked it as multi-million dollar property. The modest hut was constructed of straw and dung, as was the shelter for the animals. There were a few cows, a few bulls, some goats, the usual roosters and an ewe that had only moments before given birth to a lamb which was still attached to the umbilicus. While there was no sign of adults, there was a boy of about six and his much smaller sister. They shyly posed for pictures, smiling but wary.
Coming back to Malealea we were invited to visit the village just outside the gates of the lodge compound. The people here are subsistence farmers and also provide services to the lodge tourists. Malealea is renowned for being great pony trekking country and this is arranged with the locals. One informs the leader when and where one wants to travel and he arranges for a guide and the appropriate number of ponies and support personnel to show up, which they do, popping out of the surrounding hills as if conjured by magic.
The village was clean and charming. We were welcomed into people's homes, small rondavel style huts containing a minimal collection of furniture and possessions. One of the huts we visited was that of our guide's grandmother. This hut, about 10 x 10, was furnished with a single bed covered in neatly folded blankets, a table with a few dishes and pots on it, and three waist-high sacks of maize, the food staple of the region. Other than that, the earthen-floored hut was bare of possessions. In fact, this lady who looked ancient was actually very close to me in age and I could not help making comparisons between us, thinking of all the "stuff" that I had accumulated in my life so far. It resoundingly drove home for me, the excesses of our North American lifestyle. Six weeks after we arrived home in Canada it was Christmas. With Africa still so close to my heart, I could not bear to be given gifts of more stuff that I didn't need. The contrast was too uncomfortable. Will this new consciousness stay with me? I hope so.
The elders had gathered in one of the huts to socialize and enjoy their homemade beer. We were welcomed to the party. Brewed of maize and passed from mouth to mouth in an old 2 litre pop bottle, it was enthusiastically shared with us. They were obviously delighted when my partner took a deep draught of the brew and expressed his approval.
The elders were keen to have us photograph the gathering. One after another they posed, some shyly, others with gigantic, face-splitting grins.
Following the photo session, one of the fellows anxiously rushed out after us, concerned that I'd caught him on film with the beer bottle in his hand. It turns out that he is the local clergy and he wanted no record of his liquid socializing. So we promised to destroy the photo we'd taken, and replace it with a fresh one we took of him, standing in the sunshine, chest out and pride in place.
The children as well, were eager to have their photos taken. This was such a refreshing change from other areas we visited where photos are regarded as an invasion, tolerable only if money exchanges hands. We shot several rolls of film, promising to send prints once developed, which we did.
The visit was concluded with the mandatory stop into the souvenir shop – which in this case consisted of the hut of the guide's grandmother who ove small green-straw dishes. She was asking the equivalent of one Canadian dollar. I purchased one of these baskets, glad to leave a little money behind in her hands, where I was certain it would make a difference. The dish now sits on my desk, holding paperclips and reminding me of a lady my age who lives in a small mud hut with a bed and a table and three sacks of maize as the sum total of her life's accumulated possessions.
We returned to the lodge in time for dinner, a buffet of typical African fare …for the rich. The poor eat a kind of maize mush called ungali and often not much else. We had the ungali, but also potatoes, creamed vegetables, and barbecued steaks as big as plates. Dessert was, as always in Africa, bread pudding with custard sauce. Absolutely delicious, all of it.
The evening was concluded by an enthusiastic and absolutely charming concert provided by the local hildren, singing and making music on instruments constructed entirely of whatever materials they can lay their hands on. We slept very well in the cool mountain air, our only regret being the knowledge that we had to leave in the morning. Malealea is definitely a place worth staying over in. Next time we'll take a pony trek over several days, or at the very least a 4 WD adventure to the waterfalls.
We were up with the birds at 6, gathering in our laundry for the trip out of here. Even after two days the laundry is still damp as the mountain-high climate is a little too cool to dry things well. Oh well, damp clean clothes or grubby dry clothes, it's all part of the joys of traveling. Today the weather is clear and gloriously sunny so they probably would have dried if we'd stayed another day.
