Longtom Half Marathon
We kicked off the most recent holiday break by heading to Sabie to run the Longtom Half Marathon. We joined over 70 other Peace Corps Volunteers and a couple thousand other competitors to tread the 21.1km from the top of Longtom Pass down into the town of Lydenburg and the valley below. It was a beautiful morning for a run and we passed our time quickly by taking in the incredible views, cool weather, and pleasant company. For about five kilometers we fell in stride with a South African who had grown up in the Lydenburg area. He gave us a pop history lesson on the area on how the town began as a relocation settlement for malaria survivors and pointed out bluffs overlooking the valley that once shouldered the cannons of the Boer army as they fought the English. It seems as if every nook and cranny of this country has a story to tell about the not so distant past.
The weekend surrounding the race was also spent leisurely catching up with our friends. Stories, both successful and frustrating, were traded over a hot meal and cold beer. Showers, even cold ones, were a luxury many of us relished. We afforded ourselves other delicacies too; filling fridge with cheese and wine, dining at a quaint country restaurant serving exceptional food, and even sipping a true espresso with breakfast. It was clear again how important our support network of volunteers has become and the variety of experiences we all share in such an interesting country.
With most of us on break for another couple weeks, the weekend ended with smaller groups of volunteers breaking off at different times to pursue their next destination. Cape Town, Pretoria, Mozambique, Zanzibar, and others filled out the list of locales where our friends would find their way. Our next stop was not nearly as far as any of these, though it proved to be no less interesting.
Blyde River Canyon Area
Late on a Monday morning we had our rental car delivered to a friend’s place in Nelspruit and began our week long adventure on the left side of the road. Easing out into traffic in our sleek silver VW Polo, we cautiously picked up speed and successfully navigated our way to the open road heading north toward the Blyde River Canyon. Within a few kilometers the anxiety of traffic passing on my right had passed and the remainder of the trip went smoothly. After an eight month hiatus, the novelty of driving again failed to wear off the entire week. Truly, private transport is a luxury I once took for granted. No more. Being able to toss our bag in the back seat, drop a coke in the cup holder and throw in an MP3 CD as we crossed the countryside was nothing short of exhilarating. Not to mention the thrill of driving itself in this country. NASCAR should send drivers here to train. On one stretch of about 80km we were navigating evening traffic that consisted of a host of public taxis, trucks loaded full with people and produce, donkey carts, livestock, bicyclists, pedestrians and potholes. All of this squeezed between the yellow lines of a two lane road with no shoulder and a nominal speed limit. Makes road construction on I94 in July seem like an eight lane super highway.
For three days we explored the greater Blyde River Canyon area. Our jumping off point was the Graskop Hotel in downtown Graskop. Situated only about 30km north of Sabie on the southern end of the escarpment that divides the canyon area from the lowveld that stretches east through Kruger National Park and into Mozambique, Graskop is a quiet tourist town. Its array of local business and street vendors, an eclectic mix of restaurants, and proximity to well known attractions makes Graskop a wonderful town to visit. The hotel was beautiful. Rooms were soft and comfortable with an inviting lounge chair for the evenings after a long day and a patio with opening up to the garden perfect for an early morning coffee and newspaper. The dining hall and lobby have a very modern African décor that includes local artistry adorning walls, furniture and sculpture from across the continent in all shapes and sizes, and fireplaces centrally located in each section to gather guests together to share warmth and stories.
On our first morning, following a hearty South African breakfast and a coffee or two, we traveled west to the small town of Pilgrim’s Rest. Originally populated by a smattering of gold miners in search of fortune, Pilgrim’s Rest congealed into a full town when gold was found in 1873 and miners poured in from around Southern Africa. Eventually the gold dried up and the entire town was actually sold to the government as an historical landmark. Many of the buildings today sit relatively unchanged since the 1970’s. Tourism now replaces gold mining, though scars of the surface mines can still be seen etched in the surrounding hillsides. We arrived early on a misty morning and settled the car under the overhang of a few trees near the end of the main street. Despite the rain we strolled leisurely up and down the streets, dismissing eager vendors hawking macadamia nuts and ducking into almost every shop to browse as much as to catch a few minutes to dry. We have learned that most curio shops, street stalls and vendors on foot in South Africa are offering generally the same wares. Wood carvings pour out of each stall along the street with a woman’s voice not far behind offering each passerby a ‘special price’. Batik fabrics are draped on every fence, wire, string and tree branch in sight. It looks sometimes as if the entire town decided to do laundry at the exact same time and fought to find places to hang things out to dry. Brightly colored and intricately patterned, they are beautiful pieces. The shops housed in buildings were generally more expensive, though not by much, yet they usually offer a few things that the street stalls do not. Most of the time that means South Africa themed apparel and tchatchkies, similar to the items you might find at the Mall of America Store. Yet each store or vendor often carries one or two items that others do not, and those are the items we were usually after. We decided after a few shops that we had seen most of what was to be offered in the area, made a list of those items that caught our eye and then spent the remainder of our vacation bargaining from place to place until we got the price we wanted. Haggling here is not only fun, but generally expected from the street stalls and vendors. It helps to know a bit of the local language (it can be any of the 11 official languages here, excluding English and Afrikaans) and local dialects earn you bonus points that translate to even better prices.
