Travel in the African bush can also be a sort of revenge on mobile phones and fax machines, on telephones and the daily paper, on the creepier aspects of globalisation that allow anyone who chooses to get their insinuating hands on you. – Paul Theroux, Dark Star Safari, 2002
OK, we didn’t do a safari, unless you consider driving nearly 6,000 km in an overstuffed French-made rental car around the eastern half of South Africa to be a safari. We also didn’t go overland from Cairo to Cape Town as Theroux did and write a book about it, though you might begin to think so half-way down this page. And we weren’t even that much in the bush, though in addition to a few days in a game park, we did spend a glorious week on the Indian Ocean at the end of a long, steep, bone-rattling track on the Wild Coast – at a place some may consider to be “the bush.”
I’ve called this “a month” in South Africa, but it’s actually two months, spread over two different summers. The first part covers summer 2006 and is broken up into the following parts:
Don’t believe everything you’ve read about South Africa
OK, let’s get one thing out of the road from the start. South Africa has horrendous crime statistics. Most everyone we got talking to had a horror story to pass on, gruesome tales of random assault, rape and multiple murder that may have been in the news a week or 10 years ago. We drove past signs on the highway leading into Johannesburg which said, “Hijack hot spot. Do not stop.” We read everything we could get our hands on about the country including all the crime stats and thought, “yes, it could happen to us.” But so what? It’s far more likely that it won’t. Just go! You won’t regret it. More on this later in the “personal tips” section.
Please also bear in mind that this is no attempt to be anything close to a comprehensive guide, and that it contains personal anecdotes and opinions. If you take along the Lonely Planet guide you’ll have a ton of more useful information at your fingertips. This is for all those thinking about going to South Africa but have never spoken to anyone who’s been there, or have found answers to forum questions unsatisfactory or incomplete..
If you’ve got a month at a time in South Africa, there’s too much to do in such a short time, so you have to choose. I’ve tried to include enough links to point you to much more than I could ever write here. Hotels we stayed at, car rental agencies, restaurants and such are listed at the bottom. If any resident of South Africa reads this and finds a glaring error or something already way out of date, please do me a favour and tell me so.
– Lesotho –
First destination on the summer 2006 trip was Lesotho (le SOO too) – a country landlocked within South Africa. We were heading south within an hour or so of landing and picking up the rental car headed for Ladybrand, a dusty town 400km south and not far from the Lesotho border. Not much of a place beyond a busy main street to stock up on provisions and a great Bed and Breakfast to rest from the flight and drive. Even if you’re flying due south from Europe and have no jet lag to worry about because you’re in the same time zone, you have to factor in an adjustment phase anyway if you’re coming in July: it’s winter. After a few months of summer’s lush green, be prepared for a shock: parched landscape of tawny browns and beige. On the other hand, you’ll love the cool, crisp, fresh air.
What you immediately notice on crossing into Lesotho is how much the landscape looks like the country you’ve already passed through, but with some notable differences. Never having been ruled under Apartheid, it is refreshingly free of that regime’s legacy: sprawling shanty towns which seem to spring up upon you, beginning and ending nowhere.
Once outside the capital city of Maseru, you also start to notice something that is rare in South Africa: people dressed in traditional fashion. In Lesotho, they wrap themselves from the neck to ankles in a blanket, usually patterned, sometimes very colourful. The look warm, which is a good thing: Lesotho is the only country in the world where every part is at least 1000 metres above sea level. Despite the intense winter sunshine, the wind is cool, and nights can be freezing cold.
Past tiny villages of subsistence farmers, cows, chickens, screaming children, shepherd boys on donkeys and busy market junctions, we headed higher into the mountains and Malealea Lodge, a former 19th-century traading post and now one of the most well-known places to get an introduction to the country if you’ve not got a lot of time.
We stayed four nights and enjoyed it thoroughly. As soon as we’d settled in the first afternoon, K and the little red-haired girl took a ride on the ponies. Not your regular ponies, but Basotho ponies – rugged, tough-as-nails, sure-footed and sometimes stubborn-as-a-mule beasts which carried us along for the next four days through steep valleys, across rivers, along ridges, through vast cornfields and tiny villages ringed with cactus plants for windbreaks.
