Sunday, March 16, 2014

How Grace knew it was going to rain that night and a road trip with Jackson in Coca Cola country: Venda Sun 9

Sculpture by John Baloyi
in his Limpopo studio 2013
Venda Sun 9

Grace and I had a conversation one morning when she offered me a plate of tropical fruit for breakfast. It became a game to compare the costs of what we could eat in South Africa, particularly Limpopo and what we'd pay for it in a UK supermarket. As the juice from mangoes and paw paw dripped down my arms, I told Grace what a luxury it was. She laughed.

All our conversations were translated, although she speaks some English where I speak absolutely no Venda other than to say hello. For a women, hello is a drawn out and gently spoken "Ah", as quiet and laid-back as a meander down a dusty lane.

Then I asked what she'd consider a luxury and quick as anything it was a cream cake.

Grace and her daughters showed me South African life without fear, rural life, its keen wisdom and generosity. She knew when it was going to rain and woke us in the middle of the night to move off the porch, she showed me how to make maize cakes and how sweet potatoes grow.  Grace worked morning to night to grow food to feed her family and is now bringing up two grandchildren while their mother works. I often think about her. When I'm on the allotment, when I'm juggling this issue of culture and race, when I moan about single parenthood and above all when I think about poverty.

Grace, 2013
Several poems in Fever Tree emerged from this journey and, 'Her Year'  (in Woman's Head as Jug) grew more slowly, rather like a fruit tree. Eventually it felt ready and although it's moved a long way from that time in Limpopo, it comes from Grace's symbiotic relationship with her world.

Grace spent her days with her hands in the earth. All that's changed because of her arthritis but she still keeps chickens and a small kitchen garden. In 2013 we visited briefly and took the cream cake I promised at breakfast ten years earlier.

Regret is a wasted emotion, but I wish we'd stayed longer with Grace. Even in 2013 we didn't see enough of her or Margaret and the girls in Palm Springs. Each trip, in some ways, has felt as if we were trying to funnel family, the history of apartheid, traditional Venda life, contemporary South Africa with all its complications, the beauty of the southern hemisphere, birds, elephants, the markets, the mangoes and ancient hardwood forests, into four tiny glass bottles to take home.

Tuesday 22 January 2003

We’ll stay until Friday because it’s an amazing place. Grace produced a week old baby as if by magic, Isaac, her 7th and third boy.

She has four girls at home – Randu (8), Mercy, Caroline and Mavis. Mavis does most of the work. The kids are up at dawn to wash and get ready for school.  There’s no electricity, the TV’s powered with a car battery, the children study with paraffin lamps and we eat in the dark. Last night we had warm maize cakes and cabbage. For breakfast, Mavis lights the fire in the round house and puts the kettle on. Mrisi and Giya are fascinated by the chickens, geese, goats and ducks. These are their meat, their veg is grown, and fruit. But they’re not entirely self-sufficient and have to pay for school and healthcare.

Water comes from a standpipe in buckets, and there’s great hilarity when I go with Mavis and carry it back on my head. After breakfast we go off to find some artists. The first one we go to is Jackson Hlungwani, a famous woodcarver. He’s there, talking about God, how the future is with women and he gives us four sculptures, a small crocodile, a face and two fish.

The kids have discovered some kittens. Jackson hands out mangoes and says he’ll take us to see more artists. First stop is Jackson’s student, John Baloyi who has pieces in a number of museums. Later in Pietersburg Museum of Art we see an amazing crocodile he’s done. The most stunning piece of his is a wonderful giraffe chair and a carved seat. He’s not there. 

I didn't write this in the diary, but it lodged in my mind. In every tiny shop, however informal, there was a Coca Cola branded fridge. Sweet drinks were easier to obtain than water, for cash. Jackson sat in the front seat of the car giving directions and asked us to stop for a Coke. "The blood of Christ," he said as he gulped it back. 

