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Monday, 17 October 2016

The Great Mzanzi Roundabout Roadtrip - Votes & Views #42

 Note: Mzanzi is the Xhosa word for South Africa

Our Route

For the best part of sixty years I have harboured the secret wish to make a journey around the entire border of my country. Modelling myself on Robert Louis Stevenson (Travels with a donkey…) this would ideally be done in very leisurely daily instalments, utilising an affable donkey, whom I would cajole along, and a small cart to carry my camping gear and food. The whole trip should take a year or two – or so my youthful imagination pictured it. As I entered the adult world, the stark realities of having to earn a living, as well as the cost thereof became rather apparent. As one does when no other course presents itself, one gets on with working life.  During the first few years, I managed to graduate from public transport and hitch-hiking to a Lambretta scooter. Except for having the tendency to topple over, being rather chilly/wet to drive in the Highveld winter/summer and prone to being disregarded by four-wheeled traffic, it was motorised transport. Certainly not fit for a lengthy journey. I started scheming to buy one of these three-wheeler contraptions of the same make, once so beloved by retailers as small-goods delivery vans. It would have a loading space, a little protection from the elements in the form of a windscreen and something more of a macho persona on the road, which would encourage other motorists to acknowledge its presence. I sat on that dream for a number of years.

Life goes on, thankfully, and I graduated to my first car – a complete disaster. A short trial run to the Lowveld was dogged by mechanical problems before it almost went up in a blaze of glory due to an electrical fault. Wisely I presented it to a friend who was more mechanically minded than I was. Then I settled down to hard work and after a number of years and a stint as a diamond driller in the Namib, I was able to acquire a fine new station wagon, small, but willing. I had many adventures in this little car, but somehow I never managed to take a step back from life to undertake such a marathon  journey. Work, marriage, raising children – all of these took their toll of the time available. Then suddenly there’s a hobble in your step, there are the aches and pains  on awakening to remind you that you are still alive; you don’t hear so well and your eyesight is only just about good enough to drive a motor car. The realisation hits you: you’re sitting on a ticking time bomb – life. Now is the time, if you want to make that journey.

Obviously, as one has matured past three-score and ten years (without falling victim to childlike senility), one has to alter the whole scheme of things. The quadruped and cart is exchanged for a willing, tiny four-wheel drive car; the length of the journey is shortened considerably in deference to old bones and instead of camping, we would hop from game reserve to game reserve and make use of the odd self-catering accommodation along the way. It took a week of poring over a computer to work out our itinerary; another to make bookings as far ahead as we dared, since it was almost a given that we would have a problem somewhere along the line which would cause the loss of a day, and our national parks are particularly unforgiving if you don’t arrive when booked in – you lose the not inconsiderable payment you made up front.

By the last week in August, we had managed to find a reliable, young, local couple, who were willing to house-sit and look after two dogs, an ailing cat and four chickens. Our brave wagon was loaded with state of the art survival gear; a 12Volt compressor, two comfortable folding chairs, a warm blanket, a trenching tool, an axe, a bundle of homegrown wood, a grid, a tiny gas cooker, assorted utensils, some food and a bottle  each of gin and whiskey and about a dozen books. We felt we were prepared for most eventualities. From the internet I had prepared an entire ‘roadbook’ using a website called ‘Plan your route…’. This proved to be invaluable for lighting fires.

Mountain Zebra Park with Bankberg in the distance
So we set off in the dawn of a fine, warm, spring day towards the Mountain Zebra Park near Cradock. We had been there previously and had much enjoyed the quiet of a little unfenced ‘mountain hut’ a few hundred metres along a rugged track off the main route, which included scaling a intimidating granite boulder and the company of a herd of stampeding buffalo during a morning walk to the bathroom. We hoped to have a similar experience this time, but instead we were assigned the other, No 1 Hut, which proved to be in an isolated kloof, much further down a track which traversed over thirty-three of the steepest, shortest humps you could possibly negotiate with a long wheelbase vehicle. Our abbreviated transport had no problems, but it was more extreme than any roller coaster you can imagine. We had been booked in by a friendly young man at reception who had other things on his mind obviously, since he neglected to give us the key to our domain. I left my disgruntled partner reclining on our blanket in the shade of a tree within the fenced area of the hut (there are lions in the park) while I augmented my ‘hump total’ to 99 for the day. We unanimously agreed to call it a day when I returned, had a drink to settle my cerebellum, a bite to eat and then spent some time scanning the incredibly clear skies for meteorites and satellites.

Since we wanted to acclimatise ourselves to the rigours of long-distance travelling, we stayed over another day in the park. During an early drive up onto the plateau, we watched the sun rise over the imposing Bankberg, then  had a pleasant breakfast at the park’s restaurant. The charismatic predators eluded us, but the herds of antelope formed an interesting foreground against the serried ranks of the Karoo hills in the distance. No rains had fallen as yet, and the countryside was dry; the streams barely trickles. We had another short drive that evening, by which time we had traversed almost the entire road network of the park. Altogether a relaxing stay in fairly basic, but spacious and clean accommodation in a lovely environment.

Another dawn departure, as a lengthy stint lay ahead, all the way round the bulge of Lesotho through the eastern Free State. We had chosen this route instead of going through the Transkei towards the Drakensberg resorts, for two reasons: we had both never been to these parts before and secondly the
Transkei route included a very lengthy stretch of what looked like roads of doubtful quality, with no obvious places for stopovers. Since we go quite frequently to Kei Mouth to visit a relative, we could always add on a small tour through these regions at a later date. Our route led north and we passed Hofmeyr – a town named after one of my partner’s ancestors. She duly posed under the ‘welcome to…’ sign, tastefully embellished by a rubbish-heap in the background. This fair city of a few thousand souls, sports a huge hexagonal church in bubblegum pink, a spire added on in front, and further embellished by a pillared façade worthy of the State Capitol, as well as the picturesque ‘Africa Supfe Market’. We debated whether that was meant to be suffer, super or supper.

Although our route planner had assured us that the roads from there to Aliwal North were all good, provincial roads, a rocky gravel road ensued just outside town, which eventually deteriorated into a farm twin-track with the renowned ‘middelmannetjie’ or central ridge for a dozen kilometres before we were reunited with civilization once more, making us doubt that revered facility called Google Earth. We left the Eastern Cape behind and crossed the Gariep River. Almost immediately the topography flattened out and the seemingly endless grain fields stretched emptily into the distance, as the eagerly anticipated spring rains had yet to come. In the northeast an imposing mountain mass loomed, presumably part of Lesotho. The dramatic ridge of the Aasvoëlberg, splashed with a wide stripe of centuries of vultures’ nesting sites makes a dramatic statement on the plains, sheltering the town of Zastron behind it. From there onwards, more and more of these isolated inselbergs pop up out of the cornfields presenting a picture akin to fortified mountaintops, or villages such as found in Europe – remnants of mediaeval days of warfare. The legendary chief, Moshesh of the Basuto, had just such a natural fortress on the nearby Thaba Bosiu, which he defended against the Boers under Louw Wepener, a folk hero who died during the wars and after whom the town of Wepener is named.

Our first bit of drama. The car’s steering becomes sluggish; a passing car signals us with flashing lights just before we reach Hobhouse. I pull over: a deflating tyre greets me. Out comes the trusty compressor and I reflate it in the hope of making the village. We limp into a dispirited dorp with large potholes, green stinking water flowing in runnels down the streets between unkempt houses – a place the New South Africa has forgotten. The men at the garage are most helpful. Several caterpillar-like plugs are forced into the gaping cut in the tread of the tyre, but the hole is too large. Our spare is fitted and we depart in haste towards the next town of any size, Ladybrand, where we were able to obtain a replacement. In the Free State we encountered the first serious instances of the curse of our road infrastructure – potholing. One moment you are barrelling along at the speed limit and then you are suddenly confronted by one, or a series of gaping holes in the tar surface. You don’t dare swerve at speed, since you might overturn your vehicle or hit oncoming traffic, so perforce you subject your car’s suspension to treatment it was not designed to cope with. Another novel invention is the placing of speed humps, entirely unsignposted or marked, at places where the unsuspecting driver is supposed to slow down – in the opinion of the authorities. We hit one of those near a settlement called Vanstadensrus, if I recall correctly, and it could almost have become Schaefersrus, as we took momentarily to the skies.

On the whole, this part of the Free State did not endear itself to our memories. It was very much like we had imagined it to be, relieved only by rare outcrops of scenic beauty. As we rounded the bulge of Lesotho and neared Clarens, first green hillsides, then mountainsides greeted us, as well as the innumerable green roofs of hundreds of houses arrayed in neat lines alike as peas in a pod, where wealthy pensioners could live, secure behind gates and barbed wire, a mere driver’s whack from the nearest golf course and country clubs that seemed to infest the countryside. Drought? There was no drought here, as the lush greens and fairways bore witness to. We wended our way down the valley towards the breathtakingly beautiful cliffs that gave Golden Gate their name, booked into the well-appointed camp and went for a short walk along a burbling brook to stretch our legs after almost seven hundred kilometres of driving.

