Christine and I once again are trading the winter chills of Canuckistan for some far-flung adventures abroad. Seeking to put a little extra flash in the dash between the dates on our tombstones, we’re traveling via Amsterdam, to explore the Republic of South Africa and the enigmatic Kingdom of Swaziland.
We land at the below sea level Schiphol airport, hoping that kid’s still got his pinkie in the dyke. Training into Amsterdam, we are soon disoriented amid a labyrinth of streets and canals before locating our B & B on the corner of Herengracht and Keizersgracht. The impressive 1780 built house has a great location, but is one son-of-a-bitch to ask directions for, and our first impression of the harrumphing Dutch language is it sounds like these ‘tulip treasurers’ have either a bronchial infection, or a dragonfly lodged in their throats!
Having a membership with IBDOM (International Brotherhood of Dirty Old Men), I talk Christine into checking out the legendary maze of alleyways forming the fleshatorium that is the notorious Red Light District. The world’s oldest profession has been exercised for over five hundred years, and this area is a magnet for certain visitors on the prowl from abroad; or perhaps I should say FOR a-broad!
The sex saturated scene is home to a plethora of live porn shows, haze-filled marijuana ‘coffee shops’, and bountiful sex shops with erotica and anatomically correct dildos on display. Scarlet red lights illuminate ‘hotel windows’ rented by prostitutes in various stages of undress, and wearing smiles of pornographic promise while promiscuously promoting enjoyments of the flesh by provocatively parading their naughty.
As scantily clad and heavily painted hookers are ‘John-fishing’ from their windows, men with lust-fueled eyeball lock blatantly leer at them like a dog eying a pork roast; with those thinking with their testicles negotiating a fee to lease the ladies lips and loins. I now have a whole new perspective on ‘window shopping’, and doggone it; I can’t help but think of a new version of an old song: ‘How much is that lady in the window, the one with the waggly tail’.
As we’re ambling along, a door bursts open right in front of us with one of these carnal creatures jumping out, clad only in her G-string. With her hands posed to imitate claws, the fleshy fem-fatale aggressively growls at me like a wild tigress, delivering one damn ‘titillating’ start to A-Dam!
Most folks opt to ride a bicycle or ‘fiet’ as they’re called here, rather than drive a car. Folks pump through the narrow streets straddling heavy bikes with big-ass seats, upright handlebars, and often an array of box-like additions for carrying kids or cargo. The cycling here in Amsterdam is seriously civilized, with cyclists even having their own bike lanes and traffic lights!
Renting a couple of these Dutchie style bikes, we pedal to the village of Ouderkerk along a path next to the Amsel River. A few stroking rowers glide silently past, and the route is enhanced by a smattering of scenic old windmills and surrounding fields of green, abundant with magpies and pheasant.
Marijuana is as readily available as a quart of milk and the pungent aroma so rampant you can practically get high just wandering around! Grocery shopping for a joint is an interesting new experience, and not surprisingly puts me in the mood for food. A stop at an organic market yields cheese, dates, and figs; which during happy hour will accompany a bottle of tasty rum we’ve kidnapped from Canada.
We pass a young girl sitting in a chair with her feet in the air, while a young man is busy lathering them in peanut butter! Thinking perhaps they’ve both been hit upside the head with a wooden clog, we learn it’s a silly old Dutch game whereby the girl must be carried across town by friends, without her feet touching the ground. To us it looks quite repugnant, and much like she has been walking barefoot through a dog park!
On our way to the airport at 6 a.m., when most hookers have long since closed their legs for the night, we notice a mistress of the mattress sitting in her window displaying a wealth of womanly epidermis. At this odd hour we’re unsure if this eager beaver is just ending her nocturnal naughtiness by holding out for a Johnny-come-lately, or optimistically trying to get the jump on any horny early-birds.
At the airport, checking in for our flight to Johannesburg in South Africa, the security is so damn tight I learn that I don’t have prostate cancer! Our African arrival gives us a case of the Johannesburg jitters, knowing it’s the second most dangerous city in the world. According to police reports, in and around Jo’Berg last year there were 4,216 murders, 7,900 attempted murders, 12,000 rapes, and 8,884 car jackings equaling 23 a day; every day of year!
