Thursday afternoon, March 18, 2010
The single biggest question I had before we left for South Africa had to do with safety. Would concerns about crime limit our ability to move around freely; to enjoy beng here? Now that we’re about to leave I can answer: that hasn’t been a problem.

I know the least about Johannesburg, as we had so little time there, and all of it came right after our arrival. The stories about crime are worst there (and indeed the morning we left, one of the employees at our B&B didn’t show up for work because a close friend of hers had been robbed and stabbed (not fatally)). Likewise, we had so little time in Durban, I can’t really judge it.

But from that point on, it’s been fine. Out on the Wild Coast and on the Dolphin Trail, I felt safer than I do at home (where I wouldn’t think of leaving my doors unlocked at night). And when we arrived in Cape Town last Saturday, we asked Hannes (the co-owner of our B&B) where we could safely walk in Cape Town. Anywhere in Green Point (their neighborhood) at any hour day or night, was his answer. Anywhere in the rest of central Cape Town during the day, he continued, though we might want to be a bit more cautious after dark.

Hannes, a collector of fine china and antique silver who looked to be in his late 50s, seemed a prudent fellow. His romantic partner, David, once worked in the perfume industry. The rooms of the B&B are all named after famous perfumes. It seemed unlikely he would steer his guests into the jaws of death. So for two nights in a row, we dined at the Waterfront, and on the 25-minute walk home we shared the dark streets with so many other pedestrians, I felt very comfortable.
Yesterday we got even more ambitious on foot. We’d moved out to the suburbs by then (staying in the home of a very generous house-trading contact), so we drove our car to the Bo-Kaap district in the center of town, parked it, and set out on what turned out to an almost-6-hour-long meander. The Bo-Kaap is the very old Muslim quarter, now in the grip of gentrification, but still distinguished by its colorful and distinctive architectural signature. While it was interesting to explore, I enjoyed even more walking the length of Long Street, an amazing medley of restaurants, boutiques, bookstores, record stores, porn shops, bars, backpacker hotels, surf shops, locksmiths. Many buildings have balconies, and that, along with wrought-iron work, made it feel a bit like New Orleans.

We also visited two museums, both excellent. One focused on the gold treasures of West Africa and the other presented the infamous history of Cape Town’s District 6 (whose name probably inspired the title of the recent sci-fi movie). This was once a seedy but vibrant enclave near the heart of the old city filled with immigrants. Unusually multiracial, it must have been a lot like New York’s Lower East Side early in the 20th Century: grubby and raucous and zesty. But in the early 60s, the South African government re-classified it as a White district and began ordering the vast majority of the residents to move out. Hundreds of thousands of people had their property confiscated; their homes bulldozed. Most were relocated to a grim, sand-blasted and barren plain a half-hour from their former homes. The museum beautifully captures how traumatic this was for most of those affected.

We also strolled through the beautiful Company Gardens park, and we picked our way through a couple of open-air craft markets (where I was intrigued to note that almost none of the vendors harangued us to patronize them — de riguer for Egyptian street hawkers — nor did anyone seem inclined to bargain.) When we paused once to study our map, a passerby asked if we needed help. At another point, when we really were disoriented and asked a security guard for directions, he led us for several blocks to get us pointed toward where we needed to go.

These were clean, busy streets, filled with commerce. The vast majority of the people moving through them (90%? 95%?) were black. It was a pleasure to share the cityscape with them, at ease.

This morning we throttled back even further. Anticipating the grueling flight to come (at 9 p.m. tonight we start what will amount to almost 24 hours of straight air travel), we’d saved a visit to the Kirstenbosch Gardens for last. This is a World Heritage Site, and deservedly so. Located on an enormous spread of land not far from where we’re staying, it’s one of the great gardens of the world, celebrating the incredibly diverse plant life of this region. I learned that that diversity puts San Diego’s to shame (with something like 94 species per 1000 square kilometers here, versus 14 in Australia, and a puny 12 in California!) We walked through arboreal tunnels formed by gigantic trees: camphors, yellowwood, podocarpus, emerging onto huge lawns edged by African heathers and protea and grasses. At least, the weather was perfect: mid-70s, no trace of the demonic wind that’s tormented us every other day. I lay down on the grass at one point, listening to the birdsong, thinking about how much more pleasurable it was than sitting in a coach seat on an airplane, savoring one of those moments when it really WAS about the destination, rather than the journey.