Our first night at Malealea unexpectedly turned out to be a throw-back to an era in my life I thought I’d left behind for good.
Dinner is served sort of buffet-style in a large hall. That night, a table stretching the length of the hall was cordoned off for a group of boisterous quad-bikers from South Africa. They also occupied half the long table at which the three of us eventually sat down for dinner.
After the meal but before dessert, I’m left alone while ladies go fetch something from the little rondavel hut we’ve been given. I’m sitting there taking in the atmosphere and warmth from the huge, crackling fire on the far wall when all of a sudden dessert is brought to the table, and man does it look good. A big, thick, pan-baked carrot cake hot and fresh from the oven. I lean over and lob off a slab, pour on some hot, sweet lemon sauce and love it so much, I take another piece the same size.
About an hour later we’re all back in the rondavel squeezing in a game of three-hand crib before they shut off the generator for the evening when my daughter makes some remark I find pretty funny. So then I come out with something I find immensely hilarious, and can’t stop laughing. Neither can she. Soon we’re all pretty silly and I’m holding court – very much out of character – with what I’m absolutely convinced are the most profound utterances ever spoken since the advent of oral communication but which, according to K. next morning at breakfast, is nothing but drivel and incoherent nonsense.
We somehow manage to play the game out, but then I’m overcome with the chills and shivers. I’m craving warmth – any warmth. We are at 1650 metres, there’s no heating, and it’s winter. I’m shaking from the cold, so violenty that I can’t stand up, and fall to my knees. I schlepp myself along the floor, pull into bed and crawl under the covers, but even the generously warm German-made duck-down duvets they supply aren’t enough.
By now the lights are out and my thoughts are racing a hundred miles a minute. Why am I so cold? Why am I the only one complaining – usually it’s the other way around! Then I try to figure out why, if the world is a sphere, when planes get to cruising altitude, why don’t they fly in a straight line out into space? why can’t they design chocolate pudding cups better so it doesn’t splash on your shirt when you peel back the foil? what does everybody thinks of me? why I can’t shut my mind off..?
K. manages to warm me up a bit by lending me her hot water bottle and snuggling close, but this has already been going on for what seems like hours, shaking under the covers in the pitch dark, a whirling, confused jumble of thoughts and impressions and fears rattling around my head, wondering in some moment of clarity and then becoming absolutely obsessed with the idea that I’d caught some deadly, exotic form of food poisoning at dinner and that these were just the first symptoms of a fatal onslaught which will soon have me doubled over in acute pain, then running through the night to the bathroom streaming from both ends and ending up being carried out of there by 4-wheel-drive hearse when… I realised… Right. Oh my God: the cake. THE CAKE!!!!
My wife and daughter had left and taken their cake from the buffet table up front, but I had taken mine from the one served to the group on the table.
Next morning the quad bike gang is all geared up for a ride tearing up the landscape on their noisy, smelly contraptions and I go over to the guy I figure is the group leader and ask, “did you guys put dope in that cake, or what?”
“Yeah,” he says, “great stuff that Durban Poison, eh?”
Not that I needed much in the way of confirmation. Having eaten it instead of smoked, the first effects took an hour or so, but by then it had slammed into me like an avalance. It had just been soo-oo long, I guess my body wasn’t used to it. That and the elevation, not having had much sleep on the flight two nights before – and the fact I was so blasted I couldn’t stop my mind to get it to think straight and figure out what was actually happening to me – all combined to one incredible start to what actually turned out to be my best summer trip ever – in winter.
Enjoy the hike. Batteries not included
Carrying what felt like half of Lesotho’s topsoil around in our laundry , we left Lesotho on our fifth day and wound our way along the northern border inside South Africa to the Drakensberg, which is basically a steep wall of basalt forming the border with Lesotho in a massive ring hundreds of kilometres long.
Our plan was to do a little bit of hiking. Hah! Had we only known….
On a day which started before sunrise and ended long after sundown, we climbed to the top of the Amphitheatre, an 8-km long wall of rock with a 1000-metre drop from the edge to the first ledge. It’s quite famous. If you have seen any article or travel brochure on South Africa, if it doesn’t have Cape Town with Table Mountain, it’ll have a picture of the Amphitheatre.
