Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Notebook of a Return to My Native Land - part 13

In many respects, South Africa is developed; however, this development is significantly localised around four areas, namely Cape Town, Port Elizabeth, Durban, and Pretoria/Johannesburg. Beyond these four economic centres, development is marginal and poverty still reigns despite government efforts. -- South Africa, Wikipedia

Back to the Big City

There was one single running theme to our return to South Africa: amazement.

Returning to Joburg felt very much like returning to Europe - to organisation and modernity. Many diasporians insist on going at least once a year back to Europe, and now we can understand why. You just need a bit of normality after the chaos. But Angola stays deep within you, as we found out when showing our passports. Apparently we only had another couple of weeks left on our original multiple entry visa, so the immigration officer asked me if I wanted a visa extension. Without even thinking, I instantly said "no thanks, we'll come back and renew it when required". Thankfully Shahin was more sensible and asked the officer how easy it was to renew the visa. To our great surprise, all it takes is to insert another sticker on your passport and stamp it. That's it. The entire visa renewal took no more than five minutes. We just stood there in amazement, speechless, a tear in the corner of the eye struggling to stay in. We just felt like hugging the woman.

This second time round we also noticed the airport's quality a lot more. You can't really appreciate how South Africa is developed when you come from England because the infrastructure is, in many ways, of the same calibre. OR Tambo and Heathrow are very similar. But after spending hours on end in 4 de Fevereiro, totally confused and disorientated, not knowing if your flight will depart today or not, OR Tambo was nothing short of paradise on earth. Spotless, noiseless, perfectly organised. And the staff is so friendly everywhere you go, you just feel like giving them money. A far cry from the average Angolan waiter, to whom you're nothing but an annoyance.

While we were wandering around the airport we bumped into a Vodacom shop. Having a mobile phone in Angola proved to be extremely useful, so we decided to buy one here too. Getting it was a painless experience and it was a big win as we have been using the phone almost all the time.

To keep things simple, we decided to return to Gemini's backpackers. The forty-minute transfer from the airport was quite enjoyable, and it was great to see how big and developed Joburg really is. Whilst Gemini is miles away from Joburg's centre, it did have the redeeming factor of being a known good place. Besides, we intended to board the next available bus to Durban, so it didn't really matter where we were staying. In the end, it was a good choice. There's something reassuring in seeing familiar faces when you travel for extended periods of time. I don't know why, I guess maybe one starts to yearn for some normality in the midst of constant change. It was great to see Aaron again and it felt like nothing had changed. He was still running around doing errands, trying to sort out the world.

When we ordered some dinner that night we were amazed at how cheap things are. We originally thought South Africa was an expensive place, but this was before paying 100 USD in a restaurant in downtown Luanda. In South Africa you can get a take-away for two people for 50 rand. That is less than 4 GBP (around 8 USD). It really did feel dirt cheap after Angola, where we paid 25 USD for the only take-away we had.

In the morning we went down to the bus interchange in downtown Joburg and boarded the next available Greyhound. We sat on the bus in quiet amazement. For 130 Rand per person, less than 10 GBP (20 USD) we got a luxury bus, including air conditioned and lots of space.

They even served us complimentary tea and biscuits.

The roads were absolutely excellent and the eight hours just flew by. We were in Durban in no time.


Durban is one of the biggest cities in South Africa and the largest one in kwaZulu-Natal. It has over three million inhabitants. Its biggest claim to fame is the port - the busiest in Africa - but there are many other aspects of interest in the town. Tourism is huge here and the beaches are really nice.

The city in itself is also quite remarkable in terms of architecture, combining high-rise with sprawl. The suburbs of Durban are mainly about low rise and narrow roads, a great number of medium and large houses with immense gardens, lush green trees peeping from high-voltage fences. Town centre is more about high-rise and skyscrapers: forty story towers built in that old seventies style, brown and grey. Durban also sports a great number of grand old buildings, very old and very noble.

I'm afraid our first accommodation had nothing noble about it. We decided to crash at Bananas Backpackers, which according to Lonely Planet had one single selling point, being close to the beach. I suppose one may add the friendliness of the staff, who really were the heart and soul of the place. The good news ended there though.

Bananas is located in one of the dodgiest areas of town, right next door to massage parlours, escort agencies and adult video shops. The streets are full with bayaye hanging round, looking for something to do. The building itself has seen better days and is in need of some refurbishment. Their Internet has been broken for months. To top it off, it was the first place in this trip with bed bugs. We only noticed them a few days in, when the weather turned cold and we needed to use the duvet. My thick Angolan skin seems to be less affected by these crazy critters but Shahin spent a night in pain, scratching herself like a dog with fleas. To be honest, I did like Bananas, a bit like poets like the Soho and bohemian life. It had character. And, excluding bed bugs, it is actually pretty clean, showers and kitchen and the like.

