SA8. Wimba Way

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In Zululand, it’s camping time again. For me, this means searching for new means of lulling myself to sleep at night: animal counting has not proven very efficient so far. Or else I’m picking the wrong animal.

It’s also time for me and Kim to look for the magic cookie that caused Alice to shrink. If it does the trick, we might eventually fit in the lodge. There’s no room for the backpacks unless I kick Kim out the door, so we will be huddling them on the wooden bench that is our bed for the night. Suddenly, the idiom “as stiff as a board” has a sensory meaning. The roof is pitched, the lodge narrow and our two beds are caught in the angles where the slope runs low, which makes sitting upright technically impossible.

I play the detective again and examine my environment, lamp in hand. I wish I could have a vacuum cleaner to suck in all those spider webs that decorate the corners. My guess is that they are also populated but, on the principle “I let you be and you do the same with me”, I resume my checks before disturbing the inhabitants from where they might be nested. I smile at the transient thought of an exaggeratedly protective mother, mine, who would kill herself at scrubbing floors and at arduously disinfecting whatever interacted with my existence. Ironically, it’s the same bacteria exterminator who passed the travel bug and the love for nature on to me. Now, from my spiderless apartment, I look back to Africa and towards my future trips there: the simplicity and thrill of being into vast, wild and unpredictable land is a mesmerising feeling to which I have not yet found equal.

But that evening, we are still very much city people moulded by city-life habits, poking fun at our clumsiness of impersonating the “savage”. Nothing like a good conversation to wipe all fears away, though. At the Zululand Camp, one of the local guides is eager to break some extraordinarily good news to me (I judge it is so by the big eyes and large gestures that accompany his words): only two days before, a snake that could have swollen him whole was found not far from there! He is about 2m high and looks like Djimon Hounsou: the real African, hey! While I try very hard to pretend to share the same enthusiasm for this massive discovery that would make National Geographic ecstatic, my pigmentation fades away. Takalani, an ultimate observer of such circumstances, seizes the moment and jumps in with good advice: “See? You might as well sleep outside and look at the stars,” I hear the voice of the good African Samaritan. “Snakes can crawl inside anyway.” He has a point, but I prefer to give the snake a bit of a hard time, still: let it at least try to squeeze his butt through a crack if it really wants to get me!

Paul from Singapore whispers something about him wanting to share a bottle of whiskey with the group. My pulse comes back again. The idea of slightly numbing my senses sounds sweet in the context. Takalani joins us after we finish our Biryani and, a bit absent-minded, sings what I identify to be Miriam Makeba’s The Click Song”, courtesy of my Capetonian friend from Escape4Africa who made sure I would not travel a complete stranger to South-African music and culture. Caught in the act, our multi-talented guide now has to make “The click consonant for dummies” sort of presentation to us. Lots of eyebrows rising as he does the Xhosa sounds, and laughter as we try to do them, too. After a while, we decide to stick to our own very personal English.

To put all chances of having a sound nap on our side, Kim and I decide to leave the lights on in our tiny lodge during the night. Now, I don’t know at which precise point in time African insects have actually been chased away with the help of a shining light bulb, but we certainly had high hopes to become originators of the phenomenon. If anything, my snoring might have worked pretty well at keeping them at bay, though.

Daylight creeps in to the mixed sound of bird species that I will probably never know. I focus to count how many I can distinguish. An infinitely green universe is waiting for us to come out. I rush to catch bits of it.

We have a game walk planned for today and we’re waiting impatiently for the “go” sign. But before anything else comes Takalani’s piece of advice: “Hé, guys!” (I start counting: 1,2,3,4…) “Hum, look where you put your feet! If you get bitten by a scorpion, the closest hospital is at 200 km. Also, I have no anti-venom shot.” I hardly listened to my parents’ advice as a kid, but when Takalani speaks, he has my complete attention. Takalani’s premonition almost fulfils when one of us steps next to a small scorpion. Though we had been using our eyesight with maximum intensity, we hadn’t been able to see it by ourselves. I still look at my feet.

As we walk, we quietly rejoice the possibility of danger that fills the air. At home, none of us has a valid comparison of what we are now living: a small, defenceless group, walking in the middle of mysterious African bushes out of which anything can spring. The vegetation is dense, the trees a height I have never seen before, so my eyes leave the ground towards the peaks but…”the feet”! This is not a dream; it is reality that requires some psyche presence. Still, the place is so captivatingly, unearthly beautiful, that I almost wish we get lost in it.

