Monday, January 28, 2008

The green, green grass

The Soutpansberg Mountains, seen from Palm Haven

The road from Johannesburg could hardly look more different from last summer. When I was here the first time, the country was baked red, the grass tawny like a lion's hide. This year, South Africa is having a true wet season and the roadside and veldt have been washed green. Wetlands and muddy wallows have appeared by the highway, followed by white wading birds. Fields of corn stand tall. Even the red stone kopjes by the road have acquired a green tinge.

Bloke retrieved me from the muggy airport on Thursday night, whisking me past taxi touts who wore white shoes with extended toes. The touts were the only airport workers who smiled and made eye contact. The plane landed through rain and the showers kept on for the whole four-hour drive to Louis Trichardt, ranging from a miserable drizzle to solid cloudbursts. The labourers riding home in the open trays of trucks and bakkies were rugged up in balaclavas and thick jackets. I suppose it was about 19 degrees - cold for Africa.

After half a dozen toll gates and a pit stop for a cold hamburger and chips soggy with oil and crusted in sweet salt, we finally turned off the highway. Palm Haven is at the end of a long red drive and rain turns it into a network of puddles and thin streams. A brown water bird stood stubbornly in one of the pot holes, soaking its feet and staring us down. Who knew plovers played chicken?

Driving through the first gate always feels like entering Jurassic Park and the rain in the headlights make the illusion stronger. The gate posts are heavy logs and eight-foot electric fences guard both sides of the road, more to keep uninvited visitors out than to keep a T-Rex in. An electric gate close to the house completes the secure zone.

By the time Bloke dropped my suitcase in his room, it was nearly 9pm, or 5.30am Adelaide time - 24 hours since I'd left home. I managed to buck the jetlag, staying up til 10 and waking with the birds the next morning. I don't hold out much hope that the return trip will be as free of misery, but this time I'm definitely keeping away from those bloody No Jetlag pills. Christ, it was like herbal ice last time - they left me so wired I got seven hours' sleep in three days and was on the verge of a psychotic break.

With the break in the drought, Palm Haven looks different too. The veldt beyond the garden fence is green and dotted with tiny yellow wild flowers. Even the thorn trees look somehow more lush. They probably have a better crop of thorns. In the distance, the Soutpansberg Mountains have been lost in thunderheads most mornings, emerging blue and hazy later in the day. Misty rain, or perhaps rainy mist, leaves the fence wires strung with water beads. Distant rumbles are either thunder or the Cheetahs and Hawks from the airbase out on manoeuvres.

The paradise flycatcher, with his long fiery tail, still flits back and forth across the garden, but there are other, less obvious birds that I didn't notice last time. I found a sunbird peering from a thorn tree just beyond the fence and was dazzled by the metallic gloss of his feathers. A pair of golden weavers is tending a new, gourd-shaped nest in another tree and in the afternoon, tiny blue birds appear to drink from the round brick trough just beyond the fence. I've been flicking through my copy of Newman's Birds of Southern Africa and scanning the trees with my binoculars. That makes me a bird nerd, doesn't it? But I don't have an anorak or one of those geeky little trainspotting notebooks, so perhaps all is not lost.

Palm Haven's owners, Richard and Angela, are as lovely and welcoming as ever. Richard is struggling back to strength after a wasp attack last week that nearly killed him. He disturbed a nest while he was pruning and the wasps came barreling out, stinging him on the face and arms. He stopped breathing on the way to the hospital. He's on the mend slowly, but he tires more easily than he will admit and the pills make his hands shake unless he concentrates hard. Despite last week's trauma, everything continues to run smoothly and nothing is ever too much trouble for Angela.

Life isn't being made any easier by the fact that South Africa is in the middle of a power crisis. Everybody here is worried because for the past few weeks, there has been load-shedding, which is really a weasel word for power cuts of up to five hours every day. And when the lights go out, the wheels fall off. There are the obvious things like no traffic lights (which are called "robots" here, for some reason) and being wrapped in darkness in the supermarket, but then there are the things that no-one thought of, like the few hundred tourists who got stuck in a cable car halfway up a Cape Town mountain recently.