Around the corner from Bananas we found the cheapest web cafe in Africa, selling one hour on fast Internet for six rand. That is like less than 1 USD, and we're talking about fast, reliable, ass-kicking Internet. We spent something like four hours on the net the first time we found this cyber cafe, uploading all the pictures we hadn't managed to upload in Angola and chatting to everyone we hadn't spoken to in months. The only down side of this cyber is the location. One never sees any tourists there other than us, and there are always lots of dodgy characters loitering around. But we never had any problems and the owners were really friendly people.

Another very popular activity on our first few days in Durban was beach bumming. The coast has quite a few beaches, all with vast expanses of sand, but not many of them are swimming beaches. That is, you can probably swim at your own risk, but no one seems to.

When most people think of the Indian ocean they probably see quiet, idyllically calm waters, still swimming pools disguised as ocean. Perhaps some parts of the Indian ocean are indeed like that, but make no mistake: kwaZulu-Natal certainly isn't. The sea here is fast and furious, with set after set of waves hitting the coast, each two metres high or more. The sets come packed in three or four waves at a time, not much space in between them. This is perfect for surfing, one of the most popular sports in Durban. It is not, however, ideal for swimming. On rough days swells can be higher than four metres (we saw waves wetting passers-by in the piers); on normal days, waves are on the two metre and above sort of range.

And then there are our friends, the great white sharks. These are mean machines who don't even like human flesh, but since they have a nasty habit of nibbling before eating, they tend to maul people pretty badly. Those who survive, of course. The good news is Durban's coast is surrounded by shark nets, which get checked daily for damage. These seem pretty good at stopping the sharks, and there hasn't been any shark attacks for a very long time.

Durban's beach is walled by massive high-rise five star hotels, all in one very long road. The hotels are surrounded by many restaurants, most reasonably priced, with meals ranging between 50 to 80 rand. One place we particularly liked was "Bombay to Beirut", a very good Indian restaurant. Next door to the beach there is a long promenade, with many bars and some more restaurants. There are also a few water parks for the kids and a large swimming pool. The swimming pool is Olympic sized, and I had great fun in attempting to swim two lengths non-stop in it. Never quite managed, but I felt compelled to try again and again since entrance was only 4 rands (less than 30p!) rather than the 4 GBP we were used to paying to use our dodgy little pool in Bethnal Green.

In those first few days we started getting upset at South Africa again. Beneath the layer of development and easiness lie some difficult social problems, made all the more obvious because of the colour divide. Its annoying to see that all shop and restaurant owners are white but all waiters are black; and we were the only non-whites in most restaurants we went to, making us feel like we were under a spotlight. Occasionally there were some Asian couples, but we've seen very few black or mixed groups.

We chatted to some South Africans about this, and their views helped us understand that our expectations are somewhat unrealistic. After all, USA ended segregation in the seventies and there are still large integration problems there; South Africa only took the plunge thirteen years ago. The best way to look at it is to focus on the road travelled on those years, rather than the road ahead. And indeed they have managed to make huge amounts of progress. One just has to be patient.

But a couple of interesting episodes made us a bit wary of going to the wrong places in town.

The first one occurred on our way back from the Workshop. We were walking via town centre, a Saturday, no more than three o'clock. We suddenly spotted a bar with good music pumping. This was not your usual South African rock, but Kwaito, a jazzy, souly sort of indigenous music. We decided to go there for a drink. The place was called Bistro in the Park. As we got closer, I started thinking this was perhaps not a good idea. There weren't any non-blacks there (remember, I'm a coloured around here), there were lots of homeboys and a lot of them seemed drunk. But Shahin thought just having a quick one wouldn't hurt, so we went for it.

As we were about to get in we noticed that everyone was being searched - everyone but us, that is. The security guard seemed to hit and miss with the searches, and that's never a good thing. Then I noticed that there was a massive queue for the bar, with everyone shouting their orders in Zulu. Nice one. I fought my way for a good while, gesticulated a lot and eventually - half-an-hour later - managed to get the drinks in. Interestingly enough, the smallest beer you can get is a 800 cc bottle, perfect for bottling someone.

The music was great but the environment was pretty rough. On top of it all, there wasn't any space in the corners so we had to stay right in the middle of the "dance floor", yet again with the spotlight right on us. We survived the stares for quite a long time, but eventually, 600 cc into my beer, we got picked up by some drunken fool to dance and that was the hidden signal to hit the road.

Bistro in the Park is quite emblematic of the South African experience. You can either go to the more "white" places such as the restaurants in Florida Road (a nice area in the suburbs with lots of pubs and restaurants) or you can go to the more "black" places like Bistro. We feel awkward in either. I suppose eventually you get used to it, but its not nice to always be the ones standing out.

