08 January 2014

Cape Town wine tasting and Langa, Khayelitsha and Gugulethu townships

Morning drive to Hout Bay. It is windy and drizzling, but the view of the costline is impressive nonetheless. In a somber, austere way.

On the way the driver stops at a viewpoint and I notice, not far away, a crew of about 15 workers, about half men and half women, huddling under the roof of a delapidated house. It looks like it has been hit by the weather for years, abandoned and now filled with sand.  Wet sand now: it looks like it's been soaking rain for a few hours at least.

It's an eerie but somehow attractive scene, it could be the stage for a movie by Sergio Leone, were it not for the fact that it does not rain much in his movies. I approach and ask them what they are up to and if I can photograph. They are there to cleare the scene of sand and debris, but can't work under the rain. The light rain is not so intimidating to me but they have no raincoats. We chat for a while, I snap a few shots of their green overalls against the red bricks of the house and the white sand, and off I go.

On the way back to Cape Town it occurs to me that we are close to the Groot Constantia winery, the oldest in South Africa. We have to stop and go for a tasting. As we approach, we drive by the Pollsmoor prison, where Mandela was held after his Robben island years until he was finally freed in 1990.

The tasting is fun: for a small fee you can taste five of their wines, and for a little extra cash you get a small cheese platter, nicely served on a small wooden board with a small wooden knife. A white lady and a black man operate two serving stations in the huge tasting room. Lots of tables in the middle allow wine lovers to mingle and take their time as they get the various wines poured into their glasses.

We take our time but I keep an eye on my watch: it's not far from town but we don't want to be late to what promises to be the highlight of the day: a township tour with Sabelo, the bright young tour leader who took me and Yan for a music evening last month. I called him yesterday to organize another musical evening (we'll do that tomorrow) and mentioned in passing whether he also organized some visit of townships surrounding the Cape Town. Of course!

He is at our hotel at 14:00 hours, punctual as a Swiss watch, with a small van and Daniel, a jovial driver who will be at the wheel for the afternoon while Sabelo explains and shares his vast knowledge of the townhips.  He actually does not live here but in another township, which however he does not think is safe to visit, even in his company.

The first townships we visit is Langa. It means "Sun" and was built in the 1920s to host blacks evicted from other neighborhoods such as Ndabeni that were too close to rich white areas for comfort. All this decades before apartheid was even formally the law of the land.

First stop at Cape Town tourism center in Langa, this township is not as well known as Soweto but it is trying to find its way in the tourism business. Some artists display their paintings and sculptures, musicians who demonstrate traditional music, students study in a reading room.  We are kindly offered a music lesson by a drummer.

Ladies by the gate, not particularly busy with anything, fun to talk to anyway.I snap some pics of a lady by a wall mosaic and she seems to appreciate the attention. With them, a security guard is listening to some music from the radio. He wears a loose khaki uniform and a red tie, with a badge on his arm that reads "Security - Distinctive Choice". Somehow I find myself in agreement with the general thrust of the idea.

Just by the entrance two men in their thirties are exchanging banter and I join them for a few minutes. After the usual questions about Italian football, Totti etc, they tell me a bit about their life. In a nutshell, their message is that they have a normal life, Langa is a normal place with its good and bad, dos and don'ts, happy and sad. Maybe that is the main point I will come away with at the end of the day. Townships are becoming "normal" places, normal for South Africa anyway.

Outside the visitor center a man with no feet sits quietly in a wheelchair. He does not beg for money, does not reciprocate my greetings and does not bat an eyelid when I ask him to take a photograph. He hardly seems alive. Maybe that is the saddest condition of all, having lost the desire to live.

On the contrary, the people I meet as we proceed to walk around the township are anything but. At first I am a bit hesitant, I do feel some emotional pressure as this is the first "real" township I visit, it's not tourist-filled Soweto. But the ice is easily broken. Most people are happy to chat and all kids are elated to have their pictures taken. Some adolescent girls are clearly flattered and offer flirting poses to my lens. Lots of kids play music of some sort, and I am attracted to an especially photogenic girl with a drum, who plays on the sidewalk surrounded by a couple of dozen children.  It's still the school holidays so they are free even though it is a weekday.

After a half hour of walking I run into a team of ladies who are busy cooking a whole pile of sheep heads. Yes sheep heads. They sit on a chair and each have a not-so-small fire next to them. They protect the skin of their faces from the heat with some special cream,  The heads are cooked and then placed on a large table by the roadside, presumably for sale though I am the only one who comes forward and buys one. I have to try! Well it's good, tender meat, the cheeks expecially. No one else wants to try. Too bad (for them).

