Monday, February 26, 2007

Land of the delta greens

Well, the adventure is over. We got home last night after 27 hours of driving, flying and composting in airports. My underwear, however, is still happily circling the world because South African Airlines lost my suitcase. In fact, most of my clothes, clean and dirty, are still tootling about. I really hope they find it, because my favourite pair of 'laccy boots is in that bag. Last time they lost Bloke's bag, it went to Tokyo, so who knows where the hell it is.

Mr Furpants was ecstatic to see us. To my surprise, I've only been bitten once and he spent most of the night trying to sneak up onto my pillow instead of curling into the crook of my knee as usual. Big Sister had busted him out of gaol on Sunday morning, so he was waiting for us when we got home. There was a lot of miaowing and purring. Poor little guy. I suppose the biting will start tomorrow.

The Poo-Boot Tour of Africa was a resounding success. I added Cape buffalo, hippo, warthog and some more unidentified antelope to the already rather busy tread of my hiking boots and I put my hand in monkey shit. A gecko made a habit of crapping on my bed every night in Kasane and I forgot to mention that the baby boa constrictor at Palm Haven shat on me. So, quite a craptastic tally, really.

When I left off last time, we were still in Kasane, about to fly out to the Okavango Delta. We left on Thursday, the 15th. The only problem with this was the small plane factor. I have no problem with airliners, but anything smaller gives me the heebies. It's like grabbing a bogong moth in each hand and jumping off a cliff. The pilot turned out to be a nice Kiwi lad with the rather disconcerting habit of taxiing with his door open. At least he shut it before he took off. All the passengers commented on his excellent landing but I'm not nearly that fussy. As far as I'm concerned, any small plane landing that you walk away from is an excellent landing.

From the air, the delta looks like the stretched skin of a giant tree snake. It's cut through with rivers and dotted with waterholes. The excellent landing was made on a grassy airstrip in the middle of what appeared to be a rolling plain, but was actually an island.

We were staying at Xugana (pronounced Kugahna) Island Lodge and one of the staff, Keesie, was waiting to collect us. Keesie is a nickname from his school days. As a San Bushman, his real name is all clicks of the tongue of which most people just aren't capable. His San name translates as One Alone because almost all of his family had died before he was born.

I was expecting the ubiquitous safari car to take us to the lodge, but instead Keesie led us to a little alumnium power boat tied up to the bank. He kicked over the engine and we took off along channels that were bordered on both sides with a raft of tall papyrus that leaned in to slap you in the face in the narrow spots and waterlilies that ranged from creamy white to a pure blue.

The water was a mirror for the sky. Pretty as it was, I always get that Heart of Darkness feeling when I travel on close tropical waterways.

The lodge sits on the edge of a wide lagoon. As we pulled in to the little dock, we could see several people waiting for us and waving. This seems to be a bit of a trademark at Xugana. The only way to get anywhere is by water and every time you leave or come back, there are at least two people to greet or farewell you with a wave and a smile.

Weaver bird nests hanging from a palm
near the Xugana main deck

Another Xugana trademark is the lodge lawnmower - a hippo named Cassidy. What, you expected them to have a ride-on Victor? Come on - this is Botswana! Cassidy comes crashing of the water after dark to graze, so no-one is allowed to walk around alone at night. One of the staff walks with you, armed with a torch and a pen-sized siren. I'm not sure how much use either of those things would be against 3000kg of hippo, but we didn't have to find out. Cassidy is usually heard and not seen. We were told that he spent some time banging around behind our cottage on the first night, but we were out to it and didn't hear a thing. (Did I mention I could probably sleep through a tornado?)

Our cottage overlooked the lagoon. It was made from a mix of reeds, wood and concrete and had the tradtional thatched roof with no ceiling. There was no glass in the windows or sliding door, which were open to the night air apart from some sturdy fly mesh. Twin beds were pushed together under a gauzy mosquito net and a slow-turning ceiling fan. Even the bathroom overlooked the lagoon (does that make it a loo with a view?), with half the shower wall taken up with a window. A verandah set with weathered wood and leather directors' chairs looked onto the papyrus and when darkness fell, tiny bats zoomed near the light, snatching insects from the warm air.

The view from our verandah

Once we'd settled in, three of the guides took a group of us out in mokoros, which are long, thin gondola-like canoes that have poles rather than paddles. I'd seen some tourism pictures of whiteys swanning around in mokoros paddled by tall black men in loin cloths, but happily our guides were wearing the usual khaki uniform that most Botswanan lodge staff seem to wear.

The mokoros themselves were another matter entirely. They felt horribly unstable and rocked every time the pole hit the water bottom. I spent the first 20 minutes making pathetic little whimpering noises and clutching the sides every time the boat rocked. (Water is my phobia, remember.) Once I'd got over the fear of going head first into the channel and guilt at having someone else paddling while I sat there like a bump on a bloody log, it was actually quite pleasant. I settled into my best Lady of Shallot impression. Not that easy to achieve in grotty jeans and hiking boots, but I did my best. Well, I trailed my hand in the water occasionally, anyway.