We enjoyed the usual big, rib-sticking breakfast then set off over the bumpy dirt roads of rural Lesotho. Only a few major highways are tarred, so these goat trails are it. In dry weather they are bumpy, but fine. In rainy conditions they can be extremely treacherous and often impassable as the dry dust turns to a greasy, slippery gumbo. Not a good combination with high mountain passes and steep, rocky drop offs.
But this is a good day and we enjoy the passing images of herdsmen with their cattle, villages of rondavels, happy children and donkeys carrying sacks of maize, wheat and beans. There are many children out this morning, all on their way to school. Lesotho has a high literacy rate, with primary school being free to all children.
The children wear brightly coloured uniforms, reminding me of flocks of tropical birds, in their blue/ yellow or green/orange shirts and shorts. Seeing them skip down the road or gather in groups to wait under a tree for the bus, brings home the commonalities of experience that we share. All over the world, at 8:00 in the orning, children are putting on their school clothes, gathering up their books, harassing their mothers with last-minute emergencies, then skipping out the door to gather in groups at the bus stop. I did it, my children did it, and my grandchildren will do it ….and we do it in North America and Europe and Africa. At least the lucky ones do.
After such a pleasant visit to Lesotho we encounter excessive officialdom on trying to re-enter South Africa. Considering that weeks before we had come into South Africa from Europe with nary a question or even a peek into our bags, this feels likes harassment. Our bags are searched, our passports photocopied and we are questioned about our citizenship. It is just a few weeks post-September 11 and the border officials seem to be very nervous about anyone from North America. They take our passports away and make us wait while they make phone calls. I don't like this, but it is South Africa, after all. What could be wrong? As Lesotho is a and-locked country with no access to anywhere except through South Africa, what are these guys thinking?
The women's washroom is so disgusting I cannot use it. There is about 4 inches of fetid water on the floor with floating lumps of something that I can only guess at. I have my husband give the all-clear on the men's, then stand guard outside while some of us women use the men's facilities. They are only marginally better. I hover over the porcelain, absolutely determined not to make skin contact with anything in there. I feel like a fussy old woman but the truth is, I do not even want to put the soles of my shoes on those floors. Oh well. I am not usually so uptight, but after the border hassle I am feeling tense and grumpy.
The bad taste passes as we pull away finally and travel down through what is known as "Little Karoo". This is a vast, arid plain with scant vegetation – only a little scrub and some odd-looking pyramid-shaped rock formations. In this environment, the racial divide is startlingly obvious, with blacks living in bleak, sun-baked shanty-towns on the outskirts of towns while white farmers live on beautiful, tree-shaded ranches. The green-ness of these immense prosperous-looking estates makes them standout on the landscape of the karoo, whether driving over flying over.
The landscape becomes somewhat monotonous, but we enjoy spotting ostriches who appear to thrive in this environment. They are huge birds, the males an elegant glossy black with pink legs, the females a mousy grey-brown. They move like ballet dancers on the tips of their toes, amusing and delightful to us.
We arrive, finally, at Mountain Zebra Park. It's been a long day of driving but Ernesto wants to show us something of the park before it gets dark so we head up into the mountains looking for zebra. The mountain vistas in this area are magnificent and from the park, which is actually a mountain which you corkscrew your way up and then down again, we have stunning views of mountains and valleys and the Little Karoo over which we'd been traveling all day. The zebras, however, are making themselves scarce. There are small gatherings of them off in the distance but as twilight settles into darkness they become harder and harder to spot.
More intriguing to us is the thunderously violent storm closing in on us. We are parked on a high-altitude plateau, a flat and featureless landscape where we, in our van, are the only thing that appear to actually be sticking out of the ground. As the storm charges overhead, then closes in around us like the smothering duvet from hell, the darkness deepens. Jagged strikes of forked lightning explode into the shuddering earth around us. There is a thunderous roar. Violent and disastrous surges of raw energy discharge into the earth, electrifying the air that we breathe.
We are so vulnerable, but so alive. It is magnificent.
