Monday, August 29, 2005

How to avoid Drop Bears (or perhaps not...)

When last I metaphorically put quill to parchment, I was in Kalbarri, snoozing off a big fish dinner and not getting up in the morning to bid adieu to my travelling companions of the previous day. After enjoying a pleasant lie-in (the beds at Kalbarri YHA are quite comfy, if I remember rightly - my only complaint about the place was that there were nowhere near enough bathrooms and toilets...), I spent part of that first day engaged in such pedestrian pursuits as going to the shops to get in supplies, nearly collapsing in horror at the cost of internet access, and sitting on a park bench looking out on the Indian Ocean. Realising just how little there actually is to do in Kalbarri, I also booked myself onto a trip for the following day, which my previous driver, Scoobs, had recommended - I was going canoe-ing on the Murchison River in Kalbarri National Park.

I have to admit to never really having gotten into canoes much as a kid. Usually because one of the first things you'd be asked to do, at least in a kayak, was to capsize the damned thing, and then get it upright again. I know the safety rationale behind it. I understand why they ask kids to do it (nobody likes a lawsuit or a corpse on their hands). But, as a child with a fairly hefty phobia about sticking my head under the water, that just wasn't going to be for me. Which is a shame, because I've actually found that as an adult I rather like being out in both canoes and kayaks (although this new-found liking was tested somewhat later in the trip, but that's another 5 weeks or so down the line...).

At any rate, the guy running the operation was a pretty sound bloke, although he did have the habit, common to many tour guides in northern Australia, of dressing a bit like Steve Irwin. Yes, safari shorts really are worn by some people in all seriousness, and many tour companies in Oz provide logo'd safari shirts. There is refreshingly not too much of the whole "CRIKEY!" thing going on, but you almost start to expect it.

Now that I remember it, I wasn't the only person to leave the bus on that first day. There was also quite a pleasant English couple, whose names I believe may have been Kevin and Jeanette (I know he was a Kev, but I'm not 100% sure on her name...). I remember this because they were actually on the canoe trip as well. There were also a couple of Americans with us, though I think they were friends travelling together and not necessarily a couple. Damn, I'm really missing that sodding notebook.

So, our first stops for the day were the usual lookouts in the National Park - there's a couple of them, at either ends of a track that kind of forms the top of a 'T' with the access track for the Park as the upright. So we went and got our photos looking up the river from the Z Bend (where the river does kind of a Z-bend), and down the river from the Loop (where the river goes around almost in a full loop), the latter framed quite wonderfully by a natural rock formation which is basically a window. In light of this, the Australians have called it Nature's Window.

Those who've been to Australia will be familiar with this, but for those who haven't, it's worth noting that there are 4 themes followed when naming places: 1) Use the aboriginal name (unfortunately not as common as it should be) eg Wagga Wagga, Purnululu, Geelong, Wollongong. 2) Name it after a place in Britain eg Norfolk, Sheffield, Brighton, the Grampians, Perth. 3) Name it after an historical figure from Britain or Australia eg Sydney, Adelaide, Cooktown. 4) Look at it, decide what the most bloody obvious thing you can say about it is, then call it that eg Nature's Window, Circular Head, the Remarkable Rocks, 7 Mile Beach.

Anyway, getting back to the narrative, we wandered around at the lookouts, took photos (of each other when requested), wondered where Kev had gotten to (he was somewhat hyperactive and prone to wandering off...), swatted away some of the local insect life and headed back to the bus. We then headed back out towards the main road, before pulling over at the side of the road where our guide told us it was time for our little hike down to the river. Deciding that this would be a good way of working off some of the calorie intake from the fish dinner of a couple of nights ago, I happily got into the walking spirit (probably because it was all downhill at this point). However, before we could depart we encountered an Aussie school-group or youth-group or something who, on hearing the American accents, immediately decided that fun was to be had. Yes, they proudly informed the Yanks that there were Drop Bears down the track.

Again, this is one of those things you just pick up whilst travelling in Australia. Having got monumentally bored with fielding the same questions over and over about various bits of Australia's native fauna, particularly Kangaroos and "Koala Bears" ( the Koala, phascolarctos cinereus,
is not even remotely related to bears...), the Australian populace apparently decided some time ago that some variety was needed. And so the Drop Bear was born. I've never seen a definitive Latin name for it, but it's ecology is fairly well-established. It looks like a bigger, meaner Koala, with Big Pointed Teeth, lives in gum trees, and drops on unsuspecting victims from above, grabbing their head and (if you believe some of the stories) attempting to eat it This is a fairly classic sample site of Drop-Bear myths. There's also an entry in Wikipedia. One "fact" that I hadn't been acquainted with prior to my trip to WA, though was that the beasts can be deterred by spreading Vegemite on your face (the young Australians kindly offered to do this for our American comrades, stating that they had a tube of it with them for just such eventualities) - I had always heard that they were deterred by wearing a very bright, silvery hat as they would then see themselves in it (like a mirror) and thus be deterred from attacking.

Anyways, having kindly declined the offer of assistance in avoiding murderous marsupials, we got back onto the trail and headed down to the river. I must have been feeling enthusiastic, as I just about kept up with the ever-energetic Kev. On arrival down there, we had some quick morning tea (yes, I know, it seems oh-so-English, but the Aussies are quite into their tea as well, and this was not merely tea, but tea and biscuits - though, not being all that partial to tea, for me I just drank some water; I still had the biccies, though!) before setting out for a leisurely canoe trip along one of the middle sections of the river. All very easy going, through beautiful gorge country. Classic Aussie scenery - red rocks, green plants in gullies and the like, cobalt blue sky and blue-green river. And a gorgeous sunny day. You couldn't really ask for all that much more.

On paddling back to our canoe departure point, we settled down for some lunch, then sat around chatting while it settled before starting the climb back out. Oh yes, the immutable laws of physics strike again. When you go down into a river gorge, that means at some point that you have to climb back out of it. And normally this would be the cue for me to start on about how I'm not built for going uphill, and shouldn't have drunk so much beer recently, and so on ad nauseam. Except in this case, I actually rather liked it. In fact, it was great fun, largely because we didn't just retrace our steps, but actually went up the side of the gorge, making it more like a bit of very tame rock-climbing rather than uphill hiking.

Having gone back to the bus, we then headed up to another lookout, this one looking back towards the town, from which you could see the way the river sets up the whole countryside. You could also, unfortunately, see the municipal rubbish dump if you looked the other way (though only at a long distance - it was just like a clearing area in the greenery of the bush). But there's no need to kill the moment, is there? Just think about the beautiful late afternoon sun, the greenery, the blue sky, the fantastic view. Don't think about the rubbish. Damnit!

On returning to the town, I had another very quiet night (I was due a few, after my karaoke-related excesses the previous week). I had a very quiet next day as well, enlivened by picking up a couple of books from a second-hand shop, and by watching the sunset down at the beach. Then, in the evening, I met up with the next bus-load of Easyriders coming through town. But I'll save that for next time.



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Sunday, August 28, 2005

Pinnacles and fresh fish

Okay, time to try and knock out another bite from the exceedingly large backlog of unprocessed blog entries, seeing as how I have some kind of enthusiasm, and have managed to find a hostel with free internet access.

So, my first days on the Easyrider started with the usual early-morning groan. One of these days, I am going to find a backpacker bus which caters to the likes of me by not departing until late morning, but, until then, I will have to deal with being roused from my slumber, and staggering onto buses whilst still half asleep, frequently (as in this case) still munching down on the last piece of toast for breakfast. Given that the bus was already fairly well-populated, I ended up in the "shotgun seat", up front with the driver. This was to be my perch for a quite a few legs of my Easyriding trip, which was good on the conversational stakes, but less so on the legroom front. I frequently ended up with my feet perched on the dashboard to stop my legs going totally to sleep.

Our driver in this case gloried in the moniker of "Scoobs". As those familiar with the backpacker bus scene (esp in Oz and NZ) will know, daft nicknames are often something of a must. And Scoobs had been at this for a while. He'd apparently left the job at least twice before, but ended up coming back because it was such good fun! And yet, this was to be, once again, his last run. So we were the first leg of the last group he would drive for. Again.

Scoobs also had the fairly enlightened view that, as we were the passengers and this was our holida, we got to pick the music. Given that I was at the front and had an MP3 player, this meant that effectively for this leg of the trip I got to pick the music. Those of you familiar with my behaviour at parties around the CD player will understand that this made me a very happy bunny indeed. And the music seemed to go down fairly well (Scoobs' only requirement was "No soppy shit...", which became the name of the playlist I set up for that morning!).

Our first stop for the day was up at the Pinnacles. These are weathered limestone outcroppings sticking out of the desert in a region up north of Perth, quite near to the town of Lancelin. And, to be honest, while they're quite interesting to look at for all of about 5 minutes, you'd probably have to be a geologist to get really excited about them for much longer. Or someone who gets very excited about suggestively-shaped rocks (of which there are quite a few amongst the hundreds). I'd seen them when I was in Perth 6 years earlier, so was even more underwhelmed than some of the others, but it was a gorgeous day (after several shitty ones weather-wise down in Perth) so I wasn't complaining about wandering around in the sun for a while.

After that, it was another of those relatively long days on the road which are so common to WA, most of which was spent chatting with Scoobs and my fellow passengers. Unfortunately, as none of them jumped off the bus that evening as I did, and as I managed to lose my diary in Darwin at the end of the West Coast trip, I can't remember any of their names! But they were very nice people...

That evening's stop was in Kalbarri, a nice little seaside town by the Kalbarri National Park, which includes a whole bunch of river gorges. That night, we got a special deal courtesy of Easyrider, of a fresh fish BBQ at an amazing outdoor place called Finlays, for the princely sum of 10 Aussie dollars (just over 4 quid) - combine that with a few beers from the bottle shop we walked past on the way, and we're talking a very pleasant first day on the road.

