(Excerpted from Chapter 26: African Bush Taxi: The Grateful Unrich…)
If all mankind were to disappear, the world would regenerate back to the rich state of equilibrium that existed ten thousand years ago. If insects were to vanish, the environment would collapse into chaos – Edward O. Wilson
Nelspruit, South Africa
Over coffee and a smoke, we sit on the shady veranda at Nelspruit Backpackers listening to UB-40. Laundry is done, rung and hung. We reflect on our three-day self-guided safari to incredible Kruger National Park and the stunning Blyde River Canyon.
Six days earlier we were whisked away from Oliver Tambo International Airport at 6:00 AM, after booking a cheap backpacker hostel in Pretoria – north of the airport and a much safer city than Johannesburg. The driver told us the Pretoria hostel was full so we headed south, landing in Compton Park – a sketchy suburb near downtown JoBerg.
I wandered around jet lagged trying to find a bank where I could change some money. We’d hopped on a bus in Luverne, MN, hopped off in Newark, NJ over 40 hours later; then flew to Chicago, Dublin and Abu Dhabi before landing in South Africa. I was tired.
Gangs of Zimbabwean refugees huddled together on street corners looking for work. Black South Africans picked up garbage and did yard work. White South Africans huddled inside razor wire compounds they called home. The whole scene felt ready to blow at any time.
Now here we are pondering the wonders of Kruger. We saw black and white rhino, Cape buffalo, elephant, giraffe, zebra, hippo, crocodile, baboon, velvet monkey, kudu, waterbuck, impala, steenbok, duiker, nyala, blue wildebeest, warthog, ostrich, water monitor, black-backed jackal, African fish eagle, kori bustard (world’s largest flying ground bird), saddle-billed stork, African spoonbill, yellow and red-billed horn beaks and a colorful array of songbirds including the magnificent lilac-breasted roller.
Four minutes from Phabene Gate, a large female hyena loped across the darkening road like a muscular slinky. She was my spirit guide. She assured me that we would make it to the gate before the 5:30 PM closing. We passed through at 5:29, after a 90 kilometer mad dash averaging 80 kph in a 50 kph zone – occasionally slowing to a crawl to pass through herds of giraffe, zebra, Cape buffalo and elephant. Big herds!
The hyena said, “Nice job kid. You’re gonna’ make it.”
And we did. Good thing, because late out of Kruger means an automatic 1,000 rand ($125) per person fine. Every minute you are late that fine increases. Richard – the American who we had rented the car with, along with his South Korean girlfriend Annie – had shirked badly his navigation duties, taking on an animal-less late afternoon gravel road to hell. He kept assuring me we had plenty of time. He was now very quiet.
We camped that night at Kruger Lodge in Hazyview just outside the Park. The manager Orance gave us the run of the place. Camping with kitchen and hot shower ran only $9.50/couple. We had camped on the Lower Sabie River in Kruger the night before – fenced in from the hippos, crocodiles and lions that frequent the area.
The next morning we headed for Blyde River Canyon – the third largest canyon in the world and the biggest green one. We stopped at places named God’s Window, the Pinnacle and the awe-inspiring Three Rondivels. It reminded me of a lush Canyonlands with an azure lake in the middle, surrounded by towering rock pinnacles.
Back at Nelspruit Backpackers, we smoke a joint and I win the pool table back from Jimmy the Bushman – who worked as a park ranger in Kruger for years, once nearly dying of falsaparam malaria. We tell him what we saw. He says we had a good day, that we were really lucky to see the hyena and black-backed jackal, and that a warthog – though small in stature – is very dangerous when it rushes out of its burrow and slices you off at the knees with its razor-sharp tusks. Got it.
I told Jimmy about the herds we drove through at sunset. He confides that – despite earlier proclamations about the importance of obeying park laws – there are actually two different theories on animal viewing strategies in Kruger. One is to go slow and really watch. The other is to floor it – the idea being that the more ground you cover the more animals appear.
Helen and J.B. are the other two employees here. They are a couple, though things seem a bit precarious. They get room and board and a little money for working here. Paul the owner must not pay them much because they all have side rackets going – whether buying beers at the store and selling them for a higher price at the lodge, or renting out shitty camping equipment that they personally own. J.B.’s tent – which we rented at an exhorbitant price – was a nightmare complete with broken poles. The first night here Jimmy offered us a bottle of the South African version of Budweiser for fifteen rand (Rs). The next night it was ten Rs. We went to the store and got a 6-pack of Castle Milk Stout for 30 Rs. But I like them.
Jimmy is my favorite. We drink whiskey and trade the pool table back and forth – despite a few successful but brief challenges from young Europeans. He is my age and has a wife and daughter in Florida. He drinks too much, usually cracking his first beer no later than noon. He has a low bullshit tolerance to go with a big heart.