Fighting off jet-lag we collect our rental car just before midnight, and trying to quell our angst, leave the semi security of the Johannesburg airport hoping to make it to our pre-booked accommodation. Driving with the night still as black as a raven’s rump, on the opposite side of the road, while shifting with the left hand and mistaking windshield wipers for turn signals, all the while trying to decipher unknown road signs is more than a little disconcerting; especially knowing there is a very real possibility of getting jacked!
Damn, only five minutes out of the airport and we’re already victims of our erroneous directional decisions. Being lost, with this time of night being trouble prime time, we’re as nervous as a couple of chickens in a pillow factory! After several botched attempts during what seems an eternity we find the proper turnoff, and with all senses on alert, follow our directions to the guest house. Not a moment too soon, we arrive at a high electrified barbed wire fence and locked gate. Pressing hard on the bell and vigorously shaking the iron gate we awaken a groggy coal-black security guard who permits us entry; can you hear that big halleluiah?
We ask him about the safety of drinking tap water. ‘Oh ya’ he says, ‘we half da turd best drinking vater in da world’. We take a big drink, brush our teeth, and call it a night. Next morning at breakfast, a white manager tells us to be careful to not drink any tap water as there’s been a Typhoid outbreak in an underground reservoir nearby, with nine locals already dying from it! Perhaps the guard was pissed we woke him up?
We begin the long jittery journey across the country, quickly noticing the aggressive, foot to the floor drivers on SA’s roads. I’m doing the speed limit of a buck twenty, but drivers still race up behind us flashing their lights, before screaming past in their metal missiles as if we are parked. Oh lovely; a nation of flashers!
We anxiously maneuver along the slender roads towards Swaziland’s Oshoek border crossing, dodging on-coming lumber trucks, pedestrians, goats, and kamikaze cattle. After showing our passports and appropriate car documents at the border, and of course paying some ‘taxes’, the shifty uniforms let us pass.
We have just entered the Kingdom of Swaziland, the smallest country in Africa, land-locked between Mozambique & South Africa. The country is a true tale of tragedy with its appalling statistics; an 80% illiteracy rate, 40% unemployment rate, and 40% HIV infected (highest in the world). Also, 70% live on an average daily income of $1 or less, and 1/3 of the people in need of food aid for survival. These are the kind of numbers that have us wondering if perhaps we should have opted for Switzerland over Swaziland!
The Kingdom is run by King Mswati III, a despicable despot recently voted as one of the ten worse dictators in the world. While his people starve, this waste of skin enjoys a ludicrously lavish lifestyle, including the purchase of private jets and a fleet of high end Mercedes automobiles for all his wives.
The King is also subject to sweeping criticism for his support and practice of polygamy, as each year he chooses a virgin teenage bride to marry at the ‘Reed Dance’. This event was held last month, with more than 50,000 bare-breasted virgins vying to become his 13th wife of this dickhead who actually stages the gala to add yet another little coco goddess to his stable; obviously into screwing more than just the country!
Not surprisingly, there is a dearth of foreigners traveling to this catastrophic country, and with our white skin we’re standing out like flamingos in a coal mine. People we pass never wave or say hello unless we do so first, as apparently this would be a sign of disrespect. Nonetheless, we always make an effort to initiate a greeting, and are almost always rewarded with huge smiles leaping from their harsh looking black faces.
As part of our fly-by-the-seat-of-our-pants approach to traveling, we have no hotel booked and need to hunt down a place to lay our heads on a bed. On Mhlambanyatsi Road in the town of Malkerns we stumble across a sweet place called Malandela’s, a lovely inn and restaurant located on a sugar cane plantation.
After settling in we head out to try and book a land rover for a game drive for tomorrow. We are informed that it will be our lucky day, as of their 5 vehicles, ours will be the only one in use, and even better, we are going to be the only ones in it. Sounds like the perfect plan; a private safari in Swaziland!
Outside the office we have our first sighting of a warthog; an inelegant oddball suffering the daft indignity of being constructed with a horrid head so massive the beast has to dine while snuffling about on its front knees. This helps the neck muscles support such a heavy boar-like cranium along with all its protruding warts and tusks. Nearby, an ostrich sashays toward us with its wings open and starts hopping about with his dreadfully ugly two-toed feet scratching about in the dirt. We decide to name the flightless fowl Patrick. Yep, ‘Patrick Swazi the Dirty Dancer’!
On the drive to Mkhaya for our safari we slalom around potholes and cattle, before, with tires a-thump, finally exiting at the laughably named village of Hhelehhele. After a couple of quick strokes of the pen absolving the camp of any injury or death, we are introduced to a Swazi tracker named Siprakeen who is to be our driver and guide.