Having then said goodnight and goodbye to my newfound (and now forgotten) friends, I settled in for a good night's sleep (no early wake-up for me) ready for my 3 days in Kalbarri (that's how long it was before the next Easyrider bus!). And I'll write about that next time, so as to make sure that I actually finish an entry in one go for once!

Until the next time, my friends, adieu!


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Saturday, August 27, 2005

Thursday Night Karaoke Fever

Hello again, time to try and get a bit more of this written up. Looking back at last time, I was about to head off down to Margaret River, to meet up with my distant cousin James.

[Once again, the road to nowhere is paved with good intentions. This entry sat around gathering dust for a while. Ah well...]

Well, I knew him as James, my parents called him James, and his little sister Liz, who's been in London the last few years, refers to him as James, but apparently these days he's Jim or Jimmie to his mates. And considering I changed at short notice from Patrick to Pat 11 years ago, I guess I can relate to that.

To get down to Margaret River, I had decided to forego the dubious pleasures of getting a Greyhound bus down, and hire a car. Yes, for the first, and thus far only, time on my trip, I actually hired my own motor vehicle. Even more surprising than this change of habit was that I was actually alive and awake and in a good state to drive - the light drizzle probably helped sober me up (yes, it does rain down here too...). My trusty steed for the next two days was a little red Hyundai, an automatic (though I wouldn't hold that against it too much) and actually surprisingly nifty.

Following instructions I had scribbled down in a phone conversation with Jim a couple of evenings earlier, I proceeded for around 2 hours down the Western Australian coast, mostly on the highway, during which time my biggest distraction was making sure that the car didn't run away with itself and get me a speeding ticket. Those who've been in Oz will know that highways there tend to take "long and straight" to a level the Romans would have envied. By around lunchtime I was in Margaret River, one of Australia's better-known wine regions and most respected surf spots. The latter was the main reason Jim was there.

So the first thing we had to do in town, after I'd gone and seen his house, was drive down to have a look at the beach. The weather wasn't great, with a lot of haze and not much sun, but I could see from the surf breaking offshore why the place would be popular. However, apart from knowing that big waves are generally good, and "reliable" big waves seem to be regarded as better, I know nothing about what makes a good surf beach, so will leave the subject there.

After this, we met up with a couple of friends of Jim's and went off to a neighbouring town/village to a pub. Because it's apparently nicer than the pubs in Mag River itself. After visiting one of the latter later on, I wouldn't necessarily agree to that, but hey, it was a pub, it served beer, what more did we need? So I settled in, drinking beers, chatting away with Jim's mates, and watching while he and the rest of the lads bet money on the horses. Never having been one to willingly part with more money than I need to, I didn't join in on this, but was quite funny to watch, particularly as they got a little drunker.

After a few beers, I realised that it was now late-afternoon, going on evening. Where had the afternoon gone? Where had so much of my cash gone? And who the hell was going to drive us back to Mag River, as everybody had been drinking? The answer to the last, at least, turned out to be "one of the drunk people". This was not exactly good news for me, as I loathe drink-driving as a particularly undeveloped form of stupidity, but I had no other reasonable way of getting back into town so I went along with it. Was very happy, though, when we got back to Margaret River and went to one of the local places. Somewhere along on the way, I don't actually remember us getting any dinner, and lunch had been pretty minimal, so I guess I shouldn't have been surprised that I was a teensy bit pissed by this point.

And then came the clincher. It was Karaoke night at the pub. As quite a few of you know, I'm a bit of a sucker for Karaoke, especially when I'm pissed, and the one tends to lead into the other, and back again, in a vicious circle. The rest of the evening is variously a blur, but I remember winning a Wallabies hat for singing (and then deliberately losing it, because I can't stand the Aussies' rugby team), singing several times solo and a couple in duet with some poor local lass, and that's about it. I woke up the next morning on an unfamiliar sofa, having apparently somehow lost Jim (I found out later he'd been politely asked to leave the pub after a misunderstanding...) and been offered a place to crash by my singing partner and her boyfriend.

Damn, that's one night I have to admit I'm quite glad I don't remember too much of. At any rate, my saviours dropped me back in town (at the pub!), from which I managed to work out the way back to Jim's house. On arrival there, Jim appeared to be in a worse state than I was (which was quite impressive), so we chatted a little bit and then I hit the road and he hit the sack. Realising just how knackered I was (and worried about my blood alcohol level), I only drove up as far as the coast, where I parked up for a couple of hours in a small town and crashed out, listening to the waves break on the beach.

I then got back on the road, as I had to get back into Perth, drop off my stuff at the hostel I was checking into in town (I was leaving on the Easyrider the next morning, and they don't do pick-ups from Freo), then get the car back. Thanks to Perth's traffic, this I managed with only about 2 minutes to spare, but all worked out okay. I was then planning to have a quiet night (understandably) but got talked by my new room-mates into going out for a couple of drinks. I know what you're thinking, but for once I did keep it to a couple, spent much more time chatting with people and (bizarrely) watching the cricket - this was during the Ashes, so everywhere was showing the games.

And then I headed back to the hostel for some much-needed shut-eye, in preparation for joining up with yet another backpacker bus. But that can wait for next time, as I'm determined to actually finish off this bloody post after a month and half's dithering.

Take care and have fun,


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Thursday, August 25, 2005

The Return To Oz

Greetings once more, mis amigos y amigas.

Time to try and finally kick off the Aussie leg of the travelog. So, cast your minds back, through the mists of time, as I am endeavouring to do whilst writing this, and consider Sunday 21st August, 2005. For that is the day when I returned, yet again, to my sometime adoptive home: Australia.

Specifically, I arrived at Perth's international airport, after an overnight flight from Jo'burg. I won't bore you all again by saying how much I dislike overnight flights, but suffice to say, one of the first things I did on arrival at my hostel in Fremantle, Perth's harbour suburb, was grab a bit more kip. After that, it being a Sunday, I went for a little bit of an explore around town, scoping out where the suprmarket, cafes, pubs etc all were. And then, in the afternoon, I got a bit of local insight into the town.

The reason for this goes back a year or so to when I first discovered Thorntree, the bulletin board section of Lonely Planet's website. Having posted on there a few times, one of my habits when travelling now is to look up areas I'm going to travel, just to see what other people have been saying about them recently. And, through a conversation on WA, I'd got chatting online with a local lass called Jo, who'd kindly offered to meet up for a beer and give me a different point of view on Perth from the usual "what does Lonely Planet/Rough Guide/Footprint say?" approach. She introduced me to the Little Creatures microbrewery in Fremantle (gorgeous beer), and we swapped travellers' tales and the like for a while. Made for a nice introduction back to WA, although I have to admit I hadn't realised quite how much of an institution the "Sunday Session" is over there - the brewpub was packed outside, despite this being the middle of winter.

In an effort to beat my body-clock back into shape, I had a relatively early night, but got up the next morning feeling dreadful. Light-headed, faint, shivering slightly, churning stomach. And no, Mum, this was not due to alcohol, as I'd only had a few pints the previous day. Being my usual stubborn self, I attempted to just plough through it regardless, so went off around Freo (as the place is known by most locals) around all the banks, checking out what I would have to do to get a bank account, as well as getting myself a new SIM card for my mobile. By the time I got back to the hostel again late in the afternoon, I was still feeling rough as anything, despite drinking litres and litres of water. Got myself an extra blanket, to try and beat off the shivering, and had another early night.

Got up the next day, still feeling light-headed and queazy. Was by now starting to get slightly worried. In a fit of hypochondria, I went back to my African guidebooks, read through the health sections, and started halfways convincing myself I'd got Malaria. Realising this would probably be a bad thing, I went and got myself registered with Medicare, which is Australia's national health insurance organisation (Brits get free "immediately necessary" treatment, in exchange for Aussies getting access to the NHS equivalent), as well as going into central Perth to get the visa sticker for my passport, and to register for a Tax File Number (the equivalent of a UK NI number). By late-afternoon, things were feeling somewhat better, but I still felt a bit light-headed. The hypochondriac in me started whispering louder about Malaria, and I had another pretty early night, though I did spend about an hour downstairs in the hostel's bar, where somebody had put on a DVD of The Young Ones (the classic 1980s comedy, not the Cliff Richard film, thanks be) - more than an hour of Rik, Vivian, Mike and Neil at a time can get a little wearing, amusing appearances by 1980s bands notwithstanding.

And so Wednesday dawned. Another largely uneventful day, enlivened slightly by going into town and booking my Easyrider ticket. Easyrider, which is a name you'll be seeing a lot of in forthcoming posts, is one of the backpacker bus companies that spread across Australia, but is notable primarily because it's the big player on the West Coast - Oz Experience and their Big Green Buses may have introduced the idea out East, but they've never ventured into WA, which leaves Easyrider's yellow machines as the only option if you want to HOHO/JOJO your way up the west coast. And that was indeed my plan, to take in the whole west coast from Perth around and up to Darwin, starting on the Saturday. Having applied my usual travelling tendencies towards ruthless efficiency (quite why I plan things to the nth degree while on the road, but often can't be arsed even writing things in a diary back home, is a bit of an enigma), I pre-booked almost every sector of the trip. Feeling quite pleased with myself from this, and with the reviving state of my health having finally convinced me that I did not in fact have malaria, I headed back down to Freo, back to Sundancers Hostel and back to my room.

There to discover I had three new room-mates, which made a nice change from just the couple of stoner guys who had been there since I arrived. Two English girls and a Welsh lad, who helped persuade me that I was certainly well enough to go out again, and so we headed over to one of the bars in Freo that had a backpacker night on. Any of those of you who've done the backpacking scene out here will know that, in any major city, there is a backpacker night on somewhere most nights of the week - it's a bit like student nights in the big Uni towns back home. Unfortunately, the loss of my travel diaries along the way has left me unable to remember the name of the place, but I do remember that it was quite an interesting evening.