Coca Cola was everywhere. We went into one tiny village and there was an arch over the road - Welcome to Coca Cola country. Somehow this seems so much more intrusive than the ever-present and faded ads for Sunlight soap. 

Then we go to a drum maker who has made the biggest drum I’ve ever seen. He unwraps it from under a tarpaulin, it’s made from a tree he got permission to cut it down. Then there are two women potters in their studio in a cold round house and another older woman whom Jackson says helped start it all with him. We buy small plates and bowls, more fish designs.

We shop for Grace and on the way back go to see R’s old house on top of a hill. He’d hope to show us three but there’s only one left. His neighbour’s still there, sitting in her courtyard doing the washing. He’s shocked by how grown up people are, as if he’s been in a time warp. It must be hard.

Supper is maize and spinach. Giya finds it hard to eat food she can’t see. I do too, but suppose I’m less nervous. I worry they’ll both get hungrier. Giya’s stomach’s still upset and the toilet smells bad. But you can sit with the door open and it’s the only place I can have a cigarette in peace.

Wednesday 23 January

We’re off to Giyani to meet K, R’s old friend who teaches at the college of education. We take Randu with us. We pass a dam which R says wasn’t there when he was a child and a shepherd. We see nothing of Giyani but the college of education. The campus is wooded and flat, like everything – single story buildings. K meets us at the Caltex garage. She drives fast. Everyone drives fast. Her house is full of bright colours and sculpture, wall hangings, many of them by well k known artists she’s had contact with.

She wants us to visit artists but R and I did most of them yesterday with Jackson. So she suggests a woodcarver who’s not far away. The heat is oppressive. He’s very talented but his wife’s psychotic. She sits in the garden talking very loud to herself. She lost a month old baby and was threatened with a gun by a guard. The sculptor’s beside himself. His daughter sits under a tree with her back to everyone. The other children come back from school while we’re there. M & G are disturbed and the woman doesn’t stop babbling. I can’t stand more than a few minutes of the stifling heat inside and the woman outside. I go to the car. There’s no water. We leave without buying anything. No more artists. It’s too difficult.

The children are hot and bothered but we go swimming with K in the afternoon at a school where she gives lessons. Randu doesn’t swim but becomes more confident. In the evening, on the way back we stop to see another of R’s cousins - he’s a chief. It’s dark, the houses are traditional round houses with low walls between them. The women are sitting under a tree eating supper – an old woman, children and some younger ones.

Everyone’s amazed to see us, but as the evening goes on I feel really self-conscious. I can’t understand anything but know people are talking about me. When we drive back I say, 'they’ll have something to talk about' and R goes mad, shouting and ranting about how I think everyone should speak English, which is untrue. When we arrive back at Grace’s house, I sit in the car crying. Grace comes to see me. The children are upset too, because I am. That night we sleep on the porch but Grace comes to wake us up, saying a storm’s coming. Minutes later the rain starts. I’m amazed she knew. We run to the round house and go back to sleep, badly. The mosquitoes are heavy.

Thursday 24 January

Country life - entrance to R's land in Mashau,
Limpopo Province
It’s cloudy and wet. The children go off to the village school, then we go to Louis Trichart to change money and have a Wimpey. We buy cloth in an Indian store off the N1 and stop off at Jackson’s on the way to Giyani to pick up the fish he’s been making for R. He’s made a stand for it and is in the middle of doing an Adam and Eve sculpture which looks beautiful. The children play with three kittens. His grandchildren are sitting carving too. We pass the chief’s again and he chief mentions it must have been hard for me not understanding anything. I feel vindicated and realise how insecure R is about this trip. Family always causes tension.

R talks to the chief about buying land by the dam but it’s hard to get to the water. The sand roads are bad and full of ravines and potholes.

At K’s realise how amazing it was staying with Grace. She’s preparing a barbeque and her friends arrive. One woman with her son is friendly. Another is a social worker and a snob. She talks about child abuse. K wants everyone to dance but I’m too knackered. The children listen to music in her daughter’s room. We’re bitten alive that night – the net’s full of holes.