But now it’s time to head for the airport, to journey again.

Good hope

Tuesday night, March 16 2010
As we anticipated this trip, Steve several times commented that he expected we would be seeing some of the most beautiful landscapes on earth. And we have, but I have to say our encounters with the inhabitants of those landscapes — human and animal — have been at the forefront of our attention. Today was different. Our interactions with other humans was limited to jockeying for photo-op positions with the Chinese, British, Dutch, English, French and other tourists we encountered throughout the day. As we drove from our hotel to the Cape of Good Hope, the physical world took center stage.
Actually, we did have two memorable animal encounters. One came after we had entered Table Mountain National Park, toward the bottom of the long cape that Cape Town sits astride. We passed sign after sign warning of the highly endangered baboons who inhabit the area. They bite. They are wild animals who must not be approached or fed! If you feed them, you will be fined!! We didn’t need the warning, as we’d already heard stories about these creatures, as clever and menacing as the bears of Yosemites. So we neither fed nor approached the troop of about 20 animals — little babies, juveniles, adults — who stopped traffic on one section of the road. One of the biggest baboons clutched what looked like a woman’s duffel bag. Pilfered? We couldn’t tell, but two rangers grimly followed the troop on foot, one with a mean-looking leather whip in his hand. I think he cracked it, sending the baboons off the road and away from additional human contact.
The other animal interaction came on our return drive back to town. In the little town of Boulder Beach, we detoured to see the resident colony of African penguins there. We’d already been introduced to these birds yesterday, during our brief visit to the excellent aquarium at the Waterfront. The African penguins (once known as jackass penguins because they supposedly make a braying noise) are only about a foot tall, and their black and white plumage is set off with a band of pink eye shadow. They were very cute as the marine biologist parceled out fish, which they swallowed whole.
But it was wonderful to see them in the wild this afternoon — hundreds of them lining the beaches and grooming each other and waddling around and sitting on eggs. If Boulder Beach is a tame suburban setting, the wind today made it a savage place. It whipped the water into a mass of white caps. Some of the gusts shoved and jostled us, like bullies, and after we’d climbed back into the car, our skin and scalps felt like sandpaper.
Despite the wind, the sun shone brightly all day long, and the drive to the tip of the cape was splendid. Just outside Cape Town, we wound along roads that hugged the steep cliffs, overlooking huge white beaches encrusted with picturesque towns. By turns, the water looked cobalt blue, then clear turquoise, then emerald green. It made me think of a combination of the most beautiful coastline in both Hawaii and California. Later, approaching the tip of the cape, the land grew starker, stonier, and clad in fynbos, the South African version of coastal chaparral, but lusher and more beautifully colored than any chaparral I’ve seen.
Our primary goal for this outing was the Cape of Good Hope, often thought of as the tip of Africa, the southernmost point, the place where the Indian and Atlantic oceans meet. It’s none of those — those honors go to Cape Argulhas, several hundred kilometers further south. Still it felt a little like an omen to me to be standing with Steve on this wild and beautiful spot, on our 36th wedding anniversary, rounding another important landmark on this fantastic journey, with good hope for what we’ll find further down the road.

The brightest and least corrupt city

Tuesday morning, March 16, 2010
I woke up Sunday morning feeling like a Biblical plague victim. In addition to the shingles (fading but still annoying), sore throat, sore knee, and wracking insomnogenic cough I’ve been dealing with for days, my eyes were glued shut with the unmistakable evidence of conjunctivitis — pink eye! But after two aspirin and two good cups of coffee (one of the many virtues of the inestimable B&B where we’re staying), we took to the streets of Cape Town. An instant tonic!