This was due largely to the fact that, rather than just play dance music all night, the place had a house band playing covers for a fair bit of the night. Nothing particularly surprising about that, you might say (though it's a trend I'd like to see more of in the UK). What was different was that they had a weekly competition of "Band Karaoke" - various of the punters had given their names and negotiated a song with the band early in the evening, and, about 10:30 or so, they each got their chance to effectively be lead singer for a song of their choice. Quite a lot of people singing Green Day songs as I recall. Certainly made a difference from most karaoke nights I've been to, as the requirement to put in a request early enough to still be pretty sober, plus the fact that you were up on stage in front of a crowd, meant that it was largely pretty good singers who took part.

I left at a fairly reasonable hour, though (about half midnight, I think...), as I had to be up the next morning and in a fit state to drive. Because I had hired a car for a couple of days, and was heading down through the south-western parts of WA to a small town famous for wine and surfing called Margaret River. And I was going there not for the wine (though it is rather nice), not for the surfing (me on a surfboard? are you kidding?), but to reacquaint myself with a distant branch of the family tree. Yep, I was off to meet a cousin.

But that will wait for another time and another posting.

Take care and have fun,


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Saturday, August 20, 2005

The joys of Afrikaner folk songs

Right, hi-ho, hi-ho, it's off to Pretoria we go...

Sorry, I'm slightly spaced-out by lack of sleep as I write this, so it may be even more random than is usual for me.

I left the Blog when last I wrote on my final Tuesday in South Africa, about to depart the Amphitheatre. Only this is where my stubborn attempts to avoid the Baz backfired on me somewhat, as I failed to take into account the extra time, money and hassle involved in getting dropped in the next town, connecting with the coach, then having to get a cab to the hostel at the far end. So my bus ticket may have been cheaper, but the door-to-door cost certainly wasn't. And I didn't have the company of other backpackers to amuse me on my way. Though the coaches are still a fair bit comfier than the Baz minibuses. At any rate, it meant I said my goodbyes to Grant (and Betta) before leaving the hostel. After about a week and a half in his company, it was going to be decidedly strange to be back to travelling really properly on my own again. Though I wasn't totally on my own in Pretoria, as Kulraj was also staying there that night so, after a day spent interminably on various buses, including the crawl up the motorway which runs through the ever-shrinking band of countryside between Jo'burg and Pretoria, we ended up going out for Chinese food and a few beers.

Hadn't had proper Chinese food in ages, so that was quite cool. It being winter, the weather was pretty cool as well (as in frigid), so we popped into the heated beer-tent like awning behind the wonderfully-named Herr Gunther's bar. After a couple of beers, Kulraj headed home, pleading plans for the morrow. Having espied some instruments over on a stage, I hung around to catch some music. And, to start with, it was all good - the usual pub-rock covers of pretty familiar songs, done fairly well. But, as the evening wore on, the band were playing quite a few crowd-pleasers that I was totally unfamiliar with. The reason being, they were folk songs, sung in Afrikaans.

Both that night and the following night, I ended up listening to pub bands playing these folk tunes, and it's weird to say, but that probably felt at least as foreign to me as going and seeing a bloody sangoma. We English don't tend to do folk all that often, and what patriotic songs we have generally seem to be mostly sports-related. The Afrikaners, though, appear to have always had something of a tradition of this type, and it's just been getting stronger since multi-racial democracy kicked in. Faced with policies such as Black Empowerment and Affirmative Action, many Afrikaners are going back to their roots and circling the wagons at times, even if it's only in small ways like this revived determination to keep their ancestral musical traditions alive.

From my point of view, though, it was basically just baffling, and I derived almost as much amusement from watching the crowds (or at least some members of them) and their reactions as I did pleasure at the actual music. And, to be honest, I didn't do a lot more whilst in Pretoria. A bit of internet time, a wander through downtown, taking in the phenomenally curmudgeonly looking statue of Paul Kruger (the first President of the 19th Century Boer Zuidafrikaansche Republiek or ZAR), complete with big top hat, a wander over to see the imposing Union Buildings, the home to the South African civil service built by the British after the Boer Wars, and that was about it. By Thursday, it was time to make another logistically irritating transfer, this time down from Pretoria to Jo'burg, and finally spend at least a day or two in Johannesburg, Jo'burg, Johanna, Jozi, JHB, or whichever of the myriad other names for the place you prefer.

I negotiated the fabled horrors of Jo'burg's Central Station (for both buses and trains), though the simple expedient of having rung up my hostel and asked them to come and collect me. "What a wuss!" I hear some of you cry. The thing being, you hadn't heard the story from one of your travelling companions of how he got held up at gun-point just outside the said station. So was I nervous, sitting around in a Wimpy and looking out for my prospective lift? You bet your arse I was. Luckily, I encountered nothing more threatening than a burger, before a big, smiling black guy called Eric turned up to collect me and whisk me off through the NE suburbs to Gemini backpackers.

Now, Gemini is another one of the interesting places I've stayed, as it's another one that's basically been created from converting a rich family home. So, if you choose to have some of the home cooking (whether a nice steak for dinner, or a big greasy brekkie) done by Elsie, their oh-so-stereotypical little-old-black-lady housekeeper (an absolute sweetie), you can have it in their main living room, complete with full-size snooker table (a real shock after playing pool for months - it was bloody massive!), marauding kittens (a matched set, one small black one called Shadow and one small white one whose name escapes me), and a TV with Playstation, which I proceeded to spend much of my first evening in Jo'burg playing against one of the lads of the family who run the place. The dorms are in an outbuilding to one side, the internet is free (woohoo!), and they're building a pizza kitchen, of all things. There's apparently also a small gym in another one of the sheds, though I didn't find it.

The only downside to this is that, like most of white, or in fact middle-class of any colour, Jo'burg, it's behind razor-wire security fencing, and guests are very strongly discouraged from walking anywhere, especially at night, relying instead on taxis or Eric to get around. Unless you go to one or two of the western suburbs, you're very unlikely to spend much time out and about on your own, and that kind of takes away a lot of the magic of cities in my book. At any rate, I had a quiet night at Gemini (thankfully free of folk music), leaving me a total of a day and a half in South Africa.

With only one full day in Jo'burg, there was only really one option (and only one thing I particularly wanted to see) - Soweto. Probably the world's most famous township, and the heartbeat of the anti-apartheid movements, it was one of South Africa's "must-sees" that I'd missed out on in my previous trip. The origins of the South West Townships (which became SoWeTo) go back to the early years of Jo'burg, and the attempts to get cheap black labour to help with the explosive economic growth arising from the discovery of gold in the Witwatersrand. Not wanting, even at that stage, much mingling between the races, the blacks were set up in some separate districts within Jo'burg, and in the cluster of out-of-town dormitory settlements, centred around Orlando, south-west of the emerging city.

Soweto isn't really part of Jo'burg, being geographically separate (albeit growing ever less so) and having its own city council etc. It's also, despite the initial thoughts many tourists might have, not one big indistinguishable slum. Some parts of Soweto are positively affluent, other bits "middle-class" as we'd reckon it in the UK, and other bits are still very poor indeed. I went on a locally-guided tour, which meant we got driven round various different parts of it, and went for a walk in one of the true shanty-town sections. This is where I got a bit uncomfortable, as my travelling companions for the day included two British girls (who, spookily, went to school with a mate from work I had been playing football with up in Leeds) and a Taiwanese guy, Din.

Now, most people of about my age grew up with certain stereotypes about Asian tourists, particularly Japanese, involving their fanatical use of cameras. And I had some degree of basis in fact for this, having seen them in the flesh in Cambridge. But I have never, ever met someone as obsessive about photographing everything as this guy. He took photos of everything. And, when he'd taken his photo of it, he would get his photo taken with it. This was dodgy enough in some instances, but when he was getting his photo taken in front of the shack of this girl we'd just been talking to, and hearing how tough life was for her and her kid, then it just got embarrassing. In some places, particularly when we came back through Jo'burg on the way home, we had to tell him to stop pointing his camera out of the van, as he was liable to get stuff thrown at him.

Still, as well as the shanty-town walk, we went to Soweto's cathedral, which was used as a meeting-place by some of the anti-apartheid students and raided by the police (the bullet holes in the church are still visible). There we got shown around by a guy who was all serene and love-thy-neighbour Christian until he got onto the topic of how the young were behaving these days, and AIDS, at which point he sounded scarily like some members of the American Religious Right. After that, we went on to the Hector Pietersen Museum, commemorating one of the first and youngest victims of the Soweto student riots of (I think) 1976. This was a really fascinating place, which we unfortunately didn't have time to really thoroughly look through. From there, we went on to look around Nelson Mandela's house, where he lived both when he worked there and again for a short while after leaving jail - before it became obvious that the place could not cope with the number of people who would want to visit him.

After the Mandela house, we went for lunch at a Soweto restaurant (albeit one catering for tourists, but the food was pretty authentic meaning, yes, more mielie amongst it, but with much nicer accompaniments), and then headed back through Jo'burg, where we took in another museum or so, and were driven through neighbourhoods like Hillbrow which were historically fairly liberal, mixed areas but have now become seriously dangerous, largely because many of the middle-class blacks have fled the inner-city areas, which have been taken over by immigrants from other African countries. Hearing some South Africans (of whatever colour) talk about Nigerians sounds very similar to the rantings of the Daily Mail about asylum-seekers back in the UK. Some, less pleasant, aspects of humanity appear to be universal... (sighs)

At any rate, after all of this it was back to Gemini, where I ended up spending the rest of the evening chatting and watching DVDs with a bunch of 5 English girls who'd been volunteering over in SA, and were back in Jo'burg just for a weekend. All very pleasant, only interrupted by the horror of realising the bass rumbling we were hearing in the TV room was Din (Taiwanese guy) snoring in our dorm. He eventually went quiet (several hours later) but not before we'd started discussing various methods (non-lethal or otherwise...) for shutting him up.