We had hoped to have a restaurant meal that evening, but this facility had been outsourced and now consisted of a much-starred ‘lodge’, where some convention involving  local and possibly international glitterati, was in progress. You couldn’t move in their driveway for parked luxury vehicles, and our hopes of a meal were summarily quashed. In the morning we drove around the scanty roads this park has, enjoying the scenery, the several species of large game that roam, as well as the beautiful ‘vulture restaurant’, which unfortunately lacked diners. Then on round the berg, which loomed on our right like a gigantic black ridge of teeth, capped tantalisingly in places with a white topping of snow. A series of man-made lakes, the huge Sterkfontein Dam and its extensions spiced up the wintry landscape and we descended down towards Bergville, something of an antithesis of the tourist haven I had imagined it to be, and Winterton, which had a sort of quaint charm that I did not expect. 

The last part of the road into Giant’s Castle was under construction, lorries, bulldozers, steamrollers and scrapers vying with cattle for space on uncompacted gravel; a surprise, given that the AA road report had ‘nothing to report’ on the stretch! The reserve itself was a delightful find. Our reception was as good as our quarters – easily the best we encountered during the four weeks of the trip.  One of the disadvantages of the park is that it doesn’t really offer anything for people with mobility problems. The big attraction is a 3 km hike from the camp, and the last guided tour into the main cave leaves at 3pm, which doesn’t leave any time to get there for people like us coming in at two.  In addition one is not permitted on the road to their vulture restaurant unless one has booked it ahead. Only one party is permitted at a time, whether it consists of one or twenty visitors. The live feed to the view from the hide was out of order – courtesy of a lightening strike, we heard. Still, a wonderful afternoon and night was spent, in luxurious, comfortable and homely surroundings at a reasonable price.

Ithala Backdrop
Our next stop was the Ithala Reserve, just outside another neglected dorp, Louwsburg in  northern Natal. Obviously not too many visitors, as we received a really warm welcome from the gatekeeper. The reception staff were no less friendly, but we ran the gauntlet of two fighting vervet monkeys who transferred their aggression to us when we attempted to pass. So vicious were these beasties that I feared for my toes as we tried to hoosh them off despite repeated charges. Hunger and desperation – or just footpads on the lookout for a handout? We obtained our keys to a very clean and well-built chalet with the warning to keep all doors and windows closed against the raiders – a warning most credible in the light of our experience. We had a brief rest, the decided to drive a short loop, which started just outside the camp. The exit looked horribly steep and rough, but we consoled ourselves that it was downhill, so possibly it would not be too bad for our valiant Rosinante (also known as ‘The White Auntie’ – a name bestowed on our car by our gardener). The first half of the journey was bad; very taxing driving, mostly not even permitting me a glance into the bush to spot animals. The car ‘bottomed out’ numerous times on the large rocks coupled with dips and holes. The last hour back to camp, I was on tenterhooks. It was getting dark and the road had deteriorated to such a degree that I had to inch over the bush-track littered with boulders, cleft with dongas and if I could have turned around, I might have taken that option. We made it back to camp with a few minutes to spare, where a young ranger in a large parks vehicle that dwarfed mine, was quite incredulous at our having traversed the road as he knew it well.

Pongola Valley
Back at the hut we were greeted with some slight disarray. The kitchen was full of scattered food; the biscuits, fruit, bread and sugar had been raided and there were bits lying everywhere. At first we were puzzled, since we couldn’t find any opening for a monkey to use. Then a half-eaten slice of bread on the bathroom floor gave it away. The culprit must have been a bushbaby (a small, mainly nocturnal lemur about the size of a squirrel) which had insinuated its slender body through a small triangular hole left in the burglar mesh of the bathroom window for one to be able to open the catch. The staff confirmed that these, too, had become a serious pest in the camp. Next morning we tried another road, northwards towards the banks of the Pongola River after being assured that this was in a better state. Not so. It was still pretty awful and the 28 kms took us a good 2 hours to navigate. Despite the lovely scenery and a good diversity of large game, the park was a disappointment mainly because of the poor road infrastructure. In all fairness, with water tankers having to be deployed all over northern Natal to ferry water to the people, one can’t blame the government for paying less attention to conservation and maintenance.

We quit Louwsburg and environs as quickly as possible, but as we had been warned locally that the road to Hluhluwe via Nongoma was dreadful, we took a longer route, north towards Pongola and then back south on the N2. The normally lush canefields along this route were a sickly, stunted yellow fuzz barely covering the ground, in most places. The thick thorny bush was a pale ghostly maze with bare, brown earth underneath – when it wasn’t covered with plastic rubbish. Not an animal was to be seen as we drove through the Pongola Reserve, incidentally the oldest formally proclaimed conservation area in South Africa, dating back to 1894. As we drove towards the Hluhluwe/Umfolozi Reserve through the ubiquitous settlements that have covered so much of rural South Africa, the countryside got verdant as a few localised showers had fallen. Inside the park we were immediately greeted by a small herd of elephants and a rhino, skylarking in a freshly filled puddle. Everywhere was young greenery and both browsers and grazers were making the most of it. The Hilltop Camp, where we booked in for the night, looked just like it had on my last visit, sometime in the early 1970’s. The bedlinen had been changed, but that was about all. The very expensive rondavels were still same as forty years ago; cramped, dark and musty, (but with TV) while the ablution block looked like those in a municipal caravan park: cracked windows, dysfunctional taps, lights that didn’t work. The communal kitchens were much better, and while I didn’t test the stoves, all looked a little more modern, clean and neat. Naturally there were also luxurious lodges available for those ‘dollared’ gentry that could afford them.

The park is truly a rhino farm. We lost count of the number of white rhino seen. There were elephants, buffalo and a goodly number of antelope species, as well as lions, which eluded us. We took two drives in the evening and again next morning, before taking to the road once more, back north towards Pongola. We turned off towards Jozini, a town new to me, and ascended the Lebombo Mountains with a lovely, scenic drive. I had been expecting a sleepy little village atop the mountain – instead we were faced with a traffic jam almost a kilometre long. The road was choked with taxis, trucks being offloaded, men pushing handcarts and trolleys, not to mention the thousands of pedestrians and hawkers’ stalls forming a kaleidoscope of colours, while a lone traffic policeman indulged in frantic antics in the middle of the main street, ignored by all. It looked as if all 186 000 inhabitants (as per Google) of the municipality had come shopping on the same day. We inched through for the best part of an hour, then got lost had to retrace and finally made it over the impressive wall of the dam.

Jozini Street Market
At present this dam seems to represent the lifeline for the entire region. Fleets of tankers cart water to distressed municipalities, game reserves, lodges and settlements hundreds of kilometres distant. It must the only source of stored water in the region, but the level is falling rapidly and is now under 40% full. We head north towards the Mozambique border. Some fifty years have passed since I last drove through this region. Then the roads consisted of two faint tracks in loose, sandy soil, interspersed with mud pools hundreds of metres long. In 1959 our expedition needed a three-ton truck and a one ton van to get through towards Kosi Bay; the two vehicles alternating with getting bogged down. Five or six years later it took me 24 hours to negotiate the flooded track from Ubombo to Sodwana on the coast in a baby Renault – admittedly not the ideal vehicle for such a trip. At that time, Maputaland, as this strip is known, was sparsely populated and you would see the odd kraal every few kilometres, interspersed with ‘topless’ nlala palms, which were being tapped for palm wine. There were few cattle, due to the area having been tsetse-fly plagued and malaria was rife. These have all but been eliminated by shooting out the game and spraying with DDT. The game is back, so is malaria, but humanity has also arrived with a vengeance. We drove along a (slightly potholed) tarred road right up until the gates of Ndumo Game Reserve.  The entire hundred-odd kilometres of road were lined with one long settlement on both sides of the road. There were many DIY building projects, certainly, but an astonishing number of beautiful, tiled-roof villas, mostly adorned with porches framed by Doric, Corinthian, Ionic or Tuscan columns – obviously a growth-industry in these and other parts of the interior that we later traversed. We marvelled at these ‘country estates’ that were being built by our up and coming previously disadvantaged countrymen. One does wonder though, how will the government supply electricity, water and sewerage connections to these widely-spaced new urban dwellers – not to mention other infrastructure like schools and hospitals. We did se a huge spanking new sports arena at Ndumo village though. Possibly a progeny of the 2010 World Cup. Quite a revelation about rural conditions in our country.

Drought at Ndumo
The reserve, at most times a wetland paradise of waterfowl and hundreds of other species of birds, hippos and crocodiles, now resembled a thorny desert. Our reception was cordial and our chalet quite reasonable, though the distant ablution block could have done with a little sprucing up. We were invited to partake of lengthy walking tours, game drives and the like, which we thankfully declined. Our own venture into this graveyard of the drought, along badly rutted, rocky and dusty tracks brought very little joy. Animals were extremely wary and with the exception of unexpected giraffe, dashed off the moment we appeared. The normally huge Nyamithi pan was a vague shimmer of blue rimmed with a few pink flamingos, almost a kilometre from the viewing point. The Maputo River, normally a hideout for hippos and crocodiles, was a bed of sand, with one small puddle of water and a dispirited stork huddled on a sandbank. We could have walked dry-footed across to Mozambique. We saw and heard probably the least number of species of birds of any park we visited on out trip. A dawn drive next day was not much more productive, though we almost ran into a large, dehorned rhino on the road, as well as seeing a handful species of antelope – all shy, nowhere frequent.