It was close to sunset when we got back in the powerboat to return to the lodge. The guide, Kitso, had packed an esky for us to have a sundowner drink on the water. He pulled up in a lagoon and we sat and sipped white wine and G and Ts while the sky and the river turned to fire.

I thought the delta would be absolutely crammed with birds, but there weren't as many as I had expected. The most memorable birdy inhabitant was the red-eyed dove, mainly because it drove us spare with its damned cooing. It looked like any ordinary old dove, but it never shut up. The locals claim it's saying, "Red eyes, drink too much. Red eyes, drink too much," but it just sounded like "poo-coo, coo-coo-coo, poo-coo, coo-coo-coo" to me. If it had been pretty, I might have forgiven it, but it just didn't have the looks to carry its obnoxious personality.

Every damned bird in Botswana seems to be "saying" something. The Chobe guides reckon the turtle dove's call is saying somehing different depending on the day of the week. On weekdays, it's saying, "Work harder, work harder", but on weekends, it says, "Drink lager, drink lager". The weekend turtle dove is my kind of bird. During the week, it can get together with the whiny bloody red-eyed dove and its hangover and bugger off. Maybe they can go halves on an economy-sized box of Beroccas or something.

At dawn the next morning, Kitso took us out again. We went out by boat as usual and were whisking along the channels, enjoying the cool of the morning when we hit something big under the water. It was the ultimate "oh shit" moment. The boat reared into the air and while it was airborne, everyone looked at each other with white showing all around their irises, waiting for it to roll and throw us all out. Instead, we hit the water again with a judder and a bang and someone said, "What the fuck was that?"

We thought we'd hit a log, but Kitso looked over his shoulder and said, "Hippo." I thought he was joking and looked back. Sure enough, there was an extremely pissed off-looking hippo standing in some aquatic grass. It was big, too - about 3m long and not exactly thin.

Sorry it's a bit blurry. That's it in the red oval.
I'm a
useless photographer under pressure.

It must have been submerged in the middle of the channel. Luckily, it didn't seem to be damaged or to associate us with the cause of its newly-acquired headache, so it just lumbered off, looking a bit dazed and confused. Kitso had stopped and backed up for a closer look, but he took off once it submerged again. Bloke started making jokes about never having been closer to a hippo. Fair call, too - I'm not sure how thick the bottom of a boat is, but I wouldn't think it would be more than a few milimetres. That's close enough for this little black duck.

We made it to nearby Palm Island without hitting anything else. We were going out on foot to look for game. There was Bloke, me and an Indian guy named Ranjit, with Kitso walking point and a tracker as the rearguard. Seeing the animals in Chobe was amazing, but being in a safari car makes you feel too safe, even when there are elephants within a few metres. Walking along animal tracks through elbow-high grass and knowing that there could be a lion two feet from you or a cobra crossing your path at any moment is something else entirely. It made me feel like a old-style adventurer. We didn't see nearly as many animals as we did in Chobe, but it was exhilarating just to be on the ground.

Follow the hippo shuffle marks...

Kitso and the tracker were following the trail of a herd of Cape buffalo. (Yes, "trail" equals "increasingly fresh crap".) Hunters say that with a buffalo, you have one shot. If you don't kill it, that shot will be your last. They're powerful, they're fast and they have massive horns. One of Richard's friends had buffalo on his property and was trying to move a cow. The pen was made from tree trunks as thick as a goal post, but she got a bit antsy and locked her horns around one of the logs and twisted. It snapped it like a toothpick.

As we walked, the trail got fresher. Naturally, I stepped in quite a lot of that "trail". As you would expect from me. I also stepped in a fair slab of hippo poop simply because there was no way to walk around it. We knew were close when we passed an area of flattened grass where the herd had spent the previous night.

Kitso told us that where there are buffalo, there will be lions as well, waiting in the shade.

Finally, we saw the herd, grazing on the other side of a waterhole. There was also a herd of red lechwe, a type of antelope now only found on the delta. They used to be in Chobe as well, but Keesie said the Namibians ate them all. No-one seems to like Namibians - they seem to be like the Albanians in Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter.

Just like impala, but not.

Four big male buffalos appeared in the trees a few hundred metres from us. They were watching us carefully, guarding their cows. We crept closer, keeping an eye on them. Ranjit and I were giving our cameras a good workout. We probably got within about 100m of the males, but Kitso decided it was time to move when the bulls started to give us the eye. They followed us a little way, crossing the waterhole, but lost interest fairly quickly.

