Love Letter to South Africa

South africaWho would have thought that I’d fall in love with a country? A place that is not mine by birth, a foreign land. Someone once drew the contour of the South African map for me on a wall and years later I found my way to it. Nor have I ever thought that I would end up missing that dry, reddish earth so much that seeing it again turned into an almost physical necessity. I had been warned: “Careful, it will get under your skin!”

And so it did. During the last 3 years I have been there 3 times. There are reasons why the greatest nations have been fighting for it over the centuries: South Africa is  worth fighting for. It is the hardest place to leave behind.

This country is really something else. As this video from the South African Tourism shows (which I personally find exceptionally well done), it is a place whose unique variety awakens all senses. 

South Africa has a special way of making me happy. It is here that I fired a gun with real bullets for the first time (and the first one going off scared the hell out of me). It Is here that I fed a giraffe and felt my hands shaking when I saw the immensity of that gentle, walking tower coming towards me. I spent a sensational week with Wild Coast Horse Back Adventures surrounded by free, un-fenced horses (60 of them), riding while chasing warthogs, cantering across fields and the loveliest sand beaches. This is where I did jumping for the first time, fell on my head and went back on horse a happy, though certainly dizzy human. I bathed in waterfalls and burnt my skin like a lobsters in hilarious and impossible patterns, for the South African sun is merciless with a 30 SPF. I woke up in a tent to water buffaloes running madly in the open veld. I’ve listened to storms and wondered at thunders – there’s a different dimension to them out there. The place granted me the privilege to fulfill some of the, yes, wildest dreams.

South Africa taught me difference. Contrast. It is still raw, though sensibly blooming, an interesting society facing the challenges of a mixed, restless environment with a scarred past that cannot heal. My eyes sparkled way too many times not to acknowledge that South Africa has somehow become a part of me. It gave me the wilderness and the freedom. It showed me the simple, pure way of living and how to look at life from different angles.

I blame it on diversity. With 6 colours under one flag and 11 official languages, 3 capital cities, 2 Oceans, uncountable species of animals on land, in the skies and water, literally all land forms, the numerous types of food and millions of people of all provenance, there’s enough variety for anyone to fall in love with. I will keep on travelling to other places, but deep down I know that this is my heaven on the ground.

For those who have miraculously managed to escape a conversation on South Africa with me, here’s a random list of some of SA’s essentials:

  • Apartheid (racial segregation) ended in South Africa in 1994. It is therefore, a very, very recent event and I’m amazed at how this country has been dealing with its complexities, evolving in such an admirable way (in spite of everything) ever since. Madiba, maybe.
  • Homo Sapiens, our ancestors, are said to have lived in South Africa (and yes, there’s undeniable DNA evidence that we all come from black people – the San or Bushmen). There’s an interesting archeological site/museum in the Johannesburg area called the Cradle of Humankind which is, I believe, worth a detour.
  • The three capital cities are: Pretoria (administrative), Cape Town (legislative), Bloemfontein (judicial). However, Johannesburg is the main economic hub.
  • Nelson Mandela spoke Xhosa, the “click” language, spoken by the first people, the Bushmen (if you’re curious to learn more about the clicks, click here).
  • If someone tells you to stop at the robot, that means a traffic light and it definitely means you are in South Africa.
  • Bartolomeu Dias discovered the Cape of Good Hope in 1487. Bloody Portuguese. They arrived the first, the Dutchies only came second in line. Then came the English and the French. Things got messy.
  • You greet someone with “Howzit?” And everyone is either a brother or a sister.
  • Goodies: braai, pap’n sous, biltong, potje, boereworst, rusk – they all sound strange but are assuredly lekker, man!
  • Heritage Day (24th September) is National Braai Day (everyone’s favourite). Now here’s a nation who believes in barbecue and is proud of it! There is even a braai song.
  • The Indian and the Atlantic Oceans meet at Cape Agulhas.
  • Soweto, where Nelson Mandela lived on Vilakazi street for some years, comes from SOuth WEstern TOwnship. The street is reputed for having hosted two Nobel Prize winners: Mandela and Desmond Tutu.
  • Important: forget everything about those places that produce amazing wine. Chile ranks high, but this is the wine Paradise. Period. Pinotage (cross between Pinot Noir and Cinsaut/Hermitage) is South Africa’s unique grape variety. Totally braai- and chocolate-friendly!
  • The Big 5 that you want to be spotting are: the lion, the buffalo, the elephant, the leopard and the rhino.

Some of my favourite SA artists and songs:

mandela2I wanted  to mark this Mandela Day by turning my eyes once more towards his country, one that he cherished so much, and  show my appreciation as a traveller/tourist for having discovered it myself. I was in South Africa the last year when Mandela was still alive, although in hospital, and went back few months after his death. I’m grateful to have seen the colours of the Rainbow Nation and to carry them in my heart.

It is also my way of saying “thank you” to people, friends, all those human angels who inspired, encouraged, invited me, spent time with me, took me by the hand and explained South Africa to me, drew maps for me, told me the stories and had me listen to the songs that make me go back again and again. You brought richness into my world. And it stays, wherever I may go. 

“You don’t need a holiday, you need Cape Town”

cape townWords printed on the back of one of those red double-deckers that carry tourists across the Mother City. I turn my head to read them just as I cross a street at Camps Bay and have the unexplainable feeling that someone wanted me to see them there and then. They were meant for me. I had been in Cape Town for less than three hours and that was precisely what I was thinking in that very instant, that Cape Town was all I needed. Some brilliant local Marketing team (South Africans all wizards, hey) had accessed my thoughts and spelled them out for me, set them where I could see them. I never found that bus again to take a snapshot of this, to me, very personal message.

A month later, back to business and with Cape Town very much behind geographically, the feeling stays strong. With everything it has on offer, Cape Town is without a doubt one city I might always miss and long to get back to. One cannot have enough of it. With its unique blend of mountains, Ocean, white sand beaches, wide open plains, the sound of the waves braking against the rocks, the rebel wind always messing up your hair, with its rising, shining and setting sun which brings with it the most creative and mind-blowing colours, the playful clouds dancing on the bluest boundless sky, the infinite water – Cape Town is more, much more than the perfect postcard view. Cape Town has a unique pulse to you it and you can only feel it if you live it. There’s the scenic drive. The roughness and wilderness of the land. The incredible quality and power of light. The negotiated bits of freedom. The mix of people, food, languages and traditions. It hosts the most amazingly arched rainbows. Oh, and there’s also the wine. Cape Town can make you live several holidays (or lifetimes?) into one.

As a tourist, Cape Town is best enjoyed by displaying a laid back and modest attitude. Don’t be the obvious tourist if you can help it. I was most comfortable just carrying my credit card with me apart from the beach items. Remember you’re in-between Europe and Africa and that too many people struggle with serious issues such as hunger in the midst of all that seductive beauty and diversity, so you’re better off not drawing too much attention on your possessions. Discretion and cautiousness are key.

The Incidental Tourist blended together some of Cape Town’s essentials; make sure you don’t miss these ones: http://bit.ly/1RRPyFE. Luckily, for those who don’t want to rent a car or have never driven on the British side of the road, Cape Town has a fairly good transport system and most day activities include pick up and drop off.