Friendly Locals
Back towards Jozini. Thankfully this time no traffic jam, and we left Maputaland and crossed the border into Swaziland at Golela/Lavumisa. Except for being dunned a small fee for using their potholes, this was relatively painless. The route up the eastern edge of the country was new to me, so quite an interesting drive. It was obvious that the Swazi king’s predilection for Rolls Royce motor cars and other luxuries has impacted considerably on his subjects’ general prosperity. Nowhere did we see any of the ostentatious country estates and lavish houses that we had encountered in our own country. The dun countryside reflected drought and poverty alike, though the people were smiling and courteous. We dropped in for a warm welcome at the Hlane Royal National Park for lunch. This is really a tiny series of fenced camps where you are ‘guaranteed’ sightings of most of the ‘Big Five’, but the attraction is at the main camp, where there is a neat little shop and restaurant, as well as numbers of comfortable chairs scattered under shady trees at the edge of a waterhole (dam). We opted for a couple of cool beers and to have our picnic at the dam. It was delightful sitting there, watching the languid antics of a few hippos, impala, a lovely selection of bird species and a rhino sleeping under a bush about 80 metres away – all separated from us by one strand of wire. All too soon we had to leave this oasis of tranquillity (though the entrance had a towering display of miles of confiscated wire snares on a series of poles).

Kilometers of Snares at Hlane Gate
The northern Swaziland canefields were a little greener than their southern counterparts, and new plantings had been made near Mhlume, probably with irrigation from the Komati River. We exited the little kingdom uneventfully and after some kilometres travel, turned off onto a road decided on by my computer, which was to lead us directly to Hectorspruit, from which we had to do a short dogleg along the national road before driving straight into Marloth Park, where we would meet up with my son. In no time at all we were in the middle of another endless conurbation. Houses, shops, businesses – a city called Tonga had sprung up unbeknownst to me. It was nowhere to be found on even a modern map – but we can vouch for the fact that it exists. In no time at all we were hopelessly lost. Our only solution: to head for Malelane, the only town signposted – but about a hundred km in the wrong direction. When in doubt, ask a taxi driver or phone a friend. My son entered our presumed location into one of these satnav thingies he has and gave us some advice as to which road to take. A little later we saw a road sign pointing to Hectorspruit, and we took off on another dire dust-track in pursuit of the Holy Grail. A few more twists and turns, and more by luck than design, we arrive and enquire at the local garage as to the whereabouts of Marloth Park. 

“Just down this road – just go straight” sez the lady. Ten minutes later, after many turns, were are in the middle of another suburbia and phone my son again. He consults his crystal satnav once more and tells us that we are about twenty kilometres from where we are supposed to be. More directions follow and finally we get to the lodge on the banks of the Crocodile River. A pleasant surprise, not only my son and his fiancé appear, but also a very grown-up young lady, my granddaughter, and her boyfriend.

We spend the next two days getting acquainted/reacquainted and have a most pleasant drive in an open vehicle into the Kruger Park. Our game-spotting team is formidable. Driver/guide Solomon knows his business, as does my son, who is a professional guide and natural history lecturer, ably assisted by the ladies – no slouches. For once I can just sit back and have lions, leopards, rhinos, elephants and buffalo pointed out to me. By morning teatime we have bagged the ‘Big Five’ and had the privilege to watch a leopard working his way along the riverbank in search of prey, before finding a shady spot among the rocks. Our time together is all too short since my family members have to return to work, and we get on with our itinerary. The north beckons and we depart through the park to Olifants Camp. Again we are in luck, and manage to see all the iconic species, including a leopard with his kill in a tree. The region is dry, but nowhere as bad as in Natal, though we do see rotting carcases of hippo – a species very badly affected by the drought.

Our camp experience was similar to that at Hluhluwe: high-priced at Olifants, but cramped, dark and forty years past their sell-by date. Not even a kettle to be had in the hut and the kitchen nowhere to be found in the dark. The restaurant a franchise of the faceless ‘Murg & Been’ as we dubbed them, where I almost came a cropper in the dark as I slipped on a potentially lethal layer of fallen figs on the unlit ramp leading to the huts. The Punda Maria camp, on the other hand, was charming. The bathrooms were clean and new, the longdavels were freshly renovated and had parking right outside and the shop was bright and had a good selection of wares. The floodlit waterhole was the source of much excitement and the trumpeting of squabbling elephants accompanied our supper. Speaking of which – we might still be standing there trying to fry some sausages if an obliging fellow-guest had not share his coals. The antiquated hot plates in the communal kitchen got barely warm enough to start cooking some onion rings in the space of an hour.

Punda Maria Longdavel
We traversed the entire Kruger Park from top to bottom; something I have only done twice previously, the last time some thirty-five years ago. As always, it was a good experience. We did not find other visitors more intrusive and disregardful of the rules; the drought did affect the animal numbers, but we saw plenty, including a spectacular elephant bull and a very rare wild dog. We left the park from the Pafuri gate, this time equipped with ‘Charmin’ Carmen from Garmin’ the satnav to lead me home along the straight and narrow – courtesy of my son, who couldn’t bear to have his aged parent adrift without the gizmos of modern technology. We were to bless and curse this electronic lady and her insistent reminders to mind the speed limits, bends, cattle crossings and non-existent dangers, but she came in most useful when trying to extricate ourselves from an unknown town, as we were about to find out in Musina and later Rustenburg.

Mapungubwe Park Offices and Museum
Musina is a city in the making – or rather of the making of our northern neighbour, since it supplies all the consumer goods as well as durables that the poverty-stricken Zimbabweans can afford to purchase and lug across the border. Instead of a sleepy border town propped up by an almost defunct copper mine, it has become a town of shopping malls and all the emporia so beloved by the citizens of the subcontinent. After a few hurried purchases, we left for Mapungubwe National Park, which straddles Botswana, Zimbabwe and South Africa. A relatively new addition, this park celebrates the ancient hilltop kingdom that was uncovered in the 1930’s, and whose gold and artefacts proved to become the stuff of legends. I had read about it for decades and now my bucket list was about to have another item ticked off. 

Boardwalk on the Limpopo River
Alas, this was not to be, since the Parks Board had craftily engineered it so that no tourist should actually be able to see the hill after entering the park – unless they paid another couple of hundred to get a short drive and conducted tour, walk a half a kilometre and climb 150 steps – none of which I was about to do. Instead we took a circular drive round the eastern section of the park; spent some time on a lovely boardwalk at the intersection of the Limpopo and Shashi Rivers, watched elephants bathing; picnicked at another very picturesque viewpoint, and visited the beautiful museum, housed in buildings of exceptional architectural merit – at an extra cost, naturally. Our chalet proved to be the best SANParks accommodation we encountered on the trip. The light, airy and spacious building was prettily furnished and extremely well-equipped – everything worked, and the outside (screened) shower was a delight. We spent a happy evening on the huge patio, savouring the stark scenery, dotted  by elephantine baobab trees.

Since the park manager had informed us that the road south was tarred (and potholed), we tackled the next section with enthusiasm, driving through the scenic bush, interspersed with rocky outcrops and grotesque trees. The settlement of Alldays didn’t even register, but the ensuing road did. 

Road Hell
It was just the most horrendous travesty of a tarred road I had encountered in a long while. About eighty percent of the tar had disappeared, and the roadway consisted of huge potholes interspersed with sharp ridges of tar. The next hundred-odd kilometres was the only time I have been ever forced to drive in first gear on a tarred road.  Thankfully, some twenty kilometres south of Swartwater, the road improved considerably. On towards the Waterberg, which loomed on our left. The Marakele Park was another we had never visited before and where I had hoped to meet an old friend, who had been the head of the park (before we left home, I found out that he had transferred just prior to our visit). Expectations were high, but the ongoing drought and a paucity of animal sightings was added to a howling, hot bergwind, which flapped our safari tent accommodation so much that we had two restless, if not sleepless nights. 
The Waterberg in Marakele
The added bonus of having a deck overlooking a dam, where we saw a lonely elephant, a few zebra and impala, was tempered by the presence of thieving monkeys, who thought nothing of zipping into your tent, or kitchen, almost between your feet, to try and grab a spot of nourishment. We left as early as possible the next morning, unusually relieved to depart.