The second episode happened a few days later, on our way back from the botanic gardens. The gardens are located on the hills of Durban, some thirty minutes from Bananas. We got there using a regular bus as we were on the company of a South African couple, Jenny and Felix, two savvy guys from Jozi that knew well the do's and don'ts around here. Jenny is South-African Asian, and Felix is Congolese - one of the first mixed couples we've seen around here.

We went to the gardens by regular bus, and were pretty impressed with these: only 2 Rand and not very full. The gardens are nice, if somewhat small, with lots of colour and variety. Unfortunately we had to run back and leave Felix and Jenny behind because we were booked on a trip later on that day. As we were waiting at the bus stop, a candongueiro arrived. Here in South Africa these are called combi Taxis or African Taxis, and are much more upmarket than the Angolan counterparts, with loud music pumping and all sorts of boy racer implements on them such as neon lights.

A brief parenthesis here: the African in the African Taxis stems from the fact that black South Africans are commonly known as "Africans" whereas white South Africans are known as "South Africans". Go figure.

Anyway, back to the combi. After so many candongueiros in Angola, my brain was wired. Without even thinking I got into the combi and Shahin, short of starting a scandal, had no option but to follow me. Now, from whatever angle you look at it, this was a bad idea. First, you see very few non-blacks in combi's outside of Cape Town - let alone tourists.

Second, if against all advice you do decide to take a combi, you should always make sure it is full. One or two people in is not safe enough; they may just exit and then you're left with the driver and cobrador, who may have a weapon on them and decide to take you for a ride in the townships. Me, being the usual optimist, I only started making the maths when we were inside the combi. There were exactly two passengers (bad), both of them women (good).

To make things less obvious, me and Shahin didn't talk - but if looks could kill I would have been dead ten times before we got to town centre. The bummer was we did have to say where we were going to the cobrador. Not only were our accents a dead giveaway that we were foreigners, but I decided to do one better. For some random reason I have been calling the Workshop mall the Waterfall. Until now this was funny - just my usual terrible memory - but in the combi, man, that sure didn't help. Here I was trying to explain to the guy that we wanted to go to the Waterfall, Shahin ready to kill me, the cobrador puzzled, "Where do you want me to take you??".

Eventually we managed to explain we wanted to go to the mall. The trip was uneventful, other than the sheer fear we felt. Luckily the women left more or less around the same time as we did, since Shahin was ready to get out with them regardless of where their stop was.

All and all, it was a great demonstration of why we couldn't live in South Africa. To be perfectly honest, there probably aren't that many people that get kidnapped in combi's; but if you hear some of the stories around here, you'd be afraid of even walking the streets during daytime, let alone taking a combi.

On a more positive note, we did a Ricksha city bus tour and that was very good. This is one of those really touristic buses that take you all around town, with a guide telling you about the points of interest. We went past all the typical touristy places, as well as some other less touristy such as the Indian market, and we got a good view of the town. Durban is actually a really nice place, very diverse and cosmopolitan. For example, its home to some six hundred thousand Asians - collectively known as Indians in South Africa, although many of them are actually from Pakistan and other Asian nations.

The Five Day Excursion

After a good few days in Durban we started to get the travellers itch again. Life in the city was nice enough, but we exausthed all the easy things to do. There was some discussion on whether we should go on an organised twenty-one day trip to Victoria Falls, but twenty-one days on the road seemed like a lot of travelling in one go. After much debating we decided to go on a five day trip to get a feel for it, and then decide. The trip was composed of four smaller trips: the Zulu village on the valley of a thousand hills; Drakensberg, including Lesotho; the Hluhluwe Umfolozi safari park and finally, the St. Lucia wetlands.

The Valley of a Thousand Hills

The trip to the Zulu village started really early. We got taken there by minibus, as we would for all of the trips during the five days. The valley of a Thousand Hills is extremely beautiful, really green and scenic. Once in the village, a local community guard proceeded to show us around. After giving us an idea of life in the village, the guard took us to see a typical Zulu house. These are the roundavels you see in the pictures.

Roundavels are round for practical reasons: back in the days of wild animals, they allowed for a quick scan of the entire house for any danger before getting in. (Note also that traditional roundavels do not have walls inside). This is also why the men go into the roundavel first, always entering by the right hand side - Zulus always carried their shields on their left arm and their dagger in their right hand. Nowadays, people are moving to square houses, standard European fare, because all of the advantages of roundavels are not particularly useful these days; square (or rectangular) houses tend to utilise the space a lot better and are cheaper to build.

Another interesting peculiarity of roundavels is their thatched roof. These look rather nice. Unfortunately, you don't see many of these anymore. The main reason is they catch fire very easily and this was used in raids by rival villages. The authorities then tried to get people to use other materials, not so easily flammable such as zinc. This is rather unfortunate as zinc looks really ugly, mussueque like even, and it also makes the houses really hot when the sun is out, whereas thatched roofs are really good at keeping the houses cool.

