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Johannesburg to the Cape, 3 Nov 2011
Using my daypack as a pillow and the thick, mown lawn as a mat, I lie down in the warm sun to while away fifteen minutes and reflect on the past eighteen days. I hear the gentle lapping of waves up against the harbour wall, and the low hum of friends talking on the grass nearby, with an occasional interlude of laughter. I look up, and see four groups of uniformed work colleagues, laughing and joking with each other on their lunch breaks. To their right, the water in the harbour gently rolls and shimmers as it reflects the bright sunshine. Behind, the backdrop grows more and more impressive, from the immaculately clean waterfront shopping mall, paintwork gleaming in bright white, green and yellow, to the giant bowl locally known as the Green Point Stadium, and then finally, in the hazy distance, looking down on all before it, the imposing and iconic Table Mountain.
It’s been quite a trip. Not least for Table Mountain itself, that provided many a stunning view over the city after a steep but relatively short climb. That said the cable car on the way down was certainly welcomed by all. We’ve come a long way since my brother Oli and I joined up for the first time with our ten fellow travellers nearly 3 weeks ago in Johannesburg, where our trip started with a tour of the streets and museum of the famous township of Soweto. A great place to start; the culture, context and historical background of this beautiful and diverse country is set in place from day one with some of the sights in the Hector Pieterson Memorial Museum. Soweto was of course the scene of the 1976 uprisings, and whilst remaining synonymous with the events, the township has also come to symbolise much of the modern South Africa in its subsequent development.
From Jo’burg we travelled North East, through the varying landscapes of the Mpumalanga region, passing pine and banana plantations, rolling green hills, swathes of farmland and the occasional slate mine on our way to the historic Gold Rush town of Pilgrim’s Rest. After a night stopover and a wander around the town, which is kept in such good keeping with its past it almost feels like an open air museum, we headed on to one of the iconic stops on our journey; Kruger National Park. Kruger is massive; the size of Wales. Game drives quickly became one of my favourite pastimes, and although they do involve a lot of time spent sitting down, there’s a great atmosphere inside the truck all the time. Most of the time it’s the continual air of anticipation, as everyone tries to keep their eyes peeled in an effort to spot whatever that might have been moving through the thicket, or to identify that golden lion-shaped speck in the distance. But the remainder of the time there’s a unique and collective sense of awe as the wildlife, be it a herd of buffalo, an unlikely tribe of zebras and warthogs, or a mother elephant and her baby, comes close to our safari truck, and interacts with it and with us. It’s difficult to explain, but when you can look into the eye of such an amazing animal as any of these, and you can tell that he or she is not just looking at the truck, not looking at the camera lens, not looking at you through your television screen, but looking at you, that is something pretty special.
There were so many highlights on the trip that I could go on in as much detail for every day, and for every game drive. Suffice to say Kruger was a success, and from there we packed up our tents and headed south into the tiny kingdom of Swaziland. The mood changed slightly as Mwango, our guide, explained to us a little of the background of the country in which we had just arrived, as we sat in one of the cabins at Malolotja Nature Reserve, drinking wine and eating handmade pizza (expertly, and voluntarily made by the three German girls in our group). Swaziland has the highest adult prevalence of HIV in the world. According to recent estimates, this currently stands at over 26%. The life expectancy in the country, of course largely due to the previous statistic, is just 32 years of age. I spoke to one of the stallholders in the craft market at Manzini, just before we left Swaziland; she must have been in her 20s. She spoke very good English and was a very lively, warm and friendly person, so after some initial chit-chat about how good I thought her crafts were, and her asking where I was from, I asked her “Do you like your job? Do you like making this jewellery for a living?” Momentarily her face and her guard dropped, and she simply replied “What else would I do?” Before I’d had time to comprehend this possible insight in to the reality of her existence, and feel like a stupid and intrusive tourist for posing such a question, she immediately returned to her normal lively self, smiled a warm, wide smile, and continued our conversation down a different route.
It’s very important on this trip to take from it everything you can; not just the ‘good’ stuff, but the reality check too. Throughout the trip there were occasional reminders of our privileged status as Western travellers. We were so well received by people everywhere we went, people who clearly had nothing in the material sense of the word, but people who are brimming with positivity and energy and enthusiasm for life. I don’t know whether we would have received the same welcome amongst the black population of these three countries had we travelled through pre 1994, or even whether the local people would have displayed the same optimism pre 2010 World Cup, but all I can say is that the locals everywhere we went were as much if not more of a feature and highlight of the trip as the more publicised large mammals in the Game Reserves and National Parks. It makes you wonder why we, in our comfortable and protected lives back home, are often outwardly so much less enthusiastic and optimistic about life. I’m sure there are
many theories to this phenomenon, but the feeling I got from the trip compared to the gloom and doom of our “double-dip-recession-threatened” society back in the UK, is that the actual conditions in which people are living is not necessarily the important thing. People are strong, and resolute, and can make the most of things over which they have some element of control. What matters is their perception of the direction of change; if people think things are getting worse, then they are miserable and feel there’s no way out. If they think things are getting better, then they are optimistic, enterprising and full of life.
