“Nothing, I am sure, calls forth the faculties
so much as the being obliged
to struggle with the world.”
Mary Wollstonecraft Goodwin
Realm of the south-westerly busters
Richard's Bay, South Africa
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After obtaining clearance we steamed to the Zululand Yacht Club, and rafted alongside one of the dozen visiting yachts. There, Keith and Marion, Tenacity's crew, presented us with a cold bottle of champagne, and subsequently we did the same for the next arrival in our group.
Without fanfare, adventurous Annette set off for parts unknown (subsequently we kept in contact for the next few years). To everyone's relief, Josh and Heidi reached port several days later.
Kruger National Park
A few days later we rented a car and eagerly began the 400-mile drive to Kruger National Park, planning on reaching one of its camps before closing time. Jacques and Madeleine Moreau, fellow yachtees who had also recently completed the long Indian Ocean crossing, occupied the back seat. They had dearly wished to visit the park, but were rather lacking in means, so Jenny and I had invited them along as our guests.
“We had been told that if one's car were to break down out here, the whites were apt to speed by in their fancy automobiles, and local blacks would be the more likely to lend a helping hand.”
After the long passages across the vast ocean, where we had seen little - excepting a few flying fish and an occasional bird - we found the activity of speeding along the N2 highway singularly thrilling, and the scenery itself spectacular. Initially the two-lane, paved road passed through thick jungle, and once we had to slow for a score of vervet monkeys scampering across the road. Farther on we passed through farming districts; some bore fields of lushness, but most were overgrazed and somewhat bleak. Primitive villages dotted the hillsides, and little cylindrical dwellings, called rondavels, were practically everywhere. These were usually mud walled and thatched roofed; occasionally some were painted; and rarely, some were roofed in corrugated sheet metal. In a few instances a derelict car stood parked outside, having displaced the traditional oxcart. Indeed, the people were impoverished, yet here in the rural districts, away from the hideously overcrowded "locations," the blacks appeared reasonably content. They so greatly outnumbered us, however, that we could not help but feel somewhat out of our element. Even so, we had been told that if one's car were to break down out here, the whites were apt to speed by in their fancy automobiles, and local blacks would be the more likely to lend a helping hand.
Natives stood along the roadsides vending their wares, which typically they extended at arm's length to cars speeding past. They were selling fruits, vegetables, and unappealing dried fish, as well as an interesting variety of woodcarvings, pottery, and baskets. We stopped at one of the many roadside stands, and this proved something of a mistake; for folks began competing with one another with an enthusiasm that suggested a genuine paucity of customers, and we suffered the brunt of their ebullience. After buying a basket of papayas we pulled back onto the highway, equanimity happily regained.
Farther on we passed through mile after mile of timber farms burgeoning with relatively fast-growing conifers. These were vibrant, all standing in tidy rows, and each was slated for the maws of the pulp mills.
The scale of the landscape was gargantuan and impressive. Moreover, the scenes changed dramatically from location to location. The land was one of strong contrast. Generally, the highway led through expansive country backed by colossal mountains. "Can you believe it?" I mused incredulously. "We're in Africa!"
“Can you believe it?" I mused incredulously. "We're in Africa!”
Characteristically, mariners are a willful and independent breed, accustomed to having their own way, doing their own things, and agreeing with their own thinking. As such, their sharing the confines of a small car on a multi-day tour of the outback can be a recipe for a situation. We had witnessed more than one dusty carload returning to the anchorage from such a trip, the members of each family feeling that their personal autonomy had been violated. Happily, though, Jacques and Madeleine were proving themselves to be ideal companions. Seated demurely in the back seat, while evidently enjoying the excursion, they seemed perfectly content to allow Jenny and I to deal with any problems. Madeleine habitually rolled her own cigarettes, and the stunted and wrinkled stub of a butt planted squarely in the center of her face was practically her trademark. But without a word on the subject she politely refrained from smoking while inside the car.