No predator seems to want to do a bit of a show for our sake, but Thaddeus, our youngest trip fellow, is bitten by some colourful insect. It happened so quick that we hardly even saw it coming. Takalani grabs the boy protectively and within one second he scans through him. He is relieved, no venom, but Thaddeus has to get used to a very swollen back for a while.

In the afternoon, we drive through Hluhluwe–iMfolozi game reserve in the hope of spotting lions – the one Big Five to have escaped our cameras so far. That Thaddeus got bitten was perhaps the price to pay that day, for here is a beautiful lioness standing still right next to the road. After few seconds, though, we realise it is hurt: it limps quite badly. I’m naïve enough to believe it will receive medical attendance, but hell no, not in the jungle. There, the man does not interfere in the natural way of things. Takalani smashes me with his: “This is nature, guys. One needs to go in order to make room for another.” Ok, he’s a winner with his genius remarks, but I hate to watch that lioness disappear in the bushes, limping, knowing that it stands no chance for survival. “Something always dies when the lion feeds and yet there is meat for those that follow him.” (Wilbur Smith)

We move on and discover two other lions barely concealed by some trees, so close to our 4x4s that I estimate it would take them one medium difficulty jump to get on board with us. What concerns me is that Takalani drives the vehicle back and forth too many times to make room for the others: I’m afraid they might get annoyed at all this movement. Why tempt the devil? In the end, they don’t seem to give a damn about us – they’re just big cats lying in the sun as far away from me as my couch is from my TV. I can almost hear the pride bursting in Takalani’s chest: he’s happy to have given us the lions. Grand day!

Heading back, we stop to admire a rhino grazing peacefully while some small birds feed on the dirt that covers its back. In the sunset and the peacefulness of the place, it is an incredible sight. We are absorbed by the landscape, caught in the moment, when…

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Boom! We have a flat tyre. I presume Takalani swears in Venda, one of the 11 official languages of South Africa – the language of his people. He might have sworn in all 11 of them at the same time. Reluctant, but with no miracle option at hand, he gets off the car: somebody needs to replace the tyre. Or else we are supper. The trouble is that we have only just left the rhino behind. Not to mention that the grass is almost as big as us and there is no way to see through it. And that it is forbidden to step off from the vehicle in a safari park. Unless, maybe, if you have a flat tyre.

Takalani is tensed. The guys jump off, too, to lend a helping hand in the process. We, the women, naturally look at them at work and offer, no doubt, essential moral support. I might also have prayed, additionally. It takes two lifetimes until the guys manage somehow to replace the tyre – it’s a strange irony: the bigger the number of men doing the same job, the slower the job is done. The “new” tyre actually looks like it needs to be replaced soon, too, but Takalani hopes it will last as long as it takes to get us out of trouble. We really want to believe that, too.

The others had reached the campsite a long time ago. But we now have the stories to tell. And whatever the night brings, I know I will be sleeping like a log.

SA7. Zululand via Swaziland

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5 a.m. and Kruger starts to come alive. What we see has the unrealistic grasp of a movie in production: as if following invisible stage directions, wild animals start to pop up from the bushes. We activate vocal chords (zebraaaaa, giraaaafe, elephaaaaant, rhiiiinooo, buffaloooo), we swap places, jump over each other and inevitably squash a few toes and kick a few faces on our way to the windows. Takalani, happy with his vaccinated European kids’ reaction to such blooming fauna (and “most especially” with the proof that he did not bring us to Impala National Park) instructs us to shout some more when we want him to halt for snapshots. The truck is flooded with overexcitement: Africa, at last!

We’re not exactly riding at full speed, since Takalani truly wants us to reach our own private pictures-taking quota. The animals don’t seem to mind us until some of them approach us worryingly. We have everything under control, for Takalani has already trained us to yell when big animals were a wee bit too close and we deemed it dangerous. Upon hearing us, he would then start the engine (which he systematically turned off so as not to scare the animal away) and immediately take off. Judging by the fact that he occasionally did not hear us crying “stop: picture!” and that the engine took forever to warm up and decide whether to work or die on us, the success factors seemed less romantic.

And then, the unexpected: A young elephant crosses the road, centimetres away from the front of our truck. Takalani stops the engine and stays alert. The elephant stops, too, intrigued by our presence. It is big, powerful, and close enough to stretch its trump and transform Takalani’s massive vehicle into flying saucer. No one breathes for some long seconds. Takalani does a saving gesture: he lets the car slide down a bit. This, I believe, showed that we meant no harm. Dumbo is reassured and moves on. We inhale.

