South Africa – Part 2

January 12, 2008 at 7:27 pm | Posted in South Africa, Swaziland | Leave a comment

South Africa Part 2…..November 7 – November 26 20 days

We left Kruger and headed west to visit our new friends, Frank and Martha, who are Peter’s sister-in-law’s son’s in-laws. Got that? They live outside Johannesburg and we looked forward to some familial ties. We spent 3 days with them and were well taken care of, well pampered and well fed. The boys got their fill of t.v., yard races and tons of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches which are hard to come by outside of the U.S. We also got some good advice on where to go and some insight on life in South Africa. Thank you Frank and Martha! We were all sad to part ways as we had grown very close during our short visit.

We took the N17 straight east towards Swaziland thus resuming our trek down the eastern seaboard of South Africa. Swaziland is a small kingdom that lies south of Kruger National Park and we were attracted to it for its emphasis on culture. Martha had packed us an ample supply of sandwiches and we were carefree but unnerved by the conditions of the tin shacks that the locals live in. Row upon row of tin shacks forming maze-like tin towns festooned with rainbows of laundry hanging from shack to shack or on the barbed wire fences marking the township boundaries. We pointed them out to the children and simply asked them what they thought of them rather than asking them to be thankful for what they have. We know they would have to get closer to these people’s lives to truly begin to appreciate the difference. They didn’t know what to make of the shacks. The children are excited to find a nail or a bottlecap on the ground and now that they are living with a small handful of toys, they are able to naturally adapt and live with less and not miss their toys at home. The other day Laura found a plastic ring that came off of the bottle top of a water or milk bottle in Oliver’s collection. Looking like garbage, she asked him if she could throw it away and he insisted on keeping it because he uses it to scrape the sharp edges off of his new found sticks. So, we didn`t think we would get an objective opinion from the children on their thoughts about the shacks, not yet anyway.

We were taking in the increasingly lush and dramatic scenery when Peter, in a deliberate casual tone, asked Laura to refer to the car’s manual to see how much fuel is actually left in the tank when the warning light goes on. Laura’s heart immediately started racing and she felt the adrenaline pumping as fear permeated her body. The one thing you don’t want to do in South Africa is get stranded on a roadside especially the road we were travelling because we had just passed a road sign that read “High Crime Area. Do Not Stop”. We had heard that robberies and car-jackings are commonplace and the resentment felt by the locals despite the offical end to apartheid was very real. The extreme poverty rendered people very desperate. Being stranded was like being a lone baby gazelle on the open plain at sundown.

Peter had been in a quandry because the gas stations along the road up until this point were so unapproachable and forboding that he dared not drive into one also thinking that we would be left vulnerable and so he was trying to hold off stopping for fuel until we reached the more safe international border between South Africa and Swaziland. Now here we were 10 miles or so from the border and Laura is frantically trying to flip through the manual to see how much fuel we have. All the manual says is, “When the warning light goes on, fill up the tank IMMEDIATELY”. Our South African friends had told us a story about how they had gotten into a minor accident in the “middle of nowhere” years ago on a dark, forested road. Right after the crash, the accident scene was suddenly surrounded by a crowd of people who had seemingly come out from behind the trees! They were left with the impression that folks simply lurked everywhere like crickets that you can’t see but you know are there, waiting for a feast. Laura was already trying to imagine if we would be surrounded by helpful or opportunistic people in our stranded car and what words she would use to try to salvage what was most important in our car and let them have the rest. But it seemed that everything we had was essential and very difficult to replace – that was how we decided how to pack so lightly in the first place. But what she decided we would have to negotiate for would only be the boys’ journals and the pictures I had not yet uploaded to our online account (not that we would in a position to negotiate). Everything else could be replaced even if it set us back weeks. And in that few minutes that I had to ponder this while still panicked and short of breath, we rounded the corner and there was the Swaziland border as Peter coyly announced, “I knew we would be alright.” That episode added a few more strands to Laura’s already graying hair.

In the end, our fears were as close as we got the the reprecussions of apartheid. We never once had a bad experience and were never in danger and, in retrospect, it was enlightening to experience fear and skim the surface of what it must be like for either race to live together yet apart. It was important that we were aware of the situation from the start so that we wouldn’t do anything negligent like unconsciously flaunt our belongings, go into non-commercial neighborhoods, or… run out of gas. It also heightened our awareness as we crossed the border into Swaziland and experienced a very different form of interaction with the locals. Rather than being restrained and cautious as folks sometimes were in South Africa, Swaziland locals oozed a welcoming attitude and an enthusiastic outpouring of laughs, chattiness and attention towards us. The people were happy and lived a much better life – sometimes a simple life, but not a desperate one. Swaziland was a kingdom that always embraced peace and it showed. There were lots of crafts, bucolic valleys, enriching cultural experiences and good food. We were amazed at the number of people that actually live in traditional thatched huts. Small children spend their time casually walking along the main road unattended or gathered beneath a shady tree. Mothers were tending their small patches of earth with babies fused to their backs with traditional cloth tied in a knot. We wondered what it would be like to pull over and walk into one of their “hut compounds” and find out what their life was like. The whole area was beautiful and was dotted with the quintessential acacia trees so often associated with the African landscape. South Africa was a mix of beauty, wild nature and danger. Warthogs and Impala roamed outside of our cabin in the bush but then there were the crickets that we found under the sheets or the occasional millipede that slunked in under the door. It was in a Swaziland Reptile Center where we learned that snakes are prolific in Swaziland and South Africa including the extremely venomous Puff Adder for which there is currently no anti-venom. Nice.

