Backpacker Paradise

Sunday, March 7
There’s no easy way to get to and from Bulungula, but the best of a bad lot is to take the Baz Bus to Mthatha and then the Bulungula shuttle from there. Once we committed to that, we were committing ourselves to the backpacker’s trail along the Wild Coast. It’s the path of least resistance. You buy a ticket for a week and then you can get on and off the bus at any number of backpacking lodges. The bus picks you up and drops you off at your destinations. I’m not sure we would have wound up otherwise at Buccaneers. But then we would have missed perhaps the most famous backpacker lodge in all Souith Africa.

It was once an overgrazed cattle ranch. But at some point, it came to someone’s attention that the hillside spread commanded the kind of view that would gladden the hearts of young adventurers fleeing the rigors of winter in England or Germany or Holland, or really anyone with a soft spot for idyllic beachy paradises. So starting in 1981 they built a series of cottages and dorms and planted palms and succulents and other dense native vegetation. Today Buccaneers has the soul of an old pilgrimage spot, revered by free spirits and hippie throwbacks and penny-pinching geezers. The walls around the front reception desk (which is built of corrugated zinc topped with a slab of wood) are plastered with notices for surfing lessons, trips to the nearby village market, sporting and cultural outings, rides wanted. The rooms like ours (a double with a bath) are cheap; the dorms and camping spots even cheaper. The vibe is funky tropical, more backpacker’s resort than youth hostel.

Our room was clean (if worn), the bed comfortable, the enormous beachscape from our wooden deck the sort that would command a multimillion-dollar price tag in La Jolla. The pitter-patter of little gecko feet (the resident pest, along with ants) creeped me out for a few minutes after we turned out the light. But we’d been reasured they don’t bite.

Alas, something DID apparently bite me at some point in our travels, and I’m beginning to suspect that the bite somehow got infected. That would explain the red raised welts that seem to be spreading along the hairline on the left side of my face. They hurt too, so we’re going to try to seek some medical attention tomorrow in Port Elizabeth, after we pick up our car.

The bad news is that in order to get to PE, our Baz Bus ride tonight will take five hours (from 5 to 10 p.m.) The good news is that after enduring one hypertensive frustration after another, I finally got online last night and again this morning. (Internet connectivity has been shockingly bad so far, in our experience.) Online, I learned that my nephew Lee has now survived to be one of the last 8 guys and 8 girls competing on American Idol. That’s almost exciting enough to make me want to fly home. Almost, but not quite.

Village Life

Saturday, March 6
I woke up well before dawn this morning and lay in bed thinking about why Steve and I have cherished this time at Bulungula. We’ve appreciated the staggering physical beauty. I finally got out of bed when I couldn’t sleep and made my way down to watch the sun rise over the Indian Ocean. Alone on a beach that stretched for miles, I witnessed changes in the sky and land that came close to being a religious experience.

But the unspoiled beauty alone wouldn’t justify the harrowing journey and general grubbiness. The facilities aren’t awful. But if the clever design of Mosetlha made camping truly comfortable, in this place, it feels just tolerable. The mattresses on the beds in our rondeval are thinner, and the sea air dampens everything and makes the room smell of mildew at times. I never detect the stink of cow manure, which amazes me, because that’s what the floors are made of. Dried, it produces no dust and feels comfortable under the bare foot. The composting toilets at the lodge do stink, though, and the kerosene-heated showers produce water that you can bear to stand in naked. But it’s hardly pleasurable.

Instead, what’s fantastic about Bulungula is the way that it has allowed us to get to know a few black Africans in a context that feels respectful and mutually beneficial. The lodge is located on communal land, and villagers make up the vast majority of the staff. Moreover, the village works almost as an extension of the lodge. This is a village unlike the image I associate with that word. There’s no central cluster of buildings. Instead the 100 or so dwellings that constitute it are scattered over the hillsides, close enough to be companionable, but separated sufficiently so that you probably can’t hear even screaming arguments among your neighbors. The 800 or so people who live here are scrupulously honest, and violence against strangers is unheard of. There are no locks anywhere, and we leave our valuables out in the open. We’ve heard that this works, in part, because everyone knows everything about every person here. If someone suddenly showed up with a new cell phone or a lot of money, questions would be asked, sanctions meted out (the worst imaginable being banishment from the community.)