Since it was my second time in Cape Town, I made some other discoveries of my own. I had never tried surfing before and was rather convinced I never would, for having been hit in the head and taken off my feet permanently by the strong Atlantic waves whenever I tried to go for a swim. But have no fear, there are many surf schools which are well-trained to make you enjoy the surfing experience. I spent a wonderful few hours with Stoked School Surf. They take you to Muizenberg (pronounce as if the “i” was before the “u”), where the waters were surprisingly warmer. They have you wear this strange suit that weighs at least as much as you do and carry a board that is definitely larger and clearly heavier than anyone my size. And then they have you paddle.

In the Ocean, every single wave seems compelled to break into your face for some reason. Now, I’m not the paddling type of person; this usually requires muscles and vigorous arms, none of which I truly own. During the first 15 minutes I was positive beyond the shadow of a doubt that I would drown and in-between braking waves made solemn promises to myself to ponder more on my choices and the impulses to always try something new. Simply lying in the sun would have been so much more reasonable and enjoyable. Meanwhile, I was paddling against the waves, feeling grateful whenever one just lifted me up and carried me further instead of crushing into me and propelling me back to the shore before I realized what was happening to me. It is one of the most demanding sports I have ever tried.

That until some minutes later I managed to push myself up on my feet and float. I even managed to look left and right and see the waves guiding me, carrying me now gently. I had found balance. Now, once this happens, you’ll probably not want to get out of the water anymore. Not all waves are surfable, I found out. You have to wait for the right one, patiently. And when it comes, you only have few seconds to stand up and enjoy one of the greatest feelings of freedom there is other than a hearty canter. One gets pretty addicted to it. Chances are you’ll find yourself eager to surf another wave, and another and another (and most likely get very dizzy while waiting and looking at them coming) and experience sadness when the instructor waves (haha) that you can only ride a last one before going out of the water. This was money well spent (+/- 45 euros).

surf cape town

However entertaining trying to keep your feet on a floating board and drinking fair amounts of salty water may seem, my favourite activity in Cape Town and surroundings is no doubt wine tasting. If there’s one thing South Africa is not short of, it’s wine farms. Here’s an interesting fact: there are roughly 900 of them in the Cape Town area, half of which within less than 2h drive. Load shedding? Who cares when there’s so much wine to make you forget about it? An estimated 1,400 types of wines are available just for you.

After a classic one day wine tasting tour with Wine Flies, I decided to book a two-day wine tasting tour with the same guys called “The Forgotten Route”. I was completely seduced by this incursion into South African richness and diversity that Wine Flies offers. It would be reductive to view this as a wine drinking experience. The tour is travel in time, an original and unforgettable journey that is informative, entertaining and local. It takes you through vineyards bordered by mountains, you’ll taste sense-awakening red wine and homemade cupcakes, you’ll embark the famous Shosholoza Meyl train and cross the Karoo to Matjiesfontein – a city filled with ghost stories where you overnight and enjoy a braai under a starlit sky (weather permitting). There will certainly be laughter around the fire and good memories to carry back.

In my eyes, South Africa’s Karoo is a place like no other. It’s where freedom becomes an almost tangible reality and exposes its share beauty: endless sky and Earth uniting somewhere in an incredibly far distance. Only there can one understand and appreciate the meaning of deep quietness and the charming eeriness of the wide open.

karoo

IMG_3270

I came back to Brussels with a basketful of sweet Cape Town memories (and a luggage filled with sand from Camps Bay, Llandudno and Clifton 4th beaches which had willy nilly glued to my belongings). I took the aerial cable to reach the top of Table Mountain, this time to discover there was indeed a view – possibly one of the most spectacular in the world (last time I hiked it, but the place was so foggy I couldn’t see my feet), watched the sun setting from Signal Hill (take a ride with the night bus), had seafood, game, potjekos and happily found the curry chicken with pap on the Shosholoza Meyl train (the food is unbelievably good and cheap), listened to Jeremy Loops rehearsing for his concert in the Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens, had Hunter’s Dry on a balcony overlooking Table Mountain, listened to the sounds of Xhosa clicks on my bus rides (use a rechargeable MyCity card for easy travel in the city), saw a shark up close (yes, yes, shark cage diving with a wakeup call at 4 am), and finally visited Robben Island. When in Cape Town one never runs out of options. I know I always have something to come back to.

IMG_2832

IMG_20150408_180624

IMG_2666

On the one side, Table Mountain. On the other, the Atlantic. They melt into one, building on the strength and character that makes this city a breathtaking place. No doubt, Cape Town got into my skin with its range of seductive exhibits. It is a place of unique variety. Apart from the stunning vistas, Cape Town has a lot to come to terms with. But if you are a nature and wildlife lover and still want to be in a city, Cape Town is a hard one to beat.

IMG_2905

IMG_2755

I stayed at the Amber Tree Lodge, a most charming hostel I cannot praise enough set in a wonderful location with numerous restaurants and a MyCity bus stop right across the street.

 

No Rhino, No Savannah – Donate for #JustOneRhino

We live in a strange world. Old traditions and beliefs are hard to kill. Rhinos and wildlife, on the contrary, are easy to do in. One by one by one, a rhino is poached every 7 hours in South Africa, keeping alive the wrong assumption that the keratin in their horns has miraculous healing properties to fuel the  Vietnamese and Chinese markets , or again profiting terrorism.

#JustOneRhinoWell, there is no such thing as a miracle when it comes to the fate of the rhino, unfortunately. Alone, facing its main and only predator – the man with guns, axes and hatchets – rhinos will disappear off the face of the Earth. Now, take a moment to imagine what that would be like.

You don’t have to be an animal lover to understand that we’re facing a crisis here and that if the rhino goes extinct as a species, this will have a domino effect on the entire African ecosystem. This Planet needs all its species, Mother Nature has an unbeatable logic where everything falls in place and makes sense. Break the balance and we’re all in trouble.

Rhinos ensure plant diversity so that many other animals can survive. They act as “keystone species” in a very complex and meaningful environment. Let rhinos die and you’ll have to witness a totally different South African landscape – a very empty one.

So let’s bring a little contribution to save what is left of the rhino population! The campaign #JustOneRhino has been set up to help translocate rhinos from South Africa where they’re being hunted more than ever (a 50% increase has been registered since 2012) to a safe haven in Botswana. Taking #JustOneRhino there costs $45,000. We need your help to make this happen. There’s a big team behind this project, including Green Travel Media,  Travelers Building ChangeRhinos Without Borders, sponsors and over 120 bloggers from everywhere. We really care about them and hope you care, too!

Here’s another reason why you should donate: when you do, you become eligible to win some extraordinary prizes. This is what you could win, if you donate as little as $20 to support #JustOneRhino.

International Expeditions-  http://www.ietravel.com/ 

10-day Galapagos Voyage for one. Value $5,298
Full Trip Details found here.

Adventure Life- www.adventure-life.com

South Africa Big Five Safari: Kruger & KwaZulu-Natal + Swag Bag for 2 people. Value $5000
Full Trip Details found here.