Roundavels are specialised, that is, each one is a room in itself. The house we visited had the kitchen in a big roundavel and another small one for the bedrooms. Kitchens are extremely important for the Zulus - and I suspect for many other African ethnic groups - as it is believed the spirit of the ancestors resides here. So all the libations and ceremonies are done in the kitchen.

The other important aspect of a Zulu house is the kraal. The kraal is a fenced area where the animals are kept, and it is situated at the centre of the property to ensure the family can monitor the cattle from their houses. The kraal is also the area where animals are slaughtered for religious purposes and where Zulu children are marked on their faces to show which family they belong to. From a foreigner perspective this ceremony seems very cruel, as the children are very young and their faces are cut with razors to form permanent scars. However, this practice is still very widely accepted and respected within the Zulu culture.

The guide also spent some time explaining the political and social structures that run the village. Zululand is governed by the Zulu King. The King is assisted by the Chiefs, each of which head a village. Both kingship and chiefdom are attained only by hereditary means. Villages are huge, with their population in the thousands. The chief is then advised by a small number of headmen, called the indunas. These are the executive. Villagers go to the indunas to explain their problems, and these will then be reported back to the Chief.

The Chief actually owns all the land in the village, but he sublets it to the people by granting time leases. As an example, if a new family decides to settle into a village, they will request a plot of land. If granted, it will be big enough to build the required roundavels and kraal plus some extra space for subsistence farming. It will also have some space for further expansion, as it is common for Zulus to have their extended families in one plot.

The excursion was then finished by having a Zulu meal, which required eating with our hands, followed by traditional singing and dancing. They forced everyone to get involved in the dancing so we had no choice but make fools of ourselves, stamping our feet on the ground and jumping around like mad.

A final note on the moral issues raised by this type of tourism. On the positive side, this is sustainable tourism at its best: the village people are involved in it, and it creates jobs for them. The negative side, of course, is that the whole experience has to be somewhat demeaning to the locals. After all, these people have to open the doors of their houses to strangers and expose their culture as if it is something exotic and mysterious.

On the whole, though, I think the enterprise is a positive one. This is because there are very few ways in which the outside world can inject money into a community and ensure it is used productively. Donations very rarely find their way to people in need. This sort of tourism works differently, and you know you are funding people who are willing to put in the work. Of course, the bigger tourism companies will take in their cut; but if you look at it from a developing perspective, its always better to have some income than none. With time, people will begin to understand the true value of things, and will demand more from the tourist operators.

Drakensberg and Lesotho

After a second really early wake up call, we were driven to Underberg (Berg in Afrikaans means mountain). We then got into a 4x4 and were driven to the Sani pass. The Sani pass is a long and windy road that links kwaZulu-Natal to Lesotho. The road crosses the Drankensberg mountain range, which is Afrikaans for The Dragon Mountains.

The road is of the usual high standard until you reach the South African border, at which point it steadily degrades until there is no road at all. Interestingly, the border of Lesotho does not begin where South Africa ends; there is a huge stretch of land between them called no man's land. As the name implies, this land does not belong to either nation. In practice though, South Africa owns this bit of no man's land.

The entire journey is one steady climb, metre after metre, cautiously inching towards the top of the mountain. Its very arduous and the terrain is totally unforgiving, mostly small rocks and gravel, a few rivers to cross. One tiny mistake can be enough to send your vehicle down the sides, it seems. The views, however, are extremely beautiful: huge, domineering mountains, a lot of greenery and wild life.

Many, many bumps later we reached the top - 2873 metres above sea level - and crossed the Lesotho border. Happily, obtaining visas to Lesotho is rather easy, and it requires only your passport.

After the long climb, one is somewhat surprised to see a huge plateau. Whilst the plateau is green, its mainly bushes and grass as very few plants are able to grow at these sort of heights. Since farming is not an option, the Basotho people - as the inhabitants of Lesotho are known - are mainly shepherds. Those who stay behind, that is. Most men end up emigrating to South Africa, in search of work. Women stay and look after the children, who in turn look after the cattle. Lesotho is very poor, and HIV/AIDS is very prevalent: around 1 in every 3 inhabitants is infected with the virus.

The Sani pass is a cold place. In the height of summer, when Durban is boiling hot, we struggled to keep ourselves warm. The locals keep warm by wrapping themselves in hand-made blankets. Male Basotho also carry a walking stick with them, used for various purposes: fighting snakes along the way, help shepherding cattle, to aid climbing. These sticks are very personal and important objects, with a special design of beads that denotes the family from which that person originates. This can then be used to identify them, should they be found dead in the mountains.

We visited a traditional Basotho house and ate some of their excellent homemade bread. This was actually much better than any bread we found in South Africa, so perhaps Lesotho should consider exporting it. Can't quite say the same about the traditional beer though. It reminds me of the Norwegian homemade beer, only drinkable after five or six pints - the point at which anything is drinkable. The people were hospitable and made us feel right at home, but with the usual caveat that one always feels like an intruder.

