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Africa » Congo » South » Brazzaville
April 24th 2006
Published: April 24th 2006EDIT THIS ENTRY

Sealife at Nature's ValleySealife at Nature's ValleySealife at Nature's Valley

Some of the wild animals we saw in South Africa
So there we have it. Unbeknownst to some of you (though certainly beknownst to others), we have returned from our 8 month tour of duty and are now domiciled back in the UK. Just in time for both Easter and the Queen’s birthday- events which are always marked joyously in our household.

Before extrapolating on what the trip did for us, and what we gained (and perhaps lost) from it, it is important to fulfil the requirements of a travel blog and relate the events of the last few weeks in South Africa (the astute reader will have ascertained that, whilst this is apparently brought to you from Brazzaville, it, in fact, isn’t).

When we last spoke, family of four had just arrived in Durban. Actually, it was Umhlanga, a beach resort about 15 kms north of Durban, but the website didn’t have it listed as a place. We spent a week there, relaxing by the pool (Claire and I), running around with lots of other little people (Mia) and running around with lots of other little people occasionally, but generally more interested in playing with toy cars (Jake). It was nice, a chance to unwind a bit after
An elephantAn elephantAn elephant

Fortunately, deciding not to use our car as a stool.
the stress and hectic, fast pace of the previous seven months. Also, the place we were staying had children’s activities three times a day, which gave Claire and me a bit of a break from the kids. And vice versa. We did venture in to Durban a couple of times (much to my Durban-dwelling aunt’s amazement: “No-one goes into the city any more!” she told us, “Everyone goes to malls now!”).

Our first visit took us to Minitown which, as the name kind of suggests, is a town- only in miniature. It is also slightly run down- whether due to lack of visitors (we were the only people there on the day we went) or lack of funding is unclear- probably both- but it retains a certain kitsch value if one is a fan of kitsch. Indeed, that entire area of Durban (North Beach, if you’re interested) is slightly run down, so in that respect Minitown is simply conforming to type.

Our next trip into the city was far more rewarding. We went to uShaka Marine World, a fantastic park consisting of an aquarium built into an old shipwreck and a Wet’n’Wild water park with large twisty slides,
The beach at Port St. John'sThe beach at Port St. John'sThe beach at Port St. John's

Frequented by people and cows
swimming pools and kamikaze plunges. The aquarium was excellent- meticulously laid out, with a huge array of sea creatures. After the disappointment of Singapore’s aquarium, we had sworn off the places, but this one was well worth it. The only irritant was the ubiquitous dolphin display. I don’t like the enforced cheeriness of the handlers, the anthropomorphism of the dolphins, or the “green and clean” message spouted by people who will then drive away in their 4x4s, an essential requirement in the urban jungle of Durban. However, the displays are not compulsory. Obviously. The slides were superb, too, and I went on every one. Twice. Mia also went on most of them, and we had great fun shooting down slides such as the Mamba, the Anaconda, the Cobra, the Kamikaze Head Case, the Knee Breaker and the Chaffinch.*
Claire, after doing the bungee jump, took Jake on the White Water Raft ride and in to the Swimming with Sharks cage.**

Once our week in Umhlanga was up, we headed into Zululand. Destination- Hluhluwe/ Umfolozi. We went because South Africa’s oldest Game Reserve is there, but even if it wasn’t, with a name like that, we had to visit. Hluhluwe is actually a Zulu word which means “Meeting place of the animals amongst the trees where the wind blows” (or something similar) and is pronounced Shushluwe. Whilst in the area we stayed at Hluhluwe Backpackers, a rather strange establishment on the side of a hill on the pot-hole ridden road to the gates of the park. We were the only guests, and you had the feeling that not many people had ever stayed there. The dorm we slept in would have felt a little cramped if all 6 bunks had been in use- one would have to have very few inhibitions if sharing with a bunch of strangers. It was initially friendly enough- the owners were genuinely helpful and cooked us a braai (a South African BBQ) the day we arrived- but as our stay wore on, it felt as if a façade was slipping. The husband had the look and glint in his eye of a man who would happily shoot you if he felt so inclined whilst his wife spent most of the time smoking and close to tears. We had no need for an alarm as their morning arguments were sufficient. As an analogy, think The Shining
White rhinosWhite rhinosWhite rhinos

You can tell because of their colour. Or something.
without the blood in the lift or the writing on the wall. Or the mad axe man, but that was possibly not far off.