Next stop is Khayelitsha, a large township of 400.000 people that lies 22 kilometers to the East down the N2 road. The first place we visit is the rather grandly named "Department of Coffee" coffee shop, just next to the large railway station. A micro enterprise by Wongama, a former fire guard and two friends of his who decided to open this shop when they realized there was no place to get a warm drink for the thousands of people using the railway every day and saw an opportunity. They say at first people were sceptical but now business is briks and they are thinking of opening another shop. "CAPPUCCINO" for 8.5 Rand is at the top of their red menu board hanging from the wall of their small bar.

Our second stop in the township is at the Velokhaya cycling academy. The word Velokhaya is derived from the French word for cycling (velo) and the Xhosa word for home (khaya) – as such, we’re regarded as the ‘home of cycling’ in Khayelitsha. A school of cycling but also of life, where kids from the townships are offered a chance to develop a skill but also, and perhaps more importantly, personal discipline and a sense of purpose. Co-founder Glyn Broomberg explains in this video. And the other co-founder Amos Ziqubu gives his story. Unfortunately we are still in school holidays so there are no kids training here.

You can understand more about Khayelitsha township in the video "My mother built this house" on housing problems here. See a trailer for the film "A wooden camera" on this township here.

The third and final township of the day is Gugulethu. Here out target is Mzoli's, a butcher who had the idea of not only selling meat but also setting up a huge grill and serving his streaks and sausages to customers who wanted to eat there. His humble restaurant has become increasingly popular with locals and increasingly with tourists, both South African and foreign. Prices are cheap, the meat is excellent and the atmosphere is warm and welcoming.

Music is loud but pleasant in the terrace next to the shop where simple tables are continuously filled with trays of hot meat, but no cutlery or napkins, so I am soon in dire straits trying to juggle sausages and lenses without making a mess of either. No alcohol can be served but Mr. Mzoli has no objections if we buy it next door and take it in. After a while most locals, seeminly regular patrons, are dancing, soon to be joined by the ladies in my group!

After such an intense day, what would otherwise have been a pleasant walk and dinner becomes a pretty insignificant evening at the Waterfront.

07 January 2014

Hermanus to Cape Town via Good Hope

First stop of the day is at the penguins colony of Boulder Park. Home of the small endemic South African penguin. A small animal, not really much bigger than a large chicken or perhaps a small turkey. It's a chilly and windy day, and thousands of them huddle together to share body heat. It's a curious and intriguing sight, if not really an awsome one. But worth a brief stopover on the way to the Cape.

Ours ends up not being so brief actually, because our bus has broken down again. This time it is apparently a problem with the electric system, and Peter has called headquarters to try and summon a mechanic.

Things are sorted out by the early afternoon and we drive without further inconvenience to the Cape of Good Hope, which we reach by four o'clock or so. Peter idles the bus at the bottom of the long stairway that leads from the parking lot to the rock that Bartolomeu Dias doubled from west to east in 1488, undoubtedly with great anxiety and for the uncertain waters that opened in front of him.

He must have had lots of hope to keep going against all odds, but it was not him who called this rock "Good Hope". Rather it was King John II of Portugal who did, as beyond the Cape lied his hopes to reach India, and history would prove him right. To Bartolomeu this was just the "Cape of Storms", and just looking out into the blue today it is not hard to imagine why.

It it really very very windy, it is even hard to take pictures as I must hold on to my hat with both hands to preventi it from flying off to Anctartica.

Evening at Cape Town, dinner at a pub by the Waterfront. Very English, dark wood paneling and fish and chips.

06 January 2014

Mossel Bay to Hermanus

In the morning I realize that yesterday I forgot my kangaroo leather hat at the Bartolomeu Dias museum. It would sadden me highly to lose it, I have grown very accustomed to it, it fits my head perfectly, it folds easily in any backpack and it contributes considerably to building up my image of an Indiana Jones lookalike. however the museum is in town, to the east, and today we have to drive to Cape Town, to the west. I am not sure I can reasonably expect everyone to delay the day's program for a hat. Luckily, Paola suggests I would be very sad to lose the hat, as it is a gift from my Chinese girlfriend. It is not, and I am not sure where she got the idea, maybe he made it up to help. But I don't contradict her as this strengthen my negotiation powers considerably, at least with the ladies, and it is swiftly agreed that we will go and pick it up, assuming it's still there. Stefano laughs and says surely some cleaner found it and took it home. Or found it and gave it to the ticket lady at the entrance, who surely took it to her home. Well, as soon as we get there it looked as if they were waiting for me: the hat is there! Some cleaner did find it and left it at the ticket office for me. Phew...! My Indiana Jones look is saved. My sense of guilt for making everyone waste at least half an hour is for all this is alleviated when everyone decides to visit the museum after all. 

It's still grey and drizzling when we finally move west at around 11:00 am. Our next stop is Cape Agulhas the tip of Africa, where the Indian ocean we have seen so far meets the Atlantic. It's nothing much really, but one does feel the mightiness of the two great masses of water clashing in what has been a nightmare for mariners ever since Bartolomeu Dias got here.