We returned to South Africa a few days later to the dramatic and stunning Greater St. Lucia Wetlands National Park. We drove a few hours to get there passing by uniformed children getting out of school and happily making their long walk home along the main road for miles as there are no sidewalks. Others had already reached home and were heading back out rolling large plastic containers along the road to where the supposed water supply was. We had to constantly keep our eyes on the road to avoid hitting crossing cattle. We stopped to use the restroom at a tourist center. Oliver was in the restroom as Laura waited outside. She opened the door to check on him and something fell from the ceiling and hit Oliver’s shoulder and landed on the floor. Oliver turned and shuddered then squeaked out, “It’s a scorpion!”. He managed to get out unscathed but his newly purchased wooden car handmade in Swaziland remained on the sink. Mom had to rescue the car in the face of this seemingly deadly predator which remained frozen on the floor staring at her 5 feet from the sink. She grabbed the car and slammed the door. The scorpion didn’t move. Was it even alive? We are not sure to this day. Perhaps the wind blew its lifeless shell from the rafters. We checked for bite signs on Oliver’s shoulder and learned that there are new dangers lurking in restrooms that we had never considered before. The children were always attended into the restroom after that. We drove a long way and again, without reservations, were lucky to secure one of the cabins nestled among the clifftops of the dunes that dramatically descend down to a huge expanse of wild beach where loggerhead and leatherback turtles come in from the warm Indian Ocean to nest.

We made arrangements to have someone take us out for a turtle walk after dinner so we donned our fleece pullovers to guard against the wind, took torches (aka flashlights) and headed down the wooden stairs which lead down the cliff towards the ocean with our guide, Blessing, which we are sure reflects his mother’s sentiments upon his birth. It was pitch black and while we were busy worrying about snakes, the thought of walking the beach on a moonless sky was very exciting. We reached the sand and the scene unfolded with a display of a trillion stars in constellations that were familiar but seemed backwards or upside-down at this end of the earth. The black cliffs rose behind us and we plodded down the powdery sand dunes towards the gentle crashing waves which were now tame at low tide and had an easy walk along the shore on well packed sand. It was already 8:00pm and we were planning on a two hour walk so we were hoping the wind and waves would keep the boys awake and motivated.

The yellow crescent moon must have already made its shallow rise and descent because we just caught a glimpse of it before it fell behind the cliffs. Besides the stars and the white caps of the waves, the only other things we could make out were distant and nearby flashlights that the night fishermen were using to light their way in hopes of a meal after a long workday. Blessing made some purposeful deep tracks in a long line from the stairs to the water to mark the spot where we would return since there was no other landmark to indicate the path back to the camp. It was a gentle reminder of how untamed the surroundings were. The wind was warm and we tried to walk and watch the stars but not step on any of the crabs winding around our feet. The boys excitedly made tracks with their new walking sticks and Blessing drew a picture in the sand of what the turtle would do to lay her eggs and what we would have to watch for.

We walked looking for tracks and had planned to turn around at one hour. We hadn’t seen anything. Henry was getting tired and Blessing happily offered to carry him on his shoulders. Blessing was very big and strong and had admitted to carrying lots of kids on his back over the years. We had hoped that while we were heading out, a turtle would have crossed our footprints so we could catch her on the way back but there was no such luck. There were no turtles this night. It did not seem like such a disappointment though because the night walk was so thrilling. Here we were, in Africa, searching for turtles under a glistening, velvety sky in a place so natural that we have to mark the sand to find our starting point and we again relished the fact that we had discovered this place by ourselves, no organized tour stop, no itinerary.

