A South African Odyssey

[Photo: Robberg Nature and Marine Reserve, Plettenberg Bay, South Africa]
7 January 2017

We’re back at home in Blantyre these 3 days past, after a 3 week driving trip around S. Africa. Sitting on the couch in the living room, looking out at our blindingly green front yard, I’m listening to Chopin mazurkas and watching the clouds gather for another terrific shower—I hope. Last week during a big storm a huge mahogany tree fell over onto a minibus station (a large, vacant and muddy lot) adjacent to the Blantyre Central Market, crushing 10 minibuses, killing and injuring many people. In the midst of the rainy season where the country is greener than Ireland and maize is approaching 6’ tall. This juxtaposition between natural beauty and human suffering defines our stay here—-as well as the trip to S. Africa.

Landing in Tembo (Johannesburg) Airport, Linda headed off to get the rental car. Since I am over 70yo we would have had to pay a stiff premium for me to drive, so Linda did the heavy lifting. She also planned the trip. My passivity as a traveler is new and uncomfortable for me; as she subsequently pointed out, if I stopped complaining about it, I could enjoy the view as she drove, which I eventually did. So I went to an ATM and got some Rand, then to a Vodacom shop for two SIM cards and top-ups for our phones. Then, short of cash, I returned to a different ATM with a much shorter line. As I tried to operate it, it was a bit confusing and I asked the man behind me in line how to do it. Big mistake. He willingly helped and 2 minutes later he was gone with my card and I was in the adjacent bank trying to see if the machine had eaten it (that did once happen to me in Sault, France). By the time the woman, speaking largely Afrikaner, and I figured out how to call Visa to cancel the card, the fellow had withdrawn a tidy $423 in two withdrawals. Expensive lesson. I really was ignoring danger signals that I was picking up, like, “This guy looks very clean cut, just like some people I’ve seen post-prison”. This all took time and Linda was afraid of the worst—-collapsed, beaten, sexual assault (well, doubtful at 76yo), or just aimless demented wanderings within a huge international airport. We reunited and set off for the Drakensburg in a tiny blue Chevy Spark.

The Drakensburg is the largest mountain massif in southern Africa, a huge preserve (>600,000 acres) for eland, with several of the highest peaks in southern Africa. Linda had reserved a luxury chalet at a resort deep into the park at Giant’s Castle. Floor to ceiling glass, views of magnificent birds and trees and distant mountains. It was a perfect way to begin a holiday (better than at Tembo), and we took long hikes and saw San (2000+ years old) art in a couple of caves. We took a really strenuous day-hike to Langalibelele Pass, starting early. No humans on the trail, we saw a small dead snake—our only one so far in Africa—which temporarily revived my anticipation of being attacked by a flock, a covey, a herd of Puff Adders, Boomslangs, and Mambas. By the end of the trip I was dying to see a venomous critter but it was not to be. The hills were covered with wild iris 3 1/2feet tall, corn flowers of every hue, and a variety of wild orchids. It was simply glorious. We saw a troupe of baboons running along in the valley below us, the male appearing huge. For the first time in my life, I think, I paused 20minutes below the pass, deciding to photograph flowers rather than ascend to the top. I thought it was a significant achievement in my attending to my physical needs (tired, hungry, dehydrated) as opposed to letting my competitive spirit lead me.  Linda got to the top, saw two groups of wild horses scrutinizing her, and zipped back to where I was waiting. I reassured her that they were herbivores, to little avail. Then we heard two male voices hallooing high up the opposite side of the valley. With two dogs. No dogs allowed in the park, so I assumed they were up to no good, which I didn’t want them to practice on us. Feeling very vulnerable, down we flew, probably unnecessarily, as we later found out they were likely hunters from Lesotho (the frontier is at the top of the pass) poaching in the park.

One day we drove to a northern section of the Drakensburg, Royal Natal, and hiked to see the second longest waterfall in the world, Tugela Falls, at 850 meters (one in Venezuela tops it by 30 meters). The hike up was very special with views of all the world and everything was in bloom. I think everything must be in bloom always in S. Africa, from our brief experience! The last part was challenging, going up a long rock face on a chain ladder, then climbing hand over hand grasping roots up a narrow, near-vertical gorge. On the way down Linda, who often uses Vibram slip-ons with 5 toes for hiking (She has run two marathons in them and swears by them unless it is cold.), whacked her right little toe into a rock. Great pain, subsequent swelling, and bruising suggested it was broken.  If it slowed her down, it didn’t prevent her from any of our subsequent hikes.