A long drive ahead: all the way to Kuruman. First we had to negotiate a maze of detours outside Rustenburg. Here Carmen the Garmin came up trumps. She negotiated us seamlessly through bewildering switchbacks, suburbia and provincial roads with complete equanimity. On to the towns of Lichtenburg, Koster, Delareyville, Sannieshof and Vryburg. We had swapped the dramatic Limpopo scenery for the endless steppes of the old western Transvaal; dusty, barren mealiefields interspersed with grain silos – exclamation marks on a purely horizontal brown landscape. The only noteworthy feature was the growth of these dorps, like a flush of mushrooms after rain, a testament to the fecundity of our nation.  Amazing what can happen in near half a century since I last frequented these parts.

Kuruman had also been transformed, naturally. It was hard to find the famous ‘Eye’ in amongst the frenzy of taxis, shoppers and their beloved retail outlets. In the end we asked a pedestrian for directions. We had driven right past this spring, unnoticed among the traffic and the lineup of cars being washed – presumably with its water. This wondrous fountain in an arid landscape provides millions of litres of water every day for the thirsty town, and has rightly been fenced off.  Unfortunately this does not mean the flying rubbish of civilization cannot land in the pristine pool. We decided not to swell the municipal coffers by entering the park, and instead dropped in at the nearest garage, where my partner accosted the nearest local, a middle-aged woman in a small car, with a Doberman bodyguard which was ready to rip your face off. On being asked if she could give us a hint to find a reasonable B&B, the good lady insisted on taking us through suburbia herself and deposited us on the steps of the Oude Werf, where the stunningly handsome Khoi lady, Charon,  took us into her tender care.  A very pleasant apartment was supplied at a most reasonable cost, and as we had a long day behind us, we sampled their restaurant and cold beers that evening – both most acceptable.

Another dawn departure; to Hotazel (pronounced ‘hot as hell’ – which it can be), the hamlet which managed to confuse our Carmen to such a degree that she had us driving in circles, imploring us to go back to Kuruman until I flagged down a motorist for directions to enable us to escape the clutches of this confounded place. The next village, Van Zylsrus, lay at the end of a rocky stretch of road, and this at least had a hotel with a little outpost charm, something Askham (the only other vestigial burgh in the region) lacked. Still – if one came back in fifty years, all these would most likely be developed beyond recognition! Just short of the Kgalagadi Park we drove into the similarly named Lodge, atop a red dune. 

A supercilious emu wandered about outside and looked askance at us, but let us into the building. Astonishingly the reception and shop were modern, sparkling clean and well-stocked with all sorts of foods, drinks and the like. The young local receptionist booked us in most efficiently and we quickly offloaded in an outstandingly equipped and decorated chalet overlooking the red riverbed, far into Botswana. Then off for an afternoon drive into the park, only five kilometres distant. At the elaborate new reception buildings we were informed that due to ‘reorganisation’, there was no petrol to be had – though diesel was available. I edged a little closer to a coronary. As we were at the park for two days, we would need a refill somewhere. Mata Mata camp was too far away to make it there and back that afternoon. We opted for the shorter triangular route through the dunes, after which I faced another 150 km evening dash to Askham in quest of fuel for the second day.

Although dead-tired after thirteen hours in the saddle, we made a fire in the braai outside and were joined by a charming little Jack Russell terrier, who after getting acquainted, made herself at home under the braai in the reflected heat of the coals while we did our thing. She hesitated a little when offered a bone, but then accepted daintily and munched through the remains. She even joined us on the bedside rug as we prepared for bed – then hopped in as well and burrowed underneath the blankets – where we played blind man’s buff until we regretfully evicted her. Though the Kgalagadi lions eluded us, we had a splendid sighting of yet another leopard, as well as seeing the uncommon ratel, Cape fox as well as the several handsome species of antelope and smaller mammals and birds. Always an interesting experience.

Our next stop brought us south towards Upington on a fine road. As we neared town, a large tower peeked up over the horizon, with a blinding light-source atop. We were extremely puzzled by this but speculated that it must be a solar furnace for electricity generation. This was proven correct when I researched it later: the blinding light was the collector for the heat directed towards it from an array of hundreds of mirrors on the ground – out of sight for us at the time. A new technology for our country, and one that is vastly overdue, given the amount of sunshine some of our desert regions get. 

On towards Aughrabies, one of my favourite National Parks, of which I have many happy memories. It did not disappoint this time either. Our reception was cordial and efficient; the chalets were as good as I remembered, while the walkways had been refurbished and fixed after the last floods which had destroyed sections just prior to my last visit. Also in my sights was the Riemvasmaak area, where some hot springs bubbled out of the bed of the otherwise dry Molopo River. Although this is partly a track for 4x4 vehicles only, we trusted it couldn’t be worse than those we had already negotiated in Ithala. The drive proved to be an absolute delight. We crossed the Gariep over a brand new bridge and after passing through a little village, we were amongst really rough, rocky terrain, with impressive, stark panoramas and views everywhere. The track was rough and steep in places, but our Rosinante took it all in her stride. We met a whole bevy of cyclists and their support vehicle coming the other way. Brave people, pedalling up slopes I would hesitate to walk even with the aid of a cane! The warm water springs were fairly unexceptional and lacked a changeroom, but all the patrons just changed behind the little (locked) building there. A further ice-cold pool was some metres further downriver in a natural pothole scoured out by the occasional floods – very idyllic among the hundred-metre high cliffs surrounding it. We ate our lunch at the roadside on the way back and my partner ended the day with an enchanted moonlight walk to the floodlit falls.

Rugged Molopo Country
Our Namaqualand itinerary had included a stop at Springbok. However, the flower season had been something of a flop this year and a hot bergwind had parched the remnants into insignificance. As we reached the town early, we did a quick shop and pressed on towards Port Nolloth, en route to the Richtersveld National Park, a rugged mountain desert which I had only visited once before a score years back. As we had not booked anywhere ahead at this stage, we started by checking on accommodation and the possibility of a tour company to take us into the park. To our surprise there was neither available. The tour operators were either booked up with large parties of people in multiple vehicles, or they had quit for the summer season and were elsewhere occupied. 

Riemvasmaak Hot Spring
The lodgings situation was overbooked for that particular day as well, but in a flash of inspiration I booked for the following night anyway. Inside the park nothing was to be had either – this had filled up very suddenly in the past three weeks since I had last checked. Now we had perforce to press on towards Alexander Bay, the most northwesterly point of the country. Dark clouds moved in as we drove into town and stopped at the security boom. We were delighted to find a ‘tourism person’ there as well, but less delighted when we discovered that her extent of local knowledge was almost as poor as ours. We declined historical and diamond processing tours and drove around the unrestricted part of town, looking for a park or viewpoint where we could have our lunch. All in vain, since these facilities don’t exist in that section near the river. The best we could do is to eat our bits and pieces in the shade of a few bluegum trees on a busy road that seemed to have a half dozen cars, including a police van chasing each other round and round at a leisurely pace. After the first few circuits, we started waving to each other every time they passed. Our quest for lodgings continued. After a few unsuccessful phone calls, my partner decided to confront the landlady of a signposted boarding house in person. We found out that due to new mining and infrastructure developments this moribund town had recently received a new lease on life. Contractors were pouring in, hence the shortage of available beds. No, there was absolutely nowhere in town two weary pensioners could be accommodated.

Said landlady did however point us towards the Richtersveld Park and told us about an establishment, Spogplaas, just 18 km out of town, which might be able to help. The owner was unreachable most of the time due to poor cellphone reception and no fixed telephone lines, so we decided to go anyway, since the alternative was to go back to Springbok at this stage. Near Grootderm (literally – large intestine – there are some very interesting names in the region) we beheld a sight for sore eyes. 

A cluster of houses and wooden mini-chalets lined up on a terrace fronted by a garden made of the oddest bits of painted scrap ironmongery one could imagine. Here were barrels with bucket heads and legs, painted black and white like Frisian cattle; there were smaller pink drums, equipped with paint-tin heads and curly tails, purporting to be pigs; there were better than a dozen rusted wheelbarrows – some filled with flowers; chamber pots galore, old bathtubs, half a dozen sewing machines, a rotary diamond sieve that had seen better days and so on. All interspersed with succulents and rocks. I was charmed with this multicoloured kitsch in the monotone landscape. 

We alit and went in search of the fair Salomie we had been told of. She appeared from the rear of the house and invited us into her parlour – a large roofed structure with canvas sides, which held a number of  couches, chairs, tables and benches, as well as several fridges and a bar. This looked promising. We explained our plight as well as the steps we had already taken to find beds for the night. Salomie was most sympathetic but then she said no, unfortunately she too was booked up for the night. We were then treated to her tale of sorrows, which included having no electricity for the past seven months (this while the Eskom power lines passed into Namibia within spitting distance of her property) – no fixed land telephone line, and only very occasional cellphone reception. Nonetheless, she and her man had ‘made a plan’ with solar panels, batteries and a generator and they had solved the problem of getting water up from the river somehow. Still, the all-pervasive contractors had also filled her available lodgings. We asked if there were any other establishments further upriver, but except for a campsite a few hundred metres further (which had no water and only incomplete buildings) – no there was nothing she could think of.