Then the rain comes, in torrents. We pick our way down the dark and now greasy goat trail, traveling on the simultaneously held-breath of everyone in the van. When we slide into camp it is obviously raining far too hard for anyone to start unloading luggage and looking for bungalows, so we make a dash for the park office where we huddle, damp, cold and hungry, waiting for the torrential rains to back off a little.
Before I traveled to Africa I assumed the whole continent was hot hot hot. I now know that it certainly isn't and that in fact high altitude areas are cold cold cold. But Africans themselves seem to be under the same delusion because they do not install heaters in their housing. When they occasionally do so, they are tiny little, absolutely ineffective toy radiators. I get more heat out of the twenty dollar stove that I take tent-camping. Oh well.
Eventually the rain backs off a bit, so we grab our bags and with sketchy directions slog off through the wet in search of our beds. Our bungalow is more than adequate and if it weren't so cold, it would be wonderful to stay here for several days. There are two bedrooms, a fully-equipped kitchen, lounge area and a furnished patio that appears to have a magnificent view of the mountain where the zebras apparently roam. Of course it is dark and the world is awash in water, but that's what I think it would look like. We string up our wet laundry in the extra bedroom, futile perhaps in this cold, damp environment but if we keep it in the bags it will start to get skunky. At least hung up it will air out some.
The parks in South Africa all have dining rooms that serve dinner and without exception we found the food to be tasty and plentiful. The menus are usually set and you eat what you get, but this night we have a menu. I choose the kingclip (a standard fish feature in South Africa) and it is extremely good. The wine too, is cheap, plentiful and entirely satisfactory. Of course by the time we eat it is 9:00 and we are desperately hungry but I believe I would have been pleased under any circumstances. Full and content, we dash back through the drizzle for the bungalow. Under heaps of blankets, we sleep exceptionally well through the stormy night.
We awake to the sound of rain pelting down around us. The weather situation has not improved. There will be no zebra hunting this morning. We enjoy our usual great breakfast of bacon, eggs, toast, cereal, and all, then set off. We have a bit of a problem in that the diesel supply at the camp was exhausted. The driver had expected to refill the tanks there and we couldn't, so we will have to backtrack for an hour to get diesel at one of the towns we came through yesterday.
Unfortunately, we don't make it. The van hits empty enroute. It could be worse, however, as we have halted opposite a sort of motel/farmhouse establishment. They don't have diesel either, but they welcome us, shivering with the damp and cold, into their lounge where we play games, enjoy coffee and take pictures of each other.
The driver, meanwhile, is standing out at the road. Every twenty minutes or so, when a truck approaches, he flags it down and begs for any extra petrol they might have. This yields nada, so the driver and the motel owner put their heads together and start calling around to adjacent farms. In Africa, adjacent does not mean "next door" in the same sense it would at home. Here, adjacent means 30 km or more away. They finally raise a farmer who has some diesel to spare so they set off. The farm is 30 km away, by the shortest route, however the farmer expects that this road will be washed out by the rain and advises them to take a much longer round-about route. But our driver dismisses this and they set off in the farmer's truck, armed with an abundance of machismo and I hope, a shovel.
Several hours later they return. They are covered in sticky brown mud and the driver refuses to discuss what transpired, but he has a jerry can of diesel. Will it be enough to get us to the next town?
We set off and do, indeed, make it an hour later to a petrol station that can fill both our tanks.
Here I notice an interesting disparity. The older couple, she of "mountain goat" fame, get out of the van at stops and, arm in arm, stride vigorously around the petrol station for the length of our stay. They do this at every stop. We, on the other hand, get out and go into these stations to load up on chocolate, nuts, and popcorn, which we munch on until the next stop. The mountain goat and hubby, when they do eat, munch on apples and pears. I think there is something to be learned from these people. Obviously they have hit on a winning formula for staying strong and healthy on the road. Get your exercise wherever, whenever, and however you can.