After a few hours of browsing and a list of things to bargain for, we struck out to the northwest. Through passes and valleys we wound our way to the Echo Caves. Tucked away in the corner of a mountain 5km off the main road, Echo Caves is a series of passages that make their way down into the earth. A main entrance and exit are connected by the main passage, though other fingers branch off in different directions. We spent an hour or so exploring one of these fingers. I felt like Indian Jones as we ducked through low spots, avoided water pools formed by water dripping from some unseen crack in the cave wall and emerged into larger caverns along the way lit by small light posts that gave the cave an archeological and ancient feel. With no map and no guide, we were surprised by the lack of controls on the caves and the fact that we could wander anywhere we wanted. One could easily camp out in the caves and not have anyone come looking for you for a few days. We decided against that idea and instead trekked back out the way we came and continued on our way to join the north end of the escarpment road that follows the Blyde River Canyon.
The Blyde River cuts its way from north to south along the escarpment of the Drakensburg Mountains. The escarpment is truly an incredible geological phenomenon. From what I understand, the area was one of the first to break the surface of the ocean that covered the earth millions of years ago. As more land surfaced a crack in the earth formed. The weight of the ocean on the western side of this crack acted as a pushing force would on one side of a lever and heaved up the earth on that side. This formed almost a sheer wall of mountain that shoots straight up from the eastern lowveld region. The river then carved a deep canyon within the mountains along this line and views from the top of the escarpment that overlook the surrounding area and the lowveld below are spectacular. Highlights along this route include the Three Rondawels, named as such for their resemblance of local round huts with thatched roofs, Bourke’s Lucks Potholes, carved out of the stone surrounding a waterfall at the junction of the Treur and Blyde rivers, numerous waterfalls that crash down the cliffs to make their way into the river below, and a handful of viewpoints at which to gaze east across the plains with names like Wonder View and God’s Window. The drive is not more than about 50km, but takes an entire day to enjoy with all the stops along the way. At each there are curio stands run by women from nearby villages. Despite an overcast day and missing a clear view of the Three Rondawels, the day was incredible and near sunset the clouds broke to offer awesome views at the close of our day. It is difficult to put into words the beauty of the area. Such a stark contrast from the beauty of the bushveld that we know in our area, or the beaches of the southern coast, it was like one of those long country drives that we used to take with Grandpa. No real destination, just a drive through the country side to see what was there.
The following day we awoke to another filling breakfast and a journey north, back through the Blyde River Canyon and beyond to Phalaborwa. We made a quick stop on the edge of town at Graskop Falls so that I could jump off a cliff (literally) and then were on our way. With clearer skies, we made a stop again at Three Rondawels and this time were able to get a clear view with the lake formed by the dam in the foreground and the lowveld stretching out in the background. Definitely worth the extra stop.
We picked our way down the edge of the escarpment, around corners and through tunnels until we emerged at last a few thousand meters below the peaks and the car was able to stretch its legs on the flat expanse of the lowveld. We were now among familiar flora similar to what we find in our village. Our only stop for the day was the Amarula lapa at the Amarula plant 10km south of Phalaborwa. A small welcome center is all that is there, but the friendly staff and a tall glass of Amarula on ice made for a warm welcome. A short video explains the process of making Amarula and tells of the harvesting that takes place in the area. Because we were not visiting during the harvest, no tours of the plant were offered. So we enjoyed our beverage, made a few friends with the staff and left with a bottle for the road (not literally). We arrived in Phalaborwa as clouds gathered and enjoyed a meal at the Irish pub in town as the rains came down hard. We went to bed early that night at our backpackers. A good night’s sleep was needed if we were to start our next day at 5am to explore Kruger National Park.