Although encouraged, ranging out and wandering throughout the community presents the problem that most of the villagers speak only Xhosa. But the lodge has devised activities to facilitate contact. Steve and I have participated in several. On the first day, 2 young German guys, a young “colored” South African girl, and we were led by an English-speaking 23-year-old woman named Khunjulwa to meet with the village herbalist. The seven of us trooped through the forest, where the herbalist showed us plant after plant that he uses to cure people of ailments ranging from skin rashes to toothache to mental disease. (My favorite was the little root he dug up that supposedly comes in handy when a husband is beating his wife and causing trouble within the family. We were told that if you boil it and both spouses wash with the product, domestic harmony will be restored.)

The second day, while Steve went canoeing on the river, Eva, our Swedish fellow traveler from the first day, and I set off to experience “women power” in the village. For this we had two principal guides named Khululwa and Akhoba (both in their 20s and unmarried, and each the mother of one young child. Apparently, both were able to persuade their parents to let them work (as guides) instead of getting married to whichever local guy could come up with the 10 cows that’s the standard bride price in these parts.) The women took us to Khululwa’s house, where they painted our faces with clay mixed with water in the style considered to be fashionable among women hereabouts. They also tied scarves on our heads and led us down to the stream, where we scooped some water into the plastic containers they gave us, and then tried to walk with these balanced on our heads (the way local women do). This is TOTALLY as hard to do as it looks, and predictably, I sucked at it. (Eva did better.) We also gathered wood from the nearby woods and carried those back to K’s house, where she cooked a tasty lunch of peap (the local version of polenta) topped with chicken and cabbage broth. To eat that, the women threw a bamboo mat on the floor, heaped two plates with the food, and then bade the four of us to join them on the ground and dig in, using our hands.

If these activities sound corny, it wasn’t the specific content of what we did that mattered. What counted was just having an excuse to spend some time together, having the opportunity to ask them questions about themselves and their lives, to see their day unwind as they see it. This meant a lot of time of just hanging out. Sitting on the ground and watching the animals jockey for the bits we dropped. (I was fascinated to see how the big fat hen and her chicks kept the two wistful dogs in their place; she’s lightning fast when she tries to peck out their eyes, Khululwa told me.) Watching various children wander in and pile on the single grimy bed in this room (the family’s kitchen), and watch us back, jostling each other, joking, complaining. Eva and I at times wandered into the other building where Khululwa’s mother was sewing two bags for us (made of cloth printed with images of Nelson Mandela). She worked on an ancient hand-cranked Singer. She spoke a little English and told me she was 48, the mother of 9.

Later, it struck me that I’d made a breakthrough as a traveler. In that village, I was able to flip some kind of mental switch and feel content, even serene, just being with the people there, with no real agenda and no firm sense of when the next thing would happen. And I was pleased by how quickly I could begin to discern their personalities; how quickly the generic Black African Village Women become Khululwa and Ahkoba and Khunjulwa.

This despite the fact that their lives are almost unimaginably harder than mine. All their water comes from those wells (which in recent memory killed 6 children in one bad 18-month period). They live with no electricity, which means every piece of dirty clothing has to be carried to a stream and washed there. The kids (boys, I assume) have to range out over the hills every night to round up the family’s sheep and goats and cows and corral them. It’s easy to believe the villagers are genuinely delighted to have the lodge and its visitors among them, asking silly questions, perhaps, but bringing in desperately needed cash. (Still, the main source of that comes from the men who travel up north to the gold mines. Most of the men of the village do that, the women say.)

There’s talk circulating at the moment that the government has plans to approve that hellacious road to Mthatha. It’s easy to imagine that when that happens the most appealing aspect of life here — the tight family ties and rigorous honesty of the people and freedom that comes from physical safety — may begin to break down. But a better road would mean that it won’t take 2-3 hours to get to a hospital when a child is critically ill. I feel fortunate beyond words to have visited Bulungula now, but if it’s changed in the future, who am I to complain about that?

