After a rough night and a horrific sea day with most of the passengers having skipped at least one meal, we reached our first port on the East Cape of South Africa, East London. East London is the only river port in Africa; the Buffalo River empties into the Indian Ocean here. It is, unfortunately, a dying city. The wool and pineapple industries extinguished, East London has 45% unemployment. Overall the unemployment rate in South Africa is about 26%. The only thing that keeps East London going is its Mercedes Benz manufacturing facility. They are quite proud of the fact that they have just been awarded the production rights to the new “C class” Mercedes. A new parking garage to hold the finished vehicles sat across from our dock.
Our destination lecturer had told us that it was worth getting up early to see the pilot lowered to the ship from a helicopter and see the porpoises lead us into the East London harbor. I wasn’t so sure I would see anything when I got out to the top deck. The fog was so thick that they were using the foghorn on our approach. Then I noticed that we weren’t really moving much and a pilot boat came out of the mist. One of our navigational officers was on the piloting overhand of the ship and so I asked him. The helicopter is used at Durban, our next port. Just another mistake made by the lecturer.
The particular blast of our foghorn was letting them know we were a ship “in wait” (there is a different blast if we were actually stopped). Since he was right below me, I asked the officer about the female pilot I noticed in Cape Town. He said in the rest of the world the pilot is almost always male, but that in this area they had had mostly female pilots. Two pilots came on board today, a male and a female, both black (also unusual). South Africa is a changing society.
All of us outside were surprised when the city quickly came into view. We had only been a half-mile from land. By the time we docked shortly after, the fog was dissipating quickly. We boarded the bus for our ride to the Inkwenkwezi (bright star) Game Reserve. We passed through the downtown, where some of the empty hotels had been converted into shops and others just sat empty. Along the waterfront, even the “nicest” hotels looked very sad. Leaving the city we passed through an upscale neighborhood where half the large homes had been converted into B & Bs. These large houses with 6 or 7 bedrooms were from “inherited money”, the original wealth coming from the wool industry.
With such a high unemployment rate, it is not unusual that theft crimes are very high in the area. Most of the nicer homes sported signs from a security company, high walls, barbed wire on top of their fences, or all three. We passed one business the guide pointed out that had acquired two ostriches to combat crime. The problem went away with these new “guard dogs”. Unfortunately, since the business was within city limits they had to get rid of the deadly animals; the thefts started once again. Our guide’s husband is a dairy farmer. On Christmas Eve, he found six of his pregnant dairy cows slaughtered where they stood, everything taken except the entrails and the fetuses. They were jersey cows and do not have much meat, but in their pregnant state these jerseys must have looked fat and meaty. Poverty and hunger can lead to such acts.
In addition to theft, Aids is rampant. 18-25 people die each week in East London from aids. (That is a shocking, and not misprinted, statistic as related by our guide.) East London formerly saw both English and German immigration. The native people are Xhosa. (The word begins with a clicking sound, but is pronounced in English as a K.) Xhosa is one of the eleven official languages of South Africa. Nelson Mandela’s heritage is Xhosa.
As we passed a Xhosa settlement, our guide told us about the circumcision ritual that brings 16-year-old boys into manhood. (Females are not circumcised in the Khosa culture.) No anesthetic is used but the boys are worn into an exhausted condition before the cutting is done with a spear. He is also taught a new language which he can speak in front of females but not be understood by them. The boy then builds a hut and when the healing is complete, he burns everything he used during the time inside the hut. This is symbolic of passing into manhood.
When the Xhosa man marries, it is the wife who builds the family’s mud house, although the husband may add the roof. The practice of dowry is still part of the culture. The dowry is usually in cows and based on the woman’s fertility. It is not uncommon for the couple to first have a child before marriage to prove fertility. The man can at any time send the woman back to her mother, bringing great shame on the woman. Before marriage, girls are taught how to be good wives and keep their husbands interested. They also learn another language only known to other married woman. (Married Xhosa couples can all be in the same room together speaking about their spouses without the spouse knowing what is being said.)
As depressing as the city had been in its decay, the countryside was in its beauty-fertile and green with its hills and valleys. When our guide told us that those removed to the countryside during apartheid had chosen not to come back, I couldn’t blame them. When the city held rampant disease, poverty, and unemployment, I would choose the lush countryside. The recent rain had made it all the more beautiful.
Singing Xhosa women in native dress greeted us when we arrived at Inkwenkwezi. They were friendly and waved to us as they performed. After a comfort stop, we boarded our Land Rovers for the 3-hour drive on the game reserve. Our guide was young, probably in his late twenties, but very knowledgeable about the animals and the ecology of the reserve. The guide also drove the vehicle. One guest could sit in front with him with three quests in each of the three rows behind the driver. The thick canvas cover kept all the sun out from above and behind, but the vehicle was open on the sides. It is a bit of a struggle to climb into, but I did better than most.
We saw zebra and nyalas soon after boarding, but then passed through thick brush where a path was carved out for the vehicle and listened to the Christmas beetles. They spend 15 years underground and then come out from November-January (hence the name). The sound was quite loud and just added to the authentic feel of the experience. We felt the paper-like bark of the corkwood tree and saw the wild pomegranate that Zulu men used to make bracelets for their wives. I learned that when in the wild, a human could eat what a monkey eats, but never to follow the example of a bird or baboon.