Our decrepit transport is crudely wired together. Half the dashboard is missing, as are the door handles and panels. There are wiper blades but no windshield, and the sloppy jalopy looks like it’s been attacked by a can opener as its roof has gone missing! Oh well, at least there will be nothing to impede our view!
On the dusty tracks we first spot the usual suspects; wildebeest, antelope, and zebra. Then, using ‘bush eyes’ born of long habit, Sip spots an amazing sight. A rare black rhino and a large Cape buffalo stand nose to nose in what appears to be some sort of stare down! Sip thinks they may both be old loners, as black rhinos are solitary animals, and older buffalo get banished from the rest of their herd. Perhaps having found each other alone in the bush, the hefty odd couple is merely craving companionship.
The two seemingly love-struck beasts inch closer and closer to each other, and actually end up touching noses. The rhino then gives a mighty shove knocking the buffalo backwards, but they soon come together once again. Maybe this is their foreplay? What a sight; even Sip is captivated, having never, in his many years of tracking, ever seen this cross species drama before. Quite an auspicious start to our Swazi safari!
Siprakeen next spots elephants, proceeding hither and yon over the lumpy landscape in pursuit, while we tightly hang on to the vehicle to minimize the chances of being thrown out of our frontier-era seats. Suddenly we’re feeling as insignificant as gnats, stopping within 2 to 3 meters of these ‘Gods of Girth’. Being close enough to actually hear the 13 foot high and 13,000 pound behemoths breathe, I can assure you rates seriously high on the scareometer!
The jeeps engine is switched off to help keep them calm, but we’re nervous as a worm in a fishing derby, with our hearts thumpty-thumping with a potential squashing should the ‘Ellys’ become angry. While the voracious feeders are tugging at thorn trees branches and stuffing the needle sharp twigs into their mouths to munch, their schnoz is already back in the tree ripping off the next mouthful. It would appear the humongous herbivores are naturals at multi-tusking.
The portly pachyderms keep their beady eyes on us, and we return the gesture. Fortunately they don’t seem overly concerned, and eventually lumber off in search of fresh twigs, bringing an ease to our faces as their wrinkled rumps increase the turf between us!
Our bucket of bolts continues rattling over the parched ground, and then with waves of adrenaline tinged with fear, we stop beside a herd of Cape buffalo. They have horns perfectly mimicking a flip-style 60’s hairdo and may look docile, but in fact are responsible for about 200 fatal attacks each year on humans in Africa. These extremely dangerous critters prefer to charge first and ask questions later; which in thinking about it has me wondering if my wife may possess some buffalo DNA in her genes!
They are so close we can clearly watch the little Oxticker birds hoping about their faces, as their jaws slide side to side chewing grass. The little birds have more guts than a slaughterhouse floor, and actually crawl into the buffalo’s ears, nostrils, and even their mouths in search of little birdie edibles.
What makes the day so special is we’re alone with nature and have the entire park to ourselves, with the luxury of spending as little, or as much, time as we want at any of our sightings. Around noon we stop for a picnic lunch at a rugged place called Stone Camp, promptly announced by a harbinger of screeching blue crested guinea fowl, clearly in a flap over our arrival.
A solo table has been set for the two of us on a dried river bed, and our nostrils are tantalized by the grilled aromas of wildebeest sausages cooking over the open fire. Sleek and cautious impala graze on grass nearby; but when spooked, they pronk away across the plains as if on pogo sticks. I suppose these lovely and plentiful creatures are justifiably anxious, as in Africa, they’re the perfect predator snack food.
Rumbling along in the jeep while continuing our game of ‘I Spy’, our eagle eyed tracker spots the caramel spotted coat of an Alp-tall giraffe. We are stoked to see it, but not quite close enough for a good picture. Siprakeen says to me, ‘you want closer’? I tell him ‘sure’, figuring he will drive the vehicle a bit closer. ‘OK, come’ he says, and jumps, since none of the doors open, out of the vehicle.
Christine and I might be sticking our necks out, but we put our faith in him and climb out to follow him into the bush. At least 50 meters from the vehicle, we’re patiently stalking the stratospheric animal with quiet legs like herons on the hunt when Sip suddenly thrusts up a hand and says STOP! The assumption that we’re in no danger is shattered as we hear a branch snap, and having an ‘uh-oh’ moment, realize our perilous predicament. With our blood pumpin’, heart thumpin’, and knees abumpin’, we turn our heads to find ourselves face-to-face with two tons of raw menace; in the form of a mother rhinoceros and her calf!