We kept walking, but didn't see anything more than a lone warthog running across the path. We walked about 10km all up and I would have loved to have gone out again in the evening despite the heat. The evening group saw elephants and a giraffe, the lucky sods, but no buffalo.

Despite the morning's close enounter, we hadn't had enough of hippos yet, so Kitso took us to the Hippo Pool in the evening. It was about an hour away by boat and true to its name, was full of hippos. We must have seen four of five dozen of them and I got some great photos. The noise they make sounds a deep, satanic laugh and it echoes across the water. Mostly, all you'll see of them is their ears and eyes and once they peg you, it's all front and centre.

Oi, ooyoulookinat?

Occasionally one will yawn and you can see how they kill. They have huge, pointed teeth way back in their mouths. Kitso got us quite close so some of the groups, so I got some great photos. As soon as one disappeared under the water and we saw the wake coming our way, he'd gun the engine.

Pretty big mouth, eh?

Everyone in Africa loves to tell you that hippos kill more people in Africa than any other animal. I'd have thought that mozzies would have done for more people through malaria, but I suppose insects aren't as sexy as 3000kg beasties. One of the Chobe guides told us a story about being in a boat that accidentally got between a female hippo and her calf. She knocked it over and it rolled two-and-a-half-times.

We skimmed back to camp in the twilight, stopping for another sundowner. The insects had come out in force and we had to keep our mouths shut while the boat was moving to avoid our tongues being crumbed with gnats and midges.

Evenings at Xugana are beautiful. The lodge has an under-cover bar and dining room, with al fresco dining and lounging areas overlooking the lagoon. A fire is lit every night in the middle of the lounge area, giving a bit of a Survivor feeling, though no-one gets voted off this island. Invisible insects hum and sing in the warm dark and hippo laughs echo across the still water.

Any staff who aren't on duty get into their civvies to share dinner and drinks with the guests, which was really nice. At the Chobe Safari Lodge, there was a clear distinction and the staff weren't even allowed to come to the dining room for breakfast until 10, when the guests were presumably off chasing animals or lolling in the shade somewhere.

The second night we were there, it was a full house. A thunder storm forced us under cover, but it was a fun night. There were a couple of Poms, a Minnesotan couple, some Germans, a few Saffies and a pair of Yankee gay boys, who were hilarious. The younger one was a dead ringer for Mr Slave from South Park (minus the leathers, of course - such things aren't ideal in the tropics). Wine and bullshit flowed freely all evening.

We left the next morning, which was Saturday. The plane that arrived to take us back to Kasane was even smaller than the first, if possible, and the pilot was a surly prick. The inside looked as though it was held together with duct tape, which didn't really inspire confidence. Surly prick or not, he managed to get us there in once piece. Low requirements, low requirements.

Back in Kasane, we collected the car and hit the road again, Jack. We had 1200km to drive in two and a half days: Kasane to Francistown, Francistown to Polokwane (Pietersburg) and Polokwane to Johannesburg to catch a plane to Cape Town. The trip back was relatively uneventful. The same watery mirage lead the way down the road. We had several more close enounters with hawks and eagles, taking the number of raptors nearly hit to six. One landed directly in front of the car, causing Bloke to swerve alarmingly, but the others were either swooping across the road or pulling strips off sun-dried roadkill.

We crossed our legs as we passed the Dead Goat Motel.

On Sunday, we had to stop in Makhado to collect some biltong to take to our hosts in Cape Town. It turned out that Oom Jaco was in Alldays, though, so he had left the package with Richard.

Returning to Palm Haven was like coming home after our long road trip. We rattled down the red driveway, past the sign warning that trespassers would be eaten and were buzzed through the electric gate. Richard greeted us with hugs and Angela and Bloke's workmates were sitting in the shade of the stoop while the girls swam in the pool. Jorgi had pride of place in the middle of the table, curled up on a stack of beach towels and all four dogs were lolling on the floor.

I love Palm Haven. The company is second to none, the bar is always open and there's always a game of pool to be had. We meant only to stay for a little while, but we were still sitting there when twilight fell and I was sorry to have to leave.

And can you blame me?

Here endeth the third instalment. I'll finish up with Cape Town and some random stuff in the next couple of days.

Labels: ,

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

On the road again

You should probably get a cup of tea and a biscuit. This could take a while. I probably won’t have internet access again until Cape Town.

I’m writing this sitting on the verandah of a thatch-roofed rondavel overlooking the Chobe River in Botswana. From here, I can see Namibia. There are two dust-coloured monkeys sitting on the verandah steps, watching me type. There’s another sniffing my drying boots and more of them galloping about the grass, fighting and rough-housing. I can’t see the family of mongooses that lives on the lodge grounds, but they must be nearby because I can hear them cooing and purring to each other.

Two things have happened in the past few days that I would never have suspected. I drank a whole stubbie of beer and I’ve learned to shoot. Who’da thunk it, eh?