Today we are descending to the coastline, traveling along what is called The Garden Route. It is indeed. Very lush with rolling hills carpeted in soft emerald green vegetation. Many flowers, fields cultivated in geometrically patterned rows, looking, from a viewpoint, like a colourful patchwork quilt. Reminds me a lot of the exquisite "prettiness" of Prince Edward Island.
We have lunch at a town called Willowmore. It's very clean, very ordered. We lunch at The Willow Historical Guest House, an interesting museum-like establishment that has been restored to an earlier age, a kind of living, breathing antique emporium, a really neat place.
I bravely order the local speciality, Bobotti. The waitress describes this as being a kind of quiche but I certainly wouldn't. To my mind, it is more of sweet and spicy meatloaf composed of beef and curried rice. It is absolutely, unbelievably delicious. South Africa is a fascinating confluence of cultural influences, particularly in towns like Willowmore. This particular piece of Africa had a major influx of French Hugenots, who coming in mixed with the Brits and Dutch Afrikaans. There has also been widespread and influential immigration from India. The cuisine will have been influenced by all of these, then interpreted no doubt by the local ethnic Africans who will have been hired to do the actual cooking.
All this mixing of the gastronomic heritages makes for a South African cuisine that is spicy, hearty and always tasty. Even their Colonel Sanders seemed to taste better!
Geographically, the coastline is a lot more rugged than the interior valleys. Each bend in the mountain-hugging coastal highway presents another breathtaking view of craggy rock faces and crashing surf. Intimate inlets with white sandy beaches and tossed-up logs, beg one to climb on down and rest awhile against them. There were a table full of policemen at lunch, so we asked one of them about the feasibility of traveling in this area by ourselves. He assured us that "The Garden Route" is very safe and he wouldn't have any hesitation about recommending that tourists travel in this area, "even with babies in the car", as he put it.
We wind down through the mountainous terrain to a place called Wilderness. We are booked into a place here called the Fairey Knowle Inn. It is lovely. Set in a kind of re-claimed salt marsh, the inn is actually built on the shores of an estuary. Our room has floor to ceiling windows and a door opening onto a patio that faces this peaceful waterway. After days of cold and/or wet weather our party has a pressing need to get the laundry out so within a few minutes of our arrival the patios are all decorated with drying skivvies. Oh well. So much for the romance of the place!
We head out for a stroll along narrow country lanes, clicking off film on the flowers and foliage. Bird of paradise, so expensive at home, are everywhere here, common as the lupines in my neighbourhood. To my surprise, so are impatience and petunias and geraniums although it looks like these are planted, not wild. In the distance, the ocean is both visible and audible. An old bridge silhouettes against the setting sun and I run through another roll attempting to capture the magic of the twilight in the fairey knowle.
Twelve & Thirteen
The hotel, as it was termed, was actually a series of low, hill-hugging buildings set in the midst of a working vineyard. An interesting and attractive setting. We sat on the patio, sipping the vineyards delicious wine, nibbling on appetizers and soaking up the ambience. Felt very posh really, very “southern plantation aristocracy sipping mint juleps on the veranda while watching the labourers tend the vines” kind of feeling. Except that it wasn’t a guilty feeling, such as I had when we sailed through impoverished townships in our Mercedes van. No, this was different. People here, even the labourers in the vineyard and the cooks in the kitchen, appeared prosperous and happy. While we were the tourists and they were the workers it didn’t feel any different than it does at home, when I see tourists enjoying my city while I have to work.
Although our rooms were soon ready, I returned often, during the next two days, to sit on that tranquil patio, watching the workers at the vines, the men on the tractors, the women hanging out the wash. I spent a great part of my growing-up years on a farm and it always feels like coming home. In that environment, a contentment spreads through my soul. I hadn’t realized that I would find it in Africa too.
During the day we visited Franschoek, a town outside of Stellenbosch where the Huguenots had a huge influence. Very pretty. There are museums and art galleries and small restaurants. Many flowers, which I took copious photos of.
