2013 – Southern Africa Journal – 5

DAY 22. SATURDAY 16th FEBRUARY 2013. KLOOF. SOUTH AFRICA

The motorbike is now at the local BMW dealer. It seems sensible to analyse the starting problem now, before I head out to locations in which flattening the battery will prove an embarrassment. Hopefully it is simple fix like a blocked air filter or something. So complex is this bike in comparison to my old Elephant that I don’t even know where the air filter is! The bike will spend the weekend at the dealer and they will check it on monday while I am with Mike, visiting royalty.

The rain continued today. Chill weather and very unpleasant. I was quite glad I felt no need to go out and ride – further than the next town – today.

In the evening we had a small supper party with friends of Mike and Yvonne. These situations often cause me to ponder with confusion on the whole situation of what I suppose I now see as ‘invading colonials’ and their lifestyle. Recently, Janine’s maid of 19 years died quite unexpectedly in a pretty grim hospital, diagnosed with TB and meningitis. It has affected Janine quite deeply for she had a very maternal and close relationship with her maid and will now take on responsibility financially for the 13 year old daughter. It raises so many questions for me: the whole relationship of one human being in service to another is anathema to me, as are the implications of superiority, subservience and ownership of another being. Yet this maid had a good situation in a sympathetic household. But not an EQUAL situation. I do believe very profoundly in equality of opportunity as a human right, and that woman was born without that right. So many of this nation are born without that right: the vast 80% majority…

I’m even touchy about letting my brother Wechiga carry my bag when I am in Ghana! That he does, not because I am a white man, for that has thankfully largely disappeared in that democratic country. He does it out of respect for me as a senior brother. But I believe respect must be earned and is not an automatic status and am so sensitive that someone might think I accept it because I AM a white man!

This is the only African country where I sometimes feel embarrassed by my skin colour, because assumptions are made on that basis here. Prejudiced whites often assume I share their prejudices and prejudiced blacks assume I share the presumption of superiority under which they suffer much of the lives.

It is SO confusing. It is endlessly fascinating and makes me obsessed by my basic beliefs about human interaction. Much of the time I just don’t know what to think… I suppose there is no definitive answer, but I spend much of my time here in a sort of moral discomfort that seldom seems to trouble white South Africans.

DAY 23. SUNDAY 17TH FEBRUARY 2013. KLOOF. SOUTH AFRICA.

It’s quite good to take a day off now and again and just reflect on what I have been seeing. It is an absorbing occupation, travelling. Much of it depends on having my wits pretty tightly tuned to deal with the everyday task of moving around in unfamiliar circumstances especially when a vehicle is involved.

It’s been a chance to mug up a bit on Zulu royalty on the internet too. We are to meet the chief queen and two of her daughters. The King has six wives and 27 children. The king is HRH Goodwill Zwelithini kaBuzulu, a year older than me. He has been king since 1968 and although he hasn’t strong political powers in the present South Africa, he still has the support of seven million Zulus, probably the strongest tribal nation here. His third wife Mantfombi Dlamini is a daughter of the late King Sobhusa II of Swaziland and sister of the present King Mswati III. It was a condition of the marriage that the children of this wife should become heirs presumptive to the Zulu nation. I believe we are to meet HRH Princess Ntandoyesizwe Zulu (aged 35) (known as Princess Ntando) and HRH Princess Nomkhosi (aged 30).

Nelson Mandela’s daughter, Zenani, was married to Prince Thumbumuzi Dlamini, a brother of Queen Mantfombi, the King’s ‘Great Wife’. They separated some years ago. She has, I see from the sunday paper, just taken up a post as ambassador to Argentina, although most of ‘Madiba’s’ (the fond name, his Xhosa clan name, by which Mandela is known) family have eschewed politics, only a nephew being in parliament. His must be a difficult act to live up to, known here as the ‘Father of the Nation’.

Mike and I have to be up early for the four hour drive up to the Royal Kraal. Our meeting is at ten. I’m looking forward to a rather remarkable experience – and a great story to tell.

