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Published: April 24th 2006
Sealife 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
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'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
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
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 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
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,
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
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.
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
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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