January 8, 2017
Sunday Morning ~~ Blantyre
Our South African Adventure
It feels so lame to write about our fabulous trip when I feel like our country is on the brink of disaster. It was such a mental relief to focus on navigating strange roads, avoiding collisions with cows, finding accommodation in the pitch dark, and getting robbed or car-jacked. Now that we’re back, the looming disaster we’re heading for is harder to ignore or deny. But let me take you away for awhile to the land of the weary traveler. Adventure abounded and I want to escape again, at least for the time it takes me to write about it. I guess the best way to go about it is to start from the beginning.
We started the three week adventure with me being pissed off. What else is new? What is it about leaving to go away for vacation that brings out the worst in men? Ok, just my experience, hate to generalize here, but the balance of getting the house ready to go was tipped heavily in my favor. And this has been my prior experience as well, so let’s just say I saw a familiar pattern. George got terribly “sick” the day before departure (after having gotten though his work day) and took to bed until it was time to leave the next morning. He managed to get up to pack his bag and had a miraculous recovery by the time the taxi came to take us to the airport. I, with the milk of human kindness flowing through my veins, cleaned out the refrigerator, closed and locked all the windows, paid Catherine and gave her some Christmas gifts for her kids, showed her the tomatoes I’d planted and made sure they got watered, arranged all the information for all our reservations and made sure we had the necessary maps and documents. I’d sarcastically asked a few times if he needed anything as he lay meekly recovering from his sickness; I was finding it hard to drum up sympathy. He’d vomited once and then was “fine” but needed to stay in bed until we left. By the time we walked to the waiting taxi, my teeth were almost cracked from gritting them. George was confused when I wouldn’t let him carry my duffel bag out to the car. Catherine saw me yank it away from him and said something in Chichewa I didn’t understand. I let her carry the bag then rolled my eyes and said, “Wakazi, nchito nchito nchito, wamuna, gonani gonani gonani.” (Women, work work work, men lie down lie down lie down) Well, she and the other female guard from across the street collapsed into fits of laughter. They had to hold each other up. They both fell on me laughing. It was almost worth being angry. I was happy I could brighten their day. George had no idea what I said or what that was all about and didn’t ask. I’m willing to bet this part of the story won’t be in his blog.
It’s a two hour flight from Blantyre to Johannesburg and it was so easy. We flew Ethiopian airlines which supposedly has a terrible safety record, but it couldn’t have been smoother. It was simple getting through security and my full tube of toothpaste never even set off an alarm. Things were looking up. The flight was on time, which I was relieved about because we had a five hour drive once we arrived in J’berg and I wanted to reach our destination before dark. I had to get comfortable driving on the left with the stick shift also on the left, and I knew J’berg was a big city and thought finding our way out of there might take some time. We were speaking again by the time we landed and agreed I would go get the car and George would get some cash and SIM cards for our phones. He was then going to meet me at the car rental where we would hop in and be on our way to adventure!
I got in line at the car rental and had to wait forever. It was high season and summer school break and the place was packed. It was over an hour in line and I kept looking around for George, thinking he should have been there by then. When I finally got up to the desk, it took another half hour of paperwork to get the car keys and be ready to set off and he STILL wasn’t there. I knew something had happened. I started worrying he’d collapsed in a men’s room somewhere, tried to recall the last words I said to him and hoped they weren’t mean, thought, Oh God, maybe he really WAS sick! I had no idea how to go about finding him! It’s a big airport, not like Blantyre, and it has a famous reputation of being thick with thieves. I had no idea where to start. I was afraid to leave the car rental place in case he showed up and left again when I wasn’t there. There were two guards at the entrance so I described George to them and told them if he shows up to tell him to wait there, I was going to look around the last place I saw him. I thought I’d check the closest bank, men’s room, and phone store, then go back and see if he’d appeared. I lugged my bag all around looking for him and when I checked out all those places and came up with nothing I walked back to the car rental where he was standing next to the guards. Relieved that he was upright and did not appear injured, I ran over to him and said, “What happened?!!!” He didn’t answer right away and I asked, “Did you get robbed?” All he said was , “Yup. Let’s go.” I asked, “Debit card?”
“What?? How did that happen??”
“I’ll tell you in the car. Let’s go.”