Cobblers Cove Hotel, Barbados- http://www.cobblerscove.com/

Seven nights bed and breakfast in a Garden View suite. Value $5,187

Yemaya Island Hideaway & Spa, Nicaragua- www.littlecornhotel.com

10 nights’ stay & wellness package for two people at Yemaya Island Hideaway and Spa on Little Corn Island, Nicaragua. Value $5,241

Secret Retreats- www.secret-retreats.com

  • Vouchers for 2 people at Bali Jiwa Villain in Bali, Indonesia.  Value $1,000
  • (2) Vouchers for 2 people at The Scent Hotel in Koh Samui, Thailand. Total Value $3000 ($1,500 for each 2-person package)
  • Vouchers for 2 people at 4 Rivers Floating Lodge, Koh Kong, Cambodia. Value $900
  • Vouchers for 2 people at Flower Island, Palawan, Philippines   Value $900
Sponsors JustOneRhino

For having seen these wonderful, impressive animals in the wild, I refuse to passively accept the fact that I might only see them in pictures one day. So I’m making my donation and try to spread the word…it’s the only power I have in my hands right now. But I’m sure there are many of you out there who can do more. Well, the time is now: this fundraiser closes on 1st March. Donate on the Travelers Building Change website.

Rhino in the sun

Rhino in the sun

#JustOneRhino – “Rhino extinction is not an option”

Photo courtesy Susan Portnoy - The Insatiable Traveler

Photo courtesy Susan Portnoy – The Insatiable Traveler

I am one of the 120 something bloggers from all over the world who campaign for #JustOneRhino – a fundraiser supported by Green Travel Media and Travelers Building Change. #JustOneRhino, the project we have at heart right now, aims to help Rhinos Without Borders raise money to translocate 100 rhinos from South Africa – where a rhino is killed every 7 minutes (a reality that gives me chills down my spine) – to Botswana, Africa’s safest place for this endangered species so far. The project is steered by wildlife conservationists Beverly and Dereck Joubert – National Geographic Explorers in Residence and founders of Great Plain Foundations – people who are thoroughly dedicated to saving rhinos from extinction.

Try as we might, it is hard and often beyond our possibilities as individuals to stop the poaching, change mentalities, make people understand once and for all that rhino horns DO NOT have aphrodisiac or healing properties, or efficiently fight against illegal ivory trade. We’re also critically running out of time. Rhinos are disappearing fast: reports show that we’ve already lost 107 since the beginning of the year. We can’t change these numbers anymore. What we can do, however, is move these animals to a place where they can be protected and live.

For this to happen, we need money – “shipping” #JustOneRhino to Botswana costs $45,000. It is pricey and difficult, but it is essential if we want to secure a future for these majestic creatures which are priceless to the African landscape and the savannah ecosystem.

Rhinos have been around for 40,000 years and they need to stay with us. We must give them a chance! Help us to keep them alive, as many as we can. Donate here and contribute to this major importance project that is rhino translocation. In exchange for your contribution, you have the chance to win some extraordinary prizes (see below) – #JustOneRhino is supported by some amazing sponsors, and we are very grateful for their generosity.

These are some of the prizes at stake (but there are more). All you have to do is  donate on the Travelers Building Change websiteYou will receive “tickets” – a $20 donation gives you the right to 10 entries, $30 to 20 entries, $50 to 30, etc. and you get to choose the top 3 prizes you would like to win. The fundraiser closes on 1st March, so hurry up! The prizes will be drawn randomly; the winners will be announced on 3rd March, World Wildlife Day.

International Expeditions-  http://www.ietravel.com/
10-day Galapagos Voyage for one. Value $5,298
Full Trip Details found here
.
 
Adventure Life- www.adventure-life.com

South Africa Big Five Safari: Kruger & KwaZulu-Natal + Swag Bag for 2 people. Value $5000
Full Trip Details found here

– Cobblers Cove Hotel, Barbados- http://www.cobblerscove.com/
Seven nights bed and breakfast in a Garden View suite. Value $5,187

– Yemaya Island Hideaway & Spa, Nicaragua- www.littlecornhotel.com

10 nights’ stay & wellness package for two people at Yemaya Island Hideaway and Spa on Little Corn Island, Nicaragua. Value $5,241

– Secret Retreats- www.secret-retreats.com
• Vouchers for 2 people at Bali Jiwa Villain in Bali, Indonesia.  Value $1,000
• (2) Vouchers for 2 people at The Scent Hotel in Koh Samui, Thailand. Total Value $3000 ($1,500 for each 2-person package)
• Vouchers for 2 people at 4 Rivers Floating Lodge, Koh Kong, Cambodia. Value $900 
• Vouchers for 2 people at Flower Island, Palawan, Philippines   Value $900 
Sponsors JustOneRhino

Will you help us, too, to lift up our rhino and take it somewhere safe? Become a #JustOneRhino contributor – every rhino counts!

Last but not least, no one can give you better insight into why your help is needed than the founders of the project themselves. Have a look and spread the word!

*The quote in the title belongs to Dereck Joubert

SA14. Cape Town Encompassed

Cape Town view from Table Mountain

Cape Town view from Table Mountain

Another early morning wake-up call and a busy day ahead: we start with a vigorous hike up the Table Mountain. But where is Table Mountain? For having seen it so many times from afar and even yesterday when we arrived in Cape Town, I could have sworn it was there. Somehow, it had disappeared in the dense clouds that were hovering above our heads and the mist that decided to ruin our hike that day. Going up a mountain we couldn’t even see: we were bound for another once in a lifetime experience.

Misfortune rarely comes alone, so I have to drag myself with high fever, too. It is cold, humid, windy, foggy and the grey air smells very much like upcoming rain. Since we had experienced lovely hot weather all the other days, we are not properly dressed for the hike either: in short, all is wrong. However, we climb.

Spooky Table Mountain

Spooky Table Mountain

Table Mountain is not very high (only 1100m and the top is, no surprise here, flat as a table), but that does not make the climb any easier. The rocks pile up in an irregular flight of stairs that make me discover muscles that I had never suspected to have before: some steps are smaller, some much bigger, meaning that it is impossible to find a repetitive rhythm to which the feet could eventually adjust. Though we are not in high altitude, we are soon left breathless. Not by the view, though, since we are not able to see anything one meter in front of us. This said, despite the exceptionally crap weather that denies us an enjoyable walk, the path is busy with locals jogging up and down the mountain. Whom we don’t truly see until they come really close to us, gradually starting to look like human figures as they run their way through the mist.

We, on the contrary, go up pole pole style, following Takalani’s advice more than ever, the one behind the other. Again, the same pattern occurs: some go faster, some very slow and others are somewhere in the middle. At one point I am alone, or maybe not, but hard to tell in that fog. I hear the baboons somewhere close. For all the love I have towards my camera, I do consider to use it as self-defence device, if need be. The mist gets us terribly wet and the cold bites into the skin when we stop. We forget that the view was the initial and probably the only reason for our climb, without which the purpose of us being up there gets blurry, too. Unless a miracle happens, there will be no picture with the view today. Having put that aside, the remaining motivation is to reach that flat top as soon as possible and have a hot chocolate. Only chocolate could make things right again.

There was only one path, so in theory it would have been hard for me (or anyone to that) to get lost, though I couldn’t see or hear anyone around. I would, however, perfectly manage to lose myself on the mountain during the Inca trail in Peru 8 months later, as I was travelling with 15 other people and 3 mountain guides. When there’s a will, there’s a way! Still, two of us are missing; we would find them safe and sound at the descent, so we are again “all in” as Takalani makes sure when he locks us up in the truck. To get down, we used the Aerial Cableway, which, I read on Google later, offers a splendid view of the area. Now, we might have been dropped in a bottomless pit. Table Mountain just wouldn’t reveal itself to us that day.