DAY 24. MONDAY 18TH FEBRUARY 2013. LUHLUWE iMFOLOZI PARK. ZULULAND

A charmed life..? Maybe… But only because I so frequently put myself in unknown situations in which the extraordinary can happen.

You make your own luck.

An extraordinary day. Gifts from a queen and conversation with princesses and princes, to giraffes and dung beetles and supper with a rhinoceros. What a full day. The joy of travelling.

We left Kloof at 6.00am and headed north towards Zululand. We had a four hour drive to get to the Queen’s palace. The highway swept us northwards into sugar cane that fits the hills like a carpet, and forests of eucalyptus. When we left the highway we drove inland into rising green mountains that rise and fall like great soft waves, dotted with habitations, mainly small block houses but each compound also with a traditional circular hut with a pointed roof. This is the Zulu tradition. We drove on into the mountains and deep into the homeland of the Zulu nation. As the mountains became higher, so our journey became more magnificent.

The palace gates were set in brick surrounds with a small gatehouse manned by a national policeman. At this season the royal compound looks a little unkempt and down a long gravelly driveway were the palace buildings, built in the 70s from concrete with the patterned airy blocks that are ubiquitous in Africa. We were led into an octagonal chamber, panelled beneath a glazed cupola. To each side opened royal reception rooms and on the walls were pictures of the Zulu kings and some princes and queens. In the centre, under the glazed lights were four huge pale leather settees facing each other in a square. They were huge and bulbous in African fashion, only these were superior to any I have seen. The carpet was red, woven with grey elephants. The man who had shown us in now effaced himself and sat on the floor in a corner, discretely.

Princess Ntando was unable to meet us, having missed a plane in Cape Town and being stuck in Durban this morning. She sounds delightful on the phone and I do hope we will be able to meet later. Her junior sister was able to look after us.

Princess Nomkhosi is a bubbly young woman, cheerful and fun. We were soon at ease as we drank juice and talked. The project that Mike is involved in with the queen and princesses is to advise on a way to open the palace to visitors and tell the story of the family, the Swazi connection and some of the traditions of the Zulus.

HRH Queen Mantfombi, the mother of princess Nomkhosi, is a most likeable woman with a cheerful demeanour like her daughter. Her dachshund came running between our feet as we greeted her. She is one of six queens but is the most important one thanks to her royal lineage as daughter of the late King Sohbusa of Swaziland – a very popular king. She’s sister to the present king, and the queen and her children attend many functions over the Swazi border. I was impressed to note how her status is held in respect by her entourage, all her inferiors approaching bent over and sitting on the floor in her presence. She is a very charming and laughs a good deal. We chatted for a while about her aspirations for the project and about the huge event that will take place here on July 27th, a traditional formality in the Swazi tradition that has to be performed and, like many formal ceremonies in Ghana is not date specific, but must be performed sometime in life.

We took happy pictures together on the palace steps. This is Queen Mantfobi’s palace, and that of her children. The king lives a few miles away and other palaces house the other queens. This palace was built on land that had strong associations with Swaziland and the king insisted that his wife’s bedroom should face towards the mountains of her homeland.

Photos done and respects paid, amid a lot of goodwill, we set out with Princess Nomkhosi and one of her brothers, Prince ******* to tour the royal compound and eventually to the traditional thatched structures in a group that are used for ceremonial purposes. I believe we were honoured to be taken inside (because I was so interested in their structure) and shown some of the ceremonial carvings set as a sort of altar within the large straw thatched hut, about 7 or 8 metres across. Nomkhosi told us laughingly how she had had to spend three long weeks inside this hut with a sister and an elder lady as part of her coming of age ceremony. “No television! No Internet! We had to sleep on the floor! Oh!”

The king’s Praise Singer was with us and was persuaded to demonstrate his function, which is to praise the strength and wisdom off the king at public functions, always entering in front of the king and announcing him.