By contrast, the day spent in Hluhluwe/ Umfolozi was fantastic. We went with a tour guide, for a couple of reasons: first, the size of the park meant that without a guide you could be driving all day without spotting anything; second, the jeep we were driven in was raised at the back to provide a higher view; third, one of us would not have to miss out by concentrating on the driving; and fourth, it seemed easier. We saw plenty of animals (although, as at Addo, we missed out on the lions). There were giraffes, white rhinos, cape buffalo, chacma baboons, vervet monkeys, nyalas, a crocodile, a spotted hyena, monitor lizards and all manner of birds, the names of which escape me as they are not as interesting as huge mammals, The white rhinos were perhaps the most impressive: we came upon a family of three at very close quarters- so close, that Wessel, our guide and driver, felt it pertinent to reverse rather quickly. The prime reason for this was, actually, not
A giraffeA giraffeA giraffe

Strolling through the bush
due to the proximity of the beasts, but the fact that the young rhino was less than a day old, and mothers are rather protective of their newborns. It was a joy to watch (from a safe distance, of course) as they ambled down the path and across the river bed. I am sure Mia and Jake would have enjoyed it too, if they hadn’t flung themselves on to the floor of the jeep the moment Wessel mentioned that there was a small possibility the mother could charge. Time for an interesting fact- the white rhino is not white. It is grey. The black rhino (which are in the park, but far more solitary and less easy to spot) is not black. It, too, is grey. The difference between the two types is that the white rhino has a wide mouth. Someone, somewhere, once upon a time, misheard “wide” as “white” and thus a name was born. The white rhino is also one of Africa’s Big 5. The Big 5 are not so-called because they are the biggest creatures in evidence (which is what I had always thought, for want of a better explanation). No, the Big 5 are the
On the beach at Cape VidalOn the beach at Cape VidalOn the beach at Cape Vidal

Dreaming of being back in London.
Big 5 because in the golden era of hunting (if one can be so kind as to proscribe hunting with a golden era), the Big 5 were the 5 animals deemed most dangerous to man. They are elephant, buffalo, rhino, lion and leopard. Of these, we were reliably informed by Wessel (and this may explain Mia and Jake’s desire to remain hidden for much of the time we watched the rhinos), the buffalo is extremely aggressive and bad-tempered; the rhino will charge if it feels threatened, and can charge at speeds of up to 50km/h; and if an elephant is wronged by a person, it will forever harbour a grudge against humans. He also told us that whereas it is possible for someone to survive a rhino attack, and even a lion attack, he has never heard of anyone surviving an elephant attack, and if an elephant feels like walking through your car, there’s not a lot you can do to persuade it otherwise. Which pretty much answers the question we posed when at Addo. On a final, cheery note, he did tell us that while hippos killed the most people per year in Africa, this was mostly due to
Sun, sea and skySun, sea and skySun, sea and sky

A study in grey
the people being in the way of the hippos rather than anything especially malicious on the hippos’ part. That made us feel much better.

Since the trip to Hluhluwe, Jake has become a little bit obsessed about whether particular animals can bite us. Including dinosaurs (“No, dinosaurs can’t bite us because they’re all dead.” “But little ones don’t bite us do they?” “Little what?” “Dinosaurs.” “No, little dinosaurs don’t bite us because they are all dead. All dinosaurs are dead.” “But could they bite us?” And so on). He also asked, apropos of nothing, whether moles had mouths.