I look up into the tunnel it makes, lights on it making it solid. More sounds of the night. The net tunnel twists up into the darkness.

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.

Tuesday, March 04, 2014

Black baby dolls and the drive from Thunder Mountain to Everest: Venda Sun 7

Venda Sun 7

Aside from the absence of black men on Father's Day cards and black children on birthday cards, there were toys, books and hair products to find for Mrisi and Giya.
I discovered where I could buy black Duplo, Lego and Playmobil figures (through a catalogue or online, I don't remember). I sourced a black Action Man and a black Barbie. (More on the black Barbie in South Africa later) But they had straight, European style hair. To get the hair right was too much to ask, at least in the UK.
I imagined a place where all these things would be available and when we arrived in South Africa, believed it might be the Southgate Mall, an enormous shopping centre on the fringe of Soweto where we shopped for R's mother's party. 
But long before that, as Mrisi and Giya went through nursery, to primary school, I and Risenga tried to make a small dent in the overwhelming whiteness of toys.
Today, there are at least six black baby dolls of different sizes wrapped up in hand-knitted cardies, somewhere among the camping gear and suitcases in the cellar. Who could part with them?
Mosaic, the Brighton organisation for black and mixed race families, had Sunday gatherings and I went occasionally. They distributed information about books featuring black children and parents, but I had no difficulties with the books because I was always in bookshops in those days. The biggest effort I made, much later on with books was to source Rosa Guy's novels for Mrisi. She went out of print in the UK but he was as addicted to her as he was to Darren Shan. So I bought from Amazon. 
Hair products were one of my biggest rants. Now they buy their own. They know the good black hairdressers selling decent products that are not packed with chemicals for straightening or curling purposes. When I was regularly scouring the shelves in Boots, Body Shop and Superdrug, predictions were emerging about the change in the UK population. 
These predictions were accurate. In 2011, Mark Easton reported for the BBC that there were many more mixed race children and adults than had been counted. He concluded: "in multiracial Britain, ethnicity is increasingly not the point. Mixed race is mainstream."
Long before 2011, I knew - from my circle of friends, from what I saw when I wandered into town or the parks with a double buggy and later at the school gates. So why didn't businesses catch on?
As features editor at Retail Week, after Giya was born, I was asked to speak at a Booksellers' Association conference about future trends. I presented predictions for demographic change in the UK. I presented the business case for supplying peoples' needs. I had the dead slot, after lunch, but an American delegate came up to be afterwards and said my presentation had been the one to make her think.
In 2009 one in six people (9.1million)  in England and Wales was 'non-white' and the number of mixed race people doubled from 672,000 in 2001 to 986,600 in 2009. Between 1994 and 2014 I still haven't seen a response from shops I use in Brighton. As I said to the booksellers, they don't deserve to be in business.
In South Africa it was impossible to ignore the issue of mixing. 

Saturday 12 January 2002
Shopping this morning with the girls at Southgate mall, food for the party at R’s mothers and mosquito nets, malaria tablets etc. I’m semi dreading it but at least R’s mother is in a good mood when we arrive. R and I are doing a brai with sweetcorn and a tomato and bean sauce plus rice. There’s a bottle of whisky for the neighbours and sure enough they turn up in their multitudes. It starts off wonderfully, there’s enough food for loads of people but R is pouring enormous shots of whisky and the women are getting pissed very quickly. They start singing and dancing and get the very small children dancing.

There’s a shebeen opposite and it’s heaving all night. There’s no running water in the house - I almost emptied the sink onto the kitchen floor. We decide to take everyone to Gold Reef City for a treat. Joe orders a minibus for 15 of us. The kids are beside themselves. Compared to England it’s really cheap, not sure about safety. The carousel starts when Giya’s still getting on, the max is four in a car on the big wheel but the guy lets in 5. Mani loves the Thunder Mountain – a roller coaster but Nkateko splits her lip with a tooth from the force of the brakes and Giya burns her neck on the dodgems. When we get back to Palm Springs our car’s been broken into. All that's stolen is the kids’ gameboys.