A while later we had lunch at the local pub, the highest pub in Africa. It appears getting drunk at these sort of altitudes is cheaper, as one pint gets you drunk a lot quicker; I didn't actually put the theory to the test, so I guess we'll have to return for that.

Later on that day we were driven to our accommodation in the mountains. These were rather nice, all made of wood. After a quick change, we drove up to a waterfall next door. The water was really cold, but it felt refreshing as the weather was extremely hot. It was too cold for Shahin though, so she didn't partake in the swimming.

At night we had dinner sitting by the fire and gazing at the starts. Since there are very few sources of light, you can see quite a few stars out here. We had some interesting discussions with Brent, our tour guide, and the two Canadians Ron and Sharon, like the current state of Africa and where its headed.

In the morning we woke up early, yet again, this time for horse riding. Although we were extremely apprehensive about it, Brent somehow convinced us that it would be fun. It sure didn't seem like it when I was trying to mount my horse in the stable. Had to have quite a few goes until I got it right, but eventually I did and we were on our way. The first five minutes of the trek were actually the most challenging ones as it starts going up a really step hill, covered in rocks. Once you go past that though, its mainly flat land. The entire ride was really enjoyable, and the views were amazing.

After lunch we went on a three hour hike with a local guide to see the Bushmen paintings. Even though the terrain is at times quite hard to negotiate, the hike was still quite pleasant. The paintings are definitely worth seeing, more than thirty thousand years old. Regretfully, the local kids have damaged some of the paintings with crude graffiti. Our guide told us that the tourism authorities are trying hard to educate the kids, explaining the importance of the paintings.

The day ended with a long drive back to Bananas.

Hluhluwe Umfolozi Safari Park

We woke up early in the morning for a long drive to Hluhluwe Umfolozi, the oldest game reserve in South Africa. There we got to see many wild animals such as elephant, giraffe, buffalo, white rhino, baboons, impalas, zebras and many more. Its an interesting experience, chasing animals across a safari park and it certainly did an impression on me, but Shahin, she loved every minute of it. Every time an animal showed up she'd be the first one to spot it and shout, all animated.

At this point we also made our minds about not going on the twenty one day safari, mainly for three reasons: first, after so many early starts, I was completely knackered; second, we didn't really fit in with the crowd, lots of young partying people - not the worst, mind you, but imagine being stuck with a worst crowd for twenty-one days; thirdly, many of these trips are expensive but don't actually include that many activities - you still have to pay extra for these. So all and all, we decided this wasn't a very good idea.

We spent the night at Khumbalani, a lovely backpackers place run by Brent's parent's Kay and John.

The last day of our five day trip started even earlier than the previous days. By now I was totally exhausted, barely awake. Shahin though was totally energised by the thought of seeing more animals. She was wide awake in the early hours of the day, spotting all kinds of animals. I must confess I fell asleep a few times.

It has to be said, though, that the best time to come to a safari park is in the early hours of the day. We spotted lots and lots of animals up till nine o'clock. After this the weather becomes too hot for them and they decide to hide. It is amazing how these huge things can make themselves invisible. For instance, we saw an elephant moving into the trees and seconds later it was gone. This huge, immense thing just disappeared into the vegetation without a trace.

St. Lucia Wetlands

We came back to Khumbalani for lunch and some rest, but we soon moved on to the next destination: a river cruise on the St. Lucia estuary. The river is rather large and filled with wildlife. We spotted pods of hippos resting in the sun as well as many different types of birds. There were some crocodiles in the river too, although they were a lot harder to spot.

At night, the group was driven back to Durban. We decided to stay at Khumbalani lodge.


St. Lucia is a fairly popular tourist destination, particularly for South Africans who flock to its beaches and bars during high season. The Khumbalani lodge, however, is located in the town of Mtubatuba, half-an-hour away from the main tourist attractions, and so does not benefit much from this type of tourism. Most visitors that come here do so as part of one of Brent's packages; they see the sights during the day, come to the lodge late in the evening to eat and sleep and then get transported back to their place of origin. Funny thing is, a few of these overnight visitors end up returning to the lodge and staying for a while. We were one such visitors.

A good few months of travelling teach you to appreciate nice places. Little things make the difference: a nice clean kitchen, the friendliness of the staff. For instance, most backpackers advertise a swimming pool but we haven't seen a single pool clean enough to do any swimming. Items like these are merely symbolic, tick boxes for marketing propaganda used to fool inexperienced visitors.

Khumbalani was the exact opposite of all these places. We didn't even know it existed until we got there, but after spending a night, we knew we had found our home away from home. The selling point? Hard to pinpoint. After all, there's the nice clean swimming pool, the lovely green grass in the garden, the new pool table (two Rand a game, around 15p), cable TV with all channels including sports, the spotless kitchen, the power-shower. And you get all of this for 220 Rand a night for a double en-suite room (around 17 GBP).

