Africa again


On safari, the lion might be king of the jungle, but the leopard is the hardest of Africa's big five to spot. Deep down, I feared I'd only ever get to see the African animals so vividly captured in my childhood picture books as a blur in the distance; a glimpse of a giraffe through the tree tops, or the bulk of an elephant's outline disappearing through the brush. There was little chance of seeing a Leopard.


But I was ready for my Kodak moment in the cringe-worthy way only a tragic tourist can be. I'd bought an expensive camera with two lenses I barely knew how to use, wildlife photography books weighed down my backpack, and heavy binoculars borrowed from my Dad remained permanently stationed around my neck. At least I wasn't as bad as the guy who brought night-vision goggles. 

Despite my low expectations, I was pleasantly surprised to find myself in the thick of animal encounters, throwing chunks of meat to a cheetah and her cubs in Namibia, scratching a lion under the chin in Zimbabwe, and being charged by a rhino in Zambia. Of course I'd see a leopard, I smugly told myself two weeks into my 56 day overlanding trip, as I watched a herd of elephants use their trunks to snorkel across the Chobe River in Botswana. But as the stamps filled up my passport and the national parks flew by on our journey north, there were no leopards.

I began to get nervous.

At each National Park office I'd run in to check the chalkboards for any sightings of the elusive creature. Many times we'd stop to stop to study the dappled shadows of a far off tree, only to clock up another false alarm. At night I even began to dream of leopards. We returned from the bar one night to find a cluster of guards with guns, shining a spotlight into the black jungle that rimmed our campsite. After ushering us to a safe spot on top of our overlanding truck, our guide turned and grinned at me. 

"You'll never guess what just wandered through the camp. A leopard!" I would have happily been eaten by it at this point. 

The last day of my safari coincided with my birthday, and I knew what I was going to use my birthday wishes for. "All I want to see today is a pussycat, up a tree, with spots." I declared at breakfast.  But after a full day of game driving, there were no leopards. My friend tried to make a joke of it.  "Here" he said, handing me a permanent marker. "Go grab a lion and colour it in".  Sensing my disappointment, he promised to take me to see one at the zoo when we got home. 

But I wanted the real thing- that magic moment of glimpsing a wild animal for the first time in its natural environment. Suddenly chatter broke out over the radio. Our guide sped off down a dirt track, before pulling up next to another vehicle. Five metres up, slung across a branch and half asleep, was exactly what I had wished for: a pussycat, up a tree, with spots. The rare tree dwelling lion, with its spotted fur, opened one eye and let out a low hiss, before promptly falling asleep again. It wasn't quite the member of the cat family I wanted. But it was pretty cool. 

I left Africa disappointed that I had not seen a leopard, but in a way I was kind of glad. It just gave me a reason to come back.

 

 

 

By Shaney Hudson

Overland

 

As we rolled out of Nairobi, on a crisp and clear Kenyan morning, even the diesel fumes and bleating taxi horns on the Uhuru Highway seemed to be full of good cheer. There were none of those usual feelings of trepidation and nerves that I was used to on the first morning of a ‘big trip.’ For years I had been travelling under my own steam - frequently alone and almost always by public transport. Now I had been lured back to the Dark Continent on a road-trip of a very different sort: in a huge, wallowing yellow truck that was known in villages and backpacker lodges all over East Africa as ‘The Whale.’


Far from travelling on a wing-and-a-prayer, our itinerary had been carefully worked out to fit in most of the must-see sights of the four countries that separated Nairobi from Victoria Falls. The vague worry about where I would spend my first African night had been lifted from my shoulders onto those of Paul and Lisa, the driver and tour leader who would be responsible for finding us secure campsites during the next twenty-one nights. I was free to sit back and watch the world go by.

The overlanding brochures had all offered the chance to become part of a wonderfully balanced group of ‘like-minded fellow-travellers’ - in blind optimism I imagined a secret clique of world-wise souls who had learned invaluable lessons that were beyond the grasp of independent travellers. But the crates that were stacked in The Whale’s belly made me think that it was more likely that I was joining a gang of crazed 20-something Aussies who were intent on fuelling the entire trip on bottles of chilled Tusker beer. It was a love of wildlife and wide-open spaces that had brought me to Africa but as we rolled towards the Tanzanian border I was already asking myself whether the most fascinating wildlife activity might be that outside the truck or in it.