So all I could think of was the stories I’d heard about women who met men on line and went on some romantic vacation with them and the man suddenly realizes he left his credit card at home so she pays for everything with the promise that he’ll pay her back and he of course goes home to his wife and family and she never sees him again and is out thousands of dollars. I’ve heard that more than once. I’ve got a few trust issues. It took a minute to sort out reality.
Well, it turns out it was only his debit card not his credit card. Phew. It all happened when he was having trouble figuring out the ATM, and a kind gentleman offered to help him and took his card and “entered it” while George typed in his PIN (he swore the guy couldn’t have seen what it was; he was covering it with his hand) and by the time he realized the transaction wasn’t working, the guy was gone with his card. By the time George got into the bank to call his own bank to cancel the card, which took 15 minutes, the guy had gotten $425. Very clever. We sat in the parking garage while I heard this story, and we decided, ok, could have been a lot worse, everyone is ok, expensive lesson, we’ve still got our other cards and will be fine, yaddi yaddi yaddi, let’s just get on the road out of here. I pulled the little blue Chevy Spark out of spot E9 and headed for the exit.
Growing up near Boston and driving there has made every other city in the world seem easy to navigate. Roads are actually planned! It was so slick and easy getting out. We literally left the parking garage at the airport and were on the road we needed to be on. I mean, I drove out the ramp and merged onto the R24 which then took us to the N3 which took us to the turn-off to Drakensberg four hours later. I couldn’t believe it! So simple. Our cares were melting away. The sun was shining, the temperature perfect, the traffic moderate but not terrible and George’s only complaint was that I was too far to the left and creeping up too close to the car I wanted to pass. That was a little due to the fact that it was true, and a little due to the fact he felt frustrated he couldn’t drive. In South Africa the rental cars are twice as expensive if the driver is over 75. Hehehe. Luckily, I love to drive. So does George. He was having a bad day. I thought it was karma for not helping before we left. (We clearly still had some issues to resolve.)
The N3 is the major route between Johannesburg and Durban and it is a beautiful road; a divided highway, smooth and nicely paved, the likes of which do not exist in Malawi. It was a pleasure to drive on. We had a reservation for a cabin in the Drakensburg National Park and they had sent us detailed directions how to get there. We needed to get some supplies (food and wine) so stopped in a town called Estcourt where we were to take the small road into the park. The roads around there weren’t great and it was a crowded town with a ton of traffic and the driving got a lot more difficult. On the highway, driving on the other side of the road is barely noticeable, it’s just that you pass on the right instead of left. No big deal. In a town with a traffic light every block and cars turning everywhere it was more difficult and stressful. We stopped for gas. In South Africa every station is full serve, and I mean service. They fill your tank, wash every window, and ask to check the oil and water; it was straight out of the 60’s. AND they give directions! They actually know directions, so you can ask the nice person filling your tank where to find the road you’re looking for, and then they tell you. There’s no look that says, “How should I know? Don’t you have a GPS?” Just an honest and sure explanation of how to find the route, which store is the best to shop at, and where to find further help if needed. So quaint. So humane. It was a pleasure to stop for gas the entire trip. And they took credit cards! Nice. When we found the recommended Pick N Pay we were a little afraid to get out of the car. We agreed that one of us would stay with the car and that would be me in case I needed to make a getaway. The debit card incident was only five hours earlier and we were still a little jumpy. And we’d been told not to leave anything visible in the car and the trunk in this thing was small and there was no place to hide our stuff. George ran in to get some food and wine and came back to find me talking to some guy who wouldn’t leave the car. He wasn’t sinister, but again, it was hard to figure out friend or foe and I was trying to be polite in a guarded sort of way. It wasn’t an isolated area so I didn’t feel unsafe particularly, but still, we were strangers and hadn’t gotten our sea legs under us yet. By the time we got that done and found the right road to the park it was later than we’d hoped and it was going to be hard to get there before dark. We didn’t make it. The road was narrow, splattered with potholes large enough to swallow the car and littered with minibuses. It took us through several villages where we could see that not everyone was prospering in this country and then turned to dirt as we got into the mountains. If we had been familiar with the road we might have enjoyed the scenery and sunset a little more. The mountains became more and more spectacular but in that situation, seemed a bit foreboding and dark. The potholes were getting harder to see and there were more and more livestock on the road to circumnavigate. It was pitch dark by the time we reached the entrance gate to the park, and it was still another seven kilometers on a mountain road to reach the resort. I was so happy to get there. Really, I about fell to my knees and kissed the ground on our walk up the hill to our cabin.