Our next stop, back in South Africa at Mkuzi Game reserve, brought one of the trip’s best days. The day started early; a 4:30am alarm and quick shower before heading off to the Nsumi Pan, or ‘Hippo Pools’ for a bush breakfast. This is a beautiful setting; a huge, tranquil lake with reed beds here and there. It’s a beautiful place to have breakfast even before you spot the hippos. Sitting in the morning sun on a picnic bench, eating a freshly cooked omelette, looking out over that beautiful setting, and then spotting a hippo emerge from under the water only 30 metres or so away was a great way to start the day. This however was soon to be eclipsed by the following events. We arrived at the waterhole and were greeted by a menagerie of giraffe, zebra, white rhino, wildebeest, baboons and warthogs, all taking turns at the waterhole, seemingly working out their own relative position in the animal hierarchy before tentatively stepping to the edge of the water to take a drink. This in itself was an amazing sight, but after 20 minutes or so came the grand finale. A huge bull elephant strode in through the trees and into the open, and the rest of the animals, with the exception of a few stubborn rhino, scattered and disappeared into the bushes. The elephant then stepped right into the middle of the waterhole and started to wash himself, splashing the muddy water everywhere. As he came nearer and nearer to the hide, he obviously noticed there were humans inside (some of whom were by now splattered with his dirty bathwater) and eventually came right up to the hide itself and rubbed against it with his tusk. It took a loud shout from one of the Park Rangers to turn him away. Although a little scary, this was the maybe the single best experience of the trip for me, an absolute highlight and something I’ll never forget.
Leaving Mkuzi, we set off early the next morning on our long climb up into the mighty Drakensberg Mountains, and the tempo of the trip clicked up a notch. Up until this point we’d been comparatively sedentary, but now we were into walking country, and our day walks began. On a trip full of highlights, the walks were another standout; so varied and scenic, and in places quite testing. From steep climbs along narrow paths against sheer rock faces, to grassy meadows, to short hops across narrow mountains streams, our walk in the Royal Natal National Park had it all. We finished up by a gorge, reminiscent of, but much smaller than, the gorge at Petra in Jordan. The gorge had a crystal clear rock pool lying peacefully at its base, reflecting it back on itself. This seemed like an opportune moment for a swim, so a few of us jumped in and although bracing, the waters were invigorating and took the edge off the growing heat of the day.
More walking followed in the third country of our trip, the tiny mountainous enclave of Lesotho. Less green landscape and more of a mix of red dirt and huge white and grey boulders, the change of backdrop and topography is quite amazing given the relative proximity to Royal Natal just the other side of the Amphitheatre which overlooked us on our gorge walk the previous day (the entire country of Lesotho in fact lies completely within the Drakensberg Mountain range). Aside from the walking, which involved more stream-hopping, a waterfall and visiting three rock painting sites along the way, the real highpoint of our time in Lesotho (and for me a two-way tie for the best experience of the whole trip), was our time with the local people. The village of Malealea is home to around 400 people and where we made our home for two nights in traditional mud rondavels at Malealea Lodge, the only tourist accommodation for miles. The place is so remote it is hard to believe; the nearest hospital is in the capital Maseru, a 6 hour round trip away over winding mountain passes. Perhaps it’s largely because of this isolation that the people of Malealea are so warm, welcoming and genuinely excited to see any new arrivals. We were greeted everywhere we went by children of all ages and adults too, everyone keen to speak to us and show us where they live and the things they have made. In many cases there is an ulterior motive, they want to sell some of these things and as obvious tourists we make the best potential customers; but there’s nothing pushy or aggressive about the Basotho people in the slightest. They’re an incredibly proud community, evident not only in their refusal to beg for anything despite their palpable need, but in their homes. Their rondavels are strongly-built, their mud walls inlaid with stone. Their gardens although minimal are well cared for and always spotlessly clean and swept. The children are bright, positive and happy, and provided Oli and I with one of the most memorable moments of this trip, or indeed any trip. I had put a mini football in my daypack before we set off together on our free afternoon in Malealea, in case we came across a few kids who wanted to play. Within minutes of entering the village we were approached by 7 or 8 local youngsters, none of them older than 10, who were all very keen on saying hello, practising their English on us, and on getting us to
come and see their parents’ crafts. However, once they’d caught sight of the football that was it – we were playing. After a couple of minutes more, as we’d just started kicking the ball around with the kids, another child appeared from one of the houses. He waited so politely and patiently until I invited him to play with us, and then he too was running around, kicking the ball in any direction. Soon after another young girl arrived, and the same thing happened, the polite wait, the invitation, the energy released and running around all over the place. Then another, and another, and they kept coming, appearing from out of their houses, over the hills, across the fields, from everywhere imaginable and suddenly we were involved in a game of what must have been 18 a side football, buzzing excitedly around our feet. After an hour or so, when both of us were completely exhausted, and even some of the kids seemed to be waning in energy just a little, we headed back to camp, leaving the ball with one of the older kids to keep for them all to use.
Experiences like this don’t come around very often, and yet this trip was full of them; all the above and more repeated time and again with more variety as we passed through the arid semi-desert of the Karoo, then onward via Addo Elephant Park to the Wild Coast and the beautiful Tsitsikamma, then through the famous Stellenbosch wine region and finally to the Cape. I’m sure this trip doesn’t have everything; there’s only so much you can fit in to 21 days. But it comes pretty close.
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