We dropped off a bag of reeking clothes at the 24-hour laundry on the high street (just a few blocks away) and learned that we could pick up our washed and folded clothes in a few hours. We visited the nearby 24-hour pharmacy and bought more of the cough medicine that seemed to help Steve last week. We’d learned that a world-famous cycling race would be taking place in the city — the Cape Argos, I think it’s called, with something like 35,000 riders from all over the world competing over a grueling 66-mile course –and the start and finish were located just blocks from our hotel. It was a rousing scene: flags flying, peppy pop music playing over the loudspeakers, supporters cheering, the excited voice of an announcer. Again the crowd was predominantly white, and I noted with amusement the OSHA-like tone of the sign affixed to a rope barrier surrounding one sandy area. “Potential tripping hazard.” This American-style safety consciousness struck me as quaint, considering that this is a country where young girls routinely get raped by HIV-infected men who believe sex with a virgin will cure their ailment. (That ailment afflicts some 10% of South Africans, btw — the highest AIDS infection rate in the world.)

Paul Theroux in Dark Star Safari records that when he arrived in Cape Town, it struck him as being “the brightest and least corrupt” city he’d ever seen. I could understand what he meant. The wind was blowing hard, scrubbing the sunny skies of any evidence of pollution. The Waterfront shopping center, redeveloped in the 90s, reminded me of Fisherman’s Wharf. It’s wildly touristy, jammed with several malls and dozens upon dozens of restaurants, but maybe because it adjoins the section of the waterfront that’s still an working port, I liked it more than I do the San Francisco institution or the Disneyesque Seaport Village in San Diego. I would have enjoyed spending several more hours poking around.

But we had other touristic missions to attend to. After lunch, we drove to the Table Mountain Cable Car station. Hiking to the top of the iconic massif had been near the top of my Cape Town To Do list. But given my cough and still-recovering knee, we’d decided it might be more prudent to simply take the cable car. Alas the strong winds had forced its closing for the afternoon. The few vendors clustered next to the cable car entrance looked bored. A white guy at a t-shirt stall was tossing raisons to a big black bird with dramatic red epaulets on its wings. “Red-wing starling,” he informed us. “Member of the raven family.” He enthused about how intelligent the birds were; claimed they could identify individual human faces and come when called. They were serially monogamous and fiercely territorial. “If another male came along when the male was here, it would be terrible.” He shuddered. Did they peck at each other with their beaks, I asked. He grimaced, like a man recalling a ritual disemboweling. He said the male redwings stabbed at each other, savage. He tried to entice the female closer with additional raisons, but she wouldn’t comply. “Must have already had her fill.”

In the late afternoon, we spent 45 minutes at the South African Museum, a disappointing hodge-podge. But an excellent Indian dinner at the Waterfront lifted our spirits, and everything about our trip to Robben Island yesterday morning went well. Steve commented afterward that the notorious holding ground for South Africa’s black male political prisoners didn’t hold any surprises for him, being featured as it was, in the recent movie Invictus. For me, though, there were a few, One of our guides was a fellow who served time on the island between 1984 and 1991 for a terrorist conviction. He old us his “terrorism” had been ignited by his outrage over the disparities between black and white educational standards in the 1970s, when the government was spending about 47 rands per year, on average, for every black child, and 2,000 for every white one. Another surprise was learning that 9 former prison guards are included among the 150 hardy individuals who live on the island full-time. Why haven’t they been attacked and driven away, long ago? But Mandela’s most searing message was the need for reconciliation, and we’ve heard it repeated over and over in our travels here.

After recording his initial good first impression, Theroux added that he soon learned about Cape Town’s frightening crime statistics. He also visited a township here, like the ones we saw Saturday as we drove in from the wine country: squalid, unspeakably crowded, an implosion of impoverished humanity that makes Tijuana’s shanties look buccolic in comparison. With only two and a half days left until we head for the airport, I doubt we’ll see much of such misery. We’ll depart with a woefully meager view of what’s here. But I’ve become resigned to that here, in one of the most complicated places I’ve ever visited.

