Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Into The Wild

We fled the Eastern Cape due to the bad weather but as we entered KwaZulu-Natal the weather took a dramatic turn for the worse. By the time we approached Durban the motorways were several inches underwater and so not only did 'motorway' driving entail the challenges of avoiding the cows and other animals, the old women crossing and the boys cycling in the hard shoulder but also avoiding the cars that were still speeding past, aquaplaning along as though it were a fine, sunshiny day. By the time we arrived in Durban I was convinced that we were on the verge of a natural disaster and that we would wake up in the morning and find ourselves floating half-way to Antartica. Actually in the morning we awoke to bright blue skies and all the water had vanished. Which I guess proves the point of all the locals who claim they are desperate for the rains.

Durban does not have the greatest reputation among travellers, particularly regarding safety, so we restricted ourselves to exploring just the Indian quarter around the Victoria Street market. The market itself is housed in a large building which manages to contain all the the colour and aroma of India, souvenir sellers vying with the spice merchants for business. There are also several cafes selling curries and other Indian foods including the Durban speciality 'bunny chow', a hollowed out loaf of bread filled with a curry of choice. In the surrounding area, amongst more trade and commerce is a mosque and madrassa (and a rather out-of-place Cathedral!). People are surprised that the Hindu temple, the largest in South Africa, is way across town from this area. It did not surprise me as it is convenient located just behind the Kingsmead cricket ground. Indians using one religion to follow another! Experiencing the Indian culture in Durban offers another viewpoint of South African society. Although they obviously live within their own huge network of family and contacts the Indian population seems far more liberal and modern in Durban than in Delhi. Despite this Durban does feel like a big Indian city. Perhaps that is why it was never the state capital?

Durban is also famous within South Africa for its beaches, although some have become crime-ridden no-go areas. The most famous is probably Umhlanga, just a few kilometres north of the centre, where luxury resorts and giant shopping malls hem the beachfront. We only visited for a short while and by then the skies had clouded over once more so unfortunately we did not have the quintessential South African beach experience!

We drove inland up into the Drakensburg mountains. Amazingly the higher we got the better the weather became and we enjoyed a few days of trekking under cloudless African skies. The Drakensburg is separated into several protected areas and it would require a long time to visit all of them. We decided to just visit two areas, the Monks Cowl and Royal Natal national parks. Although both were beautiful, Royal Natal was the highlight, trekking past beautiful rock formations and through lush green valleys to amazing viewpoints. Just a few kilometres away is the town of Ladysmith, home of the famous musical group the Ladysmith Black Mambazo. This proximity was fitting as whilst trekking through Royal Natal it seemed as if these African rhythms were being carried on the wind. Also we had a copy of Paul Simon's 'Graceland' in the car, a more tangible connection!

Throughout South Africa we have been staying in a variety of accommodations, mostly either 'backpackers' (as they are known here) or at one of South Africa's many, well-run, municipal camp sites. These provide a relaxing refuge from the rigors of the backpackers. The campsites are always full of South African families, keeping themselves to themselves, having a braii in the evening but otherwise peaceful and quiet. One of the best campsites we have stayed in was Mahai camp situated in Royal Natal. It seems that families come to camp for the weekend without even considering trekking, they just come for the views from the camp and the excellent facilities. Whilst not many have a fully equipped kitchen they generally have a space where you can prepare food and wash up afterwards and the bathrooms always, always, have big bathtubs and plenty of hot water.

Soon enough the rain returned and we headed back to the sea, along the Elephant coast up to St. Lucia. The drive from Drakensburg was a long, dull and dreary 400km, the only bright side coming from some of the stranger road signs. My favourites include 'ABNORMAL', which is always hung on the back of wide-load or 'long' vehicles or displayed by their car escort and 'ROBOT AHEAD' which is not a derogatory term for a traffic cop but actually the South African term for a set of traffic lights. Not quite so amusing are the antics of South African drivers, who must be amongst the most aggressive in the world. Worst are the minibus drivers (who apparently have such strong unions that they would never ever be convicted of any traffic offence), rich Pretoria businessmen in blacked out Mercs and the old Afrikaans farmers. These guys always loom large in the rear view mirror, beeping and flashing before over-taking and giving you the finger as they pass. I was shocked, they are the age of my grandad, with their wives in the passenger seat, and they cut me so close as to almost cause an accident. What makes it worse is that drink-driving almost seems compulsory in South Africa (to the point where it is quite common to see guys drinking a beer whilst they are actually driving) so it begs the question, how many beers did they have for breakfast? After a while I realised the cause of their frustration. In South Africa it is customary for slow drivers to pull into the hard shoulder to let others past, even if the road is clear for a normal overtaking manoeuvre. Once I started to yield to these speed demons I received far fewer fingers! As well as the drink-driving it seems that speed limits are totally disregarded by all South Africans, despite the limits being very generous, in fact the normal limit for a single lane highway in South Africa is higher than that on a motorway in the UK.

Thankfully we arrived in St. Lucia safe and sound, just a few frayed nerves that a beer or two would fix. St. Lucia became one of my favourite places in South Africa. A small town surrounded by jungle on an estuary full of crocs and hippos. It is a fairly touristic town, with reminders of a Floridian retirement village, and the main drag is packed with bars, restaurants and hotels but behind that are dirt tracks on which hippos roam free at night. It feels like jungle wilderness and it is, right down to the regular afternoon rains. Along the coast north of the town runs the St Lucia Wetlands protected area, and at the tip, Cape Vidal, a beautiful stretch of beach popular with weekenders. As a bonus the route to the beach doubles as a game drive, with rhinos crashing out of the bushes and onto the road, kudu and buffalo grazing and the constant threat of lions should you risk alighting from your vehicle. We had only seen three rhinos in Africa, all lazing about by Lake Nakuru in Kenya, here we saw 5 just driving to the beach and back!