My heart is captured by the exquisite rural tranquility of this place. It demands the touch of an artist. Rolling from one shade of green to another, the landscape is broken only by the blue of a small valley lake, blotchy white cattle lingering on the shore, purple/blue mountains adding a natural horizon to the scene. Reminds me of the idealistic drawings I made as a grade schooler. They all looked amazingly like this: rolling green hills sloping down to a lowlands lake. Stands of green, puffy-leaved trees, a couple of lazy cows drinking from the lake. Purple/blue mountains on the horizon. Blue skies, white clouds, and in the top right corner, an early summer sun warming the fields and the people who live there.
I take far too many photographs but am disappointed when they are developed. What I see through my eyes is a soft focus, hand painted masterpiece. This does not translate accurately to the one-dimensional surface of a photograph. The enchantment that I absorb through my human eyes is too subtle to be captured by a mechanical lens.
That morning, I once again enjoyed my coffee on the patio. It was early in the morning and soon the melodic songbirds were joined by the magical music of children’s voices. They were skipping up the lane to the hotel, their mothers hard on their heels. Our waiter explained that their mothers work at the hotel so the children wait up here for the bus, where their mothers can keep an eye on them, rather than down on the highway. Dressed in their bright school uniforms and behaving like school children everywhere, they chased each other in circles, giggled, gawked at the new crop of tourists, dropped their satchels in the dust, and were regularly admonished to “settle down”. It was a happy, hopeful scene. I said a little prayer for them, that these optimistic, well-cared for children would be the next leaders of Africa.
Mothers know mothers and the next morning one of the women came upon me watching the children chase each other around a bush. “You miss your children, “ she asked gently. “Yes,” I told her. We smiled at each other and knew that, worlds apart, we held in common everything that was most important in our lives.
Later that day we traveled through the valleys to an estate vineyard for our promised “tasting”. We had already been enthusiastically imbibing of the fruit of the vine at our hotel vineyard, but this was to be an "official" tasting at an esteemed, gold medal award-winning estate winery.
They began by presenting us with an order form, presumably so that we could order case lots shipped home to America. We then went on to “taste” three whites and four reds. What would happen is that a tall, elegant lady in white would pour a little into our glass. We would take sip, swirl it around our tongue and cheeks, gargle discretely so that we had a full immersion of the palate and then spit it into the large white china jug. I knew what to do because I had seen a show on television last year. After the spitting, we were to take a sip of water and repeat the process so that we cleansed our palate and then spit that into the jug too. Unfortunately, I got confused and spit the water from my palate cleansing exercise back into the clean water jug. This horrified the tall lady in white, but fortunately endeared me to my mates who were becoming ever more bemused by the solemnity with which the tall lady in white was conducting the “tasting”.
I am no expert but this wine stank. It really did. Tasted awful. But what do I know? Nothing, except what tastes good. However, accompanying us was a Frenchman who fancied himself an expert. I am sure he was, at least in comparison to me and he too said it was awful. In fact, he too refused to drink the free bottles they gave us with lunch and lapped up the non-alcoholic grape juice, which was excellent.
Lunch too was excellent. We were each presented with an artistically arranged picnic-style plate of delectables: spinach quiche, chicken drummettes, potato salad, seafood pate, four kinds of cheese and crackers, roasted garlic, fresh crudités, peaches, and strawberries. This was all wrapped up in a green-checked linen napkin and accompanied by fresh-baked warm brown bread and herbed whipped butter. My mouth waters even now.
Their cook is obviously better than their vintner, we ate every scrap. Needless to say they must have been disappointed by our lack of orders. Ever polite I still hoped to find something I liked and could order so I asked the lady in white if she had anything in a sweet white that I might try. This request resulted in a withering look of distaste. Didn’t surprise me. I have been informed, by classier people than she, that my taste for sweet whites marks me as a peasant of plonk, but no matter, I’ll keep my money in my pocket then.
For dessert they brought us a plate of what are known as "koeksesters." These are a sweet, cold pastry. They look like a honey-coloured, twisted doughnut, but are actually much sweeter. They are served out of the fridge and dripping with syrup. I don’t think that any of us really liked them, except our South African guide who polished off the plate. Must be one of those things you love because you are raised on them.