Further away cars were clustered, meaning that something major was on. We are indeed lucky to see our fourth Big Five: a young leopard lets his tail and legs hang from a tree for a unique photo shooting session. I damn my zoom lens for not reproducing the original in all its beauty and give myself a chance to put the device aside and observe. This is a rare sight, even for locals. Once more, there is silence.

Another look and we must leave world’s third biggest wild reserve behind. Life and Takalani carry us away at an extraordinary fast pace in this African adventure. Today we cross the Kingdom of Swaziland to reach Zululand.

The Land of the Swazis, outside South Africa, is in many aspects a dream country. First of all, it is so small, that you have to keep your eyes open as you cut across, so as not to miss it, my Swaziland-born friend told me. For the men who fancy polygamy, Swaziland is one of the last 50 countries that still acknowledge this practice. Here you can buy as many wives as you can handle, if you have the money and the stamina. The king himself, Mswati III, sets the good example by marrying a woman every year. Sadly, this is also where HIV touches half of the inhabitants – a figure hard to believe.

Mswati number III is a naughty boy: at 45, he counts 13 wives and 27 children, still a poor performance compared to that of his deceased father. The history goes that the late King Sobhuza II lived happily with his 70 wives and 97 children. This gives us a sense of Sobhuza’s favourite hobby and the volume of ginger that might have been consumed during his reign. Slightly less sex-oriented than his daddy, Mswati catches up reputation-wise by feeding the newspapers with other exemplary exploits. In a country where the majority of the population lives on less than the equivalent of 1.25 USD per day, the king, ranked one of the world’s 15th richest monarchs, spoils himself with bling bling parties and fancy gifts. But, being the last absolute monarch, he must think he’s worth it.

We pull the truck on the side of a large sugar-cane field to eat sandwiches and fresh mango. Some of us get grumpy at the sandwich, but Takalani has his way of making it go easier down the throat. “My brother, you will eat sandwiches until you say no more”.

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We eat, pack and move on, for though tiny in size, Swaziland has a time-consuming border crossing process. Now as an immigrant, I am highly allergic to procedures. They usually require something that I don’t seem to have naturally been endowed with: patience. Queuing up and melting under the burning sun to get stamps that give you the right to step on the other side of the fence is something that I would have definitely revised, had I been one of the king’s wives. A privilege that I am denied, by the way, since Swaziland’s most wanted man narrows his choices to black African women only.

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In total, we get our passports stamped in guise of souvenir four times: 2 for going out and back into South Africa and similarly into and out of Swaziland. “Hakuna Mat…Thank you,” say I to the lady who inks my document for one last time, making my return to SA legally possible.

At the Lavumisa/Golela border, some Zulu girls are dressed for what we suspect to be a special event, maybe a wedding. They enjoy themselves big time laughing at us: we must look as fallen from out of space. I do my best to get social and smile at my condition along with them, trying to come to terms with the idea that ridicule hasn’t killed anyone. Yet.

The back turned to the fairy-tale that is Swaziland, a board welcomes us to South Africa’s Zululand, Kwazulu-Natal. Finally!

SA6. While in Kruger

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Excitement reaches its climax when we approach the Kruger National Park: this is what we expect to be the highlight of our trip. The moment to finally see the Big Five has come.

At the gates, right before the entry, we run towards the toilets – an opportunity we never miss whenever we are able to get out of the truck. We are a happy herd that is difficult to gather, so Takalani steps in: “Hé, guys”, he begins, as always, “Let’s go! The animal wait for no man.” I feel like I’m driven through South African bushes by Bob Marley resurrected.

He starts the engine and ships us to the adventure of a lifetime. We take the windows by assault, keeping the cameras ready to shoot, our eyes wrinkled by the effort to detect signs of wildlife. From the front of the truck, Takalani is launching books about spiders, scorpions, etc. We’re crazed, not knowing what to look at first. We are five-year-olds in adults’ skin.

Takalani is in high spirits. He brakes every 2 minutes, putting our balance to a test. He needs to drive very slowly, since the speed is limited in the park. After some long kilometres of bushes and a spectacular number of additional bushes of all possible sizes, we grow sleepy and let our guard and cameras down. Only impalas seem to populate the park. They are quite all right, but we’ve probably seen one to many. We moan at Takalani (whom some still call Takalini) that there are probably no big animals anyway and the whole Kruger is just one big impala reserve, a big scam for tourists.

