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Travelogue: South Africa

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I’ve been on this plane for fifteen hours straight. That’s after getting up at 3am, flying to Atlanta, and waiting four hours for a delayed connection. I have never been able to sleep on planes, so I’ll admit to abusing Dramamine and Nyquil in an effort to get me through this trans-Atlantic trip. But it hasn’t worked, leaving me in a daze.

The flight crew seems opposed to hydrating the passengers and if there is air conditioning, I can’t feel it. I nod in and out, trying to pay attention to Cameron Crowe’s Elizabethtown on the screen in front of me. My mind spins off into fantasy, or hallucinations, like the visions brought on by an uncontrolled fever. Does this movie really suck that bad or am I unable to follow it in my dehydrated state.

Every time someone opens the window shades to look out into the sky, the flight attendants tell them to shut it. They insist the plane be kept in complete darkness.

I can’t tell you how happy we are to finally land in Johannesburg.

Durban 

The taxi ride from the airport to our hotel took us through some rough neighborhoods, places that seemed familiar from scenes on the nightly news, or maybe war movies. Exhausted from more than 24 straight hours of traveling, we asked the driver if our hotel was nearby. Our concern was distance and time until we could collapse into bed, but he must have interpreted our query as a question of safety. “Your hotel is in a good neighborhood,” the black cab driver replied. “A white neighborhood. White people.” I assumed he thought that was the kind of description we expected, I guess he thought that would make us feel at ease. Or was that the way he, himself, categorized the neighborhoods in town? It was a comment similar to what we would hear throughout our stay.

We checked into Quarters Hotel, a unique renovation of four gracious Victorian homes that created a relaxing and enjoyable respite from the usual chain mega-hotel. The people were friendly and helpful, the food was great, and the old fixtures of the rooms were intriguing.

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During our stay in Durban, we visited the Natal Sharks Board, the Suncoast Casino and beach, and uShaka Marine World. The uShaka Marine World was especially interesting since the aquarium is housed within a replica of a shipwrecked boat.

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Down the street from our hotel, I stumbled across a fantastic bookstore. Ike’s Books is located on the second floor and reminded me a great deal of Square Books in Oxford, MS. Hardwood floors, well-worn rugs, a relaxing porch, a intriguing collection of old manual typewriters and a friendly and knowledgeable staff made this bookstore a great find. I wanted to discover a South African writer I wouldn’t normally encounter. We hear plenty about Gordimer, Coetzee, and Payton in this country; I wanted someone unknown here in the States. The staff turned me onto Herman Charles Bosman’s Cold Stone Jug. I picked up a used hardback version of the book from the seventies for the equivalent of $13.

The bookstore and the hotel were great. But other than that, it’s tough to sum up our time in Durban. I’ve lived in cities with bad reputations and I know how frustrating it can be to constantly defend your hometown. But the fact of the matter is that we were constantly on-edge and fearful in Durban. Our group included people who have lived in Baltimore, Washington, DC, New York City, and Chicago. Our group has traveled throughout Europe, Brazil, Mexico, and India. We’re not sheltered suburbanites who quiver at the thought of leaving a gated community. But we were never comfortable. Here are just a few things that influenced our opinions.

  • A bizarre device released earlier this year brought attention to the fact that “The United Nations says South Africa has the world’s highest per capita rate of reported rapes – 119 per 100,000 people. Analysts say the total, including unreported rapes, could be nine times higher,” according to published reports. Other media accounts of this device mentioned that “some 1.5 million rapes occur in South Africa each year.”
  • In the DK South Africa (Eyewitness Travel Guides) publication, there’s a sentence that on first glance seems common enough but is actually quite revealing. There’s a warning to avoid mass transit at off-peak times, unless you’re in a group. That’s not surprising and is common sense for any traveler. But there’s a quantifier attached to that caution. “Avoid any of the suburban trains at off-peak times, unless you’re in a group of at least ten.” Two or three of you won’t be enough, the travel guide seems to be saying, and even the Magnificent Seven won’t be sufficient. You need the starting lineups for both the Lakers and Celtics to be safe.
  • We asked a taxi driver if it was okay to walk around in a certain neighborhood. He didn’t answer us, he just laughed.
  • The casino featured armed guards. No big deal here in the States, except instead of a pistol, these guys toted shotguns.
  • On many street corners, there were men in reflective vests that appeared to be crossing guards. But when you got closer, you could see they all carried nightsticks.
  • Our hotel was surrounded by a fence that had to be opened to allow people or cars to enter.
  • During our visit, the local newspaper reported that female drivers are particularly susceptible to the 40 “smash-and-grab” crimes each day. In these incidents, criminals break the windshield of a car sitting at an intersection and steal whatever they can reach.
  • Also during our visit, the local newspaper reported that “South African drivers were among the world’s worst when it came to road rage and aggressive and threatening driving behaviour” and that “the number of deaths per 100 000 was twice that of the world average.”
  • Every building in sight was surrounded by a fence or wall. There were gorgeous houses surrounded by attractive concrete and wrought-iron fences. But they were all topped by razor wire. Homes that should be featured in Architectural Digest with fences straight out of Prison Monthly.

