I am midway through my time at Zithulele and a ‘half term’ break seems appropriate. Taking an extra few days around a weekend gives me time to make a serious trip up to the Durban area and to visit one of the very many game parks with which this country is blessed. The journey is long and I set off at dawn with the aim of getting through Mthatha before the crooks are out of bed. The roads are empty apart from the odd cow or small flock of sheep. I get through Mthatha in record time. Deserted it has a charmless post-apocalyptic appearance, empty streets with rubbish and paper on the pavements and blowing across the road. It has rained recently and the tarmac shines and for once there are no swirls of red dust from the back streets and dirt tracks.
I am relieved to watch the town recede in my mirror and to be on my way north again on the N2. It is a grey morning with quite strong winds sweeping cloud in from the sea far to the East. This mist and fog blankets the high hill tops on either side and sometimes descends low enough for the powerful drizzle to make driving difficult.
As I go along I note, as an aside, another aspect of the mysterious traffic planning here. In places the road spreads into three lanes with a central overtaking lane for one side or the other to use. Bizarrely however priority is random; sometimes it is for the lane going up the hill but just as often it favours the descending traffic. The latter leads to a single file of cars and taxis labouring up a steep incline trapped behind a smoking truck or coach; meanwhile in the opposite direction speeding down come two lines of traffic: the trucks which can virtually freewheel at the speed limit and the cars which now have to break it to get past them. There are endless lunacies about traffic here. On one hill, where it is the right way round, just as you begin to accelerate into the middle lane going up the hill you hit a helpfully planted series of speed bumps…..
The journey is largely uneventful except for the inevitable stop at the Go/Go section just before the Port Edward turnoff. I am well up the queue this time and I can see the lorry at the head of it only some 20 vehicles in front. It begins to move and I swing out a little to deter taxis from coming up and overtaking me from behind. As I do this I notice that each vehicle in front of me is pulling out too to overtake a stationary vehicle in the queue. As I pass the 4×4 which is causing the obstruction, the uniformed figure of the driver is visible, leaning back, mouth wide open and with the rhythmic peaceful breathing of someone dead to the world. The lurid letters on the side of the vehicle tell me that I have just been delayed by a real sleeping policeman.
Progress continues to be swift and the cross country drive through the high steep grassy hills over towards Port Edward eases as the fog lifts. I pass through Bizana. It is the same genre of poor down and out town as Mthatha but it is somehow less threatening and more characterful. The names of the shops are a delight: The ‘Ding Dong Shop’ with the encouraging phrase written below ‘Have a Ding Dong Day’. At first sight calling a store ‘Love Tombstones’ seems a little incongruous but I guess there is a logic in there somewhere. A sad reflection of the AIDS crisis is the inordinate number of funeral parlours, one of the few growth industries. The word Jabulani is a common title for a shop. Loosely translated it means ‘Rejoice!’ I am amused when I spot ‘Jabulani Butchers’.
Approaching the coast in the daylight I am better able on this trip to appreciate the slow transformation in the scenery from the vast steppes of the interior to a much more compact rolling hilly landscape with deep green woods scattered across the hillsides. I am suddenly reminded of summer in Nidderdale in Yorkshire.
As I cross the large girder bridge spanning the wide Mthamvuna River and head into the KwaZulu Natal province there is a definite change. The road surface improves, the houses are larger and more often Western in design; there is an immediate feeling of having passed into a more verdant and more prosperous region.
A quick coffee and petrol for the car and I set off up the coast road to Port Shepstone towards Durban. The footprints of the British are apparent as I pass signs to Trafalgar, Margate, Ramsgate, Windsor-on-Sea (!), Kelso and Ilfracombe. The inexpensive toll road is superb and I reach Durban faster than expected. The pervading sense of wealth increases as I drive through Durban. Wide streets are lined with huge extravagant mansions with sea views. The cars look new and the streets are clean. I stop and eat in the Umhlanga district. I could be in central London.