Takalani knows how to pay his dues. He brings the giant truck to a standstill. “Hé, guys,“ he prepares the ground to break some important news to us. “Eh, this is impala.” By that time, we have counted close to 1.000 impalas, so our facial muscles refuse to show any emotional unrest. Our eyeballs grow bigger and our eyelashes beat the air in silence, waiting for the next info. “Eh, take a picture: it’s the only one that you will take today!” And he drives on, laughing, while we are all up in arms.

This was merely the beginning: the deeper we moved into the park, the less we believed that our chances to see the tail of an elephant would ever come alive. But Takalani is there to entertain us in our hopelessness. “Eh, can you see the green bush?” His question sounded as if he had spotted THE green bush that had something much more special than the other tens of thousands shaping the landscape that day. We just could not establish which one it was. “Up the hill,” he adds one more detail to make it all crystal clear: we could not see a damn thing in the distance. “There might be a rhino behind it”. Some of us zoom like mad, the eyes lost in the camera screen, looking for a small dot that might even remotely give the illusion of a rhinoceros. Plenty of dots to figure out, but none of them is moving, unless hallucination kicks-in from staring at them for too long.

Few more kilometres and…

“Eh, Sielke?”

“Yes,” our traveller from Germany confirms her identity.

“Do you see anything?”

“Yes, impala.”

“Fantastic!” (This, we realize, is Takalani’s most beloved idiom number two, slightly behind the “Hakuna Matata”). “I’ll take you closer, so you can see it better!”

To make our blood boil some more, he would also stop every now and then in places where there was absolutely nothing to see, not even an impala.

“Takalani, why are we stopping?”

“Eh, guys, look!”

“Where?”

“Down, on the road: there’s a turtle.”

Knowing that the park was five times the size of Belgium, we were looking at a long road ahead, trapped within the metal mobile framework that a very funny man was steering. We did end up seeing elephants (one of them almost got mad at the truck: a female protecting her babies), monkeys, buffalos, giraffes, hippos, kudus and some more impalas.

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When we arrived at the campsite, Takalani fetched us the best spaghetti one could find in the neighbourhood on the truck’s gas cooker. South Africa was teaching us how to appreciate basic things in life: wireless-free days and electricity-free nights, plain pasta with red sauce, sandwiches and instant coffee. By day four, we were starting to free ourselves from the conventions of our comfortable life at home.

Takalani kept on challenging us: the next day we get up at 5 a.m. along with the very first rays of sun. Caffeine is desperately needed, but hot coffee in a metal cup is hard to drink in the few minutes we have left till we hit the road again. Thinking that the Kruger does not exactly abound in gas stations, I sigh in resignation, jump in our overland truck and follow Takalani’s advice to “sit back and relax” and enjoy the ride.

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SA5. Hazyview: A Dream

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Taki unloads us in Hazyview, some 5 km away from the Phabeni Gate entry to the Kruger National Park. We’ll be spending the night in a wooden log-cabin by the Sabie River. South Africa dresses up in new scenery: we’re served subtropical forest now. Like Jim Carrey in “The Truman Show”, I feel like stepping from one illusion into another.

It’s celebration time, since Janos finally finds his luggage waiting for him, with actually every item inside. He immediately sees (and seizes) the opportunity to boast about his military sleeping bag, which looks like a small tent with head protection (a sort of bivouac sack or shelter). I would have gladly snatched that one from him, now that he got it!

First on the agenda is a short trek in the surroundings. Takalani leads the way as always and we venture into the tall and thick grass by the river in search of crocodiles and hippos. As often, I try to stay behind him: wooden stick in hand and beating the hack out of those bushes to keep snakes or whatever trillion other vermin away, he seems like the right man to follow in unpredictable Africa.

It’s finally hot, hot, hot, so we walk in shorts and T-shirts. Wolfram from Germany, however, is slightly less careless and better equipped for survival than the rest of us. While we would have happily pulled our skins off on account of the heat, he sweats resolutely in his long jeans and long-sleeved sweater with a T-shirt on top. Takalani, otherwise a man of few words, does not miss out on this. “My brother,” he says, “are you trying to protect yourself from something?” Laughter spreads among us like wildfire.

At the end of the walk, we count some pictures of one crocodile, but still no hippos in view. Takalani is vexed by our malicious remarks that there are probably no hippos anyway, and blows his lungs out, turning purple while making funny noises to call them. Despite his dedication to the matter, nothing comes out. We’ll leave it to that for the day, some of us are already close to exhaustion – the road was slippery, challenging us to stay on our feet. We are now exactly how Takalani wants us to be and how he likes us best: too tired to speak and ready to eat anything.