“But wait – let me just check again to see whether my visitors who have booked the main house in front for tonight, are going to make it”. With an angelic smile she disappeared, leaving us rather mystified as to how she was going to accomplish that, seeing she had no phone and presumably no computer. Possibly a direct connection to above – I mean per satellite, of course. Some minutes later she returned beaming. “Do you want the good news or the bad?” We opted for the bad news first. “The visitors are not coming tonight. The good news is that you can have the house for the night.” We were not going to argue with her about the matter. In no time we had sorted out the finances and were led on a conducted tour of the premises. Aside from the fact that there was only going to be a hot water supply later and there were only dim LED lighting strips in the rooms, running off the batteries, the house was in good shape considering that a cloud of dust blew over it every time a vehicle passed. We made ourselves at home, thankful for small mercies and thirsting for a drink. 

As soon as we had unpacked, we wandered through the scrap-garden once more towards the tent where we found our landlady talking to a man who holding down the bar with a beer – one of her lodgers. We asked whether it might be possible to buy a couple of cold beers from her fridge, but she regretfully refused, since all the stuff stored there belonged to her lodgers. She did not have a license, so could not sell any. No matter, we said, we had our own whiskey. She hastened to offer us a large bag of ice instead, which we accepted with gratitude. However, the lady was not going to let us get away so soon. Obviously starved of company, we had to have another half hour of spirited discussion on a variety of subjects. I then found out to my delight that she was the daughter of one of the pioneer farmers in the Richtersveld, one Reuning, after whom a local mine is named. In addition her stepfather is a man I had been wanting to get hold of for years, since he published two books on the Richtersveld and West Coast shipwrecks. He had just disappeared off the map some ten years ago - and here I was sitting chatting to his sprout by marriage. He was obviously a man of mystery, like his stepdaughter, since he regularly took off for parts unknown, and she hadn’t seen him in a while – he might be in Europe or Singapore or somewhere, she told us!

Richterveld Scenery
An early start on a grey, blustery morning. The road became worse as we neared the park – much worse. Corrugations  were up to 15 cm deep, sharp stones littered the road and we were slowed down to a crawl at times. The scenery became more dramatic as we got closer to Sendelingsdrift (Missionary’s Ford), and the stray beams of sunlight gave the near and distant hills an almost mystical and dreamlike aura. The few huts of the staff at the entrance of the park had become a village. 

The Pont
A few dozen staff houses, a lookalike of a German fort housed the reception and function rooms, a small while a caravan and camping ground was fenced off against prying eyes. There were also a number of small rustic huts and some timber chalets that we didn’t see ourselves. The countertop at reception was graced by a small stuffed crocodile – a somewhat enigmatic choice, since that is one reptile that doesn’t occur here. We booked in for a day visit and gave the lady our expected itinerary – something they needed to know in case we did not reappear within a reasonable time. As a warning, we had already seen one recovery truck on the way in, loaded with a spanking new luxury 4x4 that didn’t make the grade. As we left reception, I suddenly remembered a long time wish I’d had to have a trip across the Gariep on a pont. 

Illegal Immigrant!
Having nothing to lose, I returned to reception, explained my wish and asked the lady whether it was possible to ride across the river and just to return again. She first gave me prices, then said “Wait, let me ask the ferryman”. A short radio-conversation ensued and the answer was that they were just about to take a Parks Board vehicle across, and that I was welcome to join ‘ met liefde ‘. I thanked the kind lady profusely and we rushed off for the short drive down the steep ramp which breached the low cliffs of the river bank. In no time at all we were loaded and the pont was being steered across the fairly narrow channel by two pleasant young men. On the other side I drove off, did my bit for ‘illegal immigration’ had a few photos taken and nipped back into legality. Another item off the bucket list. 
Halfmens Hugging
Then we were off towards Pootjiespram, a quaintly named camping spot on the river. The weather had turned really cold and blustery; we had brought the first rain of the year with us. We stopped to wonder at an impressive tree that had grown into a crack in an outcrop, and after centuries the roots had cleft the rock, leaving a whorl of roots exposed. Carmen really impressed when I switched her on for a laugh to see how she would handle dirt-tracks in the wilderness. She came up trumps by telling me that there were ‘halfmens’ (pachypodium namaquanum) a hundred metres away on the right. We hadn’t even noticed these primeval-looking plants against the hillside in the dull grey light.  Then down to the water’s edge over a long pebbly beach, sheltered behind umbrellas against the driving rain. A few hurried photos, then back into a warm car and onwards across what I knew as ‘Brown’s Pass’ from 1996. On that occasion I had agonized over getting our elderly Kombi through narrow spaces between rocks, round sharp corners and over clefts in slippery rock plates. This time I breathed a sigh of relief that the road had been much widened and generally improved, though it was still somewhat challenging. Our little car breezed through and on into a sandy river bed where we paused for another photo session at the Hand of God, so named for the huge depression in a rock. As we left, a convoy of outfitters’ all-terrain vehicles passed. Dwarfed by these luxurious monsters, we scooted past, laughing at the expressions on the drivers’ faces.

The weather proceeded to get worse, so we decided to call it a day and to head back to Port Nolloth to our cottage which we had booked. Easier said than done. While negotiating the atrocious stretch on the public road from the park, we slashed a tyre on some sharp rocks. I tried inflating it with my trusty compressor; then rode like the wind while I still had some pressure; but all in vain. After another five kilometres I was forced to swap wheels and drove on, very gingerly now, on my spare. We reached first Alexander Bay, then Port Nolloth, in the pouring rain. In no time we were welcomed into our Beach Cottage No 2 – actually a Victorian prefabricated house with complaining wooden floors which originated in Denmark, we were told. Very roomy, and furnished like someone’s holiday home, with odd styles of furniture in every room, but it had everything we needed. In deference to the weather, we decided to grace one of the local restaurants with our presence, even though we couldn’t get an unambiguous referral from our landlady. Wise woman – we whiled away the long wait with a bottle of wine as we listened to a lot of banging from the galley, then had  undercooked chips and calamari overcooked in oil that obviously hadn’t reached the correct temperature. Still, the pizza was big enough to cover a breadboard, so it served for lunch the next day as well, even if one did have to crunch through the mussel shells and discard the disgusting crabstics (sic). There was no shortage of burly, tough-looking clients, bringing with them the tang of kelp and the ocean, wandering in and leaving with stacks of pizzas, so possibly long immersion in cold seawater does something to the tastebuds.

Hand of God
Next morning, after spending a little quality time in a tyre emporium to replace our trashed spare, we visited the local museum. Just in time to join a group being regaled with tales redolent of local colour – mainly consisting of diamond-related lore, as the curator was an old salt and diver, who had obviously gone through several fortunes in his colourful life. Though the place is very overcrowded and it is difficult to get close enough to make out items, photos and articles near the floor or the ceiling at times, the facility is surely a must for any visitor to the town, and we thoroughly enjoyed our visit and chat with George and his daughter, Helena. Then the road called once more and we set off towards Springbok, where we did a bit of shopping for the evening meal and enquired at the eponymously named café and informal tourist bureau about an address of a B&B way down south in Vanrhynsdorp – where we wanted to stop. The man was most helpful and we came away with what we needed. The day’s shift was fairly uneventful as there were very few flowers about though the previous day’s rain had been widespread, and the countryside looked unusually green. At our destination we spent some time at the Old Jail, which combines the role of museum with that of curio, antique and succulent market. An interesting combination as always. Our home for the night was a cottage on an olive farm, Bo Tuin, where we had fond memories of having stayed a few years ago. We dawdled over the last few hundred kilometres towards the Cape, stopping in at Piketberg and Moorreesburg to see whether we could have a look into their museums, but as it was Sunday, local mores would not permit these facilities to be open.

Spring Flowers at Bontebok Park
Suddenly we were almost at a loose end. Due to the lack of spring flowers among which we had intended to spend some time, we had gained a day on our intinerary. We had a firm date to attend friends’ wedding in Calitzdorp on the way home, so we would have to stay over an extra day in Cape Town, I with my sister, my partner with her daughter and grandchildren. Finally I was able to get to a working computer and had some fun time with the few hundred e-mails that had accumulated in the meantime. Somewhat rested, we left midweek and wended our way towards Swellendam, where I wanted to test the accommodation at the Bontebok National Park, a place I hadn’t visited for a decade or more. After a pleasant light lunch at a local Italianate restaurant in lovely surroundings, we booked in and took possession of our half timber, half river-pebble chalet - very pretty, and located on the banks of the Breede River. A late afternoon drive provided little by way of game viewing, but a quite unexpected display of spring flowers. For some reason the abundant birdlife I had previously encountered there, was absent, possibly due to the cloudy weather. The park is probably more suited to hikers and cyclists, since it is quite small with only a short road network.

