My husband JC and I share a love of travel. Just a couple of months after we met, we Inter-Railed around Western Europe (back when Eastern Europe was off limits!) for a month with a tent and a daily budget of £5 (really), which could have brought a a good thing to a swift end….
Our two sons have been a lot of places already including New Zealand and different parts of the States. Growing up in London, they see it as completely normal to be surrounded by people from all places and cultures, but until our recent trip to South Africa they hadn’t experienced at first hand a country where many people are living in dramatically different conditions to those we’re accustomed to. As they’re about to turn 11 and 15, it felt like the right time to get adventurous.
We visited South Africa once before when our eldest was just two and explored Cape Town and the coast along to Port Elizabeth. It’s incredibly beautiful there – and the food was out of this world – but surprisingly Mediterranean in feel. In contrast, visiting the District 6 Museum in Cape Town and seeing huge shanty towns was very sobering. We went home wanting to discover more of the country but it took a long time to happen as it’s very expensive to get to SA from the UK (although cheap when you get there.) With invaluable help from various South African friends living in the UK we planned a circular trip starting and ending at Johannesburg airport (we didn’t see the city). I had a feeling this trip would feel more African, and it really did.
Two things which really affect me on my travels, being a citydweller from a small rainy island: the immensity of the sky and vastness of the landscape in any huge country, and the bizarreness of experiencing summer in the middle of winter. Both of these came into play on this trip, although like every place we’ve been in the last few years, South Africa’s weather is proving unpredictable. By SA standards, summer hadn’t properly arrived but that was ideal for us, as apart from our short time on the coast the weather wasn’t uncomfortably hot or humid and to my great relief, there were no dreaded mosquitoes even though the Kruger area is malarial at this time of year. The downside was that it was quite cloudy with few clear skies day or night. We bought a new camera for the trip so I admit that I’m going overboard on the pictures!
Military history is nowhere on my list of interests but I was persuaded to start our trip with a visit to the Anglo-Zulu Battlefields of Rorke’s Drift and Isandlwana. I only did half of the full-day tour with Zulu guide Dalton (real name Lindizwe) but he did an amazing job of bringing the battles to life. The area is so peaceful and scenic by the bend of the Buffalo River that it takes some imagining as the scene of terrible violence and bloodshed.
From there we headed over to spend Christmas in the Drakensberg, SA’s highest mountain range that cuts across eastern South Africa from SW to NE over a distance of 1,000km. We only saw a tiny part of it from our base at Didima Camp in Cathedral Peak, but enough to appreciate the stunning scenery we’d heard so much about. The hiking here is great, although strenuous, and we stayed in cabins inspired by the cave dwellings of the indigenous San Bushmen who left clues to their culture in the form of rock art. We didn’t see originals, but there’s a very good Rock Art Centre. It was an extraordinary place to spend 4 days, very remote and quiet, the mountains frequently disappearing behind thick cloud.
It was a long drive to the next stop, St Lucia on the coast – I like to include the sea in any trip if possible. We were roughly at the right latitude already but as there are no good roads west to east and the lesser ones are full of enormous potholes we had to drive down to Durban and then halfway up to Mozambique. The standard of driving is distinctly erratic and I was very glad not to be behind the wheel. The road fatality statistics are horrifying and much discussed – over 1,000 deaths in December alone.
St Lucia is a former fishing village near the largest freshwater lake in SA. It’s turned into a popular tourist spot and although we only had one day to spare we could have stayed for longer. We walked for miles along the wild beach watching the rollers come in off the Indian Ocean, and did the drive to Cape Vidal where we spotted far more game than expected. We stayed at the Santa Lucia guesthouse run by Rika and Francois van der Merwe, one of several places where we met with exceptionally warm and generous hospitality and had some very interesting conversations about South Africa.
This country faces challenges far too complex for any outsider to understand. I don’t think I’ve been anywhere where it’s quite so obvious to a visitor that ethnic groups are living lives so different they are hardly on the same planet. In his new year message, President Jacob Zuma said he thought SA had made significant progress in fighting racism, sexism and inequality – clearly there is a very long way to go (and I’m not for one moment proposing the UK as an example of how to run a country). Within days, he ignited controversy by criticising the black community for emulating white people by straightening their hair, which seemed an odd thing to focus on. Something I would not have guessed from my earlier trip to Western Cape but which didn’t surprise me this time is that according to the 2011 census, only 8.9% of the population is white. We had some heated family discussions about all these issues around the table and our elder son raised some provocative questions about the ethics of tourism.
On leaving the coast, we drove through the land-locked independent kingdom of Swaziland and stopped overnight at the Summerfield Botanical Hotel, the kind of place we could normally only dream of staying. We were shown to an entire house in lush tropical gardens with a furnished balcony where I could have sat and read for ever. The pool was huge, the food was sublime; unfortunately I spent most of our stay thinking I’d made a tenfold mistake with the room rates and we were going to be presented with a bill for £800 on checkout. I didn’t dare tell JC at the time, on the grounds that if we were, there was no point in ruining it. I could have kissed the receptionist when it really was a ridiculous £80 for the rooms! No wonder it’s so popular with Joburgers and I hope they leave a big tip, I certainly did.
It was a good decision to leave our 4 day safari in the Kruger National Park until the end of the trip. It was always going to be the highlight, but we didn’t realise how amazing it would be. The Gomo Gomo Game Lodge is a brilliant place for families (many won’t accept children under 12) and we were exceptionally lucky to see not just the Big Five (leopard, lion, elephant, buffalo and rhino) from up close but the Magnificent Seven (a rare cheetah and huge pack of endangered wild dogs) on our twice daily 3 hour game drives in an open jeep. We had two rather scary encounters with angry elephants. Never again can my family mock me for not being a morning person (they all are) – it was hell, but I got up at 5am four days in a row and I will never let them forget it! The tempo of safari was challenging to someone like me whose natural rhythms are completely the other way round. The day seemed to go on for ever, waiting for the next meal or drive but the evenings ended soon after dinner because of the need to get to bed. It would have been more my style to sit up late and enjoy a few drinks with the great people we met from all over the world. The kids were SO into it – I’ll never forget the look on their faces – and we were all fascinated by our ranger’s inexhaustible supply of facts about animals, birds and plants. I’m writing a story set around a game lodge now, re-living it and even though I’m back in London and it’s winter again, and grey and cold, if I close my eyes I can almost kid myself I’m still there.
That is the best thing about travel, the way it’s not over when it’s over.
Have you been to SA? I always love hearing travel stories, or what adventures you have planned for 2013.
With 5 of my Fiction Hot Picks 2013 published this month, it’s pretty non-stop on the Literary Sofa. This week I’ll be joined by guest author Katharina Hagena, author of The Taste of Apple Seeds, who writes about the enviable experience of seeing her debut translated into 23 languages.