I’m sitting here on a grassy spot in the middle of New Zealand, lounging in front of a stage surrounded by fellow melophiles all belting out the lyrics to Toto’s signature song, “Africa.” The moment is surreal. I was calling out the name to a continent that I had been living in only six months before. As I look right and left, ahead and back of me, I watched around as a thousand open mouths cried out for the wild dogs and the rain: “The wild dogs cry out in the night, as they grow restless….” Did anyone around me know what it felt like to listen the howl of those wild dogs while laying listless on a hot, muggy night? Could anyone around me possibly know the distinct smell of the rain as it hit the red-baked soil? “As sure as Kilimanjaro rises like Olympus above the Serengeti….” Did they imagine or did they know the awesome sight of Kilimanjaro looming over the Serengeti?
I felt as though my particular cry was grounded in a long-forgotten yearning for a place I’d been pulled from, even though the only African roots I can claim are as far removed as Lucy. But I’d been there. I’d lived there in my youth and in my adulthood. I’d spent time there on my own and with my family. I’d been on and off the continent six times throughout my life, and I know what it feels like to have the love for a country seep into your bones. “Africa, it’s gonna take a lot to take me away from you. There’s nothing that a hundred men or more could ever do…”
Rewind sixteen months to where this particular African adventure starts. We had made the choice to sail to South Africa based on the fact that there was relatively no choice. There are only two options to choose from when departing the Indian Ocean to enter the Atlantic Ocean by sea: Sail north through pirate-infested waters into the Mediterranean or sail twice the distance and face some of the toughest sailing conditions by rounding the tip of South Africa.
We chose south. We took this option not because of the threat of piracy (the threat in current years is considered contained), but because I couldn’t come this close to Africa and bypass it. There was too much on offer to refuse. Africa is a world like no other. It is rich, diverse, difficult, challenging… and there are things to experience there that no other content can offer: Zoo animals living outside the confines of the zoo. Travelling with a four and six-year old, this was a huge draw card. We were going to Africa to watch the elephants roam, the antelope bound, the warthogs furrow and the flamingos take flight. And there is no better base to explore the game reserves from than Richards Bay, our first port of call.
I stopped an old man along the way,
hoping to find some long forgotten
words or ancient melodies.
He turned to me as if to say,
“Hurry, it’s waiting there for you.”
Hell yeah, you don’t have to ask me twice!
Skipper’s Notes: November 3, 2018
Atea spent all 24-hours today slowly progressing towards shore, ship and crew battered by rough seas, strong headwinds and an adverse current. We roll into port in Richard Bay at midnight, exhausted but relived to tether ourselves and our ship to land. Day one and South Africa had already upheld all John’s expectations of the country: Beating and battery, hardship and heartache. Our final leg from Mozambique to South Africa had been one of our most trying days in six years of cruising: The conditions were rough, Braca suffered a major face injury, Atea was laid down with a force that bent the stanchions and we’d received news that John’s mom had passed away that morning. Not a warm welcome into the country.
In the morning we cleared in, the process efficient to German precision and the officer no-nonsense direct with a fuck-with-me-and-I-shoot attitude. I was starting to think that battling pirates would have been the better call. But once the paperwork was processed and we were sitting shore-side with gargantuan servings of beef and beer in Boer-sized proportions we started to see the light. First-world luxuries served at a fraction of the price – for a family on a perpetual budget, we were about to live like royalty.
First few steps ticked off the list: Clearance and immigration process completed; copious amounts of beer drunk; a fresh meal and an extended hot shower done. Next step in our tour of South Africa: See alive in the veld what was being served up dead on our plates.
What we discovered that most aren’t aware of until you get there is that South African game parks are affordable. Correction: Dirt cheap (on a Western budget). Most tourists flock to East Africa due to its international acclaim as THE destination for game viewing, a fact of which East Africa is well aware. Year by year the prices inflate and the cost of entry into Kenyan and Tanzanian game parks continue to balloon. Entry into the parks ranges, but you’d be hard pressed to find something less than US$300 per person for any of the tier-one parks. On average, a non-citizen will pay between $2500 (budget) to $7500 (luxury) for a week in the game reserves. Conversely, entry into the regional game parks in South Africa are $10-15 for adults, pocket change for children, and you didn’t need to attach yourself to a game warden and a truck full of other tourists at an additional cost. In South Africa it was just you, your pack lunch and your rental car. And don’t fall for the old sell of following a trained eye – there is so much magic in discovering what’s out there on your own and remaining as long as you choose to watch it in the quiet of your own space.