Richard gave me a shooting lesson with his .22 rifle on our last day at Palm Haven. To everyone’s utter amazement, I wasn’t lousy at it. He must be the world’s best rifle coach if he managed to have a klutz like me shooting pebbles off the fenceposts in half an hour. The beer was Zimbabwean Zambezi Lager, drunk while cruising down the Zambezi River. If I can do beer and guns, that must make me an honorary bloke.

Oh, and I’ve also started saying "ja". That was inevitable, I suppose. I’m so suggestible.

We left Palm Haven early Saturday morning after a farewell braai (barbecue) on Friday night that lasted into the wee hours. Richard and Angela had set up the yard with tables and oil lamps and invited some of their friends and people Bloke works with at the base. An extremely pleasant and tiddly time was had by all – South Africans know how to entertain and they certainly know how to drink.

We hit the road just after seven (after going to bed at 3.30) and drove to Mapungubwe National Park, which has borders with Botswana and Zimbabwe.

The weather was shrivellingly hot on the other side of the mountains. It had been pleasant at Palm Haven, and in the early hours, even chilly. By afternoon, it had reached 39 C. It gets that hot in Adelaide, but I’m not usually stupid enough to go tramping around in the open.

Mapungubwe is not a game park, though it does have animals. It’s mainly known for its scenery and the ruins of an ancient civilization on top of a long, flat mountain with the same name as the park. It is all red dirt, red rocks and contorted, silvery trees. Dotted about the park are huge baobabs.

The Limpopo River flows through the park and yes, there are fever trees. They have odd, nobbly bark in a hallucinatory pale yellow. There is even a sign bearing the Kipling quote at the gate to a walk leading to a hide overlooking the river.

(That's a fever tree on the right.)

The water was looking suitably grey-green and greasy the day we were there, but the Limpopo wasn’t looking too great. When it isn't in flood, it flows mostly underground, but that leaves it looking like a wide sand flat with sludgy pools at the edges. Bright birds flew between the tree branches, a crocodile lazed in the shallows and in the distance, baboons picked their way to a small island of greenery. Four skittish waterbuck cantered past on the riverbed.

Our bed that night was in Alldays, a rough-and-tumble northern town that seemed to be made up largely of hunting lodges, game farms, taxidermists and "game capture" services (which I presume remove Large Bitey Things from places where they aren’t wanted). It seems that with a few exceptions, if a cashed up hunter has the right permits, he can shoot just about anything with feet.

The owner of the hunting lodge where we stayed was a noted leopard hunter in his day. His bar was still lined with photos of grinning hunters sitting with their catches and the front fence was hung with the skulls and horns of various antelope. But like Richard, he gave up killing. He decided he had killed enough.

The barman told off-colour jokes and poured shooters that he called Bitches, made of stroh rum and something red that smelled of aniseed. When the two were mixed, they smelled like a particularly revolting cough syrup. From the look on Bloke’s face when he knocked his back, a Bitch tastes pretty bad.

We crossed the Limpopo into Botswana on Sunday morning, arriving in Francistown in the afternoon with a monsoon on our heels. The next day, we drove 480km to Kasane, a town on the Chobe River.

We chased a watery silver mirage up the heat-hazed highway. Tawny grass lined the road on both sides. Bloke was driving and he spent most of his time dodging herds of goats and potholes that were deep enough to hide a goat.

And speaking of goats, if you’re driving to Kasane, don’t make a pit stop at the Shell station in Nata. There were people at the service station section and a sign boasted about a motel and restaurant out the back. A second sign pointed to public toilets. We picked our way through a post-apocalyptic yard full of weeds. A sign said the pool was free for guests, but 10 pula for everyone else, but the only water was some evil-looking sludge in the bottom.

Bloke said, "Oh. I think I can smell the toilets." He gave me a sideways look, because I’m notoriously fussy about loos and have been known to refuse to have anything to do with the Asian squat variety, especially if they’re awash.

But it wasn’t the toilets he could smell. It was the puddle of dead goat in front of the men’s room door. It was still identifiable as a goat, but much flatter and surrounded by a circle of fur. It looked like it had died where it fell and just melted there. I looked at the door to the ladies and found it was crusted shut with cobwebs. We elected to hold on and left with the smell of decomp clinging to our nose hairs.

Luckily there was a nice clean servo across the road. It was a pay toilet, but hey. I’ll pay for no dead goats. Bloke said he thought the place might have been cursed, which explained why it had been abandoned and no-one had removed the corpse. Bad juju.

Botswana must have a hell of a lot of donkeys. All along the highway, there were donkeys grazing by the road, donkeys pulling carts. It’s just donkey heaven.

I also got my first sight of an elephant on the road to Kasane. Bloke pulled up near where a big, bull elephant with a broken tusk was standing by a tree. He was huge. He got a bit grumpy, though, and started waving his trunk and flapping his ears, so we decided discretion was the better part of valour and drove on.