Whilst in the Hluhluwe region, we took a cultural tour of Dumazulu. This was one of the villages set up in the region to cater to tourists and give an indication of what life was like in a traditional Zulu village. It was interesting in a vaguely voyeuristic way, but what I found harder to deal with were the Saga tour from the UK also there, some of whose number felt the need to crack unfunny, somewhat offensive jokes whilst being shown around. It was not the kind of thing we normally do, but as there was very little else to do in the locale, and we had no desire to sit around the Backpackers waiting to be gunned down in a hail of bullets, it filled a couple of hours. And, whatever else we felt, the money we paid goes to the locals in a region that is poor even by (black) South African standards.

Not having had our fill of wild animals at Hluhluwe, we proceeded on to St. Lucia, to see for ourselves those savage killers, the hippo. It’s hard to believe they are capable of such a thing, when you see them wallowing in the water, poking their eyes above the surface to watch the boat go past. When they frolic and play fight, and open their mouths to reveal their enormous teeth, it’s a little easier to believe. As well as hippos, we saw some enormous crocs- the estuary at St. Lucia is one of the last places on earth you would choose to swim- and another great variety of birds, including the biggest wading bird in the world, whose name escapes me. The Greater St. Lucia Wetlands (to give it its full title) is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, comprising five different ecosystems,
JakeJakeJake

Wet, muddy and shouting at grass
the estuary being one of them. It is a beautiful part of the world, with stunning beaches, crystal clear sea, mangrove forests, grasslands and, further north, swamps. All of which house a diverse range of flora and fauna. It was also very hot. In a nice way.

All of this brought us very close to the end. Despite our week in Umhlanga, we were tired again, so we went back there for another five days before heading up to Jo’burg for the flight back to London. The drive to Jo’burg was an experience. Driving in South Africa can be hair-raising at the best of times, but as this was the start of the Easter weekend, hair was that little bit more risen (an apt analogy for the time of year, it could be said). The majority of traffic was heading in the other direction- to Durban rather than away from it- and we saw the aftermath of some fairly horrific looking pile-ups on that side of the road. We later heard that the day had seen something ridiculous like 1300 accidents. Fortunately we were not involved in one, but we did get lost in Jo’burg trying to find our
MiaMiaMia

Wet, muddy and pink
hotel until a kindly lorry driver, having seen Claire and I getting a touch heated, gave us inch-perfect directions from the spot we were to the spot we needed to be.

Jo’burg has an awful reputation- the city centre and some inner-city suburbs are no-go areas, car-jacking and muggings are rife, people are shot for their wallets or less…the horror stories go on and on. It is a shame, and whilst these things do clearly happen, there are some good things about the place. Attempts are being made to clean up and regenerate the centre, with some businesses already being enticed back. And there is the new Apartheid Museum which, frankly, is unmissable. It’s not, however, a place for kids, which left us at a bit of a disadvantage, as we have two of them (with another on the way. That makes three. Good God, what have we done???). It is at turns shocking and uplifting, charting the history of South Africa from the time of the first settlers, through the Zulu wars, the Boer Wars, the rise of the Afrikaner movement, until the implementation of, and ultimate destruction of, the law of Apartheid. As I said, unmissable.
Howick FallsHowick FallsHowick Falls

In, er, Howick...

And so, after an 11 hour flight, which saw Jake being sick three times, Mia watching cartoons to the early hours, Claire being extremely uncomfortable and me trying to watch Transamerica and missing the crucial middle hour or so, we arrived back in London on Easter Sunday morning. After eight months and seven countries, our trip was over. It was hard at times, but was overall a fantastic, unforgettable experience. There may have been some doubts before we left as to the wisdom of what we were doing, but now there are no doubts whatsoever that it was the right thing for us to do at that time. It has opened the kids’ eyes to the world- made them see that there are different cultures, different value systems and different ways of life, all as important and as valid as their own. Claire and I have also gained another baby (or will soon) and had a break and a chance to reassess our lives. Mia has gained wisdom beyond her years (which she always had, so I’m not sure I can count that), a taste for travel and a bizarre cocktail of an accent which veered strongly towards South African
HipposHipposHippos

waiting to pounce...
but is now settling back in to a North London twang. And Jake, as well as the taste for travel, has also gained a car from virtually all the countries we’ve visited, and a small ball of resentment that we didn’t do this when he would be old enough to remember it.