We are about 20 feet apart from the horny herbivores with only air between us, and I assume they are less than pleased with our trespass. I look over at Christine, staring back with big brown ‘omigosh’ eyes and eyebrows vanishing into her hairline. Our moral mandate is to flee back to the jeep, but Sip tells us NO!
I am armed with only a journal. Oh yes, and a ballpoint pen. It’s just that, well, apparently these ‘hornery-looking’ bad tempered goliaths have yet to familiarize themselves with the intimidating power of small, hand-held writing instruments!
Sip tells us to very slowly back up towards the vehicle, and not make any sudden movements, which I suppose means other than our involuntary knee knocking. We are almost back, when nature’s armored tanks start to lumber toward us, perhaps thinking our battered transport a long lost relative!
You know, it’s actually quite amazing how fast you can get in a vehicle with no doors if you have the right motivation! Gentlemen, start your engines. Our deodorant gets a serious workout today, as we’ve now had the true, heart-in-the-throat, sweaty-palms, hoping-that-I-don’t-die safari experience. Whew!
After a day sprinkled with magical ‘remember-when’ moments, we bid a most fond farewell to Sipraken to begin our 80 km drive back to Malkerns. Along the way I acquire an urge to bang back a bevy of barleys, so we make a pit stop in a questionable looking area.
Christine locks herself in the car as I wander into an impoverished looking food store for some beers. I’m informed that they don’t sell beer; however, a dreadlocked guy standing nearby overhears my request, and says ‘You want beer; I help’. The first guy in the store says ‘you go with him’, so I follow the guy around behind the store and down a dirt path to a shack. The door opens, and over the shoulder of the two people inside, I can see a big crusted iron door that is padlocked. ‘Come in’ he says.
I frisk him up and down with my eyes; concerned about being robbed or having my internal organs sold on the black market. Taking the thirsty gamble, my intestines clench when the hinges squeal in complaint as the big locked door is opened by a woman in a filthy dress. All I can see on the dirt floor inside is a mattress and fridge. She opens the fridge door, and to my relief, pulls out three big one liter bottles of cold beer!
With barleys in hand I get back into the car, with Christine giving me Hell for disappearing out of sight. After relating the story to her, she just shakes her head before begrudgingly joining me in a little chuckle. As we later learn, it’s illegal for most stores to sell beer, and what I visited is a place to purchase bootlegged booze called a ‘Shenee’; purposely hidden away from the Swazi police.
Back at Malandela’s we order some vino, an appy of Brie with black cherry, and a chicken camembert main. In the relaxed atmosphere of the darkened room with a mammoth crackling fireplace, I propose a toast to what’s been one of our most fantastic days ever! Christine, my little supplier of awesomeness agrees, and ever the politically correct gem, purrs; ‘except of course, my darling, for the day I married you!’ Ahh yes, that’s my baby; Sugar in Shoes. There are days when I just love dat woman to the marrow!
We awake to a chorus of croakomaniac frogs voicing their pleasure in the nearby cane fields, as for the first time in months rain is falling, with the deluge leaving newborn ponds. Rain is also welcomed by locals as the thirsty ground in this parched country desperately needs it in order for farmers to plant their crops.
Both day and night I’ve been hearing what sounds like a large grunting pig, and at breakfast I ask the staff about it, but draw blank stares because they don’t understand the word pig. I give my best snorting pig impersonation and they proceed to the fridge and pull out some bacon, thinking I want to put more pork on my fork. OK, we’re getting there. Gesturing, I ask if pigs are outside, but receive negative shaking heads.
Again, the next day I hear the noise but not the source, leaving me again disgruntled. Finally, just before leaving, my pig-ignorance comes to an end, learning that my mysterious pork chop in waiting is nothing more than a rumble strip on a road hidden by bushes outside our cabin! My face is radiating a scarlet pig-mentation, as much to my chagrin Christine cannot resist persistently heckling me about my ‘Swazi swine’!
Our time in Swaziland passes quickly, and we’re bound for the South Africa border post at Jeppes Reef. The frustratingly weather is foggy, raining, and cold as we ascend higher on the mountain road hosting a mud and stone hut with a small stall that draws our attention. The old owner has obviously been carving a long time and is in possession of the gnarliest hands I’ve ever seen. We purchase three of his beautiful soapstone carvings and take the opportunity to warm up our hands over his open burning wood fire.