Of course, it takes all sorts and the stereotypical overlander no longer exists. There were Brits, Aussies, Kiwis, Canadians and even four Argentines, from all walks of life among The Whale’s cargo. Two out of three passengers were females and the average age (about 28) testified to the fact that increasing numbers of ‘career-gappers’ now see overlanding as an opportunity to fit in the maximum amount of experiences before responsibility stakes its claim once again. What we had in common was a shared optimism for the 4,000 miles of African highways and dirt-tracks that lay ahead and a secret hope that not quite everything would go according to plan. This was Africa after all and we wanted a little bit of ‘rough’ to be taken with the ‘smooth’. An African overland trip is not for people who believe that the destination is more important than the journey - the days on the road can be long, hot and dusty - or for those who do not want to spend night after night with just a few millimetres of nylon between themselves and the African wildlife. This is not a guided package tour either and everybody had to be prepared to do their share of shopping, cooking…or digging The Whale out of mud-holes. 

Our journey led us through Ngorongoro Crater to the Serengeti where we off-loaded into a convoy of Land Rovers and were lucky enough to witness the great migration with a level of exclusivity (3 people to a Land Rover) that even the best lodges cannot always guarantee. Then, onward to Zanzibar (via Kilimanjaro), through the vast savannah of southern Tanzania and down the ragged strip of tarmac that follows the shore of Lake Malawi. Overland crews are constantly testing out new routes and searching out the best campsites, and being able to reap the fruits of the overlanding grapevine is one of the less obvious advantages of a trip like this. You camp in picturesque valleys you would never have found alone; you cross remote wildernesses where no local bus could have taken you; you feast in local villages where your crew are already long-term friends with the headmen. 

In a couple of short weeks we were entering what had become my favourite African country. I had travelled in Zimbabwe on other, more stressful, occasions (covering the aftermath of a particularly tense election) but I knew that, under more relaxed circumstances, this beautiful and hospitable country would be a highlight of the trip. By the time we arrived at Vic Falls - to raft the Zambezi and hurl ourselves off the bridge into ‘111-metres of Big African Air’ - we had tracked white and black rhinos on foot, celebrated sunrise over Great Zimbabwe Ruins, watched wildlife in several of Africa’s most impressive national parks, swam with horses across a crocodile-infested river (having been assured that their thrashing hooves keep the crocs back) and partied the night away on the old colonial Vic Falls Express.

It had been frustrating at times to be part of the great touring circus and we frequently wished we could stay for longer but many of us had made lasting friendships and we had all stacked up more than a few once-in-a-lifetime memories. Still the overlanding faith had failed to convert me entirely. I knew I would never totally give up the freedom and uncertainty of backpacking. Then, a few months later, I began planning a return to some old South American haunts…and overlanding snared me for the second time. 

I just had to accept once again that I could never see all I wanted to see if I insisted on following Kipling’s advice that ‘he travels the fastest who travels alone’.

 

 

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By Mark Eveleigh

Sani Pass


David Whitley makes his way from South Africa to Lesotho along one of the world’s great roads.

 

 

“Welcome to Haemorrhoid Hill,” says Elias as he prepares to shake and shudder us up yet another stretch of brutally dispersed rubble. “If you didn’t have them before, you will have afterwards.” Elias is driving us up the Sani Pass, one of the world’s highest, toughest and most spectacular roads. In just over 22km from the Sani Pass Hotel to Sani Top, the road ascends 1,307m. Almost 1,000m of this climb is in the last 8km stretch, a wild no-man’s land between the border posts of South Africa and Lesotho.

 

 

The road can be tackled by 4WD vehicles only, and inexperienced drivers shouldn’t go near it. As Elias says, “Phase one is reasonably smooth, phase two is bumpy and phase three – yeeee! We call it the African massage.”

 

But this unique form of white-knuckle vehicle wrecking is under threat. Following an agreement between the South Africa and Lesotho governments, the Sani Pass is in the process of being tarred and sealed. The idea was to make the road accessible to all vehicles by the time the football World Cup kicked off in June 2010. The proposals have met with fierce resistance. Locals in Himeville and Underberg rely on tourism, and 4WD tours up the Pass are the big earner. Tar it, and the romance goes, is the theory.

 

“They want to take away our adventure,” says Elias. “And it will become more dangerous as more people try to drive it in unsuitable vehicles.” Not that there aren’t enough of them already. On the way down, we see trucks overloaded with wool and minibus taxis from Lesotho crammed with people. “We call them Two-Mores,” says Elias. “Even when they’re full, there’s always room for two more.”

 

Not far past the South African border post, we meet our first casualty. It’s a broken-down Land Rover Discovery and on board are four hapless passengers. Elias invites the stranded tourists in with us. An unwritten code of mutual assistance applies amongst Sani Pass – refuse to help and you never know when you’ll need bailing out yourself.

 

As we make painful progress upwards, it becomes clear why the Pass is something of a 4WD holy grail. Waterfalls pour down basalt outcrops so grand they look like forts; green hills spread down from the top of the escarpment like they’re the toes on a giant’s foot; mists are entered and cleared within a few metres.