To get to base camp we had to drive a couple of hours with the group crammed into two vehicles. Along the way, our first real South African eye-opener: It wasn’t Soweto, but what I imagine it to be: less than an hour’s drive from one of the country’s biggest tourist draws, a township sprawls from the bottom of one valley over the ridge and back to the bottom of the next and beyond, housing three million people in endless rows of shacks thrown together with whatever material is available, streets after dusty street of them, all spewing out smoke from cooking fires in any direction you look to the horizon. It’s called QwaQwa. Ever heard of it? Neither had we. It took nearly an hour to drive from one end of it to another. In the dusky light on the way back, it looked apocalyptic.
The photo is deceiving, because that was on an easy part of the hike. The rest was a lot more difficult than we’d expected, but that may be just because we’re wimps. We were in a guided group and tried to keep up, but since we’re getting old and Sophia’s legs aren’t very long, everybody else was dashing ahead and then sitting around waiting for us. We took our time anyway and eventually made it to the top, but just before the last push I thought it was turn-back time. Having a bite of rations I’m looking up this cleft between two mountains and thinking, right, how to tell S. we “aren’t there yet” but soon will be … once we’ve humped our butts 250 – 300 metres vertical up a boulder-strewn gully in a high wind.
Man, amazing what a bit of chocolate and cajoling will accomplish.
After lunch on the cliff edge we walked along the plateau to the day’s actual destination: Tugela Falls, the source of a major river whose mouth at the Indian Ocean we crossed by car on the way to Durban two weeks and about 2500km later. Since it was winter, and dry season, The Falls were more like The Dribbles. Ho-hum. Not even worth a picture, I’m afraid. Sophia by then was complaining of sore feet and major fatigue, but we coaxed her far enough not to give up before coming across the next hurdle: climbing down ladders on a cliff face. They weren’t just dangling there, they were bolted solidly into the rock, but it was really windy and you had to tell yourself, OK, thousands of people have made it down before you, so just do it! Luckily, S. didn’t take much convincing, because the first thing she said on reaching the bottom of the second section was, “Can we go down twice?” K. was a little less enthusiastic, but the stronger of our two guides made sure she had a good hold on the handles and helped her down each step of the way.
Did I mention that this hike was organised by our backpacker hostel? Decent place to stay, private rooms and all, but when it came to organising a tour, they need some help. They told us to dress warmly, so we did. They said that it would be eleven kilometres long, and it was. They said there’d be ladders to climb down, there were, and we did. Unfortunately, they left out the fact that one of their vehicles was a rolling hunk of scrap metal hung together with binder twine, duct tape and twist-ties. Since they didn’t bother to make sure the battery was charged, on the way back we stalled at an intersection at dusk in what looked like the dodgiest part of the township, so we all had to pile out and give a push-start. Three times! What fun after an all-day hike! We sort of adopted a “mustn’t grumble, mustn’t grumble” attitude and helped out where we could, but I was slapping my head a couple of times because our fearless guide couldn’t seem to remember to keep the revs up, so the crate wouldn’t keep on stalling. And of course, the first thing anybody will tell you about driving in this country is to make sure to get to your destination before dark, and here we were schlepping through the landscape wondering if we’d make it back at all.
We were a bit frazzled and exhausted, but at least the stars were brilliant as we pulled into the place at the end of the day.
From the northern Drakensberg we slowly made our way south toward the Wild Coast, stopping at one point in the southern part to do a bit of hiking and horse-riding. We were lucky enough on the one ride we took to see a herd of eland. No pictures – technical difficulties that day! – but we had a good look through the binoculars. I didn’t know they were so huge. They are in fact the biggest type of antelope and – like the buffalo were to the plains Indians – they were the centre of life for the San people, whose rock paintings are everywhere in the Drakensberg.
The road from the Drakensberg to the coast was stunning. Imagine the scenery around Kamloops or Osoyoos, dot the landscape everywhere with clusters of brightly coloured rondavels, take away the highway cattle fencing, and you have a pretty good idea what the drive is like. (In addition to the usual South African road hazards of masses of people – mostly schoolchildren – walking along the roadside, impatient speed freaks, tailgaters, poorly maintained trucks and overstuffed minibuses crawling up hills, you have to watch out for wayward livestock.)
