Left Cape Town under another blanket of gray cloud and threat of rain. The first few hours out of Cape Town on the train were beautiful with dramatic scenery of steep stark mountains rising straight up from fertile valleys of bright green vineyards and golden wheat fields. The occasional shanty town, seemingly in the middle of nowhere, appeared. Once I saw several ostriches running across the fields.
After traveling through the longest mountain tunnel in southern Africa, a 13-minute ride, we emerged into a completely different ecosystem of scrubby proto-desert. Very dry, mostly flat land. At one point a high mountain range rose up far in the distance. But mostly sparse desert land. The train itself is lovely. We have our own private compartment. All meals plus high tea are included in the train fare. Nice food so far. I feel a bit chilly, so I’m sitting in my compartment typing with the thick robe they provided (there are showers available) on as a coat.
The scenery isn’t so interesting at the moment. Erik’s reading Bryce Courtney’s “Tandia,” a sequel to “The Power of One,” which we found in a used bookstore in Joburg. We both got so much out of The Power of One, not just as a great novel, but many informative things about South Africa…. we are often pointing out “oh, just like in Power of One.” Highly recommended book. The boarding school social system described is apparently still in place; when NCM told about his school days, I would have had no idea what he was talking about if I hadn’t read the book.
And you won’t believe this, but our fellow South African train passengers are very friendly. Who could have guessed? (p.s. if you have just joined us, we have been overwhelmed by South African kindness so far) Probably the majority of passengers are retired folks in the wealthier tier. At lunch, an older couple sitting across from us invited us to sit at their table in the dining car, since the views at that time were better on their side. (With that exception, the views have mostly been best from the side that we look out of in our private compartment.) Had nice interesting conversation and they told us many informative things about the country. At high tea, a group of 4 retired folks (2 couples) invited us to sit at their table, just because it seemed to them it would be more comfortable than the bar stools we had started to sit at. Again, brilliant folks who have given us some valuable advice for our upcoming travels through Lesotho and led us through nostalgic ruminations of days past on the premier trains as both regular passengers and the men rode the trains when they were in the military service. One of the men was particularly upset to hear of our truck rental woes and took down the name of the company to give to his friend at the equivalent of the SA BBB.
Watched the stars shining bright in the deep darkness of the interior of the country outside the window. Orion is on his side here, it’s strange to see him, either sleepy or slain. Then in the middle of the night the train came to a standstill in the middle of nowhere, and stayed that way for many hours. Another train had broken the power lines and we had to wait for a diesel engine to come fetch us and tow us onward. We are now at least 6 hours behind schedule. This will have implications for our continuing itinerary.
And here's another shocker in light our experiences to date with the vehicular gods who for some reason loathe us: when we got to the Joburg airport to pick up our new rental truck from a different company, the battery was dead as a doornail. So another hour’s delay as we had to insist on getting a different vehicle despite them jumping the car and claiming it was good to go. So our plans for the day were shot. But we decided to drive as far south as we could before stopping for the night. Found a room in a family hostel – was essentially a garden shed turned into a bedroom. I actually thought it was pretty cute. And we brought with us the rain. Apparently the first rain they’ve had since April (similar to Pretoria). So we seem to be very good luck for the folks here, towing the rain on our bumper.
Spent a couple days in Pretoria, the administrative capital city of South Africa. Not a very exciting city tourist-wise but right now it is gorgeous with all of the sidewalks lined with purple flowering jacaranda trees. It rained last night, the first rain of the spring. A guy said it hadn’t rained since April. So people were excited. And it refreshed the air and it was fragrant with all the flowers rather than with the surrounding industry.
We stayed at a very pleasant guest house to carry out the unpleasant task of exchanging vehicles once again. We refuse to travel any further with El Diablo Blanco. (Once when we were in Guatemala, we rented a little blue paddle boat to go out into the ocean for the afternoon, but its rudder wasn’t quite right and we paddled in circles trying to get back to shore and it was completely maddening…. and we dubbed it El Diablo Azul… henceforth devilish transports are dubbed with the appropriate Diablo color..) Yesterday we almost ran out of gas (diesel) twice as El Diablo Blanco was sucking it down like a Shara sucks beer. We couldn’t even manage highway speeds at times, it struggled and lurched so badly. Then we got a flat tire. Thank goodness we’d taken the initiative to pay for the 2 spares to be fixed after we used the one spare in Kruger. Again, a nice passerby who saw us taking the jack down off the vehicle offered to help, so the job was done quickly.
