Tuesday, March 11, 2014

The politics of safari and meeting Grace in Venda: Venda Sun 8

Venda Sun 8

We were talking yesterday Mrisi and me, about animals in captivity. He was telling me about friends who keep snakes and remembering the rabbits we had, briefly, when he and Giya were little.

Mrisi's back at home at the moment writing his final year dissertation on how people learn English through music, which is exactly what Risenga did from the lyrics of Bob Marley.

And on Sunday night the three of us watched Louis Theroux's documentary on the rise in game hunting tourism in South Africa, reminding all of us about the experience of seeing elephants, rhino, lions, buffalo in the wild.  I can't stand zoos, never have, apart from the little local one in Sussex with meercats and monkeys. But on reflection, even the monkeys in their big cage are still caged. So I don't think Mrisi and Giya had ever seen any of these animals when we first went to the Kruger, other than on screen. 

The Theroux documentary shows parties of mainly American tourists who visit vast private game parks in Limpopo (where land is still cheap) and pay to shoot. There is a price for the head of any animal you wish to kill, including rhino and lions. 

Without getting into those arguments because Theroux shows all we need to see about moral degradation, when we entered the Kruger National Park in our little hire car, we were entering a way of thinking we had never imagined - safari mind. 

Safari tourism is, in my limited experience, almost exclusively white. It goes with brais (barbeques) and landrovers, with camouflage jackets, shorts, caps and tee shirts, with binoculars and long lenses. In the Kruger no-one shoots other than the poachers. 

Even though there are now lower entrance rates to the National Park for locals, they're still way out of most peoples' reach. So on the doorstep of hundreds of thousands of people are 2 million hectares of land  (as large as Wales) "336 trees, 49 fish, 34 amphibians, 114 reptiles, 507 birds and 147 mammals....bushman rock and majestic archaeological sites like Masorini and Thulamela."

SA National Parks is attempting to broaden the Kruger's appeal with reduced rates for locals but although 79% of its visitors are local, of that group, 70% are white. To appeal to the black middle class SA National Parks approved a Radisson Blu safari resort hotel in the south near the Crocodile River and a conference centre in another camp, Skukuza. 

What better place to focus the conflict between old white privilege with its stewardship of nature arguments (rather like UK farmers) and a subjugated majority who want to see what it's all about. 

The white safari mind applies its machismo to burgers and ribs on the brai in tented camps or grass roofed basic chalets and fights to protect the veneer of man against the wild in the front seat of a landrover. Very rich white safari mind wants design-led exclusive private lodges that appear in the glossiest magazines, offering African chic interiors and gourmet food. 

But according to SA National Parks, there is no middle ground and that is where the emerging black middle class comes in. It wants "full-service resort accommodation" and has come up with a four star 240 bed safari resort with conference facilities and "exposure to local culture through planned events e.g. dancing, choirs, storytelling and cultural and heritage education."

How glad I am we went when we did, travelling from the south of the Kruger and leaving at one of the northern gates, Punda Maria.

But on this trip particularly, the absence of black tourists made us uncomfortable. In restaurants, in swimming pools, in bars in the national park we were the only mixed race family. I was reminded of a time in the UK at a work dinner, when Risenga was mistaken for a waiter. Being in the Kruger was like that. And it was often easier for our fellow tourists to assume he was American.

We list our sightings in my diary. 

Kruger National Park
Friday 18 January - Monday 21 January

We’re at the Malelane Gate by 5.30 am and see the sun rise in the Crocodile River valley as we drive east. Workers from Mozambique are walking along the road, Maputo’s only 200 – 300 km away. 

Once in the Kruger we head towards Berg en Dal our first rest camp, learning how to spot animals. It’s hot in the car and we have the air con on. Giya spots it running into the red (like Lesotho). We stop the engine in the shade of a tree on a sandy road miles from anywhere listening to it creak and cool down. We can check into Berg en Dal at midday. Straight to the pool. I get out of the car in bare feet and jump up and down, the ground’s so hot. The pool’s like a warm bath, small but in shade. The chalet, though, is modern, clean and has air con which is a revelation. No cockroaches or ants which we had at Safubi. 

Later as Giya and I are in the shop there’s a massive clap of thunder that makes me, Giya and the woman at the till jump. We stand eating ice cream and watching the rain. We wait for it to ease off a bit and set off, soaked in seconds. We paddle through rivers in the road, sandals drenched, our hair dripping. 

R’s collected marula fruit and is squeezing the juice out, cooking it up with sugar to bottle. Marula’s the elephant’s favourite and the stone has a nut inside.

Day 1 - Malelane Gate to Berg en Dal 

before 9 am
3 rhino, impala,  7 giraffe,  zebra (herd) 1 centipede, 1 baboon, storks, vulture, at swimming pool a dwarf mongoose. 