Rather than being downbeat about our return to the UK, we are trying to look at it as another chapter in the adventure. Our house is in the process of being sold, so we can, in theory, go wherever we want (although, in reality, we are limited to where I can get a job, but why let that get in the way of a good fantasy?).

As one story ends, another begins. In this one, though, our tans may not be as deep.




* Some of these may not have existed.
** Some of these events may not have happened.



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Climbing the sand dunesClimbing the sand dunes
Climbing the sand dunes

Five times a day, otherwise they went hungry.


24th April 2006

Thank you "family of 4" for sharing your adventures. I enjoyed reading your blogs over the months. Good luck in the future to the "family of 5". I hope someday to be reading more!
2nd May 2006

What have we learnt?
Well to close a chapter in my life, otherwise known as “the last 8 months”, here is a summary of the exciting things that have been happening in the real world; although I have decided to cut it short somewhat and save it for my next novel. Going Away – so there I was, jealous as hell, that you were embarking upon an expedition that would open the families eyes to all of the possibilities around the eastern/southern hemisphere be it good or bad. Little did I know that I, and in some cases my family would be doing the same from the comfort of the western world and, block D, row F, seat 32 of Griffin Park: July – a pretty uneventful month excluding the daily trudge to work and back which involves stepping over aggressive beggars (one looks remarkably like my dad), sidestepping Eastern European gentlemen demanding a cigarette in pidgin English, getting dirty looks from the assembled school children at the bus stop, hopping on a tube train where the driver takes great delight in a) breaking sharply as the train enters the station knowing that most passengers are standing up and b) with perfect timing, closing the doors on unsuspecting tourists with back-packs (which is actually quite amusing), finding the escalators are not working (not overly pleasant at 36C) and to finish the daily journey, have drunk Antipodeans ask why you are looking so miserable, for those of you that know me, it is the face I was born with, if I smile, I resemble Jack Nicholson’s character “here’s Johnny” a little too closely. Sorry, forgot one important event where my youngest flashed the dinner queue at school, then told the dinner ladies they had no authority to tell him off. Allegedly behaviour he had copied from me, sort of, and adapted to meet his own aims. Obviously a budding conservative MP of the future. August – very similar to the above regarding the daily trudge, but joy o joy, we were off for our annual jaunt to Cornwall to partake in dangerous sports, hoping there would be no injuries this time. Alas, we were wrong, our oldest received a puncture wound to his ankle whilst out kayaking in a local canal, that culminated in a five day stay at our local hospital on a number of drips etc.. due to cellulitis. He is so selfish this one as last year he was stung twice by a weaver fish whilst surfing, and the year before needed stitches to his head after losing control abseiling face first down a cliff. Anything to get the attention of the lovely Claire who works at the centre. At least I learnt that cellulitis is an infection of the skin and not as I had always believed the strange ripple effect found on Linda’s thighs. September – football season has started, The Bees are going up, Martin Allen’s army are here, going great guns, winning games, got a blinding new striker (only cost 5K), happy days are here again. October – The Bees are still at it, 3rd in the league and through to the next round in the FA Cup. Linda decides to take a break and see our best man’s family in Athens, leaving me with our three boys and a ringing in my ears “don’t give them junk food”. Which is exactly what I did, as well as taking them to a friends farm where we sent them off with spears to catch rabbits (it’s ok they would never be able to catch one, due to the noise they make trudging across the fields). Obviously, I didn’t realise how quickly they would “grass me up” once their mother got home. Is two seconds a record? I have been using the collective term for my three of “the Grasses” ever since. November – The Bees are still going great guns, 2nd in the league and still in the FA Cup, so I treat myself to a RYA Competent Crew Course with a couple of friends in Lanzarote, as we thought (misguidedly) that the weather