White Folks Fun

Sunday evening, March 14
On our first day in South Africa, when we drove around Johannesburg with our guide, Danie, Steve and I were both struck by how much the center city reminded us of an aging city in the US heartland, Detroit, say, or Cleveland. But Friday when we left the famous “Garden Route” (between Port Elizabeth and Mossel Bay) behind us and a few hours later entered the South African “Winelands” region, we felt transported instead to the European Alps. Our destination for the night was Franschhoek, once a French Huguenot settlement and now one of the most important centers in the world’s 9th largest wine-making country. Surrounded by tall and rugged mountains, the town occupies a huge green valley. Vineyards have been staked out on the valley floor, and they also climb up the foot of the slopes. It reminded me of Switzerland… or Galt’s Gulch… or some combination of the two.

In Franschhoek we were staying in the “guest room” of a couple named Marilyn and Charles Chance, and we arrived too late in the afternoon to visit any wineries. The Chance’s room for rent was large, pretty, and outfitted with a king-sized bed and excellent linens, with its own entrance from a beautiful garden located within a gated housing development designed to look like a vineyard. We didn’t enjoy it as much as it deserved, as we were harried from the long day of driving 75 mph on narrow 2-lane roads with lots of passing. Instead we walked around the town for a bit, then headed for Le Bon Vivant, recommended by our guidebook.

The guidebooks say that Franschhoek is where you find the finest cooking in South Africa, and this restaurant was cited for being one of the best. So we threw caution to the winds and ordered the five-course tasting menu (actually six, including the little seafood-mouse-topped-with-cucumber salad amuse-bouche), accompanied by five different wines. Considering that we’d enjoyed a five-course feast at the Phantom Forest in Knysna, as well as a complicated and superbly executed meal at The Fernery (our last stop on the Dolphin Trail adventure), we probably should have shown more restraint. But would a pilgrim to mecca not visit a mosque? How could we dine in the gastronomic capital of South Africa without seeing what one of their best chefs could do? (Such was our reasoning).

It was all extremely impressive: other mousses (tomato, raspberry), intriguing meat combinations (medallions of grilled eland atop roasted pork, things I’d never tasted ever (cold smoked eel soup!). I’m not enough of a foodie to declare how this part of the world compares to other haut cuisines in other regions, but it certainly was a respectable competitor, and the skill and thoughtfulness was evident not just in the fine restaurants. Yesterday we ate lunch at one of the wineries, and (still feeling overindulgent about the previous night’s repast), we only ordered starters. Mine turned out to be a healthy pile of smoked salmon on blue-cheese-flavored shortbread, served along with a mushroom mousse, baby salad greens and an asparagus coulis. (Steve’s “beef baguette” starter was so huge, he could hardly work up any appetite for the rest of the day.) The lunch offerings, plus a bottle of water, cost $18 (including the tip).

More than just the food Impressed us. The last Dolphin Trail hotel and the place we stayed the next night, in Knysna, both ranked among the best commercial lodgings I’ve ever experienced anywhere. In both, we occupied wooden chalets, superbly equipped with amenities I’ve never seen before (insect repellant! flip-flops! raincoats!) along with the more standard teas and coffee and biscotti and creams and lotions. The king-sized beds in both were clad in zillion-thread satiny cottons. Both commanded unique views. Our chalet at The Fernery (which, btw, is also a working commercial fern farm) overlooked a deep, wild gorge leading to the ocean, and you could slide and fold up an entire wall in the bathroom, climb into the oversized tub, light the candles and gaze upon the wilderness without any barrier between you and it. You couldn’t open up the bathroom walls at the Phantom Forest, but they incorporated so much spotless glass it felt as if they were open. And they provided protection from the vervet monkeys who thrive in this forest (and at one point came to check out our patio — and us.)

These hotels were our big splurge of the trip, and they carried a cost beyond dollars. Unlike everywhere else we’d stayed up to then, it wasn’t possible to easily engage with other guests (overwhelmingly white, as were the other diners at the Bon Vivant). Indeed they were designed to insulate each couple or small group within little bubbles of luxury. While this is a marvelous thing if you want to bathe outdoors, other travelers often can be entertaining (at least to us).