Day 2  - Berg en Dal to Satara

5-10 am
tortoise crossing road, 2 clans of baboons, several males, babies and females
lone female kudu (like a donkey)
3 long horned antelope
brown zebra with 2 stripes
pride of lions sleeping under a tree
3 elephants, all lone males, 
another tortoise,
pink and blue bird, blue bird and bird with bill like a parrot, 
lots of monkeys, buck 
2 spotted hyenas looking vicious, fighting, with cubs
wildebeest, a herd and one alone
hippo, warthog, yellow squirrel, hawk, man-eating stork, toucan-type bird eating a frog, five females and a pride of lions with cub on road to Nwanetsi S27, 
male and female lion, tree squirrel

We changed our reservation at Berg en Dal because of the distance to Letaba, too much to do in a day. We book a night in Satara instead of an extra night in Berg en Dal. It’s a dump. On the road we see loads of animals so from that point of view it’s brilliant but the camp is grungy. We’re in a hut where there’s a rat box by the fridge. We have a barbeque and the lettuce we buy at the shop is rotten. Everything’s a struggle, from getting cutlery to an extra bed. We’re late up the next morning but make it just after dawn. We want to leave. My stomach’s hurting and I’m exhausted from sitting in the car, just want to walk. 

Day 3 - Satara to Letaba

Large bird with long thin neck and pointed beak, 4 elephants walking down the road towards us, zebra, 2 bushbuck at picnic site, 2 giraffe, 3 eagles, hawk hunting, crocodile at bird hide, storks with red legs and long yellow beaks, a brown red legged duck, black and white duck, hooked beak duck, black and white wader,
hippo and its grunts, pride of lions stalking wildebeest, six giraffe in a row, 2 giraffe and 3 zebra, herd of zebra, klipspringer on a rock, one elephant, 5 elephants and baby outside Olifants camp, elephant and giraffe in Olifants river, crocodile, large black stork with red and black beak, fish eagle, bright blue kingfisher with pink/red beak, river buck (?), elephant by river Letaba next to camp, crocodile in river next to camp, buck in camp, very large moth the size of my hand

Towards Letaba we stop for breakfast at a picnic site where the kids feed little antelope bits of mango, apple and cucumber. Then we stop at Olifants, which is spectacular – the terrace looks over the river and as we drive in there’s a herd of elephant outside. We think about changing our booking again, but press on to Letaba and the camp is wonderful. There’s also a terrace overlooking the river and we watch the animals. We can walk along the river. We’re staying in a tent which is okay but hot and sweaty. 

The elephant hall museum is airconditioned bliss and freezing cold. It’s the only vaguely educational thing we’ve seen in the Kruger. It’s fascinating for the exhibit on the great tuskers of the park, the magnificent seven, legendary long tusked and enormous bull elephants and their biographies, territory, size and how they died. 

The Magnificent Seven (nine) – largest elephants

Kambaku 1930 – 1985
Ndlulamithi 1927 – 1987
Nhlangulene 1932 – 1987
Shawu 1926 – 1986
Shingwedzi 1934 – 1981
Phelwana – 1988
Dzombo 1935 – 1985 (killed by poachers with an AK47)
Mafuyane 1926 – 1983
Xamariri, current the largest and thought to be the biggest ever

Some horrible pics of poaching and the ivory trade, much of it in London of course. There’s a very keen young ranger trainee on the desk who tells us about the immigrants from Mozambique and how they come in through the park because it’s a relatively short route through. They cut the fence to get in and out of the park, mostly at night. After encounters with lions or cheetah some stay up trees for 12 hours, terrified, some have flagged down tourists and rangers, desperate to get out, others swim or wade through rivers where there are crocodiles, not realising there’s a bridge 300 m away. The ranger tells us that if someone is killed it’s almost impossible to know, since hyenas clean up, eat everything, even shoes, leaving no trace. He also tells us about the controversy over culling elephants – they cause so much damage and there are 2,500 too many so the thousands of years old leadwoods on the riverbanks are at risk. 

The children run through sprays on the grass to cook off and there’s a riverside walk through the camp. So we sit on the terrace and see more fever trees, watch storks in the river, plus waterbuck and a solitary elephant. We eat from the café. My salad is disgusting and I drink a cider – enough to finish me off for the evening. We go back to the tent where R bashes the fuse box and puts out the lights. The night is noisy – crickets frogs, birds all calling and in the morning R hears hippo or perhaps a cheetah. The mosquito nets are useless but the tent has been sprayed because there don’t seem to be any inside and we’re not bitten. We have breakfast looking over the river as the sun comes up.

Our next stop is Shingwedzi, not too far, but we want to spot more animals so we set off again around 8 and it’s already baking. We’ve just about had enough of looking at animals in the undergrowth.