In addition to all of this comfort, we also had the house for ourselves for most of the time. Very rarely did the place get busy, and when it did, most people end up spending all day out and come home only to sleep. But in general, there wasn't that many people coming in - so much so we started feeling rather possessive about the place, resenting any intrusions.

To top it all off, Khumbalani is managed by two really nice people, John and Kay. They really went out of their way to make sure we settled in alright. The end result of all of this was that our overnight stay ended up lasting eighteen days, and we really had to drag ourselves to leave the place. There are some negative aspects, of course, but they are relatively minor. Internet is expensive and slow (dial-up at fifty Rand an hour), and there isn't much around the place other than the shops at Mtubatuba. The place will not appeal to the young, rowdier crowd, looking for lots of beer, girls and techno. But for the weary traveller, it is excellent.

Khumbalani was, to sum it, just like being at home. We had good home made food for the first time since we left Angola. We even cooked a curry for everyone, which John and Kay seemed to like. We got to eat John's brais, both fish and meat, with the famous boerewars sausage.

Shahin made the most of our stay by going to the safari park five times. She managed to spot the elusive lions, an entire pride. These are really elusive animals, and camouflage so well in the grass they become invisible even to the trained eye. She was lucky enough to see a huge pride, a fact that got her excited for days on end. I was somewhat tired of animals and early starts, so I decided instead to watch football on telly, swim and play pool all day for a few days.

We did have quite a few outings and adventures in Mtubatuba, described below.

Kosi Bay

We did an overnight outing to Kosi bay which was absolutely excellent. We went with a local guy called Peter and his English wife Laura, really nice people. Kosi bay is extremely beautiful, located in a pristine natural reserve. During the night, Peter and a community guide took us to see turtle eggs hatching. Its interesting to see these little hatchlings breaking from their eggs and start their dash to the sea.

Shahin was really excited with the turtles and ended up staying with the other guys till late, spotting lots of nests and helping the turtles to reach the sea. She saw dozens of them coming out of their nests. These young turtles are not particularly clever. Since they are not used to light, they believe that any source of light is the sea (which makes sense in the dark, the white foam of the sea is really clear at night).

Unfortunately, our torches are a much more powerful source of light. Shahin reported excitedly that dozens of turtles started following her torch, all swinging to the left, and then all swinging to the right as she moved. She ended up having to go all the way into the sea (literally) to guide the crazy critters, just to make sure they didn't get lost.

She also saved a few from their mortal enemies, the ghost crabs, which lie in wait for the turtles. Less heroically, she managed to step on a turtle by mistake. The young dude was stunned but otherwise unaffected, and managed to complete his journey to the sea successfully.

In the morning we did some excellent snorkeling. This was the first time I used flippers, and they are rather uncomfortable. Once you do get used to them though, they actually do improve the entire experience, making swimming against the current a much more achievable feat.

We went quite far, and the waves were pretty big - the biggest Peter recalled in a long while - but the effort was paid in full. The reef is teething with fish of all colours and sizes. Shahin didn't want to face the huge waves, so she didn't get to snorkel out there with us. The great thing about Kozi though is that there are many little rock pools with lots of fish, allowing the less experienced swimmers to enjoy some great snorkeling too, so Shahin still managed to see quite a lot of fish.

The Car Diaries

Whilst Khumbalani is a nice place, mobility is definitely an issue. St. Lucia has both the beach and the restaurants, but you can only get there by car as there is no public transport. The lodge does offer a free shuttle to the town and back, but its always a pain to have to wait around for someone to pick you up. In addition, there are many places in the surrounding areas that require a car to get to.

Shahin decided that the solution to all of these problems was renting a car. Somehow she convinced me that this was a good idea. Now, if you recall, we passed our driving test recently, and we haven't really driven anywhere else other than Southampton - and even then, only with our mate Nantha or on our driving lessons. So this was going to be our first real driving experience, just the two of us in the car. Fortunately the South Africans drive on the same side of the road as the English, but that's probably where the familiarities end.

Renting a car was easy enough. After some investigation, Kay found us a place that rented cars for around 230 Rand a day. Because they didn't have their cheapest model available, they upgraded us to a brand-spanking new Nissan Tiida with A/C, central locking, the works. So the next challenge was to actually drive the thing.

Up to this point, Shahin was the driving force (if you pardon me the pun). But when the vehicle was delivered to our house, she finally realised that we had to actually drive. Panic set in. After all, this was going to be the first time we would be alone driving, no one else there to help. Shahin tried the best she could to get out of it but I held fast and forced her to share all the driving.

We decided to start by going around the block a couple of times, taking turns. It went fairly well, other than the neighbours staring at us. Luckily many driving instructors take their students to our block, so we managed to blend in rather well. After a few goes we managed to get confident enough to drive to the local town of Mtubatuba. Once we negotiated that successfully, we decided to go to the beach in St. Lucia.

