South Africa – On the tourist trail

I drove on along the escarpment edge to another incredible waterfall, the Berlin Falls.  Just beyond here, just before you bore yourself with another waterfall and gorges, South Africa springs another surprise on you.  In a quite remarkable plateau of orange rocks, a river has gouged out a canyon on a huge scale.  Yes, there are the waterfalls and gorges like the ones I had already seen countless times in my holiday, but the way in which the river had worked against the stone made incredible shapes. Called the Bourke’s Luck Potholes, the river must have eroded away at the weak points in the rock, and boulders trapped in these crevasses have been spun around in the water during storm flows like clothes in a washing machine.  Working like a jewel polisher, these rocks have smoothed and rounded these crevasses forming these wonderful potholes.  Where they have been worn too thin the outer wall breaks off leaving hundreds of ornate sculptures naturally formed, for us to wonder at.  The gorge itself gets to over a hundred feet deep, and what seemed most remarkable is that some of these potholes were nearly half that depth and still intact.  You could walk around the rim of some of them, but woe betide if you took a wrong step in either direction.  One way and you were lost in the gorge forever, one step the other way and you were trapped in a deep narrow vat of icy cold water.

I played over these structures for an hour or so, wanting to see every way the water and rock had interacted.  Dramatic bridges spanned the gorge in several places and I got a view deep into the canyon below before it splurged out into the plain.  In one place, a chunk of rock had fallen from the cliff side and was wedged in a narrowing of the canyon, the water forcing its way through underneath.  Massive quantities of clear fresh and disease free water, such a luxury in this massive continent, were washing into the bushland below, most of which seemed to get evaporated before it reached the sea and got blown back over the Drakensburg where it fell once more.  As I returned to the entrance, I fought my way through the French tourists who had barely left the first set of rocks but were all busy taking pictures of each other, and once more, I nodded to the coach drive, leaning again on his coach smoking another cigarette.

A whole series of viewpoints scattered along the road were there for me to marvel once more at the edge of the Drakensburg, several around the highly incised Blyde River Canyon, but the light was poor and the clouds thick and I could not really get the sense of the scale.  And at each point, the coach of French tourists would arrive just as I was ready to go, so each time, I got an undisturbed visit.

The mist started to clear as I reached the far end of the Escarpment, but the rain replaced it and the driving wind made coming out of the car a battle, and staying out stupidity.  I did look at the Rondavels, which even in the gloom were impressive.  Rondavels are one of the names given to African bush huts  – specifically the round style which is prevalent in much of Sub Saharan Africa.  Although the traditional style there are hundreds of designs of huts, based upon the available materials, their utilitarian use, their culture and the need for heat, light and shade depending on where you were on the continent.  I went to a fascinating museum in Dar es Salaam once, which had a series of huts laid around a parkland, one from each tribe of Tanzania.  Even in this one country there must have been thirty distinctive styles.  The flat low roofed huts of the Masai, almost completely enclosed with a corridor with a turn in it to keep out the worst of the heat, dust and wind.  Where the climate is wetter, the rooves are sloping, the materials used reflect the vegetation and geologies of each style’s local region.  Square huts, round huts, elongated huts, ornate huts, simple huts, huts for living in, huts for storing stuff in, huts for keeping your cattle, or goats, or sheep, or women.  The Rondavels of the eastern Drakensburg are three massive rounded rocks that rise sheer about two or three hundred feet and then taper in a grassy conical hill atop them.  They look just like the huts out in the bush, even the grass roofs are replicated.

The rain was getting on top of me and it was only just after lunch, so I headed for an underground refuge.  The Echo Caves are in amongst the limestone hills.  It was pouring with rain as I drew up, a family of pigs and piglets were scuttling for cover along the road side as I drew up.  Apart form an old worn sign above a corrugated roof, there was little to tell that this was a tourist attraction.  I wandered in and a half bored woman looked at me and took my money, and pointed me to a young girl, probably no more than 16.  This girl , dressed simply in a one piece short sleeved dress and flat shoes, no protection against what I thought was dreadful weather, took me quietly into the caves.  It was eerie that although the caves we walked through were dry, I could hear the tinkle of water all around me.  I was shown the different structures formed by the stalactites and stalagmites (tights come down, I had to remember), and , as people do unnecessarily all over the world, she told me all sorts of names of the different structures and got me into contorted positions to try and see the Elephant Rock from just the right perspective.  I tried my best to look interested, since there was no-one else in the caves (I wondered where all my French tourists had disappeared to in the rain), I found myself more than at the centre of attention, and dragged around from position to position faster than I wanted to, and not with enough chance to see the physical beauty before being told another tedious story of what the owner decided to call this rock in 1956.  At the end of the tour, in a small cave near the exit, the girl presented a book and a pen and said it was customary to give a tip.  I hadn’t been that impressed either by the cave or the girl’s spiel.  She was unable to answer most of the questions I had posed just to keep the conversation going, and I felt awkward having this book where people had not only signed their names and put their comments but had written in the amount they had tipped the girl!  Some of the tips looked like they had been changed or added with different hand writing, and some were as large as forty US dollars.  American tipping has a lot to answer for.  I gave her a token donation, I think she would have preferred not to be there too, and left through the mangled up car park and speeded up the road.  It caused me to think again about South Africa’s new openness to the world.  In many places they were unused to tourism and were not providing the things that tourists were pandering for.  While I hate these sanitised tourist destinations, there needs to be a certain standard within the local character.  Unfortunate, as up till that point, this eastern Drakensberg region had stolen my heart.  Vying strongly were the Natal Midlands, Pietermaritzburg and the Royal Natal Park, but this place had such space and fresh air that I felt free.  I wondered if the whole population of South Africa saw this in the same way.  I drove for miles on the back side of the hills, back in the long boring Veldt of Transvaal, and came into Lydenburg, neat Germanic houses with picket fences and a gleaming white Lutheran church, its spire brightly visible throughout the surrounding farm land.  A dirty pickup truck pulled out in front of me and sped off along the road.  I glimpsed the dappled sunburnt thick hairy arms of a Boer out of the driver’s window, and two black workers in blue overalls standing in the back in the drizzle and gripping the sides as it lurched along.  How much was really changing out here in the rural areas?

4 thoughts on “South Africa – On the tourist trail

  1. South Africa – On the tourist trail – String Knife and Paper

  2. South Africa – On the tourist trail – String Knife and Paper

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