For days there are ambitious plans to hitch a ride with Carl and Nell to their beachside resort in central Mozambique. We were supposed to leave yesterday, then today. Four of us spent the morning hoisting Carl’s 4-wheeler, two generators and an ungodly assortment of other shit onto the roof of his land cruiser. We finally launch at 2:00 PM.
Jill and I squeeze into the back of the rig amidst another mountain of stuff. We pick up a jet ski and hitch it behind us. Nell drives around to various other stores, leaving us sitting exposed in the back of the rig in some of the dodgiest areas of Nelspruit. She gets a ticket for expired tags on the jet ski. We go back to the dealer and Carl uses a black marker to change the date from 2007 to 2009. They say Mozambique cops had been picking on South African tourists when they see their tags across the border. Not to be outdone, South African police have started hitting everyone with Mozambique plates – like Carl and Nell.
Carl says we have to wait for this guy to call who is going to buy a different Land Cruiser as part of the jet ski deal. It’s nearing 5:00 PM and the sun will set soon, meaning a night border crossing. Carl is now talking of getting a hotel just across the border. The earlier plan was to drive straight through to their beachfront Indian Ocean resort near Inhambane.
We wait. And wait. The guy doesn’t show. So wheeler-dealer 6’6” 300 lb. Afrikaner Carl comes up with a new plan to sell the Landcruiser to Richard – the American who we went to Kruger with and who is now also in the Mozambique-bound Landcruiser. Richard decides against it. So Carl says we’ll now also stop in Maputo and Richard can bargain with used car dealers. It is getting surreal. Jill and I finally politely bail out. I’ve seen enough shit go wrong for one day. Nell drives us back to Nelspruit Backpackers. When we get there Richard decides to bail out too. I hand Jimmy 200 R’s for another night in the dorm. We drink and shoot pool.
Greater St. Lucia Wetlands Park World Heritage Site
We set out with two skinny little twenty-something Swedish girls, walking three kilometers through busy morning markets to the Nelspruit bush taxi stand. We buy oranges and talk with vendors. We get on the road and cross into Swaziland, soon reaching the capital Mbabane. We transfer to another minivan that will pass by Milliwane Nature Reserve. We spend two nights at Milliwane, wondering at all the bright-colored birds and the Black Hills-like moonscape. We see a rare sun bird.
We catch a 9:30 AM bush taxi headed for Kwazulu Natal, South Africa. The Swazis in the minivan are very friendly. Racial tension becomes palpable when we cross back into South Africa, where history is still unfolding. We are part of it. I want to help heal these colonial wounds. But until black South Africans control not just political offices, but also gold and diamond mines and banks, there will be trouble here.
We have good connections and border crossings. A series of four bush taxis take us to the crossroads at Mtubatuba, then on to St. Lucia town by 4:00 PM. We find a really nice hotel called The Palms. The 240 rand special rate is for a flat with living room, furnished kitchen, bath, bedroom, even a pool and patio with brai (grill). After two weeks in dormitories, the silence is deafening. We sleep in, drink coffee naked, do laundry and eagerly pay for another night before lighting out down McKenzie Street.
It’s the only street in St. Lucia village – chock full of tourist shops and restaurants. The south end gives way to a beautiful jungle trail that passes by an estuary where hippos and crocodiles sun themselves on sand bars. The trail ends on the widest most sand dune-infested beach I’ve ever seen. We are on the shore of the violently crashing Indian Ocean. The shear power of nature is on display. We spend an hour or so mesmerized by the sight, hoping to see one of the whale sharks that frequent the area. We take a loop trail back, catching a ride midway from some mildly-stoned white South African Durbin teens. What an awesome morning!
Back at Room 3 of The Palms, we cook mince (burger) and carrots, which we eat with potato chips. We sip tea we found buried in our packs. Jill takes a siesta. I ponder an obscure route into Lesotho – over the Drakensberg at Sani Pass. Public transportation could be a challenge.
I hear a glass break. A quick glance reveals a pair of velvet monkeys on our kitchen counter, munching on avocados we picked up beneath a tree out back earlier. I chase them out of window with a coat hanger. When I sheepishly tell the manager about the broken glass, she takes it in stride. The monkeys are always breaking things here.
We hitch out of St. Lucia at 8:00 AM with a town cop bound for Richard’s Bay. We get a quick next ride from a white Zimbabwean truck driver, who takes us a few exits down to Empangeni. While waiting, a black South African who is also hitching tells us he was just robbed by four men while standing at the end of the exit where we are heading. We move quickly back in the other direction.
