Swaziland. Just the mention of the word conjures mystique, intrigue, tribal chiefs, and potholes. Lack of toilet facilities, mud huts, and laughing Zulu waifs running to your car with hands outstretched. It is all this and a bit more.
But first, the Blyde River Canyon. I just wanted to grab your attention with that Swazi line.
After exiting Kruger Park, we made it as far as Graskop, a cute touristy hilltop town. Our accommodation was the Mogadi Lodge, sounding much more safari than its brick bungalows actually were, poised on the edge of a deep crevasse. It was ideal for us, and we immediately increased the booking to two nights, so that we could hang out a bit.
The sun was setting when we took our little get-the-kinks-out walk to the edge of the chasm to investigate the wooden shack and assorted wires strung there, spanning the void. The hand painted sign read simply, “The Swing.” Hmmm.
In the morning we saw what it was all about. See photos. For a few rand you could choose to either zip-wire across to the other side of the canyon or swing across bungee style. It was a holiday weekend, a Sunday, and the queue was forming before we’d finished breakfast.
Someone had installed a makeshift set of stairs of sorts leading all the way to the bottom of the chasm, to the pools fed by the tumble of several sparkling waterfalls. After the hot, dry savannah bushveld of the Kruger just yesterday, we were now descending into a rain forest, with all the damp and green you’d expect on Maui. A couple of guys wearing black “The Swing” t-shirts were also down at the bouldered pools dealing with harnesses and videotaping screaming maniacs. It was a paradise of a spot, more Bali than Africa. Heck, this IS “Odd of Africa” afterall!
Tramping back up to the rim and around the end to the opposite side of the earth crack, we find a crafts market and one of the nicer pubs I’ve visited. We haggled and bought a few “handcrafted” items and quenched our climb-induced thirst with a beer and a cider on the cliffside, as screaming zipwire riders zoomed up to within a meter of our table, close enough to grab my Windhoek!
The outskirts of Graskop hold several natural gorgeosities and we were determined to get some much-needed exercise and explore them all.(see photos) The Pinnacle is, uh, a pinnacle. But it is one of the nicest pinnacles I’d ever seen and worth a photo or two. MacMac Falls got its name from the large number of Scottish gold miners in the 1800’s, ya know MacDougal, MacIntosh, MacFiddish, etc….hence, MacMac. God’s Window is a great viewpoint over the escarpment that gives rise to the numerous waterfalls and cool rock formations up and down the canyon. The last time we visited it, with Steve and Kathy in 2003, the Window was “closed,” meaning that it was fogged in obscuring the view, but this time it was wide open and jam-packed with tourists of every race and creed taking digital photos to show the folks back home how much fun they were having on holiday. (see photo to see how much fun WE were having on holiday.)
We returned to Graskop for lunch and stumbled onto a hopping place boasting Portuguese fare. Picnic tables on the lawn were filled with laughing, wine-drinking twenty-somethings and tables inside with families munching all manner of sea food and juicy chicken dishes. The Graca wine was chilled to perfection and our plate heaped with some goop that was this side of scrumptious.
I started checking out the tables full of twenty-somethings, a pastime typical of men my age who have been cooped-up in the confines of Islamic deprivation for sixteen years, and noticed the collection of professional grade video equipment and, hrmph, the number of drop-dead hot young ladies. Not in that order. Also, sprinkled among the young and beautiful (who wasn’t, once?) were wheelchairs and crutches and a few prostheses lying about, a leg here, an arm there. What the hell?
By the end of our meal we were overcome with curiosity, so I begged Mimi to ask one of them what the deal was, who they were, where did they come from, and was there room for one more on the bus? It turns out that they were from a Dutch reality show that paired fashion models with disabled people and had them do all kinds of outdoorsy-inspired competitions. What a concept. Besides aging horny ex-Saudi residents, who would ever watch this show? And, alas, there was no room on the bus.
Did I mention earlier that on the first day of this expedition we discovered that we had left our car registration papers on the counter at home? Well, we did. And this injected a pinch of consternation that would linger for the entire road trip, fearing being pulled over for failing to yield to some herder’s cow and asked to produce the car papers and spending the night in an African small town jail.
We never were pulled over, despite having our photo snapped twice by hidden speed trap cameras, but crossing the border into another country had my stress level elevated, beyond the normal border-crossing stress level I always experience. Guilt complex I guess.