At Ron's Sex Shop
Next morning we were off towards Zuurbraak ( another of these strange names – literally ‘sour  bracken’ which covers the hillsides). Since I last visited it, it had certainly improved in looks, and there were signs of gentrification everywhere, not always harmonious. On through the Tradouw Pass; a spectacular drive, especially since dozens of waterfalls streaked down the green mountainsides and plummeted over precipices. Barrydale, last visited an age ago, had grown unrecognisably large and it has become the ‘in’ place for artists as well as city folks wanting their place in the sun. A charming drive on towards Ladismith and then our destination Calitzdorp. We stopped briefly at the world-famous Ron’s Sex Shop (really nothing more than a Bush Pub in the middle of nowhere on Route 62 – but sex sells). The host himself, an elderly craggy gent with a long white ponytail, sat with us while we had a little refreshment and lively conversation as we shared opinions about how ‘times are a changin’.

As we drove into our destination, we bumped into neighbours and friends, as well as the groom, all assembled for the forthcoming wedding. The inevitable grilling about our trip followed during a brunch session. It rained fitfully for most of the afternoon, and a cold wind gusted over the town – a poor outlook for an outdoor wedding and reception. At least the rain held off for both, held on a local wine estate; pleasant but extremely chilly. An unexpected bonus was meeting up with two of my oldest friends, whom I had last seen more than ten years previously. They had been transferred from one National Park to another, and somehow I had always been a step behind in meeting up with them again – until now - courtesy of the bride. The festivities over, we retired to unfamiliar lodgings for the last time, before heading for Storms River and our home, curiously reluctant and sad that our odyssey was coming to an end.

I had driven some 8500 kilometres during the four weeks we were on the road. We had the good fortune to have sunny, warm weather except for the last part of our journey when the rain brought a little variety Both Estelle and I saw parts of the country we had never seen before; we drove new roads, old roads, good roads and atrocious ones, over sandy tracks and through rocky defiles. We saw the myriad changes that had been made to our villages and towns – but also the timeless splendour of natural places that abound in our country. We saw abject poverty, overcrowding, and urbanisation as well as conspicuous consumption and luxury. We encountered many people, almost invariably friendly, courteous and helpful – none threatening or unpleasant – from reception staff to taxi drivers and pedestrians that we stopped in mid-street to ask for directions when Carmen failed us. We saw hundreds of the many species of large and small game that are conserved in our nature reserves and parks. We also noticed that less and less birds of prey are to be seen along our roads, bar the ubiquitous crows of all four species, which feed on the carrion of roadkill left by speeding cars. In all, it was a glorious experience and with great feelings of satisfaction, I can now say in all truthfulness: “I've been around a bit”.


Sunday, 28 February 2016

Lost in Paradise - VOTES & VIEWS #41

Lost in Paradise

We land in Mauritius almost simultaneously with another brace of planes. The airport looks very much like most such places, but noticeably larger than on my last visit in 1970. The formalities are short; we seniors are luckily treated preferentially along with families travelling with children, whereas the hoi polloi have to stand in a long queue. The heat envelops us like a warm and stifling hug. Every pore sheds its load in the unaccustomed humidity. A hiccup: our hire car is nowhere to be seen – or more correctly, the firm is nowhere visible and to our consternation, no other car firm seems to have heard of them. One of the taxi drivers tries to assuage our fears. Perhaps they will come looking for us if we just wait in front of the arrivals building. He is so right. After a while a dapper man arrives bearing a sheet of paper with my mangled name printed on it. He was attending to another customer first. Then a lengthy wait in the parking area while his colleague sorts out aforementioned client and finally we are on our way.

The road to our new home had been gone over so many times on Google Earth that it was really a doddle to find our abode – after overshooting the entrance and having to reverse back against the traffic. No problem on this gentle island. Allowances are made for idiots and other tourists. Our landlady is awaiting us in the street; though we didn’t notice her until she comes down the drive after us. We introduce ourselves to this slim, middle-aged lass, clad in short-shorts and singlet (the correct attire here) and she gives us the Cook’s Tour of the premises. The studio Tecoma is enchanting; perched atop another two apartments on the ground floor, looking over a tropical garden shaded by big mango and Indian Almond trees. A blue pool winks. Inside, everything is where it should be, as it should be – faultless. A bowl of fruit awaits, milk & ice-cubes in the fridge, complimentary soft drinks, a couple of beers… we are overwhelmed with hospitality.

What a life !
 But we must see the beach. Diagonally across the Route Royal, down past the side of the main house and we have our first view of our ‘plage privee’. A sea-wall of dark basalt blocks raises the level of the garden, where you can sit under casuarina trees and watch the breakers on the reef a kilometre away, foaming over a wreck; a lighthouse towers above a low island to the north. The lagoon is a beautiful blue with darker patches of coral. A light easterly breeze wafts in; one or two people laze within view – for the rest, our only company are a few doves, mynahs and bishop birds in their scarlet plumage. We promise ourselves a sunrise dip.

Meanwhile we have to go shopping. Just a few minutes up the coastal road towards Mahebourg, a small supermarket with attendant butcher, boutiques and various other small shops. There are a wide variety of products – almost entirely imported from South Africa and Europe, as far as we can see; the prices carry a lot of air miles. We dawdle along doing frantic conversions. Meat and fish are packed in miserly frozen portions for two people; prices start at about R80 and spiral into the stratosphere. Pallid chicken sausages seemingly feed a large proportion of the population. We buy a few dispirited vegetables, some staples, the inevitable baguette and lots of liquids and flee back to our studio to relish the cool blast from the air-conditioning, toast slit baguette and spread it generously with a fine Danish pork pate for supper after a sundowner.

An early morning swim; we try out our snorkelling gear. Neither of us are water-babies but fortunately the corals are less than ten metres from the beach, and the main concern is not to trample and break them, as well as to avoid the numerous sea urchins’ menacing spines. Shoals of little striped fish sample our skins and butt us pugnaciously. Pity so much of the reef is in poor condition due to rising sea levels, global warming, pollution and human disturbance. Still, there is a Marine Reserve at Blue Bay, just round the corner of the headland which we visit on another occasion. That time we take a ride in a glass-bottomed boat, which all too quickly glides over clumps of staghorn, table-top, mushroom and brain-coral among some thirty-six species to be found. Metre-long trumpet fishes hang like static sword blades in the clear waters, while shoals
Schools of brightly coloured fish
of gaily striped fish school around the snorkeler splashing fearfully around the boats. All very picturesque and ‘David Attenboroughish’. There are no seashells to be seen – an enormous difference from my previous visit. On the other hand, none of the ubiquitous seashell-sellers standing on each street corner hawking their wares, either. It looks as if this industry has stopped dead; there is a blanket prohibition on collecting and possessing live shells in force, and even washed up dead shells are limited to ten per person. Still, in 1970 it was possible for even an amateur like myself to grab a few souvenirs off the reef and ocean floor without any great effort, so I was part of the problem then and the bare reefs are the result. Hopefully this will now be given a chance to repair itself.

Our host tells us that there is a market every day at Mahebourg, so we drive in even though it is Sunday. Most dispiriting; everything looks limp and tired but the promise is of better things to come on the main market day, Monday. On a whim, we carry on through the warren of lanes, without more than a general idea where we are heading, up the coast, towards the North. The road is incredibly tortuous, in places no more 

Up the East cost on the Road to Flaq
than five metres wide for both lanes, winding between shabby houses, embayments with mangrove swamps, lagoons and canefields. The settlements almost blend into each other. The views out to sea are framed in lush tropical trees and inland a spectacular mountain group overlooks this part of the coast, while flat islets pop up out of the still waters inside the reef.

We somehow arrive in Centre de Flaq – not that we intended to. Left turn, right turn, another into what looks like a main thoroughfare, but proves to be a one-way against us. Oncoming traffic flashes lights, hoots briefly, but nobody gets aggravated – there is no place for road rage in paradise. Anybody can make a mistake, as we do. Out of town and as it clouds over, we think we are heading north. We meander mainly through
canefields, but startlingly every now and then a spire of rock protrudes out of the plain covered in endless sugar cane. These unreal spikes are remnants of basalt plugs as the whole island is an eroded volcano, long extinct. Before long we are completely lost. We stop to consult our map as we had decided not to go for GPS – the wise web had declared it to be unreliable on the island, and we later see why. A face looms and a knock at the window; a helpful pedestrian. Small problem – he doesn’t know where he is on the map either. We debate the matter, and a second man joins in. He waves vaguely in a direction and declares that Port Louis is thataway. We are reassured by this, but none the wiser. We proceed. Our two maps don’t seem to coincide, but we soldier on until a hamlet with the name of Montrose is reached and after much map-searching, we establish where we actually are.

By this time we are starving and call a halt at an unprepossessing little wayside café. A lovely Indian lady greets us, nods at our request for food, and offers noodles or rice. We opt for the latter. Plain fried rice with a few specks of shrimp, chicken and innominate vegetables, but it fills the void. No matter that the plastic tablecloth edge is stained with what looks like blood (we discover it is my own and hastily bandage the bumped elbow and clean the table). We exchange a few companionable words with our hostess as we find that she speaks excellent English, having spent four years in London. She, in turn, is surprised that we come from South Africa, as we are obviously European, not black of hue. Once more we are on our way and triumphantly return well satisfied from our initial foray and have a quick dip in the pool before cooking up a tasty stir-fry, complete with lashings of local prawns.