R’s eyes are sharp and he sees hippo playing in the river outside the camp in the river Letaba. We watch through binoculars, mouth to mouth, their enormous teeth and jaws meeting like a bridge opening in the middle. We want to see buffalo today and we’re lucky. On the road to Mopani R stops to talk to some women and men cutting down trees by the side of the road. They’re clearing the verge so animals don’t hid there and jump in front of cars. 

A little way on, a guy R talks to asks for a lift to Mopani, he’s feeling ill and could have malaria. We drop him where he lives in a compound – a word South Africans use a lot. It’s fenced in. There’s a football pitch, though, which isn’t. On the way to Mopani we see buffalo dung. The guy in the car says loads were around recently. Sure enough we take a short diversion and there are two under the trees. The guy tells us buffalo stalk you when they see you – you’ll be hunting them and find them behind you. We leave him and carry on to Shingwedzi. We just want to get there and despite all the back roads, see very little. 

Much of this is forest, some fantastic trees along the river banks must be thousands of years old, some with multiple trunks, all twisted and beautiful. These look like leopard trees.  Some of the landscape is savannah – everything opens up and out and then you’re back in forest, not knowing what’s behind the next tree. We see the odd baobab tree now. At Shingwedzi camp we upgrade to a five bed bungalow with air con. It’s clean and comfortable. There’s a swimming pool and we rush there feeling hot and irritable. It’s deep and cool, there are two Swiss women there – the first I’ve had a conversation with since I arrived in SA. It’s been weird, being surrounded by languages I don’t speak.

Baobab in Mopani rest camp, Kruger
National Park

We have terrible rows with M & G about doing some writing. It’s the heat. At the restaurant we sit in the dark and listen to the night again. Mrisi is sulking because I ducked him in the pool. After that he put both arms around my neck and tried to pull me down to the bottom. At the terrace I drink an Amarula, it sends me to sleep. I feel very separate from everything. 

Day 4 

Waterbuck, 3 elephant, 4 hippo in River Letaba, red, black and white bird, squirrel, buck in camp, 2 buffalo off Mopani, giraffe, large tusker outside Mopani camp, elephants, storks in trees

We leave today and drive to Punda Maria for breakfast. The scenery’s fantastic. Punda Maria is small but lush – bungalows are thatched with poles for porches. As we leave the Kruger it’s a shock, suddenly, to see people walking in the road, coned, thatched houses in large groups surrounded by mangoes, paw paw trees, sweetcorn. This is traditional Venda. 

We drive to Thoyandou, the capital. We park in the centre although it’s hard to identify as a centre. There’s warehouse style shops like B&Q, road works and the market. It's packed. Stalls are selling masonja (dried mopani worms), dried termites, chickens, necklaces, traditional Venda cloth, mobile phones, bracelets. People are sewing outside – a watchmaker’s mending watches. There are tomatoes and onions, potatoes, local spinach, peanuts in shells and ground, dried beans, bananas, squash and pumpkin flowers (a local delicacy), coke, fried fish, chicken and doughnuts.

We look for some Venda cloth, striped and embroidered. R buys a necklace and after the bank, some worms, termites and fresh peanuts. The bank’s packed. People come in from the villages. We don’t bother to look for the Venda sun, we know what it’ll be like. 

The road from Thoyandou to Louis Trichart is hilly and lined with fruit plantations, mango, banana, and macademia nuts. We give a young woman a lift and at Louis Trichart try to find the tourist office. We trek from the car park to municipal offices and a small office on the N1, virtually impossible to find. It’s 5 and closing. The guy gives us a couple of leaflets but is in a hurry to go home. R suggests we go and stay with his aunt,"not far away". We head for Elim and then off the tar road. Elim’s where the hospital is – it used to be a mission. 

We drive through idyllic villages of round houses, small concrete houses, surrounded by mango trees, corn and banana palms. There are young boys with goats and cows everywhere and minibus taxis kicking up dust. His aunt’s place is near a small garage and a large tree. She’s out on the small holding. 

There are several small children on their own. We decide to drive to Grace's house behind a nearby hill. It’s getting dark and we arrive while the sun’s going down. The view’s tropical and fertile. Mountains everywhere, women washing clothes in the streams, adverts for Sunlight soap on every tiny shop. 

There are tomatoes and onions, mangoes and bananas on sale at every junction and under any big tree. Grace, R’s cousin is welcoming and all the children are there. Mercy tells me she’d been trying to phone as I was ringing for accommodation. 

We sleep outside – the moon’s brighter than a streetlight. The stars are close. It’s warm, the mosquitoes are at bay to start with but are biting in earnest as the night wears on. And the crickets, dogs, then the cockerel.