The word “resort” conjures up a luxury image for me, but though this was called the Giant’s Castle Resort, it was a simple place with very comfortable eco friendly facilities. The chalets are tucked into the hillside with thatched roofs that can barely be seen from the surrounding hills. They all have decks and glass walls surrounding the beds so the view from the bed is magnificent. We didn’t see this until the following morning when we both opened our eyes and said simultaneously, OH MY GOD!
The Ukhalamba Drakensberg is a World heritage site because of it’s biodiversity and the rock art of the San people. It has the highest mountains in the southern half of the continent (Mt Mulanje is the next highest here in Malawi). The Giant’s Castle area was established in 1904 to protect the Eland. We thought with that claim to fame we might see one, but we didn’t. The park is full of hiking trails and you could probably spend the rest of your life trying to do them all. We had four days and picked out a few that were manageable to do as day trips. In our chalet we found a pamphlet titled “Take Care In The Mountains” that scared the bejesus out of us. Not only were there warnings about changing weather and people getting lost for days, but there was a whole section on what to do if you are accosted by bandits from Lesotho, which was scarier than the section on the three types of poisonous snakes. There was such practical advice as: After dark move without lights to a new spot. Do not resist with force as you are at a definite disadvantage. Tie a whistle to a buttonhole in your jacket. If you see a fire approaching, light the grass at a 90 degree angle to the wind direction and stand in the burnt area. And other helpful hints I won’t bore you with. I read this and wondered if I ever could figure out a 90 degree angle to the wind direction even if I weren’t panicked by an approaching fire. Did we even have matches?
We decided to do a short hike the first day to the San rock art paintings, which at 5,000 years of age were in darn good condition. The guide there seemed a bit bored by it all and his Zulu accent was hard to understand but it was a phenomenal sight. From there we set out to walk across a short ridge when thunder and lightening started and we high-tailed it back to the chalet. The hiking trails are on open grassy hills dotted with wildflowers and orchids surrounded by the high table-top peaks. It is so gorgeous. It’s also very exposed, so when the storm threatened we decided not to get killed by lightening on our first day. I took a nap. George read. Later in the afternoon we did a 5K walk that looped around another peak under dark clouds with high winds but still gorgeous, then returned to the chalet, showered, and walked around the baboons down to the restaurant for dinner.
The next day we did a twenty-one kilometer hike to Langalibalele Pass (which we still can’t pronounce) to the Lesotho border. It was certainly not crowded, in fact, we were the only ones on the trail until we were about to descend when we looked across the pass to see two men with dogs (which are not allowed in the park) coming over the peak. It was a little unsettling since we had read all that about bandits and we practically ran down to where we couldn’t see them anymore and were sure they weren’t coming after us. My legs were shaky by then and I was getting nervous I’d twist my ankle so we slowed down, brought our heart rates back to normal, had some tea, took in the scenery, and enjoyed the remainder of the hike. It was a long day and a more grueling hike than we anticipated and my legs were tired the next day when we drove up to Royal Natal Park to hike to Teluga Falls which drop 850 meters, the second tallest waterfall in the world. (We got into superlatives on this trip.) That hike was very different, up rocky passes and forests but equally magnificent, maybe even more so. It was more rugged and we needed to haul ourselves up through gorges that had wires bolted on to the rocks for hoisting yourself. It had a Tarzan feel to it. Really cool. And we were able to see the falls which is not a guarantee since they are often in the clouds. We were perched on a rock across a valley from them and sat and congratulated ourselves. This place was much more crowded and we passed many people who didn’t get to see the falls at all. The clouds were coming and going and we were just lucky. On the way down I smashed my foot on a rock, and since I was wearing my Vibrams my toes did not have the protection they needed and I broke my baby toe on my right foot. We were only about halfway down, so the rest of the descent took a lot longer than it should have. It’s now three weeks later and it still hurts. I couldn’t get my hiking boots on the rest of the trip. So that put a little damper on our last day there. We had planned to do a little hike on Monday before we set off to drive to Durban, but there was no way I could do that with a foot I could barely stand on, so we had breakfast and hit the road for Durban.
