Published: November 10th 2009August 22nd 2009
I had my nose as good as stuck to the window, taking in my first glimpses of South Africa. For a lot of travellers, this is their first African country. It apparently gets more tourists than anywhere else in sub-Saharan Africa. I had studied the map and the guidebook, and each time I suggested some beautiful sounding place, Seth would hit me with a ‘been there, done that.’ Drakensberg? Done it. Cape Town? Done it. Blyde River Canyon National Park? Done it. Awesomely tacky Sun City? Done it and ‘never going back there, Louie, under any circumstances.’ (Damn.)
Having just come from Namibia, Mosi-oa-Tunya and Zimbabwe, we really had been going over a lot of his old turf from his year out in Africa back in 1999. He wanted to break free into new territory and I understood that, so I realized that I would have to make do with what scrolled past the window as far as seeing South Africa’s sights were concerned; for now, at least. We planned to get as far south as Pretoria on this first day, then bust east via Nelspruit to the Mozambique border the next. I scribbled notes on the map until you could
hardly see anything but a tangle of blue biro. We’d crossed the Limpopo River to enter the country, and just a few miles in there were more baobab trees than we had seen on the whole African journey to date, bigger, too, than any of their predecessors. We passed scorched earth, and orange groves, and bundles of cut grass ready to be sold for roofing, just as in Zimbabwe. The journey continued south, crossing a rugged pass over the Soutpansberg, where cacti grew beside the road and there were striking bushes with bright red flowers. By a crowded, one-storey town, a mother and son squatted by the roadside to relieve themselves and watched the minibus roll by with bored expressions. The sun wheeled through the sky as the hours past. We crossed the Tropic of Capricorn. Near Polokwane, a sign by the road read, ‘Chickens for Sale,’ only to be followed soon after by the confusing, ‘Chickens Needed.’ It soon fell dark. On the outskirts of Pretoria (at which point all passengers had long been snoozing or silent), our bus was pulled over by traffic police and when the driver ushered us out, I wondered for a moment what the
hell we’d done wrong. It turned out we were being offered a lift.
‘You should pay him a little something when you arrive’, our driver mumbled as we said our goodbyes and loaded our bags into the boot of the fancy police car. I’ve never been in the back of one before. The flashing neon lights temporarily blinded me as I climbed in, but I just about made out the shape of our minibus heading off towards Joburg, some of the passengers waving. Our arrival at the backpackers lodge in a police car caused excitement. It was quite a hot entrance; the owners said it was a first. It was a nice little lodge in suburban Pretoria, but when they told us there was only space in the large dorm available, my heart sank. Sleeping in dorms when you’re nineteen is fun. Sleeping in dorms when you’re twenty-nine and celebrating your seventh wedding anniversary sucks. We dumped our bags and headed out to Pretoria’s lively Hatfield district, where we sunk a few beers and had to laugh at the impossibly non-romantic nature of the day. Our hearts and stomachs led us to a Chinese restaurant that was run by a family from Haerbin, a remote Chinese city that we had visited on our Asian Alphabet. They served us amazing food in a happy atmosphere, and we returned to the lodge cheerful, even propping up the bar for a few hours chatting to the owner about Namibia. Still, when the time came to separate and head to our respective bunk beds, I felt like an eight year old. It was pitch dark but for the shining lights of mobile phones - travellers texting internationally. Between the tapping of tiny keypads and clearing of throats, an eerie silence filled the stuffy room. The ceiling was so close to my face that there was a high chance of concussion come morning, should I forget where I was. This kind of claustrophobia is only worth it if you’re staying in a capsule hotel. At least then you score high on the kook factor and get your own coin-op TV…
It was early afternoon by the time our minibus set off for Nelspruit. While we waited we made friends with a young woman who dreamed of moving to London to earn some money and an old gentleman salesman who kept popping over to chat in between potential customers. The young woman had bought her son a new bicycle and was taking it home to Nelspruit.
‘What’s the town like?’ I asked.
‘You know, boring,’ she smiled.
The scenery was forever changing - at first we drove by fields of tall, butter coloured grass where cattle grazed, then suddenly there were signs saying, ‘Hijack Hotspot’ and ‘Crime Alert: Do Not Stop.’ The driver sped up and everyone was quiet. I tried to see what was so different between this area and the one we’d just left but couldn’t tell. There are many complexities that can’t be glimpsed by a passer by from a window.
Further on there were pretty hills and a river, and trees adorned with pink blossom like cherry trees. The late afternoon brought with it an incredible quality of light. A lone ostrich stood in a field. Train tracks ran alongside the road. There were hitchhikers stood by the roadside, sports bags at their feet, woolly hats on their heads. Nobody seemed to be stopping for them.
We could have headed on to Mozambique that evening, but the thought of arriving in its capital, Maputo, after dark was unappealing. Instead we stayed over in Nelspruit, its new stadium standing proud for next year’s World Cup.
‘SMILIES!’ I said to Seth the next morning as we studied a breakfast menu in the restaurant beside our hotel, ‘They have SMILIES!’ I had not encountered these smilie potato heads since Sunday brunch at boarding school, all of eleven years previously. Part of me really thought the school cooks had kind of invented them, and yet here they were, on a South African menu. Seth shook his head and chuckled, an affectionate acknowledgement that his wife may be a bit deranged. The waitress and the kitchen staff found my excitement equally bizarre but they all glanced over happily as I tucked in, grinning. There were green wood hoopoes and weaver birds flying from tree to tree in the garden outside. I knocked back a strong cappuccino. We had borders to cross and letters to hunt. Our ‘X,’ Xai-Xai, was almost in reach.