Today is our last South African port, Richard’s Bay. The community of Richard’s Bay was created in the 1976 when the need for a port in the area arose. Tax incentives were offered to encourage industrial growth. Population estimates range from 50,000 residents to over 1 million. It is a relatively new community for South Africa, so the homes, business, and support services are all modern. Richard’s Bay has a new “American style” shopping mall that our neighbors from the suite next door visited for the wifi.
Unemployment is officially at 14%, but locals estimate it at 41%. There are plenty of barbed wire topped and electric fences, security system signs, and security staff on call at intersections to show that theft and violent crime are real problems for homeowners and businesses.
Richard’s Bay is where the coal leaves South Africa and the distribution center at the port was massive. As we drove out of town, we saw the forests of eucalyptus trees used in the production of paper and cardboard. These trees absorb large amounts of water and utilize most of the minerals in the soil, so you must have a permit to plant them and re-cultivate the land with indigenous plants after harvesting the trees. Since we have about an hour and a half drive out to the animal reserve, our guide used the opportunity to educate us on the South Africa and particularly this area of the country. She had wonderful pictures and articles that she shared with us.
This area of South Africa is the traditional home of the Zulus. While, the first two Presidents after the end of apartheid were Xhosa from the Eastern Cape, the current President, Jacob Zuma, is Zulu. The Zulus are the largest ethnic group in South Africa. Traditionally, men had to serve their chief when they were young and did not get married until age 35 or 40 so they were permitted multiple wives to allow them to quickly grow their families. Zulu men can still have as many wives as they can afford. Most urban Zulus have only one wife. President Zuma has 7 wives, one ex-wife, and one deceased wife (and about 20 children). Modern Zulus will often have a “white wedding” and a traditional one. Opposite of the concept of dowry, Zulu men pay a “bride price” usually in cattle (the traditional measure of wealth), so baby girls are welcomed.
By law children must remain in school until age 14 and by law are not supposed to be sexually active until 18. To get married before age 21, you must have your parents or the government’s permission. Child brides are not common, except in the Hindu culture. The government does not recognize marriages involving underage children as official marriages.
AIDS is wide spread; unofficially 40% of the population is HIV positive. However, if an HIV positive woman becomes pregnant and begins early treatment there is hope. Treatment during early and late pregnancy along with no breast-feeding and post-birth treatment can result in a child who is HIV negative. At this early stage, there is no way to know if the child will later develop AIDS, but it is remarkable progress in the treatment of HIV.
Malaria was wiped out in South Africa as a result of wide spread campaigns in the 1930s and 1950s. DDT is still used in areas where the nation borders on other countries without containment. When we left Senegal (our fueling stop) in route to Johannesburg, the interior of the aircraft was sprayed. My guess is that the other areas of the aircraft were sprayed as well. I remember the announcement informing the passengers of the process and letting them know it was “required by law”.
Public transportation is a problem in South Africa. We passed by vans that are a private transportation alternative. These “taxi vans” get stuffed with people. You stand on the side of the road and hail them with a hand signal regarding the requested route. If they are going the same way, they will stop and pick you up or give you a hand signal to tell you they are full. If they are on a different route they simply pass you by. The hand signals change regionally. Our guide told us of a driver who lost his license after stuffing 47 people in his van.
On the lighter side, our guide showed us pictures of people’s creative use of shopping carts. One used it as the grill for a bar-b-que, the entire cart turned on its side over the fire. The best photograph was of a car with no wheels that was hoisted onto 4 shopping carts and was being pushed down the road.
As we got closer to the reserve, the topic changed to animals. Throughout South Africa, they refer to the “Big 5”. These animals are even found on one side of the South African currency. The Big 5 include the rhino, elephant, lion, leopard, and Cape buffalo. We saw three of the Big 5 at Inkwenkwezi. Because the Zulu still hunt leopard for their skins, they are wary of people and so are rarely spotted in this area. However, the first animal the guide mentioned was not one of the big five. It was the hippo, the animal that kills the most people in South Africa. In 2012, a man went into his backyard in response to noise and found a hippo. The man lost his leg; the hippo wandered on.
There will be no hippos at the Hluhluwe-Umfolozi Game Reserve. The 235,000-acre reserve is the oldest game reserve in all of Africa and was started to protect the rhino, still the subject of major poaching due to an erroneous belief that the horn has medicinal properties. There were 948 rhino poached in South Africa in last year alone. The rhino horn is actually made of the same material as the human fingernail and has no medicinal value. The demand for the horn is high in Asian cultures and the poaching will not stop when the people who live near the Rhinos are poor and people who demand the horns are uneducated.
Yao Ming, a Chinese national and international basketball star (he played in the USA for the Houston Rockets) has a campaign in China to educate people of the true properties of the rhino horn. He has a successful track record in animal rights, educating people on the danger of the declining shark population due to the demand for shark fin soup. The campaign resulted in this soup disappearing from 90% of the menus where it was previously offered. We saw clips from both his campaigns on our suite television. Some predict that the rhino might be gone in 25 years if the poaching cannot be contained.
Once reaching the reserve, we transferred to vehicles that were similar to the Land Rovers at Inkwenkwezi, but these were small Toyota trucks with a retrofitted bed. They were not as comfortable and difficult for Boris to climb into. We were seated on the back row, the bumpiest. I had a middle seat. I was disappointed, but it proved to be fine as I was able to take pictures on both sides. On a few occasions, I passed the camera to Boris or our other seatmate to get the shot.
The landscape of the reserve was breathtakingly beautiful and the breeze that flowed through the “jeep” kept us cool. Our guide who spoke to us in heavily accented English and on her radio in Afrikaans, drove at a pretty fair clip while keeping a watch out for the animals. Boris thought the ride less rough than Inkwenkwezi. In the morning, we spotted only a few rhino and water buffalo in the distance and I cursed myself for not having a full battery on our last game reserve trek. After about a three-hour drive, we stopped for lunch at the Hilltop Restaurant and enjoyed a wonderful buffet lunch and stunning views of the reserve.
The afternoon proved very exciting as we came across a large herd of the cape buffalo feeding. We stopped and watched as they crossed the road in front of us, noting several babies among the herd. Shortly after we ran across rhinos just off the road, their magnificent horns coming up out of grass when they took a break from feeding. Down by the river we saw one of the “mud boys”, an older male water buffalo that had taken some time off for himself and was enjoying the muddy riverbank.
Our guide drove us to a hilltop to look out over the reserve and we saw a stunning herd of giraffes in the distance. These lovely creatures are my favorite African animals. We followed the road down and were rewarded with views of another group nearby. They rest for only about 10 minutes at a time, as they are extremely vulnerable in a resting position on the ground. At least one member of the herd stands guard. The group we noticed had two guards, some distance apart and facing in opposite directions. Two zebra joined the herd of giraffes.
The later the day got (and the cooler) the more Rhino we saw, each closer to us. Near the end, we were rewarded with three frolicking in the mud just off the road. On the other side of the road, a herd of zebra made its way away from us. There were baboons on the road just before the exit; and on the way back to the bus, I saw a family of warthogs with four small babies. What an afternoon!
South Africa is a country of incredible beautiful and fascinating people. It is also a place of violent crime sitting on a precipus waiting to see what will happen after the recent death of the inspirational leader who brought them out of apartheid. Mandela’s political influence had waned by the time of his death, but it is his spirit of forgiveness and hope that South Africa will need to draw from in its continued struggle for a successful democracy.