Now, without a guide operating on rote/automatic recall, self-catering rarely goes to plan. You have to be prepared for the unexpected and accept all setbacks. We prepared. We spent a few days identifying the parks we wanted to explore, booked accommodation and set off with our overnight bags and a mobile phone in our pint-sized rental car. We drove north, following directions from Google on our phone. Enthusiastic about the adventure ahead, we drove out of town on the main road, diverged onto a minor road, through a forest track, onto a muddy path across sugarcane plantations. It wasn’t until Google insisted that we drive across a sizable river with no bridge in sight that we realized we’d placed too much faith in the magic of technology. With no map and no internal radar, I got out of the car to assess our options. With sugarcane as far as the eye could see and no human in sight, this was starting to feel like a significant setback… one I wasn’t prepared to accept. Finally, a man wandered into sight and I plodded down the dirt track to ask him how best to proceed. He was in total agreement with Google. “Yes mama. You go straight,” his finger pointing across the riverbank. I looked left and down along the muddy river, and right along the opposite stretch. The only thing that bridged the water was a broken footpath with frayed ropes and missing planks, something that wouldn’t bare the weight of our fourteen kilo child, let alone a two-ton vehicle. I looked at him again, then pointed at the car. “Yes mama,” he nodded, “you go straight.” I looked back at the car again… had he mistaken it for a donkey? I always believe in following local advice, but this was one of those rare times you decide it best to proceed on your own.
Rather than trying to press on the few miles forward, we decided our best strategy was to retrace our steps and get back to familiar territory, aka a tarmac road. The heat outside was building and the morning shadows were starting to be devoured by the midday sun; our plans to view game in the cool temperatures of early dawn were being burnt to oblivion and we were driving away from the game parks. Frustration was mounting with the heat. Then, while we were retracing one of the dusty rutted roads a swarm of screaming children ran up, excited by our foreignness. Their enthusiasm shook us back into our sensibilities: We were already in the middle of our adventure. Had we followed the signs on the motorway direct to the reserve gate, we would have missed the local interaction that had surrounded us all along the way: The inquisitive looks as people watched us roll past, the warm smiles, the children squawking at us as they ran behind our vehicle, the interaction as all sort of random item was pushed at us for sale: charcoal, metal pots, clay bowls, chopped wood, and on. We were traveling down roads only used by locals. We were a novelty among their midst and therein lies the best part of travel – exploring places where you can experience life as the locals live it, outside the influence of tourism.
Eventually, we retraced our steps and rejoined the main road. By ditching Google and relying on a map we finally pulled up to the reserve gates and entered. “I bless the rains down in Africa. Gonna take some time to do the things we never had.” They say you have to sit and stare for hours at a lot of dried grass before getting sight of an animal in the wild, but we got to feel that sweeping ground shake during our first hour in the park. While cruising down the road looking out the side windows of our rental car to spot game in the distance, we turned a corner and came directly upon two male elephants in full battle. Wide-eyed and gape-mouthed, we watched as they charged each other and clashed head on, rammed tusk into flank and shouldered each other to push the weaker aside. We watched in amazement at the intensity of the fight, aware that the force they were exerting on each other would crush our car into a squashed tin can – us inside like flattened sardines. It was only later when we watched these two males drink from a watering hole and spray mud on each others backs that we realized the fight was only a mock battle, a frolic in comparison to the real thing. Having observed the aggressiveness of elephant play, I never want to bear witness to the brutality of a fully engaged battle.
I should have double-downed at the casino that day. Not only did we get to watch two feisty boys duke it out right in front of our vehicle, we caught our first leopard sighting on our first day in the park. Catching sight of a leopard is one of the rarest and most sought-after experiences in game viewing. When you do, it is usually through binoculars at a cat laying in the far-distance asleep under a bush. That day, it was chow-time. We were barreling down the road at dusk trying get to the gate before lock-down and I spotted a leopard in the middle of the road in front of us, slowing ambling our way. We screeched to a halt and I flung my window down and my arm out, camera ready. The cat continued her slow march forward, heading directly for us. It was only when her head came abreast of our bonnet that I recognized chow-time could mean me-chow and I pulled myself in and rolled up the window. It was a heart-stopping moment when I realized how sluggishly a window winds up on automatic control. She pulled abreast, took a few more steps forward then stopped and turned around to look directly at me. It was a moment where the tables turn, and you are aware that you are being witnessed rather than witnessing. It was a spellbinding nano-second, then she broke the connection and strolled off down the road behind us, leaving a buzz in the air at the realization that for a moment in time we were inches apart from a wild leopard – not only close in proximity, but but mutually aware and connected.