Takalani, whose face expression reflected nothing else but sheer joy after such an invigorating morning start, drives us out of Cape Town. The sky finally clears out and the sun shines once more. Outside, the landscape is racing past the window. What I see is beauty beyond belief: string of beaches of white and golden sand, green mountain crests, still steaming with mist in the distance, the Ocean in at least two-tone colours that could have been photoshopped – was I hallucinating from the fever?
Cape Town, South Africa
Cape Town, South AfricaEverything is visually so rich with diversity that we are literally stupefied and some of us cannot hold it anymore. Juliana sticks her head out the window and yells: “South Africa, I love you! I will be back, I promise.” Juliana and her family are from Singapore and they have been travelling extensively around the world. They placed South Africa in the top three countries that delighted them the most. For the record: I am not the only SA freak!

In and out the city there’s constant movement. People were practising water activities that I could not even name. Others were jogging, roller blading, ski boarding, doing yoga, chasing seagulls or simply walking, admiring the high waves of the Atlantic. Though I was stuck in the truck, I felt carried away by all that inspiring energy and was envious of this sort of freedom that seemed so natural and accessible to all.

Takalani parks and starts pouring instructions into us. We’re exhausted from the hike and we would have gladly just fainted somewhere in the sun. But there’s more walking to be done. We are at the Cape of Good Hope, Bartolomeu Dias’s discovery in 1488. Before going past the Dias beach, a superb spot for surfers and an enchanting sight for any landscape-hungry tourist, we climb upwards to the Cape Point lighthouse. As if the feet could still respond to my will. Now we have a view!
Cape of Good Hope

Overlooking Dias beach, Cape of Good Hope

Overlooking Dias beach, Cape of Good Hope

Cape of Good Hope, South Africa
That day, we also paid a short visit to a penguin colony. In the evening, Takalani holds a speech to mark our last dinner together. Apart from his sincere appreciation of having guided such a wonderful group like ours, he asks THE question that must have crossed our minds more than once during this tour:

Cool Drifters guide having a break.

Cool Drifters guide having a break.

“Why do you people want to walk? I’ve been walking my whole life. I walked to go to school when I was a child. I walk as a tour guide. I walk all the time. You must be sitting down too much in your countries.”

Takalani is a very lucid person. A man a few words, but which he uses well. Who knows what humour is and “most especially” when to use it. Who, apart from doing a great job at driving around a bunch of people coming from everywhere and showing them his country, also knew how to treat us all as individuals, paying attention to pronounce our names correctly though we had constantly messed up his. Who at 32 has developed more skills than most men in Europe and who did his tasks without showing how difficult they really were. A person whom I find reliable enough to cross the whole of Africa with. Maybe Takalani did not do all that walking for nothing: he did go to the right school.

The next morning is day one till departure. To lighten up the spirits a little bit, Takalani drives us to a wine farm where we have wine tasting at 10 a.m. The five samples that we are allowed to sip cause me to laugh at any remark that could have potentially been a joke. Some go red in the face. I would stick to Pinotage as my favourite discovery, though I’m sure that more extensive research would have been necessary to find the perfect flavour. We also visit Franschhoek, another very different looking site from what we’ve seen before. European Africa greets us once more. The houses must have been pretty expensive in that area – everything was neat, cute, flowery, white, and Frenchy. There’s no debate as to South Africa’s beauty and variety (or I’m ready to defend them fiercely) – it could be a place for everyone.

Back to our Cape Town base, we have dinner right across from the building where we were overnighting. Out of the hundreds of choices that I am sure the city has to offer, the great majority settles for the safest and easiest option. My friend from Escape4Africa, who had patiently taken me through all the booking procedures before I arrived and ensured I’d make it back to Europe as the living proof that survival is possible, is kind enough to take me to a random club for a beer – a bit further than the fence that was withholding me.

Next morning I pack, to go home this time. No more eccentric trip to breathtaking places, no more animal, no more danger, scorpions and everything that fascinated me so much as a visitor to this country. I will be flying for 19 hours and a half with Turkish Airlines, via Istanbul. There’s still time to take a bus tour of Cape Town. From the top deck, I try to memorise and immortalize the city with my camera. We go past District Six which inspired District 9 – one of the most successful local movie productions, and I discover where Wilbur Smith’s residence is – one of the greatest adventure writers alive, whose sagas, I believe, may easily turn into an African blockbuster at least the size of “Lord of the Rings”, should his books be adapted into a film one day.

One hour to go. I step off the double-decker and spend it sitting in the grass and looking at the ocean. I’m not sure one can have enough of that view, of the waves that rise, foam and then disappear. I stopped taking pictures because the essence of Cape Town is hard to frame into series of snapshots. One more look behind. I did not visit Robben Island on purpose. With the self-promise that I will go back. Time will tell.
Cape Town, South Africa

SA13: Oh, Cape Town! My Cape Town!

South Africa_Cape Town view

I saw “Searching for Sugar Man” some six months after I came back from South Africa. I did not realize how much the place had stayed with me until the opening scene of the documentary plunged me back on the same road that I was now taking to Cape Town with the Drifters. I remembered the excitement which took over all of us at seeing Cape Town from afar.

Considered to be one of the 10 must-see cities in the world according to Lonely Planet 2014, Cape Town has such a variety of visiting sites and activities to offer that spending only three days there felt like what Al Pacino was referring to as “the goof of all time” in “The Devil’s Advocate”: “Look but don’t touch. Touch, but don’t taste. Taste, but don’t swallow.” We knew for sure that the following days would leave us drooling over everything we would not have had the chance to experience.

No hurry to get to the city center though. The road from which Cape Town looked like a white line drawn between the ocean and the sky was an ecstatic experience in itself: on the left side of the truck, the rays of sun were sparkling in the blue and green water of the Atlantic; on the right side, huge rocks were reaching towards the light-blue sky. We might as well have been transported on a magic, though bumpy carpet. It felt strangely close to flying.

South Africa_Road to Cape Town

Lovers, passers-by have drawn hearts or written their names with black marker on the stones that border the side of the road. It is an unexpected sight. Maybe they, too, caught in the beauty of the place, set their minds on returning someday to look for lost traces.

Cape Town, contrastively, has the vibe of a city that moves into the future, as we were to see later on. When we arrive at Sea Point, we only have time for a very quick shower, an absolute must for everyone’s sake. The road had been long and we had all been generously stewing in the overheated army truck. It’s summer in December in South Africa. We rush out and take calculated turns to shower so as to be ready at the appointed time. One of the best things about organized group tours is that the schedule must be relatively respected by everyone. We rarely end up waiting for someone and never for too long.
Cape Town South Africa
The drawback, however, is that you are equally dependent on the group to some extent, which largely diminishes freedom of movement, but does not incapacitate it. Just in case the thought might have slipped anyone’s mind, we are set into the touristic context and are brought to the notorious (I believe, since South Africans tend to do the “Aaaa” sound when I mention it) restaurant “Mama Africa”. We take several taxis to get there. I quickly befriend the black taxi driver: he speaks French and has already been to Belgium. He leaves me his card in case I might need a ride later. He does not like Cape Town and had been trying to get out of there for seven years. I am on holiday, so for me all is pinkish, even in the darkness of the streets on which he’s driving us. Being a tourist is a privileged position.

