During lock down here at home in middle England, as you may know, I have been hitting the lap-top keys in an effort to make you smile. Putting into words some of my travel moments which I can look back on and laugh. Over the last twenty-five plus years of travels to South Africa and the province of KwaZulu Natal there have been so many smiles and so much laughter. So many moments, some fleeting, to look back on, and all worth a mention even if they do not make their own individual story.
On my very first trip to Durban, I met a young lady. I spent many hours in the Cattleman Restaurant on the beach-front socialising. This mainly consisted of drinking Castle lager and eating 1000gm T-bone steaks. In those days, the steak came on one plate and the chips and salad on another. In the words of a song ‘she was working as a waitress in steak & beer bar when I met her’. The young lady (and may I say excellent waitress) was a childhood neighbour of, Neil, who I was staying with in Durban. I will have to write something about Neil at some point, but for now he remains a friend who scored a century at Lords in a Cricket World Cup.
Late one Saturday afternoon our waitress came to the bar on her day off. My friends insisted she had come to see me. I insisted I was there to watch England beat Scotland in the rugby Calcutta Cup on the big screen TV. Anyway, the waitress came and joined us and asked me if I would like to go out for dinner with her that night. I made the ultimate sacrifice and missed Jon Collards last minute penalty kick to win the game for England. Whilst being driven to dinner it became apparent that we may be slightly lost. My dinner date pulled over and said she was popping into a store to check on directions to the restaurant. She handed me the keys, told me to lock the doors, and wait in the car for her. On her key ring was a strange red ball. I fiddled with the ball and examined it closely. Was it a puzzle, like a round rubik’s cube? Holding the ball close to my eyes to check out how I could open it, I squeezed it. Out of the ball came a gas like jet hitting me in both eyes. I could not focus on my driver as she returned to the car. In fact, for about an hour I could see extraordinarily little. I had unwittingly sprayed myself with mace, pepper spray, rendering me near blind. In October this year myself and Melanie, the waitress will have been married for 24 years.
Also, on that first trip Melanie took me on a road trip which included a visit to the Drakensberg Mountains and a game reserve. Withing ten minutes of entering the reserve we came across three white rhinos. They stood blocking the dirt road, each one as big as our car. I had never seen a rhino, or an animal as big as they were, anywhere, ever. We sat in silence, engine turned off, all windows wound down. I was a little nervous to say the least. I cautiously picked up the reserves guidebook to read about rhino and get a heads up on safety. The first two things I read: Do not have windows down and never turn the ignition off. As a first timer I was hit with the reality of the situation and the onset of a mild panic took over. We lived to tell the tale.
On our first overnight trip as a couple, we headed to Hluhluwe-Imfolozi Park. We had the most incredible time. The sightings did not stop. However, I had not realised just how dark and noisy the African bush was at night. We stayed in a very simple rondavel, with shared kitchen and ablutions. I did not sleep a wink that first night and there was no way I was venturing out for a pee. During the night our hut seemed to shake and the noise of, what sounded like rubbing, echoed around us. In the morning Melanie spoke to our neighbour, in Afrikaans. He was a tiny man with scruffy black hair, moustache, skintight tiny green shorts and skin like that of a dried raisin. He laughed and told Melanie that he got up in the night to watch a huge rhino use our hut as a scratching post.
Only this year I met up with Gavin who saved my life from a giant bull elephant in heavy musth. A story I can look back on and laugh, only because I am alive to tell the tale. We have been like a double act recounting this tale of life and death, that gets better with time and beer.
Every time I arrive at Melanie’s folks farm, I think back to a noise I have only ever heard once. We were collected at Johannesburg Airport by my brother and sister-in-law, accompanied by baby niece Ella. Ella, like most of the family suffered with car sickness. As we unpacked the car, I grabbed a beer. As I walked into the house, I heard a loud hiss. Walking out, there it was again. Ella was being washed in the garden not far from the car. Had we got a puncture? The sound was like that caused by air being let out of a tyres valve. Finding nothing I went to back to the fridge; it was hot, and I was dehydrated from the drive. There it was again, that hiss. And again, exiting the house, I stood and looked up, then all round the garden, nothing? I turned to shout through to the kitchen to ask if someone could come and look at the car, it had to be the car. A movement caught my eye. Looking down I was confronted by what I later leaned to be, a rinkhals spitting cobra. And you may have now guessed it was spitting at me. This was like a scene from a movie where a snake charmer had got a huge serpent to stand up from a basket. I will say I was mesmerised as that sounds better than scared out of my wits.
On meeting a sangoma, traditional Zulu healer, at his home I was fascinated to chat, mainly through a translator, and learn of his upbringing and skills. I was offered many services from help solving problems to having my fortune told. As tempting as it was, I politely declined. As we were leaving the sangoma and my guide were in deep, Zulu, conversation and the sangoma was both visibly distressed and angry. I later asked my guide what the problem was. He told me that every night the sangoma was having his livestock stolen and nearly all his goats had been taken, and he had no way of finding them.
Maybe some time I will tell you how I was allowed to land a passenger plane on arrival in Durban….
Although I recount these tales with a smile, and sometimes laughter, I must point one thing out. I have been privileged to meet people from all walks of life on my travels. I have had the honour of visiting many places, from reserves to battlefields, that are steeped in history. Encountering wild animals in their natural environment has provided me with memories that will last me a lifetime. I have always shown the utmost respect for my surroundings, people and wildlife, and will continue to do so.