And the next day, I flew to Australia. That's it, my time in Africa has actually finally been covered. Woohoo!

I'll pick up the story in Perth in my next posting, but for now, farewell!


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Monday, August 15, 2005

There be Dragons...

Hello again!

Picking up the thread from my last posting, we rejoin Grant and me on a Sunday morning in Durban, waiting around for the Baz Bus. Yes, I was back on the Baz again. Mostly because the day's destination, the Amphitheatre Backpackers, is up in the Northern Drakensberg, a fair old drive from the nearest town, but is a designated Baz stop. It's a quirky little place, and one with which I was already familiar, having stayed there on my previous visit to South Africa, and done the magnificent Tugela Falls walk (well, at times it was more of a climb...).

One aspect of the Baz which I can't fault is the ease of meeting those who are likely to be your companions for the next few days. In this case, Grant and I were joined by Kulraj, a British guy who (slightly similar to my original plans) was on unpaid leave from his company and off seeing the world, and an American lass from Minnesota, who went by the unlikely name of Betta. Turns out, as I should have guessed, this was just another of the many quirky ways of abbreviating Elizabeth (it's at least as logical a contraction as Libby, put it that way). She did provide endless amusement for the next few days, though, as Kulraj would wind her up by continually responding to things "yeah, you betcha!" - this is apparently something of a Minnesota thing. At any rate, she took it all in good spirit.

Arriving at the Backpackers mid-afternoon, it was obviously too late to get anything significant done that day, so we ended up just sitting around chatting, exchanging travellers' tales, for a while. In the evening, it was over to the restaurant/bar area, which is in what is effectively a vey big rondavel (the thatched round houses favoured by many of the tribes in South Africa) for dinner and a few drinks, as well as discussions on what to do the next day. There were a couple of other English couples there as well, whose names I have to admit I've forgotten now, all bar the fact that one of the girls was called George. The general consensus, unfortunately for me, was that almost everyone wanted to do the Tugela Falls walk. Which was understandable, as it is an amazing day-trip. I had been hoping to do the trip up to Lesotho which they also run, and had to make do with the prospect of going the following day, the Tuesday, which would unfortunately cut somewhat into my planned time in Jo'burg and Pretoria.

As it was, though, I got up around the same time as the others on the Monday morning (which can be nigh-on unavoidable when everybody else in your dorm is getting up), and was mooching around when the news came through: there was too much cloud over the section of the Amphitheatre where the Falls walk goes, and they had to cancel for that day. So, suddenly, the Lesotho trip was back on, and I was haring around like a decapitated chook trying to get my stuff together. Having dug out my camera, fleece, water bottle etc, Grant, Betta and I, along with the non-George English couple and a French couple who were also at the hostel, piled into the 4WD with our driver, whose name I now scandalously cannot remember, and we were off.

Our journey took us over the Provincial border between KwaZulu-Natal and Free State, as the crossing into Lesotho (pronounced Le-SOO-too) was somewhat further around the border. This might seem strange, given that Lesotho lay just the other side of the the Drakensberg range, which is visible from the hostel. However, you have to bear in mind that at this point it is an escarpment - effectively a long series of cliffs rather than a gentle set of foothills leading up into peaks - and there are very few crossings along the southern and eastern borders of Lesotho. The famous Sani Pass, further south down the Drakensberg, is one of the few which is passable to vehicle traffic. We were headed for another, which is actually on the north-eastern border of Lesotho, near to the vast community of QwaQwa.

No, I'm not making that name up. QwaQwa (pronounced Kwah-Kwah, but with one of the distinctive glottal "clicks" of the isiZulu and isiXhosa languages on the "K") is a real place, and it's a real big place. In fact, it's the largest settlement in Free State and quite a bit bigger than Bloemfontein, the provincial capital and 3rd national capital. Yes, they officially have a Legislative Capital (Cape Town, where the Parliament sits), an Executive Capital (Pretoria, where the Civil Service is based) and a Judicial Capital (Bloemfontein, where the Supreme Court sits). It's one of those lovely compromises South Africa just seems to work with, which anywhere else would be a recipe for chaos. Despite being the largest and richest city, Johannesburg is not, and never has been, a capital of South Africa. At any rate, QwaQwa, which grew out of yet another of the apartheid government's attempts to create black "homelands" and dump those not needed for industry there, is apparently now the 5th most populous urban area in the country (behind Jo'burg, Cape Town, Durbs and PE), but you're hard-pressed even to find it mentioned in any guidebook. Effectively, it's a giant township, but without the usual White South African city that generally provides the focus (and much of the employment) for the occupants. And, up on the cliffs above the southern end of this vast sprawl, at the end of an "unsealed road" (i.e. a track) which skirts up the side of the mountain with little or nothing in the way of safety barriers between vehicles and a vertiginous drop, lies probably South Africa's smallest border crossing.

After approaching up the afore-mentioned track, the prospective visitor to Lesotho passes through a wire-link fence and stops next to a small building containing a couple of officials from the Immigration department. I think they did have a computer up there, but it wasn't working that day, so our exit formalities were processed manually and, for the first time in about a month, I was headed into a new African country. As we passed through the wire-link fence on the other side of the South African border compound, I was expecting to find a Lesotho counterpart, but the track just headed down a valley and up the other side. When I asked him, our driver responded that the Lesotho post was a bit farther down the road.

Which it was, kind of. You see, the Lesotho border post consisted of a couple of caravans at the side of the road, one for immigration and one for customs. Both were empty. Apparently Lesotho wasn't bothering with its borders along this way at the moment, and was happy to leave it in the hands of the South Africans. In fact, the Customs caravan looked on the verge of collapse. It was an interesting welcome to Africa's highest country. A country that was also in the interesting (some would say damned uncomfortable) position of being, for many years, a Black African state completely enclosed by the apartheid Republic of South Africa.

The reasons for its independence basically go back (again) to the times of the British Empire, and the fact that the lands of the Sotho (or Basotho) people, under their King, submitted to the British separately from the Boers and were not engulfed in the manner of the Xhosa and the Zulu - unlike the latter two, the British never made any real attempts at colonising the areas the Sotho called home, and the majority of the conflicts they had had were with the Boers. Hence, like the Tswana people who lived in what was known as Bechuanaland (and became Botswana) and the Swazis, they stayed under direct British rule rather than become part of the Union of South Africa which was formed in the early 20th century. This also meant that they got their independence back as part of the steady implosion of the Empire after World War Two, and were not left totally at the mercy of the National Party. However, like all of the so-called Frontline States of the apartheid years, they were forced to be pragmatic to a certain extent, as South Africa controlled all land and air routes into and out of the country.

At any rate, though spared the iniquities of apartheid, Lesotho remained (and to a large extent still remains) a poor, predominantly agricultural country. There are differences between Lesotho and the majority-Black areas of rural South Africa, but they're not terribly pronounced. Like the Namibian dollar, the Lesotho currency is pegged 1-to-1 to the Rand, and their economy depends almost entirely on their large neighbour. At one point in the day, we saw an army barracks further over in a valley - the fact that Lesotho has an army at all is faintly ridiculous, as the only country they would ever practically be engaged in a struggle with is SA, and the SA Defence Force would swat the Lesotho Defence Force without breaking up a sweat. Cynics would suggest the soldiers are only there for the ego of the government, and as a more heavily-armed alternative to the police in case of civil disorder. And they'd probably be right...

Our agenda for the day featured walking up some hills ("No" proclaimed my knees, still sore from Zululand) to go and see some Bushman (Khoi-Khoi or Khoi-San, if you're being particular) rock art; going and seeing around a local school (to which a donation is made as part of each trip cost); seeing a sangoma (how original...); trying the local food and beer; and generally being gob-smacked by the stark mountain countryside.

The hill-climbing wasn't as bad as I'd feared, and it was, as ever, interesting to see a few more examples of rock art, in this case getting that slightly naughty warm and fuzzy feeling that very few tourists of any stripe had been up here (as far as I know, Amphitheatre runs the only tours up into this part of the country). I know that probably sounds contradictory, given my rant in previous postings about travellers obsessed with getting "off the beaten track", and, if I'm honest, it probably is. I guess I can be as competitive as the next person about what I have or haven't seen on my travels. At any rate, the exercise will have done me good. Which is what I always seem to end up saying when I have to exert myself remotely. 3 years driving a desk obviously made me even lazier than I thought.

After our little climb, it was back down to see around the school, shown around by the headmistess (an ex-pupil). Again, this gave the kind of perspective that middle-class white kids really do need hammered into them sometimes. Just seeing the facilities (or lack thereof) makes you realise, once again, everything we take for granted. The kids were happy to have the chance to be at school. The behaviour puts a lot of the spoilt litte hellions back in the UK utterly to shame. They were both grateful and proud to show off the desks that the visits from backpackers at Amphitheatre down the years had paid for. And they showed us the original school building, which, like several of the others, the pupils at the time had helped to build. Simultaneously heart-warming and heart-breaking.

After that, the sangoma was predictable and just a little bit boring. Having heard variations on the theme from both the Xhosa and the Zulu, I came perilously close to following my old practice from Uni and dozing off in lectures. The food was also predictable, being chunks of mielie with spinach. I've never been that fond of spinach, and eating it repeatedly with mielie certainly hasn't made me any more receptive to its dubious charms. And the beer was something of an experience. You see, this isn't like the ubiquitous Castle lager or anything, this is old-fashioned sorghum stuff. Fermented and served in what looked suspiciously like an old paint tin. The taste was, well, interesting. Comparing it to common or pub-variety beer is a bit like comparing half-fermented scrumpy to modern draught cider, only that helf-fermented beer doesn't have the saving grace of being produced from fruit. I did end up having a second swig as the communal pot went around, though. Just to be sure, you know...?

