SA7. Zululand via Swaziland

South Africa_Kruger

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”.

South Africa_Swaziland

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!

SA3. The Bush

South Africa_Balule

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.