From the kitchen, Afro house music comes out with a scent of Afro flavours: Takalani and his music are inseparable, not only when he’s driving, but when he’s cooking, too. That basically means half the holiday for us.

We stay up late, drinking mainly and being loud enough to scare the African life around us. Inge from the Netherlands gets excited at the sight of a monkey. “That was a rat,” says Janos. “No, it can’t be a rat, it’s too big,” goes Inge. My blood runs cold, for whatever they saw, it was right in front of the room where Kim and I are parked for the night.

Well, there’s a moment in life when bottles are empty and people need to go back to their rooms. Kim was supposed to be sleeping long ago, but instead she’s talking to me in the dark: “You can put the lights on, I’m not asleep”. “Why?” “There are noises, upstairs, you’ll see.” Turning the lights on turned out to be a good idea, since I was thus able to notice the huge crack in the roof, right where I was supposed to lay my head down.

Now, an encounter with snakes was one of my top three phobias when travelling to South Africa. Looking at that hole above my bed, I decided that I did not want to wake up in the middle of the night with a Mamba on my face. So I did what my paranoid mind and my strength allowed me to: grab the massive bed and drag it in the middle of the room, where nothing would fall on me. I also tried to repeat to myself something that a dear South African friend once told me: “South Africa is not for sissies. You’ll be just fine!”

Happy with my new bed position, I collapse and pray that tiredness would put me to sleep quickly. But it is now, in the absolute silence, that I can clearly hear the noises that Kim was talking about. The attic was on fire: creatures were running up and down above our heads, keeping themselves very busy. “Monkeys”, Kim whispers. She was already half asleep and telling her the truth would have only ruined her night, too, so I didn’t say a word. For having heard monkeys on the roof the day before, I knew precisely that they were too lightweight to step on the wood like that. We were right next to the kitchen, so I understood what that bustle was all about.

During that night, I dreamt that creatures were crawling down the walls on the outside; I could hear their claws scratching the wood and it sounded loud in my head. But I did fall asleep despite my resistance to it. In the morning, on our way to Kruger, Kim takes out an apple from the side of her day pack. Speechless, she shows it to me: it had been tasted by someone other than her. What I thought was a dream was actually not one. And what I thought was coming down the wall on the outside was actually on the inside. We then remembered the landlord’s words when we first arrived: “Please do not take any food in your room”, something which we largely disregarded the day before.

The gates to the Kruger National Park were opening to make us way for more, much more contact with the wildlife.

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SA4. The Gift

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Whether after a sound sleep or mere simulacrum, mornings in a natural reserve are extradimensional. It’s not just the chattering of the overexcited monkeys, it’s the unbelievable bright light that drags the traveller out of the sleeping bag. At 5 am, life unfolds.

I enjoy stillness: sleepy, I step into the sun and the fascinating African white light which makes the red of the earth come out even stronger – I am a kid in a large playground. Nature has a powerful way to take hold of you and teach you peace. I’m taken aback by life’s sudden oversimplicity and beauty. For seconds, I smile devilishly inside as if holding a massive secret: having fallen through the rabbit hole, I might well have found Wonderland! Finders, keepers!

Human agitation takes over nature’s order, I go back to being myself and the reality is that we need to pack. We move on today. The gymnastics of squeezing the belongings back into the same frame that brought them there begins. Backpacking is an art of logistics: change the winning position of the items and say hello to trouble. You only have that much room for a heap of prime-importance things that were carefully selected based on preconceived ideas of Africa. There must be a Murphy’s backpacking law according to which what you truly need to extract most urgently is inevitably stuck somewhere at the bottom of all things. Another one would be that you only know what you need to take out after you spent half an hour fitting everything in.

But that backpack is home for 20 days and throwing items away is not an option in the first days. Keeping out what’s needed for the day (weather-sensitive), separating clean from dirty clothes, placing the medicine someplace handy and remembering where, packing the liquids so as not to spill anything – a backpacker’s mornings abound with serious pre-coffee decisions.

Fortunately, Janos does not need to go through such trouble. His luggage is still travelling solo somewhere in Africa, so he only has himself to carry around. I pull the string to close my own private backpack, load it on my shoulder and, seriously bended under my 20-something kilo house I do a drunk walk to the truck. We’re heading for Hazyview today. We look like we spent the night counting flocks of sheep but we feel happy: how could any of us not savour this amazing adventure that we’re living? Seated on a stone in full sun exposure, I lose my thoughts in the infinite distance.

Rusks and coffee in hand, we attend an unexpected event. A giraffe comes in view, an old male; it goes to a pond to drink water. It is almost painful to look at it trying to spread its legs before it can finally have a sip. This was our very special gift seconds before we parted from Balule, probably forever.