Remarkably, these folks had been on their present voyage some 17 years. Since meeting them in Darwin we had shared many anchorages with Ludmaja II. More extraordinary characters would be hard to imagine, yet they seemed to live in the present moment, keeping their past experiences largely to themselves. While driving along, I remembered aloud that at Reunion Island the authorities had been leaning heavily on poor Jacques, and I now asked him about the outcome. By way of background, within its territories, French law requires that all yachts of the flag carry a standard inventory of safety gear. In theory this would seem fair enough, but in fact many French yachtees judged the bulk of the required gear, not only outrageously overpriced, but mainly of academic value only. Ludmaja II had been at large for so many years that, understandably, she did not carry many of the required implements; so when she steamed into Reunion the officials fined Jacques heavily and demanded that he purchase the requisite gear. Jacques explained to us that although he knew about the requirements beforehand, his dwindling finances dictated a visit to a French territory of departmental status in order that he might collect his modest pension.
At the same time, another Frenchman in our acquaintance was enduring much the same predicament. "Why should I," Michel Martin had demanded of me incredulously, "sailing single-handed all the way from France, be required to carry a horseshoe life buoy? If I were to fall overboard, who do they think would throw it to me?" Michel had taken his story to the editor of the local newspaper, who then deemed it suitably controversial for publishing. As a result, his plight evaporated seemingly into the nebulosity of the bureaucracy.
Jacques related his having chosen a different option. One dark night Ludmaja II simply stole quietly out the harbor. Her skipper had not so much as paid his port dues, for having done so would have alerted the authorities to his purpose. Perhaps not wishing for another dose of public scorn, the authorities may have elected to turn a blind eye. "But soon after we set sail the wind died!" Poor Jacques related with a sheepish grin, prominent in my rear view mirror, "and we sat there for two very frustrating days in plain view of the port. We'll go back to France," he said, "but not until we have given them five years to forget about this."
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We had driven some eight hours when we reached one of the entrances to Kruger Park, at a place called Malelane. After checking our reservation vouchers, the ranger reminded us that we were to be in our chosen camp by 6:30 p.m. In the visitor's center we purchased a few guidebooks to help identify whatever wild animals might present themselves.
“My egress startled the creatures, and I received a few snorts and a mighty stab in my direction. Straightway I lurched back into the vehicle and slammed the door.”
Kruger Park is a wildlife sanctuary of no little renown. Yet as I turned off the paved roadway a short ways into the park, and drove slowly along a narrow gravel lane, I wasn't expecting to see many animals until the following morning. At least the vegetation and the topography were interesting. Suddenly, four robust beasts bolted from the underbrush and rumbled across the road, and I had to jam the brake pedal to keep from bowling them down. Judging by their scabrous appearance, one might have carbon dated these creatures to at about 120,000 BC. While they snorted about combatively, I jumped from the car to snap a photograph. However, my egress startled the creatures, and I received a few snorts and a mighty stab in my direction. Straightway I lurched back into the vehicle and slammed the door. At that, the excitable beasts slashed indomitably back into the bushveld. Clearly, my stepping outside had been construed as an act of aggression. But what were these gnarly creatures?
Jacques, Madeleine, and Jenny were thumbing wildly through the books. "Warthogs!" Jenny exclaimed. "`Somewhat repugnant in appearance with tusks and massive knobbed heads, these pig-like animals never hesitate to put up a relentless fight.'" Hmm...a good incentive to remain in the car, as per the park rules."
Interests kindled, we drove on, and soon came upon a chicken-like bird. "Crowned guinea fowl" instructed a reader from behind me. A moment later we saw a pair of vervet monkeys sitting in the branches of a roadside tree, then we passed by a herd of impala: beautiful members of the antelope family. Next we met with a yellow billed hornbill, a bird equipped with a large curved beak. At that point we decided to begin listing creatures observed.
Driving on, we encountered a leopard tortoise meandering across the road. Then came members of the antelope family called waterbuck sauntering through the nearby brush, and baboons watering at a creek. We sighted massive buffalo, brilliant, glossy blue starlings, several striking Burchell's zebra, a herd of wildebeest, and a few gnu (buffalo-like but somewhat smaller, and with sideways curving horns).
Within the span of half-an-hour we had become staunch enthusiasts of the African wildlife. Clearly, we had not expected to see such a variety of creatures, nor at such close range. Because the bushveld grew thickly, it permitted us to sight only those animals that happened to be close to the road, and surprisingly, the game did not seem to mind our intrusion - as long as we remained in the car. When we encountered animals standing on, or near the road, they would usually amble away, although not with any sense of urgency.
“Just to think that in their natural setting, these animals were participating in the same dynamic interaction between predators and prey, carnivores and foragers, as had their progenitors for no doubt millennia.”