Some minor mishaps later - like my stalling in a motorway junction - we got the hang of it. We then decided to go to the safari park. This turned out to be the most adventurous of all the trips. The first few hours went by uneventfully. Then Shahin decided we should go off-road, since we didn't manage to spot any animals on the main road.

A little explanation is required: the safari park has many roads, all in very good condition. It also has some dirt roads, allowing access to more inaccessible parts of the park. We had been on some of these before on a big 4x4 vehicle and thought they weren't that bad, really. So when Shahin suggested going on to the dirt roads, I wasn't too worried. Not ideal, but not that dangerous either. What we weren't aware off is that there are dirt roads and there are dirt roads. Some are worse than others. Of course, the park rangers know this and probably stick to the easier ones, but we didn't so we just made things up as we went along.

One of these roads proved to be quite tricky, a near vertical drop in gravel that caught me by surprise. This slope was followed by a narrow bridge in a river bed. In the commotion and the rush of navigating the rocks downhill I forgot about the bridge and it appears we almost missed it, as the navigator tells the story. I thought the situation was perfectly under control, but apparently we were really close to falling into the river bed because the bridge was wet with river water, making it a really slippery surface. We could have easily skidded overboard. Fortunately, the car stayed the course and we got to the other side safe and sound.

Just as we recovered from that little mishap, we found another bridge further down the dirt track. As I was inspecting the difficulties offered by this terrain - the Mikka Hakkinen in me - I noticed lots of shards of glass on the floor. A metre or two up, blood. Man, I started panicking. I just pointed to Shahin and mumbled something, probably like "danger, lets get the hell out of here!!", locked the doors, wound up the windows, sped across the bridge and over the hill at high speed.

I was actually thinking about hijackings and killings, or lions and tigers getting us. But Shahin eventually came up with more sensible explanations like a car crash or a random harmless animal hitting the car. I preferred to listen to my ghetto sense: hit the road first and ask questions latter, preferably many kilometres away from the scene of the crime.

In total we had the car for five days, and, all and all, it was great fun. We really started to appreciate the convenience of having a car, even though Shahin is still petrified of driving and will sell her soul just to get out of it. After such successful missions we started to get a bit cocky and even thought about driving all the way from St. Lucia to Durban or even to Port Elizabeth, several days away. Eventually common sense prevailed and we decided getting a bus would be safer and cheaper.

These five mobile days, the first in our driving careers, were quite remarkable.

Deep Sea Fishing

After a few days in the house, waiting for Shahin to return from her safari park adventures, I decided I needed to do something a bit more exciting than watching Manchester United fluke wins in the last few minutes. John had mentioned deep sea fishing and that seemed quite interesting, reminiscent of the pleasant Mussulo experiences.

Very early in the morning, Kay dropped me off in St. Lucia, at the door step of the boat people. These were a couple of Afrikaner brothers, together with an Afrikaner customer. The day didn't start too well: only four of us, and the three of them speaking in Afrikaans, a language I didn't have the slightest inkling about. But onwards, into the breach.

The first half-hour of hour trip was spent negotiating the sets of waves and without a doubt was the best part. We had to sit down on the floor of the boat and wear life-jackets. The waves were particularly rough, some more than three metres. The boat just went up in the air after crossing a wave, a few seconds elapsing before hitting the water again with a loud bang. I really enjoyed crossing the swell, it was extremely challenging but exciting at the same time.

Once this was done we spent an hour or so looking for a reef, doing some fishing as we went along. Because the waves were really high, the boat kept on bobbing up and down all the while. I thought nothing much, being quite used to the sea. However, everything changed when we actually got to the reef. The captain stopped the engine, positioned the boat and got us ready to start fishing.

Fishing consists of getting some bait onto the hooks, holding on to a really (and I mean really) heavy fishing rod, throwing the hook overboard with a weight and waiting until it hits the ground. After a while fish start to bite, at which point one has to reel it in as quickly as possible to get them stuck to the hook. This is all very straightforward enough, if somewhat intense in the physical department.

Problem is, the three metre waves make the boat bob up and down a lot. For the first time in my life I actually started feeling sea sick, and ended up having to stop fishing to recover. I did manage to catch a few fish before stopping. I managed to recover by staring at the horizon for an hour or so, and fortunately it never got so bad as to require vomiting or anything of the kind, but for the first time I understood what people go through. My sympathies go out to people who get sea sick, with a big shout out to my mate Lay - man, its nasty! Sorry I made so much fun of you.

After recovering I decided to stop fishing and just sit back and enjoy the scenery. It is actually quite remarkable, particularly with the huge waves, swallowing the boat and spitting it out again. And to make things more interesting, a dolphin appeared out of nowhere to join us. It swam by the boat for a long while, keeping us company, and they parted ways, shooting towards the coast.