At our hotel the view is somber: dark grey clouds merge at the horizon with big foamy waves of the same color. The hotel's walls are crowded with paitings and photographs of whales: from May through December, the humpbacks come right here in good numbers and the hotel is a prime position from which to spot them. We are late, by several weeks.

I ask the young bell boy for a recommendation for a good restaurant. He has no hesitation: "Lapeentoula! Good food, especially fresh fish." So come evening we'll have dinner at "La Pentola" a fusion Italian restaurant about a kilometer away. The owner's wife is of Italian descent which explains the origins of the establishment's name but the food is not really Italian. I tried the springbok carpaccio and fillet of ostrich flambé, either of which you would be hard pressed to find in an Italian restaurant. Both very good though!

It's pitch black tonight, windy and raining after dinner. The walk back to the hotel is an opportunity to lit up one of my cigars. A small one tonight, a Toscanello, but it's enough to create the illusion of being a sea-wolf in port, waiting for the ship to be resupplied of fresh water before setting sail again toward the east, around Cape Agulhas, into the unknown. Dias did not have cigars on his ship, tobacco had not yet been imported from the Americas. I feel sorry for him, having to fight nature and a reluctant crew and no cigars. Or maybe I just had one glass of South African Chardonnay too many.

05 January 2014

Bartolomeu Dias at Mossel Bay

In the morning we head down to town. It's a grey, cloudy Sunday morning, and Mossel Bay is virtually deserted. It is drizzling at times,  and not a little windy. Not a great time for walking around. A few shops that sell souvenirs for tourists are sadly lacking visitors. To me this is ideal museum time: happily, the Bartolomeu Dias is at hand.

We all know the history of Bartolomeu Dias, the Portuguese explorer who was the first European to sail beyond the southernmost tip of Africa in 1488. He landed at Mossel bay to load water and move on but before long he was persuaded by an exhausted crew that enough was enough and returned to Lisbon.

What I did not know, and discover today, is that exactly 500 years later the Portuguese decided to celebrate Bartolomeu's feat by replicating his adventure on an exact copy of his ship. Well, almost exact, the new ship had electric power, a galley and toilets! It was the Portuguese community of South Africa that financed the trip. In the late eighties Portugal had just lost its last colonies and, with them, the dream of a worldwide community of Portuguese-speaking countries. This was a welcome effort to revive the old glory of Portugues exploration and the government supported it wholeheartedly.

The ship itself is housed in a building that was partially built around it. All around, artifacts from the glorious time of exploration, maps, paintings and pictures. A Chinese girl and her mother walk around the nearly empty museum with me and are surprised when I greet them in Chinese. The girl wants to take a picture with me.

It's lunch time by the time I am done with the Dias, but I am not so hungry. Look for a snack and run into an eatery of real Punjabi food, which is certified by the fact that I am welcomed by the owner who wears a white Sikh turban. I am the only patron and when I tell him that I like his wife's pakhora he sits down with me for a chat. I ask him how did he come all the way from Punjab to open a restaurant in South Africa. He replies he didn't.

His grandfather was a railway engineer in India in the 1870s and was asked by the British to go and build a railroad in China. He was offered a good fee and a British passport. Then another railroad in British Columbia. And yet one more in then British ruled Kenya after that. Granpa ended up settling in Kenya where dad was born and he in his turn. The Indian community in east Africa is a large one.

Then in 2006 he was vacationing in South Africa with his family. They liked it, especially the weather, much more pleasantly temperate than the hot tropical climate of Kenya, and decided to move. So now he sells Punjabi food (but also pizza) to the visitors of the museum.

After lunch I walk around a bit: it's still rather cool and grey. I stumble upon a shop of bric a brac. Military helmets, a bunch of carpenter's planes and assorted tea pots of various styles keep company to a pile of LPs and countless tableware strewn around in no particular order. The owner sits in a corner, silent, not even a nod to people walking in and out of his shop. This could be the den of a child of the flowers, or the pad of a single middle aged man who inherited his dad's collection and does not what to do with them. Maybe it is. Very fittingly, 1970s rock music plays in the background.I am always tempted to buy something in this kind of shop. I almost feel I have to. So much of this stuff would look great in my own home. Which is why I hardly have any room left in my home. This time I am strong, and resist. I walk out empty handed, though am must make a special effort not to buy a collection of big old iron keys, maybe half a kilo each, that are laying invitingly by the door.

04 January 2014

Knysna township

Easy drive to Knysna. As we get closer, I remember how my first impression of the town was its township on 13 December. This time I'd really like to go there: it does not make sense to spend a month and a half in South Africa and not go to a township. However our driver, predictably, does not want to get anywhwere near there. He says it's not safe and he is responsible for us, for the bus, as well as of course for his own good health. I am quite disappointed, but what to do?