I drive a little further up the coast to my hotel and stop in Ballito. The shopping mall there wouldn’t be out of place in a fashionable area of any wealthy Western capital. It features bijou art galleries, specialist shops and chic coffee bars spaced around open seating areas with large department stores behind them. In the cafes and shops the overwhelming majority of faces are white, apart from the waiters and shop assistants. The large shiny land cruisers drawing up at the petrol station are driven by whites and they are served by black petrol pump attendants. It is difficult after 6 weeks in the Transkei to believe one is in the same land. There is a sense that time has stood still here and that the people are in denial that apartheid is over. The appearance is of the whites having decided to carry on just as before and simply not to engage with the black population. Ready ammunition for the Malema’s of this world. I reflect with some chagrin that I am effectively colluding with it.
The hotel accommodation is spread out over a large wooded park on both sides of a valley flanking an estuary and I am driven to my room on the back of a golf buggy. My driver is a cheerful man bearing a name badge telling me his name is Inkosi which is a royal name in isiZulu. He has a large smile which reveals abundant bleach-white teeth. He also has a driving style that would be competitive at Le Mans. I sit on one of the two open backward facing seats. On the slim upright bar which rises between them, and which is the only thing to hold on to, I read a short, uncompromising notice: ‘Falling out of the vehicle could lead to serious injury or death’. As Inkosi Schumacher does what seems like a handbrake turn going downhill round a 120 degree bend with an adverse camber my knuckles gleam white on the metal bar.
In the morning after breakfast I stroll past the infinity pool which looks over the estuary down to the sea and continue down a trail through the hotel grounds aiming for the beach. The vegetation is rich and green and there are high trees and dense bushes with lush palms. A flock of bright yellow village weavers are nesting in the tree on the small island in the estuary. You hear their constant screeching and twittering long before you see them. Their nests hang like bulbous fruit from slim woven cords at the very tips of the branches. There is furious activity around the nests suggesting hungry chicks inside. Perched above them are regal white breasted cormorants. The raucous ‘Ha Haaaa’ of Hadeda ibises echoes across the scene and the striking pale patches near the ends of the wings of a low flying raptor announce a long crested eagle is on the prowl. A brisk wind has raised whitecaps on the blue Indian Ocean. The beach is clean and almost empty. It is idyllic and it is tempting to spend a day or two here but I have to set off again to my game park destination.
For the first hour or so the scenery on the drive north is completely dominated by tree plantations. This is unexpected and even more so is the fact that they are all Eucalyptus, mile upon mile of them. Eucalyptus must be the most successful Australian export ever, after Rolf Harris. People I know bemoan the fact that the Australians are so fiercely protective of any foreign plant or animal crossing their borders from elsewhere, yet their gum trees and wattle have colonised half the world. I can see advantages in the choice of these trees as a crop; they grow fast and can be planted densely, a meter or less apart. Their trunks are also very straight and I notice later that the roof beams of the game park buildings look to be made from eucalyptus trunks. They are apparently a major source tree for the paper industry here too. Pretty, however, they are not and the landscape is mind numbing.
It is only when I get closer to the cluster of game parks in the Hluhluwe region that the typical African coastal bush country and bushveld appear, cut across by ribbons of dune forest as the numerous huge rivers pour eastwards from the Drakensberg to the nearby ocean.
I find my turnoff and after a drive along a bumpy red dirt road with a high electric fences on either side I reach the electronic gate. It slides open at the keycode and I drive in. Almost immediately animals appear, impala, kudu, and nyala. The ground is covered with a thick layer of fresh grass almost half a meter high, the thorn trees are in leaf and some are coming into flower; the game looks healthy. It is a long drive to the lodge but the room is nice and lunch is waiting.
The lodge only takes a small number of guests. There are an elderly South African couple and others from England and Africa and a large family who have come up for one night only. In addition there are two people who are very quiet, speaking in low tones to each other. I catch a few sounds and place them as Western European, Swiss perhaps. They turn out to be German. I christen them Hans and Lotte.