We decided to take a smaller road than the highway and happened upon the capture site of Nelson Mandela where there is a fantastic sculpture of him and a small museum. We pulled in there and spent a few hours learning more about the history of apartheid and his life. This spot on this country road was where he was captured by police in 1962 when the car he was driving (posing as a chauffeur) was pulled over. That was the arrest that started the process that ended in the Livonia Treason Trial and the beginning of his 27 years in prison. Both sobered and inspired we continued to Durban.
Several South Africans asked us why we bothered to go to Durban, that there wasn’t much there to see. I had read that Ghandi’s house was there and thought we could visit it, but no one we asked knew anything about it once we arrived. So it’s apparently somewhere in Durban but not a big tourist attraction. We had booked a little guest house which we had no idea how to find. We called the place to get directions, but apparently the people who work there have never left their neighborhood and could not even begin to figure out how to tell us how to find them. They seemed to consider us pathetic for not having a GPS. We were starting to agree. We parked the car in a downtown parking garage to walk around and get our bearings not wanting to leave the car on the street. I spent the better part of the afternoon congratulating myself for getting the car into that garage. We went into a five star hotel thinking we could ask the concierge for directions to our guesthouse but when I showed her the map and asked how to get to Durban North she replied she had no idea as she’d never been there. It is two miles away. She left to find someone who might know and never came back. After walking around the city for awhile and taking in the urban scene after the wilderness we’d just left, we decided to take the road toward Durban North and see if we could find the place by driving around or find someone to ask. As I was driving down the main road I saw a sign with the road we were looking for, turned in, and a guard sitting outside a driveway knew exactly where the place was. So simple. So lucky.
Our main reason for visiting Durban besides Ghandi’s unvisitable house was to buy some camping equipment. The cost of a tent and two sleeping bags was equal to two nights lodging and we wanted it for Malawi anyway, so we found the South African equivalent of REI and got ourselves a nice tent, two sleeping bags, and two air mattresses all in plenty of time to have the rest of the day to explore the city. I liked it there! We walked the entire waterfront, beach after beach with no one swimming because of the undertow and sharks. There were little sections that were roped off that had approximately a thousand people crowded together frolicking in the waves with lifeguards on surfboards lined up like mounties along side them. There was some great sand art, a bustling Indian Market where we were accosted/ harassed for as long as we could take it and then decided we’d bought enough spices and could do without the rest and went and had some great Indian food for lunch. After that we took a tour of the largest mosque in the southern hemisphere (superlatives) and some more spice browsing (we like spices), then a long hobble back to the car on my swollen foot. It was enough of the city.
The next day we drove to Port St. John on the Wild Coast heading toward Cape Town. It was gorgeous and we had a little campsite on a bluff overlooking the Indian Ocean that was part of a backpackers lodge. This was a funky place with dorm rooms, a communal kitchen, and a great outside restaurant and bar that are reminiscent of the 60’s all up on this bluff overlooking the ocean. The campsites are higher on the hill, up a steep flight of rotting stairs. We had no problem going up and down, even with my sore foot, but the very drunk people from the bar were having trouble. After lunch we went to the Nature Reserve and walked the trails along the oceanside cliffs. Stunning. That night I was sure we’d get no sleep with all the drinking going on, but they must have passed out or died or something because everyone in the tents were very quiet. The resident donkey ambled around while we were waiting for breakfast. I felt something next to me as I was writing in my journal, turned and the donkey had it’s head an inch from my shoulder. I jumped a mile. No one in the restaurant turned a hair. One of the cleaning ladies halfheartedly shooed him away so we could eat.