Right, what to do? Well you can read and browse the web, that's what you can do. And that's what Valentina and I start doing. She hands me a copy of the Lonely Planet guidebook, which makes reference to an association that organizes tours of the township. It's called Emzini and there is a phone number. One minute later I am talking to Penny, who at first sounds a bit surprised hear me asking for a tour of the township for the afternoon. She asks if she can call me back in five minutes. Five minutes later she is back on the phone and, much to the surprise of our driver, we are on. I'd like to add some  We agree to meet at noon by the big clock tower at the Knysna waterfront.

Penny is with Ella, a young black lady who lives in the township and is behind the idea of Emzini. She grew up without much education during apartheid and later thought that she could start a business by making it possible for tourists to become acquainted with the reality of the townships. She met Penny in church and together they started Emzini.

Ella tells us that until recently this was mostly an area of "informal" housing (slum) with no toilets, no running water or electric power. Now there are real homes 
in the township people get a free house from the government if they meet three conditions: a) be South African citizen; b) have children and c) earn less 4000 Rand per month.

With 20,000 inhabitants, this is one of smallest townships in the country. Most residents are Khosa and colored. In addition, several thousand dogs call this home, says Ella with a smile.

It's a pretty exceptional day today: there is a "manhood ceremony" going on. These usually take place in December and January and mark the rite of passage of young boys to adulthood. Men and women in different rooms of the house. Boy under a blanket in a corner. Dances liquor.

Then we move to Ella's home for some food and music. She makes fried cakes with cheese and jam. Mkhokoqo white corn flour with milk. Tea. We meet her adopted children. One boy, the youngest, is sleeping, while the others play with us. Grandma manages to sleep in the same bedroom as the little boy, totally oblivious to what is going on.

On the way out we walk along one street of the township. It's three o'clock and 30 degrees. I am quite thirsty. There is a drink seller working out of a container with a small cut out window protected by a strong metal grid. It looks more like a bunker than a bar. A large (440cl) can of Coke costs only 7 Rand, just 50 euro cents. But maybe here the "just" would not apply to the locals.

Very few people in the streets, but quite a number of dogs. At some point a donkey appears, trots down the street and vanishes behind a row of houses. Reluctantly, we board our bus again and head to the watefront. We still have quite a way to drive today.

It's been an intense few hours in the township, but it's time to move on. We bid farewell to Ella and Penny under the same clock tower where we met, and we are back on our big bus, where Peter has been patiently waiting for us. It's a balmy afternoon in Knysna, we are tempted to stop and have a beer by the waterfront. Tourists and locals blend in a polished environment of boutiques, restaurants and souvenire shops. The contrast could not be starker between here and the rugged houses of the township we just left.

Drive to Mossel bay. This time we stay at a rather posh hotel near a big casino. In the evening we drive to town for dinner, again at the "Ocean Basket". Usual noisy and crowded place, like all other Ocean Basket restaurants, but very popular and we have to wait over half an hour to get a table. Stefano, Stefania and I go for a beer at a nearby bar,  and kill time chatting with the bartender about beer in South Africa.

When we head back to the restaurant our table is ready: my kinglip fish is very good. It's been another long day to remember.

03 January 2014

Port Elizabeth - Seaview - Jeffrey bay

Depart 8.30 am from Port Elizabeth. First stop is at "Seaview", a lunar landscape spot to take pictures of some funny rock formations shaped by wind and waves. Before embarking on the perilous trip on the slippery rocks to take some pictures, I stop to breath in the fresh breeze and have a chat with a few guys who are drinking beer in the shadow of their pick-up truck. They ask about my country of origin and when they hear Italy the first workds that come to their slightly intoxicated minds are ''bella donna: that's all that you need in life". Well one might argue with that, especially if you are a heterosexual woman, or if you are a believer in equal gender rights, but I am not going to. Anyway I like their answer, at least it's not the usual refrain about soccer players and mafia, the references most commonly associated with my Bel Paese when traveling abroad.

So I agree, a bella donna is really all you need in life. I thought this would be it and we would switch topics, and tackle the weather or Mandela or beer perhaps, but no. One of them asks if I am married to a beautful woman. No, I am not, unfortunately. Do I have kids? So many kids are born out of wedlock in South Africa (some 60%) that, from their point of view, it would be perfectly normal if I did. No, I don't, is again my answer. Why? Well, that's a tough one. So I decide to tell them I actually have a girlfriend who is molto bella but unfortunately she can not be with me for this trip.

After a few minutes I see that Matteo is coming forward and it is he who now attracts the attention of the three men in the pick-up truck, who let off the pressure on me. I take the chance on the fly, wave them a warm good-bye and head down the rocks to find the perfect seascape angles for my wide-angle lens.