We enjoyed the sun and sand of the untamed coast and waded in the warm water of the Indian Ocean. Laura cut everyone’s hair and we snacked on nuts and bananas – it was a bit Swiss Family Robinson-esque. We discovered it was a bit too untamed when Laura got stung by a bluebottle (like a jellyfish). After a little aloe cream from a first aid station, we moved on to the town of St. Lucia for a few days and saw crocodiles and hippos. The national park had over 500 species of birds and is protected by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site. We were always on the lookout for the endangered Black Rhino, as opposed to the more abundant White Rhino, but never saw one. Our next stop was the cultural village of Shakaland. We slept in a beehive hut which is the traditional architecture in Africa – a dome structure shaped by long, young, pliable saplings, we dined to the sounds of African music, watched ancient dancing and Zulu chanting by firelight and threw spears with the much more athletic fur-clad residents. The food so far has been great and did not consist of worms, grasshoppers or white clumps of grain that we associated with African fare. So much for the planned diet. The next destination was the stunning Drakensburg Mountain Range. We crossed wide expanses of flat land singing to The Mamas and Papas and the soundtrack to The Lion King while skirting the potholes along the mostly dirt tracks, alone again (where is everyone – certainly no Americans?), as we approached this mountainous wall that separated the highveld from the lowveld – where the land in Africa simply takes a giant step down. We headed to an area called Giant’s Castle which is known for its wealth of San rock art. We travelled into the green carpeted hills and then on foot, headed right to the cave paintings that were part of a guided walk. The guide herself was of San origin and she spoke with an interesting set of lilts and rolls in her voice and when she spoke her native language it included sounds and noises not part of the American vocabulary including clicks and snaps that one makes with their tongue and teeth. Seeing cave art was one of the highlights of our whole adventure so far and was something we thought we would never see. It is a shame that some of these San people were still living their traditional lifestyles as recently as the late 1800s until they were driven from the lands and absorbed into the dominant culture. It is interesting how the widespread cave art all has the same look and feel as if they all went to the same art school and studied under a well reknowned cave art master. After the one hour tour, the boys frolicked in a nearby stream and upon being stunned by its beauty, we learned that therer are cottages right in the thick of things. They had one available and we decided to turn one day into several and took day long hikes in the drizzle and sunshine over hills carpeted in green unchanged for thousands of years. We saw fascinating birds and the boys played games such as giving the flowers their own names based upon how they looked since we didn’t know what they were really called- names like popcorn flower, rabbit ears flower, tickle flower and Greece flower for its brilliant blue petals. We walked for hours and hours not seeing another soul.

We spent Thanksgiving in our little cottage surrounded by Chacma baboons, cave paintings and whyddah birds whose tail feathers are so long, they look like they`re dressed for the Oscars. The boys made Thanksgiving decorations like turkeys traced from their hands, pilgrims, Mayflowers and pumpkins. We ate in the pleasant restaurant overlooking the valley and each of us had written down what we were most thankful for and shared our lists at the table before dinner. All of these types of things – drawings, lists, mementos – all go into our “send home box” that we carry around in the trunk until we accumulate enough to justify the cost of shipping and so far we have sent home about six boxes all of which have arrived home safely with one still enroute as of this writing. At night we would read another chapter or two of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory until we decided to move on to another national park after we read on the daily sightings board that someone had sighted a Puff Adder near the stream where we played the day before. Nice.

We headed to the highly recommended Royal Natal National Park, one of South Africa’s gems. It was the weekend so when we tried to get accommodation within the park, we were out of luck. We passed a sign that simply said, “ACCOMMODATION” and underneath it said, “PIZZA” then “AHEAD”. We thought, “Oh, great, we are going to end up in some room above a pizza joint in a strip mall”. Then another sign said, “TOWER OF PIZZA”. This is not looking better. But, it is lunchtime so we decide to pull in and check it out. It turned out to be an oasis in the middle of acres and acres of land and we just fell in love with the place and stayed 3 nights! It was a homestead in the middle of wide open fields – it looked like how we picture Nebraska. In the distance, the mighty Drakensburg Range surrounds the area. There was a main restaurant that looked like a barn with a tin roof and antiques all around with “Ginger Beer” signs on the wall and white tableclothes on the tables. They had three cottages and the restaurant made killer pizza in their wood-burning oven, they had FREE wireless access, two neighboring horses kept us company and the cheap price included a great breakfast served by a woman of few words, a no-nonsense attitude yet a gleaming white smile and her hair done up in a scarf and tied in a knot above her forehead just like Mamie in Gone with the Wind. The kids were ecstatic to stay for more than one night – throughout all of our travelling, they always fall in love with the places we stay. Even more than the animals, rides, treats, adventures – they love their temporary homes, no matter how homely. Their inner souls must long to nest and stay put but their enthusiasm keeps them moving on. They required that we all say, “Goodbye Tower of Pizza Hotel” aloud, one by one, as we departed. No tears, just acknowledgement while maintaining a ritual within their spontaneous lives. While there, we uploaded hundreds of backlogged pictures, did lots of laundry, the boys ran in the grass for hours and we climbed magnificent paths in the nearby mountains. One day we hiked 7 hours to and from the world’s second highest waterfalls – Tugela Falls. The landscape was gorgeous and rugged and we could hear baboons’ yowls echoing in the canyon or sense their presence with the sudden movement of a faraway tree branch. We were proud of the boys’ endurance despite the unfortunate fact that we never reached the actual falls as there was a treacherous vertical climb at the end to actually view them (which they failed to make clear in the literature) but it was still another valuable, bonding family achievement which is one of many goals on this adventure.

The isolated townships (areas where the oppressed Africans were originally designated to live and still do) were hard to drive through and witness how little opportunity there is for them. Teenagers and even young children walking the land with no particular place to go or groups playing soccer with a half-deflated soccer ball or the men gathered around the “shopping center” which consisted of a single store, a plastic table outside, and a stoop to gather on. Each family has a hut and a small tract of land to grow their food on and an animal or two to provide milk and eggs. Our 7 hour hike suddenly didn’t seem like a test of endurance at all.


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