It was hot in the compound. Princess Nomkhosi was afraid of snakes, although the others didn’t seem concerned. Prince **** is knowledgeable about the traditions and cultures of his tribe and made a very good informant. We drifted back to the palace, where lunch (a ‘snack’, the Queen had promised. It turned out to be a large and excellent repast!) had been prepared for us. The queen was not well today so she did not rejoin us but the prince and princess did. Lunch consisted of many dishes of hot and cold vegetables with chicken and some delicious cold beef that had been grilled to perfection.We ate in one of the king’s two reception rooms in this formal part of the palace. The queen and her children live in the rear part of the palace. We ate beneath a large portrait of King Goodwill. A throne sat at the head of the long loop of tables and a couple of dozen chairs that faced each other for formal meetings. In the central space stood a motley collection of gifts to the king: pots, trophies, an Ashanti stool (from Ghana. Princess Nomkhosi is a friend of the king of the Ashantis – the Ashantihene, and will visit him in Johannesburg next week. I did think about sending along my greetings!). In a couple of display cases were more pieces of memorabilia, and signed photos of Queen Elizabeth and Prince Phillip stood on one side.

Lunch over, Nomkhosi appeared carrying two fine woven Zulu baskets that the queen wished her to present to us, one for Mike and one for me. The Zulu basket will mean more to me thanks to its provenance! It was given to me by the Great Queen of the Zulus, HRH Queen Mantfombi.

Princess Nomkhosi had to go to her mother to relay our thanks and reaction to her gifts. I do like these formalities in Africa.

It was a fascinating and fine experience. I must thank Mike for including me in on it. He knew that I would be interested and treat the experience in the correct manner. We both have a lot of respect for the ‘old’ Africa, with its traditions and formalities – and its wisdom and justice. I do feel well equipped to deal with such events thanks to my knowledge of the old ways of Navrongo, now sadly displaced by modern culture. I am so proud that I first knew Navrongo in northern Ghana when it still operated under the formalities and traditions of the old generation, now dead and gone, and with them so many of the old ways. Getting inside that culture has given me so much understanding of African life, enough that I can behave discretely in such company as tribal queens and royalty. I thank Akay, Wechiga and Perry and Gladys’ mother for that understanding. She stands out as one of the finest people I have met in all my travels, despite the fact that she was the illiterate wife a subsistence farmer who was a junior brother, giving her little status, and spoke a language that I still have not mastered. She was full of wisdom and compassion. We had an instinctive link, the memory of which I treasure. Akay would like to know I had met the Zulu queen today and been given a gift by her.

*

It’s difficult to follow such a visit. But we did. We drove back an hour or so on our route and entered the Hluhluwe iMfolzi park where Mike had booked us a lovely cottage on an escarpment deep in the national park. I cannot go in the parks on my motorbike – for obvious reasons – so he had decided to round off our full trip with a wildlife experience for me. So kind. I often say that I am not much concerned that I cannot get close to animals in Africa since I really come to meet people and find out what makes them tick. I cannot discuss social politics with an elephant.

However, now and again getting so close to very large animals is an experience not to be missed. Within minutes of entering the park we waited while fifteen elephants crossed the road in front of us.

We drove on to the Mpila camp, a well set out area of cottages, permanent tents and small houses. As I waited for Mike outside the office a monkey leapt through the open car window a few feet away and made off with our plastic box of rusks! I had to give chase as the monkey chattered and bared his teeth in frustration, fortunately dropping the plastic box. It would have been intriguing to watch him try to open it… Around me grazed various deer and monkeys were everywhere. Warthogs snuffled at the grass.

Our cottage had two bedrooms and a well equipped kitchen and a large living room looking out over the escarpment and mile upon mile of bush. A few metres away stood a permanent braai (barbecue). We quickly settled in and then set off with a few beers in the cooler to drive out and look for animals amongst the many miles of gravel roads that weave about the park, the oldest game park in Africa. On a rocky outcrop far above the road sat a large lioness and three grown cubs like something displayed by the tourist office for us. There were zebras and dozens of impalas and other deer species. We found two huge male lions lying within ten feet of the road, satiated from some kill they must have made, lying panting and totally unconcerned about the car a few feet away. “If you feel energetic, why not climb out of the window and get a photo over the roof of the car?” murmured Mike. I did exactly that, standing on the window sill and holding the top of his large off-road vehicle. Later, as the light dimmed we found my favourite: a lone old male giraffe standing huge and bizarre beside the road, gazing calmly across the bush from his vantage point. I do love to see giraffes. Back at camp, now ready for our braai of meat Mike had brought in his in-car fridge, I found the other fascination of the day: a busy dung beetle, rolling its golfball-sized ball of dung laboriously across the grass. What, I wonder, is the purpose nature has for dung beetles?