My first memory of “Mama Africa” is the live music and the truly exceptional singer animating the evening. The drums were loud and the singer’s voice was powerful enough to crack the walls. Maybe it had. He was not using a microphone (or else we might have gone deaf) and was waving his arms around freely, making up his own show. I bet he could have been hired by any European opera; I have never heard anything like it before. His notes were absolutely hair-raising – my indicator that something is close to perfection. The food was good but the show was even better. All the more so since Takalani, manifestly sensitive to the African beat, started to dance, joining the group of entertainers. It was a great night.

I did not realize that half of the group was already gone, so much was I enjoying myself, when I saw Janos’s panic so clearly disturbing his face expression and heard him say: “Where’s everyone? Where did Takalani go? How do we go back?” He was losing it. Takalani was in fact gradually sending back part of the herd by taxis, and he did so discretely with those who had finished and paid for their meals. I was lost to the African music and did not realize he was calling it a night. Until Janos’s face called for immediate attention: there was “emergency” written all over it, red light and everything. While I was happily relaxed and would have gladly been ready to discover a local night club or any other less touristy location, Janos was scared to be left behind in the big wild city of Cape Town at night.

I start to laugh, enjoying this unexpected reaction which catapults me to the opposite pole, making me look naively trustful all of a sudden. “Hey, it’s all good, even if they go away, we can stay longer. I have the number of a taxi driver, he seemed all right and he’ll drive us to the B&B.” The moment creates an opening for me to make fun of Janos for the rest of our days in South Africa and my guess is that he was grateful that the trip was coming to an end.

When we entered the Drifters B&B’s courtyard at Sea Point it was 10 p.m. The Germans were out having beer around the table, while the others disappeared in their rooms. I was among the last ones to be transferred from the restaurant. In that pleasurable warm breeze, livened up by the holiday mood and the excitement of a place I had not yet had the chance to explore, neither the courtyard, nor the room loomed appealing to me. Our B&B was just one minute away from the main ocean promenade. I ask if anyone wanted to have a walk but all I get back is dumbfounded looks as if my question had some sort of perverted indecency about it.

“Now? But it’s dangerous! “

That was enough for me to grab my camera, wish my companions a very nice evening and go towards the secured gate beyond which my freedom was waiting. Groans and words of discouragement, like I was about to jump off a cliff. Before I leave the scene, Dieter, 50 something and some experience of how to enjoy life, volunteers to accompany me. Janos is suddenly encouraged by our joint suicidal impulse and decides to come with us after all. I feared that the stress would cause him to talk even more and probably faster, if such a thing was even possible.

Few things are as magic as being by the side of the Ocean on a warm summer night. We had ice-creams and walked the streets until we found a local bar and had beers. People were very friendly and smiled to us – Janos let his guard down.

“I actually think that Cape Town is a rather safe place. I feel safe here. I’ve been in other European cities and it didn’t feel as safe as here, “ he says. Dieter and I exchange looks. Subsequent burst of laughter, of course.

We were the only ones in our group to have experienced a tiny little bit of Sea Point, Cape Town by night. After having been in the wilderness, it is the human jungle that was putting my travel mates’ touristic zeal to a test. Ever since, people’s choices of destinations and the complexity of travelling as a social behaviour have been fascinating me. Like Rodriguez, I wonder. It took some of us as much as 19 hours flight to go back to places we call home. Table Mountain’s next.

SA12: Garden Route for Christmas

IMG_5986

The wilderness, forests, desert, beach, mountain…what to expect from this Garden Route we were now driving towards? Everyone in the Karoo (that is all the three people we had left there) seemed to place a high premium on it. When Takalani pulled in front of the Drifters Knysna Lodge (say ‘naisna’), we knew that for the next three days, we would relax. For having slept on a wooden bench back in the camping days, we were now re-discovering the pleasures of comfort. The Wi-Fi, too, to the point of almost spending Christmas Eve in sheer non-communication, wired. The lodge also offered a surreal view of the bay, on which the light continuously altered colours, from dusk till dawn.

IMG_5990

We are in the well-off people’s South African zone. Compared to the townships we passed by that stretched far into the horizon, Knysna might well be the African version of Monaco: rather posh and jet-set, perfectly safe to walk at night, a place for rich (and almost exclusively) white people. Boats and yachts of different sizes ornament the shore. As if to spoil the flawlessness a bit, it starts to rain substantially, compromising the chances to walk part of the “Otter trail” in the Tsitsikamma National Park, as foreseen in the planning.

Turns out we’re going for it anyway, with one slightly less motivated Takalani – for having followed him for some days now, I know for a fact that he does not like to walk, and he moderately appreciates standing out in the rain (same as everyone else). Now that we were about to start a three-hour walk under the rain, Takalani was all-focused on how to contain his enthusiasm best. While in the Drakensberg he announced a hike for the relatively fit which turned out to be a Koh-Lanta challenge or close to an assault course for some, he now warns us about a very difficult trail ahead.

IMG_5807

“Hé guys”, says he in the whipping rain and wind before giving the green light to our new bit of  adventure, “this is a dangerous trek. We must walk on rocks; some of them are sharp and will be slippery on this kind of weather. And in some places, if you fall, you can really break something.” Eyes blink on blank faces. “Most of you don’t have trekking shoes, so pay attention. Those who don’t want to come, please, don’t take risks.” The line breaks at once and we have volunteers for standing aside and waiting. The rest of us give it a try; after all, we can always come back, should the attempt truly reveal itself audacious. Break a leg?

IMG_5867

IMG_5877

IMG_5883

Off we go, impossibly wet and in two minds about Taki’s speech. The road is beautiful, but we not dare to enjoy it too much at this stage, still expecting the worse to come. Indeed, the rocks are slippery and putting one foot in front of the other requires careful consideration for balance. Gradually, we understand that the secret is to move pole pole, slowly, cautiously. Also, put the camera in the day pack.

The end of the trail rewards us with a splendid view of a cascade (a surprise that our jewel of a guide has kept from us on purpose, doubling the joy of our discovery. The strategist in him might have also wanted to avoid giving us reasons to speed up). We are caught between a strongly agitated Ocean and a small and tranquil waterfall; Takalani and I sit down to contemplate the infinite field of water.

IMG_5900

“Where does all this water come from?” the Vanda boy loses himself in reflectiveness.

“I don’t know,” I reply, adding up an extra layer to the profusion of the moment.

IMG_5919

The hike was magnificent, an absolute must-do worth every step, every hand grip on the wet and cold stones, every little loss of balance and the inherent accelerated heartbeat. We were feeling mighty and wet in the mist that engulfed us and the coast.

On the way back to the comfy lodge we stop in the Tsitsikamma Khoisan village, the entry point to the world’s highest bungee jumping: 216m from the Bloukrans Bridge. The jump may be high, but the price wasn’t any lower! Watching people throw themselves off that bridge, one after the other, queuing up for it, was quite the show. Now, if I could have potentially handled the jump, I am not sure how I would have dealt with the stress of waiting in that line, though. Instead, I went to the cafeteria to watch on a giant screen those who had nothing better to do that day than go down into the void head first, tight to a rope that would hopefully pull back after reaching its limit.