We arrived at Kasane’s Chobe Safari Lodge at lunchtime. It’s amazingly beautiful. There are signs on the trees near our rondavel that read, "Beware of the crocodiles" and "Beware of the hippos". Both of them have been known to come up onto the river banks at night. There are also signs asking that we don’t feed the monkeys, but it doesn’t matter whether you feed them or not. They just help themselves from the dinner table. One leapt onto the breakfast table this morning and snatched a banana from a plate, then retreated to a tree to eat it. If a monkey can gloat, then this one was gloating. It was almost as if he were saying, "There, I licked it! It’s mine! Nyaa!"

On our first afternoon at the safari lodge, we went on a cruise on the Chobe River. I don’t think we’d gone more than 50m before we saw an elephant on the bank, and that was just the start.

We saw lots of these:

A couple of these:

(It's a kudu bull.)

A couple of these:

A few of these:

And a shiny, red arseload of these:

The Chobe is a very pretty river. Trees grow down to the banks and there are fields of aquatic grasses that the elephants love. If the Limpopo is grey etc., the Chobe is more the colour of stewed tea. We cruised down the low channel, which on the Botswanan side. In the middle is a grassy island that belongs to Botswana and on the other side of the island is a deeper channel and then Namibia.

It was actually rather funny, watching all the tour boats loaded down with whiteys, all ugly shorts and sunburn, beer bottle in one hand and camera in the other. Yay for tourists, eh? The boats race each other to get to the animals. The guides have hawk eyes and can spot a little kingfisher from 75m away, but they also follow each other. If one boat pulls up to the bank, the others will follow to see what they're looking at.

After the cruise, Bloke took me to a ripping little bar on the riverbank called the Sedudu Bar. We drank vodka and guava juice in tall glasses that clinked with ice and watched the sun set. As the sun went down, masses of dragonflies came out and their hovering bodies were black against the fiery sky.

Yesterday, we went into Zimbabwe to visit Victoria Falls. I can’t find a word good enough for these falls. I’ve already thrown aside astounding and spectacular and wondrous. The spray is visible as soon as you pull into town. It looks like low cloud, or from a distance, smoke.
The falls are fed by the Zambezi, which is in flood at the moment and still rising. The water is swarming over the falls, thousands and thousands of litres every second, bringing with it tons of sediment from upstream.

Bloke warned me that we would get wet and we certainly did. We were soaked to the knickers by the time we finished the walk. The spray ranges from a fine, wind-blown mist to soaking rain. The vegetation around the falls is sub-tropical rainforest, just from the constant spray from the falls. We hired raincoats, but soon shed them because it was too hot. I ended up tucking them over my camera bag, trying to keep that dry.

Some people will go to any lengths to stay dry. We saw some rather sweaty-looking Poms in yellow macs and sou’westers. I think I’d rather be drenched in spray than in my own sweat, thanks very much. Besides, my jeans needed washing.

After the falls, we bought a few souvenirs and a cup of coffee that cost $6500 Zimbabwean dollars (US$3) and went on a Zambezi cruise. Cruises have dropped off along with the tourists, since Zimbabwe isn’t the best place to visit at the moment. Thanks for that, President Mugabe. No wonder your people are all praying for your death – not only is there no sugar and bread costs $1000 Zim dollars a loaf, but you've destroyed a thriving tourist market. We did manage to get a boat, though, and had a two hour cruise on the river. The surface was like glass, with palm trees on the banks and hippos in the shallows.

This morning we got up at the crack of dawn to go on a game drive through Chobe National Park. There were animals everywhere: elephants, puku, wart hogs, impala, hippos, crocodiles and all sorts of birds. We even saw a giraffe, which was rather exciting. Tomorrow, we fly to the Okavango Delta.

I have to say, though, there’s a lotta shit in Africa. And if I keep going the way I am now, I’m on target to leave a size eight-and-a-half boot print in a bit of everything. So far I’ve stepped in elephant, baboon, goat, donkey, cow, unidentified antelope and a couple of other things that I can’t name. There have been quite a number of near misses and there’s probably other crap that I’ve stepped in without knowing it. We’ve also driven through a fair bit of it, because in between potholes on the road to Kasane was a hell of a lot of elephant crap. I'm sure the tally will rise, because if there’s one thing you can count on me doing, it’s stepping in poop.

It's elephant. Of course.

Here endeth the second instalment.

Labels: ,

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Boa constrictors and biltong

There is a little bird the colour of flames outside my window. He isn’t much bigger than a sparrow, but he has two long tail-feathers that he uses as a rudder. He flits between the thorn trees, catching insects and flirting his tail at me, daring me to try to get a photo of him before he disappears.