As Michael went to light the braai he called quietly to me. “Come with your camera. It’s a rhino!” And there, sixty yards from our cottage and braai was that vast prehistoric beast wandering placidly through the camp. Wow!

We cooked and ate and drank our beers. It was very quiet and peaceful. The stars came out. The fire died in the braai. Then I noticed movement and a hideous hyena skulked across the edge of the mown area, sniffed and rejected our braai, but moved on 100 yards, put its head in our neighbours’ fire and stole their dinner! They retreated quickly inside, presumably to complete their meal using the gas oven! Bold as brass… It padded past three times, sinister and ugly, like something from a fantasy. Now, as I write, there are hyenas baying out in the night around our cottage.

We have been fortunate to see so much in one brief visit. I’m still more interested in people and how they live, but it has been a very satisfying day. Memorable and unusual. Exactly the reason I love to travel. Who wouldn’t, when you meet queens and dung beetles in the same day, with a few elephants, lions, princesses, giraffes and praise singers thrown in?

DAY 25. TUESDAY FEBRUARY 19TH 2013. KLOOF, SOUTH AFRICA

I am quite happy that I cannot ride through game parks with my motorbike. I really would not want to get up quite so close and personal to a HUGE mother and child rhinoceros without at least the comfort of some tin around me, even though I know that in attack it would count for little. We really did get close today. We were up early, soon after dawn, and motoring quietly along a track, having seen several other rhinos, a lot of various gazelles and impalas, when we rounded a bend and right in front of us, like things from the films, were the two biggest creatures imaginable. They were a few yards away and as we watched they came closer and closer, to within twenty feet. To be so close to so much wild animal is very impressive and special (even if I can’t talk to them). These are animals that suggest the dawn of mankind, great coarsely armoured bodies on thick short legs – that can run at up to 40kph! With a bloody great horn on the front like a spear…

Animals in these parks have adapted: they are not nervous of vehicles, it seems. Various animals this morning – other rhinos, many impala, warthogs, another giraffe and wildebeest, just walked calmly past, or even seemed to pose for a photo at the roadside. But, make no mistake, these are still WILD animals and best treated with much respect. Mike is an old hand in the bush and knows how to behave with his car. “With a white rhino, you keep the engine running. Look, you can see the mother is listening. See her ears swivelling to us. She is listening but they have very poor sight. If you stop the engine it alarms them. And we might need to drive away rather fast anyway!”

We drove quietly and slowly through the park for four or five hours. There were colourful birds, a lot of droppings of various large animals and always the chance of spotting wildlife. The bush is thick now and very green so the animals are scattered. In the dry season they will be found more easily round water holes. Now they are dispersed and it makes animal spotting more enjoyable. The chance element is most satisfying, especially when you do have encounters, as we did today.

*

It has been a grand expedition. We came home to Kloof, the heat rising now to as much as 33 degrees (a temperature at which I just come to life while most white people wilt!). It was a three hour drive back. I got home to an email about work in Wisconsin, rounding off a great two days! It means income again. This trip is on savings entirely.

The BMW place, though, doesn’t seem very quick. I phoned this afternoon to be told they were ‘still working on it..’ They have cleaned the carbs, are now cleaning out the tank and found that there was no air filter fitted at all. Well, I am happy to have it given the once over. With my technical abilities, I prefer to pay someone who knows to check it out. What’s more, if I am now to get a project in USA I will have income instead of savings to pay for my future travels. I just hope I don’t need to get to the USA too soon. I have relaxed into this trip and don’t want to end it soon. It could be that I have to fly from here to Boston and back again. But I want to travel another five or six weeks at least. Oh dear, the problems of the lucky (although… ‘I make my own luck!’). Maybe my bike will be fixed tomorrow and I can set off again on thursday. meanwhile, I am very comfortably housed and generously looked after by good friends.