Anyhow, Mimi was right, as always, and they didn’t ask for the papers and we slid through the formalities at Bulembu unscathed. Whew. The relief was short-lived, however.
The wide red line representing the R38 in the South Africa Road Atlas belied the ground truth that we encountered just a few miles past the border fence. Instead of a wide, open highway into the green highlands as it appeared on the map, the asphalt suddenly gave way to a narrow, winding band of red clay and scattered patches of gravel, clinging for all it was worth, like a bungee jumper at The Swing, to the Swazi mountain cliffs. This war zone of a road was to last for the next 30 km. And with the sky darkening with the threat of thunderstorms, I envisioned, on every tight switchback turn, our demise in a rolling flaming tumble of white XTrail washed over the edge by torrents of flashflood red muck. At points, the “road” narrowed to less than a lane’s width, and we only escaped death even more narrowly when lunatics came jamming up from the other direction, unaware that the possibility of another vehicle on their “road” existed.
A slight aside.
Drivers in South Africa are among the most polite I have encountered anywhere, and the most insane. I have described the major highways as 2-lane roads, but actually they are more like a lane and a third in each direction, with a wide shoulder outside of the solid yellow line. This mini-lane serves two purposes: a) it allows the well-mannered driver of a slower vehicle to move over to allow his more speedy road mates to pass in safety, and b) it allows for the huge number of pedestrians who can be seen striding along the margins of even the most remote roads to get mowed down by the well-mannered slow driver who has moved over to allow the faster ones to pass. It’s a great system and seems to work quite well.
South Africa leads the world with its pedestrian death rate and over 40% of all those killed on the roads are not in a vehicle. Over half of the victims are intoxicated. We once saw a billboard that read, “Don’t drink and walk!” a slight twist on the “If you drink, don’t drive” campaign in the US years ago.
When someone moves over, the polite driver passes and he signals a “thank you” by flashing his flashers 2 or 3 times and he may answered with a flashing of the slow car’s brights indicating, “It’s a pleasure (plih- zhah)” (South African for “You’re welcome”). My driving habits place me about 50/50, equally the slow driver as often as the fast. I cannot compete, however, with the insanity of the NASCAR wannabes who pass on curves with actions that must have led to coining the term, “reckless abandon.”
At long last, we completed our test and made it down the mountain back to asphalt, and Swaziland’s largest city, Mbabane. The country is actually quite beautiful and like its cousin, Lesotho, is a mountain kingdom sitting like an island surrounded by South Africa. It is governed by King Mswati III, a real stud with thirteen wives, though no match for Saudi royalty, of course.
We were almost across the country and mentally preparing to cross the border back into good old SA, when the thunderstorm struck and the sun went down, seemingly simultaneously. Because of the inherent roadway dangers mentioned above, and the chance of cattle, impala, or broken taxis loitering on the highway, I don’t like night driving here much. We found a solitary safari lodge, the Nisela Lodge, and slept to the flashes of lightning and crunches of thunder, cozy and warm.
In the morning the air was fresh and the road was good. Rural Swaziland is postcard. You see clusters of woven grass and wood beehive huts nestled into groves of trees set against a backdrop of mountains and farmland. (photos) The problem for us was that each time we’d pull over to try to photograph one of these postcards, we were accosted, assaulted, attacked by half-clothed kids pouring out of the bush, from nowhere, seemingly formed from the morning vapors, giggling and yelling for money, hands cupped in the universal gesture for “Gimmee!”
It is a moral dilemma that confronts every traveler. Do you give a few pence to the beggar? Does your guilt get under your skin and make it all the way into you pocket? Do you assuage it with a handout to someone clearly less fortunate than you? Or, do you consider the situation and realize that your donation really only lasts a day or so, and encourages the recipient to continue the game? Tourist boards and local governments encourage the latter. We teeter back and forth. Remember the tale of our hitchhiking ladies? Anyhow, we gave the first kids a few rand, and from then on, unable to resist the picturesqueness of the scene, we would do a Chinese fire drill: pull over and stop suddenly-Bo jumps out and presses the shutter without the time to focus-hop back in (with kids gaining on us, like the giant rock in Indiana Jones)-speed away in a shower of gravel and dust. Repeat.