As we keep driving west we stop at Jeffrey bay. It's nothing special really but this could become an interesting twist in my trip because our driver gets lost in a township. I always wanted to try and visit a township but so far all our (white) drivers have steadfastly refused to venture there. And today is no different. Peter wants to get out as fast as possible. Anyway it's drizzling and windy, it would not be so pleasant to walk around, I tell myself. And the light is not right for pictures, either. So be it. At least for now.

However it takes Peter a good fifteen minutes to find his way out, during which I can take a good look at the place. The people of Jeffrey Bay are obviously poor but not desperate. Their small houses are neatly aligned and seem well maintained. High walls all around most of them prevent me from seeing inside their gardens. No electrified barbed wire though.

In is early afternoon when we reach Tsitsikamma. There would be a lot to do here. I opt for a long walk up and down the steep slopes that are home for abundant wildlife and lush vegetation all the way to the water's edge. It's cloudy, awful light for photography.

Toward the end of my walk there is a suspension bridge, at the head of which a padlock has been securely latched. It bears the name of two lovers. A habit that seems to have spread around the world.

In the evening I can finally satisfy my curiosity for Kudu steak. Hard to come by these days it seems. Last time I hadit was in Namibia, over fifteen years ago, and have been missing it ever since. I can anticipate the rare steak  on  Hard to get it rare. All three come well done. Taste and send back. I tell them to serve it RAW. After ten minutes come ok nice and juicy, rare. Seems it's common to overcook meat in South Africa. Totally forgettable shiraz.

After dinner I take a short stroll around the hotel and run into a very unique bar: there are table outside, but inside the large neon-lit room there are only antique motor vehicles. Motorcycles, mostly, but also one large American car from the 1950s with a sign on the windshield: "You are welcome to lay down on the bonnet if you are female, under forty and naked."

02 January 2014

Drive to Durban and flight to Port Elizabeth

Very unusual breakfast with chicken liver and omelet. Good and hearty, enough proteins to carry me through to dinner time. My trip mates look at me with a mixture of disgust and disquiet. Yes it's not what Italians are used to eat for breakfast, but the strangeness of it all and their a priori rejection of anything new makes the food more tasty and the whole experience, if one can call a breakfast an experience, more satisfying.

At about 10:00 am we hit the road toward Durban, which unfortunately we won't have time to visit. Our friendly driver drops us off at the airport, and probably sighs of relief as he managed to complete his tour without driving into any black township. Maybe he is right. Again the disturbing sight of everyone wrapping their checked-in bags in plastic. Just after I spend 60 Rand on mine I read a sign that our airline would have provided this service for free. Apparently it costs them less to pay for the wrap than to follow up on complaints from passengers about nags being pifered by the handlers.

Uneventful flight along the Indian ocean coast of South Africa. Looks beautiful from up here, too bad we don't have time to drive along it. It's apparently very lush and not yet invaded by mass tourism operations or luxury hotels. So it must be quite enjoyable for those willing to accept some lack of comfort in exchange for a more direct contact with the people and nature of South Africa. Maybe next time...

In Port Elizabeth we are picked up by Peter, an outsize Afrikaan with a warm and direct personality. Drop our bags at the hotel and off to the beach. I've been here a few weeks ago but it's a great pleasure to have a chance to walk along the beach in the late afternoon, waiting for the sun to settle. Best for pictures anyway.

I ask to be dropped off at the far Western edge of town, by the water. It is here that a long walkway starts, all wooden planks and railings. It is like a long snake, several kilometers long, and it zig-zags up and down the dunes that separate the ocean from the town of Port Elizabeth. Just inland of the walkway, by the first road that runs parallel to the water, not a few groups of friends and families have set up temporary camps and braai. It's not really a camping site, though it does look like quite a few people spent a night or two here. I asked a friendly guy who wanted to share a beer and he said they are just here for the holidays. I suppose they are sufficiently well off to afford a trip from their township and meat on the grill, but not so well off to patronize hotels and restaurants in town.

It's still holiday time, and thousands of people crowd the beach. On the western side, away from town, the holiday makers are all black. They are all, as usual, quite friendly and in an excellent holiday mood. Again a few new Facebook "friends" are added to my list and this time it's quieter than at the St Lucia beach so I can actually make contact on my phone and exchange pics very smoothly. One big guy of Indian origins is fishing with a rod that must be six meters long, and explains the trick is to drop the bait into a hole that's about forty meters offshore, let it sink, and wait. A group of three ladies has had one too many to drink but they do love to pose anyway.