After that, it was getting on through the afternoon, so we headed back up through the non-existent border post (I was faintly annoyed at that, as I'd have liked to add another stamp to my passport), down through QwaQwa and back over to the backpacker lodge, where we had quite a nice dinner, accompanied by a "Bob Marley" cocktail, and then proceeded to liberally sample some local beer they had on draught (and rather a nice Porter it was, too). And then it was off to bed, as the next day it was time to head north again.

But that can wait for the next posting. Until then, fare well.


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Sunday, August 14, 2005


G'day again.

Well, for those who prior to this mammoth publication were largely unfamiliar with South Africa, this is the entry where I finally encounter probably South Africa's most famous denizens: the Zulu. However, I must caution you beforehand that this does not involve any "Don't throw those bloody spears at me!" moments (sorry, Owen...) - their warrior past notwithstanding, the Zulus are now citizens of South Africa like any other, and those of you addicted to the spectacle of Rorke's Drift and Isandhlwana would probably find them a little bit of an anti-climax.

This all comes about as a result of the Friday trip that I made with Grant, still travelling along the same way despite Mark's departure, from Durban to the Valley of a Thousand Hills. Now, for the more pedantic amongst you (stand up, Al), I have no idea if there actually were 1,000 hills along the valley, nor did I (or do I) particularly care. Suffice to say, the valley in question is indeed bracketed along its length by a great many hills. It's also home to a large Zulu community.

Big surprise, you may say, seeing as how it's in a province called KwaZulu-Natal, in which the Zulus are the majority population. And you'd have a point. The difference is more about the fact that the valley is more of a traditional Zulu setup than the townships around Durban - though obviously, traditional is very much a relative concept.

The endless fetishising by many travellers, especially the more militant of the backpacking community, of seeing things that are "traditional" or "original" or (here's the key one) "untouched" can get ridiculous. Specifically, anybody taking an organised tour to go and see something, rather than finding their own way there, cannot really be surprised if what they see can feel a trifle staged. Certainly, I have no patience for anybody who then proceeds to complain that the tour guide only takes them to see people who dress up for the tourists - although this didn't happen on this trip, I have seen Westerners getting quite irate because they don't think a guide is taking them somewhere "authentic" enough or (this makes me cringe) "off the beaten track". I have every respect for the guys who really do go out and find things on their own, but I make no pretensions at the fact that I will happily take tours to go and see things, preferably with a local doing the guiding, and that I can handle it if these can feel like I'm being spoonfed a particular view.

So, our trip to the Valley was as authentic as I personally feel the need for: the guide who drove us for about an hour up from Durban was a Zulu; the lass who showed us around the area was a Zulu; the sangoma was a Zulu; the local ladies who brought us lunch were Zulu; the little kids who came and sang and danced for us were Zulu. The village was a working community, and there was a minimum of staging stuff. We weren't prevailed upon at every single stage to buy things.

Although I knew the Zulu and the Xhosa were distant cousins (both are members of the Nguni group that migrated down from East Africa), sitting through the presentation by the sangoma made me realise their traditional beliefs are near-identical, and the food and language are pretty similar too. The little kids from the local school did some fairly energetic dancing, largely involving high-kicking and clapping. They then insisted that we try it, too, which provoked a fair bit of amusement (my attempts at high-kicking were notably hilarious). Overall, though, it was far less disturbing than the experience we'd had in Coffee Bay, where the local girls' dance group came and did some traditional dancing at the Coffee Shack hostel, which basically involved them singing and jumping around energetically while wearing just a skirt and necklaces - a bunch of girls in their early teens doing this is not a comfortable thing if you've been brought up with Western taboos about public nudity...

The food was similar to what we'd had in Transkei, with the main staple being mielie (maize), which is ground down and then cooked either as kind of equivalent of rice or cous-cous or something, or laid out as a kind of bread-like cake. Both those descriptions ascribe far too much elegance and taste to it, though - mielie is incredibly bland. It's then generally accompanied by spinach, and sometimes squash/pumpkin. If you're really lucky, you might get some chaka-laka, which is a kind of spicy tomato salsa. Carnivores, I'm afraid, would be disappointed, as meat only tends to be eaten as part of celebrations, not from day to day. It's also mostly eaten with the fingers, by balling up some mielie and using it to scoop up bits of the accompaniments, which is refreshingly messy when you get used to it, but again is a slight challenge to any Westerners wedded to the concept of cutlery!

We also went down to by the river, and had what was probably the most fascinating part of the tour, as our guide regaled us with an explanation of traditional Zulu courtship practices, which are fairly circumspect, and revolve around the girl telling the guy frequently to go away, before finally signalling acceptance with a woven-grass bracelet. Obviously, we all got to make our efforts at making these bracelets (even we menfolk, in the spirit of equal opportunities), which ranged from the good, though the passable (probably where I'd rate my final effort) to the utterly pitiful (where my first effort would lie...).

The other thing we did a fair bit of, unsurprisingly given the name of the place, was climb hills. Which just reminded me how much I hate hills. Ah well. It almost certainly did me some good, and doesn't seem so dreadful from the point of view of an office job, where the most strenuous thing to do is go upstairs to the canteen (and then go and sit out on the huge balcony in the sunshine, looking back west towards the Melbourne CBD in the distance...). It was quite knackering at the time, though. Which made it all the more surprising that I was in the mood for going out that night.

In fact, I reckon what drove me on was going for a curry with Grant. I hadn't had a really good, proper Indian curry since Stellenbosch (and that one got buried under somewhat of a session), and it had been even longer than that for Grant, so we went the whole hog, poppadums, naans, a full blow-out curry. Absolutely blissful. And a lot more elegant than Durban's own unique contribution to the world of rapid cuisine, namely the Bunny Chow. This delightfully-named treat consists of half a loaf of white bread (unsliced), with the innards scooped out, a heap of curry ladled in, and then the removed bread back on top. I've only had one once, last year when I first went to SA, but I quite liked it. Then again, it had curry in, so I was pretty much always going to.

After this, we headed back to the hostel for a couple of beers, after which Grant crashed out, claiming exhaustion and incipient bankruptcy. I ended up sitting around chatting with some other lads at the bar, one of whom, I realised after a while, I had actually also talked to at the same hostel bar some 18 months previously, when I stayed there for a night in my previous time in Durban. English ex-pat, ex-Army, that particular kind of Home Counties accent that sounds a bit like a horse - nice enough bloke, though. I also got chatting to two lasses from Kent, who were (to be honest) both rather stunning and had half the guys in the place in a lather. Which turned out to be handy, as one of the guys was the owner of the bar we'd been at the previous night, and made sure we got in for free, despite it being a Friday night. I then got to spend an hour or so chatting away with the girls whilst watching every single shark in the place come and try his luck (and crash and burn), which, when I know I haven't got a chance of getting anywhere myself, I always find really quite funny. They only stayed around for that hour or so, though, as they were leaving the next morning. I then ended up having a few more drinks with Zuzka, the Czech receptionist, and her Aussie room-mate, Peta, discussing the state of the world, the joys of travelling, Aussie bands, and all those other kind of things one does when moderately drunk and not remotely interested in the music being played. And then, on the walk home, Peta and I got the amusement value of watching Zuzka dancing down the middle of the street. A quirky, but quality, evening/night.

The Saturday was thus, by necessity, a somewhat less busy day. Nice little lie-in, then up to watch the sport - I believe it was the Wallabies vs All Blacks game from the Tri-Nations, though that's largely on the basis of working out where I was for the other games rather than from any particular certainty. I remember it was a pretty decent match, though. After that, I met up with Grant and we popped down the road to a pub to watch the first games of the English Premiership season - unfortunately, the game we both desperately wanted to see (West Ham vs Blackburn) was apparently the lowest priority match (it was due to be shown as a delayed broadcast at 1am, and hence they didn't even tell us the score!), but we got a couple of games to watch. Basically, it was as much about just re-affirming that the annual club football famine of the summer was properly over. And having a few beers. Despite starting the drinking in the afternoon, though, it was a relatively quiet evening, spent at the hostel bar chatting with Grant, Zuzka, Peta and a few other random fellow drinkers. Neither Grant nor I was in the mood for a heavy one, as the next day we were due to be off bright and early (again), heading northwards to the Drakensberg mountains. But that'll have to wait until next time. Until then, remember: I am the Weakest Link. Goodbye!

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Thursday, August 11, 2005

On The Buses

[Remembering back to the last Blog, I believe I left it after much screaming of Buffalo and wandering round surrounded by more tin-foil than a garlic bread convention, as the Space Party at the Coffee Shack hostel wound down to a close. Looking back through my diary (one of the only things I haven't managed to lose...), that was the night of Tuesday 9th August. This was actually written on Monday 28th November. So that's something like 15 or 16 weeks behind. Ah well.]

The morning of Wednesday 10th dawned, but I wasn't around to see it. That Wednesday was a very lazy day - I slept in, and then mooched around the hostel, writing up a fair bit of this very Blog, copying some music from Mark's MP3 player and generally doing nothing much. In the evening, a bunch of us climbed up the hill behind the hostel to sit on the cliffs and watch the sunset. Except it was quite overcast, so we didn't really see much fun. It was still probably good for me to get the exercise, though I somewhat spoiled the effect by following it up with a couple of beers. Had a few more beers back at the hostel, but was somewhat more subdued (though there was still a fair bit of BUFFALO going on) - main thing I remember is talking with this South African lad who was actually an ex-driver for Acacia (having just recently quit), and watching him try to chat up a Quebecoise lass who was there with her boyfriend. Unsurprisingly, he got absolutely nowhere.

The next day it was time to leave Coffee Bay but, since it was a rather nicer, sunnier affair, I went for a wander along the beach, which is really beautiful For me, though, there wasn't enough to really keep me amused in Coffee Bay, so I wasn't particularly sad to be moving on. So, we piled back into the minibus, Mark, Grant, Hannah, Beth, Warren and me, and took the long drive back up to Umtata (thankfully this time without the driving rain which haunted us on the way down, so we could enjoy the view).

