Friday, 15 September 2017

Down to Africa

The house in Hilton.

The family cat.
An ibis on the roof.
I’d been thinking of going back to South Africa for some time, in fact ever since I was there in 2015. Recent events have seemed to suggest that this would be the right move. Recently I had a photo published in a South African travel and tour magazine, “Travel Africa,” which was a complete surprise. They are running Africa’s Photographer of the Year award for 2017, and the category I’d entered was The Big Five. I’d been lucky enough to catch the all of the most sought-after animals in Africa in one day – the Lion, Elephant, Rhino, Buffalo and the most elusive of them all, the Leopard. That was the photo that was published, the amazing shot of the leopard crouched under a rock in the early morning sun, captured on my way back to the camp at Hluehlue Game Reserve. Although I won’t win the competition and the $25,000 safari, I was over the moon about being in a magazine at all! So there was this and a few other things – including finding an NGO that would sponsor me for my time here within minutes of searching! There was something calling for Africa that I couldn’t ignore any more – even though I’d promised myself no more moving, no more changing countries (and continents!) anymore, as I’d wanted a more settled and stable (normal) life. All of that flew out the window and the move to Africa was well and truly happening when I booked my tickets in the first week of August. This time for Africa!

Always watching.

A family that grooms together stays together.
Monkeys on the washing line.
Sunset over The Burg, as seen from Hilton.
Most people ask me – but isn’t South Africa dangerous? My reply to this is that every country is dangerous in it’s own way. Sydney is a modern, clean and safe city – it too though has a dark underbelly, and to be frank, I’ve felt more threatened (and actually been threatened) in Sydney more often that my whole time in South Africa – and Australia is my country, language and culture. There are the animals of course, but they aren’t just roaming around the streets – not the really dangerous ones anyway. Last time I was here, I visited the Natal Lion Park, just outside Pietermaritzburg, where you can see ex-circus lions lazing around a field. The setup allows you to drive in and get really close to the big cats – one woman got over eager and decided to wind down her window for a better view. She got dragged from her car and eaten – right in front of her husband. This was a week after my visit – but I’d kept my windows firmly up. This doesn’t happen all the time or in the streets, and it was her stupidity and ‘punishment’ if you will, for not following the clear and simple rules. Staying with my friends in a town called Hilton, an hour and a bit from Durban, this country reminds me of Australia a lot. It could nearly be the Blue Mountains up here – the style of houses, streets and mountains around. Then, you see monkeys running down the road and barbed wire on the fences and realise that it’s just a little different. Although the locals don’t like the monkeys, I find them cute and interesting – much like foreigners with squirrels in London love them and the locals hate them, and also Sydneysider’s dislike of possums and tourists’ fascination with them. Hard to get photos of, as they think my camera is a gun (as people do shoot at them), I enjoyed sitting in the garden in the sun, camera in hand, ready to snap come cute ‘family moments’ of the monkeys.

Spring is arriving here in the Southern Hemisphere.

Time for a 'sundowner.'
A house in Hilton - thatch and barbed wire.
There are probably more thatches huts here than the UK.
Before heading off to the NGO to start my 4-month stint as a volunteer, I spent a week with my friends in Hilton. It was lovely to chill and catch up with old friends, either down at the local watering hole The Pot and Barrel, or at home with a smooth single malt after a very satisfying home cooked meal. I am an explorer though, and so the day after landing decided to wander the streets – which I did before when I was here last time, but I still enjoy it. The weather here right now is very mild – a stark contrast to Barcelona! It is Winter in South Africa right now, but much like most of Australia, it’s not a cold, harsh one. It was sunny walking around the streets, the sun shining, and temperatures peaking at around 17c – cool enough not to sweat but just cold enough for a jumper and trousers. Perfect. Around the suburbs you can see Vervet Monkeys everywhere, from hiding on rooftops, crossing the road or picking and eating flowers from your front garden. I spotted a little troupe sitting in the font yard of the house, the babies playing with each other while Mum was getting groomed by Dad. A lovely little family of monkeys chilling on a Sunday afternoon. The other thing you will definitely see around here, and in most parts of SA too, are the Royal Ibis birds. Related to those we see every day in Sydney, these ones are far noisier but equally annoying, if not more. These birds don’t seem to go through your rubbish like their Sydney cousins, but they hang out in groups and squawk and make a right racket when they want. Sometimes I was even woken up by these noisy birds in the early morning, ruining my sleep in. The small local shopping centre in Hilton is a nice little place, quiet during the day, and really has all you need. The supermarket has an amazing variety of food – it’s sauce range is impressive, loads of mustards, tabasco sauce, spicy sauces, and of course soy sauce and loads of other Asian flavours. It’s also a place to get homemade pizzas, made in front of you when you order, and also meat pies and sausage rolls – how I’ve missed them! Outside there are seats and benches for sitting, as well as grassy areas and a large reservoir of water, which used to be an old quarry. In the water, I spotted the usual birds, but they’d put in an Asian Water Buffalo since last time.