We left there after breakfast and drove to Mthatha where Mandela was born and the Nelson Mandela Museum is located. We spent the rest of the morning there, a moving and well-done tribute to that remarkable man, then traveled further down the coast which was beautiful scenery but rather stressful driving with people passing on the narrow roads with two way traffic. I was glad when we pulled in to our accommodations in Grahamstown for the night. That is where the university is and it is a lovely setting, but George was creeped out by the place we stayed and didn’t want to hang around longer than necessary. I was just so glad to be off the road I thought it was fine. It was way up on a hill overlooking the city, very pretty, but pretty much abandoned and looked like an unused retreat center or something. I found it on bookings.com so figured it had to be legitimate, and it was just to sleep. It was fine (I thought). I slept great. There was no offer of breakfast, so we left early, like around six, and drove to Jefferys Bay which became famous for the most perfect waves for surfing. In our little backpackers book it says:
“Jefferys Bay wasn’t much more than a couple of comfy rocks that made great sunset perches. Then in the 1960s, some blabber mouth discovered waves. Bloody good waves. Which got all sorts of sexy names. And that’s how the sleepy town transformed from a dope smokers’ surf paradise to a throbbing holiday destination where everyone lived happily ever after.”
So we thought we’d check it out, famous as it was, and have breakfast there. It certainly isn’t sleepy anymore; they were right about that. It’s an oceanfront resort town with amusement parks on the beach and an awesome waterslide and a ton of traffic. It was not hard to find a restaurant that served breakfast outside on the sidewalk and it was a perfect little stop on our way south. We continued on to a place called Plettenberg Bay where we heard there was a beautiful Nature preserve with walking trails which was only an hour from our destination for the night. We found it and boy oh boy, beautiful it was. The trails take you around a pristine peninsula where there is a seal colony, perfect sand beaches, rocky cliffs, and terrifying (for me) undertows. It’s not really a walk, it’s a hike on rocky trails and since I still couldn’t get a shoe on my foot, I did it in sandals while being super carful not to bang my toe, so I didn’t enjoy the hike as much as George did, but it was really gorgeous. Hot. Baking sun, and hot, but gorgeous. We left there around four in the afternoon and headed for our oceanside room in Knysna.
Since I was doing the driving, George was navigator. That makes sense, right? And he had the phone with time on it, so called the guesthouse for directions as I navigated the traffic through these seaside towns. I hear him saying, “Ok, alright, yup, was that a right? Did you say left? The name of the road was what?” But he wasn’t writing any of it down. I’m thinking there is no way he is going to remember that, but he hangs up and says we’ll call again if we need to and I’m thinking just what everyone loves, another call from someone who didn’t write down the bloody directions in the first place! So I start ragging on him and he gets defensive and we disagree on whether this is a bridge we’re on or not… it looks like a bridge! There’s water on both sides! It’s not a bridge! She said bridge! Then we go over a real bridge and I have to admit I was wrong, that was a causeway, not a bridge, and he tells me it’s the next left after the bridge!…get over in the left lane! It’s coming up! When I see the sign for the road we want pointing right, at which point he says, “Oh, maybe she said right not left.” And I’m thinking any judge would pardon me for whatever I did in this circumstance. (And again, he’s writing his own blog so he can tell this story from his side.) So I drive until it’s safe to turn around, which we also disagreed on, but finally did, took the correct turn, took another wrong road, turned around, got on the right road, drove up a mountain (not what I was expecting) and came to the guesthouse on a bluff hanging out over the water. Beautiful. But if he thought the place in Grahamstown was odd, this place had that beat. I could see a murder mystery perfectly set in this place. Fortunately, by the time we got into the room we were laughing again and murder wasn’t something I was thinking about (anymore). But the decor in this place was really creepy. Fufu city. Big ruffles everywhere and knick knacks all over the place. It looked like it should be in Buffalo, New York, not on a bluff on the Indian Ocean. We had tea on the balcony, we resolved the navigating incident, we got back in the car to drive down to the shore and walk along the beach until the rain started, then went and had dinner in a local restaurant. It was all good. We were friends again.
Next day was Christmas eve and the day were would arrive in Cape Town. The drive from Knysna was beautiful if not a little hairy through the mountain passes that took us down to the Cape flats. That part of Cape Town was not the pretty part; there were power lines and shacks cheek by jowl and traffic and stoplights up the wazoo. Coming in this way I had a hard time figuring out why everyone raves about that city. When we found George’s niece’s house in a suburb of Cape Town via her very good WRITTEN DOWN directions, I was glad to leave the car there and walk to Christmas eve mass.