The truck was still performing horribly and now we were stressing about the integrity of the spare tire. So we were left driving a totally unreliable car at night down a stretch of highway that says, “Do Not Stop. Hijacking Area.” Chatting with the B&B proprietor, we told him it would have been OK for them to steal our car, and he said, “Yeah, if you could get them to leave you alive and just take the car, that’d be alright.” Apparently a lot of hijackers and robbers don’t bother leaving their victims alive any more, easier just to shoot them. It’s very strange in the city: there are multiple strands of electric wire atop metal fences around all the private houses and the B&B, just like at the game parks. Literally, each residence is fenced in exactly like a game park. The B&B guy says he can’t get insurance unless he has the electric wire. The B&B is a stone’s throw away from the soccer stadium in Pretoria. He said during the soccer World Cup, it was great because security was so high, it was perfectly safe to walk around the streets at night and everyone was out and having a good time. “It was like we were living in a First World country instead of a Third World country,” he said. “It was great.” Where we are now in Johannesburg (have moved since I started typing post), all the properties are gated with infrared security beams and everything. The man who is letting us park our camper in his driveway told us simply when we asked about all the heightened security precautions everywhere, “This is Africa!” Hard to know precisely what that implies.
We are couch surfing in Joburg and we’ve got an entire little apartment to ourselves with a full kitchen and everything, so we’ve been able to cook up our camping food. Camping the last few nights was fun, but it's also nice to be back in a civilized room. It’s a completely unreasonable accommodation for a free room and the lady is also providing food and drinks; she fixed us fruit salad for breakfast this morning. Amazing. (couch surfing if you don’t know = stay with people for free in their homes) For those who know that I collect Daphne DuMaurier books, a fun totally random find at a goofy little “antique” (note quotes) shop in Pilgrim’s Rest outside Blyde Canyon. While we were in the shop a group of guys started washing our car, and Erik had to yell to them that the car was a rental and we didn’t care if it was dirty, didn’t want it cleaned and we’re not paying them if they continue washing it. Later, Erik said, “We should have dirted it up again just to void their efforts as we drove out of town.” You have to watch people here just doing things for you which you don’t ask them to and then demanding money of you for their unsolicited efforts.
But really, I just don’t even know what to make of these South Africans. The lady we’re couch surfing with in Johannesburg and her sister and brother-in-law are so nice and chatty; when we returned from an outing into the city yesterday, they invited us to sit outside with them and share some beer and wine. Then they said they couldn’t send us off without cooking us a braai. (South African barbecue…. a national pastime…. generally just a metal grate over charcoal). So at noon the next day they fixed us an entire feast with bap (maize… similar to cream of rice) with tomato/onion sauce and fresh tomatoes and garden greens, rolls, and beef sausage and chicken on the braai. It was completely delicious, and just so nice for these people to fix an entire meal for us!
Then when we asked for directions to the airport, the couple decided to just drive their car to the airport and have us follow them. It was about a 45-minute drive, so 1.5 hours roundtrip for them just to see us safely to the airport.
Once at the airport where we planned to drop off El Diablo Blanco and pick up a new truck (no camper) from a different rental company, as we came to the rental drop-off gate where we’d arranged to dump the Diablo, we found our vehicle was too tall (owing to the camper on top) to fit into the parking lot. We couldn’t turn around but there was a parking lot next to it for temporary bus/shuttle parking so we pulled in there and Erik went in to find the rental company. The rental supervisor bent over 8 ways from backwards to make things as convenient as possible for us; I won’t even list the things he did. But the funniest one was sneaking us out of the bus lot so we wouldn’t have to pay a lot of money for having parked there; he told the lot attendant our plight and he had us run through the gate right behind another vehicle when they left. I don’t know how much more good will we can take. Perhaps something horrendous is about to happen to us to offset it all.