After 4 nights in the Drakensburg we drove to Durban where we bought some camping gear at a Cape Union Mart (think little REI, excellent quality), walked along the boardwalk and through the amazing horticultural gardens (a reason to visit that otherwise unremarkable town) with huge spreads of bromeliads, and went to the Indian Bazaar and Spice Market. Linda purchased custom-made curry powder and some beaded jewelry and I bought an ostrich leather belt, which the seller assured me her father still uses after 40 years! Let’s see, I’ll be 116 and will doubtfully need a belt. There is a large Indian population in Durban but Indian restaurants were scarce. Ghandi began his legal career there but we could not find his house.  Instead we took a tour of the largest mosque in southern Africa. Watching the devoted doing their ablutions and praying made those aspects of Islam appealing—-clean, meditative—until we asked about where all the women were. Hm.

Then we were off to Port St. John on the Wild Coast. A backpacker’s lodge was our abode and we set up our new tent on a terrace overlooking a lovely beach (I’m running out of positive descriptors.), had supper, and watched a local troupe perform something in Zulu which neither of us can now recall. We walked on the lovely beach and along a cliff side trail through the jungle recalling the Na Pali coast in Kauai. It rained considerably during the night and we were dry and comfy in our new tent.

The next day was to Grahamstown, nothing fancy, to a mountaintop retreat. We were the only retreaters. On their website they have an ornate cross saying The College of Transfiguration which Linda hadn’t seen when she made the reservation. It was comfortable and very isolated atop a huge, desolate hill with no trees and two large, very clean, quite modern and sterile buildings. I suspect some interesting transfigurations have transpired there.

On to Plettenburg Bay and the Garden Coast, where we sought out the Robberg Nature Preserve. A board member of Africa Parks, whom we met in Majete on a previous trip, suggested we visit.  It is a stunning, rocky peninsula, covered with a variety of flowering shrubs with huge sand dunes and a small island attached. It was a great walk with a lovely nearly-deserted beach and nesting gulls regurgitating their catches for the young-uns to gobble up. We humans are so fussyabout what we put in our mouths. (Last night during a terrific lightning display, three guards rushed into our driveway. Alarmed I shouted, “What is going on?” They ignored me, not speaking English, and fell to gathering the now-huge winged ants congregating at our outside light for a later feast. I must fry a few in butter and eat them; but what if I am hooked?   “Waiter, I’d like a side of the large red ants, sautéed in beurre noisette, no wings.”)

After a night in Knysna, we headed for Cape Town where my 87yo sister, her daughter, son-in-law, and grandson live. The middle two are oceanographers and my sister decided that her very comfortable retirement home in Pittsburgh was “boring”. Kudos to them all. Deirdre, my niece, gave us a great tour of the Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens, tucked up the east side of Table Mountain. Staggering in conception, extent, and beauty, they alone are worth a trip to Cape Town. The latter is all they say: an African experience where you can avoid the terrible poverty and hopelessness seen elsewhere (if you don’t drive across Cape Flats) but a beautiful, wonderfully interesting, accessible city where things work. We hiked up Table Mountain and around a bit on top; I’d suggest up the Skeleton Trail and down the Nursery. We did it the other way and some of the Skeleton is much nicer on ascent than descent. It is a really good walk and ambling on top drills the idea of fynbos into you. A uniquely South African botanical niche, fine bush is comprised of many species of Protea, Erica (heathers), Restios (reeds) and some tubers and succulents. The profusion of blooms was past belief; heathers that looked like small pine trees with bright purple blossoms, flowers called Sticky Red Erica, and on and on. We were especially impressed on Table Mountain but saw a variety of fynbos all over the Western Cape.

We then drove south to see African Penguins at the Boulders below Simonstown and then to Cape Point and the brief hike to the Cape of Good Hope. I don’t know if the southern Indian Ocean was more tranquil and less treacherous for sailors of old than the southern Atlantic but off both capes is a massive graveyard of ships. It may have been a linguistic and psychological trick to salve sailors’ anxiety; if you make it past here, you’re in the clear. It was very moving to stand on the cliffs and imagine old square-riggers with no GPS or radar, making the turn east and heading for trade centers. Courage, for me, isn’t about not having fear; it’s more about overcoming your fear. And keeping it to oneself, some say, although I’m not sure I agree with the latter.

Speaking of courage, we went to Nelson Mandela museums at his Capture Site on the way from Tembo, at Mphata his birthplace, and on Robbin Island. The number of people committed to the struggle for equality is sobering, as so many of them died in the struggle. And that he was a healer, not vindictive, after all the abuse he suffered astounds me. How the current president of S. Africa can steal from the public coffer, be forced to return some of what he took, and not be slapped into prison boggles the mind. Undoubtedly colonialism has played a role in the “African Strongman” phenomenon, but that is only a part of the picture. Look at our country, about to be placed in the hands of a racist, misogynist whose main interest in the world is acquiring power, money, and attention. And grabbing women’s privates.  We can’t blame that on the Brits.

We had a delicious Christmas ham with family and exchanged gifts; they provided a much more generous supply than we brought, being enforced minimalists as one year volunteers. (We still use the lower half of plastic bottles as our crystal!).