Similarly, the pleasures of our wine-tasting outing yesterday sprang principally from the excellence of the wine and the extreme beauty of a couple of the wineries. The weather was sublime, we motored over gently rolling hills, vines pressing in close on each side, and found ourselves in elegant, opulent tasting rooms with heart-stopping views of the Stellenbosch valley; they were at least the equal of anything I’ve seen in the Napa Valley. At the Engelbrecht Els winery, we sat out on a stone terrace to taste the four bold reds. Nearby a guitarist played softly and sang American ballads. Other murmuring white people sat at other tables.

It was easy to imagine we were in a glossy, prosperous country, filled with mostly white-skinned inhabitants, and protected from any hint of strife. We were glad to experience it, and we could understand why other travelers with a greater passion for wine or more miserable home climates might want to come here and hunker down. But more than one night would not have interested us. We were happy to press on to Cape Town, our current and final site for South African explorations.

Goodbye to the Dolphin Trail

Wednesday evening, March 10
Sadly, we saw no dolphins today. (We hear January is the best time for that.) We saw no otters, either, though there was plenty of otter dung. Apparently their practice is to rise early from their dens among the rocks along the ocean, then creep up the streams that trickle down from the bluffs, snacking on fish and crustaceans and whatever else they can find. They ascend for about 1000 feet, chill out up at the top, then make their way back at the end of the day.

Stan also pointed out where porcupines had dug under bushes, seeking tasty roots and ants. Polecats do something similar, and we saw those scratchings too. We failed to spot any bush pigs or snakes, and the closest we came to baboons today was a couple of deposits of their excrement, “You can recognize it because it looks a lot like human’s, ” Stan told us. Still, for all that we failed to see, for as much as much as my (bad) left knee aches at the moment, this two-day hike has to rank among the most memorable of my life.

For one thing, our weather luck was wonderful. It was so hot when we drove from Pt. Elizabeth to the park Monday morning that the air flowing through the vents into our (un-air-conditioned) car felt like it was coming from the heater. An hour after we checked into the park cabin, the moisturizer in the tube in my suitcase was still hot to the touch. But Tuesday (the first day of our hike) dawned much cooler and a mix of clouds and sun made the trekking ideal. Today was even mistier, even foggy at times, but that too felt refreshing. By the time we stopped for our final picnic lunch, distant thunder was rumbling, and we expected we might get soaked in the final stretch before we reached the Fernery lodge. The rain held off, however, until just a few minutes ago. Now it’s pouring amidst thunder and lightning, a goodsend in this parched region.

At the picnic in the woods, where another Fernery employee named Marius had arrived to set up a table filled with homemade bread, gourmet cheeses, cold cuts, salad, and a pudding pie, Marius asked if we usually hike when we travel. Although there’ve been a few memorable exceptions (e.g. the Inca Trail), we had to say no. And the question made me wonder why we’d chosen to do so here. Why escape into nature for two days, when our goal has been to gain better understanding of the people and cultures within South Africa?

Getting to know Stan actually did wind up advancing that goal nicely. Our leave-taking yesterday was emotional; it amazes me what a relationship one can form in just two days. Beyond that, however, I’d have to say I’d suspected the physical beauty of this trail would justify hiking it. And it did. The plant life alone was enchanting — so many plants that are fixtures of life in San Diego — agapanthus, calla lilies, ice plant, society garlic — growing wild here, and so much many more wonderful things I’d never seen.

We climbed up the sides of cliffs so steep I was gasping at the top, followed trails frighteningly close to murderous abysses, penetrated dark, green leafy sanctuaries that Stan called “the jungle,” but then amended, when pressed. True jungles are actually a bit wetter than these “Afro-montane forests,” he said. But they felt jungly, filled as they were with hidden vervet monkeys and baboons, exotic snakes, huge insects.