Just 40km further away is the entrance to Hluhluwe national park, the first protected area in South Africa and an alternative to Kruger for spotting the Big 5. The park is set in a stunning landscape of rolling hills and thick foliage. We were not so lucky with the animals, spotting just a few more rhino, zebra, warthogs, wildebeest and giraffe. And the top of a lions head from about 100 yards!

Some of my personal highlights of countries appear mundane, selfish and whimsical when compared to the greater impressions. For example in India I enjoy going to the barbers for a shave (and paying about 20p for it) just as much as I admire the freedom and democracy. In South Africa I love being able to have a hot, high pressure, shower on a daily basis. After several months washing under trickles of cold water throughout Africa this has become one of my personal highlights, especially during these rainy days. Hot showers for me are up there with equality and development in South Africa!

It was time for a brief break from South Africa so we drove into the small kingdom of Swaziland. I assumed it would be vastly different, more rural and less densely populated than South Africa. Wrong. In fact because it is such a small country the people are quite crowded together. Despite this however we found the people to be very warm and welcoming, much more so than in South Africa. No question was too much trouble to answer and everyone behaved in a friendly manner. We camped at a guesthouse within the Mliliwane Nature Sanctuary, sharing the campsite and the splendid views with ostrich and warthogs. Mliliwane is situated in the Ezulwini valley between the two major towns of Manzini and Mbabane and very close to the Kings former residence at Lobamba. The highlight of Manzini for us was the market, Mbabane we found to be a pleasant city but without any distinctive highlights. The Ezulwini valley is a beautiful stretch of winding roads, hills and farmland which serves as the base for tourism within the country. Whilst we were there the sky was clear and the sun blistering hot. Unfortunately we were not able to visit the Royal Palace as it is off-limits but we did visit the memorial gardens of the previous king, albeit on our last day as the rains returned. The King is not so popular in neighbouring countries these days due to his policy of selecting very young girls to become his next wife. This feeling did not seem to be prevalent within Swaziland however as every hotel, shop or other establishment has at least one photo of his majesty hanging prominently.

On our last day the bad weather forced us to leave straight for South Africa rather than taking the scenic route via Piggs Peak. We arrived in the town of Nelspruit, a pleasant town set int he hills with a very secure feel. As with the whole of South Africa the entire town is obsessed with the 2010 World Cup. Nelspruit is one of the host cities, as is Durban, and in both cities shiny, new, very impressive stadia have been built and the entire road network is being totally overhauled in preparation. South Africa resembles a country of total development with people even renting out their spare rooms or whole houses to desperate visitors who were unable to snap up hotel beds on time. It is just a shame that Bafana Bafana, the South African national team, cannot live up to this mania. Their Brazilian coach, Joel Santana quite just a few days ago after a string of poor performances, the most recent of which came up in Reykjavik. I suspect communication played a massive part on his lack of success, in TV interviews his poor grasp of English is openly ridiculed by the interviewers and pundits and one wonders how he communicates with the players? Still, Fabio Capello doesn't seem hampered by a lack of English so who knows?

Nelspruit is conveniently located close to Blyde River Canyon and Kruger National Park so we set off for a tour of the region. In good weather a visit to Blyde River Canyon is a excellent day trip with stops at various sites and viewpoints along the way watching the colours on the rock escarpment change as the sun moves across the sky. Perhaps the best views are those overlooking the 'Three Rondavels' formation. There are a couple of nice campsites close by, offering swimming pools and other amenities in addition to the usual services.

And on to Kruger park, one of the most famous places in Africa. Not only was it our last chance for game viewing in South Africa but also of our whole trip. Thankfully the visit lived up to these expectations, especially due to the thrill of seeking out the big game independently. Our only disappointment was that we only saw two prides of lions, and both from several hundred yards away. For some reason I expected at Kurger there would be so many lions laying around I would be tripping over them. We did see more giraffe here than in the rest of Africa combined as well as herds and herds of elephants. Our main highlights were seeing a hyena close by the road with no-one else around, being held up by a herd of around 200 buffalo crossing the road and spending the night next to our campsite, stumbling upon a black rhino (just about the most endangered animal in Africa) munching away at leaves by the side of the road, and spotting a leopard with cubs wandering around in the undergrowth just metres from our car. We also saw a jackal for the third time in Africa, but again were unable to get a good photo! The weather was scorching for the first two days which made all the animals lazy, lying in any available shade, on the third day it cooled and we were able to see a little more action!

Everyone told us to avoid the weekend in the park but we wanted a true Kruger experience and so we visited on a weekend. Brits go to the seaside for the weekend, the Swiss to mountains and Czechs to their cottages whilst South Africans go to game parks to relax! The campsites were full of families, the swimming pools full, the bars running out of beer and everyone having a braii by their caravan. To complete our Kruger experience, and to celebrate Monikas birthday, we joined in and fired up our own braii. A true South African religion is the braii (or barbeque). By Saturday afternoon all towns have ground to a halt and barely anyone is on the streets until Monday morning. The time is spent in the garden, or at a campsite, cooking vast amounts of meat and eating them with garlic bread, salads, beer and wine. It is a traditional that truly unifies South Africa (luckily there are hardly any vegetarians here). There are certain rules and etiquette however, the most important being - never touch someone else's braii and never advise them on their meat!

1 comment:

  1. That must have an enthralling ride.Specially passing through the Kruger national park must some fun.Watching the best wildlife parks is a must for every visitor here.
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