An East Indian chemical salesman stops and offers us a lift all the way to Durbin in the back of his pickup. Muhammed stops by two large paper mills – owned by a corporation called Sappi – and a Toyota dealership, where we drink coffee. He insists on buying us lunch at Steer – the South African version of McDonalds. We chow down on burgers, fries and Cokes doing 70 mph down the interstate toll road in the truck bed. He drops us at the Durbin bus station. Within fifteen minutes we’re on the way to Pietermaritzberg in a double-decker. We ask directions at a Lebanese gyro shop and walk a few blocks to Prince Alfred Street Backpackers. The owner is cool. We drink a 6-pack of Castle Milk Stout, take long hot showers and hit the hay.
Morning brings real French press coffee. We arrive at the bush taxi stand by 9:00 AM, after a stop at Mr. Pies. We wait two hours for passenger #15 to arrive. There is a squabble about money and the driver won’t leave until it’s resolved. Half-hour later we finally hit the road. We get to Underberg at 11:00 AM and take another bush taxi to a hut in the middle of nowhere. We get our passports checked and get in a four-wheel drive to begin the ascent of Sani Pass. At the top of the pass is the Lesotho border post. The boulder-strewn road requires precision driving and nerves of steel, especially the narrow switchbacks at the top. The views are stunning. We climb to the roof of Africa – the Southern Drakensberg Range.
Once we cross the border we are in the land of the Basotho people. They live in rondivel huts and herd goats, cattle and sheep on horseback. The sight of black cowboys is mind-bending. Mokotlong is an impoverished backwater. We walk in the dark looking for that elusive hotel. Finally, we pay a taxi 8R to take us to a place called GROW, which is run by missionaries and provides innexpensive housing for families with children and the occasional traveller. It is clean and quiet, if not exactly cheap at 200R ($25). We take showers and crawl under the covers. There is a chill in the air and we’ve just completed two non-stop road days.
There is one store in town and no restaurants. We smoke and drink coffee amidst a swirl of displaced women bringing empty bowls to the kitchen, then returning with them full of eggs and porridge. We opt for the 8:30 AM bus. It’s the only one to the capital Maseru. Eight long crowded hours later we arrive, heading straight to the Anglican Center. Once atop the grueling hill, we find that the Lonely Planet 2008 price of $14 is now $31. Africa is eating our financial lunch. We can only justify one night at this bare-bones dump. We’ll walk to the border in the morning.
The line is long, but we strike up a nice conversation with three friendly Lesotho residents. One woman says she thinks the whole AIDS epidemic is fabricated. I tell her about my book. She writes down the title and says she’ll get it through interlibrary loan. She’s studying for her MA in social linguistics here in Maseru.
We climb the hill into South Africa and eat a Russian – a big sausage on a bun – and French fries while waiting two hours for the bush taxi to depart for Klerksdorp. The ride is beautiful. We see ostriches. We arrive at dusk in the chaotic market and set about to look for a hotel. Soon we are being taken around by three young black engineering students. They mean well, but take us to expensive places. We circle back to the $31/night City Lodge. The shower is lukewarm, but it’s an otherwise nice room. We stay two nights just to slow the pace.
We’ve taken several bush taxis in South Africa and have not seen another white passenger. Every white we’ve talked to say they would never take one because they are dangerous. All foreign backpackers take the overpriced and boring Baz Bus. We have never felt threatened. I chalk it up to veiled racism. The problem is that the minivans never leave until absolutely full. Today we wait another two hours at Mafikeng, where we transfer for a bus to Gabarone, Botswana. But even before we finally take off the ride is fun. A crazy 80-year-old woman from Botswana keeps yelling at hawkers while we wait, buying a nice assortment of goods including a door lock, some bananas, a pair of socks and a pocket knife. Then, as Jill says, “She’s really throwin’ back those bananas.”
When the 15th person finally shows up, another guy behind us – not apparently as exasperated as the rest of us about the wait – decides he needs a Ronaldinho soccer video. Finally the key turns. There is no sound. The battery is toast. Four or five guys quickly converge at the front of the van. They open the front doors and begin pushing. The engine fires. After the usual stop at the gas station (engine left running), we are off to Gabs.
“Hey Rasta man, hey European, Indian man, we’ve got to come together as One” sings Lucky Dube. The driver turns up the volume. The speakers short out. It is a metaphor for South Africa, where idealism has given way to the tough daily slog of interracial trust and harmony. It will be impossible without some semblance of economic justice. Africans have a strong sense of justice. I remember sitting in that Pietermaritzberg taxi rank while the driver was trying to figure out, not who had underpaid, but who had overpaid. Whether at a store, a market or on a bush taxi, we have yet to be cheated. Considering the dire poverty here, that is truly amazing.
We score a furnished duplex at the Brackendale Lodge in Gabarone for $25. We’re supposed to share it, but the other half, to our delight, stays empty. We have satellite TV, so I revel in CNN and stories about Brett Favre becoming a Viking. We watch The Onion Movie and In The Name Of The Father. It is quiet here and the people of Botswana seem nicer. No post-apartheid hangover. No razor wire. The countryside is beautiful. The corn and sunflower fields end abruptly at the border, giving way to quintessential African bushveld. We saw a big herd of a type of antelope we did not see in Kruger on the ride in. Jill is sick. A cutoff low full of rain is hovering. I think we’ll stay a few days.