Knysna is where I also discovered that Christmas is much holier when celebrated in the sun, on the beach. No carols, no tree, no presents – long live the Christmas suntan! The water was limb-freezing cold and the sharks might have been a bit of a spoiler, though: I had been swimming for a while when I finally noticed that everyone else was perfectly lined up at the same level along the shore, waist-deep in the water. I paddled back for my life when I understood why.

In the evening, Takalani took us to one of the best local restaurants. On the menu: zebra steak. Even though I like to think of myself as a sworn non-horse eater or the like, fork and knife in hand I ended up savouring the tenderest meat I have ever known. The worst is that I enjoyed it!

Come the night, we walked the streets. Because we could. Knysna made us forget that we were on the African continent. This is the beauty of South Africa: it is Europe and Africa combined, put in a bowl and shaken in the same way in which you’d prepare a cocktail. Things found a place of their own upon falling randomly. And the dazzling diversity ensued.

IMG_5991

Cape Town is our next and last stop in this journey. Just when I thought things could not get any better…

SA11. Karoo. Where Earth meets Sky

South Africa_clouds

South Africa pretty much had me head over heels so far. Still, from all that superb variety that left me open-mouthed every too often emerged one place that I was finally not so crazy about: the small, almost horrifyingly perfect little village of Clarens in the Free State province. The taste of the wilderness still fresh on our lips, we are being dropped in Barbieland.  Now, I wasn’t very fond of playing with dolls’ houses as a kiddo either, but coming straight from the unspoiled nature, this looked too blatantly touristy, exclusivist and posh-European. Takalani is the sole black figure in the middle of this artificiality, but he is not the only one who does not fit in. I want back in the bush, me thinks.

It’s a short stop, so hopefully we clear off before we actually bump into Ken. The good thing about Clarens, though, is that there are lots of carriages. Hence horses. I pass the time by going to the local supermarket to buy apples for me and whatever horse was at a standstill. After a fancy lunch, it’s time to jump back in our dusty, rusty vehicle and feel a little dirty, sweaty, African and adventurous again.

South Africa_Drifters on the table

Tonight we rest at a farm near Ladybrand. With a wake-up call scheduled for 4 a.m., by far the earliest during this tour. We step into the B&B and the storm bursts right behind us: thunders, wind, and the violent rain start to lash the dusty roads and the horizon: I decide to be the contrast of this tormented view and install myself calmly on the hotel’s porch to just sit and watch. It’s the day before the End of the World, the 2013 edition, so dinner conversation turns mainly around the topic. After the storm, the sky takes a vivid pinkish-red-orange colour, a very unusual one, to say the least. Takalani, which has now completely recovered from the Drakensberg hike, is in high spirits again: “I’m telling you guys, something’s cooking. I’ve been here in Africa forever, never seen a sky like this.” While I was exploring the house, I came across a pretty nice wine cellar. I know where I’ll end up, if the Mayas leave me no other option.

IMG_5663

I almost fell asleep when the alarm clock went off. We get into the truck sleep walking, much before sunrise, which is usually early enough in Africa. We are the 21st December 2013, the D Day when we are all programmed to die, but before, we all want some decent sleep. The sun breaks through the clouds and the last day on Earth officially begins.

Lullaby atmosphere in the truck; Takalani drives in silence, rocking us gently as he goes. We have a long driving day today to the Karoo desert. A peaceful, uneventful ride.

Or not. Takalani makes the first stop, only there’s no gas station or anything that could justify it. To the left, field of cows . To the right, the highway. This means no coffee yet, so Takalani will have to put up with at least one grumpy passenger. Still, he might have a reason. And a good one to that: the truck is having some issues. Issues that prevent us from moving further at the moment. Takalani  makes use of his multiple talents:  after the driver, the guide, the hiker, the cook, the storyteller, etc., here is Takalani, the mechanic.

IMG_5685

We, on the other hand, do a good job at being the tourists. Some of us cluster around the truck as if staring at the engine would put it back on the wheels. Takalani is ordinarily not very talkative, but now he’s deep into a disapproving kind of silence. Whatever he is in the middle of fixing, it will not last long, I suspect. After some kilometres, it breaks down again.

The trouble with South Africa is that between points A and B there’s usually a wide distance. On this lovely summer day, out truck has evidently a serious problem. Implicitly, so do we. An expert’s intervention is required, only they don’t grow on the side of the road in South Africa either. Whoever is capable of repairing this truck needs to take a flight from Johannesburg and somehow reach us in the nowhereness we’re currently waiting and stewing. But first, that person would need to pick up the god damn phone.

Finally, Takalani manages to make contact with the mechanic: the latter cannot make it before the next day, of course. Whatever Afro-magic spell Takalani whispers to the engine, he throws himself behind the wheel again and drives, slowly, very slowly, starting to sing – a stress-related impulse, I take it. For all the numerous qualities that Takalani has been endowed with, evidence hit me upon hearing him that the man ain’t no singer. The end or not the end, he is capable of causing a calamity by himself when he sings. Thank God I charged my iPod.

Slowly, extremely slowly, Takalani covers the hundreds of kilometres that take us to our final destination, the Karoo Lodge. So this is where we will spend the last hopefully happy moments: in the desert. We look around at 360°: there’s absolutely no one but us in that area. Apart from some springboks, impalas, ostriches and certainly some snakes and scorpions. And our three hosts. The closest village is 40 km away. It feels like being in the middle of a gigantic plate: all is flat, wide and…desert.

South Africa_Karoo_Drifters lodge

The probability that tomorrow might not come drives us all into the bar, which also happens to be the only attraction in town. The hosts do their best to keep us entertained with music and drinks: we are indeed their only clients. Jake, the all-rounder of the business, is a very gifted guitar player. As he warms up his fingers to touch the strings, Takalani explodes in contagious laughter. We have a hard time finding the root cause.

“My brother, I have never seen a white man with a guitar before,” comes the answer to the riddle. Takalani is bent in half, laughing his head off, hitting the wooden bar with his palm. Jake used to play in a band, so he’s truly amazing and Takalani is caught into his music. A lot of supposedly famous SA songs happen. We obviously cannot know the texts. Takalani, however, is in perfect command of the lyrics and slightly less of himself, which gives way to a spectacular performance. Never before have we seen him in such an elevated state of mind. Nor will we ever again. Because I left my camera in the room.

One particular song excites Takalani above average. Come the refrain, the lyrics of which I have a hard time distinguishing, since it’s in Afrikaans, my guide gets uncontainably passionate and sings from the top of his lungs. There’s some passionate head moving involved, too. Clearly, this touches a sensitive chord with him. I focus to understand what it says, but all I get is something similar to “dia- rhee” repeated over a number of times. After a lot of research on the possible combinations of sounds that I thought I heard, I managed to find, back at home, the song that got my Takalani so out of himself.

Little did I know about the polemics that the song fuelled in South Africa and abroad. Here’s an interesting read that might shed some light and certainly some understanding on the “De la Rey” revolution: http://www.theguardian.com/world/2007/feb/26/music.southafrica

Glad that we made it till dark, I leave the team and go to bed, head torch on. The next day was a relaxing and a funny one. Relaxing because in the desert you can only become good at one thing and that is doing nothing and funny because that was how some of us looked like as a result of too much singing. As the evening was falling on the desert plain again, another show was being put on, this time at a distance.