The actual city of Cape Town is located on the water where the Atlantic and Indian Oceans meet. It’s a magical setting and I understood instantly why some people go there and never want to leave. It has everything a major city offers amidst a huge National Park. There is a botanical garden that you could spend your entire life in with trails radiating from there up Table Mountain, the mountain range actually that dominates the Cape Town area. After spending a nice Christmas morning with family, we walked with Deirdre, George’s niece, around the gardens and a short way up the mountain. Hundreds of people and families were picnicking around the gardens which covers about ninety acres. We learned a lot about the plants that originate in South Africa (Geraniums! Iris!) and had the most pleasant afternoon, wandering, story telling, mulling over future plans, and just being grateful. Couldn’t have been nicer. We went home to one of the best hams I’ve ever eaten and an evening of playing Russian Bank with Nan, George’s sister who has moved from Pittsburg to live with her daughter there. Very sweet.
The next day George and I took the day to explore the Cape Peninsula and drove along the coast on the eastern side, on a road carved into the mountain range that was reminiscent of a drive I took in Maui, and I had the same question….how on earth did they build this?? It’s amazing that just moments drive out of a major city you can be on a road like that. We went to Simon’s Town across the peninsula to the Indian Ocean where there is a colony of penguins. It was mobbed there, a big tourist attraction, and we had to park a couple of miles away and walk back, but it was not like a hardship or anything–––a beautiful walk along the Indian Ocean to see the African penguins only found from southern Namibia around the coast of South Africa. The babies were starting to molt so it was a great time to see them and the place is set up with boardwalks so their habitat isn’t disturbed. From there we drove down to the Cape of Good Hope where there were so many people we were in the line of cars, nose to tail, for an hour and a half just to get into the park. I was afraid I’d burn out the clutch trying to keep from hitting the car behind me. A good hour and fifteen minutes of that wait was on a hill. A steep hill.
The Cape of Good Hope has always had a romantic appeal to me. I’ve wanted to visit there since I was a child and learned about the Magellan voyage in grade school. It seemed the epitome of adventure and for some reason I thought of it as a remote barren place. Clearly, I’m not the only one who has wanted to see it. It is a monstrous tourist attraction, but again, they’ve done it well, and though you have to walk in a line to get from the parking lot to the trail (after you’ve finally found a parking spot and battled the baboons to get out of your car), it is definitely worth it. We were there at the peak of tourist season on a beautiful day, a holiday, and it was still manageable and breathtaking. I’m sure in winter on a weekday we’d have the place to ourselves. I’d actually like to go back then and see one of the famous storms from there. There are huts in the park you can hike to and stay in and I’ve just added something else to my bucket list. It’d be so cool to witness a storm the likes of which shipwrecked so many. I can’t imagine being that lighthouse keeper way back when. It gives the Maine coast a run for it’s money. We stayed as long as we could, walking on the trails that took us to Cape Point and the Cape of Good Hope, two separate but closely situated capes, and at 7 p.m. we got back to the car to drive out as the sun set. A great day.
The next day we tackled Table Mountain. I was humbled. I thought it would be a pansy type stroll up a groomed path and we’d have time to walk along the top and enjoy the wildflowers before we needed to descend to meet the others for a meal. I was wrong. It was steep and strenuous and my toe wasn’t happy. Gorgeous. Fantastic. Otherworldly. But not a stroll and coming down was even harder. The top, the “table” part was covered in exotic flowers, rock, and reservoirs. I could spend weeks up there. It was worth the effort, though I could barely walk by the time we got down. I limped to the restaurant at the gardens.