On to Cape Town, which was only about 50 km down the road.
As we arrive in the city, Ernesto takes one look at Table Mountain and declares that we are going up, without delay. Some of us suggest that we might save it for tomorrow, but he is insistent. The sky over Table Mountain is a clear blue and this is apparently rare. More often than not, the "tablecloth" covers it and visibility is zero, so we will not delay. In the previous two weeks we had been hearing about how bad the weather in Cape Town was, up to and including snow! So with this fortuitous break, up we go. The "tablecloth" which we later witnessed is quite a sight in itself. It's a climactic phenomena in which puffy white clouds get hooked, if you will, on the mountain, then a downdraft pushes them down over the edges of the "table" giving it a remarkably similar look to a soft white tablecloth being draped over a table.
The top of Table Mountain can be accomplished either by a very strenuous hike, or by paying 75R and taking the gondola. We gladly pay up! The sights, both going up and on top are magnificent. Talk about a panoramic view! Just amazing. The Indian Ocean to the east, the Atlantic Ocean to the west, Africa all around you.
Stories of sailing ships and marooned crews, spice trading ships and exotic destinations pop into mind. The imagination runs riot. Cape Town was the site of so much history as first the Dutch Trading Company, then the British, tried to control the aspirations of the independently-minded Afrikaners who never would have settled such a challenging land if they weren't relentlessly determined to control their own destiny.
I look north and east and see the valleys through which the Voortrekkers took their destiny in their own hands, and the mountains over which the blacks were driven from their lands by the aspirations of the whites to own everything. I look down from Table Mountain and see Robben Island, just offshore, symbolic of the struggle of ethnic Africans to re-claim their homeland and their future. We will go there tomorrow.
The top of Table Mountain is a pleasant place of winding walking paths and stone-walled viewpoints. We see some intriguing fluorescent-coloured lizards. There is a gift shop and a concession. The mountain climbers, who forgo even the hiking trails for the more challenging rock faces, are pulling over the edge as we watch. Amazing feats of strength and determination.
There are signs that warn us that if an alarm sounds we are to come in immediately. It means that huge winds are approaching and being exposed would be very dangerous. Even as we leave, we witness the settlement of the tablecloth around us. Eerie, but beautiful.
It is still early, so we head to Hout Bay for a lunch of fish and chips on the wharf. Highly appropriate choice as the fishermen were steadily pulling into the pier with fish-laden holds. As they approached, buyers stepped out to the edge and an impromptu, singsong kind of auction ensued with buyers and sellers bidding on the catch. Once agreed, the men in the boat would start throwing the fish up onto the wharf, where the buyer would have his own hired hands throwing them into the back of a pickup truck. Destination? Markets and restaurants.
Our lunch was hake, which was excellent, but bring your own ketchup. Try as we did to explain the concept of ketchup, they didn't have a clue what we wanted.
On to Cape of Good Hope which is the geographic "tip" of Africa and where, historically so many great sailing ships were swept aground on the perilous, rocky shores. I can see why. When we were there the winds were a stiff 70 km/p/h and the seas were brutal. It is a place of stunning rugged beauty, but not one to linger. The winds are simply too harsh. The drive down the cape, however, is lovely, fields covered with wild protea and baboons begging at the road side. They are fascinating, funny, animals but one's to be wary of. They love shiny things and will snatch a pair of sunglasses or keys or whatever in a moment.
Our hotel is very fine, very "city" and the nicest we have been in to date. We are ready for a little luxury. It is in the first block off the ocean. We plunk our suitcases in our room, heading out immediately. This is the Indian Ocean and I am delighted by the notion that these waters also lap at the shores of exotic Asian locales. The beaches are covered in shells and we collect, as usual, too many! I can't help wondering if I am too greedy and one day I'll find Neptune ringing my doorbell in North Delta. He wants his shells back. Oh, I'll deal with that then, for now I fill my pockets. Who knows where these have been washed in from? The romance of it enchants me.
Next morning? We're off to Zimbabwe.