Durban is SA’s third largest city and known mainly for surfing and taxi drivers who object to women wearing short skirts. Go figure!? Its highrise condos and hotels hug a beautiful wide sandy beach in a gentle arc of the Indian Ocean, with the older part of town crouching behind. It is a real poitjie (poy-kee, SA stew) of humanity, stirring in flavors from the Indian subcontinent, black Africa and a variety of European regions. Vasco da Gama, Portuguese sailor and bon vivant, touched down here near where the biggest waves curl into the prefect ride on Christmas Day back in 15 something or other, and named it, appropriately, Natal (Portuguese for surf's up!). The province is still called that, Kwazulu-Natal, but the city’s name was changed to honor some Brit, by the name of D’urban, back in the 1700’s.
Enough history. We were staying in Durban in order to visit our good buddy, Ernie Hayes. If you look up “salt of the earth” in an encyclopedia, (what's an encyclopedia?) the first entry will show a picture of Ernie tending the boerwors on the braai (sausage on the barbecue), having just come from changing the carburetor on his van and delivered a litter of kittens. If all South Africans were like Ernie, there would be no civil strife, the trains would run on time, and the hip fashion industry would be out of business. He is able to converse in English, Afrikaans and Zulu, and probably others that I wouldn’t recognize. He knows every rest stop on every road in every region of South Africa. He can identify the juvenile oystercatcher from the adult at a distance of 4 kilometers. To top it all off, he is easy with a joke and generous to a fault.
We stayed up too late for such weary road warriors, shooting the shit and drinking the wine, but awoke the next morning ready for a day in Durbs. Ernie, whose actual occupation is a tour leader/driver, spent his day off tour leading/driving us all over Durban, as he had also done for us several years ago. The traffic in Durban is horrendous, but Ernie had the skills to maneuver through slight breaks in the stream, or shout the right curse in the right language to drivers trying to block our path.
We ended up at UShaka Marine World. Ernie tells us that second only to the prefix, “Mandela…”, as in Mandela Drive, Mandela Trade Center, Mandela Spa and Transmission Specialists, comes “Shaka…” Shaka was the major Zulu chief who united the tribes against the whites in the 1800’s, and, it seems, is the only such hero to worship and honor by affixing his name to shopping malls and amusement parks.
Marine World sits on the beach in the center of the Durban beach arc and is a well-designed aquarium and water park, with a lifesized faux shipwreck as its centerpiece. We did the submerged walk alongside glass tanks of sharks, mantas, and other sea denizens, skipped the water slides, thank you, and luxuriated at Moyo, a way cool restaurant with an Afro-chic décor to die for. If we EVER build a house here (see House Beast Update) we’d like to include some Moyo touches.
Not wanting to overstay our welcome, we continued south along the coast road. While the sub-tropical coast is lush and gorgeous, it is also reminiscent of the LA-San Diego drive, beach town after over-built beach town, and it WAS a national holiday…
We survived the drive, barely, through an evening downpour that forced us to seek the shelter of a four star B and B, Ilanga Ntabi. It’s almost the law that you must either name your guest house some cool Afro name, or name it Mandela Manor, or Shaka Shack, even when the décor is purely the pastel blues and whites of Cape Cod. Not wanting to go out and brave the torrential rains, we stayed in and feasted on cheese sandwiches, plain, and granola bars, crushed, and white wine, warm.
Ernie had recommended the smaller road through Bizana and Lusikisiki as the more scenic route toward home, still 1000 km at a distance. Sure, why not?
We found ourselves running short of cash midday and the ATM’s were worryingly scarce, so when we neared Umtata, a big dusty town, we exited in search of the familiar turquoise and gold FNB ATM sign. There!
The mall was open and hopping with holiday sales seekers. We locked the car, something we hadn’t done for 16 years in Saudi but has now become habit, and walked in search of the money machine. Nervously strolling briskly past shops and fast food joints, I felt like Barack Obama at a Ku Klux Klan convention, only the opposite. I’ve never felt so conspicuously pale, snow white, lily white, el blanco, gringo. And, with our accents, the fact that we were getting cash, and some of the gruesome events of recent months fresh in our paranoia, we wished for nothing less than total invisibility.
Naturally, the ATM was not near its neon sign, and we eventually traversed the mall three times before finding it. Then, with a virtual fortune of 3000 rand in our rich white pockets, we hightailed it, like pranksters lighting a firecracker in a Halloween pumpkin, back to the XTrail, diving in and exhaling a breath that said, “Made it!” Of course, there was, in all likelihood, no danger at all, and nothing happened to indicate otherwise, but it was good to be back on the N2 heading for the countryside nonetheless.