We left the next morning to spend a couple of nights camping in the Cederberg Mountains north of Cape Town. I couldn’t get a reservation inside the park as they were fully booked, but finally found a vacancy at another campground called Nuwerust Rest Camp and jumped at it since everyplace else was full. I knew nothing about the place except it was in these mountains and they had an available campsite. All the other places we stayed had kitchen facilities available for campers and I figured they would too; we didn’t have any cooking supplies with us, but we found after driving through wine country to the mountain range onto thirty-five miles of steep gravel mountain roads, past fantastic rock formations, that this isolated place had, in fact, no cooking facilities. They did provide a barbecue pit, and that was all. We didn’t even have a pot. After thirty-five miles on those washboard roads, however, I didn’t care. There was no way we were leaving. We had plenty of cold food to eat and all we were missing was hot water for tea. We set up camp and took a short hike. This landscape was very much like the southwestern United States–––high desert and canyons with a few trickling streams where the vegetation was very green. It looked like ripe snake and scorpion territory but we didn’t come across any. There were fabulous birds, however, and we spend a good amount of time watching them and the changing colors on the rock formations as the sun set. The next day after a breakfast of cereal and yogurt we set out for a long hike up to a place called the Maltese Cross. It was several miles drive to the trailhead and we had to get a permit to get onto the trail, which is obtained, ironically, at a winery located in a valley of this red desiccated landscape. More washboard road to get there and finally onto the trail a few miles more. It’s a twelve mile roundtrip hike and though the sun was brutal, it was another spectacular day. The Maltese Cross is a free standing rock formation that looks biblical. The fact that it is so hard to get to makes it all the more awe inspiring. We were a little nervous getting too close to it as it looks like it could topple over, but it provided the only shade and we were desperate to sit in shade to eat our lunch so we took the chance it would stand for another half hour after being there for millennia.
When we returned to the campsite we asked at the office if there was a pot we could borrow just to make hot water for tea and the proprietor went to her house to get us one. It was brand new and we told her we had to use the fire to heat it and she replied, “No worries. We’ll clean it later.” So we gathered up some dead branches and when it was dark and cool we lit a fire, drank wine, and read poems to each other that a friend had sent as a Christmas gift. Life doesn’t get better than that.
The following day we were heading back to Cape Town to see more family who were there from Seattle. It was a haul to backtrack, but we took a different route and went down the Atlantic coast through West Coast National Park which was a shocking contrast to the landscape we’d just left. Sand dunes, flamingos, and windswept beaches, on either side of a paved road made the travel a bit more varied. It was also pancake flat for miles. Stunning country and easy driving. I wrote about NewYear’s Eve last week so won’t include that here, but I’ll say again, it was the most moving and emotional one I’ve ever had. To visit the prison where Mandela stayed true to his cause for so long, to watch that magnificent sun set, then spend the evening with such a mix of humanity, was quite an experience. I’d been wanting to get his book, Long Walk to Freedom that he wrote while imprisoned there, and was glad I was able to buy it out on Robben Island. It seemed a little more special.
On New Years Day we started the long trek back to Johannesburg. A five hour drive from Cape Town, up the N1, the major route that connects these two cities, is a relatively young national Park called Karoo. This park was established in 1979 and is less frequented so getting a reservation there was no problem. We got a campsite for two nights, checked to make sure they had facilities for cooking, which they did, as well as a restaurant. Perfect. This landscape is desert, an area that receives four inches of rainfall a year, but still provides habitat for a large variety of animal species. The park covers 350 square miles but only a fraction of that is accessible by vehicle and hiking isn’t allowed. There were some guided walks we could go on, but we decided to just drive ourselves on the well-designated routes. They were loops so figured we wouldn’t get lost.
We pulled in to the park with plenty of daylight left, which is always a treat when you have to set up a tent. This place was also designed to promote ecotourism and they’ve done a stellar job. There are cabins available, but the campsite was incredibly comfortable with a kitchen area, hot showers (that had the best water pressure ever), and even a pool. It’s very hot there; the pool was a nice touch. The area designated for accommodation was surrounded by an electric fence so we could walk within that area, about a square kilometer, but even there we weren’t supposed to walk after dark. Predators, including lions, live in this park and there were signs everywhere warning not to get out of your car outside the designated safe area. We had to sign waivers upon entering the park that they weren’t responsible for any injuries. I found the landscape to be eerily beautiful, a mystical sort of feel to the wide open spaces and I felt like it would be a place one would go to find some inner strength or do some spiritual healing.