What struck me most was the animals' vibrancy. Unlike the comparatively insipid condition of creatures captivated in zoos, these beasts appeared almost healthier than life. And just to think that in their natural setting, they were participating in the same dynamic interaction between predators and prey, carnivores and foragers, as had their progenitors for no doubt millennia. In Kruger Park, as in other National Parks in South Africa and neighboring nations, the wildlife is protected from the senseless and appalling slaughtering at the hands of unconscionable trophy baggers. Poachers, however, remain a serious problem. But generally, man here is no longer a hunter, and as such, he no longer plays a leading role in the interaction. The animals here seemed to realize this, generally, and their comparative lack of fear toward cars carrying humans made the visit to the park an unforgettable experience.
Kruger Park is immense, about the size of the country of Denmark according to one brochure. One hundred ninety miles long, it is home to some quarter million animals. And within the park are 15 zoos, each about a city block in size and enclosed around the perimeter with a sturdy chain-link fence. At 6:30 p.m. the gates to these zoos close and the Homo Sapiens are penned in for the night. The zoos are called "camps," and because lions and cheetahs hunt nocturnally, it is considered unsafe for a succulent human to be found outside the camps at night.
Reaching the fenced-in camp called "Crocodile Bridge" before the armed guards locked the eventide gates, we paid the equivalent of $9.00 per couple for a pair of thatched roofed bungalows. Then we visited the little store, which among other comestibles sold generous bags of elephant jerky for 5.75 Rand, and cans of ground water-buffalo meat for R2.75.
After the passing of night, dawn signals an end to the predatory forays, whereupon the beasts are as likely as not to lay down within sight of a road. With the onset of the first car, though, they may move away into the veld. As such, the occupants of the first car to happen along are likely to encounter by far the most game. At 4:30 am the gatesman let us out, and indeed, we were first. However, in accordance with predictable human aggressiveness, minutes later a few spirited drivers passed us, doing far in excess of the 25 mph speed limit. Even so, we enjoyed a most fruitful morning of sightings. We had not traveled a mile before encountering half a dozen buffalo crossing the road. These striking creatures are massive and reputedly short tempered; and of course we allowed them the right of way.
After bypassing a group of giraffes, we met a solitary bull elephant. Members of this species can show their ornery temperament, and this one seemed determined to substantiate the image. He refused to allow us to continue along the road. When I drew the car near, in defiance he began scraping at the ground, sending dust flying and shaking his head as though preparing an attack. And despite the fact that this time I had not emerged from the car, the enormous beast charged. I snapped the transmission into reverse and stomped the gas peddle.
“As the car backed full speed astern with its tormentor in hot pursuit, we found the episode hilarious.”
There was nothing for it but to concede his territorial imperative, and as we waited in the immediate distance, along happened another car. Predictably it passed us by, and the driver hazarded an attempt at bypassing the elephant. But this attempt was also noticeably hyphenated. Having anticipated the outcome, I had the camera at the ready. As the car backed full speed astern with its tormentor in hot pursuit, we found the episode hilarious.
When it happens to someone else, it's hilarious. Note the reverse lights.
Next we observed that elephants are not ecologically minded, as the big fellow was taken by a desire to nibble the roots of the nearest tree. He simply leaned on the tree and knocked it over. After the brute had demonstrated his obvious physical superiority, he eventually stood back and allowed us to proceed.
Driving on, we began to realize how remarkably camouflaged were some of the animal species. Driving past them unnoticed seemed to be a regular occurrence, as evidenced each time one of my passengers would spot some creature out the aft window. So Jenny and I were glad for the keen eyes of Jacques and Madeleine, who assisted our sightings from their vantage in the back seat.
We toured the park three more days, sighting dozens of additional species, including white rhino and lion. In all, we drove some 400 miles of dirt roads inside the park; even so, we did not reach beyond the park's southern quarter.
Photo Essay ...
Chameleon. Reading the guidebook to determine if it has a poisonous bite.
"Turn Off Motor. Stay In Your Vehicle."
Warthog and Impala
Klipspringer and interesting stripes on the rock.
Female Waterbuck and Impala.
Impala, females and their young.
Zebra wounded by a lion probably. A sober reminder that Kruger National Park is not a zoo, but that the animals are in their natural setting, and were participating in the same, ageless, dynamic interaction between predators and prey, carnivores and foragers.