We drove and drove some more. By now, day 13 of our roadtrip, we were tired of other peoples’ beds and breakfasts, and yearned for our own. We got as far as East London, a pleasant coastal town at the bottom of the Hibiscus Coast and B&B’d for the night.
The Eastern Cape is still pretty wild and wooly. Here the coast is even called, The Wild Coast, and the only way to reach it is by traveling off the highway on a gravel road for 30 - 40 km. The land is undulating green and dotted with rondavels, the circular traditional houses, made from sticks and mud or today, bricks. While the Durban area is the native home of the Zulu, the Transkei is Xhosa (tongue click + osa) territory. This area served as the equivalent of an Indian reservation for these folks during apartheid days, and retains that character.
There isn’t much else along the coast besides unspoiled lagoons, endless beaches, untamed rivers, nature reserves and a raft of shipwrecks submerged just offshore. But, we will have to explore these trails some other time.
The Garden Route
The Garden Route is a well-known area that runs along the bottom of Africa from East London all the way roughly to Cape Town. This “garden” is not your formal garden, nor your backyard herb garden. It is thickly vegetated with sub tropical trees and plants and the pervasive fynbos. Scenic, anyone?
Typically, as you drive east to west along the route, you will see floral-laden wooded mountains rising to your right, broken by the occasional river-carved canyon, whose waters flow to the sea on your left, except when they are naturally dammed by tidal sands. Whatever “tidal sands” means? I just made it up. Anyhow, they form lagoons that hundreds of bird species seem to flock to, like the beach towns south of Durban do for humans during a holiday weekend.
The almost absurdly named town of Kysna typifies the Garden Route experience. First of all, you pronounce it (Naaz-na, like nice-na), and if that weren’t too over the top, there are neighboring towns with names like Wilderness and Nature’s Valley. Give me a break! If it weren’t so damn beautiful, the arts and crafts so tasteful, and the sea food so delish, it just wouldn’t work. The town sits on a lagoon guarded by two huge rocky gates at the mouth, called The Heads, and is home to the annual Knysna Oyster Festival.
So, when the sun was setting over the highway before us, and you know how I feel about night driving, we tried to find a place for the night. Being a holiday weekend still (hasn’t this entire trip taken place during a holiday weekend?) we struck out, all booked. OK, fine, we are heading home, straight through.
There isn’t quite the risk of stray cattle along the upscale Garden Route as there was in more upcountry areas. Stray poodles or a stalled Lexus, maybe. So, into the night we rolled, and rolled.
We got “home” at about midnight and promptly crashed, in our own B&B, having completed a great 5000 km circle of the country, and thoroughly enjoying almost every moment.
House Beast Update
At long last our house plans were completed and we submitted them to the municipality for approval. They were promptly rejected on the grounds that the house had exceeded the height limit of 8.5 meters from the natural ground. Our architect, Nicolette, had assumed that Gansbaai’s rules were the same as those of Hermanus’, which, it turns out, they weren’t. So, the plans were revised, with the house being dug further into the slope and squashed a bit, and re-submitted. Assuming approval, we will put out for bids from builders next week and expect final numbers to come in before July 1.
At this point, we are hesitant to build. Costs are skyrocketing (stainless steel balustrade which was priced at 300 rand per running meter two years ago ($15/ft) is now going for 2500) and house prices are due to drop by an amazing 40% over the next year according to one of the country’s biggest real estate guys in yesterday’s newspaper. Not the best time to build. Throw into the mix, recent outbreaks of violence that you’ve probably heard about, our conflicting love/hate feelings about living in such an isolated small hamlet as DeKelders or DK, (as in “decay”, mental and otherwise…?), and you’ve got the recipe for total indecision. If the bids come in at reasonable levels, we’ll definitely build, … or not.
"Soft Nose, Long Legs, Smooth Tongue" or "Good Afternoon, Ladies and Gentlemen, this is your palate speaking": The Misadventures of Bo Wixted, Wine Evaluator
"Rainbow Nation Reaches Adolescence"
"The Fear Scale: A Pictorial Guide to Security South African Style"
and, as always, "Romping with The House Beast"