One paradise flycatcher.
(Note the thorns in the tree.)

We're staying at Palm Haven, a lodge attached to a farm out in the veldt. Bloke has been here a month and I've been here for three days. We're about eight or nine kilometres outside Makhado, a town near the Zoutpansberg Moutains. On the other side of the range is the Limpopo River, all set about with fever trees, and on the far side of that, Zimbabwe. The air force base is close enough that the Cheetahs and Hawks fly low overhead, rattling the windows and startling the cat.

It’s early now, before 7am, and this is the coolest part of the day. By lunchtime, the sun will be intense and the humidity will make a sauna of the stoop (verandah) where I like to sit. It’s cooler this morning because a gusty change blew in yesterday afternoon, bringing wind and thunder but not much of the hoped-for rain. This is the rainy season, but it’s dry here, too.

We arrived here on Sunday afternoon, driving up from Johannesburg. We didn’t see much of the city because I landed late Saturday afternoon after 17 hours of plane travel and airport waits. I crashed and burned early.

The hotel had a pretty Mediterranean garden and a long pond that boiled with koi carp.

We sat out there the next morning and had a buffet breakfast. It cost the equivalent of $23, cheaper than it would have been in Australia, but I was ashamed to discover that was nearly two days' pay for someone on the minimum wage here.

Next to the hotel was a place called Montecasino. It looked like an old European fort, but it was less than 10 years old. Walking through the front doors was like stepping into the Twilight Zone. Inside, they had recreated an Italian village, complete with two-storey stone-fronted buildings, cobbled roads and old cars parked in strategic spots.

There was a painted sky (twilight or full night, depending on where you walked), fake trees, stuffed pigeons and even washing lines dangling knickers and stockings from upstairs windows for that extra touch of authenticity. The whole effect was bizarre, especially since there was a poker machine-infested casino at its heart. I can’t even begin to imagine why anyone would do that in the middle of a South African city, but apparently it’s quite popular.

The landscape here is surprisingly similar to the Australian landscape. Once you leave the city, the road is bounded by red dirt, a haze of tall grass and silvery trees. The sky is huge.

Look familiar?

The main differences are that the trees have thorns and instead of kangaroo crossing signs, there are signs showing leaping kudu or springbok or some other bouncy, antelopey sort of thing.

Another big difference is that people walk for miles here. You see them in the middle of nowhere, carrying bags or boxes on their heads. They must have walked for 20km already and have another 10 in front of them before they will see anything but thorn trees and heat-hazed tarmac. Others have found rides in the back of utes, or bakkies, as they are called here. I saw two men sitting in the back of a bakkie, riding sidesaddle on the sides of the tray. The bakkie was spinning along a dirt road in front of a settlement and every time it hit a bump, the men would become airborne for a moment.

In the towns and cities, you also see people with roadside stalls selling the oddest collection of wares. Mirrors, for example, all tied to a chain wire fence. People wander among the cars stopped at traffic lights to sell things, too, anything from roses to headphones. If you see a sign with a man sitting next to a table piled with a pyramid of black oranges and a slash through the middle, it's a no street stall area.

We struck out on the N1 for Pietersburg – or Polokwane, depending on which road sign you see. A lot of town names were changed recently, but most people still use the old Afrikaans names and some of the signs are behind the times. Makhado used to be called Louis Trichardt and Pretoria, near Johannesburg, has become Tshwane. On the highway, we passed signs pointing to places with names like Tweefontein, Olifantfontein and Warmbaths.

Black settlements are dotted along the highway. They are a mix of government-built brick houses and tumbledown shacks made from patchworks of tin and wood. Often, both types of house have tin roofs held on with rocks, bits of wood and rusting metal. It’s as if the budget for some of the brick homes couldn’t stretch to roofing nails. The settlements are sad, depressing-looking places, surrounded by red dust. Children scuffle about in the dirt. Occasionally you see someone lying on an old mattress in front of a doorway.

As we drove, the landscape became hillier, with bouldery mountains that wouldn’t look out of place in the Northern Territory. I took photos through the windscreen because there was nowhere to stop and, anyway, stopping isn’t advisable.

Sorry, don't know what either of these are called.
That pointy one looks a bit like Tolkein's Lonely Mountain, though.

For this reason, we passed the Tropic of Capricorn doing 120. Apparently, it's a known Haunt of Bandits. (Don’t you love that expression? It could almost be a collective noun – a murder of crows, an unkindness of lawyers, a haunt of bandits.) They wait there for tourists who want to have their photo taken at the rock that marks the exact point of the tropic.