As far as the eye can stretch, there’s nothing but sky and earth, a view occasionally dotted by hopping springboks and impalas. The wide screen of the sky makes room for several meteorological phenomena one next to the other, which we look at as if in front of a TV: on one half, we can see how the rain is actually pouring down and on the other the sun continues to shine on its blue backdrop. The gradation of colours creates an absolutely stunning visual effect. It almost overshadowed Takalani’s take on “De la Rey”.

South Africa_Karoo_rain

As for the lightning, I never knew that it could strike for so long and so often. For almost half an hour, we all played at catching the best one on camera.

South Africa_Karoo_lightening South Africa_Karoo_rainbow

And after a rainy night, we were blessed with a bright day and the outline of the perfect rainbow. The quality of the light in the desert is divine:  backed up by the clear blue of the sky and reflected by the bright yellow of the sandy soil, it is manna for the photographers.

Time to put Karoo behind and go back to civilisation.South Africa_Karoo1

IMG_3432

SA10. Discover the Drakensberg

IMG_5437

Lying on the beach or trekking in the mountains? If you’re the fussy kind of tourist, South Africa has placed the Indian Ocean and the Drakensberg mountains within few hours’ distance, so that you can make the most of both worlds on the same day. This, however, implies having a vehicle that is slightly faster than the one we’re now crossing this magnificent stretch of land in. Doing 100 km in 50 minutes, the normal travel time on a Belgian highway with a normal car and an equally normal driver does not exactly find its South African echo right now. In the absence of a miracle that would propel us towards where we are headed, I speak the magic words to myself: sit back and relax. Always works when one has travelled for so long. I was now also adding “and enjoy Takalani’s house music that is resolutely submerging the vehicle and all the living creatures in it” to this yogist formula.

But where’s the hurry? With such landscape, it does not really matter whether we actually get somewhere. The changing moods of the ski make everything else around insignificant: there’s nothing more tangible right now that the present change of the colours in the open veld. The snaps in my camera convince me that I’m not dreaming: every minute looks different from the other. Nature plays at decorating the background, getting us drunk-happy with the beauty of the show.

South Africa

South Africa

We reach a point where we must leave the highway behind and take 4x4s: only they can carry us high up the rugged and swampy mountain paths. For having been transported between so many points by now, I got used to being the marionette in the hands of the puppeteer. I don’t know where I am, but whoever pulls the invisible strings and puts me in such locations, please carry on. Let the shades of green rule for the next two days.

What I believe happened is that we’re all dead and we somehow made it to Paradise. The family who welcomes us insists that we’re at the Drifters Lodge in the Central Drakensberg, KwaZulu Natal, 1800 meters above sea level. I don’t even want to locate my position and anchor myself into any kind of reality that might indicate later on that I was merely daydreaming. In this perfect, most likely virtual 3D environment that has temporarily been created for us until game over, it’s just us, a nice family with dogs and unfenced horses. Utopia.

South Africa_Drakensberg

The real part though is that there’s no electricity, no modern devices, no Wi-Fi. Even now that we’re disconnected from all realities, Takalani still briefs us for some distant time he calls “tomorrow”. He goes on in the candle light.

“Hé guys, tomorrow we go trekking up the mountain.”

Ahum. So far so good. Once the sentence is over, though, we all look at Takalani as if we suffer from acute short-sightedness or poor hearing. Or both. Somehow, such a short word as “hike” among so many others in the original briefing document did not get to us properly, I deem, judging by everyone’s transfixed expression. We wait, hunger for the precious details so torturously kept by Takalani, the guardian of tomorrow’s secrets. What we think is: for how long, how high up, why.

That we might have come unprepared for this becomes a certain fact when Takalani asks if we have trekking shoes. No, we don’t. Since none of us is English native, really, we might have interpreted “hike” as a sort of leisure walk. The actual meaning would stay with us forever.

Takalani is trying to sound reassuring, feeding us on very small bits of information and leaving the unsaid up to our imagination.

“Eh, it’s not a difficult walk, but it will take most of the day”.

We’re almost reaching precision here. “How much of the day?”

“Eh, almost 7 hours, if all goes well. We climb from 1800 to 2200 metres.”

So if all goes well. Hum.

“Why do we need trekking shoes?”

“Eh, you don’t really need them, but it’s good if you have them.”

By that point of the excursion, it had long become very clear to everyone that whatever we lacked, we just had to do without.

“Some parts of the hike are more difficult than the others,” Takalani dives into in-depth briefing head-on. Now we know.

“Get some rest tonight so that you can be fit.” That’s something we can easily do because we feel crushed with fatigue thanks to the continual displacement, and most especially, to quote the Master, because at candle light there’s not much to do. We drag our feet towards the lodge in blinding darkness. Knowing that the place is scorpion-free releases a bit the pressure of constantly being alert. I manage to wake up at 5 a.m. to catch the sunrise for some seconds: upright, snapshot, pillow.

IMG_5452

“We should be all right, if it does not rain,” Taki greets us in the morning.  Indeed, I was to find out later next year in a different setting just how unpredictable the weather can be on the mountain. “If it rains, we might not be able to climb”. So, que sera, sera is the watchword as we start to move on. Not before wolfing down rusks and fruits and packing some sandwiches just in case we might make it higher that day and still have an appetite.

Our group steadily divides into three. Those who have a quick start: they either fake being fit and therefore will soon fall like flies or they are truly the real thing. And if those who overtake you are close to 60, you’ll have to live with the shame for the rest of your life. There’s the group of the reasonable ones who keep a constant rhythm throughout the journey and save their energy for the “you never know” factor. Last come those who should seriously start doing some exercise when they go back home. We also had those who simply went back.

South Africa_Drakensberg_flowers

I realize a bit late that I only took a small bottle of water. I did pack the sunscreen, though, so at least I don’t risk to get sunburnt.  Picture-stop along the way and Takalani’s explanations about the bushman paintings – the Drakensberg are home to some finely preserved San rock art. As we leave the painted rocks behind, I read “difficult and dangerous” on a board that points to where we’re going. Can’t be. I dismiss the thought.

“Hé guys, this is the most difficult part of the climb. After this, it will be easier.”  The area is so steep that in spite of extreme muscle effort, we look as if we were walking on the Moon.

Takalani, who is not leading the herd anymore and breathes as hopelessly as I do, says that there are leopards sometimes in the Drakensberg. Good, then I can make do of my empty bottle and hit the cat in the head with it until it says “no more”. Or else I am hallucinating from the heat. I also forgot the reason why we were climbing. Maybe it’s just because it was included in the package.

Takalani manages a splendid sequence of good news announcements when he utters: “This is the most dangerous part of the climb, the one that we couldn’t have done if it had been raining.” Well, it isn’t but part of me wishes it were, because we now have to do it.