Because of all the hassles we had to deal with exchanging the vehicle, we didn’t have time to do much in Joburg itself. We did go to the SAB “World of Beer” tour. They have a monopoly, basically, on the beer industry in S.A. They brew all the beers here, including the “imports,” that is to say they don’t import beers like Miller, Heineken and Amstel but rather are licensed to brew them themselves here. They had a stat that they bottle something like 40,000 cans of beer a minute in each of several rooms in each of 7 brewery sites in the country. That’s rather nuts. We’ve asked some people about microbrewing and they say it just hasn’t taken off. Apparently everyone is perfectly happy with the SAB line-up. Did a little shopping in stalls in what appeared to be a Muslim quarter of town. Women’s clothing was ridiculously cheap. Good thing the stores were all just starting to close or I might have come home with an entirely new wardrobe.
Went into the rough equivalent of a Chinese medicine pharmacy, but for traditional African medicines, with lots of strange roots and animal parts. It's essentially like a witch doctor's supply store. There was an entire taxidermy baboon, which was quite creepy. Also a wide variety of spears.
We are now friends with Tim the taxi driver, and have his direct number to call when we arrive back in Joburg at the train station and need transport to the airport. Tim seems an unlikely name for a somewhat brash and easily-irate black guy with a healthy afro… perhaps he has some difficult-to-pronounce name in his tribal language and chose Tim (like a lot of Chinese people choose American names for themselves). It made me think of Monty Python’s Holy Grail: Tim the Enchanter.
Cape Town was a bit of a bust due to the unpleasant weather, with clouds, rain, and excessive winds. We had a pleasant enough time but did not get to see the scenery for which the city is so famous. The cableway to Table Mountain was closed both days due to the high winds. We drove along the coast, but could not see very far past the shoreline, though that had its own beauty with the fog and the foaming, frothy waves hitting the shore.
But the one thing I most wanted to see here, I did get to see as planned: the penguin colony. And it was so fun. Penguins for some strange reason have huge personality ... which is weird because they have no real facial expression whatsoever, and yet they just ooze personality and you can put words in their mouths so easily. I like this first photo because of how the penguins were acting. There were about 5 of them who were like a secret club, with very serious business to take care of today. They’d waddle back and forth between an open rock face and the club house. At the rock they’d stand a little apart and be socializing like it was cocktail hour. Then several would go over to the clubhouse and huddle together, heads bent in secret plotting. Each penguin going back and forth between happy hour and clubhouse. I would have liked to stick around to see their mischievous plot put into action.The club house, below:
Back and forth, back and forth, to and from the club house and happy hour, below. Tell me the two guys on the far left in the first photo aren't having a fascinating discussion in a distinguished British accent.
Most of the penguins were actually molting and so were particularly fluffy and feathery ... different than how we're used to seeing them. This guy looks a little embarrassed at his condition.
I can't tell if this guy is giving me the stink eye, or what.
Penguins penguins everywhere! And I've been spotted by this one! Uh-oh. He's looking like he may have sinister intentions.
These are my two favorite penguin shots. The one guy just trundling along the beach, and the other one looking up with her precious little penguin face.
But there are most than just penguins on Boulder Beach. A pair of a pair of birds. :)
Believe it or not there is a “Cape of Good Hope Castle.” Actually it’s just a fort, first established in the mid-1600s. But had a castle-like feel and the visitor can roam about quite freely. And it killed a couple hours during the bleak day. We also checked out some market squares and drove up Signal Hill, which would have had astounding views, but had merely lovely views owing to the low clouds and fog. The wind the last couple days has been Nederland-caliber. We have been taken aback by it, and regrettably left most of our warm clothes back in Joburg because everyone said how lovely the weather would be in Cape Town. D’oh.
Staying now at our second couch surfing pad. This is more like what I was expecting… just a bed in a spare room. But it’s quite hospitable of our hosts, for it is just a tiny 2-bedroom flat with the 2 bedrooms, a bathroom and then one living space with kitchen and living/dining, quite small. So we all sit here together sharing space to both chat and drink and to do our own things (like type up blog reports, while host does internet business and Erik reads a book and the co-host watches TV). So we’re off tomorrow on the train; the primary reason we flew here to Cape Town was in order to take the train back to Joburg, a 26-hour ride. We hear it's the best way to see the interior of the country.
Kruger National Park, South Africa
LOVE the bush. Love nice people, especially when they’re strangers. Hate our truck rental company.