Best of all, I think, was the second day, when we descended from the Misty Mountain Reserve to the shoreline, which we followed for several hours. Here the sea meets the land not on sandy beaches but at huge black Table Mountain sandstone formations thickly veined with quartz. The layers have been tilted over the eons by almost 70 or 80 degrees, and the edges worn away so that they look not like delicate lines in a block of solid rock, but rather enormous pancake stacks, with jagged, frayed edges. It almost made me dizzy to look at them — as of the world had turned sideways and I had somehow remained off-kilter. The first time we reached a shore like this, Steve and I both quailed. How could we traverse the daunting jumble of rock? We learned the answer as we followed steady, sure-footed Stan: the formations actually provided dozens of footholds at every turn. You just had to take your time and find them.

Stan was off work today, so Marius drove us in a Land Rover back to the park, along a dirt road that 50 years ago was the only way route for vehicles to get from Cape Town to Pt. Elizabeth. It was an interesting drive, through pine plantations and dairy farms, and when we arrived back at the park, we took an even more amazing trip, on a boat up the narrow gorge through which the Storms River flows to the sea.

Now we’ve into the Phantom Forest Eco-Reserve, recommended by our friends the Zatkins. Tomorrow we’ll set off on the Road More Traveled by tourists — along the so-called Garden Route, to the cape wine country for a day, then finally to explore Cape Town until next Thursday next, when we fly home. It will probably be less adventurous than what we have been experiencing. But I’m guessing it still won’t feel like we’re back in Kansas yet.

Dining with Ecological Disaster

Wednesday morning, March 10,2010

Paul Theroux, in his Dark Star Safari (which I’m enjoying hugely), comments on how he kept meeting Jobergers with amazing tales to tell. His friend the novelist Nadine Gordimer responds that this is a characteristic of South Africans generally, that their lives have been full of events.

We’re seeing the same thing. Last night after we finished our homemade ice cream and apricot panna cotta, the resident manager at Misty Mountain Reserve, Frank Machetto, regaled us with stories about his experiences leading tourists on camping trips (in tents!) in the bush near Kruger National Park. (“Only had to use my gun once. Never had to kill an animal, thank God. But I’d never take anyone who was nervous. Couldn’t have that.”) An Afrikaner, Frank also discoursed with passion and bitterness about ecological disruptions that have occurred near and far. “They kill the puff adders but then you get an explosion in the population of mice! Or the do-do bird! There are trees that have almost disappeared because the seeds have to be germinated in the gut of the do-do bird. But they’ve been gone for 100 years!”

This place is even more upscale than our forest cabin in the park: Even NICER linens on a king-size bed in a space as big as a living room, with a deck commanding a 150-degree view of the Indian Ocean. Circumstances have also conspired to make it feelas homey as our B&Bs in Joburg. The preparation of our excellent meal last night (spinach soup, tuna roulade and home-made bread, medallions of kudu shoulder with a pepper sauce, curried chicken, roasted potatos and squash, broccoli au gratin, salad, and that awesome dessert) was supervised by Val Lane, the wife of the man who dreamed up the idea for the Dolphin Trail hike. The Lanes for a couple dozen years had run a dairy farm on this site, but Dave Lane was a passionate fisherman and hiker who believed there had to be a market for a less arduous way of experiencing this incredible coastline than the Otter Trail backpacking. He and the owner of the Fernery (our lodging tonight) worked out a partnership arrangement with the national park, and the Dolphin Trail hikes were inaugurated in 2001. Tragically, Dave died suddenly four years ago, and when Val concluded she wasn’t up to running the operation by herself, she hired Frank and his wife Rose as resident managers.

Misty Mountain Reserve, as this place is now known, can accommodate 18 guests, but we were the only ones in the dining room last night. A group of five arrived sometime after us last night, but they were staying in a the family quarters and “self-catering.” So Steve and I were again the only guests at breakfast today. Frank announced that he had “slept like a baby. Woke up every hour and cried for my mama!” He jokes a lot. Yet soon he was talking again about the ominous current drought and wildebeest-borne diseases and advancing desertification. “As soon as cattle were brought into Africa, unfortunately that was the end of Africa,” he said. But we’re about to hike for a second day in at least an island of the Africa that has existed for millenia.