 

The road veers from tough to horrendous, but Elias still has time to point out flora and fauna. We stop to check out baboons, elands and eagles, and learn about the ancient cave art that can be found in the peaks of the Drakensberg Mountains opposite. Finally, we get to the really steep bit. The top of the Sani Pass is a series of terrifying hairpin turns, and all at have names like ‘Ice Corner’, ‘Oh My God Corner’ and ‘Don’t Look Left Corner’.  At times, the back wheel is only inches away from doom. Quite how Elias drives this road in the snow – and he says he does frequently – is hard to comprehend.

 

With a final rev of the long-suffering engine, we reach Sani Top and Lesotho. It’s not called Africa’s Mountain Kingdom by accident, and the change in scenery is staggering. We’re above the tree line, and the ground is a scrubby steppe. Shepherds clad in traditional blankets ride amongst their flocks and a few thatched huts dot the horizon. If feels splendidly isolated, largely because it is.

 

But just on the border is what many come for – Sani Top Chalets is the self-proclaimed highest pub in Africa. And at 2,874m above sea level, no-one is really contesting this. We stop for lunch and a peek down the road just travelled from the outdoor terrace. 

 

But mid-meal, Elias starts getting a little edgy. Peering towards the bottom of the pass, he sees dark clouds. Soon enough, there is a crack of lightning – a fairly common occurrence in the Drakensberg. “Come,” says Elias. “It’s time to go.” He explains that if the rain flows too heavily, the point where the waterfalls create a stream across the road lower down can be impassable. We’d have to wait for four hours after the rain stops before getting across.

 

The lightning cracks and black skies add an extra element of tension to our descent, and it’s clear that the vehicles coming up the other way won’t be getting back to South Africa today. But we eventually make it onto the small section at the bottom where the tarring has started. It’s here that Elias reveals his lack of concern about the road upgrading project. “It was never going to be done by June 2010. It’ll probably never be done by June 2055,” he says.

 

“This bit already needs resurfacing, and they’re just not going to be able to get the machines up there to do the rest.” Hopefully he is right. To tar the Sani Pass would be to tarnish it. May the budget problems , brutal terrain, romance and adventure remain. 

 

More photos here

 

Disclosure: David Whitley was a guest of Viator (Viator.com).

 

A Reason to go back to Africa

 

Soweto

 


 

As Soweto prepares to host the 2010 FIFA World Cup final, David Whitley discovers how hope and opportunity are changing South Africa’s most famous township.

 

The man behind the street stall calls out to Ted. “Hey Papa, howzit?” The story of how Ted Taylor, a humble tour guide, came to be known as Papa throughout Soweto is a fascinating one. He was one of the first guides to take tourists around Johannesburg’s most notorious township, and made a point of interacting with the residents. So much so that when one of the bead sellers outside the Hector Pieterson Memorial died in 2004, he was invited to the funeral. Ted was the only white man there, and was told by fellow mourners that he was now part of the family.

 

The Hector Pieterson Memorial and Museum are the focal points of Soweto’s burgeoning tourism industry, and they commemorate all the children who died in the battle against South Africa’s apartheid system. Pieterson himself was a 13-year-old boy when he was shot dead on June 16th 1976. Police opened fire during a peaceful protest march by schoolchildren against the new Government policy of black schools being taught in Afrikaans; regarded as the language of the oppressors.

 

Hundreds more were to die in the following weeks, but Sam Nzima’s photograph of Pieterson’s body being carried away from the mayhem by 18-year-old Mbuyisa Makhubu went around the world. The story behind the photograph, the 1976 Soweto Uprising and the subsequent events in South Africa is explored superbly inside the museum. Videos, eye-witness accounts and lump-in-the-throat photography are used to explain what proved to be a pivotal point in Apartheid South Africa’s history. The Pieterson photo showed the world that the reports coming from the government-controlled South African media weren’t entirely trustworthy. International pressure and sanctions increased, leading eventually to the new, integrated South Africa in 1994.

 

As I emerge after a thoroughly absorbing hour of stories I was too young to take in when they originally happened, Ted returns to the story of the bead seller he befriended. “That was Mbuyisa Makhubu’s mother,” he says. “Mbuyisa had to leave the country after the photo was published. He went to Botswana, then Nigeria where he is thought to have died. “People asked his mother why she came to the memorial every day, even though her son was almost certainly dead. She replied that she is a mother, and she would keep coming until she saw her son’s body with her own eyes.”