Our destination was Bulungula, a backpacker hostel right on the ocean. To get there we had to drive about 50km off the main highway toward the coast along a secondary road, take another 18 bone-rattling, nerve-shredding kilometres along a “road” branching off from that one, park the rental car in a small village, then wait to be picked up by a four-wheel drive for a seemingly endless ride along a steep, deeply rutted track – in the dark because they were late arriving – squeezed in with eight other guests. There was no room left for gear, so it got crammed into a trailer to bounce around and marinate for two hours in road dust and filth.
But we woke up the next morning to the sight of a long, sweeping bay and lagoon, crashing surf, soft breezes…
We stayed there for six nights, and for me, it was the best part of the whole trip. After being on the go for about two weeks, we needed a place to wind down for a while and just take it all in. Perfect spot. We went on hikes down the beach, took the canoes out for a paddle in the lagoon, went fishing, hiked along the beach to a nearby river mouth to paddle with a guide upstream, spotted whales and dolphins, and walked through the villages.
S. managed to keep herself busy despite there being nobody her age she could talk to. The local kids were shy and kept mostly to themselves, but there was one girl whom she became friends with for two days at least: a Dutch girl her age who spoke neither English nor German. Somehow they managed to communicate and enjoy a lot of time together out on the beach playing games, looking for shells…
I loved the mornings the most. I’d get up with the roosters crowing and grab the binoculars for a long look at the ocean. One day there were about a hundred dolphins spread out as far as the eye could see, all headed for the bay to feed. Another morning I spied a pair of whales, one of which was breaching. I’d taken the video camera by chance and was lucky enough to get it on film. Another morning K. came along. The waves were huge, with an offshore wind blowing spray back off them. As the sun rose, the whole bay became tinted in soft, rose-coloured light. We had been watching the dolphins when suddenly, through the binoculars, we saw – it now seems in my memory to be in slow-motion – a dolphin take a long, arching leap from one side of a wave, through the centre of a pink splash of spray, over and down to the other side. We both lowered the glasses and said, DID YOU SEE THAT? I swear, if I’d have captured it on film, you’d say it wasn’t real.
The most unexpected thing we did during our week there was attend a funeral at a nearby village. An 80-year-old man had died and his funeral was to be the next day. A young man came over and offered to be our guide. I felt a bit queasy about attending a funeral sort of as a tourist, but he reassured us that we were certainly not the first people to come over and take part in village happenings. Weddings, funerals, circumcision ceremonies – whatever’s going on, you can be invited to join in.
It was amazing. Parts were solemn and serious, with heartfelt eulogies from family and friends, but otherwise… the laughter! The singing! The dancing! It was more a celebration of life than a mourning of death. I took a lot of video of the actual ceremony, which went on for about two hours in a large tent set up for the occasion, and after for the actual burial.
That took place over the other side of a nearby hill to where they dragged the coffin behind four sturdy head of cattle. Again, more singing, more speeches… the celebrations were due to go on for another day, but we of course couldn’t stay. After the burial, they offered us a bit of rice and beef from the cow they’d slaughtered as an offering the day before, and cooked up that morning. We squeezed inside a rondavel crowded with about 25 others and sat on the floor to eat. Only found out later that the other couple who went with us were strict vegetarians and only pretended.
As for the day-to-day life, because the place is so remote they don’t have instant-on electricity, telephones or flush toilets, but they do have running water – basically rainwater collected in large tanks – and solar power to run some indoor lighting in the evening and charge batteries for cloudy days. They also use a solar cooker to make bread, offered fresh every afternoon with butter or melted cheese.
If you’ve read through the website and come across “…our rocket showers are legendary…” and wondered what the hell they’re on about, here’s basically what it is: a jet-propelled shower!