Welcome to Bulungula

Wednesday March 3
My scariest travel moment up to now was the time George Jemott led us to a point near the City of the Dead in Cairo where we had to run across an Egyptian freeway at rush hour. Now I’ve got a rival: the moment our Land Cruiser almost tipped over on the way to Bulungula.

The day had started out so well. The backpacker bus had picked us up in Durban as planned, and more or less on time. Although the driver must have been doing 75 miles an hour at times, he seemed sensible enough about passing other vehicles on the road. We stopped twice at roadside complexes that were shiny clean and stocked with chips flavored with chutney and tomato and other exotic flavors. And we arrived ahead of schedule at the Shell Ultra Station in Mthatha, where we debarked from the Baz Bus to look for our shuttle to Bulungula.

On the way to Mthatha, I re-read the materials that had convinced me we had to devote several days to visiting this eco-lodge. The Lonely Planet guide had called it “spectacular,” and the Rough Guide included it among the top 28 Things You Must Do in South Africa. The latter explained that the inaccessible area known as the Wild Coast (in the Transkei region) was one of the only places left in South Africa where traditional African village life still unfolded, with people living in simple round thatch-roofed buildings called rondavels. A Cape Towner by the name of Dave Martin who had worked on a variety of community-development projects had launched the Bulungula Lodge in 2005 in partnership with the Xhosa village of Nqleni. Not only was the lodge located on a cliff overlooking a breathtaking stretch of river and beach, but a stay there could also give you a unique chance to interact with black Africans living in a traditional society.

That sounded great to us, and when the Bulungula shuttle showed up around 3:15 p.m., two friendly Bulungula staffers introduced themselves and ushered Steve and me into the battered rear compartment of the Land Cruiser, along with a Swedish couple around our age, a thin young African man named Pumzileh, various backpacks and bundles and boxes of groceries and other supplies. Then we were off, jouncing over brutal terrain that we couldn’t see because the windows were all too caked with mud to allow any view of the landscape. The thought that this might last for more than 4 hours might have made me quail, but Pumzileh distracted us. He works for the Bulungula Incubator, the companion program started by Dave to launch projects to improve the village’s standard of living. One was to build a primary and preschool. Pumzileh was working on a new one having to do with planting lemongrass as a cash crop.
Since he was moving up in the organization, he had to find a replacement to fill his current job of acting as a liaison between the village and the Incubator. He favored hiring a young man working at the Shell Ultra Station in Mthatha. “I know that he is very responsible. He won the award for top cashier! Just as I did. I trained him!” But there were two other candidates, and Pumzileh said the elders in the village also needed to be consulted, as their view of the candidates might differ from his. He talked in such detail and with such earnestness about every topic that surfaced, it could have been tedious in a less talented story-teller. But he held us spellbound, describing how his gold miner father had disdained education for his children (with two wives); how his mother was surviving since his dad had died (at 56); how proud he was to be he first person from his village ever to fly (to Cape Town) and how poignantly he yearns to someday travel beyond South Africa. At one point, another turn of the conversation led him to recount for us the story of Shakespeare’s Macbeth. “I will never in my life forget how he could not wash out that blood on his hands!”

After two hours, we halted. We were at the end of the “good” road, the point behind which a 4×4 vehicle becomes essential. The owner of the grocery store there lives in a big fancy gated house, and allows travelers to park their cars within its locked premises. A young Dutch couple was supposed to be joining us there, but they’d gotten lost, so we piled out into the fading daylight to wait for them. A half dozen barefoot local kids, ranging in age from maybe 8 to 16, joked with Liesl, the Bulungula staffer, until a strengthening drizzle drove us all back into the Cruiser.

The Dutch couple finally showed up, and we set off again on a drive that Liesl said might take 45 minutes if we were lucky. We weren’t. We jounced up and down and sideways with a violence that I joked should be studied by the folks at Disney. At times, I felt us skidding, out of control, on the slick mud, and for me, the worst of it was not knowing how far we were from the edge of a precipice as the Cruiser tilted this way and that. (By then it was black outside the impenetrable windows.) When we did finally tip over farther than at any point before and then stop, and Liesl scurried back to open the door and urgently order us out, I saw that we weren’t near the edge of any cliff, a relief. Still it was cold and dark and the ground was slick, as we scrambled away from the truck to give Rufus the driver a chance to extricate it.