Our first game drive is at 4 and we assemble outside. The game truck with its tiered seating appears driven by our guide/ranger and driver, an African who I will call Jonah. We get into our seats. Since I am carrying my large spotting scope I volunteer for the back seat and some extra space. At once there is a problem. Hans has discovered a tick on his leg. He is very worried. Lotte is also worried. They ply Jonah with questions. Jonah is not very worried and makes some fairly cheerful but dismissive comments which he obviously thinks will reassure. This they signally fail to do and for the next fifteen minutes, as we drive along looking out for game, Hans and Lotte spend the time scrutinising each other’s legs in minute detail and picking out whatever fragments of insect they think they can find. They are talking continuously about it and are oblivious to the beauty of the scenery. Their furrowed brows radiate concern. By the time the first serious game appears they have settled a little although I still hear the word ‘tick’ and ‘fever’ sprinkled through their conversation.
We are lucky, there, munching the long grass as we breast the hill top is a black rhino. It has a calf and it allows us to come quite close. Hans whips out his camera with its giant lens and begins snapping. In the old days the number of photos he takes of the rhino and offspring would have bankrupted him but with digital you just click and click and discard those you don’t like. Even allowing for this it is pretty extravagant snapping. As time passes there is a sense that the others in the truck are starting to worry that we will not get much further tonight. After he has the rhino pair immortalised from every possible angle we drive along a little further and bump into a herd of white rhino. Neither are named for their colour. Black, Jonah tells us, comes from the Black Mfolozi River although my sources suggest it was to distinguish it from the White rhino which, everyone agrees was nothing to do with it being white, it is grey, but was a corruption of ‘wide’ from ‘wide-mouthed’ rhino.
Hans is getting into the photography groove by now; the staccato clicks of his camera come thick and fast like a BB gun. I begin to wonder if he is conducting a census of the rhino population here. Meanwhile I am pleased to see my first woolly necked storks which are big enough for everyone to want to wait and watch.
We stop after an hour by a water hole for the traditional pre-ordered ‘sundowner’. Jonah sets up his bar on a table with a cloth and ice bucket and asks whether my G+T is to be a single or a double. He slips a notch in my estimation.
Hans and Lotte are having another wobble about the tick. Jonah starts saying comforting things like you don’t get tick bite fever from just one tick bite you only get it if you are bitten by lots of ticks. This gives the impression that it is the frequency of bites that matters. This is not going down well as we can all work out that your chances increase per tick bite but you might just have the unlucky lottery tick with the first one. Jonah changes tack and says that he doesn’t think that that particular tick was carrying disease. This evidence-free speculation simply does not wash with our slightly health obsessed German pair and they look very miserable and apprehensive.
Behind us there is a loudish cough. Lotte jumps like a scalded cat. We turn and see some kudu about 50 meters away. ‘They are worried that we are at their usual drinking place’ says Jonah; not half as worried as Lotte who is now peering out anxiously from the safety of the truck.
On the way back it gets dark and Jonah hands out two spotlights for people in the front seats to scan the dark bush on either side. Red eyes are what we are looking for, not white or green, red eyes are the predators. The African lady shouts out as we bump through the darkness, she has seen something. We stop and reverse slowly. Her eyesight is very impressive, there, about 50m away in the spotlight we see the mottled slinky figure of a leopard slipping through the grass.
Dinner is supposed to be alfresco with tables set up around the wood fire but an invasion of flying beetles means it has to be swiftly resited indoors. Jonah is among the serving people and afterwards insists on walking back with me in the dark, guiding me with his torch. Apropos of nothing he starts telling me about how one of the guests has asked him how much he earns and how he just felt obliged to tell her, and how dependent he is on tips. I get the sensation I am being softened up. I had not until this moment thought that after paying for an all-in package, of which the game runs are the major feature, that the drivers would expect a bonus. I decide to judge on how good he is the next day.