I’m sure there are areas of Durban that are safe and enjoyable, it’s just that we struggled finding them. We met lots of friendly residents who said they never experienced any crime so I hate to paint the whole city with this threatening brush. I’m aware that even the smallest, most humdrum cities here in America have negatives and many international visitors think our country is awash with bloodshed and gunshots. But I can’t avoid the fact that we just didn’t feel comfortable during our few days there. And when locals frequently told us we couldn’t do this or that, and we couldn’t go there, and we couldn’t walk around, it’s only natural that our opinions would be influenced negatively.

A harrowing ride in a “cab” where the driver lied about having a meter, the taxi “license” displayed turned out to be homemade and fake, and the driver’s partner locked us in and blocked the door didn’t help our frame of minds either.

I guess it all boils down to personal opinion. I’ve spent the last week since our return trying to come up with a more positive spin on this small portion of the trip. Unfortunately, I’ve failed in that regard. We met a lady who was a lifelong resident of Durban who spit her words out in disgust as she described how awful Florida was. So when traveling, it really is “to each, his own.”

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The Drive Through Northern KwaZulu Natal

We rented a car and headed north. First of all, let me just say that the Mercedes Benz C180 Kompressor is the smallest goddamn four door car I’ve ever experienced. It rode well, handled magnificently, and had a great sound system. But damn it was small. One of the travelers in our group, Doug, is about 6’5″ and the driver’s seat wouldn’t go far enough back so that his knees didn’t have to touch the dash. We selected this car from the rental agency because it was one of the few options with an automatic transmission. We thought driving on the left side of the road would be a big enough challenge for us without having to shift as well. It was a good car, just incredibly small.

As soon as we left Durban, we relaxed considerably. Driving on the left was nerve-wracking at first but we soon got the hang of it. We followed the N2 highway, hugging the coastline north, towards our destination of Hluhluwe-Umfolozi Park.

There is an amazing driving custom in South Africa. When the road narrows from a multi-lane highway to a two lane road, slower drivers cruise along the berm, allowing you to pass them without having to actually get out of your lane. As you approach a slow moving car, they put on their hazards, pull over to the left (onto the shoulder), you pass them without crossing the divided line, and then they return to the road. Instead of waving, you momentarily put on your hazards to show your appreciation. On the relaxing drive north, through quiet, bucolic scenery, it was this amazingly graceful dance of cars moving on and off the road. It sounds chaotic, but it actually worked extremely well, with hazards flashing off and on in gratitude and camaraderie. In spite of the warnings of dangerous South African roads, we had a very pleasant trip through the country.

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Hluhluwe Game Reserve

As soon as we crossed over the bridge into the game reserve, there was a huge gray blob in the road. The sun had been setting for some time and it was almost dark. As our eyes adjusted to the darkness and we got a little closer, we realized that gray blob was a rhinoceros trotting down the road towards our car.

It’s one thing to see these massive creatures in a zoo, separated by moats and fences. It’s an entirely different experience for one to be casually jogging directly towards your rented Mercedes. At the entrance to the park, there were numerous warnings about the animals. But no one really told us what to do. Should we throw it in reverse and haul ass backwards? Should we hold our ground? Luckily, the rhino turned off into the bush and we continued our foray into the park.

Hluhluwe Game Reserve was established on April 30, 1895 and is the oldest game reserve in Africa. Combined with neighboring Umfolozi, the park encompasses 372 square miles of nothing but untouched wilderness and animals. Hundreds of lions, elephants, giraffe, zebra, and other animals call this game reserve home. And, as we found on our initial drive to the lodge, they often prefer to walk along the paved road instead of fighting the brush.