Somehow he succeeded. We climbed back in and maybe 15 minutes later, we pulled up at the candlelit lodge. The bad news there was that someone had forgotten to fill up the water tanks, so there would be no running water this evening. But dinner, a tasty beef stew, was ready in the large building that serves as Bulungula’s communal center. I’m sitting in it now, a day and a half later, typing. The landscape out the windows probably didn’t look any different 150 years ago. I see beach and cliffs that are at least as pretty as anything in La Jolla. But the only human structures are the few rondavels that dot the emerald hills. The interior of this room feels a bit like a time warp too — back to the 60s. The walls are painted bright salmon and rose hues and they’re decorated with images of cattle and flowers and rainbows. Mobiles made from driftwood and shells and brightly colors glass twist slowly. A driving African soundtrack plays softly. In just a few moments, Eva, the Swedish traveler with whom we shared the Land Cruiser Ride of Death, and I are doing the “women power” outing that supposedly will teach us how to carry water from the well on our heads. That’s how people get their drinking water in the village, but here at the lodge it sometimes comes out of taps.

East from Durban

March 3, 2010
The 24 hours after our departure from Madikwe have to rank among the most stressful ones I’ve lived through in some years. Like the drive there, the return was hair-raising due to the narrow, decaying roads, speeding fellow drivers, and left-hand driving, but it got worse as we entered Joburg, where we were scheduled to meet a prosthodontist I’ve worked for (and hope to do more for in the future). Athough we met him in an over-the-top shopping mall that rivals anything in Vegas for showy ostentatiousness, we were flabbergasted by the huge potholes, lack of shoulders, and crumbling edges of the roads even quite nearby his tony enclave, as well as by how close it was (a 15-minute drive?) to shanty cities (towns is WAY too small a word) that looked straight out of the recent movie, District Nine.

Our B&B in Joburg that night was a sweet respite — quiet, immaculate, comfortable, with an enormous breakfast and excellent dinner with wine, all included in the $120 tab. And we got the car safely back to the airport without incident. But there we got the news about missing our flight. And once onboard the replacement flight, I realized I’d lost my beloved LL Bean jacket (either swiped by a larcenous security screener as it passed through the x-ray machine or simply forgotten by me on a chair, I’m not sure which.)

Because of the delays, we didn’t reach our backpacker lodge in Durban till 1 p.m. But the guide I’d found online and had arranged to give us a tour of the city wasn’t free till 2:30, so that was fine.

More disappointing was the fact that it was bucketing rain. And our guide, a professor of biochemistry at the University of Kwa-Zulu Natal who apparently enjoys moonlighting as a tour guide, proved to be a mixed bag. Originally from Bangladesh (via Japan and Korea, where he got his Ph.D. and started his teaching career), he was a sneering fellow who lacked a lot in the guiding department, talking with a heavy accent and in a voice so soft Steve in the backseat couldn’t hear parts of what he said. He also was no expert on Durban, having lived there for only about 18 months. Worst of all, he wound up charging us about 3 times what he’d seemed to promise online, an annoying turn of events.

Still, thanks to him we did at least get glimpses of the city’s highpoints (through the pouriing rain). Otherwise we would hae had to hole up in our hotel and see nothing.
The hotel itself had only two black spots, in our book. One was the lack of wireless Internet and the other the fact that our room had no en suite bathroom, a detail I’d missed in making the reservation (and a level of basic service we haven’t stooped to in years.)

On the plus side, it felt like staying in someone’s home — a brightly colored and pleasantly decorated one with a lovely garden. Everything was immaculate, and Cyril, the (black) resident manager, was friendly and helpful. He even set out breakfast early so we could grab a bite before boarding the Baz Bus at 7:15.

The fact that the Baz Bus comes right to the front door of the Gibela Lodge was the reason I wanted to stay there. And the Baz Bus is one of the only ways to get to Bulungula, our next destination. The bus will drop us off at the Shell Ultra Station in Mthatha, and there we are promised that the Bulungula shuttle will pick us up for the 60 miles drive to the Wild Coast. Even though Bulungula is reputed to be the closest one can come to Paradise, it may have limited electricity (and if there’s wi-fi Internet, you’ll hear my whoop all the way in San Diego.)