Hiking with Puff Adders

Tuesday, March 9

As I commented to Steve yesterday, we’ve now begun the luxury portion of the program. I had mixed feelings about this, after we’d checked into Tsitsikamma National Park (on the southern coast several hundred kilometers east of Cape Town.) Sure the views from the deck of the park restaurant and from our wood cabin — azure ocean with huge breakers crashing on the dark jagged rocks and shooting white spray high into the air — were the stuff of postcards. And our queen-size bed was clad in a much higher grade of linen than we’ve yet seen on this trip. But I felt like we’d left Africa. Except for the workers in the restaurant and shop, everyone was white, and a very high percentage were old, overweight, and Northern European, folks who obviously took pride in (and spent a lot of money on) their elaborate encampments — not merely tents but also lanais and shaded patios and barbecuing areas. Near at hand were scullery rooms where they could clean their dishes in comfort and self-service machines for washing their laundry.

Today my ambivalence resolved. As luck would have it, Steve and I were the only tourists starting the Dolphin Trail hike this morning, and our guide for the three-day adventure is a black African named Stanley. For more than four hours, he led us up steep escarpments and through primieval forests and along paths that hugged precipices plunging to the sea. Spend that much time hiking with anyone and you can learn a thing or ten. Our conversation was at least as varied as the terrain we hiked through. We learned that Stan is 37, married with four kids ranging from 4 to 14, a fluent speaker of Xhosa, Afrikans, and English. He’s worked in tourism for 8 years and yesterday celebrated his first anniversary of leading hikers along the Dolphin Trail. He confided that his dream was to become a guide on big-game safaris; the obstacle in that path was the tuition. (Schooling to acquire the Class 4 certification needed to do such guiding would be close to $10,000.) We talked about what it means to be “colored” in South Africa (as Stan’s wife is). Tomorrow I’m hoping to probe his view of South Africa’s future.

I also learned that I lucked into the best possible hiking choice for us. The most famous hike in South Africa is a 5-day trek along something called the Otter Trail which starts near the Tsitsikamma park administration building and can require reservations almost a year in advance. It’s also quite basic — full-on backpacking in which you have to carry and prepare all your own meals. While much more expensive, our Dolphin Trail trek allows us to carry only a small daypack. Our other suitcases are transported each night to our lodging, which on this second night is even nicer than our “Forest Cabin” last night. In a few minutes, we’ll go to dinner in the main building and (with any luck) have our best meal so far in South Africa. (Up to now, we’ve consumed a lot of stews, curries, and barbecue. Decent food but unspectacular.)

Stan will collect us tomorrow morning at 9 a.m. and he says it’ll take us almost 9 hours to cover the 10 kilometers to our final destination, set amidst a forest of ferns. Perhaps at some point we’ll swim in a natural stone pool next to the sea. With luck we’ll see dolphins and otters, though I don’t know that either one would thrill me as much as the baboons we encountered this morning, including a solitary male, just off the path and not 5 feet away from where we passed. Hopefully, we won’t run into any puff adders or boom slags, the highly poisonous snakes which Stan says are common in these parts. But even if one bit us, we’d have a 24-hour window in which to seek antivenin. “I think most people who die from snakebites, die because of the fear and stress of being bitten,” Stan declared this afternoon. He sounded confident.

ER-South African style

Written Monday, March 8 about events that transpired the night before…

If you have to seek emergency care at 10 p.m. in a foreign city, I can recommend Pt. Elizabeth, South Africa. Concerned about my spreading red forehead welts, we’d asked the manager of the Hippo (backpacker’s lodge) where I could get medical advice, and both she and the lodge owner (whom she telephoned and woke up at 9:30 p.m.) recommended the Greenacres Hospital, a private operation about 5 minutes away by taxi. “For us (meaning black South Africans), medical care is free, so the only people you will see there are white people.”

