As we began the next leg of our journey, we would be taken into the unique and infamous country of South Africa. A land whose recent history has been rife with conflict, from King Shaka and the conquering Zulu empire of the 19th century to the European invasion and the government propagated Apartheid racism of the 20th century. South Africa today embraces a wealth of cultures and a diversity seen few other places. With 11 official languages, modern South Africa combines European and Indian influences with more than a dozen indigenous groups creating a cultural melting pot that is only surpassed by the countries diverse natural beauty and unparalleled variety of wildlife.
Our first stop after crossing the border from Swaziland would be the small village of St. Lucia on the countries south-eastern coastline. The jumping off point to several national parks in the area, St. Lucia is most known for its proximity to the UNESCO protected iSimangaliso (I still can’t pronounce this!) Wetland Park, a 220 km sliver of land stretching from the Mozambique border to Mephane, South Africa. With the Indian Ocean on one side and a string of waterways and lakes on the other, the wetland park has 5 distinct ecosystems within it and is home to the largest hippopotamus population in South Africa. These massive creatures are what we had come to see. But we would find so much more. Driving on the winding roads through the park we came across loads of wildlife, families of warthogs, fields covered with antelope and roaming herds of zebra. All of these animals roaming freely among some of the most unique landscape we had seen on this trip so far. Red sand dunes, flower covered green grasslands, coastal tropical forests and African marshland all within a small area. It was stunning and there was a whole new world it seemed around every bend. Making it to the beautiful stretches of white sand beach that run along the parks coastline, we stopped to put our feet in the Indian Ocean for the first time in our lives. We stopped for a few moments of reflection and talked about the one thing on both of our minds…Oh, how far we’ve come.
On our second day in the park it was time to get out and try to find the hippos we had heard so much about. Though the giant hippos are known to walk the streets of St. Lucia at night (villagers warned us repeatedly to be very cautious on the street at night and to run from the heavy-set predators if we saw one…crazy), we hadn’t seen any to this point so we hired a boat and set off to get a new perspective from the waters surface. It wasn’t long until we were deep in the massive estuary and the banks were lined with large sunbathing monitor lizards, beautiful Kingfishers and menacing crocodiles. Then, about an hour in, we came upon our first large pod of hippos laying bellies deep in mud along the waters edge. Primarily nocturnal animals, these guys were sound asleep and we pressed on to find, um, more “dynamic” specimens. We would soon be rewarded in a big way. Before we knew it we were practically surrounded! 20-30 hippos were swimming around us, more walked around on the shore and we found ourselves in a veritable hippo wonderland! Massive multi-ton creatures with huge teeth and a bit of an angry streak, hippos are one of Africa’s most dangerous and unique animals and we spent the rest of the day watching from our boat in awe of their sheer size and strength. It was nature at its rawest form and a special experience to say the least. Another night on the edge of iSimangaliso and we pressed on to our next destination, the cosmopolitan city of Durban.
Home to the largest Indian population outside of India, we began our stay in Durban by visiting the Indian spice markets and the Juma Mosque, the largest Mosque in the southern hemisphere. A massive pool in the mosques front room was gilded with silver, adorned with fountains and filled with large orange and white Koi fish. We watched several of its Muslim visitors performing cleansing rituals in the mosques cool waters. Durban is in Zululand and as such the language and culture of the infamous conquering tribe still exist throughout the area, most of the regions residents speaking primarily Zulu (an official national language) with its amazing clicking and popping sounds. The next day we set out from Durban on a day trip to see a “traditional Zulu village” in the area and watch a music and dance performance. Now sometimes these type of tours work and sometimes you end up in an overly commercialized “village experience” that is more than a touch too set up for tourists. Unfortunately that is where we ended up. After watching the scripted performance of the tribes people, we left feeling only slightly more educated about the culture and regretting missing out on a more authentic experience. You can’t possibly get it right every time though as we’ve learned often on this trip and you just have to learn from your mistakes. Inspired to find a REAL experience at this point, it was time for us to go way, way off the beaten path.