As I move east, toward the commercial center of town, it gets more mixed. Almost all the whites seem to stick to the more central part, just a stone throw from the Boardwalk. Same beach, same setting sun. But somehow the atmosphere is not the same. As the color of the skin of the sunbathers becomes fairer, so the warmth and smiles cool down and die out. Funny isn't it?

Dinner is at the Boardwalk, a Disneyland-type melee of casinos, restaurants, sound-and-lights displays, shops and pubs.

01 January 2014

New Year's day at Saint Lucia

Morning spent walking leisurly in town. Several ladies sell a bit of everything along the road: the same stand will have fruits and vegetables by the roadside and also sell curios on the sidewalk. Some graceful paintings and some tacky T-shirts, all mixed together with the inevitable Mandela paraphernalia. Just behind the displays, I can barely see simple small houses where they live, I think.

Not far, next to the pumps of a gas station, a half dozen teenagers are celebrating the new year in the street, dancing, singing and performing some remarkable acrobatic rap dance. They are most excited when I stop to take pictures and quite happy to adjust their routines so I can take my best shots.

This started as a cloudy day but by noon the sun is high in the sky and it's rather hot. Decide to skip lunch and spend the rest of the morning by the pool of our hotel. No one is around and it would be very peaceful were it not for the manager of the adjacent restaurant who is yelling at a waitress because she has not tidied up properly after breakfast. He is actually doing the cleaning himself now but keeps screaming that this is not the manager's job. She sits in a corner, silent, motionless, looking straight ahead of herself into a bush.

In the afternoon we all take a cruise n the estuary to see hippos and crocs, plus a lot of other wildlife.The eight hundred hippos who live here, we are told, eat 40kg of grass every day each. Actually every night as they spend the day in the water, whence they come out after sunset to graze the fields. All together they produce some 32 metric tons of dung per day! Which is apparently the favorite food of prawns, a local specialty. Well now I know what's in my plate when I order delicious South African prawns.

Just thinking as I disembark from the crowded ship and make my way to the pier: hippos are the biggest killer of humans in Africa, more than any other big fierce animal like lions or leopards, and second only to malaria carrying mosquitos. And now they turn out to be a major feeder of humans, if an indirect one. Who would have guessed?

After the cruise, Valentina, Luca, Rosella and I head to the beach. We've been told there is a huge party there every year on New Year's day. I've seen some packed vans driving around yesterday and today, but there do not seem to be more people in the streets that one would expect during a holiday. Talk of understimating...

We need to walk for about 2 km from downtown S. Lucia to the beach. It's about 4pm and the sun is already beginning to set behind out backs. As I hold my two cameras, I can see thousands of people who are walking away from the beach we are heading to, and beging to snap away at their cheerful and satisfied expression. Their party is over and they are heading home. I try and walk faster to reach the beach while there is still good light to photograph and the people are partying. I am afraid I am late, party must be over with so many thousands leaving, but hopefully some stragglers will still be there.

But I need not have worried at all. As I approach the beach, and can actually see the blue horizon in the distance, the long line of people leaving continues, but the source of the flow is an infinite crowd that strolls to and fro, swims, eats, drinks (no alcohol is allowed though) and makes merry. Everyone I meet is happy to chat, exchange happy new year wishes, take pictures together and exchange Facebook friendship on our cell phones.

I have never seen so many people together in my whole life, and probably never will again. Unless I come back for another new year celebration at the Saint Lucia beach, that is. Hundreds of thousands of people as far as the eye can see, for kilometers on either side of the spot where we reach the water's edge. All are blacks except my three fellow photographers, a few albinos and me. I can't of course be sure there were no other whites, but I won't see any for the following three hours.

A few policeman and policewomen patrol leisurly but no sense od tension or conflict. The only exception is three drunk guys holding beer cans who talk to me with a clearly hostile attitude while I am exchanging Facebook nicknames with a lady I have photograped. It is strictly forbidden to take any alcohol to the beach today, I have seen several signposts to that effect, but how do you check hundreds of thousands of partying youths?

She insists on typing her name on my Facebook app and they give up. Then another small man maybe twenty years-old wearing red and yellow sunglasses comes forward and asks if everything is OK.

Everyone is quite happy at being photographed. Many ask for it. Several offer their Facebook address to receive their photos. Only the three or four albinos I meet don't want their pictures taken. Maybe they are ashamed, maybe they fear that circulating their images might put them in harm's way. Though not as bad as in other parts of Africa, superstitions on the powers of albino body parts exist in South AFrica as well.

On the way back to town I notice many people with large jars, maybe 5 liters, full of sea water and some sand. I ask why they take sea water away and the disarmiblgy simple answer is that they mix with tap water and make salt bath at home!

Dinner time: it's hard to find a restaurant, many are closed and those which are not are booked solid and often have a long line of people waiting outside. Even the restaurant of our own hotel is overbooked, the kitchen closes early and there is no way then can feed us.