As the brush gave way to a clearing, we were greeted by a pair of relatively young African elephants, one male and one female. They are identifiable as African elephants by their large ears. (I know you were thinking I was going to say because I was in Africa. Got ya.) They have lots of veins behind those large ears that they seemed to be almost constantly flapping. The movement stimulates circulation and keeps them cool. Did you know that elephants are right or left “handed”? You can tell by the wear on the male’s tusks which one he is.
Elephants have six sets of teeth. When they lose their last set and can no longer chew, they search out the bones of other elephants hoping to draw out the calcium as some form of nutrition. This is the reason for the phenomenon of the elephant graveyard. I was learning a lot. We were encouraged to ask lots of questions and I did.
Why do elephants stick their trunks in each other’s mouths? Actually they can learn a lot of information that way. They find out where the other found food or water. They also have supportive families. Our guide told us of a situation that he witnessed where a small female couldn’t get the water out of a particular spot. The other elephants kept filling her mouth with water until she was full. Then the older elephants drank for themselves. Beautiful.
Next we came across some guard dogs, I mean ostrich. (I am seeing if you are actually paying attention and reading all this.) The female ostrich is gray as it sits on the eggs during the day and the color camoflauges her to appear as an anthill. The male is black and sits on the nest at night. One ostrich got very close to our vehicle. So close that my camera shutter wouldn’t work with it so close to my zoom lens. When I put the camera down she came closer until her face was about a foot from my face. That is when I pulled my head back. She really posed for us.
This is the point in the story that Natasha has to make a confession. I had failed to fully charge my camera battery. (Kind of like failing to check your air level on an underwater dive, but my frequent readers know I have already done that.) I was thinking of fudging and not giving up the information, but the quality and quantity of my pictures goes down when we were armed only with Boris’ blackberry with its dated camera. (There is a reason this company is predicted to go under in 2014.) I could have been devastated, but instead I decided to just enjoy what I was seeing and while I will not have the opportunity again to get those pictures again, the excitement of the moment was worth it all.
We saw wildebeests, the females much smaller than I would have imagined. We saw a family of rhinos with the small male baby who just stared at us. We saw herds of giraffes, some taller than I have ever seen. We saw them gallop across the plain and eat from the tall trees. They are slow animals, so they only sleep for two hours at a time to protect themselves and often live in herds where all do not sleep at the same time.
We saw more herds of Burchell zebra, distinguished by the brown stripe between the darker stripes and the continuing striping down the legs. (This is one of three types of zebra.) The distinctive shadow brown stripe diminishes the farther north these zebra are found. Also, while I pronounce the name of these animals as zeebras. Our guide, white but who spoke fluent Xhosa to all the white and black staff, pronounced it zaybras. You wanted to ask another question just to get him to say it again.
We saw lots of antelope-nyala, impala, and the large eland. The name and mascot for the South African rugby team is an antelope, the springbok. In spite of the date of conception, the nyala synchronize the birth of their babies so they can all be born at the same time. The females then establish a nursery and all the females take care of all the babies. We saw a breeding group of nyala with one male and up to 45 females.
We saw a family of warthogs, two adults and four babies running through the brush as the “foreigners” approached. In case of illness, most is left to nature. However, if one of the large expensive animals becomes ill they bring in a vet. Although the breeds thrive in the reserve, they bring in new animals every five years to prevent inbreeding.
Like the animals, the plants have self defense mechanisms. We saw an acacia tree that grows thorns when over-harvested, the worse the condition, the larger the thorns grow. This tree also has a sap nicknamed African Chewing Gum. It was honey-colored and shiny. It tried it; it had no flavor.
About 2/3 into the ride, we stopped for refreshment and then went into the lion enclosure. Here we saw the beautiful white lion, one male and two females, three of the only 300 that still exist. The lions appeared regal and sat posed for us (except for one of the brown females that kept rolling on her back and clearly wanted to play); we were very close-I was less than 10 feet from the pride of seven lions including both white and brown lions.
This is the only time the experience did not seem quite authentic, since the lions were in an enclosure and the evidence that they were fed rather than hunted was right before us. However, we were also in the enclosure, an enclosure that had two gates and guard box where pistols and ammunition was stored. At the moment when we went in and the gatekeeper handed the guide the small first aid kit, it didn’t register that the bag actually contained a gun for protection.
The trip out and back was rough. These are not roads, but pathways. Sometimes it was rock and sometimes it was mud. It was always uneven and full of ruts. Our guide called the bumpy ride, an African massage. I think one of the guests put it best when he said “hard on the hemorrhoids”. Would I do it again? Yes, in a second. For Rocky, who loves and knows so much about these animals, this would be paradise. I loved the whole experience. From the green rolling hills and valleys to the sky that had cleared to a crystal blue highlighted with the whitest clouds. There is something magical in seeing a giraffe standing on a hilltop silhouetted against the sky or a three-month-old baby zebra jumping over a large rock to run to his mother.
Those that had been on other game rides or reserve rides said they saw more at Inkwenkwezi in three hours than in days at other locations. South African President Zuma’s daughter recently got married at Inkwenkwezi with the elephants as the backdrop to her ceremony. I think we choose well for today’s outing. (Rocky, I’ll come back with you. Remind me to charge the camera battery.)