Kruger National Park
Kruger National Park is slightly larger than Israel in overall area. Home to thousands of animals and the Big Five (Lion, Leopard, Buffalo, Elephant, Rhino) the park is nothing short of incredible. Our plan for our one day in the park was to enter at the Phalaborwa gate and make our way south to the Paul Kruger Gate. We had our map of the park, a full tank of gas and 3 gigabytes worth of memory on fully charged cameras. There are paved main roads throughout the park. These major arteries for traffic transport people from camp to camp along the way. The camps are available for people to stay and provide a full range of amenities. Branching off from these roads are other dirt roads that are well maintained. Maps of the park are well marked with distances, watering holes, camps and descriptions of various wildlife. We entered the park at 6am when the gates opened, the third car in line for the morning, and took our first left off the paved road that we could. In the two hours that we drove on that small section of gravel we saw so many impala that we stopped counting and ran into the biggest elephant that we would see that day. A quick stop for coffee at Letaba camp and we were on our way again. Whether paved or gravel, you never know when or where you will see animals in this park. The terrain is straight out of the National Geographic photos I would look at as a kid, wondering what it would be like to see giraffe grazing on an acacia tree in the tall grass of the veld. Seeing it with my own eyes was more than I could imagine. We drove no faster than 40km/hr so that we would not miss anything hiding behind a tree or in the bushes. Often we had to come to complete stops as zebra, wildebeest, giraffe and buffalo were crossing the road in front of us. At one point, the highlight of our day, we were stopped for over a half hour because a female lion was stretched out in the middle of the road resting in the midday sun. Onlookers were hanging out windows to snap pictures, take video and just stare as the lion made its way to the edge of the road to sit and survey the plains. Cars were parked at different angles all over the road to try and get the best view and for a while we could not even continue down the road if we had wanted. Eventually the vehicles nearest the lion had taken their pictures and began to pull away down the road in search of the next sighting. As they dispersed, we were able to pull up to within about 10 meters of the lion. Jess hung out the window with the camera as the lion yawned and looked rather sleepy and disinterested in the people surrounding her. Needless to say, when we saw the size of her teeth when she opened her mouth we realized how strong this animal was. With paws the size of my head, claws the size of my hands and extremely powerful legs it is no wonder lions can bring down such large animals with a few swipes. We continued on our way, talking about how amazing it was to be so close to a real lion you could actually smell it and practically reach out to touch it.
With all of our stops to view animals, traffic jams caused by animals and a top speed half that of a cheetah in full sprint, we quickly realized that there was no feasible way to drive as far as we had expected that day before the gates to the park closed. Not wanting to incur a fine for being in the park after hours and not sure our little car would protect us at all from lions, we made our way to the Orpen gate instead. Orpen was only about half way along our route planned for the day, but we only made it out the gate with an hour or so to spare. After almost 12 hours in the car, a half a tank of petrol and some chips and salsa for lunch, we tallied the results of our one day drive through Kruger National Park:
Impala: over 1000 (stopped counting after a couple hours)
Zebra: over 1000 (again, stopped counting)
Blue Wildebeest: over 500 (stopped counting)
African Buffalo: 70
Chacma Baboon: 30
Female Lion: 1
Assortment of birds
Driving through Kruger is often very surreal. The animals are used to traffic on the roads and go about their business of grazing, wandering, sleeping and hunting without much regard for people. It feels a bit like Jurassic Park without the fences. No doubt we will return to the park again in the near future and spend a bit more time exploring areas to try and see the rest of the big five that we missed and perhaps camp out where we can hear the lions roar at night.
Through all of our adventures and after arriving back home we have had the opportunity to visit our volunteer friends at their sites and host friends at ours. Until now we had only heard stories, seen a few pictures and built up what images we could of life for other volunteers around the country. Having the chance to see these places first hand was quite eye opening. Each site is extremely different from every other. Housing situations, water availability, conditions of local villages, stability of projects and organizations and more factor into the success and frustrations of all of us but mix in such unique ways that it is impossible to predict the outcomes for any of us. Despite such differences, the common thread we hold of being outsiders trying to work in different areas help us to understand what each of us is going through. Being able to show people around our village and get tours of other places really drove home the importance for us of having other people ‘get it’ when we are talking about our site. People have a hard time understanding when we talk to them about our non-mountain mountain, the church women singing in the afternoon, the children who like to play in our garage and more unless they experience it. Likewise, we would never have fully understood what it was like to live in a house on the side of a mountain in the middle of nowhere; to share a compound with a number of other volunteers from around the world and work in a huge village that stretches for kilometers through the nearby hills; to live in a town and walk back and forth to the township location each day; or to live in an urban environment and deal daily with the safety concerns of a city with major crime. Looking back on the last couple weeks of seeing these different environments made us appreciate each and every visit we had. We know how important it was for our friends that we stopped to see their work, their home and their friends and we were ecstatic when we were able to share our village with others over smores and a bonfire. It is easy to feel isolated when we are in our village for long stretches of time and visiting other sites was rejuvenating for all parties involved. We shared project ideas, solutions to pesky household dilemmas that would otherwise be easy to solve if we had a readily available hardware store in town, and recipes that elaborate on rice in more ways than I thought possible. For both work and personal reasons these visits were probably the best part of our last month. It will definitely shape how we plan future holidays and give us a chance to see even more sites along the way.