Keep your ears open.

Goodby to Mosetlha
March 2, 2010
We’re airborne again, en route to Durban, the biggest port in Africa and South African’s most Indian city. It will be the launching point for our next adventure. But up here at 37,000 feet, I’m still thinking about our stay at Mosetlha.

I can’t help comparing one aspect to it to our visit last year to the cattle ranch in Argentina. That was a magical place, and from the instant we arrived, I regretted that we only had one night to experience it.

In contrast, three nights at Mosetlha felt just about right. In addition to the congenial (occasionally electrifying) conversations we enjoyed over meals with Chris and June and the other guests, it gave us six separate game drives. We left every day on the morning ones at 5:30 a.m. and didn’t return until 9:30 a.m. or a bit later. Then we departed again at 4:30 and usually returned around 8-ish. So that meant we spent almost 8 hours a day in the Land Rovers. (In the middle of the day, we ate big breaksfasts (at 945) and lunches (2-ish), showered, napped, read, or hung out in the communal room and chatted with the other guests.)

Although 24 hours of game driving felt like enough to have really experienced it, I never once felt bored, even though most of the time we were searching for animals, rather than actually viewing them. But Madikwe includes multiple landscapes — grasslands, mountainsides, acacia forests, a river — and their appearance changed throughout the long days. I loved dawn the most, watching the sky go from charcoal opacity through shades of navy and then neon streaked violet, then lightening to a luminous opal. The juxtaposition of that sky with the verdant emerald bush and hillsides, the red earth, the distant purple wilderness and the black tree forms in the foreground impressed me as one of the most beautiful landscapes I’d ever seen.

Driving through it hypnotized and soothed me, and every encounter with an animal woke me up. Some flooded us all with adrenaline, as when we screenched to a halt to gape at a huge white rhihno staring at us not more than 20 feet from the road. We studied each other in cautious silence for a while, then (apparently reassured that our Land Rover was neither another male rhino, nor a likely competitor for his grass), he lowered himself to the ground, flopped over and started to snooze. That made him look comical, until a few minutes later someone prompted him to leapt to his feet faster than I would have dreamed possible. If he had wanted to reach us and drive his murderously sharp horn through our vehicle, I have no doubt he could have done so even though Andrew had already started the engine. But he didn’t.

Another unforgettable moiment came one evening just before sunset, as we were making our way over a narrow track. The tall dense bush pressed in on each side. We’d been looking for elephants with no success, when suddenly Andrew spotted a big matriarch 200 feet away. A few seconds later, we could see that she was leading a youngster who in turn preceded a tiny (as elephants go) baby. More elephants followed in the line — not so such a herd as a parade of elephants. We stopped countng when we got to about two dozen, but by then the impeturbable Andrew was looking worried. Although the animals seemed to be moving in the opposite direction from us, and on a parallel track, I knew he feared that they might swing over and double back, which would trap us. (And the elephants in the south part of Madikwe have historically been the most aggressive animals in the park, many of them refugees from areas of Mozambique where years of civil war taught them a lot about the human capacity for atrocities. Nothing bad happened; Andrew reversed the Landie and we withdrew. But it was thrilling to suddenly feel so vulnerable and small.

We never did see a leopard (the final member of the Big Five),but we did encounter the extremely rare and endangered African wild dogs, as well as hyenas, jackals, a wild cat, bunches of wildebeest, impala, zebra, giraffes, kudu, a mongoose and more — almost 20 mammals in all. I also checked off almost 40 species of birds on the list of 350-plus supplied by the camp. And the giant millipedes, leopard tortoise, and puff adder felt like special gifts, each in their own way.

But in the end, by the time we departed, I had begun to understand the viewpoint of our fellow guests Rene and Mandy, veterans of countless game drives throughout the years. While you might start out by checking animals off a list, seeing them for a second time turned out to be just as interesting, if a little bit different. Their behavior and demeanor, rather than their mere existence, started to command your attention. Do this enough, like Rene and Mandy, and I could imagine coming, like them, to revere the dung beetle as much as the Cape buffalo, for that matter, to simply delight in spending time in the wondrous place that serves as home to them all.