God knows why we report the theft other than for insurance. Throughout my diary I'm recording what everything costs and the trip was enormously expensive for us: R a freelance musician and me a freelance writer.

Monday 14 January
We’re heading for Nelspruit, the capital of Mpumulanga, hoping to find a tourist office. The guide book recommends the Blyde River Canyon but it’s quite a way north. The tourist office is in the civic centre. The woman’s on the phone and not interested but eventually finds us accommodation. We head for the camp, Safubi, the woman in reception seems nervous and a bit taken aback. She calls me Jackie a lot. But we ignore her and look at the chalet. It’s fine. It has fans and no aircon. It’s not till the Kruger that we realise the joys of aircon.  But there’s an empty pool, palm trees, monkeys and lots of plants and rocks, plus a beautiful river. Later on we discover the smell from the dump, but for now we strip off and swim.

Tuesday 15 Jan
Mpumulanga is relaxed and laid back. After shopping we stop off at the Botanical gardens. Enormous palms, creepers, leaves on everything. The mosquitoes are biting fiercely as we leave and all of us are sweating like hell. It is humid even in this bizarre place. By the café I see my first fever tree, yellow bark, pitted with holes, going to dust.

Wednesday 16 Jan
Risenga’s certain he’s been to Sudwala Caves before. The caves were used by the Swazi people in the 19th century as a hideaway. It’s a network of caverns, reminds me of France and caves near Carcassonne. There’s the same baked earth and red soil, sun rising off the road, crickets. But here there are lush iris in red and orange, monkeys disappearing into the undergrowth, yellow and black butterflies the size of a hand. There’s a flow stone (a petrified waterfall) in the cave used as a warning bell and it's heard on top of the mountain. The cave’s full of crystals but we don’t see them. We drink water from a pool and stand in darkness. We hear the absence of the echo and read shapes in the stalagtites and stalagmites. Later we sit in a café looking over the forest. When we get back we swim again, have a barbeque, listen to the night, but the road’s there, still.

Thursday 17 Jan
To Sabie, centre of logging and Mac Mac / Lone Creek waterfalls. Sabie is a funny little village with lackluster craft shops, but a great coffee place called Woody Glen, run by an escapee from Johannesburg. His grandfather was Irish and came to Sabie with his brother who was in the army to fight the Boers. Mac Mac falls are a waste of time, you can see them from the café. Lone Creek falls are a different story. Past a logging camp, they’re tucked away in a picnic area 5 r per person to get in, children free. The falls are 68 m high, it’s wet and cool. We paddle in the pool and R fills a bottle with water for his mother. Women are selling crafts. At Mac Mac we buy a wooden zebra for Giya, sticks for Mrisi and Peter. Also nuts from Mozambique. The falls are named after Scottish prospectors. Lots of names around here are familiar - Grasmere, Cairn etc. We even see a place called Everest on the way to Mpumulanga. We swim when we get back to Safubi. It’s too hot to sleep. Bad night.

This is our lead up to the Kruger National Park. None of us will want to visit a zoo again. 

Sunday, March 02, 2014

One of the most amazing drives in Africa: Venda Sun 6

Risenga (front) on the piebald pony heading for the waterfall
from Malealea LodgeV e
Venda Sun 6

This year Giya leaves home and Mrisi returns. I'm a year away from 60. I began transcribing these diaries a year ago, after my last trip in July and August 2012. 

When Giya heard she'd been offered a place to study documentary photography it was as if one of the last remnants of their childhoods found a place for itself. 

I'm not sure I'll fulfill my intention to explore bringing up mixed race children. I record journeys, time away but in between I have raggedy notebooks - records of meetings, cuttings, reminders, lists, workshop plans in boxes on top of my wardrobe. My poems also record our lives. Giya once said to me that she couldn't read my poetry because it was like reading a diary. Children of writers find things that are not talked about on bookshelves, being read aloud, being read by strangers. This is an attempt to offer them something more - a record of the trips that gave them confidence as children to explain where their father came from, to discuss South Africa, to learn for themselves about the country, its culture, music, politics, to know their family. I hope these trips established a habit of regular visits and I know they gave them new landscapes to feel at home in. 