In the truck we remain silent: already the sense of displacement infects us with nostalgia. We would like to belong more to one place, but the rules of the booking we made do not allow it. This is the game: it’s fast, it’s packed, and too short to create bounds. So we keep on crossing Africa, Takalani behind the wheel. He stops along the way to buy litchis and other local fruits which we share. We are 15 in the group – we slowly start to fuse.

But South Africa explodes diversity, so the magic of one place is easily replaced with another. The drama of having left Balule is washed away as soon as we reach Hazyview. We are now entering the rainforest.

SA3. The Bush

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Camera flashes go off in the sunset-lit park and the truck leans on the side on which we all flock to photograph the impalas. Most of us had never heard the word before, and others had seen at best one stuffed impala at the Natural Museum. We were all amazed to see these beautiful creatures jumping all over the place, right under our noses. On that bumpy road we also saw zebras, giraffes and buffalos, which eased up the long journey a bit. We were mesmerized.

Definitely, surprises just kept coming our way! When we reached the camp, we meet the guy who had a hard time making it to South Africa: Janos. Janos is not the luckiest man alive. While he somehow landed in Balule (and even arrived ahead of us), three days later his luggage still didn’t. But he is happy, because he is also the only one who saw a scorpion jumping out of a wood fire while doing the braai preparations. Janos is reported to have had a safe flight back home to Germany and is still in one piece today.

The first night in Balule was peculiar. We started to develop European traveller behavioural symptoms: putting on tons of insect repellent, ingesting the malaria tablets religiously, checking the walls next to the bed, under the bed and “most especially” the bed itself and the sleeping bag on it for local species, carefully looking where we put our feet for fear not to crush a scorpion, slowly opening the bathroom door and checking whether the environment was clear of monkeys, snakes and any other potential predator (the bathroom had no roof, so beasts could actually invite themselves in), etc. We did eat the food, though, because we were rather hungry. But after all the wilderness stories told by the local guide, Donny, that were spinning in our heads, I did not manage to sleep.

Knowing that you overnight in a park adjacent to Kruger where animals wander freely keeps you on your toes. You hear the lion roar, which is magic, until the question pops up: how far is it from the tent? Other unidentified sounds challenge the brain to wonder “is this even normal?” while your body cries out for rest. The first night being very windy, I feared that Kim and I would wake up in “The Marvellous Land of Oz” like Dorothy and Toto, transported by air with tent and lion and scorpions and everything else that tormented my mind while I was floating between dream and reality. The imagination blooms in the bush with every unfamiliar sound, and they are all so. It takes a while to get accustomed.

The next day, early morning (army regime, not leisure holiday), we have instant coffee again and rusks, a combination that makes me fantasize. We were heading for a game walk. One more look at the useless stuff in my backpack and off we go to shake up the savannah.

We trail through the bush, marching one behind the other, silently enjoying the unknown. We stop when the guide pantomimes like he wants to pull something out of the ground. I see the net veiling a hole which our guide points to and I understand…With a thin stick he breaks the entry to where his target hides. And out comes the biggest spider I have ever laid my eyes on: the baboon spider. Holy Guacamole and Mother of mighty Jesus – I hide myself behind somebody else. The spider socializes and is transported from hand to hand, and surprise, Spiderman is repelled by our hand antiseptic and wants back in its hole, to which it is finally released. I breathe.

The game walk is a bit different from wandering in a big city center. We stop frequently for explanations of trees, bushes, insects, big-five footprints, and we all feel mighty adventurous and slightly more intelligent after our guides’ thorough and passionate input on basically every bit of nature. We bring back with us precious knowledge of the bush: what leaves should be used as toilet paper, which plants for sanitising water, we learn that the Marula tree’s fruits work as aphrodisiac and decide for the sex of the child if rubbed against pregnant women’s bellies, what to chew in order to have a fresh breath and how the shit bug (the dung beetle) spends a shit life, that the shongololo is a millipede, etc. We probably would not have known how to get back to the camp, though, had our guides not been thoughtful enough to lead the way and spare us from putting our freshly instilled field knowledge to a test.

But forget about the plants, the larvae and the shit bugs: we were heading for the big-sized quadrupeds. Two trucks, one for the Germans, the second for the others, took us to a game drive. Lots of radio communication between the two drivers to spot the wild animals. And while we look for one animal, we find another. In the wild, nothing goes as planned: the animal does not rendezvous tourists at a given time and place, so one just has to keep the eyes wide open (and the the tendency to jump out of the 4×4 to take pictures in a leash).