A young monkey watching me as I watch him.

Tracks in the dirt at Hilton College's Reserve.
A curious Nala
I met my friend Donovan more than 10 years ago, way back when we were both backpacking around Scotland. We worked at the same hotel and when I left, we managed to stay in touch over the years, finally meeting up again in 2015 for his wedding. It was great to meet him again this year – another reason for coming here. He works at the very prestigious Hilton College, a live-on campus boys school which has their own everything – chapel, dining hall, rugby fields… even Game Reserve. Yes, they have their own private grounds with real wild animals! Well, I couldn’t pass this opportunity up, so I headed to work with him early in the morning, he dropped me off at the back gate, and into the park I went on foot! Since telling my friends what I did, they were a little shocked – a game reserve on foot? Well, apart from the fact that I’d done that before in Nepal with wild Rhino, elephant, tigers and bears running around, this park was only filled with vegan animals, so I really had nothing to worry about! It was hot, but I’d packed water and some leftovers from last night’s dinner, so off I went. The park has loads of animals, and although I didn’t see any giraffe (which came as a big shock to everyone, as they always see them), I managed to see a family of zebras, some impala, a Nala and some warthogs, including one which I scared off along the trail, making him bolt, tail in the air. All the animals for slightly wary of me however, as normal people come here in cars, and for the animals, cars are just another slow-moving herbivore that’s no threat – something on two legs however is different. The tall, dry grass made for some lovely scenery and photos, and although I missed the giraffe, I had a great time, even walking along the river and seeing the chain of waterfalls at the bottom of the park.

A family of zebra.

2 impala in the grass.

Monkeys are a common sight here.
Last look from the impala.
Before heading off to my new digs in the Valley of 1000 Hills, I needed to have a Braai – a South African barbecue. In fact, I actually managed to squeeze in 2 before I left. Both were good events – the first was a quiet one at home, two men cooking meat and drinking beer. My second BBQ was catching up with a friend that I hadn’t seen for some time either, and we headed out to a friend’s house for a night-time braai on Saturday. I was picked up and just before we got to the venue, I mentioned that I hadn’t bought any booze, thinking that we’d pick some up on the way. The only place open now wouldn’t be very safe, I was told, but as we had no other option. I wondered what this meant, but found out 5 minutes later as we pulled up to what I now know is called a “Shabeen.” A shabeen was originally a term used for a place that served alcohol illegally – the term originally coming from Ireland, now used for dodgey, and sometimes still illegal, bars in South Africa. Two buildings in a fenced off area, run-down and barely any lighting, but I could see well enough to know that it wasn’t exactly a classy establishment, or one where you’d want to come alone. There were guys hanging out the front, most drunk and smoking weed too, and all of them were black and slightly dodgy looking. The two girls waited in the car while I went in – I was also offered pepper spray. I declined politely, saying that I’d probably spray myself in the face, but the fact was I really didn’t think I would need it, and don’t like the stuff either. I walked in, greeting the locals, ordered a six-pack of beer from the lady behind the iron grate and jumped back in the car – job done. The girls had left the car running, in reverse with the clutch in, and had also locked the doors. A slight overreaction in my opinion, but not theirs – they were seriously worried I wouldn’t come back or that something would kick off and they’d have to leave in a big hurry. The night went on, and after the meal – which was awesome, Wurs (like a big, round sausage – Butifari in Spain) and steak – we headed to a pub. This place, although full of white people, I felt was more dangerous that the place I bought my take-aways from. I have no problem with white people or black people, but the white people here do seem to be scared of black people, thinking that they are all drunk and dangerous, forcing them to carry pepper spray and lock their doors everywhere. I don’t know about this but I didn’t like this new place either – my friends did admit that it was a ‘white shabeen,’ with a smile and a laugh, but they knew people there. I guess that makes the different between a safe place and a dangerous place.