My love of nice people is the result of the diabolically crappy vehicle the truck rental company saddled us with…. they finally showed up with a replacement camper truck that is literally an antiquated POS. However, the one thing we’ve gotten out of all of our troubles with the vehicles, is the opportunity to receive an endless train of kindness and help from strangers. Everyone except the rental company has bent over backward to help us in whatever way their power allows, depending on our current situation. Let me provide some examples:
While in Graskop, the proprietor of our hotel where our battery went dead provided us his jumper cables, external battery charger, made toll phone calls for us on his phone, left his reception desk for extended periods of time to help us, and eventually drove Erik into town in his own vehicle to buy some take-out food for us to eat (there was no eating at the hotel premises and by noon we’d had nothing to eat) and to buy a new battery for the vehicle. We made it to our next campsite inside Kruger and couldn’t get the gas cooking burner to work and had to ask our camping neighbor if he could help, as the tools in the car were so cheap we broke them trying to work on the cooker. An extremely nice fellow helped us.
The following night, one of our tires began leaking at an alarming rate – the pressure valve was broken. So we looked around the car at the tires, to find that the spare tire underneath the car had a nail in it and zero pressure. There was one other spare on the back. Just then a man walked up to us and asked us if we were having any problems. We explained the situation and said we’d probably have to put the one good spare on in the morning. The man just jumped up and started taking down the spare tire and said, “Let’s get this changed!” The car jack on the outside of our vehicle was stuck and we couldn’t unbolt it from the car (again the cheap tools were inadequate), so the guy ran back to his truck and got his equipment. Jacked up the car and pretty much changed the tire by himself. Though Erik tried to help, he pretty much just took over. We offered him and his companions some beer for their kindness and he said, “Why don’t you just bring the beer over and have a seat with us.” So we did, and then his wife set down 2 hot bowls of freshly-made minestrone soup in front of us. So with zero solicitation, they changed our tire and fed us. They were German and told us some great travel tales from their time in Botswana and Zimbabwe. After we finally parted ways and we went back to our truck, I realized we never even exchanged names. So he’s the nameless awesome stranger. I can’t even believe the karmic debt I’ll have to pay back -- if you are a stranger, beware I will have to be excessively nice to you!
Here we are smiling, though Erik looks pretty exasperated.
So anyway, we took another 4x4 route, not quite as adventurous as the last one, but saw some good stuff. We had an amazing experience getting stuck right in the middle of an elephant herd crossing the road on both sides of our truck. We didn’t mean to get caught in the middle, we just stopped to watch some elephants cross in front of us, and before we could continue on, tens of elephants started streaming over the hillside and crossing behind us as well. We’ve had many excellent elephant sightings. Today, for example, as we were exiting the park, we saw a tiny little baby coming to a pond to drink with his family. So darn cute.
Both of the campsites we’ve stayed in during our second stint in Kruger have had hyenas patrolling the perimeter. The first night, in Satara, the hyena seemed to have a particular affinity for us. We were parked right against the fence. He kept lying down right across from us, looking at us like some kind of docile puppy dog. The hyenas at the next camp were much more “hyena-ish” -- large, menacing creatures pacing back and forth, snorting and sniveling.
Our big score was spotting a pair of saddle-billed storks. There was a poster up inside one of the camp reception buildings about them, soliciting help for you to send in any pictures you took and GPS coordinates. There are fewer than 100 inside Kruger park (a very large area) and not many more than that in the whole of South Africa. So it was a fabulous rare sighting. Erik saw them standing on the edge of a small dam and started yelling at me, “It’s them! It’s those saddle-billed birds! It’s them!” He was amusingly excited.
Some other kinds of common birds ... some in focus, some not so much. :-)
Black-backed jackal and wildebeest:
Finally saw a pride of lions yesterday. I was really going to feel disappointed that I hadn’t seen more, but that was a good score. Nearly at the end of the day, so they slipped in at the last minute into my experience here. You can see from the pictures below how incredibly camouflaged the lions are in the late winter/early spring weeds and bushes which haven't yet turned green and are almost the same color as their coats. Due to terrible maps and inadequate signage, we somehow didn’t take the right turn to get back to the road that would take us most expediently to our next camp. All camp gates close promptly at 6pm (dusk). We ended up driving at totally inadvisable speeds, risky to both us and the animals, to make it to camp at precisely 6:00pm. Then found out we were supposed to register at a different camp. This is just a satellite bush camp with no reception or anything. No one had told us this, but the gate keeper (gates had actually already been closed), after a few minutes of skepticism, finally welcomed us in. I mean, what were they going to do? Listen to us getting devoured by lions right outside the camp fence?