To fire it up you first pour about a half-cup or so of kerosene (yes, jet fuel!!) over a wick coiled nestled at the bottom of a long, black metal tube about two metres tall. (It looks kinda like a rocket) You let it all soak in a bit, then light it with a match. It catches right away and soon you hear this whooooooshing sound of the air rushing up the tube. From the bottom it’s spitting fire and it looks like it’s going to lift off, I kid you not! You turn on the water – the pipes run through it – and wait for it to warm up a bit, then quickly have your shower, because you can never really be sure exactly when the fuel is going to run out. When you’re soaped up and it’s really roaring it sounds like a didgereedoo stuck on one note.
They’re trying to do it right by being environmentally aware and involving the local people wherever possible. It’s already 40% owned by locals, to start. And when you go on a canoe trip, horseback riding, fishing, get your clothes washed, whatever – you play the people directly, so the owners don’t take a cut. The prices – already reasonable – are fixed in advance so there’s no haggling, either.
Caution: next paragraph talks about normal bodily functions…
Other environmental adaptations include pit toilets that don’t have that usual sour outhouse smell because everything is organically broken down. To help out in this process, you are first asked to aim well, whatever you’re planning on doing. Urine is collected in one tank and “deposits” in another, upon which you dump two cups of loose soil you scoop from a nearby bucket after each go.
They also have a solar cooker which they put to the best possible use: baking bread! Mornings the ladies knead a big lump of dough, stick it in a buttered pot, turn the solar collector to the sun, and four hours later, around two, two-thirty in the afternoon you can buy a huge slab of fresh, solar-baked bread topped with whatever you like for about 50 cents. Fabulous.
Most of the buildings – the biffies, showers, the rondavels – have been painted by Sarah, an artist from London who has been there since it started up about two years ago. She’s still not finished.
The villages were close by and it was easy to go on walks through them in the evenings. The children were always friendly. Those who weren’t stuck with shepherding would play with the simplest of toys: rolling a hoop with a stick, pulling a car made of thin wire and jar lids for wheels, or just watching a wheel roll downhill and pushing it back up again. The women would be out doing the laundry in streams or lugging home huge bundles of firewood balanced on their heads, some teenagers would be fishing, old men would be driving a team of bullocks dragging a wooden sled back to the stall. And everything bathed in the intense light of the setting winter sun, a light which would suddenly appear as a glow at about a quarter to three every afternoon, grow more intense as it lowered only to disappear soon after sundown at about five-thirty.
Heavy Sigh. I don’t know where to end this part, much like I felt when I was there: I didn’t want to leave. In the latest edition of Lonely Planet SA they rave about the place, which automatically means it is under threat of being a victim of its own success. I hope that in a few years it will still be the same and not turn into just another over-trampled spot to tick off a laundry list of must-see points on the tourist trail, but for now, it’s paradise.
Durban: Don’t believe all the horror stories.
I hated to leave, but we had to, finally. Jolted back into the reality of civilisation not only by the shape the road was in but by our discovery – after having packed in all our gear – that our left-front tire had gone flat in the six days we’d left it. We hauled everything out again to change the tire. You’re never alone for very long in Africa, so the local kids of course turned out to watch – and help as well – one offering water for me to wash my hands at the end.
South Africa driving tip that may save your life:
If you see a road sign that says Danger: Potholes (In Afrikaans: Gevahr) I can tell you: heed the warning. Slow down!!! In South Africa, a pothole can be anything from a garden-variety hole in the pavement you might not even feel travelling at normal speed, to a crater a half-metre deep that covers your entire lane, sitting around a blind corner and without additional warning. To quote Dave Barry, I am not making this up! I’d have stopped to take a picture of the worst of them but there was too much traffic.
Dodging potholes of varying depths and intensity as well as an array of farm animals, we eventually made it to Durban, a city about which we had heard so much negative news before we left, we originally had no intention of going. The usual litany of daylight muggings, snatch-and-grab robberies, car-jackings – yawn – urban South Africa at its most cliché. Yes, it does happen, and you have to keep your wits about you, but I think a lot of it is overblown for international consumption.
Anyway, two weeks before, a fellow working at the backpacker place in the Drakensberg put our minds at ease by taking out a map of the city and showing us where to go, what to do, and what parts to definitely avoid. His description of the place made us want to go. He also arranged for me to take a guided walking tour of the city and a nearby township. We figured it would be too much for S., and we couldn’t very well leave her alone at the hostel.