And South Africa feeds my work as much as it feeds Mrisi's music or Giya's photographs. These lines from 'Moteng Pass' are about Lesotho:

            Before we start that journey down
            past a man selling diamonds
            from an abandoned mine
            we stop to see the sun come up
            clouds flatten into broken lines
            and I remember why we came -
            a man on the highway from the Cape
            walking as if he could go on and on
            heading for the Moteng Pass
            its pastures in the sky, dangerous stars. 

(Fever Tree, Arc, 2003)

Tuesday 8 January 2002
We’re going pony trekking.  Set off for the Boetsela waterfall, through a village and down a steep path filled with rocks. Amazed the ponies can manage. At one point we pass the village where R’s pony lives – his is the only piebald - and it wants to go home. We’re going down the slope on rock, don’t understand how the ponies don’t slip.  I thought I’d be nervous about the city but it’s the country that scares me. We pass isolated houses and villages. M & G swim in the waterfall with local kids. R’s a real tourist with his video camera – at one point videoing us while he rides! We set off in the morning for the north of Lesotho. It’s described in the Rough Guide as one of the most amazing drives in Africa.

Wednesday 9 January
It takes us a day to reach Oxbow with a stop in Maseru. From Maseru to Leibe/Hlotse is flat and boring. The towns marked on the map are in fact collections of shacks selling tomatoes, fruit, maize, snacks. Apart from one enormous industrial estate in an unmarked town, there’s no industry - car repairs, masses of taxis. Everyone seems to be traveling all the time with plastic bags full of tomatoes. At Buthe Buthe we start climbing. Later at a kind of checkpoint 2 guys ask for money and sweets. The road climbs and climbs. Eventually we reach Moteng. It’s getting late. We see a lodge, decide to carry on. It’s 9 km of hairpin bends and incredibly steep climbs. The car temperature rockets. I have to go into first gear for most of the steepest slopes. When we reach the top it’s hit red. We stop. The engine’s making awful noises, cooling down. I’m terrified. It’s 7 pm and we’ve still no idea where Oxbow Lodge is. We’ve obviously found the Moteng Pass but have a way to go yet. We find an agricultural research place and they say Oxbow’s 5 miles. But we’re climbing again. I can’t imagine why we attempted this and all I can think about is that we have to go back the same way. The car’s overloaded, the mobile doesn’t work and a BMW’s passed us twice with no number plates. R’s convinced it’s hijackers. Mrisi and Giya are making up a song about falling off a cliff. When we reach Oxbow I’m close to collapse. The owner, a Greek guy called Costas, pours us both a Chardonnay. There’s a room. This place is in the middle of nowhere. He tells us he first came in 1967 and stayed. He’d been a road engineer.

We eat an enormous meal sink two bottles of wine. When we go to bed I can’t stop thinking of the drive. R says I wake up shaking, sit up in bed at 2 am terrified. I’ve never been so frightened. Most vehicles we see are 4x4s or buses. But Costas first came here in a normal saloon car. If it wasn’t for the fact we seem so overloaded, I might not worry so much, but even on minor slopes it strugges in 2nd. Nine km in 1st! Then I worry about the brakes. Or meeting a lorry. Or coach. We decide to stay 2 nights.

Thursday 10 January
R’s dreamed about his dead aunt coming to visit us on a horse. Thinks this is a good omen. I decide I should try Maya’s Bach Flower Remedy for panic. Rub lavender and geranium oil around liberally. There are little yellow weaver birds nesting outside our door, a colony of about 15 – 20. I sit and watch them, smoking a cigarette. The view is incredible, I wonder, though, if it’s worth the anxiety. R’s convinced the bar last night was packed with prostitutes. Later we go for a walk with the night porter as our guide - Mo's an ex shepherd - and he confirms R’s suspicions about the BMW. Says he knows the guy and that he’s barred from the lodge after doing a runner without paying.