We then headed north to the Cedarburg National Park for two nights, where we camped by a river in a “Rest Camp” founded in 1886. We hiked to the Maltese Cross (see photo above) which was stunning.  The sun was intense and the only shade we found was directly under the cross, which was concerning as pieces of it have fallen off and created a slag pile around its base.  We also viewed more San rock paintings and explored cave complexes believed to have been used by the San. (The San were the “bushmen”, nomadic hunters who carried what they owned on their backs. They made decisions by consensus and didn’t have chiefs or tribal hierarchies. They were displaced by farmers/herders and hunted actively by the Boers who apparently killed hundreds of thousands of San.)

Back to town for New Year’s Eve celebrations on the Cape Town waterfront with all the music, color, and dancing you’d imagine except everyone was polite and there was no open drinking. People seemed sober. Lots of fireworks and good cheer.

We then drove to Karoo National Park, where we did several self-drives, seeing all manner of antelope (springbok, gemsbok, hartebeste), mountain zebra, ostrich, and a lioness with her two large cubs (others saw 4). I wanted to get out of the car to better photograph them but Linda calmly kept me in check, screaming, ”Are you crazy?” The only trouble with a game park is that you cannot hike much, as lions, leopards, and hyenas, not to mention aardwolves (found in Karoo), are notherbivores. It is wonderful to see  these graceful, adaptable animals in an open habitat, however.

Driving into Joburg we decided to bite the bullet and drive at night so as to stay near the airport. As Linda kept the car on the road and the rain poured down, I called around until I found us a room at a backpackers’ lodge called MoAfrica. I was given excellent directions to it and we navigated remarkably well, given the massive 6 lane freeway interchanges—“I think the M12 is over there but it says ‘Pretoria’ this way”. As we moved out into the countryside 15 minutes from the airport we turned down one road too early and were driving down a hill on a little-used dirt tract across an empty meadow in pouring rain with lightning flashing directly in our faces.  Stephen King wrote the prequel.  A frantic call to MoAfrica and we re-calculated, finding a much more sophisticated dirt track to the lodge just up the road. Very glad to be there. We met a young couple from Montreal who were touring S. Africa before heading to Japan (Nagoya) for two years. He is an aerospace engineer. Backpacker lodges seem to house the most compatible people for us, even though I’m 50 years their senior.

I need to say something about the birds we saw. We are pretty amateur bird watchers but cannot help be fascinated by Southern Masked Weavers building nests attached to cat tails, Fairy Flycatchers, Chestnut-vented Tit Bablers, and Drakensburg Rockjumpers. As well as flocks of Greater Flamingos, Common Scimitar Bills, Kelp Gulls, Southern Red Bishops, and Spectacled Weavers, to name a few.

It was a snap to get to the airport. The flight to Malawi after 3 weeks away evoked all the warmth and anticipation of a homecoming. (Malawi entered the rainy season in earnest while we were gone and a huge sinkhole opened in the road to Karonga in the north, stopping travel.)  As we taxied in, the familiar bright red Massey-Ferguson farm tractor pulled the deplaning stairway over to us, a sign we had left advanced airports behind. It felt sweet and actually it was very nice to walk in the fresh air after the flight, rather than up one of those enclosed ramps into the airport. Our taxi driver had an ancient Toyota on its last legs so he drove it very slowly, also conserving fuel. We enjoyed the slow re-entry, astounded the maize has grown so high.

An aside: We’re clearly back at our home. Today we started a compost pile of food peelings in a large, covered plastic bucket Linda bought for the purpose. I dumped a full smaller bucket in there this morning. The guard de jour proudly showed me how she had emptied it in the mixed plastic/cardboard/garbage pit up the hill and scrubbed out the bucket. It was like your beloved cat bringing in a mouse or a bird as a gift for you; you’re not too happy but don’t want to land on them too hard. It’s hard to compost here, because as much as we have tried in the pit up the hill that we dug for the purpose, it keeps being a repository the guards, housekeeper, and garderners use for all manner of plastic, meat scraps, and so forth that don’t compost. We’ve tried to explain it but the concept doesn’t stick.

We used the Lonely Planet Southern Africa book, as well as a map of S. Africa and a terrific little book called Coast to Coast written by a young couple for backpackers and others travelling on the cheap. It is given out for free at the backpacker lodges. It would help to have a GPS, which we didn’t. But otherwise, the travel was quite painless, thanks to Linda driving and making all the arrangements.  My admiration for the Chevy Spark is great—-it took us over a lot of washboard without a complaint.

We had a wonderful trip tempered only by our knowledge of the state of poverty of most of the black and colored people and the governmental corruption in South Africa. Travelling there felt very much like travelling in the US, whereas travelling in Malawi is different altogether. I continue to lean towards extending my stay by a year, although sometimes the poverty and impossibility of things improving substantially cause me to feel despair.

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