Juliana and I arrive right behind the 3 guys who move the fastest. The two of us feel shaky. There’s a big void right next to where my feet now stand. I don’t see the bottom of it: it must be either too deep or my vision is blurry from the panic. One wrong move there and I can easily slide down. I am glued against a massive rock which I need to climb. There’s absolutely nothing to hold on to. I crawl on the big rock and I feel the weight of my backpack pulling me slightly back. My veins run dry. My legs are shaking and it’s seriously not the good moment. Juliana and I think the same: is going back an option? Not at that stage. Andreas comes next to us, to “catch” just in case. While I somehow move up without consciously knowing how, a hand reaches out to me from the top. Janos pulls me and I can now enjoy the million rand view. It was well worth it. We have the intoxicating feeling that we have achieved something major. Like surviving.

IMG_5496

Takalani counts us: we’re all there, minus those who decided to return a while back. We move on, hoping to remove the leopard from the equation, too. The walk is indeed too easy after the ascent. Takalani didn’t bring any water at all. He must be suffering; this “Hunger Games” sequence does not look like the environment he’s most comfortable in. We would all be much better off with a beer in the hand, but until then, we need water.

Takalani promises that there is a stream somewhere along the way. “Not far from here” is the best clue we get. This, in our language translates into hours. “We stop for lunch when we reach 2150 metres,” he directs. The peak looks fairly close but seems to move away from us with every step we take.  When we arrive, I drop like a stone – I have reached my limits.

No way, we get up and find that stream. And when we see it, we forget that we cannot walk anymore and start running. We drink and fill the bottles, not giving a damn about water purifying tablets. If poison had been running in that stream, we would have sucked it in. After “hike”, we were now learning “thirst” and discovering the delicious taste of pure water.

“Drink, guys, the water you were carrying is bottled from this stream. Only this one is for free,” laughs this South African devil who still has the strength to poke fun at us.

We come to life again. But the trail is neither over nor getting any easier. We now prepare for the descent, which is physically even more strenuous since the ground is rocky. Every step on the stones is to be carefully measured: sliding equals sprained ankle, especially without the trekking shoes. One behind the other, we go slowly and grow weary and dizzy from all the cautiousness and looking down.

Behind my small group, someone or something is rolling down the mountain. We hear shouts. What is left of my blood freezes in an instant: someone fell. We all stop, not quite knowing whether we have to start running on account of animal attack or go back to offer help. From where we stand, we do not see a thing. We then hear baboons and we understand that it was one of theirs which came down the mountain and might have also scared one of ours. We reach the lodges but we’re not calling it a day yet, because in 20 minutes we have the horse riding. As Gollum would probably put it: “Stupid, greedy touristses!”

A pool or a shower would have obviously made a much better choice, but it would have been a pity not to ride in those fields. We will not gallop, since most of us get on horse for the very first time, so we relax, gently rocked in the saddle. But then there’s Janos and the never-ending noise that surrounds him: after an eight-hour hike, the thirst, the climbing, the descent and the number of hours spent sweating in the heat, and now the horse, he can still speak 10 words a second.  I found a serious competitor.

The end of this magnificent marathon day leaves us with Inge suffering from sunstroke and Paul and Thaddeus officially expressing their intention not to ever trek again. We are surprised, maybe even scared at discovering our own strength. Takalani has no more jokes in store for now.

The next day we leave against our will. On our way to the truck I have a vision: a white horse gallops full speed, a black man in a white shirt on its back, riding as if nothing in this world could stop them. There’s heaven, somewhere between Durban and the Drakensberg.

South Africa_Drakensberg_reflection

SA9. To Durban, with love

IMG_5374
South Africa is an impressive string of contrasts, spectacular scenery, light, space and colours. It vibrates with the energy of its inner struggle to build strong bridges that can hold both past and present while reaching towards the future. It’s a place of almost tangible transformation with a gripping power: the passage leaves durable emotional imprints, whether you witness it from behind the window of a truck in motion, or you taste its great outdoors and boundlessness.

But South Africa is first and foremost about the people. Children rocked to sleep by different stories, songs and heroes. Women who carry huge loads on their heads with enviable balance. People with generous smiles that do not remind of the conformity to social expectations. Incredibly poor people whose single luxury is the freedom to wear their authenticity on their sleeves. People whose encounter impacts and shapes our lives. Yes, the people of South Africa have put a magic spell on me.

And that was before we even met the sangomas in Zululand. They had us make a circle in their hut, threw dice and seashells and coins and whatever else material enables the connection between our souls and the future for them. I must have blurred it with my feeble conviction in their efforts, since their predictions came out somehow improbable. We are however still waiting for the fulfilment of some others, since they have not been nailed to a specific moment in time. Janos, for instance is expected to have a wife and two daughters sometime in the future. Out, out of the hut before they turn me into a frog!

Having definitely crossed off the idea of knowing my future, we leave the sangomas to brush their belongings away and prepare the same performance for the next group, praying they do not curse us for not leaving enough tip. We continue to star in our “tourist in Africa” movie: this time we visit a school, which specifically opened for us on a Sunday, adding up to the genuineness of the decorum.
School in Zululand, South Africa
Until reality hits hard and fast: bare feet, no wooden floor, no computers, no…I would like to believe that the chairs have been left aside to make room for us. No school benches, though. Two blackboards – the inventory is closed. A large group of mixed-age children who hide behind one another, intimidated by our presence, seemingly unbothered by the void that surrounds them. Half of them are orphans but which ones we cannot tell from their warm embraces. Of course they put on a show for us. And of course we give them sweets and leave a small, doubtfully relevant contribution for their uncertain future.

When they start to sing, I get knocked down. Some have voices that would make great number of participants in the X Factor pale. I see that we have unconsciously created two separate camps, the one lined up to face the other, as if mixing were not necessary. We have cameras and tickets back to our comfy lives, with plenty of possibilities waiting on our long lists. They have…beautiful songs for us that day. Making comparisons is a big mistake in such circumstances so I focus on the present and the movements they do with their feet, lifting one high up and dropping it dramatically at once on the floor as if smashing something. “Great bug-killing technique,” says Janos. I give in and show a smile.
SA
We part: two soap bubbles that intersected for a very short while and separated again to float opposite ways. There’s meaningful silence in the truck. We all need a moment of introspection. But then we see the waves on the Indian Ocean and all else fades away in distant memory. We have now reached Dolphin Coast north of Durban, possibly KwaZulu Natal’s finest coastline, a memorable place bearing the euphoric quality of a dream. How I came to finally be a part of this postcard landscape that I had been longing for, I do not know. I bet no sangoma would have ever predicted that. I look around – another setting, so contrastively different from what we left behind only few hours ago. For a second, I think I see someone I know. I turn my eyes towards the ocean, though, too incredulous as to the fairy-tale that was featuring me.

A bit dirty and uncombed for having spent two nights camping in the bush, we face one of the most beautiful views there is: glimmering sand bordered by the warm waves of the Indian Ocean on the background of an infinitely blue horizon – what wizard could have possibly drawn that? We strike a new pose: open-mouthed savages deployed to Paradise.
South Africa_Durban
Durban was short lived. Some privileged moments: a short ride to Umhlanga, a glimpse at the Golden Mile, a tour at the uShaka Marine World, delicious lunch at the Moyo overlooking the Durban stadium. This is it for now. Carefully packing my fragile memories, I know I must come back. But for the moment, the Drifters keep us on the move. Next come the Drakensberg!
IMG_5415

A kiss from the uShaka!

A kiss from the uShaka!