Thunder Bay, March 26
I am sitting on the third floor of my father's house, looking out on a grey, drizzly day; the clouds are obscuring the usual view of the Sleeping Giant peninsula out across the waters of Lake Superior. Not an inspiring day to go outside, so it's an ideal day to write and catch up on the next few weeks of Stanley's Travels, in South Africa back in January.
When we entered South Africa from Swaziland on the afternoon of Friday, December 30, we had a basic plan for our swing through the country. Despite buying the car in South Africa and spending over a month there, we had barely scratched the surface of this huge, diverse country. We had spent a frustrating week vehicle-hunting in Cape Town, a couple of weeks in Kruger, and another frustrating couple of weeks in and around Sabie as we waited for repairs to Stanley. Later we spent some time in and around Upington, and then camped near Delmas at the Blinkgat workshop, but the entire southern three quarters of the country was an unknown quantity to us.
Our idea for this leg was to make our way south along the Kwa-Zulu coast, stopping to see wildlife in Imfolozi, to hike in the Drakensberg and in Lesotho, and then to take our time along the Wild Coast and Garden Route, and then past Cape Agulhas to Cape Town. We would then finally turn north along the coast towards the Fish River Canyon and finally get to Namibia in time to catch a flight back to Johannesburg to do a week's worth of tour guiding in Kruger in the middle of February. It seemed like a good way to maximize our exposure to the various biomes and mammal and bird species of South Africa.
Rhinos, Bushbabies and the Green Hills of Africa
|Umfolozi's green and pleasant hills|
Who you lookin' at?
|Mother and child white rhino looking a bit thin in Umfolozi|
|Classic savannah in Umfolozi|
|Mother zebra with very young baby|
A few of my 2016 haiku:
Wild animals pass
Living the African dream
In our metal box
Over game-speckled grasslands
Trump gets elected
Cohen, Bowie, Ali die
I didn't say they had any literary merit!
We ate sumptuously well and then joined Saul and Mandy (a medical/physiotherapy couple from Durban) at their roaring campfire with glasses of whisky to toast out the old year. By 10:30, sadly, we were so sleepy that we gave up on seeing midnight and headed to bed, sated and happy.
New Year's Day was a lazy day spent in camp, having an outsized breakfast, catching up on laundry (the heat was resulting in a lot of sweaty clothes and bedding) and then walking around the property in search of birds. It was a pleasant property to walk around, with lots of impala and birds, while across the fence we saw red duiker and strange all-black impala being bred on a game farm. We lolled in the pool to beat the worst of the afternoon heat, and then went for a bicycle ride down the dirt road outside the lodge. We didn't get very far, but it felt good to do some exercise after days of eating and driving. We ate copious quantities of leftovers and packed up, ready for a timely departure the next morning.
January 2nd saw us staggering out of bed at 5:20 for an early-morning game drive. By 6 am we were packed up and underway, headed this time to the nearby gate of Hluhluwe. It proved to be even hillier and prettier than the Imfolozi sector of the park, and once again we saw plenty of white rhinos on the way into the park. There were many buffalo wallowing in the marshy areas near the rivers, along with plenty of zebras and a lone elephant. We drove to a riverside picnic spot and there cooked up a lavish bacon-and-eggs feast. We were slowly learning the South African style of game driving: get up, grab a quick bite of rusks and coffee or tea, spend a couple of hours in the prime game-viewing opportunities just after dawn, then retire to a picnic spot for a big brunch. We sat overlooking a river, but although we could hear hippos they weren't in our field of view, although we had some wooly-necked storks as compensation.
After brunch we continued along the park, past more big buffalo herds, one with a few huge rhinos mixed in as they all wallowed contentedly in the mud of a waterhole. We exited the park via a skyline drive that didn't give much game but provided stellar views out over the green hills of KwaZulu-Natal. It was a very pleasant park, and we were glad that we made time for it.
Battlefields, Highlands and Valleys
By 10:30 we were underway, heading down the highway to Richards Bay, then heading inland after a grocery store run. There was a great variety of landscape as we climbed past forestry plantations to grassy plateaus dotted with Zulu villages. We were headed into the blood-soaked Battlefields area of KZN, where the three biggest players in South African history (the Zulus, the Boers and the British) took turns fighting each other in all possible combinations, and our first stop was Isandlwana, a name that resonates with anyone familiar with British military history.
I have always felt the melancholic attraction of battlefields, and standing here, just Terri and I and the mute stone monuments, felt much more immediate and real than simply reading about the battle in a textbook. We lingered as late as we could without getting locked inside the gate, and then drove off 20 km to the west towards Rorke's Drift, where survivors of Isandlwana and other troops kept in reserve desperately fended off Zulu attacks throughout the following night of the 22nd-23rd of January, 1879. They barely managed to avoid being overrun, and the British propaganda machine made far more of the heroic defence of Rorke's Drift than of the catastrophe of Isandlwana. The British went on to win that war in the end, but it had been a blood-soaked lesson in not underestimating one's adversary. The site museum was closed, but we were still able to walk around the site, past various British and Zulu memorials, and it was a moving experience.