Mahebourg Monday Market
 Monday is market day in Mahebourg. This time the place is a hive of activity. Stalls are heaped with a melange of greenery, leaves, stalks, fruits, cucurbits and legumes – many unfamiliar. There is Jackfruit, both lusciously ripe and green as a vegetable, stuffed with edible pips the size of Brazil nuts; longans, similar to lychees, zat, a type of custard apple, exotic dragon fruit, with its exotic looks and little flavour and the acid carambol or star fruit, as well as all the subtropical and deciduous fruits that  we know and of which many come from our homeland. The preponderant vegetable seems to be the gourd family. All shapes and sizes, with exotic names like pipangaye, patole, galbase, margoze and chou-chou, as well as huge green marbled pumpkins and loofahs. In summer temperatures of 34 degrees almost every day, salad greens are almost non-existent, but the Mauritians do love their greens and middens of various ‘bredes’ are available; stuff that we would call bok choy, Napa cabbage, turnip greens, Taro leaves and stalks, pumpkin vines and leaves, water spinach and a host of herbs that are an integral part of Indian and Creole cuisine. People are serious about their shopping. Veg are prodded, turned, sniffed and discussed before approval. Amazingly almost everything is labelled with a price, often per quantities of 100 g or half a kilo; most confusing. Vociferous bargaining seems to have gone out of the window – an entirely different situation from half a century ago, when it was the rule. We gladden the hearts of several vendors and an old lady selling incredibly tough balls of deep-fried dough. Our car, and later the apartment, reeks of jackfruit – pleasant to us, but I believe it is banned in taxis, like durian further east.

It is easy to slide into this lazy, lotus-eating existence. Only a week later the journeys all over the island, the sights, the meals, the experiences – all blend into a warm, hazy, tropical blur, interspersed with hours of inactivity sitting in deckchairs under the ragged shade of soughing casuarinas; cooled by the breeze and the odd bottle of cold sparkling wine. Some days we are lazy, visiting maybe the museum in Mahebourg; a staid, square, Dutch ‘herehuis’ set in a small forest on the banks of a river. Cannon peer over the balustrade and the fattest, biggest mortar guards the entrance to the gardens. I can’t resist comparing its rotundity to my
Who's got the biggest?
own. Inside it is cool; a blessing on another energy-sapping day. The exhibits are varied and interesting, though not imaginatively displayed. The captions are adequate and mostly in French and English. Both floors of the building have the walls plastered with paintings, illustrations from books, maps and documents. One gets a good sense of the span of human occupation of this remote island of the dodo, whose only indigenous mammal was the huge fruit bat, the flying fox, which we observed at Blue Bay, flapping like an ancient pterosaur between the tall trees of the promenade.

The island is only about sixty-five by forty kilometres in extent. It should be possible to explore it all in a day or two. So I had thought in 1970, and failed miserably in that I barely managed to explore the southern and western part of the island during my two-week honeymoon. This time we set out determinedly towards the north. A fine new double highway promised easy access to the tourist playground of Grand Baie with its myriad resorts and hotels. In no time we were alongside the impressive mountains dominated by the improbable profile of Pieter Both, a mountain with an afterthought of a very large pebble poised precariously on top. Like Mukorob, the ‘Finger of God’ in Namibia, this piece of real estate #mustfall one of these days. I would hate to be in the vicinity when a few hundred tons of basalt comes crashing down some six hundred 

Pieter Both Mountain - 2nd highest on the Island
metres. A narrow gorge cuts through the flanks of the mountains and we are spewed out onto a featureless plain, covered in waving sugar cane. With the exception of the mountains behind us – a most uninteresting prospect -which persists until we reach the conurbation of the northern tourist zone. Suddenly we are surrounded by multi-storeyed concrete boxes. Lavish portals graced with the best names the marketeers could come up with – Beachcomber, Coconut, Sugar Beach, La Cannonier, Intercontinental, Le Prince, Four Seasons, Long Beach, and the like. Just off the beach you could be stepping into the cosmopolitan world of Millionaire’s Mile shopping. Bars, restaurants and boutiques vie for your attention. It’s the off-season, so ‘specials’ abound, but prices are still in the stratosphere – tailored to suit a Euro-funded clientele. We grope our way along the beachfront, barely able to snatch glimpses of Grand Baie and its turquoise seas. We eschew the hedonism of the resorts and opt for the unfamiliar north-east coast.

At Cap Malheureux a fleeting view of the Coin de Mire island sets us searching for a parking place. Roads on Mauritius are very often a narrow raised strip, with no verges whatsoever, and a sheer drop of between
Coin de Mire Island off the North Coast
ten centimetres to a metre down to the surrounding countryside. Either one stops in the driving lane and blocks half the road, or you have to find a place where you can veer off between the trees or into someone’s driveway. We do the latter and spend some time dabbling our toes in the water in a tiny bay and enjoying the rugged cliffs of the offshore islands. Adventure calls, and off we are again, along a shady avenue, flanked by
A Dog's Life
high walls of the estates of the wealthy, contrasted at intervals with modest, shabby houses and even shacks, where the inhabitants go about their daily tasks and hundreds of depressed, skeletal curs lie in the sun or slink about with drooping heads and tails. The phrase ‘a dog’s life’ could have been coined in Mauritius – in contrast to the generally happy demeanour of the human inhabitants.

From Grand Gaube onwards the proliferation of tourist amenities gradually lessens.  At a little hamlet, called Roche Terre, we are suddenly famished and decide to stop at the very next place that promises to have some form of nourishment available. We spot a patisserie, and we investigate. Nothing but garishly coloured sweet pastries and cakes – but we are directed to a ‘hole in the wall’ across the road, where a man holds
Hole-in-the-Wall Snacks
sway over a gigantic wok glowing over a roaring gas flame. In no time at all we have some bajis and a bunch of samoosas cooking. As is the custom, hereabouts, our car blocks half the street as we wait for lunch. Just to be companionable, a battered bakkie comes from the other side and decides this is as good a place to stop as any for no reason at all – blocking the entire main road. As the tailback increases on both sides, I start feeling distinctly uncomfortable and so reverse my car up a side-road; traffic moves once more around the bakkie and harmony reigns.

Our lunch is tasty as well as being a bargain, but a stretch further on we spot another little stall, sporting a glass-sided display cabinet full of these little fried Indian snacks called Gajak. These consist of gateau aubergine (eggplant fritters), manioc goujons (cassava chips) and gateau patat (potato fritters), roti and other nameless, but toothsome delicacies. I negotiate us a brace of each on offer from a pleasant lady and we continue our odyssey, well-provisioned. During our stay we find as a pleasant surprise that lunch on the island does not always have to cost $25-60 for two people, the adventurous diner can do as well for a tenth of that price – drinks excluded. On the other hand, fruit, which should be available in profusion, is rather expensive by our standards, as are vegetables. One wonders what the poor get to eat, since the reefs around the island have almost been fished out and we only saw tired fish the size of pilchards, or a little larger, being offered for sale at the roadside.

On through the settlements of Goodlands and Poudre d’Or, where true to our ambition, we get lost in a maze of parallel roads, circles and shortcuts (not displayed on our maps), courtesy of faded road-signage which is often partially obscured by luxuriant herbiage. My navigatrix has no easy task, as I continually demand directions which she is frantically trying to find. Still, we emerge triumphant and our next point of reference is Roche Noires, where, I find out much later, there are extensive lava tubes which geologically minded tourists should go and visit. For once the Tripadvisors of the world have let me down as there was no mention of this when I researched the island for places we might visit. We wind our way through the Bras d’Eau forests along the coast; a National Park, full of birdlife but oddly made up almost entirely of exotic trees such as casuarinas, teak, eucalyptus, blackwood, mango and litchis. If nothing else, it is a soothing drive through the dappled shade, with the odd glimpse of sea. All over the island magnificent trees abound; clumps of banyans with cloaks of aerial roots, ficus trees with buttress roots encroaching onto the road edges, where they are
Ensnared by Roots in Pamplemousse
clipped by passing traffic, huge mango and breadfruit trees, and hundreds more species imported from other tropical latitudes. For the botanically inclined a visit to Pamplemousse Botanic gardens is a given. We spent an incandescent couple of hours there, earlier during mid-morning, wandering along the network of paths, from bench to bench, trying to exact the maximum benefit of every spot of shade we can find. A lovely sylvan atmosphere with much birdsong; an island of tranquility among the surrounding settlement that has consolidated during the past fifty years. One circuit, taking in the main features of animals, water and plants, was as much as we could manage. After viewing the impressive giant waterlilies, we opt for the air-conditioned interior of the car.