South Africa used to sell power to Mozambique, Zambia and Zimbabwe, but last week they pulled the plug. Thabo Mbecki has admitted the government ignored warnings ten years ago that there would be shortages unless more power stations were built. Apparently the problem has been made worse by the fact that the existing turbines haven't been maintained properly. The government promised there would be no cuts over the weekend and there weren't. I think they sensed there would have been mutiny if the lights had gone out during the day/night cricket match against the West Indies.

The trade-off for being able to have the lights on was shutting down the country's gold, diamond and platinum mines all weekend. The shut-down has cost something like six billion rand a day, or at least that's what they're admitting to. More than 480,000 people work in mining and while this time the bosses are paying them during the standstill, that can't last. There are already rumblings that unless the problem is fixed, South Africa hosting the 2010 World Cup could be in jeopardy.

The power crunch has come after a water crisis a few months ago, when purification shut down in some areas. People are worried that South Africa is going the same way as Zimbabwe: to hell in a handbasket. The jokes have already started. For example, what's the difference between the Titanic and South Africa? The Titanic went down with its lights on. Naturally, it was the main topic of conversation on Saturday night, when people from the base came to Palm Haven for an Australia Day braii.

I don't really hold with all this patriotic Strayaday rubbish. I've had a good old whinge about it before, so I won't bore you with it again. I wondered whether I'd feel different spending the national day overseas. Nup. Not really. But at least it was devoid of drunken yobbos and people who thought it was fine to substitute Australian flags for items of clothing. The barbecue was pretty tasty, though. I have to admit that a Saffie braii makes an Aussie barbie look pretty darned lightweight. It's all about the wood, baby. You have to have a taste to make sure it's just right, then let it burn down to the perfect ember base before you start cooking. And of course it's a huge meatfest: boerwors, ribs, lamb chops, Mozambique prawns - you name it, it was dead and gettin' grilled like a French stockbroker.

There was one type of meat that some of the guests wouldn't touch, though: my kangaroo biltong. I made a batch before I came and brought it in vacuum sealed. Richard says it tastes just like venison biltong, which can be any antelope from springbok to kudu and is quite expensive here compared to the usual beef variety. I wonder whether it's more expensive than ordinary biltong at home? I've seen it in the Central Market for $60 a kilo.

Anyway, venison or not, more than a few people were a bit leary of having a taste. "Oh, I couldn't! Kangaroos are so cute!" one of the pilots' wives said. I pointed out that kudu were pretty nice-looking animals too, but she said there'd never been a movie made about a kudu. What's that Skip? Bambi would make good biltong? Sure he would, Skip - with the right spices.



At 10:19 am, January 29, 2008, Blogger Milly Moo said...

Wow. What a fantastic post, Red. By all means embrace your inner birdy nerdiness - how about getting us non-African-travellers some photos?

At 2:17 pm, January 29, 2008, Blogger actonb said...

You made biltong?

That's awesome!

At 8:07 pm, January 29, 2008, Blogger eleanor bloom said...

Great shame after all that effort with the biltong. Tell them they're lucky it's not koala biltong and to be more grateful dammit!

Great post. I love all the birdy stuff too. I find it really relaxing to watch birds, and amusing (esp the parrots). Yes, pictures, do!

At 1:45 am, January 30, 2008, Blogger redcap said...

Thanks milly :) There, I've jammed one in of the mountains. I haven't taken a lot of pics yet.

acton, ja - and easy, too. I learned last time I was here.

eleanor, ah, doesn't matter. I think most people like it. I was just surprised at the squeamishness! I wonder what koala tastes like? Somewhere between dolphin and panda, do you think?

At 8:26 pm, January 30, 2008, Blogger ali g said...

The curse of independance unfortunately brings on the 'Cargo Cult' mentality.
It happenned in PNG and Africa seems to be following close behind. Current Aids funds sent to PNG are being rorted and African Pollies seem to think it's a Witch Doctor thing so why spend money on health problems.
Infrastructure maintenance is something alien to the understanding.
We had an old saying going back then [was in PNG in the eighties for 3 years doing banking stuff] which may now seem rather racist but unfortunately rings true..."White man make it.. Black man break it'" So sad..nothing changes...whatever.
Yeh that wood thing with the SA BBQ's is good. Got lessons from TP in that regard. Cooks good!

At 8:00 pm, January 31, 2008, Blogger River said...

Koala biltong would probably be eucalyptus flavoured, great if you had a head cold.


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