We make one last unexpected stop when attracted by a group of tykes wrapped in skirts made of leaves and doing a little dance to the beat of a fellow whacking a hide-stretched drum. We leave them delighted with a supply of new pencils, before finishing our drive to the South Africa border. Thankfully, over all the miles, we’ve managed to avoid the sleazy Swazi police who are noted for being as crooked as a barrel of fishhooks, and preying on any foreign visitors encountered to try and fleece them of cash.
Once in South Africa our first stop is Komatipoort, a town marking the border with Mozambique. After spending a night at a funky little B & B called ‘Trees Too’, we stock up on food supplies for our upcoming four day sojourn in the famous Kruger National Park.
Along the Lower Sabie River we spot our first ‘bloat’ of hippos. Even though the blubberites appear docile and in need of a consult with Jenny Craig, they are known to occasionally go psycho, as the fleshy fellows seem to have a real bad ‘fatitude’; killing more humans in Africa than any other animal. Males can weigh up to 7000 pounds, but surprisingly, the hurried heap of hostile cellulite can outrun humans on land! These twitchy-eared river horses also possess cavernous jaws accommodating massive canines reaching up to 20” in length, so not daring to venture any closer to the enormous enamel, we say goodbye to the hippopotami.
After a belly-bulging breakfast, it’s time to get intimate with the Kruger, and excitement surges as we immerse ourselves in the vastness of a five million acre wildlife park studded with horns, tusks, antlers, and claws. We slather on Mozzie repellent as this area can be prone to malaria; the ‘silent tsunami’ in Africa taking over 1.5 million human lives per year, which equates to about three 3 deaths every minute!
Roaming about today we’re treated to an encounter with some mammals we have always looked up to. With beautifully patched camouflaged fur, and endless legs and necks, the gorgeous giraffe are such a pleasure to watch as the move about with an awkward elegance and modelesque manner that makes us think some of the top fashion models have had ‘giraffe training’ for their leggy struts down the runways.
Apparently knobby-kneed giraffes love eating leaves of the tasty but clever Acacia tree. However, when nibbled on, this tree releases a chemical into the air to ‘warn’ other trees, which then create a yucky taste to discourage the hungry herbivore. Now the giraffe is not stupid either, and in a neat nuance of nature, actually eats in a certain wind direction so that the smell is not carried to the other trees in its eating path!
Stopping to watch a troop of gangster-like baboons, they angrily flash canine-like ivories at us so I give them the finger and roll up the windows. Another stop for a herd of Elleys involves even more anxiety when an expansive ornery bull starts flapping his mattress sized ears and aggressively false charges his seven tons toward us. With the car in gear my foot pops the clutch, putting distance between the incredible bulk and ourselves to avoid a possible tromp-n-stomp. Quite a wild first day with nature in the incredible Kruger!
In camp we’re sequestered away behind a high electronic fence to keep out the cult of critters prowling the perimeter and looking to revoke our license to live. It’s kind of like a reverse zoo, where we are the ones in the cage! This safety fence prevents what would otherwise be an invitation for a human flesh-tasting event.
Our bare-bones hut does not have a shower, only hot and cold taps, requiring that we splash ourselves with water and soap up; then, using the dexterity of contortionists in a game of Twister, stuff as many body parts as possible under the tap to rinse off the sweat of the day.
Not feeling like cooking tonight, we mosey over to the camps only makeshift restaurant consisting simply of a few tables on the platform of an old abandoned railway station; with the train still in it. I try to order a hamburger but our African waiter, a character named ‘Doctor’, won’t hear of it. He keeps saying ‘Man must have rump’, referring to a rump steak on the menu. I can’t help but snigger at his comment.
Now, derrIere on the side of caution and ass-tutely ass-ess the ass-ets? I ass-ume you won’t be ass-tounded to learn that I am indeed a ‘rump man’, and in fact, consider myself somewhat of a’ rumpologist’. Butt, IMHO, most African women carry far too much junk in the trunk having colossal cabooses, if you know what I mean. Ooops sorry, my ass-inine digression has got me behind in my musings, so I ass-ure you I’ll now get out of this ass-iduous mindset and stop being such an ass!