In addition to wanting to see lions, I also really wanted to hear them at night. My friend (and excellent writer) who’s traveled a lot in Africa has described her experiences at night listening to the lions and I’ve coveted those experiences ever since I read her accounts. Finally, our last night in the park, at the bush camp, very small and isolated with no electricity, lions bellowed nearby throughout the night and hyenas yipped and yoweled all night also, and an elephant passed by browsing the tree branches just outside the camp’s fence (a very modest affair, this fence, hardly more than the one we had at North Camp on the EW project). It was a warm night and the stars were out; Erik crashed around 10pm but I stayed up until well past midnight sitting on the roof of the truck watching the stars and listening to the lions and hyenas. (and drinking a beer, naturally ….). It was fabulous.
I’ve spent a lot of time in isolation and immersion in the mountains during my life. I’ve always presumed that the feeling and emotional state one gets in these remote places is the same around the world. But being out beneath the stars in the African bush is very different than being beneath the stars at some high altitude lake in Colorado. In the high altitude I realize it’s more about isolation… that you are contending primarily with inanimate forces of nature such as geology, weather, astronomy, things that show you the vastness of space and time. There are few critters around and only the people you are camping with. In the bush, it’s about sharing your space with “life,” with an abundance of animals. It’s not about isolation, rather a kind of communion. Listening to all those powerful animals prowling through the night is a feeling I’ve found nowhere else. In this case, the world doesn’t seem vast at all. You lie there in the middle of all this activity and instinct and evolution, and it’s almost paralyzing, feeling all that perpetual movement – the running of prey and the chasing of predator, the scavenging, the serenading, the sleeping, the stalking.
When I awoke the next morning (today) about 5:45am and realized that I was about to leave the park and the African bush, and who knows when/if I might return, I felt sick to my stomach.
Nelspruit, South Africa
Now we’re at Chimp Eden! This is one of the things I’ve been most looking forward to, as we are big fans of the Animal Planet TV show, Chimp Eden, chronicling the chimps and how they were rescued and brought to the rehabilitation center, a center sponsored by the Jane Goodall Institute. I can’t wait for the tour tomorrow.
This morning we went for a hike in pretty country, still in Swaziland. Part of the area looked like a well-designed rock garden, really amazing. Then drove all the way to a northern exit in Swaziland. From Pigg’s Peak all the way to Bulembu, an area basically deserted, on beautiful road. Some of it rough but the whole way from the border post to Barberton, 40 km, was pristine pavement, gorgeous twisties, and zero traffic. Literally we never encountered another passenger vehicle in either direction. We had crooned over the minimal traffic in Slovakia last year, but traffic in South Africa is an all-together different story. Our experience so far, outside the major urban areas, is no traffic. Traffic isn’t even a meaningful term; better to say simply there are no cars, very very few. Anyway, Erik and I were wiping away the drool from the corners of our mouths thinking about having a sport bike right now to ride the road from Bulembu to Barberton over and over…. What a thing of motorcycling beauty.
The border post there was such a relief from the ones we went through to cross Mozambique and to cross into Swaziland in the south. It was 2 tiny buildings and 3 guys who were bored stiff and were thrilled at the prospect of being able to search someone’s vehicle … though the search didn’t last long at all. On the Swazi side, the immigration officer wrote a note on a piece of paper and asked us to give it to the officer on the South African side. I couldn’t help but read the note while it was in my possession. It said: “The electricity will be off tomorrow between 9:00 and 16:00. You can come over here for more information.” I just found this amusing. I meant to take a picture of the quaint little border post but forgot. We were the only people there, it was so refreshing and simple. Below, the buttery mountains at Bulembu. (Erik said they're so rolling and smooth like butter)
We’ve met very interesting people here at Chimp Eden. One is the proprietor of the hotel (swank and lovely…. we feel very upper class tonight) and one is the bell boy/errand man/waiter. The proprietor was kicked off his family’s game reserve in Zimbabwe, land they had lived on for over 150 years, when the chaos broke out there in the mid-2000s. (If you’re unfamiliar with the events under Mugabe, “When a Croccodile Eats the Sun” is a good book to read.) He and his family darted and loaded up the animals in trucks and drove to a lake on the Zambia border where a friend owned lakefront property. In the middle of the night, they loaded animals on a boat and secretly ferried them across. Now they’ve got a nice reserve in Zambia. But his tale of the trials his family went through in Zimbabwe during the recent Mugabe years and the Wovits campaign, plus the adventure of moving all the animals, and his personal take on animal conservation based on his experiences was all very interesting. It’s great to have conversations with people like that.