We do the 1,000 kilometers from Gabs to Kasane in two days. We hop an 8:00 AM bus from the terminal for a five-hour ride to Francistown. It is the first scheduled bus we’ve taken since Durbin. There is again a strong sense of solidarity between the all-black passengers and us. We arrive early afternoon and check into the $43/night Grand Lodge Hotel. The second day is a tad more difficult.
We arise at 4:30 AM and walk nine blocks to the bus station to catch the 6:00 AM north to Kasane. Two hours later we are still waiting – told the bus has broken down. Half an hour later throngs of Zambians and Botswanans cram their way onto the bus. A 14-year-old pick pocket nearly gets my wallet before I detect his hand. At 8:41 we are off.
The road is good until Nata, but for some reason the driver goes forty-five mph and a two hour trip becomes three. We stop for a twenty – minute lunch break at Nata. Jill heads for the bathroom while I grab us some fried chicken, French fries and Cokes. From Nata to Kasane the road is horribly potholed from all the Zambian truck traffic. We see elephants, kudus and giraffes, which helps counter the rude Zambian woman in front of us who keeps closing our window on this 95 degree day. There’s also a condescending white nun who has somehow managed to get a seat all to herself while everyone else is seated three to a side. We stop at a checkpoint. A small girl has a bout of diarrhea. There are no bathrooms.
Four more hours later we arrive in Kasane. It’s a sprawling overpriced shit hole. We’ve just missed the night safari departure. We walk ten kilometers, dodging the warthogs that run all over town. We give them wide berth, remembering what Jimmy had told us. Taxi drivers hassle us. A young woman, sensing our frustration, walks us up the hill to the town’s bargain hotel. We get a shared-bath room for $65. Fuck!
Another night of usury in this tourist trap will not do, so we wake up at 5:30 AM, chat with the front desk staff, and walk down the hill. We change pula for dollars and get a taxi to the Zimbabwe border. We drive past the confluence of the Chobe and Zambezi Rivers, then skirt a troop of trash-eating velvet monkeys as we walk to the border post. The stern official gives us 30-day visas for $30/each.
Unable to hitch a ride, we make our way towards a group of taxi drivers and negotiate a price for the seventy mile ride to Victoria Falls. We have to wait for two more passengers to get our price, so we pass time talking with the drivers. They are articulate and intelligent. I am blown away. It’s the best conversation I’ve had the whole trip. One man explains the entire history of British land theft and Boer tenant farmer belligerence that led to the current Mugabe land reform morass. He confirms many of my suspicions about the political situation here. Say what you want about Mugabe, but it was the London bankers who crashed Zimbabwe’s currency from 100 per $1 to 100,000 per $1.
Jill sits on my lap, since three more passengers and a baby show up. The driver goes out of his way to miss running over a black mamba. He says he often sees lions on this road at night. The four other passengers are bound for the capital Harare. We drop them at the train station for the 7:00 PM overnight train to Bulwayo and go to Lorrie’s Guest House. She is a white racist with biting dogs. Her rate has gone from $18 in the 2008 Lonely Planet guidebook to $70. She blames it on the electric bill.
I have her call Victoria Falls Backpackers. We can get dorm beds there for $10/each and they’ll come pick us up. No one else shows up so our dorm is like having our own room – a cute little thatch and bamboo hut. A German traveler named Florien is staying here awhile. He has done the Cairo to Cape overland route. We play chess and pool, but he seems forlorn. I wonder if African realities have taken their toll. The owner here is also a white racist, but the black staff is friendly and adept.
The walk down into town is littered with teenage boys with names like Christopher Columbus and Monkey hawking wood and stone carvings. They want to trade for the most basic Western goods – clothes, soap, etc. The country has been unable to import anything until just recently so there are huge used goods markets everywhere. The currency collapse was followed by two years of hyperinflation. A couple months ago the government dumped its currency. Now everything is priced in either USD or South African rand. It’s been a hard time here, but there is a sense that things are getting better. There’s a coffee and pizza joint just opening up downtown. Troops of baboons run amok through the streets. We go to sleep to the rumbling sound of The Smoke That Thunders.
Dean Henderson is the author of five books: Big Oil & Their Bankers in the Persian Gulf: Four Horsemen, Eight Families & Their Global Intelligence, Narcotics & Terror Network, The Grateful Unrich: Revolution in 50 Countries,Das Kartell der Federal Reserve, Stickin’ it to the Matrix & The Federal Reserve Cartel. You can subscribe free to his weekly Left Hook column @www.hendersonlefthook.wordpress.com