The first night we watched the sun set while having dinner on the deck looking out at the mountains. There was a lighted water hole about a hundred meters away, but we were both so tired from our New Years Eve that we couldn’t stay awake to watch for any visitors. We tucked into our tent and got up early to drive the 45 kilometer loop and look for game. We saw zebra (which I love), gemsbok, kudu, ostrich, red hartebeest, and springbok. There were lots of birds which we couldn’t identify, that is one good thing about paying to go on an organized drive, the guides can identify everything. We stopped at a designated picnic area about halfway around the loop and were having our tea when a group of people arrived and asked if we’d seen the lions? We hadn’t and they told us they were just about 100 meters further down the road, in a valley by a stream: a mother and four cubs. We packed up our picnic and jumped in the car. Of all the safaris I’ve been on in five different African countries, I’ve never seen a lion in the wild. We crept along and spotted them, and let me tell you, it is thrilling. Such magnificent animals. We could see the mother (she seemed well fed) lying on a rock with her cubs surrounding her. One of the cubs walked toward us and sat and stared at the car. The mother never took her eyes off that cub and he never took his eyes off us. His paws were huge. One swipe would be all it took. It was so cool. Then George, as if he meant it, said, “I’m going to get out of the car to get a better picture.” I freaked and said, “Are you fucking crazy? If you fucking move from this car I will drive away I swear to God.” Jesus. I can see why they make you sign waivers. Apparently some people get some sort of death wish when they are let out in the wild and compete for one of the Darwin awards. He stayed in the car. I was nervous even being in the car. The cub was about 20 meters from us and the mother, who was enormous, was about ten feet behind the cub. The other cub (we could only see one other cub) was behind her. We sat there for about a half hour watching them then slowly drove away. Check that off the list. Great way to start the year. But did I even get a thank you for saving his life? No, I did not.
We had the afternoon and evening left of our trip; the next day was a long drive back to J’burg and we decided to just sit by the pool and read. As soon as we got our beer and snack and settled into the pretty scene, dark clouds blew in violently and in a place that gets four inches of rain a year, it started pouring. Pouring! And it rained all night. I think they must have gotten more than half the annual rainfall while we were there. There weren’t too many places to go while it rained. We sat in the car, sat in the tent, sat in the bird hide with binoculars and watched weavers make nests, finally we took a shower and went to the restaurant an hour before our reservation and stayed there for about four hours until it was late enough to go to sleep. Everyone else in the place had the same idea and the waitstaff wasn’t super pleased. I couldn’t believe it. Karoo was the one place I was sure we wouldn’t need the rain fly. It’s always so much fun to pack those up soaking wet.
The next morning it had stopped raining and we were up early as we had a nine hour drive back to the city. We didn’t have a reservation as we weren’t sure how far we’d get. Our flight wasn’t until 12:40 the next day, but I wasn’t sure how it would be returning the car and everything so wanted to be within two hours of the airport. We ended up driving the whole way and getting a place to stay, another backpackers lodge, ten minutes from the airport. It poured rain the last hour of that leg and it was hard to see the lines on the highway and find the place, as it was dark by the time we got there. We turned down the first dirt road as instructed and ended up sitting in a field as lightening struck all round us feeling like we were in a horror movie. We mistook the first dirt driveway for the first dirt road so had to back out of the mud and, praise the lord, didn’t get stuck. That little car was a champ.
It was such a fun trip that we were both a little worried about coming back here. During the drive we were listing things we were looking forward to about coming back; the avocados on the tree would be almost ripe….ok, what’s another one? We can have all the salad we want…more reliable internet…But it was more the carefree feeling of not having responsibility and the daily adventure we both love that was hard to leave. And, though we had our fights, they were remarkably few for the amount of time we spent together. It was such a good trip there was a bit of sadness saying goodbye to it. The flight home was a piece of cake and I don’t care what their safety record is, they serve hot tea out of a tea pot and milk from a creamer. Luxury.
I’ve got to say, landing in Blantyre, I was happy to be home. When that little red tractor pulled the stairs for the plane over to us, and the guys started tossing our bags by hand onto the carousel, I got all warm and fuzzy. When Catherine and the other guards saw the taxi approach the house they all started cheering and jumping up and down. It was a riot! You’d think we came back from the dead. Catherine was hugging us saying, “Mammy, Mammy I miss you.” When I saw my tomato plants strong and healthy I did a little happy dance and she fell on me again with hugs and kisses. We got in the house and I said to George, “Now really, where else do you get a reception like that after a vacation?” It’s nice to feel loved.
Egad, this is long. I want to see if I can figure out how to add photos here, so I’m going to wrap it up. It’s been nice reliving it.
Back to work and reality tomorrow.
Love and Happy New Year to you all,