The others were all rejoining the Baz, headed in one direction or the other, but I was continuing my stubborn attempts to travel independently, and was booked on SA Roadlink, a new company on the main scene since my previous time in SA, for the trip through to Durban. And I can generally recommend them, as the coach was comfy enough and was much cheaper than most of the other options (I think it was about 100 Rand, which is about 9 quid). They had a video system onboard but, as this was used to display a BeeGees concert, then The Pacifier (Vin Diesel doing a comedy with kids, somewhat a la Kindergarten Cop), then a Simon & Garfunkel concert, you could argue that it might not have been to everyone's taste. See below, though, for why I don't give them a totally ringing endorsement:

You see, the really memorable thing about that trip was that we ended up making somewhat of a detour due to accidentally leaving a passenger behind at one point...
This may have been partly due to me, as the hostel hadn't actually booked me on the bus (as they'd claimed) so I bought a walk-up ticket and hence wasn't on the manifest. So, when the hostess counted people back onto the bus after one 10-minute rest stop, she thought we were all on but one guy demonstrably wasn't. However, we only found this out at least half an hour down the road, when the driver got rung up by the office to say he had to go back and fetch this guy!! Unsurprisingly, he was not at all impressed, and was quite loud about this for an extended period of time. He was apparently going to try and sue them, and one of the staff actually asked me if I would be willing to be a witness that they didn't just drive off after a couple of minutes leaving him there - I was quite glad to be able to say that I was only in the country for another week or so, and thus couldn't...

Anyways, that somewhat unintentionally livened up the trip, but did mean we were somewhat later into Durban, aka Durbs, than we were meant to be. With all the kerfuffle, I decided costs be buggered, I was going to get a cab from the bus station up to the hostel, and hence it must have been about 10:30 at night by the time I staggered in the door of Tekweni Backpackers. Amusingly, though, despite all this I was still in Durbs before the Baz Bussers - because they divert to a few places away from the highway, it actually takes them longer than the coaches (even if said coaches have an unplanned detour). Eventually, though, Mark and Grant turned up, along with Warren, the Aussie lad we'd been hanging around with at Coffee Shack. Our original plan had been to try and go for a curry when we met up (Durban is home to the largest Indian population in South Africa, and is justifiably famous for its curries), but, in a surprising inversion from back home, it was a bit too late for a curry place to be open, so we ended up going for Italian at a place called Spiga D'Oro.

After food, Grant was feeling knackered and headed back to the hostel, but Mark and Warren were both up for a couple of beers, as this was their only night in town before heading onwards, so we went up the road to the Zeta Bar, which was your fairly typical slightly trendy South African bar - and hence, a bit of a shock to the system after a couple of weeks on the Wild Coast and Garden Route. Lots of the "beautiful people" sitting around listening to R'n'B or writhing on the dance floor, paying stupid prices for drinks (at least for SA - still cheaper than a Student Union back home!) and generally looking quite pretentious. Could almost have been back home, except that the crowd would have been more ethnically mixed in Britain. After a couple of beers, none of us was really in the mood, so we headed back to the hostel, and I bid my farewells to the lads. I was quite sad to be saying goodbye to Mark, in particular, as we'd been travelling along together for over a week now, which sounds like nothing, but feels like eternity when you're backpacking! He was a good lad, even though he did support Man U (and those who know me will know that's quite a hurdle to overcome with me...).

Anyways, that gets us into Durban, and I reckon that's enough for one posting - next one will take in Grant and I heading out to the Valley of a Thousand Hills to meet some Zulus, the start of the Premier League season, and the trip back up to the Amphitheatre, in the Drakensberg mountains...

For now, that's all folks!


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Wednesday, August 10, 2005

Transkei Travails

[Note: This entry has the dubious distinction of having been the longest work-in-progress of anything I did on this site. Having settled in Melbourne, a combination of busy-ness, laziness and the sheer realisation of how far behind this had got meant the Blog got stuck on the back-burner. Or indeed, right off the back of the stove and slowly congealing in a corner behind the hub, developing new and exciting cultures of mould...]

Hello again. Yes, I've pulled my lazy behind out of bed and in out of the sunshine once more (and dragged myself away from my addiction to the Guardian's website - it's amazing how hooked I can get on news from home), and it's time to continue my ever-interrupted traveller's tales, picking up where I left off, in Cintsa.

On, it has to be said, a quite beautiful sunny Sunday morning, which gave the lie once again to any "normal" notions I had of what winter should be like. And, Buccs being what it is, Sunday also meant free breakfast up at the house, so I feasted on cereal, fresh bread rolls and fruit. Yes, Mum, I did say fruit. I may not have turned into a paragon of virtue with my diet, but I'm not averse to the odd bit of pineapple or orange. So I spent a pleasant hour or so chatting away with some of those I had met the previous night over dinner and the bar, including Rachel and Olivia (the two Irish girls I had previously encountered at the elephant sanctuary and Monkeyland at Plett) and one of the stranger travelling couples I have met, a Kiwi guy and Frederique, a French lass from the Isle Maurice, better known to we anglophones as Mauritius.

And then, around 11am or so, the Baz Bus arrived from the west, depositing my partners-in-crime Mark and Grant, from Storms River, the latter still in recovery from what by all accounts was a pretty massive night they had on arrival in Jeffreys Bay. After catching up on their stories (largely revolving around the ridiculous antics of Grant and Patrick, who had, as expected, stayed on in J Bay), we ended up going around and mucking about on the beach for a couple of hours, before heading over to town, to the cafe/pub where I had watched the rugby the previous day, where we prevailed upon the management to show the Community Shield.

Those of you out there who follow the round-ball religion with the same zeal I do will already know this, but for the others out there, the Community Shield is the traditional curtain-raiser to the English top-division football league season. Known in earlier years as the Charity Shield, it is contested by the previous year's English Champions and FA Cup Winners (in the relatively uncommon event that one team "does the Double" by winning both, the second-place team from the League takes part). It is officially a "friendly" game, although you would not always know this from the approach taken by some of the players, and also generally acknowledged as being of little use in predicting how things will go for the rest of the season. In this case, the Premiership Champions, Chelsea, took on the FA Cup holders, Arsenal, making it an all-London affair. Except, due to the rebuilding work still going on at Wembley ("The Home Of Football"), it was to be played at the Millenium Stadium in Cardiff. Which is an amazing venue, but it always strikes me as a trifle strange to see two teams from the capital, accompanied by their fans, streaming west to the Welsh capital. Though I guess it's no more anachronistic than getting, say, Liverpool and Manchester United to come down and play the match at Wembley.

The game itself was not too bad, the food was good, the beer perfectly acceptable, and we all three of us engaged in the usual game of trying to predict how our teams would do during the season (particularly poignant as my team, Blackburn Rovers, would take on Grant's, West Ham United, in the first round of matches the following weekend). It was a nice way to spend an afternoon, and we were all in pretty good spirits as we headed back over the sandbar and up to our respective cabins, and thence on to the bar. There, all was going relatively sedately until we got chatting to 3 girls from their cabin: Candace, Marie and another whose name I know began with a 'C' but can't recall (curse my missing diary!), which is surprising, as she utterly monopolised the conversation. For the sake of being able to describe events, I will refer to her as Carrie, which I think is close.

Now, I know a few of you will be thinking "That's a bit rich, coming from Pat!", and I would agree that I can at times be a little overbearing (not to mention just downright loud!), especially when I've had maybe one or two more drinks than is strictly good for me. However, I had nothing on this girl. Mark's comment the following morning was along the lines of "Well, Marie and Candace seemed pretty nice, pity we barely got to hear what they thought about anything...!" This was noticeable when we went through the usual exchanges of travellers' tales, and then even more so once we got started on the drinking games.

And then, as I probably should have known it would, a game of "I Have Never" was begun. And, again, Carrie was at the fore, whether it was in loudly explaining the rules to the 3 Dutch boys who had been suborned into the game, or in loudly proclaiming things she hadn't done. Or, more pertinently, things she had done. As I've probably noted before, there are some people who play this game and delight in dropping their friends and companions into trouble whenever possible. However, there are also some people who just love shouting to the world the things they've done, whether it be to try and shock others or just to grab attention. And Carrie was one of the latter group, hence becoming another of those people along the way about whom (and most especially about whose sex-life) I've found our more than I would ever really have wanted.

Eventually, probably around 2am, the bar closed down for the night, so we adjourned to the cabin the boys and our drinking companions shared. There, we listened to music for a bit, hindered somewhat by the fact that the only speakers available were the tiny little ones used with personal stereos (not the best of things to use when trying to make music heard over the background din of 9 rather noisy drunkards). And then Carrie and Marie decided it was a good time to go for a swim... Which they just announced, before going and changing into their swimwear and heading off down the hill to Buccs' small pool. In the middle of the night, when drunk as skunks. Barking mad, if you ask me, and they did seem less sure it was a good idea when they tottered back up the hill 20 minutes or so later. Still, by this point the rest of us were rapidly crashing out, and everyone kind of drifted off back to their respective rooms.

Bit of a weird night. And wouldn't have been an issue, had we been able to sleep in and just get it out of our system. Unfortunately, Mark, Grant and I had signed up the previous day to do a "1-Day Transkei Experience" trip that day. Meaning we had to be up and about around 6am, catching the tail-end of the sunrise as we breakfasted before heading out into the heart of the Transkei region. And Mark was not happy. To be honest, after about 4 hours' sleep I wasn't exactly bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, but he was miserable, and making noises about just going back to sleep if possible. We soldiered on, though, meeting up with our guide for the day, Ayanda (or just Aya), and our two fellow travellers, a couple of American girls called Lola and Indira. The former was a tall, red-headed New York bartender and DJ, whose real name I later found out was apparently Susan; the latter, a black Southern girl, also settled in New York.