*

This evening Yvonne, Michael and I went to a smart Italian style restaurant in a nearby suburb. We had a very good meal in the restaurant that overlooks a beautiful garden created by an elderly Austrian some years ago from indigenous plants. Nice atmosphere, good company – and yet…

You know what’s coming. Yes, everyone eating was white. The owners were white. Everyone serving (and doubtless out the back) was black. Ten per cent of the population with the money to eat fancy meals; eighty per cent eating maize. The division of wealth disturbs me so much. It does in America too, but there there is at least a growing black middle class, some attempt at legal equality and, let’s face it, NONE of them are even indigenous to the continent. Here a ten per cent invader usurps most of the privilege. It will always trouble me. I could not live with this. As the weather warmed to day to 33 degrees – my temperature – Yvonne said I should come and buy a mansion on the beach. I could, too. Financially I could do just that. Morally, I just couldn’t do it. I already find myself embarrassed to be lumped in with the white minority and make over the top attempts to chat with black pump attendants and servants and gardeners!

What’s more, there is no way I would want to live with the threat of violence that obsesses so many white people behind their razor wire, security screens, security guards and locked doors. This is what you get when ten per cent have so much and eighty per cent so little. The fear of armed robbery, car hijack and robbery in general with which the whites of Durban suburbs live is, to me, unthinkable. Even during the day security grilles are closed across verandahs and doors. Windows all have fixed bars; gates have video surveillance and automatic locks; there are panic buttons and security beams – and rampant suspicion of strangers. Car doors are automatically locked at all times and there is constant talk amongst white people of security companies and security measures. There are private armed guards wandering the leafy suburbs and guard houses in suburban streets. Michael puts much of it down to the lack of efficient national policing, but I have to think also about the division of wealth, which is as extreme as I have seen anywhere in the world. Could I live like this, with an army of servants and gardeners in a wonderfully warm climate – and a beautiful country. Absolutely not. It’s not worth it to me. Anyway, I know that if I did come out with all my money, I’d end up giving most of it away from guilt!

Maybe I’ve travelled TOO much…

DAY 26. WEDNESDAY 20th FEBRUARY 2013. KLOOF, SOUTH AFRICA

Today Durban has been about as cold as it gets in winter. Mind you, that is about 14 degrees. Surprising how chill that feels in a tropical place.

The bike is STILL not ready for the next part of the journey. I don’t feel the Hillcrest BMW dealer is giving it much priority. I visited today to find the machine in bits in the workshop but only being worked upon amongst other tasks. Very irritating. I told them my holiday was running out and I was abusing the hospitality of my friends. I just hope that tomorrow I can get moving again. Especially since it is looking increasingly likely that I may be forced to cut my travel time short by new contracts in the USA – possibly TWO of them at present…

So another quiet day, kicking my heels. I treated Yvonne to lunch at a restaurant that should have been overlooking the fine scenery of the ‘1000 Hills’ on the northwestern edge of Durban, but was hidden in swathes of swirling wet clouds.

I wonder just how accurate my observations of South African life are? We argued at the supper table about some of my perceptions. I noted that most of the expensive cars are driven by white people, to which my hosts both exclaimed in disagreement, saying that there are now many black people driving the biggest cars of all. Well, yes, there are bound to be rich black people but the demographics of this country are that there are five million whites and forty five million blacks, so to my reckoning there should be nine large vehicles driven by blacks to every one by whites. I would estimate the ratio is the inverse of this. To my comment that we had been all whites eating at the restaurant last night, served by all blacks they countered that we could have gone to a restaurant in which we had been the only white faces and it is a matter of choice (although I find that argument a little specious because in a happier country we would be mixed not segregated, even by choice). Mike is particularly liberal and works alongside black or white comfortably and blames much of the problems of this country on corruption all through the system (much of which is now black run) but even so it makes me question the imposition of one race and culture on another. I don;t know… I probably never will… I just feel instinctively very uncomfortable with the situation.

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