The triple embayments between Poste Lafayette and Poste  de Flaq are breathtakingly beautiful. Inland fields of inominate crops curve over the landscape, tended by women draped in vivid sari’s and houses are dribbled haphazardly along the roads. Every few hundred metres one seems to be crossing an estuary; fetid dark waters fringed with mangrove, spill out into the shallow reef-encircled sea. A Hindu temple pokes its pink, almost floral cupola out of the greenery. This rural scene is soon displaced by further encrustations of gleaming tourist nirvanas which are reaching hungry fingers northwards up the eastern coast. In the past fifty years the population of the island has grown by 50% to over 1,2 million. The only economic solution was to attract a flood of sun-seekers to this paradise to provide work and funds for the locals’ existence. Regrettably, coupled with that is the inevitable degradation of the fragile environment and the increasing necessity of importing huge quantities of consumer goods and food. The price of growth is that the visitors indirectly destroy that which they come to enjoy.

Having travelled for most of the day, we discover that we have in reality only covered some one hundred and sixty kilometres while spending the whole day crossing the island from southeast to northwest and back again. Dusk is falling with tropical suddenness as we re-enter Mahebourg, where the population at large is out on the streets, enjoying the slight respite from the day’s roasting. We have a little trouble negotiating through the maze of narrow roads between shops, residences, all very much out of the same foursquare mould, many in the process of alteration, with another storey or two under construction to house the next generation – a zig-zag outside staircase tacked on, precariously supported by a single pillar. Everything is full of reinforcing steel and concrete grey; there are no bricks on this island. Windows are often an afterthought. In this balmy climate the occupants are quite comfortable without them – as long as they don’t mind the mosquitoes, which are ubiquitous and aggressive.

We make an effort to find a place which sells fresh fish. Our hostess has gone to great lengths to try to explain its whereabouts. The name of the street: unknown, but it is just past the supermarket, if you go so… and then just so…and then so – she describes with her hands. Then there is a school; the house is a yellow house, two storeys – no, three storeys high – no… wait the school is after the house – she’s sure we’ll find it. She also obliges us with a lengthy, incoherent word-map to another house, a blue house – you can’t miss it - where we might be able to find some tuna. People are so helpful here. We set off without great expectations after having consulted the great Google Earth satellite photo of the area in question. We decide to approach from the museum side, take the third road as we have gleaned from modern technology, get into a whole sub-structure of single car-width alleys (which don’t show up from space) and after finding that these tend to end suddenly at a garbage heap or another structure, we extricate ourselves. Finally we seem to be on the right road. There are a number of yellow house. Some two storeys, others three storeys high; but no school
Difficult to get used to this Lifestyle !
in sight anywhere. We decide our eyesight must be getting defective, or our hearing is not what it used to be. So we return home fishless and spend the rest of the day replenishing our bodily reserves of vitamin D in the light shade of the casuarina tree on the beach front, reading a few paragraphs here and there, taking a sip of a cool beverage in between short immersions in the limpid sea, while birds serenade us and a heavy jasmine-like scent wafts over on the zephyr. One could get used to this mode of existence – with a little effort.

But the rest of the island calls. The entire southern side is terra incognita, so with the aid of two maps and the World Wide Web, we plan our campaign. This time my navigatrix takes notes: third circle, nine o’clock turnoff; T-junction left onto A9, then first right into B88… and the like. Pages of instructions, since she’s determined not to get lost again. We’re off and the best laid plans come to naught at the second intersection, since the T-junction has become a circle with five exits, and from there it gets even more complicated. Thank goodness the sun is shining and we navigate by guess and by compass, with only an occasional perusal of the charts. After a pleasant drive up into the highlands (600 m above sea level) we come to a great temple complex. There are acres of building (empty) some ablution blocks (thankfully) and numbers of taxis and buses spewing pilgrims who either wander down towards the Hanuman shrine at the edge of Grand Bassin lake, or make the short climb up a stubby hill where flags and a white dome proclaim another sacred site.
We take a quick look at what is happening, but don’t wish to intrude in the crowds’ devotions. A short distance further on, we encounter a massive statue of Shiva in all his bronze- covered glory, and on the opposite side of the road his equally large wife, complete with pet lion, is under construction, surrounded by a crow’s nest of scaffolding.

Shiva Statue at Grand Bassin
The Black River Gorges, which are our immediate destination, are not obvious from the road. One drives through plantations and clumps of strange trees (Australian paperbark myrtles) and the first stop is Alexandra Falls. A pretty little double rapid on a small stream a few hundred metres off the main road, but there is a vantage point from which one gets a wonderful view down a valley, all the way to the southern coast. The main viewsite, which faces northwest, comes complete with a scattering of ice-cream trucks jangling irritating ditties, as well as a string of stalls selling memorabilia made in China, India and Africa – but sadly lacking in Mauritian handcrafts. We walk down towards the viewpoint, which has a breathtaking vista of the densely wooded gorges below; a waterfall or two as well as two white tropicbirds disporting themselves in the updraughts. In the distance the outskirts of Tamarin and possibly Port Louis are visible, as well as the northwestern coast. Very scenic, but for once rather dirty and full of litter. A gaunt cat and her two kittens scrounge for discarded chips. They are the only cats we saw on the island, with the exception of one other in a restaurant. One wonders if the omnipresent dogs have anything to do with that.

The best part of the trip ‘out west’ is the winding road down towards Chamarel and Case Noyale. Exceedingly steep, full of short, nasty hairpin bends as well as narrow. Not to be taken lightly or under the influence; neither with poor brakes. The ancient monumental bulk of La Morne Brabant looms up, isolated on its little peninsula, which has been entirely taken over by a golf course and shoulder to shoulder gated
La Morne Brabant Mountain
luxury establishments. A far cry from when I stayed there forty-six years ago. There is still a public beach under the looming cliffs, where a monument stands to commemorate the fate of escaped slaves, who used to lurk in the crevices and caves some two hundred years ago, and we stop a while to spectate the well-off doing their thing on all forms of wind-powered and motorised watersport gear imaginable.

The road along the rocky south coast of the island passes through the heart of sugarcane country. The reefs disappear by the time you reach Souillac and instead beaches are short, often black and gravelly, or non-existent. As everywhere on Mauritius, village succeeds village. Most of these are peopled by Creole workers on the great sugar estates of the region. They look less affluent; if anything, the dogs are thinner, mangier. We attempt to find a geological wonder: the Pont Naturel, although the wise Web has warned that the roads are impassable, and the canefields nigh impenetrable. We had researched the route fully and noted down in fine detail such trivia as ‘ turn left after the second block of sugar cane; turn right at pump house; left again at large tree’ etc – all to no avail. Since the satellite photo had been taken, some hurried construction had occurred. Where the edge of the village of Trois Boutiques was supposed to be, there were houses; in a stretch of unadulterated canefield, an entire ‘morcellement’ or gated community was in progress. We made half a dozen U-turns, consulted unsuspecting pedestrians in mangled French, to which they replied in unintelligible Creole with broad smiles and in good humour, so we soldier on, either ‘gauche’ or ‘droit’ – which are about the only words we understand. In the midst of waving green stalks, we encounter a black taxi. There could only be one reason – he was going to Pont Naturel. We ‘follow that cab’ in best thriller tradition and sure enough, he finally gets us there over a painfully rocky and tree-root studded track. We walk to the cliff’s edge and savour the awesome spectacle of the towering swells from the deep south near Antarctica dashing themselves under two black lava arches and thundering into a basin behind it, on into a deep sea-cave. My navigatrix takes a picture of yours truly on the bridge, after which it almost becomes another story as my injured leg gives way in a tricky situation. Still, we make it out of there in one piece and return home flushed with success.

La Pont Naturel dwarfs a Visitor
While we had prepared an impressive list of all the places and venues we could visit during our stay in Mauritius, we actually found that apart from the adventurous forays we made into the countryside, enjoying the scenery and meeting a few people along the way, interspersed with long, lazy hours sitting in the shade on the beach, was much more to our liking. It was mostly too hot and humid to attempt any physical exertion, so what better way to savour the passing scene on a tropical island than from the seat of an air-conditioned car, or a deck-chair in the shade of a tree. Yes, we did pop in to a Chinese restaurant in Mahebourg – twice. Run by a stern-faced auntie, two lovely Indian lasses who waited on us, and an unknown number of cooks, we were confronted by an enormous menu, offering European (French & Mauritian), Indian, Creole and Cantonese dishes. We had the most tender Szechuan venison I could have wished for, a sizzling plate of prawns, and on the second occasion a typical Chinese noodle dish to take away and eat on the beach. All perfectly delicious and very good value for money, though any drinks were pricey – and don’t bring your own, as they would charge you more in corkage than the bottle would cost in South Africa. A restaurant in Case Noyale was at the other end of the spectrum. A tiny blob of heart of palm salad with a few scraps of smoked swordfish, and an ordinary fish salad, though with a delicious dressing would set you back what a full meal would cost you back home.

Mauritius is a place I remembered fondly after my first visit; we’ll remember it fondly after the second visit too. It’s a great place to get lost in; the natives are friendly – there is no road rage; even the rain is warm – not to speak of the sea; the scenery is magnificent. Apparently Mark Twain wrote “You gather the idea that Mauritius was made first and then heaven, and that heaven was copied after Mauritius”. Sounds like a pretty good theory.
Mahebourg Swimming Pier