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