There are sheep bells in the hills and the river’s noise. The generator stops overnight. We eat an enormous breakfast. The lodge works out at £33 or so full board – breakfast and supper – for all of us. Mo takes us walking up a mountain where cows are grazing. He meets a shepherd who wants ganja and cigarettes. We meet a young boy with a pony and two cows, take a picture with him. Up the mountain there’s crystal everywhere. Mo says there’s a diamond mine not far away.

There are guys mending a pylon. Mo tells us as soon as pylons go up they’re pulled down in the night by shepherds stripping the copper. They’ve never stayed intact long enough to carry any power.

Giya names the hill 'crystal mountain'. We walk back to the lodge, lunch and then the river where we find rock pools and a small natural jacuzzi. The rocks are baking, the wind comes up, the children wash their quartz and crystals.

A party of English people in the lodge are going further into the mountains. We’re sitting in the bar when the rain starts. This is what I was dreading. R talks about the shepherds we see sitting by the entrance as we return from our walk. They are statuesque, R says, different beings. They start as young boys and finish when they marry. They have an independence, self- sufficiency about them, so strong, like the young men we saw on the road at Buthe Buthe, a procession, their faces smeared red, wearing blankets and beads, a circumcision procession.

To be a shepherd is a rite of passage, to isolate yourself, be isolated, to understand self-sufficiency. A young man with short dreadlocks wearing a blanket fastened at the shoulder with a safety pin, a cloth around his waist short as a miniskirt, wellies to protect him from snakes.

In the bar after supper, Giya sits on the sofa with me. Mrisi spends his time front of the tv. I hope they didn’t hear the thunder and lightning. The rain's torrential. I imagine rock falls, the road flooding. Thunder continues.  The storm comes from nowhere. We may have to stay another night. If it goes on all night there’s no way we’ll be able to leave in the morning until we can be sure the road is passable. This is as far as you can get from Brighton.

I overhear someone in the bar saying he’d never driven up such a steep road. Perhaps the storm will pass. Perhaps I’m putting all my anxiety about this trip into the drive down the mountain. The pass is 3000 km, but there are minibuses doing it all the time. I can’t stop thinking about hairpin  bends, the children say I’m swearing a lot. I can’t believe anyone would build a road this high.

Friday 11 January
We leave at dawn. The rain has stopped. Mo is with us. It’s a hefty climb to the pass, but there's no traffic. The sun’s coming up in total wilderness. At the Moteng pass we look down at the road. There’s a group of shepherds towards the bottom, 15 to 20 of them, drunk at 6 am from a circumcision party in the hills. As we approach in 2nd gear, all the way, there’s a guy at the side of the road with diamonds for sale, says he used to work at a mine that’s now closed but goes back to dig them up. We reach Mo’s village and he points out his beautiful round house on the side of the valley. He sleeps at Oxbow during the week. 
As we reach the straight roads Oxbow Lodge seems more like paradise. It will be years before we can come back. Giya’s feeling car sick. We’re heading towards the N3 north but it’s hard to find. The border post back into South Africa has stinking toilets and we have to pay tax on the Sotho blankets we bought in Maseru, on top of the tax we paid in Lesotho.

We leave through the Caliedorp gate off the Buthe Buthe road. It takes us into the Golden Gate Highlands National Park, sanitized, closed in, guarded and immaculate. No shepherds, no shacks. The national park is part of the Drakensburg escarpment but we don’t see a single animal and the waterfall where we plan to have breakfast is little more than a weir leading into a dirty pond. Little point in staying. We head for Harrismith driving through endless fields until we come closer to Vereeniging. By the time we reach Palm Springs we’re shattered. The sweat’s falling off us. We have a night at Joe and Margaret’s. The house is like an oven. But the children are happy to see their cousins again.