Sunday, 11 August 2013

She Who Dares Writes: Out of Africa - Dazed and Confused

She Who Dares Writes: Out of Africa - Dazed and Confused: Back from holiday a post-plane sleep packages the memories into dreams - the lists start, the washing machine goes on, the supermarket is v...

Out of Africa - Dazed and Confused

Back from holiday a post-plane sleep packages the memories into dreams - the lists start, the washing machine goes on, the supermarket is visited, the house looks grubby after two weeks of hotels that are cleaned every day. It's full of so much clutter when you've seen people live on hardly anything at all. Sometimes, a holiday comes along that changes your life, at least for a little while, I want to hang on to the profundity before the normality takes over again.

Visiting Africa seemed as far away and as exotic as it was in the books I poured over in my early twenties, the tales in Angela Carters books, the stories of Karen Blixen, the adventures of Beryl Markham, the lives of Miriam Makeba and Nelson Mandela, but we did it.

We chose a small group family holiday with Explore because we wanted some guidance, hoped that our reluctant teenage children would interact, try new things, discover a new continent. Thanks to the cheeriness and tenacity of our wonderful guide, Jake Sampson and the other half of the double act, the driver, Wayne Daniels, they did just that.

We flew to Johannesburg, changed planes and headed for Port Elizabeth, one day ahead of the rest of the group, hoping to catch up on some rest after the long trip. Africa spread out before us, land of yellow and bunt ochre, circles and triangular patches of cultivated farmland, split by silver rivers snaking through the trees and ridges of hills before the white sand and turquoise sea. Africa is a land rich in every colour. The plane swept over the runway and veered into the sky, too windy to land, we made it on the second attempt. The first hint that every day was to be filled with adventure and excitement.

We stayed at the comfortable Kelway, walked along the beach in the morning and dipped our toes in the cold Indian Ocean, where we swam later in the day, then headed back to the airport to meet the rest of our group. Two families with children between 14 and 19, a perfect balance, good people to make memories with. Heading out into the Eastern Cape to Zuurberg along roads that shook the minibus and our bones, climbing into the mountains through low green scrub, thorn bushes and succulents. On the Zuurberg pass fluorescent tape is stuck to corner bushes, a low tech warning of the sheer edges. The Zuurberg Mountain Inn nestles on the hillside, clean, quiet, wooden floors and a huge fire in the lounge, where two fat Labradors lie. Our rooms are small pastel coloured houses with indoor and outdoor showers, views over the valley and a terrace to enjoy the complimentary sherry each day. The gardens are lush, monkeys wander in the trees, strange birds call out at night and the sky is limitless and full of stars. This is Africa, it feels real now.

Even more so when we head off in our bus for a full day game drive the next morning to Addo National park. The holiday is full of wildlife, improbable and impossible creatures of every size and shape. We bump over the rutted roads until suddenly a great, lumbering male elephant crosses out path munching his way through the bush. Elephants are destructive creatures, in a clever move, the rangers have put beehives under the trees to stop the elephants knocking them over. More elephants gather crossing the roads in herds, the babies shepherded by mothers and siblings.
Around the water hole they are joined by skittering warthogs and Kudu that were grazing on the ridge. Meerkats scamper alongside the bus, sprinting, tails up between the termite mounds. There are birds of every size and colour, Zebras running and yellow mongoose. The sun melts over the mountains as we head back on rutted roads for dinner and reminiscing.

On our second day our after-breakfast wander is organised into a mountain hike, a taste of things to come. I follow the cobalt clue trousers of our knowledgeable Zimbabwean guide, Brighton as he leaps from rock to rock and I plod after. One dogs joins us, I have new admiration for the canine and I promise not to call him fat and lazy anymore. At the ridge thousands of miles of fences stretch out before us. Africa must be a world authority on fencing, some enclose land, others are to keep the wildlife out, like elephant proof fencing made from old cables and parts of railway tracks.
Electric cables swing across the valley, the longest unsupported cables in Africa. We wish it was a zip line for a quick way down. In the afternoon we gather the families and head for Scotia Game reserve, where enthusiastic guides drive us on adapted open sided jeeps and off road past antelope and a zebra, her rump scarred by repeated lion attacks. They haven't caught her yet. Hippos rest in the late afternoon sunshine by a watering hole their pink bellies turned to the sky, it's unusual to see them out of the water. Crocodiles lie immobile on the other side. Rhinos graze nearby, their horns sawn off by recent poachers, a professional job, they left them alive, but the female miscarried.
There is serious money in the poaching game, and a serious threat to the animals.The radio crackles, there is word of lions and as we bounce down the track in the gathering dusk, there she is, majestic, loping down the centre of the road, followed by a male lion. She is the hunter, pregnant, proud, she stops and sniffs the air, turning and racing after Impala, as run along the ridge, the orange light behind, the sight is pure lion king, pure Africa. She gives up quickly, it's not worth the hassle and flops in the grass. We watch for a while then leave them be as we're cold under our ponchos and blankets, ready for our braii and the burning thorn bushes to keep us warm.

Next day we drop down to the coast, to Plettenberg Bay, crossing Africa's highest bridge and bungee jumping sight. The white cross on the mountain nearby marks it's notoriety as a popular suicide spot. The infrastructure improves as we move towards the Western Cape. The roads are paved and there's more tourists here, more money, for some people. Many of the huge houses in Plett are second homes for wealthy Cape Towners. Yet each town still has it's own second town, the Township. Made of ramshackle wood and corrugated iron in this region. The government provides water and electricity while tenants live in ramshackle shacks, waiting for brick built houses to be built. Churches, shops, schools and a witch doctor drop in centre are scattered among the dwellings. I notice I haven't heard any african music yet, it's not until Cape Town that I do, the hotels play Neil Diamond on an almost constant loop.
Our next accommodation, The Dunes, has little of an African feel, low chalets and houses along a beautiful beach. In the evening we walk down and watch dolphins surfing in the glassy waters, curling in on the bend of the waves. The next day is a free one, but we all choose the same excursions so share the experience of walking with elephants, and riding on their swaying backs. More majestic, improbable animals.
In the afternoon we take a boat trip and spot Minke and Bryde whales leaving their blueprints on the ocean.