The next extended interview came with Robert, the man of all trades of the hotel. A black man of 63 who doesn’t look that old. He comes from a family of 8; his youngest sibling has 11 children, he himself has 10 children. A religious man who seems to be looking forward to moving on into the next life. There was only one other group staying at the hotel, 3 women traveling together, and he entertained the five of us during dinner with some little magic tricks. He obviously relished our confusion. Somehow I doubt the proprietor was aware of his sideline entertaining, but he was pretty tickled to show us his tricks, which he ultimately explained to us how he did them.
Then we saw Cozy! Our favorite chimp. And just exactly like the TV show, he runs around along the fence grunting and clapping his hands together with arms extended.
He and another chimp were throwing nut shells over the fence at us. I got hit twice by the flying objects. Several other chimps we recognized from the TV show also. Unfortunately Animal Planet seems to have canceled the show. Losers. Poor Cozy was an experimental chimp in a medical lab and has obvious brain damage, which makes him a bit wacky and not quite “all there,” but utterly lovable; he seems to be a favorite of pretty much everyone who works with him. He was also castrated. So despite his size and prowess, he will never be an alpha male nor will he ever get any action from the ladies; neither sex of his mates sees him as a male. Sad. Though we know many of the stories of the chimps, the desperate situations from which they were rescued, from having watched the TV show, hearing them again while the chimp is right there in front of you in person doubles the impact. So sad, it’s almost unbearable. Sweet, beautiful, intelligent creatures.
The hotel was amazing. Best night’s sleep I’ve had in ages and the food, particularly dinner, was divine ... with, of course, the entertainment of Robert.The manager was accommodating to no end, as all of the hotel/hostel proprietors have been to date. It’s just a pleasure to stay anywhere so far. Below, some of the other precious chimps at Chimp Eden, so playful, you just want to scoop them up and cuddle them. Look at how in the last chimp pic, he's resting his arm on his foot in the crook between his big toe and the other toes. And finally, the lovely sunset ... another consistent pleasure here in South Africa.
Children in Rearview Mirror May Be Closer Than They Appear ...
..... Couldn’t decide on the best title. So the adventure of Erik’s and my independent travel has begun. With a debacle. The Land Rover with full camping equipment that was supposed to be delivered to us at Richard’s Bay airport did not arrive. After some time we were able to contact the company and it was revealed that the car had broken down on the way to Richard’s Bay and they had to tow back to Joburg to fix. They told us to rent another vehicle and they’d reimburse us the cost, and as soon as the Land Rover is fixed they’d deliver it to us wherever we are. The veracity of these claims has yet to be verified. We have a 4x4 truck but with no camping outfit at all, it’s just a single cab pickup with a topper. However, to date we are staying in accommodations and the 4x4 capabilities of this vehicle have proven adequate. Most of our first day here, though, was eaten up trying to rent this other vehicle. So we pulled into our tiny cabin in Sodwana Bay and pretty much just ate dinner and went to bed (I needed to catch up on some sleep).