In the waiting room, it was true that no black Africans appeared to be seeking treatment, but one family looked to be Middle Eastern, and there may have been a couple of Indians. (South African racial nomenclature can be confusing.) Probably 80 percent of the staff was dark-skinned, including the rotund lady who approached and asked sympathetically what we required. Hearing my explanation, she warned us that the list of others ahead of me was fairly long and it might take an 60-90 minutes to be seen. When we said we’d wait, she added my name to the bottom of her hand-written list.

How quaint, I thought. No jungle of bureaucracy to hack one’s way through, as in any American ER. After 40 minutes I was escorted to a curtained room where my temperature, pulse, and blood pressure (sky-high!) were recorded with very modern instruments. (Indeed, everything about this facility looked clean, well-organized, and technologically up-to-date.) A nurse soon appeared and logged the details of my complaint and history into a computer. Then we were sent out into the waiting room again, where at last, a lady at the front desk prepared a billing chart for me (a 10-minute operation, including the hole-punching, stapling, and photocopying steps.)

I finally was called to an examining room perhaps and hour and a quarter after we walked in, and shortly, the friendly, energetic (white) doctor walked in. Minutes into my recounting of how my symptoms had developed, a look of confident recognition dawned on his face. His verdict: shingles (which he suspected might have been triggered by the sun exposure I got in the game reserve.)

Since I’ve never before had shingles (but did as a child have chicken pox), I’m bereft without my trusty companion, the Internet, to fill me in on everything I now would like to know about this malady. I have to trust that the anti-viral medication the doctor prescribed will make the welts and pain disappear within a week or so. We filled the prescription the next day in Pt. E, which has a small-town feeling — most of the homes in the areas we drove through looked as innocently unprotected as those in Clairemont — no barbed wires, no fences. And when the first pharmacy didn’t have the Zelitrex in stock, they sent me down the road to another. There, Penny the pharmacist, only had 17 pills, but she gave me those and printed out a tidy label, explaining what had been dispensed so that I could get the balance at another pharmacy down the road.

Most fascinating to Steve: the entire ER experience cost 420 rands (about $56), and that appeared to be the doctor’s fee. I have no idea why we were charged nothing for the use of the private hospital facilities. About half of the Zelitrex prescription cost $65.

Whether because of the Zelitrex or the pain medication also prescribed for me, the shingles haven’t been much of a nuisance. There’s some pain, but it’s tolerable. Sadly, though, I’ve also finally caught Steve’s cough/laryngitis.

Still, I’m so excited by the prospect of a day of hiking in this beautiful place and confident I can power through the afllictions. We depart for breakfast and then the trailhead in 5 minutes.

Still more whining about the Internet in South Africa

Thursday, March 11
Can the Internet in Nigeria possibly be so much better than it is in South Africa? But if it isn’t, how could all those scammers possibly operate, without dying of frustration??@!! As I’ve been doing.

I’m now sitting in the lounge of the most expensive hotel we will enjoy on this trip, one of the nicest hotels, in fact, I’ve ever stayed at. The Internet actually WORKS here, unlike the very nice place we stayed last night, where it theoretically works, except when it’s raining. Which it was, when I tried to use it. The quite nice place where we stayed the night before had no wi-fi. Frank, the manager, used it only via some card he plugged into his computer. Very confusing.

My problem now is that I THOUGHT I just uploaded four posts, written over the past three days. But I don’t see them yet. Can they be lost in cyberspace? Is blogspot aging them, like fine bourbon?

Stay tuned.

More good and bad news

Monday, March 8
Good news: the Baz bus arrived early, driver barreled through the night at maniacal speed, we didn’t crash, and arrived 45 minutes early. Early enough so that we decided to go to the nearby emergency room and have my splotchy red painful patch looked at.

Bad news: I have shingles!!! The legacy of childhood chickenpox, I presume.

Good news: I don’t have some tropical pest worming around under my skin, preparing to penetrate my brain (my worst nightmare.)

More good news: I was able to get online at the Hippo Backpackers — just 20 rand for 30 minutes.

Bad news: The Internet is so painfully slow (as usual), my time is almost up. Plus it’s time for us to head to the airport, pick up our car, drive to Tstitsikamma National Park and start our 3-day hiking adventure on the Dolphin Trail.