Seeking to make the most of our pilgrimage in the park, we rouse ourselves at 4:30 a.m. and grab a bite to eat before zooming out of camp. I pass the only two cars ahead of us and it soon pays off, as we are the first to approach two fierce looking male lions swaggering down the road with their faces smeared in blood.
The ‘Lords of the Land’ do their grocery shopping at night, and these big bellied bad boys are likely headed home to crash for the day. Our pulse quickens as we pull up beside them and roll down the window to capture them with a camera. Obviously, being made of meat, there’s no getting out of the car in a landscape that can kill. It’s definitely a dog-eat-dog world here, and we’re the ones wearing the Milk Bone underwear!
Today is yet another flawless day with a canary yellow sun radiating in a robin’s-egg blue sky. Fortunately the car has air-con, as the advancing days get griddle-hot. On the positive side, the heat is a treat as it means we’re not as menaced by the dreaded mosquitos possibly carrying a snootful of malaria.
At one of the rivers, we notice a few crocs lounging in the sun on the muddy banks. During our sentinel of these shoes and handbags in waiting, several fur-bearing animals wander down for a drink, warily keeping their distance from the toothy carnivores. With our peepers propped open looking for the next sighting on a seemingly emptyish looking stretch of road, I glance in the rear mirror and observe we’re being tailgated by a tower of loping giraffe with movie star eyelashes; one cucumber cool experience.
Partaking in our now habitual ritual of rehashing the day in camp over a few ‘sundowners’, we decide that tonight we are cooking, as I’m convinced last night’s dog-toy tough rump steak was none other than a fried flip-flop; and the rest of the food on offer looked about as appealing as a three finger prostate exam!
After my journal jottings, I get the bird-brained idea to scatter around some bread crumbs to try and entice a few crumb-snatchers. Sure enough, my spread of bread gathers an array of fancy feathers including my favorite the yellow-billed hornbill, with a jumbo yellow beak that makes it look like a giant flying banana!
Tonight we’re off on a sunset safari with a few others in a large open-sided vehicle, because regular vehicles are simply not permitted in the park after dark as the bush becomes even more dangerous than during the day. By the light of the setting sun and awakening moon, our vehicle cruises by a gnarly dead thorn tree filled with a committee of vultures silhouetted in black against a fuchsia sky; a timeless depiction of Africa.
As a drooping sun burns the sky crimson, we sight a large herd of Elleys. Others in the truck are gushing, but this is now old hat for us. For some reason a big male trumpets a warning and the entire herd quickly surrounds two baby elephants for protection. The ranger says this happens when they catch the scent of danger which may be due to a lion or leopard; or perhaps in this case, a whiff of my socks!
The so-called ‘Big 5’ (lion, leopard, Cape buffalo, elephant and rhino) are so named for being the most dangerous beasts to encounter on foot. The night has been productive, and we’re elated with our ocular achievement in spotting all of the fearsome five-some; especially enjoying the rare sighting of a lithe leopard languidly lounging up a lofty tree.
At sunrise we’re again off Kruger cruising, this time from Satara Camp north to Oliphants, an area called the ‘killing fields’ due to the carnage of the big cats. We’re delayed by a living road block of cantankerous Cape buffalo standing across the road and sniffing the air aloofly. It’s quite clear the black-eyed, blunt-brained behemoths are in no hurry to move, so with a healthy dose of patience we simply wait them out.
Soon we come to a place where the law of the jungle has prevailed. Right beside the dirt road a huge male lion with lays with one of these same Cape buffalos, recently taken away from life. We can’t believe our good luck, and stop within a few meters of this magnificent beast. With our car window down, we have the perfect voyeuristic view of the spellbinding sight. The complete under belly of the buffalo is torn open, and the apex predator is lying beside his kill, resting his head upon the cavernous cadaver as if it were a pillow.
Suddenly, the gazers become the ‘gazees’ as the big cat turns his massive, shaggy maned head; looking straight at us with a predatory stare and appraising us like we may be tender prime rib in a four-wheeled display case. His golden eyes are enormous and his salivating mandibles hint that we too could qualify as organ donors! This killer’s ‘catitude’ is frightening, and since we don’t much fancy him picking his teeth with our rib bones, we leave him be. The spellbinding sight is an ‘un-fur-gettable’ encounter, convincing us that when it comes to killer critters, the Kruger is definitely the ‘greatest show on turf’.
