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Kirsty had taught me the need for patience and lack of speed in safariing. There is no way you will ever see anything more than a large herd of escaping antelope and a termite hill if you dash around at the rate those guys were going. And yet many of the cars I was seeing, plenty of them South Africans from whom I would have expected more, were driving as if on the motorway. Now I had got my eye in and the binoculars were helping, I picked out more and more. As well as the larger antelope, I saw a tiny Suni, treading meticulously over the scrubby ground layer.
At one point I was surrounded by water buffalo.
I had stopped to gaze at a couple of these bulky creatures on one side of the road when I heard a crash on my right side, and out of the tall grass came another three. They jostled each other and rubbed up against the side of the car. Very easily they could have bent a bumper or crumpled a plate, but fortunately they were more interested in moving off to the water below me.
The sun was setting again and I thought I had seen enough for the day so headed along the main road towards the Lower Sabie Camp, my booking for the night. Just before I reached with the sky already a deep red, the most magnificent sight materialized. Ever since I saw my first Masai giraffe in Nairobi, I thought they were the true emperors of the bush. Their grandeur and stateliness, their costume, their mannerisms all show royal breeding. Four giraffe were standing in various poses across the road, like an exercise in perspective. The largest was furthest away, straight across the road and looking back at me. The others were slightly to one side, but their enormous necks reached high into the sky and the suns dying rays hit them smack on. I sat and watched these creatures for five minutes before they deigned to give me the road back.
Satisfied that I had seen most of what I set out to do, I spent a quiet night in Lower Sabie. My accommodation second night was not quite as luxurious as at Olifant’s the night before but when I fell asleep within five minutes of hitting the pillow, it really did not matter.
After another early start I set off for the last thirty miles of so to Crocodile Bridge, at the southern end of the park close to the Mozambique border. I saw lots again, vervet monkey, fish eagle, another steenbok. Then over to my right, in an area regenerating from a recent fire, two large grey lumps were moving northwards. White rhino grazing in amongst the new shoots of grass appearing after the fire. To me this completed the set; I had never thought I would see the leopard, so when I left the park a couple of hours later, I felt that despite the rush tour, I had accomplished a good safari.
It was a long drive back up to Pretoria, first down almost to the border at Komatipoort to meet the main road, then along through the bush (littered with private safari camps and touristic shops), and on to the Drakensburg Escarpment. The weather closed in around me again as I started the ascent, and the part industrial landscape of cement works and electricity plants mixed ominously with the dark pine forests and craggy outcrops. The road could be seen winding up the wide valley for miles in front of me, occasionally darting into tunnels to avoid the worst of the incline. Once atop, I went through the regional capital of Nelspruit; compared to other cities in South Africa it was tiny and fairly relaxed. Then on retracing my steps through the orange groves to the west of the escarpment, and finally back along that long tedious road over the veldt. I stopped off for fast food near Belfast, where the roadworks duelling the main road from Gauteng to Maputo was causing so much havoc, and realised this was the first lunchtime I had stopped for several days. Good job too as the remains of the Biltong looked pretty unappetising.
After a few days in the bush it seemed strange to be back at Kirsty’s , eating out in chic restaurants, heading into Pretoria to see a film, and to be back in the highly charged atmosphere of Gauteng. The visit to the east gave me yet another angle on this amazingly diverse country. I was now quite disappointed that I would not get anywhere near the huge Cape, especially the Fynbos, the Karoo and the Cape area itself. But holidays are never long enough, and wherever I go, there is always another horizon I will not be able to cross. But even by spending most of my time in Kwazulu Natal and the old Transvaal districts, I had seen a great diversity of landscapes, a rich land for farming and industry. I had seen diverse people’s, most of them friendly. The rainbow state concept was being kept in the hearts of most people, it had always been there but not allowed to flourish. People of different backgrounds genuinely wanted to get along, to be given equal opportunity. But many of the tensions which had been suppressed during the Apartheid years were also being given their freedoms, and I had seen a lot of that. The dreadful urban poverty and the continuing distinctions between the rich, mainly white, suburbs of Sandton and Verwoerdburg and the still impoverished black townships of Alexandria and SoWeTo. And out in rural areas, where the whites were still major land owners the social policies of the ANC could scarcely begin to improve the conditions of Africans – the huge floodlights that drench townships in artificial day are hardly a human method of dealing with darkness.
And seething away was this tension that erupted in riots, in carjackings, in muggings. I also saw the reaction to it, the military style quick reaction vigilante groups in the white suburbs, the excessive security around every house – inner and outer gates and fences. I had had first hand experience of that, caught in a crossfire perhaps, or targeted because I displayed too many traits. In Natal in particular, the tension is not just racial but tribal too. South Africa in 1996 was walking a tricky line between freedom and anarchy.
Although I enjoyed this trip immensely and saw some amazing things and met some incredible people, the tensions of the country were always throbbing close by, and I think I hardly relaxed at all in three weeks, even before I was mugged. This tension continued right the way up to that evening when Kirsty dropped me off at a crowded departure area in Jan Smut’s Airport. I hugged my luggage closely till I got through the line; I eyed suspiciously everyone who walked past me as I checked myself in, and only when I went through to the departure lounge did I feel that I had won some battle. But even now, this raging country filtered back to me.
As I was driven roughly out to the Al Italia plane standing at Jo’burg airport, crammed in with many other tourists or visitors, a stewardess was speaking dispassionately into her walkie-talkie. “Yes, we’re missing one passenger; he has just turned up at the check in desk – he was robbed on the way to the airport. They took everything, his bag, his money, his passport. He’s bruised but OK. We’ll have to leave him here to sort it out”. I looked at her as she said this, her face not cracking with any emotion. Just another routine day in Jo’burg. I tried hard again to remember, the guys at Pilgrim’s Rest, the combination of proud Boer, historic Swazi and Zulu, the British tradition, the stunning scenery, the expanse of nothing, the hope.
Yes it is, but only just…….