Hilltop Lodge is located at an altitude of 1,400 square feet and offers panoramic views of the gorgeous countryside. The attentive staff at the lodge can help you with everything from more towels to the best location to spot a lion.

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We had sleeping accommodations in a series of round huts situated on a hill even further up from Hilltop Lodge. The whole camp was incredibly relaxing. No televisions, no phones. Just endless night skies and silence.

The park offered guided truck tours throughout its many trails or you could drive your own car. Walking on foot outside of the immediate lodge area (protected by electrical fence) was not allowed and would probably result in being eaten by lions. The best times for the riding tours were at dusk or early in the morning. We participated in both; the dusk tour left at 4pm and the sunrise tour departed at 5am.

During the course of our rides, we saw too many giraffe and zebras to count, four elephants, four lions, a bunch of nyalas, tons of water buffalo, a couple of hyenas hauling ass down the road and then fighting, and some baboons. Giraffe, zebras, and water buffalo aren’t very prestigious sights so after the first couple times, no one gets very excited.

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But if an elephant or lion is located, then the whole park tries to converge on that area.

On the sunrise tour, our guide suddenly quit talking and put the pedal to the floor. We thundered down tiny paths and mountain trails at a speed high enough to make everyone chuckle with nervous energy. Lions are a rare sight so when our guide heard of some just waking up, she hustled to get us there.

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At this point, I’d like to mention the single biggest lesson I learned on this trip to South Africa. It’s not how to avoid machete-wielding muggers and it’s not to be sure to take the anti-malaria medication, Malarone, with food. Nope, the biggest lesson is that if you’re going to take a trip like this, make sure you’ve got a decent frigging camera.

I had debated getting a serious digital SLR for this journey. Instead, I chickened out and, for once in my life, behaved in a frugal manner and decided to stick with my Olympus D425. I quickly learned that although it’s fine for taking snapshots around the house (of parties and friends, silly, not that kind of photos), it sucked for safari photography. Hence, the poor photo of the lions that appear demonic and possessed. I took all the photos in this post, with the exception of the two shots of our hotel above. Within the next couple of weeks, I’ll spring for a decent digital SLR so if you have any recommendations, please let me know.

Another important lesson I learned is that elephants may be friendly creatures who snack on peanuts in the cartoons, but in real life, they don’t particularly care for being hemmed in by cars and trucks.

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This particular photo was taken as our guide let off the clutch so we slid downhill. When the elephant continued coming after us, she grinded the ignition, fired up the engine, and floored it in reverse. She later told us that when elephants flex out their ears, it’s not a good sign.

Elephants can also be incredibly stubborn. They really don’t care that you have a plane to catch and as we began our drive back to Durban, we had to wait about thirty minutes for an elephant to get out of the road.

The Trip Home

It’s a helluva long trip home. A four hour drive (due to elephant delays) from the game park to Durban. A couple of hours waiting in the airport. A one hour flight from Durban to Johannesburg. A few more hours waiting in the airport. A nine hour flight from Johannesburg to Sal Island, off the coast of northern Africa. It took about an hour to refuel, during which we weren’t allowed off the aircraft. Then, an eight-and-a-half hour flight from Sal Island to Atlanta. Another couple of hours in the airport, topped off by an hour-and-fifteen minute flight home.

I used to travel fulltime for work and regularly flew between DC and Hawaii. I thought I was prepared for long airplane rides. But this was a real challenge.

All in all, the travel was completely worth it. I’m still taking the anti-malarial medication (you have to continue the cycle for a full week after returning to the US) and I’m still trying to absorb all that we saw on this trip to South Africa. The whole trip was an eye opener and something that I would have never dreamed possible. Growing up in small town Kentucky, I never thought I would one day watch a lion wake up and stretch, like a housecat, in the African wilderness. This was an amazing trip, bordering on life-altering.

Standing on a summit, looking out at untouched wilderness as far as the eye can see, is an experience that will make you want to ditch your computer and cable and pizza delivery and take up an existence in a tent under the trees. I might have always dreamed of writing for Esquire, Playboy, or The New Yorker, but now I understand what those Men’s Journal scribes feel. Although it’s going to be a long time before I can even begin to describe this trip in a way that does it justice.