Leaving the jaws and claws of Kruger, we enter an area called Mpumalanga to travel the scenic Panoramic Route through the mountains. After a few hours driving we stop at a B & B called SerINNdipity in the curious little town of Sabie, where we want to do some exploring. However, about to head out for a morning run, the owner cautions us that the trail we’ve chosen is well known black mamba territory! Now, I’m always up to try a new trail, but with a possibility of an injection of neurotoxins prior to breakfast, the choice of mountain biking to a waterfall now sounds much more reasonable!
Huffing along on our bikes on a trail with unabundant shade, we’re scolded by a raucous group of monkeys and the relentless sun is taking its toll as we absent-mindedly forgot to bring along drinking water. The trail worsens, becoming rock strewn and impossible to ride, but having come this far, an impromptu decision is made to carry the hefty bikes up the steep terrain. Almost at the falls, Christine’s dehydration catches up with her, causing her to faint and face plant on the dusty trail, luckily avoiding the rocks. A hiker passing by kindly offers some of his water which seems to revive her, and after a brief rest, she dusts herself off and we cycle back to the Inn to rehydrate; Christine with water, Mark with beer.
Tonight, in one of the most bizarre restaurants, I make the erroneous decision to order myself a dinner of steak with ‘monkey gland’ sauce; which for still unknown reasons, seemed like a good idea. It is, in fact, a thought that needed a longer incubation, as this culinary slap in the face is an ambush lurking on a plate. With my eyes pumping tear-water, I try unsuccessfully to douse the inferno by shoving a couple of bottles of beer into my mouth, resolving to approach Africa’s devil condiments with a whole new level of vigilance!
Two days have passed, and we’re on the road again. Severe fog, with near zero visibility in the steepest parts of the canyon makes for some nerve-jangling driving as the road climbs up past such appropriately named places such as Misty Mountain, The Staircase, and The Devils’ Knuckles.
Outside a small town called Lydenberg, thanks to a miscalculation of my overconfident internal compass, we are now lost in a poverty stricken township. Concerned about our safety in these surrounds, I roll my window down to ask for directions. A nasty looking one eyed woman points a bony black finger at us, and in a raspy voice croaks out: ‘you – back town’. We’re not sure if this is a threat or not, but the dried up old skank is glaring at us with a cloudy evil eye, and we decide to seek answers to our logistical woes elsewhere!
Finally on the right track, we drive on to the glitzy little town of Dullstroom but are uneasy with the feel of the place and push on to Belfast; the next town on the map. This is an unmemorable and dislikeable mining town, but with fatigue now fogging my judgement we halt for the night.
Just after finding a room the power goes out. The room is gooseflesh cold as we’re sadly missing our fleece jackets accidentally left behind in Johannesburg. Deciding the prevention of hypothermia shall be rum sundowners; one leads to another, and then another, and soon we find ourselves getting bombed in Belfast by the IRA (Inflicted Rum Alcohol). So, in an incredible act of self-discipline, we cap the bottle and call it a night as we can’t afford to be pinned to the sheets tomorrow from excessive rum decisions tonight.
This pitiful little town has put us in grim spirits and we’re joyful to see it rapidly diminishing in the rear view mirror as we drive towards Pretoria. Soon, we’re passing by shantytowns with dilapidated shacks bleeding rust from corrugated old tin. The drive is certainly fatal to boredom with posted highway signs reading ‘Danger – Hi Jacking Hot Spot’. Well then, I guess we won’t be stopping for a picnic in the area!
Pretoria is also called ‘Jacaranda City’ because of its 70,000 trademark Jacaranda trees, and our timing is perfect, as the trees are now absolutely drenched in purple blooms. We’ve been invited to stay at a friend’s 1930’s built estate house, and immediately notice the obvious safety concerns. The place is barricaded with the surrounding cement walls studded with jagged broken glass, and adorned with razor barb-wire and electrical fencing. The owner informs us she that also sleeps with a loaded gun under her pillow!
Keen for further fix of fur, we drive to a wildlife reserve an hour out of town for the exciting opportunity of an up close and purr-sonal with some tiger and lion cubs. People are taking pictures from outside, but after signing an indemnity form and paying a token fee, I’m given permission to venture inside the cage.
These monster mousers are only 5 to 7 months old and it’s a thrill to be able to pet and wrestle with them. During a game of tug-o-war with a rope, a gorgeous Bengal tiger cub impressively drags me across the ground, and I cannot possibly contemplate the strength of fully grown tiger! I am totally smitten by these over-sized kittens but soon learn just how quick they can be, as one of the playful lion cubs springs towards me, ripping the flesh on my hand and drawing blood. Mauled by a lion in Africa; I love it!