The conference centre is here...

A wildebeest checking me out.
It's a bit of a drought here now.
The Beast.
The last thing to do on my list was to see the Mandela Monument, which I missed last time I was here. It was only a 10-15 minute drive from where I was staying, so there was no excuse this time – that and my friends had never been either, so it was a little history for them too. Just outside of Howick, in the KwaZulu-Natal province, sitting just off the road, is the Nelson Mandela Capture Sight Memorial. I’ve been told that this isn’t actually where he was capture back in 1962, but this is where the memorial has been built – probably due to money reasons, as in someone made money having it built here. Corruption is quite rife in this country, and money tends to disappear a lot. Anyway, the Great Man started off the founding member of the ‘mkhonto we Sizwe,’ meaning Spear of The Nation, often abbreviated as MK. He was inspired by Fidel’s Cuban Revoltion, he got many ideas on guerrilla warfare by people such as Mao, Che Guevara and Carl von Clausewitz. Through the MK organisation, he planned to sabotage the government by bombing military instillations, power plants, power plants as well as transport. He was a terroist, pure and simple – but for a good cause, fighting for people’s rights against the Apartheid Regime. I’ve recently found out that the CIA basically dobbed him into authorities in South Africa, leading to his arrest and the next 27 years in prison. From 1962 to 1984, he was in Robben Island, where his prison cell was a mere 8 feet (2.4 m) by 7 feet (2.1 m), with a straw mat on which to sleep. After his release he was key to regaining rights for black people in the country, but fought for the equal rights of all, no matter creed, colour or religion. He became the President of South Africa from 1994, when the country had it’s first Democratic election, to 1999. A great man, with a dark part perhaps, and a man who helped South Africa throw off oppression and kick start the country into something great – the rest is up to the people and government now as Mandella passed away in 2013 aged 95. “I learned that courage was not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it. The brave man is not he who does not feel afraid, but he who conquers that fear.” The memorial, although there is no real explanation, is a wonderful thing to see – at first it looks like black, steel rods rising up in a bunch on a paved square, but if you move into the right position, distance, height and angle, his face appears. Sadly I don’t know who the artist is, but it’s something to see – a real work on art and engineering.

Eucalyptus and new houses - the future of South Africa.

A ghost from the past.
The Mandela Capture Site.
The Great Man himself.
So this has been my start here in Africa, and not a bad one either I must say. I arrive on the 5th of August 2017, exactly 55 years to the day form when Mandella was captured – a sign maybe? So far I’d visited friends, seen some of the area where they live, including the old Hilton train station which was full of old, rusty steam engines. I'd been warned (again with the warnings), but I was curious so I did it anyway, wary of the 'hobos' that were supposedly squatting there. No information, but I made up my own stories - I'm guessing that a lot of these trains, as old are they are, were used when the railway was being built, and then to bring goods up and down from Howick to Durban, before lack of money or lack of need took over and they were left to rust. A fence won't stop me and my camera form an interesting story. I’m feeling positive about this huge move and upheaval that I’ve put myself in. I’d now be spending the next few months working for ICDM, the Isithumba Community Development Movement, in the rural village of Isithumba, in the heart to The Valley of 1000 Hills - home of the Zulu.

The Nelson Mandela Capture site monument.

Nelson Mandela's monument, seen from just the right angle.

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