Turns out we were right. The pace of the walking tour was brutal and I was absolutely exhausted by the end of the day. We went to a museum of the Apartheid era in Durban, an Indian trader’s shop, a meat and vegetable market and – this was the most interesting to me – southern Africa’s largest witch doctor market. Imagine row upon row of tables and stalls brimming with every conceivable hunk of wood, shred of bark, bunch of herb, wattle of wool, hair of newt and eye of bat, hacked-off mammalian, reptilian and avian body part, all used in traditional African medicine. Unfortunately, our fearless guide Mbuso was either paranoid or in a hurry to run through the routine, because he rushed us through the most interesting parts and lingered where I’d just have soon not have been in the first place. I wanted to talk to these people, ask them what medicine is used for what ailment, what everything costs, everything! Instead, I didn’t even get a decent photo.
Earlier in the day, our guide had also tried to scare K. into believing that she stood a “90% chance” she’d be mugged if she walked around downtown Durban in broad daylight. “It’s Friday,” he said, “people need money for the weekend, so they’ll see you and think you’re an easy target, a tourist with money.” There was no way K. and I were going to drag S. all day around the city on that tour, so she took her chances and everything turned out fine. They ended up at one of the places we went to on the tour, plus a shopping mall that wouldn’t be out of place in Calgary, and then went back to our hotel, stopping for ice cream on the way. Yes, bad things do happen at high noon in African cities, but if you keep yourself alert and aware and above all looking like you know your way around, you’ll be OK. Still, it was a bit of a funny feeling saying good-bye to them as I stayed in the mini-bus and they crawled out into the blinding sunshine and urban chaos. I guess he was hoping they’d stay so he could collect fees for two more people that day.
The tour highlight was a visit to a Durban township, an area of town which had been razed to the ground twice in the apartheid years because the government objected to blacks and Indians living in the same area. Its latest incarnation was about 20 years old, built in the Eighties by refugees fleeing fractional warfare in the countryside. The government is trying to build enough permanent housing with electricity and running water to do away with the need for the shacks, but they can’t build them nearly fast enough. We were shown inside a newly built two-room concrete house, which are basic but a lot better than the shacks, which I can tell you are not pretty. Open sewers, garbage more or less parked where it lands, but then… television! Some have figured out the only way to get electricity is to tap illegally into the main overhead wires. Dangerous, but some have done it.
We stopped for a beer and a bite to eat at a food stall and talked to a few locals. Topic of conversation number one: World Cup 2010. They are bursting with pride at being chosen for the next world championship. Rightly so, but I never felt the opportunity was right to ask the obvious question: with millions still waiting for decent accommodation which for many might never come, doesn’t it show a lack of priorities to be building new sports stadiums so millionaires like Beckham and Ballack can come and play a few soccer games?
But tourists we were and we were staying in what I thought was the best part of the city. Right near a park and a small zoo, we were within walking distance of our choice of restaurants along Florida Road. If you’ve read this far, send me an email with the code word: beer. I’ll buy you one.
The final section of the trip took us to Hluhluwe-Umfulozi (pronounced shloo-SHLOO-wee) which is a game park northeast of Durban not far from the border with Swaziland.
We had a whole house to ourselves and time to enjoy it. We didn’t see any big cats like we did last time in Kruger Park, but this park is famous for rhinos and we saw a few of those, along with giraffe, zebra, and one evening, about one hundred elephants all spread out over one hillside. Fantastic sight. We also came across some African wild dogs – a rare sighting as we later learned – and on the last morning out, stopped for more than an hour to watch four hyenas devour what remained of an antelope that had perhaps been killed by a lion overnight. Heh. Sophia wanted me to get out of the car and pick up the horns after they’d finished picking it over. Uhh… no thanks!
The drive back to Johannesburg took us through some absolutely beautiful countryside. Like many places in South Africa, it was like going back in time. Imagine driving anywhere in North America in the middle of the day and seeing virtually no other vehicles for travelling either way for two hours. Take that and add well-maintained road (no shoulders) through grassland, mesas, across river valleys, more grassland… it was stunning scenery, what I imagine Colorado, Wyoming or Montana must have looked like driving through in the Twenties.