I also got to talk to both brothers a bit, and ended up liking them quite a lot. Men of the sea, quiet and reserved at first but easy going and friendly once they get to know a person. It ended up being a really nice day. I got to take some of my fish back home, and John taught me how to gut it and prepare it. Suffice to say that gutting fish is not very nice and it should be avoided at all costs. John then made a lovely braai with the fish, which we all ate.

Other Outings

Whilst at Khumbalani, we did three other outings. The first one was to the local Emdonini Cheetah rehabilitation centre. This is a place dedicated to taking care of cats and prepare them to be reintroduced back into the wild. As the name indicates, they started off with Cheetahs but these days there are a few other types of cats: Servals, African Wildcats and the Lynx.

The braver animal lovers can go into the cat's cages when the guard is feeding them - except African Wildcat's cage, since these guys are really mean. They look just like normal house cats but are really mean and vicious. To be honest, the Lynx looked even meaner. Lynx are pretty nasty cats because when they kill, they use the old army maxim of "leave no one standing". A farmer that is unlucky enough to have his or her sheep attacked by a Lynx will probably loose a whole flock in one night, since they kill everything in sight. This is why they are one of the few cats that are officially considered a pest (vermin), and can legally be killed.

Shahin was much braver than me and went in all the cages, getting to see all the cats up close. The thought of being behind a fence with the planet's fastest animal made me cringe, so I watched Cheetahs from the outside. There were some interesting moments inside the cages as both Lynx and Cheetah got upset when the meat was finished and decided to get mean. The Cheetah was worse as it even guarded the door, stopping people from leaving. The only way to get it to move was to throw the meat bucket far away to distract it and run as fast as possible through the gate. I was pleased I was on the other side of the fence.

The second outing was to Cape Vidal. We got there after a long drive, but it certainly was worth the effort because the snorkeling was excellent. We were told to go there in low tide, and its easy to understand why: the sea is furious, big, massive waves that look extremely dangerous. But when the tide is out, there's a reef that shields the beach from the waves and creates really nice rock pools with lots of fish.

We both did lots of snorkeling, although Shahin was always a bit wary, fearful of waves crossing the reef. These are rather dangerous, and one got me just as I was climbing some rocks, and resulted in quite a few scratches and cuts. We spent the entire day there, snorkeling and soaking the hot sun.

The third trip we did was to False Bay, also a pretty long drive from Mtubatuba. This is a nature reserve near one of St. Lucia's lakes. You can do all sorts of walks and hikes in the forest, as well as just bum around near the lake. Whilst it is a really pretty place, its not quite on the same level as Kozi Bay or Cape Vidal.

Back to Durban

After almost twenty days in Khumbalani, it was time to move on. We were really getting used to the lodge and to Kay and John, so leaving felt as if the holidays were nearing an end. We feared dodgy backpacker's and sleepless nights. As it turned out, our fears were well placed.

When we got back to Durban, we decided to avoid Bananas due to the bed bugs episode, and went to Hippo Hide instead. Unfortunately, they too had bed bugs, and these were much worse than Bananas. Shahin didn't manage to get much sleep over the next few days. We did get them to change the bedding, and that helped somewhat.

We ended up spending a couple of days in Durban, and we had just enough time to go to the beach, go out with Brent and his wife Debbie, and to go to Roma Revolving Restaurant. The latter was particularly interesting as we had never been to a revolving restaurant before. Basically, the restaurant sits on top a very high building (32nd floor to be precise) and part of the restaurant rotates. Wait, don't panic yet. Its not a Ferris Wheel. It moves r e a l l y s l o w l y. Shahin did manage to get a bit dizzy and all, but it really wasn't that bad. And the views were amazing. You can see the whole of Durban from up there.

Unexpectedly, the prices were very much in line with all other restaurants we've been to, but the food and service were excellent. If you do decide to go there, and you must if are in Durban, make sure you book well in advance. We didn't, and we almost didn't get a table. But just as luck would have it, we met the owner just as we were about to get the lift, and he asked us if we were looking for a table. He then proceeded to find us one. This is another peculiarity of the place: the owner takes all the orders in person. He is the typical Italian male, straight out of Godfather (even the accent is the same!), a really funny and humorous sort of guy. We had a great night there.

When time came to leave Durban, we decided to fly. Brent suggested looking into the new cheap airlines such as Kalula and Mango, and these are actually really competitive. We got tickets to Cape Town for 800 Rand, but we since heard that there are tickets from as little as 200 Rand.

With the tickets in our hands, we were ready to go to Cape Town, the coloured capital of the world.

1 comment:

Yzerfontein said...

Great blog. I read a lot of them and you're is particularly well written. OR Tambo International Airport, with all its faults, is better than most in Africa. My favourite South African Airport though, is Kruger Mpumalanga in Nelspruit - it's pretty.