Driving from Pretoria back to Johannesburg, where our Africa adventures all began, we’re picked up by our friend Wiggy, with whom we will stay. We pass by the sprawling township of Soweto; a proliferation of shacks that looks like some very undesirable real estate! Our keenness is further diminished to learn he’s now headed into the frightening bowls of Johannesburg; bravely taking us for a wander through the city’s major market, where we collect a bone necklace and a traditional Angola Chokwe mask as mementos.
We invite Wiggy and his wife out for a unique dinner at the appropriately named ‘Carnivore Restaurant’. Boasting a massive circular fire in the center, it hosts 52 converted Masaai tribal spears adorned with sizzling Fred Flintstone inspired racks of exotic flesh; including ostrich, kudu, wart hog, crocodile, and zebra. The bounty of the jungle is carved onto our plates until a white flag on the table is lowered after eating our fill at this beast of a feast. I have a niggling suspicion several vegetarians just lost consciousness.
It is now time for our flight to Capetown with the low-cost, high-humor, Kulula Airlines. The friendly staff is dressed in jeans, and here is a sample of the humourous in-flight announcements before takeoff:
‘Welcome Kulula fans, and a special welcome to all our brand new super heroes. Here at Kulula we pride ourselves on having the best crew in the industry, unfortunately due to staffing problems..…’
‘In case of an emergency, masks will drop from the panel above. Once you have stopped screaming, put the mask over your nose and mouth and for God’s sake, breathe baby breathe! Then put masks on to any children that you are traveling with. If you have two children, decide which one you love most now.’
‘For those of you who can’t swim, please move to the right side of the plane. To the rest of you, thanks for flying with us.’
‘Smoking is forbidden, including in the toilets which are fitted with smoke detectors and cameras for our in-flight entertainment’.
‘When you leave the aircraft please take all your personal belongings with you except for the expensive stuff – cameras, laptops, etc. which will be divided up among the crew, although this doesn’t apply to children – they will be sold as slaves’.
‘We’ve sure enjoyed taking you for a ride today, and remember Kulula fans, nobody wants your money more than kulula.com’.
Seeking an invigorating day in Capetown, we opt to ride a controversial, graffiti-splashed coastal train to the end of the line at the old naval hamlet of Simon’s Town. We purposely leave our valuables in the hotel as this gang-tagged train has a lousy safety record due to sporadic muggings. After purchasing our tickets, we begin to question our decision. It’s hard to believe, but in all seriousness, printed on the bottom of the tickets is an advertisement for funeral arrangements!
As the train retraces the tracks from Simon’s Town, we dismount at Muizenberg to walk the beach to Kalk Bay. A couple of hours later the train returns, and we are followed aboard by three threatening looking black characters that assuredly are not citizen of the year material.
Just as the train is pulling out, two burly armed security guards jump into our train car, causing the thugs to rapidly bolt out the back door of the car! The security guards know the thugs were stalking us with bad intentions and stay on the train with us until we get back to Capetown. Ever so grateful, we sincerely thank our saviors for their diligence and protection, recognizing that once again we have been fortunate.
Our four days in Capetown evaporate quickly with visits to the vineyards of Stellenbosh, Kirstenbosch Gardens, Chapman’s Peak, Blouberg, the Cape of Good Hope, and, and of course, taking the cable car up to the top of Table Mountain. We conclude our trip with a 100 km drive out to the remote Betty’s Bay. Why? Well to see the penguins of course. Penguins in Africa; you think I’ve been into the rum again, right?
Actually, this area is home to a waddle of hundreds of ‘Jackass Penguins’ with seemingly no fear of humans. The unfortunate handle of these well-grounded little fellows, comes from the tendency of the males to bray like a donkey whenever they want to get laid. It is uncanny how similar they sound to a Jackass, and we can’t help but chuckle each time we hear one of the cute little guys making an ass of himself!
And so ends our unforgettable escapades on adorable, deplorable, and explorable continent of Africa. We’ve absolutely loved it; and now secure in the knowledge that our adrenal glands are fully functional, we can return to our tamer Canadian turf to unwind; before we ponder, pick, and plan next year’s escapade.
Mark Colegrave October 2005