Next day we tried snorkeling at Sodwana Bay but it was very windy and the water was quite cool and it’s a holiday weekend, so mostly all you could see was other peoples’ fins. So we moved on to Kosi Bay. I had a hard time finding accommodations because of the holiday weekend, so I booked us in a place a bit more swanky than our typical budget. It’s perfectly lovely and we’re being fed delicious dinner and breakfast, which is convenient, because there are not a lot of great options locally. So I guess it’s worth the cost. Compare our first night's lodging (left) with our second night's (right) ... you see why we decided to book several more nights at #2. Not that I don't appreciate rustic accommodations, but I have been living in tents and tiny rooms with 5 roommates for the last 2 weeks ..... (Wanna stay at lovely Kosi Moon B&B? I recommend: check them out HERE)
All roads except the main highway around here are just tracks in the sand. There are extremely few “cars,” only 4x4 vehicles driving around, and not even very many of those. We wanted to go snorkeling at a place, Kosi Bay Mouth, where you have to get a permit, only a few issued each day, and must have 4WD in order to access. Our proprietor here at our B&B has been fabulous and helped us get the permit.
So the next day, despite a fierce and chill wind, and rain on the horizon, we set out for Kosi Bay Mouth with our snorkeling kits. Our first attempt at accessing the bay resulted in getting wonderfully lost. It seemed fairly apparent after awhile that both the sign and the man we asked were incorrect in their assessment of the viability of getting to the Bay from this road. But it was such a nice drive paralleling a lake shore through jungle corridors (hopefully the Land Rover-rental people will also pay, when paying for this vehicle’s rental, the damages sure to be charged to us from the massive scratching of branches lining the narrow corridor). Some challenging sections to drive, utterly deserted most of the way except for a handful of men, one of whom was building his fish traps near the lake. Ancient-technology fish traps made of sticks that funnel the fish into a pen from which they can’t swim back out of. Ultimately we ended up at somebody’s house and had to turn around and retrace our tracks.
Erik made the comment along the way: “You know it’s a good road when 25 mph seems like breakneck speed.” I would add that it’s also a good road if you hit your head at least once on the ceiling of the cab. It was a good road. Er, “road.”
We figured out what the true route must be and then made it to the Bay to find the wind and chill hadn’t abated. To get to the good snorkeling, we had to wade across some challenging sections of water. When we got to the “pool” where we wanted to snorkel, the wind was driving the current so strongly, we couldn’t swim against it. So we had to walk up the shore and then let the current carry us back down while snorkeling. Unfortunately because of the overcast day with no sunlight to penetrate the water, we saw very little. And because of the chill, we left after a fairly short time to embark on a new adventure. But it was a beautiful location and because of the limited permits, very few people. Totally worth the trip.
Having driven quite extensively in England and Ireland, Erik has picked up driving on the left side of the road quite easily again. However, the lever for the blinker and the lever for the windshield wipers are reversed on the steering column. So we generally signal to traffic that we are about to make a turn with a swish of the windshield wipers, and clear water off the windshield with a blinking light. We have encountered some rain and the other water was acquired while fording puddles. At one of these puddles, on a 4x4-only road (they’re not kidding about needing 4x4) to Kosi Bay Mouth, a gang of kids lined the roadside making hand signals we didn’t understand. We forded the water hole at a slow speed and kept driving, waving and smiling at the kids. Suddenly we looked behind us and were shocked to find the entire back bumper of our truck loaded down with all of those children crammed on, holding on to god-knows-what to stay on. Five kids had boarded our car with amazing adeptness. They weren’t hurting anything so we let them stay on and they got a kick out of it whenever Erik sped up over the rough terrain. How they managed to hold on through the bumpy sand tracks is beyond me. They eventually signaled us to stop and they got off when we passed their apparent village.
So after leaving Kosi Bay Mouth we decided, since we were a stone’s throw away from the Mozambique border, to cross over and visit a town I’d read about online that had a somewhat famous restaurant and we thought we’d get some fresh seafood for lunch (a late lunch). So we crossed the border quickly and simply. It seemed perhaps a bit too simple with only one thing to do and no money to pay. We drove away slightly leery but no one chased us down, so we continued. We knew that 4WD was required to reach this town, but what a shock to go from a two-lane pristinely-paved highway in South Africa to, upon crossing the border, a single-lane track of pure sand. Again, no kidding about the necessity of 4WD. It was very reminiscent of driving through the proto-Sahara desert in Tunisia up to the oasis at the edge of the “true” desert…. a braid of track through the sand, take your pick whichever looks the most passable. This is the main and only road from South Africa into Mozambique at this particular border. So it was much slower going than we had envisioned.