A few days later we were to have another eye-to-eye encounter – a less “we are as one” and more “oh my god I am about die!” moment. The elephants were back. Rather than two hot-headed males, this time we ran up upon a heard of agitated females… mad mums with babes. Not a good place to be. Twice. On the same day.
We were driving around in our tinny Barbie-sized rental car when we pulled up in front of a grazing herd of elephants; we slowed, then stopped, transfixed by the peaceful scene around us. My head should have been ringing “Sensible-human with a functioning mind, get the hell out of this,” but the tourist side of my brain said “Stay! Take as many irritating click-click-snap shots that your memory card will hold.” The un-sensible side won, as it always will. Click. Her head turns. Click. Her ears flare. Snap. Her trunk goes up and she trumpets an ear-splitting warning. Then the stand off… she took a few fast steps towards us and halted. We held our ground. Not because we were calling her bluff, but because we had nowhere to go. Her male bodyguard pulled a tactical move and lumbered out from the bush behind us, his massive frame blocking us in. Oh, and we’d turned the car off – probably one of the stupidest mzungu moves I’ve done in all my years of travelling. We had an enraged elephant in a standoff we would never win – her month-old baby in front of us and her fully-grown son behind, with a herd on the periphery watching and waiting for a signal to demolish us. And so, with no option, I lowered my camera and urgently told the kids not to move a muscle… not to breathe… something very unnatural for a four- and six- year old to accomplish. The male elephant brushed up against the back of the car, sizing up his opposition. His ears flapped and his trunk explored the framework. Mad Mama was still stomping the ground in front of us, head wagging low and ears flapping like two raised battle flags. All of us sat frozen in position, four petrified statues. Mercifully, an escape route finally opened; the male elephant moved off to our side and slowly rambled into the bush to our right. Seizing our moment, John turned the ignition and the meek engine purred to life. At the same moment John kicked the gear into reverse and stomped on the pedal, the mammoth in front of us charged, clearly agitated by the noise. As John floored it and the car zipped backward, I stared gape-mouthed at the sight of a pissed-off elephant charging toward us – there is no doubt that size does nothing to diminish speed. As a whirlwind of muscle and dust closed in on us, we gained distance between us and the herd – and most significantly – between us and calf. The intensity of the moment eased as we raced backward in reverse through windy, wild terrain – we had gained enough distance to satisfy the offended and she eased off the charge, stopping and swaggering as if to say “I dare you.” We decided not to take her on twice.
It was not the last time we were charged by elephants that day; it was, however, the last time we turned off the engine. We also took care to never allow our escape route to get blocked again.
Over the next few weeks we explored the numerous eastern South African game parks from our basecamp in Richards Bay – each so very unique in topography from the other. We explored wetland parks, highland parks, lowland parks, expansive plateaus, steep escarpments, arid grassland, dense bush… all within a small geographical footprint; some worked on the protection of targeted species, some held a large representation of all the African wildlife – we saw rhino, buffalo, wildebeest, lion, elephant, zebra, giraffe, a myriad of different antelope – kudu, springbok, gerenuk, gazelle, waterbuck, eland, impala, nyala. Could Tanzania and several thousand dollars debited from our bank account offer any better? Naaa… I don’t think so.
I could have set up camp in Richard Bay and made it home for the foreseeable future… it offered an ideal base to explore the national parks and game reserves of South Africa from and the marina offered great facilities to make our stay a comfortable one. However, we were on a sailboat with the intention of sailing around from Ocean A to Ocean B – or rather, Ocean I to Ocean A – and it was time to get a move on. Three factors drove this: We were out of money, our South African visa only allowed us three months in country, and we had a thousand nautical miles to travel before reaching the other side. It was time to get a move on.
Africa, do you remember me?
Or have you forgotten the feel
of my feet on your soil?
For me, you are forever etched into my soul.
Toto – you pegged it.
Images: Animals of South Africa