Of the first part of our journey, I do not remember so much, largely because I dozed against the window of the Land Cruiser as Aya drove us out of Cintsa and along to the new highway being pushed down from the N2 national highway to the coast, nearly paralleling the Great Kei river. It is this river which gives its name to the region: Transkei, the land across the Kei, was the second of the two large Xhosa "bantustans" set up by the Apartheid regime. Indeed, they apparently offered to release Nelson Mandela, known to many of the Xhosa simply as Madiba, when he was on Robben Island, if he would move to the Transkei, where his family was of royal blood, and act as the local president/king/chief. Knowing that this would legitimise the attempted partition of the country, Mandela refused, but he still maintains a family home in the region. At any rate, my snoozing came to a pretty abrupt end when we reached the end of the currently-completed section of the link road, and began dipping alongside the new road-bed on the service tracks, bouncing this way and that.

Hence, I was definitely up and awake when we made the crossing at the mouth of the Kei, by ferry, entering the Transkei proper. Once arrived on the far side, we drove up the hill and Aya proceeded to tell us some of the history of the area and its people. I have covered a certain amount of this in the course of my blogs, but I will repeat a few bits of it here. The Xhosa are not indigenous to Southern Africa, having been part of a grand migration down from East Africa along with their "cousins", the Zulu and the Swati (or Swazi). The Swazi eventually settled in the far east of the region (what is now Swaziland), the Zulus slightly further south and west (in modern day KwaZulu-Natal), the Xhosa further still south and west (in the modern Eastern Cape). The process of splitting along these lines was somewhat acrimonious, which laid some of the foundations of the divisions between the tribes which endure to this day. However, the true tragedy of the region has more of its roots in the 19th Century.

The early 19th Century saw two key series of events that would cause havoc in southern Africa: the first was a gradual intensification of British interest, after they claimed the Cape Colony from the Dutch in the aftermath of the Napoleonic Wars in Europe; the second was the rise of a powerful chieftain amongst the Zulu tribes, by the name of Shaka. The increased interest of the British manifested itself with the attempts to settle further along the coast, and one bastion of this was the area around Grahamstown (another of South Africa's university towns, and in some ways a counterpart to Stellenbosch for anglophone South Africans), north of Port Elizabeth. Unsurprisingly, this resulted in conflicts, sometimes turning into outright war, between the British and the Xhosa. The rise of Shaka, though, caused havoc across southern Africa - the word used most often now is difaqane, but it is hard for this to convey the destruction and mass migrations that were kicked off by the rise of the Zulu Empire. Suffice it to say that the upheavals were significant enough that the Trekboers, those Dutch settlers from the Cape who chafed under British rule and set off into the interior to found their own new states, reckoned some parts of the Veld to be uninhabited when they arrived, not realising that they were hitting the aftermath of several fairly major wars.

Pressed by the Zulus to the north-east, and the British coming up from the south-west, the Xhosa faced challenges that had not bothered them in all the years since they arrived in the region. And matters were made worse by the decision in the 1850s of many, in response to a somewhat apocalyptic prophecy by a local girl, to slaughter their herds. Apparently, these would then be replaced by the Xhosa's grateful ancestors, and then some, giving them the riches and the strength to fight back against the British. The prophecy turned out to be baseless, and accelerated the empoverishment of the Xhosa.

The 20th Century was hardly kinder than the 19th, with open discrimination by successive governments of the Union of South Africa (formed in 1910 by an uneasy pact between the British and the Boers, who had been beaten, albeit at great cost, in the Anglo-Boer Wars of the 1890s) followed, after the election victory of the National Party in 1948, by the construction of "Grand Apartheid". As noted earlier, the Eastern Cape, and the Xhosa, formed much of the bedrock of the African National Congress, which led the fightback against the Apartheid State. It's all a pretty sad tale.

Now, though, despite the handicaps of a century of government-enforced poverty, things are beginning to change. It's not going to happen overnight, but the Transkei is starting to awaken. However, it hasn't lost touch with its roots, as we found when we visited a cultural centre, meeting a sangoma, a traditional healer. Note that there is a world of difference between a Sangoma, who works with herbs and the like, and a Witch Doctor, who makes use of bones. I never met one of the latter, but met Sangomas from the Xhosa, the Zulu and the Sotho people. As well as trying one of the Sangoma's concoctions, we had a go at grinding mielie, or maize-meal, and took part in some dancing. Luckily, I don't think any photos were taken of me prancing around, waving a stick and cheering. I'm sure it is quite impressive as a spectacle when done properly, but I'm equally sure that I just looked like a total berk...

After the visit to the cultural centre and the sangoma, we headed down to the coast, to the wreck of a freighter called the Jacarandah, where we had a late lunch. Then it was time to start heading back west towards Cintsa, racing the twilight. Once we got back to town, we didn't head straight for Buccs but diverted to the township outside of the resort, and to Aya's local shebeen (a township bar, so named by the Irish missionaries who helped set up some of the early ones), where we had a few drinks and met some of the locals, particularly some of the kids, and listened to some eardrum-shattering local music. Your average shebeen may look like a shack and have little in the way of furniture, but it will often also have a TV showing Premier League football and a sound-system near-capable of registering on the Richter scale. And the sound system in this one was no exception - given that my hearing's pretty sensitive at the best of times, I just accepted that I would be deaf to anything other than the music for a bit, and enjoyed the spectacle of the local kids dancing to the music - and some of them were pretty enthusiastic dancers, although the attitude of a couple of the younger lads wouldn't have been out of place at 2am on a Friday night out!

After maybe an hour at the shebeen, though, it was time to head back to Buccs. Having totally failed to plan for what we would do in terms of food, we were lucky that Aya rang ahead and managed to add us on the end of the list for food at the bar that night, which was a rather pleasant Bangers'n'Mash - not exactly fine cuisine I know, but it had been a hell of a long time since I'd had that kind of comfort food. After that, it was a case of a few beers here, a few beers there, a bit of daft-arse dancing with Unathi and Adam, watching in bemusement as various couples did "body-shots" of tequila off each other (those who don't know what this is, do not need me explaining it...), a few more beers, watching Mark and Grant in their seeming quest to play as many games of pool as possible while in South Africa (I reckon they clocked up at least 15 just while we were at Storms River), this time against the Baz Bus driver for the next day (Johnnie), a few more beers, chatting with our friends from the previous night, recognising a very nice Canadian couple whom I had met in Malawi, ending up with an African drum trying to riff along to the music...

It was a quite a long, but rather a fun night. At least, it was for me. One of my room-mates managed to be drunk as a skunk and know almost nothing about it in the morning, while Grant was still complaining days later about how we grazed his forehead when we hoisted him up on the bar to have a body-shot done off him...! Luckily the next morning wasn't an early one, as we were only heading off late morning on the Baz Bus. Yes, after just one sector travelling independently, I had given up on my "No more Baz Bus" resolution - largely because I didn't want to backtrack into frickin' East London, especially given that the hostel wasn't doing a drop-off there as it was a public holiday. When that kind of logistical "aaargh" crops up, I try to just take the hint that somebody wants me to take the damned Baz Bus. Anyways, it gave me the chance to chat with Grant and Mark (still both bound to the Baz), as well as with Joanne and her brother Simon, whom we had met in the bar the previous night.

We were amused at this point by Johnnie (our driver) putting on a comedy clip involving a guy describing your body when drinking as being a bit like a party, with your stomach as a bouncer on the door. Involved numerous silly accents (Scots for whisky, Japanese for sake, Mexican for tequila etc) and many allusions to the perils we put ourselves through when imbibing to excess. And, given that was what many of the passengers had done the previous night, it went down a storm. I was on the verge of an uncontrollable giggling fit.

[NB This is where the interrupted narrative picks up, over a month after I wrote the first bit...]

So, it was a wet Tuesday, and we were heading into the heart of "Black South Africa", getting dropped off at the Shell Service Station outside the town of Umtata. This is a fairly common occurrence in SA, where many of the bus-stops for towns are actually at the big service-stations out on the highways where they pass around the outside of town. And Umtata is, by all accounts, not that great a place to spend much time as a tourist. This is not to say that it fits into the torist stereotype (and, indeed, the stereotype seen by many in the sheltered South African priveleged classes) that the Wild Coast is a deadly dangerous place where you'll get car-jacked at a moment's notice. It's more that it's apparently pretty dull, which is why my stop there was only to join up with the other backpackers off both the east-bound and west-bound Baz buses getting one of the ubiquitous minibus shuttles down to Coffee Bay, and in particular to the Coffee Shack.

The Coffee Shack is another one of those hostels which is kind of impossible not to hear about on the backpacker grapevine. However, unlike Buccs, it gets some mixed reviews, as some people rave about how laid-back and chilled-out it is, and how much more "proper African" it feels, while others call it a self-indulgent backwater stuffed with stoner backpackers. And, as ever, the truth is probably a bit of both. I have to admit that I fell significantly less in love with Coffee Bay than I did with the area around Cintsa, but that may be because I like still having that little bit of a Western feel. And it may be because it rained for a significant portion of the time we were in Coffee Bay.

Not that I minded that much, as the first day, once we had arrived and settled in, we were informed it was their weekly Theme Party Night. So we all got let loose with a supply of cardboard, glue, tinfoil and our best Blue Peter-honed instincts (for those who didn't grow up in the UK, Blue Peter was a childrens' programme that invariably featured the presenters making something improbable out of cardboard and "sticky-backed plastic", which I'm convinced is actually a controlled substance, as I never ever saw the stuff anywhere other than on that programme...) to make ourselves Space-themed costumes.