Consider going to a fast food in the township of Matubatuba, some 25 km away. Not sure it's open. Make several phone calls. Our driver who last night had supported my hypothesis that it would be safe to visit a black township as a group, bulks at the idea of taking us there. He says it's not Soweto. It's not welcoming, crime is high. He fears for our safety and the car's. This makes me curious to go so he calls the company headquarters and the answer is no. So much for the township experience But we still need to eat. In the end we eat at the Reef and Dunes restaurant. butter fish excellent! 

At night I can hear the grunt of several hippos that have walked ashore. They can be dangerous. Several signposts in the streets and in the garden of my hotel warn everyone to be careful with hippos. And with monkeys who roam around private property abs grab anything that strikes their fancy.

31 December 2013

Kruger to Swaziland to S. Lucia

Again wake up at dawn and the adrenaline starts pumping. Breakfast is devoured faster than usual as we try and get back on to our vehicles and out to the lions. They probably have not moved much since last night and it might still be busy with their mating procedure. It usually goes on for a few days, 20 to 25 times a day. So the chances of seeing them in action again are reasonably high.

But first we need to check out, as we'll be leaving Kruget today. I take my packed bags out of the room and onto the balcony on stilts that overlooks a thick bush, and go back into the room to double check I did not leave behind any chargers, razors, slippers, hats etc. As I come out again and definitively close my room's door behind me, there come my three ladies of two days ago: they must have been waiting in the bush for me to appear and of course they make it clear that they are going to take my bags down to the waiting van. They hardly speak a word, and I don't either, but we all know what we have to do. OK fair enough, the sevice is worth twenty Rand. Once in the parking lot, we all leave our bags in the van and head out with the safari vehicles for one last tour of Kruger.

After the usual check-in procedure at the park's gate we tell the driver to head straight for the location where we saw the lions the previous evening and sure enough there they are, they have just moved across the road, a few meters, not more. However, unlike last night, when we were alone, there are lots of cars now. The word about "ngoni fagapagati" spread quickly. Not so the news about the British car being overturned I guess. No one seems to be in the least apprehensive when we later drive by a couple of elephants.

There are rules of the road in national parks, one of them being to keep a safe distance from the animals and not to get in between the anumals and a car who got there first, But not everyone respects the rules and there is not much the rangers can do: they have to power of enforcement. Too bad, they should. After a while it gets crowded. We are lucky to have gotten near the lions first, and keep a safe distance of a good twenty meters or so but soon a big white SUV drives in front of us. All it takes is one rude driver to spoil the sighting for everyone else. Most drivers are polite and line up behind the first to arrive at the scene of a sighting, but some must think that if they don't get ahead first, someone else will. Anyway, after a few minutes the lions move on and some thirty cars turn on the engines and disperse around the park. The magic of last night was not to be again today.

At about nine o'clock we must give up and head back to the camp. It's time to bid farewell to our rangers, get on our van and head South: we have to hit the coast at Saint Lucia by tonight.

At around noon we go abroad. Yes, we do, as we drive into Swaziland, a small landlocked independent kingdom wedged between South Africa and Mozambique. It is famous for its polygamous king, who won't be among the friendly people we met along the way, and for lush green mountains, which we'll see a lot of during our five-hour crossing of the country.

Arrive in Saint Lucia. It's a pretty posh vacation retreat for wealthy (and therefore white) South Africans, and there are many expensive cars with blond Afrikaans and English speakers to be seen. However we do see a lot of blacks with less fancy clothes and much less fancy cars around. Apparently they sleep and dine in the nearby townships, and only come to town for an evening stroll and a drink.

I would like to go and have dinner in one of these townships, but our driver steadfastly refuses to take us there. Too dangerous for us and for the van, and he would be in deep trouble with the agency's boss if anything should happen to either. Disappointing, I will have to try and find a way around this. Most South African live in townships, it would not make any sense to spend over a month here and not see one. I mean a black township. Of course even the exclusive pockets of white wealth that we have seen are strictly speaking "townships", that's just a name for an administrative division of the country's cities. But in the common jargon "township" has come to mean "black township" and also implies poor, dirty, unsafe. Or does it? Some South Africans even told me that Soweto is "no longer a township" because, unlike during the times of apartheid, it is now developed, reasonably safe, home to a growing middle class and a "must do" tourist destination. The borders of the meaning of township are changing. I'd like to find out. But not tonight.

We finally have dinner is at the "Ocean Basket", a chain of fish restaurants that is very popular across South Africa: good quality fish, informal but usually effective service, inexpensive. This restaurant is very busy tonight, this is a holiday town and the Christmas break is in full swing, but in ten minutes a table for twelve is available on the terrace and we can sit down with our driver. Most patrons are white but there are a few blacks.

