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.

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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