It felt like we were going hunting, or something similar, I suppose. Aw, the thrills of waiting for a big lion to jump out of the bush! And aw, again, the disappointment when at the end of the day, this fails to happen. Naturally, you bear grudge against the guide, since he could have simply taken the road where the lions were (he’s the one who knows the places). But well, we smelled the elephants from afar, so at least we know they existed. And when the buffalos get curious and approach us, we hold our breath. The proximity to wild animals has an exquisite thrill.

As the night was gently enveloping us, we started to spray ourselves sporadically with insecticide again. OK, so it takes time to become a bushman. We spent the evening around the camp fire and late at night, we looked up at the sky. And our eyes were left hanging on those stars that seemed to fall on us after minutes of intensive starring. Donny the Guide knows everything, whether on land or in the sky. He told us about Orion and the Milky Way and how to tell the next day’s weather. The African sky has so much to say – it will soon become my obsession. But then, I just hoped that looking up for so long would get me dizzy enough to put me to sleep effortlessly, so that I could forget for a few hours that there were crawling creatures around that could get into my ears, eyes or even eat me up whole.

A spider is hanging in the shower. It’s quite big, but does not seem to want to attack me, so I leave it in its corner and turn on the tap. No luck, it feels the water and starts to wriggle. That was a quick shower and I have set some records during the next days as well, sometimes because we were many souls queuing up to refresh ourselves and not enough facilities. Apart from the spider, no other beast having showed up on my radar, I went to bed. And there I lay, eyes wide open, cocooned in my sleeping bag, listening to the sounds of hyenas and lions. I was woken up by monkeys running on our roof and I inferred that morning had finally found me.

SA2. Meet the Brotherman

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What follows are the introductions – one of those moments when you try to look like you’ve kept everyone’s names in mind, but fail – laughter, and a first briefing with Takalani. He would hold one every other evening to explain the programme for the following day. By the third sentence of briefing session number one, it becomes crystal clear to everybody that we are heading for a long road with plenty of “Hakuna Matatas” and “fantastics” to spice up our taste for African adventure.

The group is not yet complete: two are joining in the morning, and one is simply unlucky, missed a connection and had to fly back again to catch a direct flight, or something “Hakuna Matata”. I am not so sure we are lucky either, since the weather is not “normal” for December: it’s cold and it rains with hale! On account of which I hardly sleep at night: storms with thunder and lightning are pretty impressive in South Africa.

But there’s coffee in the morning and the excitement of hitting the road in our military-style truck. We all try to hide that what we truly aim at is sitting at the window. Of course we all came to take awesome pictures! Takalani is an experienced man, so he tells us upfront that we must swap places every now and then, so we compose ourselves. He hits the gas and off we go, cutting through a landscape so wide and varied that we do not dare to close our eyes. We take Takalani’s saying “Blink and you miss something” very seriously.

It pours over Mpumalanga, although it is supposed to be burning hot at this time of the year. The concern about not being able to take pictures spreads among us like a virus. But as we reach Blyde River Canyon, the rain backs away, leaving us the time to enjoy a wonderful walk in the surroundings. It starts to pour again as we reach the side steps of the truck.

We cannot go out of the truck unless Takalani opens the metallic door.  He also closes it behind us when we are “all in”, as he says. The door is always slammed, giving way to a spine-shivering sound that must not be too far from that of a prison cell being locked up. That adds up to the adventure. When we are released from the truck, it is mainly to go to the toilets or grab some coffee. Once the door opens, there’s always Takalani’s “Hé, guys!” and then instructions flood in.

Takalani is the man: he drives the big truck (on all weather conditions), he guides us, he buys the food, cooks and serves us tasty meals even after ten hours of driving, he repairs basically anything…He is a tough one. But most of all, Takalani has a difficult name for us to pronounce in the beginning: we occasionally go for Takalini, Takalina and variations. And “most especially” (another of his catchy phrases), he likes to listen to African house music. A lot. And since we cannot really get out of the truck…We do the best we can to convince ourselves that we like it a lot, too. After all, we came to Africa to practice open-mindedness.

He is also a very optimistic man: whenever he briefs us on what we do next, he ends with “if it’s possible, if it’s open, if the weather allows it, etc.” Basically, anything can happen. “This is Africa, my brother,” he says, counting us in on his long list of family members. As soon as we get this straight into our heads, we can then travel in a more relaxed manner. Or if there is no gas station for fuel, we do not travel at all. “Sit back and relax,” he says. Uwe from Germany takes this invitation for granted and his chair brakes with a crack. It will stay so until the end of the tour.