Despite initial misgivings about it all being a bit silly, most of the current guests got into the theme, with Hannah and Beth (two other English girls we'd met on the minibus) silvering up some of what I think are called "Deely-Boppers" (the headbands with wobbly things on the end of springs), Grant silvering up a cap and making a fake silver medallion to go as a "cyber-Chav", and Joanne coiling up her hair in side-twists a la Princess Leia. And me? I made myself some pointy ears, a phaser gun and a badge, and made like an extra from Star Trek. All remakably daft, but eased along by happy hour at the bar.

Ah yes, the bar at the Coffee Shack. Home to the Buffalo Rules of Drinking. Namely, that any individual putting a beverage on the pool table, or any individual consuming a beverage with their right hand, who is spotted gets "BUFFALOOOOO!" bellowed at them and is forced to down their drink. Gets anarchic. Especially when people are drinking cocktails and the like (I have to admit that I really miss South Africa's lovely cheap cocktails). Made for a bit of a mad night. As did the Killer Pool competitions. And the various drinking games, the most deadly of which was "Roxanne" - it involves putting on the song of that name by Sting (or was it a hit back when he was with The Police? I can never remember), and you have to drink a shot of beer every time he sings the name Roxanne. Really quite heavy going.

And eventually, it was time for us all to turn into pumpkins. Or go to bed. Either would probably have been appropriate at that point. Either could well have been plausible if anyone had been over-indulging in the Transkei's most infamous crop. But I was happy to crash out, heading back to my bunk in a dorm in a rondavel, the traditional Xhosa roundhouse for some much-needed kip.

And here I will abort this tale for now, and try and give a quick update of where I am, before I continue with my tales of life on the road. Adieu, mes amis!


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Sunday, August 07, 2005

Avast there, me hearties...

[At around this point, I totally lost the plot with updates. Everything from here on in was written at least months after the event, often working from incomplete or nonexistent notes, So don't be disappointed if it's not always up to my standards. I'd also by now pretty much accepted that my notebook, that container of all my jottings as I went along on this trip, was gone. To mangle a famous quote, to lose one diary is unfortunate, to lose two in a row smacks of carelessness. Anyway, I last left off as I separated from my travelling companions of the previous few days, leaving them behind in J Bay as I rolled on to a late-night arrival in Port Elizabeth, a.k.a. P.E.]

PE is South Africa's 4th largest city (after Jo'burg, Cape Town and Durban), an industrial town in the Eastern Cape and, to come extent, the home base of the African National Congress, known to the world as the ANC. This is largely because the ANC is, once you strip away the apartheid-era Black and White prism, a Socialist party, with its roots in the trade union movement. Though it's currently having what might be called a "New Labour moment" (for those familiar with UK politics of the last few decades) as the government is trying to pass more market-friendly legislation and is involved in very acrimonious disputes with COSATU, the Confederation of South African Trades Unions. Hence, though the ANC is associated by many people with the huge Soweto townships outside Jo'burg, and certainly draws much of its support from there, its foundation points were more heavily laid in the Xhosa homelands of the Eastern Cape, and many of its leadership (including President Thabo Mbeki and ex-President Nelson Mandela) are Xhosa from the Eastern Cape. All this politics aside, it also has some of the best urban beaches in South Africa, which has made it a perennial favourite for seaside holidays with richer families from the interior, and is well-placed to access some good game-spotting opportunities, most notably the Addo Elephant National Park.

So I just skipped straight through town. Why, you might ask? Well, I'd spent a few days in PE when I was in South Africa back in early 2004, and seen much of what I wanted to see there, so I wanted to press on up the coast. For my next stop was an unassuming little town called Cintsa, a beach resort at the mouth of a river flowing into the Indian Ocean. Oh, and home to what is generally considered to be one of the best, if not the best, backpackers in South Africa: Buccaneers.

Again, my determination to spend time at Buccs (as it is frequently called - the South Africans are as addicted to abbreviations as we Brits or the Aussies) was born out of my previous trip to South Africa. More specifically, the incredulity amongst many of my backpacking brethren (and sistren) that I was not, at that time, planning to spend any time there. That can be partly explained by the fact that I've traditionally done much of my planning of trips by the time-honoured procedure of frantically reading the Rough Guide for my intended destination (or, if there isn't one available, resorting to the Lonely Planet, or hitting both if I can get them from the library), working out what things I am likely to want to see and working out how I can shoe-horn it all into the time available. And, to be brutally honest, Cintsa does not attract an awful lot of mentions on the basis of "things to do in...". It's a fairly quiet place.

But, and it's a big but, it has one of the best places for Backpackers to stay in South Africa, and the grapevine, otherwise known as word-of-mouth, is a spectacularly effective PR tool on the backpacker scene, particularly somewhere like South Africa where the majority of travellers are following almost the same route for large sectors of their journey, and where the Baz Bus concentrates a lot of them even closer together. Word gets around. And Buccs is, indeed, a great place to stay. It's not the newest hostel in the country, hasn't got necessarily the best facilities, but it's got an incredibly friendly vibe and set-up (a bit like a Backpackers' holiday village) and a couple more things in its favour: firstly, it is a Baz Bus stop, meaning a lot of people will just use it as one of the first logical places to get off after PE and they are dropped at the door; and secondly, it occupies something of a sweet spot climatically, being at about the point where the climate of the Garden Route, green and fertile due to the fact it does get a fair amount of rain each year, and prone to being a touch chilly for some sun-lizards' tastes, merges into that of the Wild Coast, hotter and steadier and with warmer waters that actually become comfortable to swim in.

So, it's pretty busy, and that's where I'd decided to allow myself the unfamiliar luxury of spending 3 whole days in the same place. Or, at least, that was the plan. It was also where I had temporarily left off travelling with the Baz Bus, as the frequency drops after PE, and so had switched to making this leg of the journey on one of the national coach companies, Intercape. This involved getting up at about 5:30 and taking my life in my hands to walk a few hundred yards downhill from the PE Backpackers (which I'd picked largely on its proximity to the bus company offices) and across the square to pick up my ticket and wait around for the 6:30 bus up the coast, which I was taking as far as East London. The area between PE and East London makes up the Ciskei, one of the two Xhosa "tribal homelands" set up by the apartheid government in the Bantustan era (when they attempted to rid themselves of any blacks they didn't currently need by foisting them on unproductive parts of the country which had been declared as nominally independent homelands for the different "tribes"). Like most of the ex-tribal lands, it's a pretty poor area, with settlement consisting mostly of small farmsteads, interspersed with some villages - a different world from the former White areas.

And it was through this area we were travelling when my plans for the day were cut to pieces, when we came across a car on fire at the edge of the road. Our bus driver stopped to find out what was going on, talking to some of the locals who were already using branches to beat around the outskirts of the fire that had spread from the vehicle. From this, he found out that it apparently had nearly a full tank of petrol, and hence could go off like a bomb at any moment. It was, therefore, not terribly surprising when he ruled that we would not drive past the vehicle until the fire in it had been put out. So, he and various others from onboard the bus got off, joining passengers from other vehicles behind us and the aforementioned locals, and began fighting the outlying fire as best they could. Which mostly meant getting long bush branches and beating the grass-fire out - nobody was going near the car itself, as they waited for the local fire brigade to turn up. Which they eventually did, although I was slightly surprised at the "fire engine" - basically, a bakkie (pick-up truck) with a big tank of water on the back, which was then pumped through a hose to fight the fire. Not the most high-tech, but it worked. I have to say, though, I wouldn't want to be one of the volunteer fire brigade there, as they were attempting to put out a potentially explosive car fire without any kind of protective gear whatsoever.

At any rate, once the fire was out we wended our merry way onwards up to East London. Unfortunately, the fire had delayed us for the best part of an hour. This, it turned out, was more than sufficient for me to have missed my connecting pick-up for Buccaneers'. When I rang them, they weren't terribly apologetic, but agreed to divert someone who was coming into town that afternoon to come and pick me up. So, I ended up spending several hours sitting somewhat disconsolately on a concrete bench by the bus-stop in the northern part of East London, keeping out of the sun as much as possible. I guess it could have been worse.

Eventually, Sal, one of the Price family who own Buccs, rocked up and I got my promised lift up to Cintsa. In fact, I got dropped off in the town itself, where I was lucky enough to be able to catch the second half of the South Africa v New Zealand rugby game in the bar in town, in company with a bunch of other hostel guests (and not a few of the staff). Another scintillating match, which the Boks won pretty narrowly, leaving the locals in fine mood. After the game, I headed back to the hostel, which, it turned out, entailed going down to the beach and across the sandbar at the mouth of the inlet before climbing back up to Buccs. There I was checked in by Unathi, another of the wonderful characters I met on my trip, who was almost never seen without her bonnet-like hat. After settling into my dorm, I popped up to the bar, where I ended up having a couple of beers and playing pool with Adam, the Aussie lad in charge of the bar for that night.

Soon enough, though, it was on up to the family house, at the top of the hill, the venue for dinner that evening. I had signed up, at least in part due to the lack of alternative options, for their Saturday-night Xhosa Dinner Party. And boy, was I glad I did. It gave a fascinating insight into Xhosa food, but in a manner familiar to westerners. So, we got the usual staple of mielie pap (ground corn/maize-flour), and dishes of spinach and squash. But we also got some other dishes, some with meat, some with beans, that would only really have been brought out by the Xhosa at feast times. My later experiences with native African food were to leave me with mostly bland impressions, but the food at Buccs was pretty good. There were a couple of full long tables of backpackers enjoying the evening, which was really rather convivial and grown-up. As so often with me, when someone else is providing the food and seconds are readily available, I ate too much, and spent much of the rest of the night feeling happy but very, very fat. And that night was spent mostly in the bar, getting to know some of my new hostel-mates and watching Adam and Unathi lead various people in African-style dancing to some of the music. It was a fun night.

And that is where I will leave things for now, as this entry is more than long enough already, and my many other adventures in Buccs can wait for another time. Until then, my friends, fare well!


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