Friday we drive to Knysna and stop at the Quay for shopping. The Quay feels almost exclusively white, the town African, the separation is unsettling, although what I see of integration is promising, there is still some way to go. Madiba is everywhere, a hero of mine and an icon to the African people, I hope his legacy is a good one. Another boat trip to a nature reserve and a walk. It is the walks that characterise this holiday with inspiring and breath taking scenery. More breathtaking on the next day when we climb the headland near Plett, scrambling high past a seal colony, an all you can eat buffet for the sharks. One cruises nearby but seems indifferent, his huge shape flicking close to the rocks. We climb past caves then split into two groups. The hardy set off with Jakes for the four hour trail of tears and we join Wayne for a fun tumble down huge sand dunes, cooling our toes in the beautiful ocean and scrambling along cliff ledges for a shorter, but still spectacular trail. That evening Stuart and I complete the next stage of total offspring embarrassment by dancing at The Dunes, there are celebrations as a local rugby team has won. Rugby is everywhere, Jakes and Wayne carry a ball with them and it becomes our holiday mascot. Once it bounces over a cliff, but we retrieve it.
Our next adventure proves the source of pure comedy. Driving inland, the scenery becomes more arid and flat, scattered with the African Ostrich, more great, improbable creatures. We stop at Safari to learn more about them,their strength, tough leather,vicious beak and powerful legs. George and Jack are brave enough to try and ride them, Bernie Clifton would have been proud, we fall about laughing. After lunch, some of us take the adventure tour option at the Cango Caves. We admire the symphonic halls of Gaudi like formations, the guide turns off the light's and sings in a beautiful tenor, the anthem of South Africa. It's a moving moment. We're not moving shortly after however, stuck in low passageways, crawling through the damp and squeezing up through a tight chimney of shiny rock, following each other in claustrophobic tunnels, my daughter posts herself through a tiny space, her bare foot wiggling in mid air. I'm relieved when I hear her voice from the other side. We compare bruises afterwards over a cold Windhoek lager, drunk in our next residence - De Poort, a tiny settlement of stone and thatched cottages that nestles in the mountains like a frontier post. Dinner is Ostrich steak cooked in berries, served by the daughter and mother of the house.

The next day we drive down through mountains swathed in mist to the industrial mix town of Mossel Bay. Some us have opted to go cage shark diving. I didn't sleep the night before, anyone who grew up with Jaws will know why. When it comes to it I feel strangely calm, until I see the first sharks. They are huge, attracted by the chump liberally scattered over the side and the large sardine head dragged on the end of a line. Sharks use their mouth to feel things, like babies, ifthey're not interested, one quick bite and they will be away. This doesn't help settle my stomach. I question my parenting skills, letting my 17 year old daughter into the water, but I, Jack, Oscar, Ella and Mike join her at various stages. She's a brave girl and stops in for a double session. Wet-suited up we sink into the dented cage. The beast swims by, indifferent or watchful, a large dead eye meets mine through the water. I lift my mask to see better, it seems impossible, another impossible creature, but as I watch her thrash against the cage, tugging at the bait, I know it is real, magnificent and amazing.

Tuesday it's belting down, we're trapped in a hotel that looks like it's been left over from the British Seaside circa 1970, with more than a whiff of Fawlty Towers about it. Unperturbed we set out into the soak to spot more whales off the coast at Hermanus, hide in a vintage bookshop where I purchase a 1935 copy of Women of Adventure (after all, I am one now) and settle for a coffee nearby before we head to Cape Town. The bus is quiet, we're all sad to be leaving the open spaces for the city, but Cape Town has it's charms too. The hotel is comfy and Corporate, the Strand Towers, with hot powerful showers. We walk down Long Street in the evening, our posse led by the confident Jakes, and eat at Mama Africka where there is a live band and Ostrich, warthog, crocodile and Kudu on the menu. I plump for the aromatic chicken curry and several of their excellent cocktails.

The next day we split into our family groups to do our own sightseeing. We wander down Long Street into the Pan African Market, buying a range of hand carved bowls and fabrics in this eclectic and tactile place, stop for coffee in Cafe Zulu and buy t-shirts in the African version of Urban Outfitters - SKA. Then we walk through increasing rain to the lush Company Gardens, past the museums, galleries and sugar coated colonial palaces to the Jewish Museum. A fascinating place with an excellent cafe, try the magic onion! After a sobering walk through the holocaust museum we took 'our life in our hands' taxi to the V&A (Victoria and Alfred, her son, not Albert) Waterfront. Suddenly we're in a 'could be anywhere' plush mall, we break out and hit the craft market, The Robben Island Museum and have dinner at another excellent eatery on Long Street, The Royale, where they have over 50 burgers, including The Royale with cheese. The food is great wherever we go, fresh, varied and local.
Our last full day a melancholy descends, it's hard to believe it's nearly over, a fantastic time was had by all. We head to Boulders Beach to watch the penguins and for a last paddle in the beautiful sea as the waves charge over the rocks and Rock Dassie watch from the ridge of a nearby hut. There is a quick stop at The Cape of Good Hope for a group picture, another hill climb along the headland where baboons wander in the car park. I'll miss Africa, it's surprises, it's people, it's wildlife, our tour group and our guides. It's a unique and a special place, go if you can.