When we finally arrived “someplace,” that is to say somewhere obviously touristy and not a ramshackle stick-and-thatch village lined with idle kids and women with bundles on their heads, we discovered it was not our intended destination. But by then a significant amount of time had passed and the border post closed at 6pm so we needed to retrace our steps before then. But we were a bit famished. So we stayed there, which turned out to be a fairly posh resort right on the coast, and ordered a beer and some lunch. We felt slightly crunched for time to return to the border and hoped our food would arrive promptly. Just for kicks I decided to ask one of the hotel staff who seemed to speak good English about the route back to the border, if maybe there was a better or faster one. What a stroke of genius I had in this respect, for this is when I found out that the border in fact closes at 5pm not 6. And therefore, we needed to leave immediately if we didn’t want to spend the night in Mozambique. So we canceled our lunch order, chugged our beers and headed out in a race for the border. Though the hotel staff recommended a different route, the landmarks for this route seemed slightly nebulous – we had encountered no signs of any sort in Mozambique, so we decided it was safer to retrace our steps. But we needed to make better time back than we had coming. So Erik had a fine time as Mozambique Rally Car Driver of the Year, or at least Driver of the Day, getting us back to the border. Fortunately we were not slowed down by any cars in front of us … this is the desolate nature of these roads. About 50 minutes driving as fast as one could (approx. 35 mph in the sand) (and if you know us at all, you know we are fast drivers compared to the general population) encountering no other cars in front of us. We made great and rather fun time. Arrived at the border at 4:30pm.
To discover that we had missed a crucial part of the immigration process into Mozambique, so that upon return into South Africa, we had an “issue.” In effect, we had crossed the Mozambique border illegally. Fortunately they neither charged us the hefty fine of 6,000 Rand they claimed was justified for this offense, nor did they wave guns and handcuffs in our face, which our B&B proprietor said we were lucky for; rather, they just doubled the price we would normally pay for re-entry and made Erik stand outside for ½ hour in the cold filling out and processing paperwork. We ultimately crossed the border at about 4:58. We are more poor, but had a nice adventure.
That night there was a storm outside and the electricity at the B&B went out. No worries, though, as I just typed on my laptop by battery and Erik napped on the bed. We’re now in Swaziland. Didn’t do anything except drive all day. Got a late start because our B&B proprietor had many soap boxes to speak to us from. Which was fine; he had many very illuminating things to say about his country and he also has some excellent ideas for getting himself off the grid and helping the local impoverished population.
We were further set back by missing a turn-off and driving quite far off track. Though, we could hardly be too upset over it as we saw some interesting scenery and a relatively high-class black town, which was a good counter to the general depth of poverty we’ve seen everywhere else. The tourist facilities typically are fenced off from the locals, which only accentuates the haves from the have-nots. This (below) was outside the shed we stayed in the first night.
If you ever come to this southeast part of South Africa, be warned that signage on the road is minimal to nonexistent, and any maps you can buy online (I have 2 with me) render this area as a black hole. The maps are void of any information… no road names/numbers, no mileage (kilometerage), few town names…. it’s weird, literally just a void in cartographic information.
Well, nonetheless, we crossed the Swaziland border fine and made it to the hostel where we had reserved a room here in the middle of Swaziland. It’s quite noticeable the difference in economic equality… that is to say, there seems to actually be some equality here in Swaziland whereas in South Africa, there seems to be a line of difference drawn nearly exclusively along racial lines. Our B&B proprietor in Kosi Bay explained to us some of the ridiculous ways in which the South Africa government tries to solve its Third World problems with First World solutions, and pretend that it is more First World than the majority of the country really is. At least on the surface, it seems that Swaziland is a much more egalitarian society. Just judge by the cars alone…. in all of my travels around the world, I have never been in a country in which the roads are so desolate as in South Africa. You travel miles and miles without encountering a single vehicle. No one can afford cars in the rural areas where the population is mostly black. Here in Swaziland we’re constantly in a line of cars even along the roads lined with nothing but hovels. In South Africa, the roads are lined with people walking. Like, hoards of them; no one even has a bicycle. Very few people line the roads in Swaziland except for the occasional gang of school children. It’s interesting.
We have been in the internet boonies in South Africa… no access. Now we’re in Swaziland and there’s an internet café with high speed just down the road. The hostel supposedly has wi-fi but it’s not working tonight.