The morning is taken up with a bush walk; three hours marching through green, knee-high wet grass behind a new guide, Andrew, who carries a rifle. He is a fair haired gentle giant of a chap, well over 6 feet tall, who speaks slowly and has a habit of saying ‘Hah’ at the end of a phrase for emphasis, or to make sure we realise he has said something funny. He gives us the ground rules and the hand signals that he may use. We are forbidden to talk as we follow him in single file. Finger clicking is the only way to draw his attention. I wonder if my fingers will be under enough control, or just too sweaty to click if something large and predatory comes up behind us when I am at the back of the line. ‘Important rule’ he adds ‘never run in the bush, you always come second. Hah!’ He tells us always to keep behind the rifle – totally superfluous advice in my view. ‘If necessary I will despatch the animal’ he reassures us ‘but I have never had to shoot an animal yet, only a guest. Hah!’
These guides must go through the same set of anecdotes about the plants and animals on their patch every week. He shows us tracks. I can see the hippo print but the baboon handprint is just so many random lines out of which Andrew draws some fingerprints with a twig. Frankly he could be telling us it was Yeti as none of us can argue.
We march on through the grass, our trousers are now soaked up to the knee and the rubbing together of the legs has probably announced our presence to every animal within a mile. Andrew draws us to a halt under a tree. ‘This leaf sap’ he says breaking off a leaf and showing us the white latexy fluid ‘three drops of this will kill you, Hah’.
Stalking on foot does have more of a feral feel to it than careering round in a truck. You might just come across some lions although any tracker guide worth his bullets will probably lead you away from these without telling you – they are not going to go looking for trouble. Prey are a better option than predators and we get some nice close ups of giraffe, including a baby which has walked straight out of the cuddly toy store. Those eyelashes – they must spend hours with the mascara. More impala, nyala, zebra and rhino. I have a grudging respect for zebra ever since I discovered that they just can’t be broken and ridden like other members of the horse family. It seems like the deity is telling us that not everything is for us and we don’t understand it all. How can black and white stripes be good camouflage? The meat tastes bad too. These are animals which are designed for us to look at and puzzle over.
After a three hour trudge we find we are back at the truck. It has been a good walk and we have seen quite a lot albeit not too close up. It is surprising however how large wildebeest seem when you are on foot. On film they look like the hapless victims of any casual lion attack and their skittish behaviour and narrow pinched snouts reinforce the impression of them as the brainless losers of the bush. From ground level the horns are suddenly larger and three of them staring meaningfully at you and letting you know, as they walk slowly towards you, that this is their land, not yours, is considerably more daunting and engenders in me a new respect.
On the afternoon game run Jonah is determined to find the lions that the other group saw this morning from their truck and we go down one densely wooded track after another with thorn bush branches sweeping along the side of the truck and springing into the passenger area. We see nothing. Those in the side seats are getting a little weary of ducking the lethal branches. Jonah’s tip is starting to look shaky. We pull out of the thick scrub into more open ground and start to see animals again. He and all the rest have worked out by this time that I am looking for birds. They have got used to staring through their binoculars out one side of the truck and turning back to find me with the scope pointing in the diametrically opposite direction.
Jonah and I have a minor disagreement about a kingfisher. It eventually turns out to be a difference in the pictures in the bird spotting guides that we both have. I think he is starting to worry about his tip though because at sundowner time he corners me and tells me how he is saving up for some decent binoculars and if he gets enough tips he will be able to get the pair he wants.
As we are standing there chatting I note that Hans and Lotte have been deep in conversation for quite a while. Lotte eventually asks if there are wild dog here. Jonah confirms there are sometimes and asks why. She tells him that she has seen a pair of dog-like ears in the distance and after a detailed consultation with Hans they have both agreed they were indeed ears and that they have now moved away. Jonah agrees they may be wild dog and, deciding we should check out the sighting, says ‘Everyone back in the truck’. Lotte is already there, the thought of encountering wild dog inspiring her to break the world record for the 10 yard dash by a sizeable margin, and without starting blocks. We join her and, leaving the drinks table behind like a colonial remnant, chase along in the direction the ears went. Jonah assures us they are almost certainly black backed jackal ears as he knows that there are jackal around. We drive for about ten minutes and see nothing. We stop, turn round and head back towards the bar. From out of nowhere in the tall grass to the right of the truck and not two metres away, the elegant frame of a cheetah appears, stares at us briefly and strolls off aristocratically into the long grass. We are all spellbound, they are much taller than I had imagined but otherwise totally unmistakable. What must it be like to be aware, even dimly, that you can run faster than anything you see? Jonah is meanwhile telling us that he thought there were cheetah around which is why he took the sighting seriously and followed up. Glances are exchanged amongst the guests and there is a familiar agricultural smell – bullshit.