Ocean Basket immodestly prides on being "the sole provider". Well... a bit ambitious perhaps, but I decide to take their word for it and order their "famed cape sole". It is perhaps not the sole sole around but is indeed quite tasty. The happy new year's eve dinner is made merrier by a few bottles of Sauvignon blanc from the Cape region.

Back at the hotel we get a couple of bottles of bubbles and pop them at midnight. It's 2014!

30 December 2013

Alarms and mating lions at the Kruger National Park


I wake up just five minutes before 5:30, which is when my alarm was set to go off. I hear this happens to a lot of people. I am always amazed at how our body clocks can know when to wake up so as to save its owner the trauma of an alarm. Ever since I adopted my smart phone to perform this thankless function, I set the ringtone to a gentle Buddhist bells chime, so as to minimiza the pain. Still, when it goes off, it makes for the worst moment of the day. I suppose our body knows that it is not good to start the day at its most unpleasant, so it tries to avoid it by preempting the alarm. Well, one could argue it might actually be a good thing, as things would only improve after that. But waking up to an alarm is always a traumatic experience, bound to cast a negative shadow on the waking hours to follow. On the other hand, waking up just a few minutes early provides the immense pleasure of waiting in bed, yawning and stretching, aware there is still time before one has to get up. And I derive a sense of accomplishment in killing the alarm before it has a chance to go off at all. I hate the big snooze button, it is cruel torture, I much prefer the smaller "dismiss" option. So I am profoundly grateful to mother nature for having made us evolve over the last few million years to anticipate our own alarms. I can't explain how, also because we evolved over countless thousand generations while even the most ancient alarms are only a few decades old.

Two game drives today: the first starting just after sunrise at 6 am and the second ending at sunset, at 6.30pm. With a one hour break for lunch. It's going to be a full day. We set off to a good start with a very full breakfast: sweet, savory, hot, cold, juices, you name it, it's there. Great, we'll need the energy to face rain and wind in our open vehicles.

It's not the best safari day of my life really. At least until we start driving back toward the camp. Then it becomes the single most exciting one, ever!

We are driving along a straight road, a bit sad and despirited as the weather has not given us a break and our sightings have been rather few and far between. OK well it'a part of the game, these are wild animals after all and Kruger is not a zoo, not even one of those super-managed parks where "wild" animale are more or less programmed to appear at artificial water holes.

It could be worse: today an English couple did have a close sighting with an elephant, but one which they wish they never met. They were on a self-drive tour just a few kilometers from us and met a single bull with a limited sense of humor. As they approached, it turned around and flapped its ears a few times. Elephant flap their ears when they are not happy with you being in their way, and it is usually not a good idea to try and argue with them. The Brits decided to stick around a bit longer and the next thing they saw was an elephant tusk piercing through their wind shield, while the trunk flipped the small car over as if it was a pancake.

I am a bit disconsolate and I try to protect my cameras from the sharp bullets of rain that are flying across our seats, pushed by the wind. Then all of a sudden Henry, our driver/guide today, a towering black Xhosa in his early thirties, slams on the breaks and points to the right: a male lion on the grass, only a few meters away from the road. OK not a bad way to end the day, I think. But then Valentina sees a lioness, almost completely hidden in a bush. Ah ha! They are obviously a couple, says Henry, and turns off the engine. The other 4x4 with our travel mates arrives after a few minutes and stops just behind us. We wait. When lions mate, they do it many times every day, so we have a good chance.

Fifteen minutes or so go by and nothing happens. It's getting dark, we have perhaps another hour of sunlight. The other car decides it's not worth waiting longer and moves on. We stay put. Another ten minutes pass and the lion gets up. Now Henry is visibly excited and warns us to be quiet: they are likely going to mate.

And sure they do: the male jumps on the female who got up and is walking around. He gently pushes her to the ground with his big paws and mounts her from behind. The actual penetration is quick, maybe fifteen seconds in all. No prelims, really. But then again they will have done it twenty times of more by night fall, so it's not bad. During the intercourse the female is crouching on the grass, and look straight into my camera, as if to say: "What, you have never seen a lion mating?" No, I have not, in fact!

"Ngoni fagapagati!, ngoni fagapagati!! hahahaaaaaa" Henry can't hold back his enthusiasm as he explains in xhosa. "Ngoni" means lion and fagapagati is the F word which Henry translates by hitting repeatedly and violently his clenched left fist with the palm of his right hand...

Can't believe the lions keep going at it in front of everyone. It's clear that they are not afraid of people but still: why not just move out some and get away from noise, polluted air and large obstructive vehicles? Apparently they enjoy the warmth of the tarmac as compared to the cool grass.

The evening is a happy time. At first we don't tell anything to the others who left early, but when the time comes for everyone to show the day's pictures there are a few screams at the sight of the big cats embracing in amorous activity!