Taki (some of us gratefully embraced the abbreviation) also has a rather personal interpretation of the distance and a very African understanding of the time. Late in the evening, when we grow slightly tired of the ride and we feel that we are never ever going to reach any destination, we ask: “Takalani, how long?” “Eh, how long till what?”, he bounces the question back to us. “Till we reach the camp.” “Eh, the camp is at the end of the road, guys.”

The result was fourteen pairs of eyes staring into the distance. But after another hill, there came another, and another, and the end of the road was nowhere in sight. Sitting back and relaxing was not possible anymore either, because the road to the Balule camp got really bumpy. The lockers gave in, some of the luggage flew out, we were crashing into each another, uprooted from our chairs. No one threw up. It was getting dark when we heard “Impalaaaaa!”

South Africa timeline

Sent by a South African friend

SA1. South Africa Kick-off

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I was told to be a canvas before I left for South Africa. For various reasons, this country had been haunting me for a while. So I lifted up my twenty something kilos backpack and walked unsteadily to the metro station – I needed some time before getting used to my new posture and felt ridiculous. But the thought of being on the plane kept me mounting up the hill.

15 hours later with one stop in Cairo and absolutely no sleep at all, I was landing in Johannesburg and somehow got carried to the Rosebank Station by the Gautrain. Funny how one finds the way after all, I thought, conscious but feeling as if I were moving in a dream: two days before, all these actions were mere plans that caused me panic attacks.

The same day, I was attending a baby shower party (after I managed to take a shower myself), talking and making friends with people I was seeing for the first time, discovering dishes I never ate before, being driven around and wondering when I would just drop like a stone. After 31 sleepless hours, I finally did.

Next day, SJ tried to wake me up at 8 a.m. to no avail. When I woke up it was already midday. I was sure I would be alone in the flat because I knew SJ and Adrien had left for work, but on my way to the bathroom I cross Brilliant. She works for SJ and she would prepare breakfast and coffee for me. While I was listening to the number of things she could do for me (Coffee with milk, no milk? How many spoons of sugar? 2-3? Do I need a fresh towel?) it hit me: I was in South Africa. This was the moment to be a canvas. It was right there that I truly started to record the differences that would pile up as I would make my way into the country.

Brilliant is from Zimbabwe and for her, South Africa is an extravagant place. But there is nothing like home, she says. SJ called a taxi for me and Brilliant accompanies me downstairs with her baby girl: she brought her because she was ill, for which she apologizes. I urge Brilliant to go back with the baby; I can wait by myself for the taxi. Her answer comes vehemently: “No, no, no, I am not leaving you alone in the street.” I will not argue; I already did for my cup of coffee that I insisted to wash myself. Brilliant tells me “We chase white people, but they are smart”. Her sense of difference comes out so strong and I try to wipe it off a bit: “No, they are not smarter”, I say, as if I were not part of the category, “they have more access to information.” Clumsy and meaningless. Either way, when she hugs me goodbye, there is no difference and we do not belong to worlds apart. We had only been discussing theories.

The taxi man is also talkative and friendly, same as the two guards who kept me company at the Rosebank Station while I was waiting for SJ after I landed. I do not feel the threat of the city yet, but that’s probably because I do not wander around on foot. But I notice SJ’s very natural reflex to close the car windows and lock the doors every time we stop at the red light where black people “sell” newspapers. I read that Mandela is in hospital. She also points to the high walls and barbed wire that clog the beauty of this city.

Apart from that, the gates to any buildings we’ve been into (home, workplace, a friend’s house) are always kept by a guard. Men in uniform are part and parcel of the daily landscape, to the point that locals do not find this striking anymore. On the first day of my overland tour with the Drifters, the sight of a guard patrolling a regular gas station with a rifle on his back in full daylight caught my eye. Two gas stations further, it had become common sense. Another friend in Durban walks with a 9mm Glock in his money belt. Freedom has a different meaning here. And it is paid in a different currency.

SJ drops me off at the Drifters lodge, the starting point of my South African adventures. I watch the sun setting over Jo’burg and wish I could enjoy a long, quiet, eventless walk. Maybe one day. For the moment, it’s just wishful thinking – the city is not ready for this yet.

Beginning and end blend together but I have no time to realize either. The gate opens at the Drifters, I am greeted and invited to go in and meet the other travellers. “Hakuna Matata, welcome to Africa!”. I give a smile to the man with the “Lion King” formula and move on to the dining room.