 

Such sad stories are what many people come to Soweto to learn about. They come to see the bulletholes in the Regina Mundi catholic church, and they come to look at the often appalling living conditions. It’s no wonder that tours of Soweto have gained a bit of a distasteful reputation as being like a visit to a human zoo. Ted Taylor prefers to focus on the positives. We drive past desperate shacks in what are essentially shanty villages, but Ted points out that these are disappearing fast. “Look at the modern housing behind it,” he says. “These are the new homes that people in the informal settlements are being moved into.”

 

He also raves about the entrepreneurial spirit of the Sowetans. Unemployment is high, and there are no government unemployment handouts. But, Ted points out, many manage to create work for themselves. He points out shipping containers turned into takeaway food outlets, canvas shelters utilised as Sowetan-style hairdressing salons and a wooden hut between two schools selling stationary. “These people have a strong sense of pride,” says Ted. “Even the ugliest of shacks will be spotless inside, self-policing keeps crime levels surprisingly low and even though the black middle classes have the opportunity to move out, they want to stay.”

 

And some of those black middle classes have, via a series of extensions, built themselves rather swish houses. Those of Winnie Mandela and Archbishop Desmond Tutu are pointed out on most tours, but Ted gets most pleasure in driving down roads where self-made taxi magnates, car dealers and electrical firm owners have well-to-do homes.

 

Other signs of the new Soweto are obvious to see. The two towers of the Orlando West power station – which used to supply white Johannesburg with power whilst the residents of Soweto had no electricity – are now brightly painted with murals, and a bungee jumping company operates from the top. Elsewhere are gleaming new churches, large shopping malls and international brand name stores. But the biggest symbol of hope and prosperity is one that will be seen by billions in June this year. The Soccer City stadium technically lies just outside Soweto, but in everyone’s eyes it belongs to Soweto rather than Johannesburg.

 

In June, the hugely impressive red and yellow behemoth will host the world’s biggest sporting event – the football World Cup final. The scenes that will shape the world’s view of Soweto in 2010 should be vastly different from those of 1976. And Papa’s family is looking forward to its turn in the spotlight.

 

 

 

 

By David Whitley

Table

 

David Whitley bites off more than his beer and pie-addled body can chew as he attempts downhill mountain biking in Cape Town.

 

You could be forgiven for thinking that Table Mountain is something of a theme park. Thousands of people go exploring on Cape Town’s icon every day, many of them fat old gimmers kept alive by a McDonalds drip. When you’ve got cable cars and buses ferrying you around somewhere, there is a tendency to consider it well and truly tamed.But try exploring Table Mountain under your own steam, and it’s altogether different. There are countless walking trails around the mountain. Many of them are steep heat-traps. It’s easy enough to get lost, dehydrated and worse.

 

 

Then there are the bikes. When I signed up for mountain biking down Table Mountain, I had assumed it would be a case of just following a nice sealed path as it slowly spiralled downwards. And, after falling off within three minutes of the descent, I realised that my preconceptions had been very wrong indeed. My experience of cycling is largely limited to nipping round to a friend’s house when I was younger and having the odd half-hearted go on my fiancée’s exercise bike while she’s at work. This CV doesn’t prepare you for going down steep scree slopes, with rocks, logs and miscreant tree roots all intent on smashing your limbs to pieces.

 

Cycling downhill over what amounts to rough gravel with numerous obstacles thrown in is largely an exercise of permanently squeezing your brakes and hoping that you’re not thrown over the handlebars. Some people may find this a thrill. I’m not one of them. I managed to survive this terrible peril with the odd graze and a lot of swearing, but then my guide informed me that this was just the test run. The next step in the torture process was going round and up again to where we started. This involved furiously pedalling through what may as well have been deep sand. Or, in my case, lugging my bike slowly through it as I trudged on foot. By this stage, my energies were being entirely channelled into creating new compound swear words.

 

Finally, we made the road for a nice bit of more uphill climbing – this time into a howling, fierce wind. Again, I managed very little actual cycling and considerably more huffing and puffing. By the time we’d got to the start of the actual descent, I was already a broken man. “There are two routes down, an easier one and a harde...” announced my guide before shooting a glance in my direction. “I think we’ll take the easier one.” Easier is very much a comparative word in this case. I faced more brake-clutching terror, and delightful though the scenery was, I was more concerned that my hands were entering a state of cramped agony.

 

We descended through forest, with often fabulous views of the city and the sea, and finally came out on a suburban road. “This is the dangerous bit,” I was told. Pschaw – I know how spectacularly bad South African drivers can be, but a nice, relatively flat road holds no fears for me anymore. If I can make it down that beast of a mountain - battered, bruised but relatively intact - I can take on the world.

 

 

Disclosure: David was a guest of Viator (Viator.com).

 

 

By David Whitley

 

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