would be warm, the breeze light and the sea calm. One out of three wasn’t bad though. Suffice to say that our skipper was mad, and had us novice sailors out in a force 6 gale with 30 foot swells, the remark he made when questioned about the merits of life jackets in this type of weather was “well you could wear them, but to be honest you would just drown more slowly as in this weather we couldn’t find you once we’d lost you”. The valuable lesson we learnt on this trip was………….real excitement is brown. Anyway, inadvertently, this also ended up being a break for Linda as she’d had enough of football over the last couple of months. December – just a blur really, but it could be old age and selective memory kicking in. I assume it was a good month but only January would tell. January – more of a blur, I am pretty sure that Linda is trying to poison me as I wake up with a thick head most days. I did think about reporting her to the local police, but that would leave me on my own with the boys. I think I’d rather be poisoned, slowly, as the boys are in particularly boisterous mood and fighting each other most days. Maybe karate was the wrong sport for them after all. But wait, (I know, never use but at the start of a sentence, but, this is for dramatic effect), the Bees are playing Sunderland at home in the FA Cup. As they come onto the pitch, their players are noticeably larger. One can only deduce that their salaries are enough to eat properly on. We are expecting to be demolished, but as the early exchanges show, they really do deserve to be bottom of the premiership, and our new (this season striker) is terrorising their defence. What happened, well we won, what a delirious day, to find out that star striker has been sold to Birmingham, what a glum day. Not to worry it will be February soon. February – very quiet month. The Bees have been comprehensively beaten by Charlton in the 5th round of the FA Cup. I, as is so often the case, after a flagon or three, have agreed to stupid escapade called the Three Peaks Challenge in June. For the life of me I thought it had something to do with a Canadian off the wall comedy/drama. Linda laughed and upped the life insurance. As they say, behind every man (you can fill in your own description here)……………. March – The Bees are still second, with games in hand, although Colchester have caught us up. Surely we will get automatic promotion this year, just don’t lose all of the games. So what do they do, lose all of their games in hand, ending on equal points, BUT, our goals difference is much better. April – NO, NO, NO, The Bees are now in 3rd place and will have to go through the qualifiers process again. The morons around me are fully confident, me being a fully assimilated Englishman know better, we are rubbish and will possibly get through to the final, but lose anyway. Linda, with our youngest disappear to Japan, staying with Japanese friends during the Hinami festival (Cherry Tree Blossoms). What did they learn there, well, our friends live just outside Tokyo where there are no foreigners at all, hence the constant staring, you are not permitted to smoke anywhere you want, as per the constant no smoking signs in the pavement, yes the houses are really small, the toilets have heated seats, just because you are Westerner doesn’t mean you know the inner workings and thoughts of Tony Blair and his government, how to treat your subordinates – make them stand under a cherry tree all day to reserve your place. Meanwhile, I took the other two go-karting (only two minor injuries), climbing (1 minor injury), shooting (no injuries – things are looking up), the Dali Exhibition (three minor injuries??) and the RAF museum (a heated debate with a little Englander regarding the positive input provided by “foreigners” during the battle of Britain). So what have we learnt through the last eight months; Matt looks the same as when he left, Brentford truly are a rubbish team, you don’t need to go far to get hurt, the Japanese really are very different to us and have wonderful toilets, travel writing can be fun to read, but most importantly, never, ever, trust your children to keep a secret.
25th August 2006

welcome back!!!
matt + claire - cannot believe you are back. have been immersed in your SA diary (most people at work seem to have started the bank hol wend already, so phone under control). are you guys still in london? would be lovely to see you + pics + hear stories. ... + congratulate you both on a further brother/sister for mia + jake - wow! when is it due? Joy parkerj@pbworld.com

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