Not having had enough of battlefields just yet, we drove until dusk along more secondary dirt roads, past small Zulu villages and high grasslands glinting in late-afternoon light until we reached one of the most important locations in the psychosphere of the Afrikaner nation: Blood River, the site of a battle on December 16th, 1838 between a column of Afrikaner Voortrekkers and a huge Zulu army. We camped that night at the battlefield as the only campers in a huge campground. It was slightly eerie, but it was also a wonderful spot, with hundreds of egrets and ibises nesting in the trees surrounding the caretaker's house, and a clear sky dominated by Venus and the crescent moon. We cooked up a vast vegetable and lentil stew and sat out under the stars until late.
We walked down to the battlefield itself, where life-sized bronze replicas of the Voortrekkers' 64 ox-drawn wagons, drawn up into a circular defensive position as was the case during the battle, have marked the spot since 1972. The Afrikaners put defensive barriers between the wagons, drew their cattle and people inside the circle and kept up a murderous fusillade with their rifles until they had killed 3000 or more Zulus, who eventually broke off their attack, leaving the Afrikaners in possession of the area.
Across the dry riverbed, the South African government has recently erected its own museum, which tells the story from the point of view of the Zulus, whose lands the Afrikaners were overrunning in 1838. We almost didn't get in; the place seemed to be locked, and nobody was around, even though it was long after the posted opening times. We had had a scout around the grounds, already looking disheveled and poorly maintained despite it being only four years old, and were on our way back across the pedestrian Bridge of Reconciliation (with locked gates on either side and razor wire guarding the sides; there has to be some sort of metaphor there for the actual state of reconciliation in South Africa) when a museum employee, who looked as though he had just woken up from a nap, came running over to get us. We looked around briefly, but we were in a hurry to get our fridge fixed, so I am afraid we gave the government museum short shrift.
The entire place is really a microcosm of South Africa's divisions and different views of history and the future; the Afrikaner family running the museum were quite bitter about relations with their Zulu neighbours, complaining of cut fences, cattle encroachment and theft. The Afrikaner museum makes much of the feeling of being besieged, of standing alone against a hostile world, that played such a big role in apartheid, and the fact that they don't own the uncontested narrative of the battle seemed to eat at the soul of the man at the cashier's till. The fact that there are two competing museums for the same site also speaks of a country that hasn't decided how it feels about its recent past.
We drove off around 10 am and within an hour we were in Dundee, a small provincial town, at D&G Electric, unloading the fridge. We dropped it off for them to look at overnight and went to the surprisingly good campsite in town, Kwa-Rie, located in an old quarry (hence the name) and full of birds and flowers. We set up camp and Terri roasted a succulent leg of lamb before a huge rainstorm rolled in. We sat under our awning after supper reading and (in my case) playing guitar for the first time since before Madagascar, which felt very good indeed.
|Me with Castor outside the Ladysmith Siege Museum|
We continued on our way in a steadily increasing downpour, headed for the Royal Natal Park in the northern Drakensberg for a few days of hiking. We arrived and shoehorned ourselves into a powered site (power obtained by a long extension cord from the ablution block). We lounged under the shelter of the awning, reading and getting hungry as the smells of baking scones and leftover lentil stew tormented our nostrils and wondering if we really wanted to spend the next month in the rain. We thought not.
|Nice light on the Drakensberg at Royal Natal Park|
|Waterfall in the Tugela Gorge in the Drakensberg|
|Crickets procreating, Drakensberg|
|Our turnaround point in the Tugela Gorge|
Mountain Scenery Between the Rainstorms
It was an unexpectedly spectacular drive, past the huge Sterkfonteyn Reservoir and through the Golden Gate Highlands National Park, where we spotted, for the first and only time, the black (or white-tailed) wildebeest, a fairly uncommon species found only in these highlands. We would have loved to have stopped and hiked and explored the park, but the rainclouds were gathering and we had kilometres to make. We stopped in a tiny town, Clarens, that seems to be a counter-cultural hippie hangout in the Orange Free State highlands, to buy groceries, including a 5-kilogram bag of brown flour that would last Terri the rest of the trip. We then drove to Meiringskloof, an oasis of loveliness nestled in a small box canyon (a "kloof", in Afrikaans), checked into our little cottage and prepared to wait out the storm.
It started to rain properly that evening, and kept going for the next 36 hours. It would have been miserable to have been trapped inside Stanley and under our awning for that long, so we were glad that we had sprung for indoor accommodation. It was a fairly large, comfortable, older cottage that had everything we needed: electric power, a refrigerator, a fully-equipped kitchen, a big bed and a roof that didn't leak. It was nice to cocoon ourselves indoors, read, write a Madagascar blog post, eat well (Terri baked another big loaf of bread), have a haircut (Terri is getting really good at handling my curls) and to sit beside our indoor fireplace in the evening keeping warm. As it turned out, we were feeling the effects of a cyclone blowing in from the Indian Ocean, and there was a lot of rain. During our enforced day off we checked the weather a few times and came to a decision. We had a 36-hour window of clear weather coming up during which we would drive across Lesotho, and then lots more rain after that. It was time to pull the plug on this side of South Africa, skip much of the coast and head north towards the Kalahari and then Namibia. It was just too rainy to make it worth our while to go to the Wild Coast or the Garden Route areas.