Everybody reminds you to be careful when driving. You're supposed to keep the doors locked, the windows up and never stop for hitchhikers or people with car trouble. I’m not sure whether this story is an urban myth, because I’ve heard it a couple of times with slightly different details, but it’s interesting in any case. A woman was driving down the highway when a man (yes, a black man) stepped out in front of the car, trying to flag her down. She was in a four-wheel drive, so she swerved around him, onto the rough at the side of the road, before driving to the nearest police station. The police went back to the spot, but the man was gone. When they looked in the long grass by the road, however, they found several corpses. The men had been lying out of sight, waiting to carjack her and instead she ran over them.

But we made it to Palm Have safe and sound. The lodge is owned by Richard and Angela Ball, a lovely, generous couple with two young daughters. Richard used to be a big game hunter and both he and Angela would lead hunting parties, looking for game. They’ve hacked out farms in Zambia with little more than hand tools and are incredibly hard-working and strong. Now they farm and run this lodge. They both speak Afrikaans, but identify themselves as “English”, meaning they have English heritage rather than Dutch.

The week before I arrived, Angela dragged a boa constrictor out of the duck pond that doubles as a swimming hole for the girls. It had already hoovered up a couple of pet rabbits and obviously thought the pond looked like a nice spot for some quiet digestion. The snake was 3m long and as thick as a thigh. None of the people who work on the farm would get near it. They believe that a large snake like that carries the spirit of someone who has died and must have been sent to harm them. Richard eventually came running and dealt with it.

The property really is beautiful. When you drive up the 2km driveway, there are ten foot electric fences on both sides, giving it a bit of a Jurassic Park feel. Inside the main compound are Richard and Angela's House, the vegetable gardens, fields and the lodge. Behind the lodge, there's a yard surrounded by fiery cannas and thorn trees. Beyond the yard, the goats and pigs wander in uncleared veldt. Every now and then, a rabble of rusty piglets rushes up to the wire fence before snuffling away again.

Bacon Sandwich, Ham Roll and Pork Chop

Beyond the veldt is the bony, blue spine of the mountains. Today it is frosted with low cloud left over from last night's thunder storm.

The view from the stoop

The vegetable gardens are surrounded by a hedge of pleached lemon trees. Almost everything grows in those gardens: sunflowers, garlic, herbs, eggplant, tomatoes, lettuce, capsicum, pumpkin, you name it. Chooks roam free. One of them likes to lay her eggs in the doghouse.

I’ve been adopted by Jorgi, a little grey and white cat who looks a lot like my Mr Furpants except for his whiter face. His father was a black-footed African wildcat, but Jorgi is quite tame and happy to sleep on my lap. He realised fairly quickly that I was a soft touch and now comes straight to me for bits of biltong at the bar. He’s a tough little bugger, though, and catches snakes when he can.

Bloke goes to work on the air force base during the day, leaving me to my own devices, but Richard and Angela have been keeping me busy. Yesterday, Richard's friend, Oom (Uncle) Jaco came around to show me how to make biltong. This is a South African favourite, the equivalent of a vegemite sandwich: it’s a spiced, dried meat, something like beef jerky, except edible.

Oom Jaco is a great bear of a man with a big heart, a fourth generation Capetonian “wine farmer” who has a rose nursery near Palm Haven. He also has a little bar and a general store that is known for having the best biltong in the area. He makes all his own biltong and drywoers, a sort of thin dried sausage. When he arrived, he was wearing faded khaki shorts and shirt and looked every bit the Afrikaaner farmer.

We went out to buy spices and meat from the abattoir and then settled in on Richard and Angela’s stoop to make the biltong. Oom Jaco started things off by putting a couple of handfuls of spice in the bottom of a big plastic tub and adding the first layer of meat and marinade. We were using beef, but game meat like kudu is good too. I think you can use any red meat but pork, which for some reason goes rancid instead of curing.

Then he handed over to me and I ended up with splatters of bloody meat juice halfway up my arms, slicing, spicing and packing about 25kg of beef. You have to leave it to marinate overnight and then you hang it from hooks in a dry, airy place for three days to cure. After that, you can freeze it or let it continue to dry. It’s usually shredded by a rotary slicer and served in thin slivers, though some people prefer to just carve off hunks with their knives.

Throughout most of the packing process, I had four dogs sitting hopefully at my feet and Richard, Angela, Oom Jaco and a neighbour looking on approvingly. I have a vague suspicion that this was at least partially a test to see whether I was a useless girly type who would say, “Euwwww! Meat! Blood! Do I have to touch it?” But that’s OK. I think I passed.

Richard brought me a baby boa constrictor yesterday, which I think was another little test. He'd fished it out of a flower bed. I held out my hand and to take it and he said, “Whoa! No!” Their bites fester, he said. It was a pretty little snake, though, about 18 inches long. It wrapped its body around my hand while Richard held it by the head and it made a good show of trying to squeeze my wrist. He dropped it tail-first into a water bottle with air holes punched in the top for Bloke to take to the base and release. They’re good ratcatchers, but not particularly welcome at a lodge. Plus, Jorgi would have found it sooner or later and done for it.

