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.