The next morning, Sunday, January 8th, we awoke to blue skies and lingered over our departure, first using wi-fi and then walking briefly around the lovely nature reserve that we had barely seen through the driving rain. It was full of birds, and I thought I had heard galagos the night before, and it would be a great place to stay in good weather as well, with some nice hiking and dense forest to explore. At last at 11:30 we pulled ourselves away and headed the short distance to the Lesotho border.
|High up at AfriSki, Lesotho|
|Typical Lesotho highland scenery|
|Terraced fields in eastern Lesotho|
|Great view from our Lesotho campsite; pity about the owner!|
|Lesotho cowboys along the road to the Sani Pass|
|At (almost) the highest point of Stanley's Travels so far|
|Terri at the top of the Sani Pass; that sign contradicts the one at AfriSki!|
|Stanley crossing a stream on the track down from the Sani Pass|
Retreating from the Rains
|Dramatic Drakensberg scenery|
The following day we put in a very long day of 622 km, driving south through recurrent rain, The traffic continued to be brutally heavy most of the way to Port Elizabeth. There were intriguing-looking turnoffs early in the day towards the Transkei and Ciskei coasts, but it was raining and we were on a mission. As we crossed into Eastern Cape province, the vegetation changed dramatically from African bush to Mediterranean maquis, or fynbos as it's known in South Africa. When we finally got to Port Elizabeth, we rejected three campgrounds before finally ending up at the very professional and beautifully located Willows campground 20 km outside town. The coast was windswept and pounded by big waves, but the campground had two sheltered tidal swimming pools and a good atmosphere about it.
|Terri cycling in the Baviaanskloof|
Wonderful view from our Baviaanskloof campsite
It was a pity that we were so distracted by mechanical issues that day, as we drove through some great scenery. We left behind the coastal fynbos and entered the vast extent of semi-arid land known as the Karoo that makes up more than half of the land area of South Africa. We climbed up over interior mountain passes and across sweeping plains with great views and wonderful light. A cold wind raked the landscape and added to the feeling of being in the beautiful middle of absolutely nowhere. We were pleasantly surprised at how pretty we both found the Karoo. As we drove off from Hanover, we saw hundreds of kestrels swarming in the air and in the trees; our mechanic said that they stayed in the area in vast numbers for a couple of months and then disappeared for the rest of the year.
We found a decent campsite at Kambro, 20 km north of Britsville. With all the delays, we ended up rolling up in the dark at 8:40 pm, tired and out of sorts. We still managed to set up camp and get supper cooked by 9:30, grateful for lines of trees that gave us a bit of shelter from the searching tendrils of wind.
|Social weaver nest complex at Leeupan|
|Stanley at our idyllic campsite at Leeupan|
In Love with the Kalahari
It wasn't until 1:30 that we got packed up again and rolling northward into the Kalahari, headed towards Leeupan. It was an easy trundle, at least until we ran off the end of pavement 20 km before van Zylsrus and onto some very washboarded dirt. We made our way gingerly along the road and eventually made our way to the "bush camp" on the Leeupan farm, where we set up shop for the next three nights. We were both very happy at the prospect of not doing any driving for two days, after lots of long days of driving and mechanical mishap. We were completely alone in the campsite, and we set out to explore our surroundings.
|The dozens of entrances underneath a sociable weaver complex|
|This little sociable weaver can build gargantuan condominium complexes|
|Meerkat standing guard|
|Ooh La La, one of the stars of Meerkat Manor, Leeupan|
A meerkat cooling his belly on freshly-turned sand, Leeupan
|Terri with a French volunteer doing fieldwork for the Kalahari Meerkat Project|
|One of the many leopard tortoises we saw in the Kgalagadi|
|African wild cat spotted near the road close to Leeupan|
|Huge sociable weaver complex near Twee Rivieren|
|Southern ground squirrels congregating near the mouth of their burrow|
|Radio-collared lioness out for an early-morning stroll near Twee Rivieren|
|Magnificent lion near Twee Rivieren|
|A big gaggle of baby ostriches out for a stroll|
|Baby black-backed jackal waiting for mom to return with breakfast|
|Mother cheetah at Rooiputs|
|Sub-adult cheetahs near Rooiputs|
|Leopard tortoise nibbling at the sand on the jeep track|
|Springbok mothers and child|
|Ostriches on patrol in the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park|
|Gemsbok (oryx) fleeing at our approach|
|Hartebeest near Twee Rivieren|
Male kori bustard puffed up and displaying
|Lion cub resting in the shade near Twee Rivieren|