On the way back it is Hans and Lotte’s turn with the searchlights. Lotte is not great at this and on her side the light seems to be shining mainly on any game which we were in the process of running over or actually already had, with occasional flashes out into the distance. Hans however takes to this like a natural, quartering the land on his side of the truck in a methodical and thorough way. Nothing would have escaped had there been anything to see. Sadly the animals have got the message too of an old searchlight pro at work and have melted away into the night.
Next morning it is the truck again. Jonah has turned up with six bird spotting guidebooks determined to show his mettle and to his credit we see a good number of birds including the gorgeous bush shrike (‘gorgeous’ is, quite justifiably, part of its name), scarlet chested sunbirds and the stunning violet backed starling. The rest are showing some growing enthusiasm for particularly jewel-like birds, of which there are plenty, especially when the bigger game is sparser. A secretary bird appears and lopes along the track in front of us like a cartoon character sprinting along under the path of the falling tree and avoiding the obvious strategy of dodging to the left or right. They remind me of the road runner cartoon bird; just like wily coyote we never catch up. We see plenty to satisfy the animal hunters too, but no cats.
We stop for coffee and biscuits. Jonah starts rambling on about how much he has to keep an eye out for people’s safety which is why he made us jump back in the truck so quickly yesterday evening. I feel he is probably working on getting a better tip from the Germans. I need to ‘go behind a bush’ as the phrase goes here. I wander off and return about five minutes later. Jonah is busy telling everyone how he prioritises the biscuit choice for the break. He hasn’t noticed my absence at all.
Off we go for the final run, some more rhino materialise conveniently, and the giraffes, complete with baby. Wallenberg’s eagle, white backed vultures and bateleur soar above us. Eventually it is time to go back for lunch. As Jonah stands by the truck we all climb down and thank him. He is no shrinking violet and tells us that although there is a gratuity box for all the staff he would prefer to have cash in hand directly from us.
It is time to leave. As I drive out of the park on the track in front is a last treat, a pair of Natal francolins with 11 miniscule chicks, each barely two inches tall.
I take to the main road and make my way back to Durban past acres of gum trees.
I am staying another night because I want to see one more special sight. Moreland Farm just outside the city is on a high hill overlooking a huge valley to the south. At the bottom of the slope far below is what looks from the top like another sugar cane plantation but is in fact a vast reed bed. Each evening at dusk, birdwatchers come and sit in seats set into the hillside to watch an estimated 3 million barn swallows (the common swallow in the UK) come in to roost. It is a truly amazing sight. The first few shoot in low over our heads and then they are materialising from all directions. There is a slight haze so the numbers are not obvious until you look through binoculars; then it is like locusts. They don’t appear to have quite the close swarming behaviour of a murmuration of starlings, probably because they fly so much faster and need more space, so one does not see black clouds sweeping across, but there is still the same sensation as waves of knife-winged, streamer tailed black dots swarm to and fro.
After about twenty minutes of high speed formation aerobatics they swoop down and melt into the reeds and are gone in an instant; surely one of the great sights of nature.
It is time to go home. The journey seems very long as the fog has descended again across the high hills separating the coast from
the inner valley where the N2 runs. I spend two hours with a visibility of about 10 meters driving up and down steep winding hillsides. The trucks and coaches I get stuck behind crawl up the inclines at 10 kph and then rocket down the other side at 110. It is frustrating driving. Eventually I turn into the hospital compound. It is dark and pouring with rain. Memories of the hot sun and blue skies and exotic birds and animals of KwaZulu Natal seem to have already acquired a dream like quality about them.