I have to admit that I was slightly turned off when Richard ate a live grasshopper at the dinner table the night before last. I found a big, dust-coloured locust sitting on the doorframe in the bathroom and brought it out with me, hoping it wasn’t the sort that spat acid. We’d finished eating, so I dropped it on the table.

We’d all had a few drinks by then (I’d been mixing mojitos at the bar) and Richard started talking about the types of grasshoppers that were good to eat. He picked it up and turned it over and said this sort wasn’t great eating. I expressed some doubt that it would be any good raw anyway, so he ate it in two bites, dropping the wings in the ashtray. He ended up with a leg stuck between his teeth, which I suppose is poetic justice.

Here endeth the first instalment.

Labels: ,

Friday, February 02, 2007

Voyage to The Dark Continent

Well, my darlings, I've packed my trunk and I'm going on an adventure. An adventure to Africa, to be exact, and I leave first thing in the morning.

I'm all packed and stashed among the hiking boots, the sturdy trousers and the odd swanky dress are the following:

One large can "Lion-Off"
Everyone needs supersize pussycat repellant. Unless, of course, one is visiting a let's-pat-the-pretty-cheetahs-park, in which case I'll skip the Lion-Off that day.

One barrel "Carjackergard"
So we can drive and drive and drive and still Avagoodweegend. Carjackers? No-no!

One copy The Heart of Darkness
Sorry, non-Conrad folk. How could I not?

One size-12 thong
For swatting all of the nasty, poisonous insects that abound in A-freee-ka. There are a bugger of a lot of them. I'll take photos of the bastards as I find them. Apparently there is something called a "piss moth" that causes unpleasant skin irritation. People used to think the piss-moth pissed on people, but apparently the little shit just sheds bits of extremely irritating wing fluff. Pfft. Of course.

One bottle of "Malaaaaria? Fuck you!"
(It has the same jingle as "Team America".) I got the 500ml roll-on.

One dassie whistle
Col dang, those little critters are cute! Here, dassie, dassie, dassie...

One uberfishystinky fake seal
For towing behind boats to attract 6m-long, jumping white pointer sharks. If I only see one cool thing in Saffieland, I want it to be that. Please, Ford, let me see a breaching shark!

One camera of the gods
Of course. Would I buy anything else? I have to post pics on my blog.

Himself has already been in South Africa for three weeks. In fact, this is his fifth trip. Finally, it's my turn to go too. I fly into Johannesburg tomorrow and then we drive to Makhado, a town near the Zimbabwe border that used to be known as Louis Trichardt. That's where Bloke has been earning a crust. I get to be useless for a week in a place with both a pool table and a pool, while he continues to test cool electronicky stuff. Then we hit the road.

When we hit the road, we'll cross the great grey-green greasy Limpopo River, all set about with fever trees and we'll strike out for Botswana and the Okavango Delta with its truckloads of birds. En route, there will be a side trip to Kruger National Park and a flying visit into Zimbabwe to float up the Zambezi River to see Victoria Falls.

Last time Bloke visited South Africa, he rang me from a riverboat. "I'm on the Zambezi," he said. "I can see the spray from Victoria Falls and, oh, look! There's a hippopotamus right next to the boat!" Luckily, I was well and truly squiffy at the time and Petstarr and KFlip had come to keep me company, or there would have been a deal of trouble.

After Botswana and Zimbabwe, we fly to Cape Town, home of (allegedly) marvellous wines, jumping sharkses and Robern Island, the place where Nelson Mandela was imprisoned for 27 years.

I'll have internet access for at least the first week, but after that, who knows? But on the off-chance that anyone gives a rat's tail, I'll post as often as I can, with photos.

I'm excited, but you wouldn' t believe how guilty I feel.

And why does the hack feel guilty? Has she not finished all of her work before fleeing the country? No, she finished the last story this morning and even put in her invoices.

Is it because she had to put Mr Furpants into Le Hotel du Mog? Ooh yeah, got it in one.

Mr Furpants is a bloody travel agent for guilt trips. I never thought I'd find someone who was better at that shit than my mother-in-law, but there you go. You keep on learnin'.

Usually, when we go away, someone kittysits. Mr F is an Outside Cat. He roams free all day, sleeping in the shrubbery, chasing mouses and then coming inside in the evening.

You have never seen anything like The Looks that cat gave me from his cell. And it was a cell. It looked more like Guantanamo Puss than Le Hotel du Mog. Mr F wouldn't come out of his kitty carrier and I had to turn it upside down. He fell out. And then he shrank into one concrete corner and I felt like the biggest heel in the world.

When I left, he was sitting on one of the sleeping shelves, on some cushions and crocheted rugs, giving me looks that could have stripped paint with their utter misery and fear.

I'm a lousy cat parent. Buggerit.

Labels: ,