To South Africas “Wild Coast” we drove. Six hours on paved roads then another 3 hours on rugged dirt “roads” and we found ourselves hiking into a real Xhosa village at sunset. The Xhosa have lived in the wild coast region for hundreds of years and are often referred to as the “red people” for the red clay they wear on their faces and the red clothes they wear. Their language Xhosa (another official national language) is a derivative of Bantu and thus contains similar clicking and popping sounds which was amazing to hear. We would be staying in a rondavel for our stay, a traditional round hut with a thatched roof. Ours was perched on a beautiful hillside at the convergence of a large river and the ocean. Our first night when we emerged from our hut into the darkest of darks (there is little or no electricity for 50k in any direction and thus no light pollution) the sky was filled with more stars than I’ve possibly ever seen in my life and the Milky Way painted a stripe across the sky right through the village. These city kids were blown away. For the next 4 days we would be completely immersed in the local culture. We spent some time taking a walk through the forest collecting roots and bark with the local “Ixhwele”, an herbalist of sorts who uses nature and a touch of magic to heal the people of the village (Laura kept asking him if he had a cure for hair loss which I think was probably for my sake). We laughed heartily and drank Umqombothi, a sour milk tasting corn beer with the village chief and many locals sitting on milk crates on the dirt floor of the village bar/supply store hut. Most of all, we just walked around the village, talked to those who could speak any English, found ways to communicate with those that didn’t, and tried to immerse ourselves amongst some of the nicest people you ever met in your life. This was a large part of why we came to Africa in the first place, to experience cultures that so vastly differ from our own and yet somehow find common ground on which all people can relate. It was a life affirming learning experience on a very basic level and we left our village with bit of new found understanding of Africa and the people that live there. Continuing on we stopped for a few nights in a beachside tent hostel further down the Wild Coast and then pressed on to South Africas “Garden Route” a beautiful run of verdant green hills, rushing rivers and gorgeous coastline that runs from Port Elizabeth all the way to Cape Town.
Only stopping to say hi to some friendly giraffes poking their heads out of the forest alongside the road, we made our way all the way to the small hamlet of Storms River Village, the nature lovers and trekking epicenter of the Eastern Cape and the gateway to Tsitsikamma National Park. A beautiful and friendly town, we were happy to make it our home base for several days of outdoor adventure. Our first stop was Big Tree Park with its featured attraction…you guessed it, the BIG TREE. It was actually quite spectacular, an easy trail led us through beautiful coastal forest to a massive 36m Yellowwood Tree that is more than 1000 years old. As someone from Redwood country in California, I was thoroughly impressed by the Yellowwood trees size, not just in height but in breadth and reach as well. Its massive limbs stretching far out into the woods all around us. The next day we headed into Tsitsikamma and went on an epic, tiring, and dangerous hike along the coast hugging Otter trail to a beautiful giant waterfall cascading down the cliff above us to the ocean below. Eventually making it back exhausted, we headed to the famous Storms River Mouth where the mighty Storms River exits a narrow rock canyon and meets the ocean. Criss crossed with several hanging foot bridges the canyon was absolutely beautiful to explore. We returned to our hostel that night just in time to eat a spectacular dinner. We had asked the Xhosa employees that morning if they could make us a traditional Lamb Potjie, a delicious slow-cooked lamb stew cooked in a three footed cast iron pot over an open fire for the entire day. Oh man, after a long day hiking there was nothing better to eat on a chilly South African winter evening.
Continuing along the Garden Route we would see large packs of Baboons on the side of the road and in the trees beyond. We stopped a few times to watch their fascinating community dynamics including children at play, mothers with their children and several fighting males, howling with their fang filled mouths wide. It was so captivating that we were compelled to visit nearby Monkeyland, a terribly named but wonderfully conceived monkey sanctuary in the forest nearby. Essentially a massive fenced in valley, local monkeys as well as hundreds of previously domesticated monkeys from around the world are rescued and released into the large free roaming park. Accompanied by our guide we set out on trails through the park surrounded by local Vervet monkeys, Ringtailed Lemurs, Squirel monkeys, White Gibons, Red and Black Howler Monkeys, Spider Monkeys and many more. It was amazing walking among so many various monkeys all interacting around and above us. As we crossed Africas longest hanging foot bridge it was at one point literally covered with monkeys that scurried and climbed all around us. Monkeyland is such a unique and noble rescue project I can’t recommend it enough. As if that wasn’t enough, next door we would visit the worlds largest aviary called Birds of Eden. The massive netted natural forest is home to lakes, waterfalls, trails throughout and hundreds of birds from around the world, from toucans to flamingos and everything in between. It was so amazing seeing so many beautiful and brightly colored birds free flying throughout the massive netted enclosure all around us. But it was time to push on. We had only made it halfway down the coast and only had two weeks left in the country. Our plan was to continue driving down the Garden Route towards more adventures, the Winelands, Cape Town and more. Africa already had captured our hearts and there was no telling exactly where it would take us next.