Catching up

Tuesday morning, March 2
We’re in the Johannesburg airport, awaiting our 11:30 flight to Durban. (We MISSED out 9:15 flight, a $100 mistake.)

I’ve taken advantage of the unexpected wait here to try once again to get on the Internet. This has ranged from extremely irritating to impossible over the past week. But here, at last I seem to have succeeded, at least in part. I still can’t send notices of the posts to the group list I created, so if you know of any of my friends who might be interested in reading any of this, pass it on.

Meanwhile, I’ve posted my account of what we’ve experienced so far, and will go on trying to add more, when possible.

Sunday, February 28
On our very first game drive (Friday afternoon/evening), we saw three of the Big Five (lion, elephant, and rhino). We saw the fourth at lunch yesterday, but it was a sad experience, rather than a thrilling one.

Meals here take place in an open-sided wooden pavilion that houses a polished wood table.that can accommodate 16 in a pinch. We had finished our tuna/pasta salad and Greek salads and were chatting with June (the owner), when some movement in the trees nearby caught my eye. A moment later, an enormous animal emerged from the thicket. It was one of the two old male Cape Buffalos who’ve been frequenting the camp – the injured one. June says he first showed up about two months ago, and something appeared to be wrong with one of his eyes. Although that seemed to clear up, he also somehow hurt his right front leg, and when he appeared yesterday, it looked broken. He would put a little weight on it, then stumble, and try to walk on just the three remaining legs. That’s not easy, when you weigh close to a ton.

He moved into a patch of trees perhaps 200 yards away from us and lowered his head to drink from a puddle there. We, in turn, silently moved outside to stare at him in wonder. Next to him, an ordinary fighting bull would look like some kind of a miniature breed. His horns were fearsome enough to rip someone apart by accident, say if he merely shook his head too close to anyone in his vicinity. It was obvious we needed to keep our distance from him, but equally obvious that he would probably die soon. No animal so grievously injured could survive for long in the wild.

June appeared to be as anguished as I felt, at the sight of his suffering. She commented that if a car had hit him and accidentally broken his leg, the Madikwe park administration would order him euthanized. But since he had broken it naturally, their policy was to refrain from intervening in any way. Mandy from Joburg shook her head and curtly approved. “It’s nature,” she said.

This is the second visit to Mosetlha for Mandy and her jovial husband Rene, but they’ve done innumerable game drives in other places (including Kruger). Rene, who was born and educated in Zurich but immigrated to South Africa 26 years ago, hates actual on-the-ground camping. (His parents apparently dragged him and his siblings off to European campgrounds almost every weekend of his childhood.) But he and Mandy have a reverence for everything about the African bush – from the smell of the air to the antics of its smallest insect inhabitants.

Like them, I love it here because Mosetlha gives us the access to nature provided by camping but spares us all of the unpleasantness. Our beds are as padded and inviting as my bed at home. At night we let down the mosquito nets, which protect us more from any worry about potential nocturnal bedmates than actual ones. (The anopheles mosquito, which carries malaria, doesn’t live in this province of South Africa.)

We have plastic chamber pots for use after bedtime (since a trip to the composting toilet might lead to an unwanted encounter with an animal). But when I have used the toilet during daylight hours, I’ve never smelled the normal odors that I associate with such installations. Even though there’s no running water, Chris (a civil engineer by training) has installed a marvelous system for providing us with hot showers. (This involves filling a bucket with water from a portable tank, pouring it into a little wood-burning “donkey stove” that instantly raises the temperature to near boiling, mixing that with enough cold water to make the temperature just right, pouring all that into a bucket in one of the shower stalls, raising it by ropes, and then controlling its egress through a shower head by means of a little hand valve.)

The electrified fence that discourages elephants from entering the camp is solar-powered. The refrigerators that cool our beers and bottled water runs (somehow) on kerosene, and kerosene fuels the lanterns that softly illuminate everything here after dark. It’s all so ingenious, the infrastructure alone could be a tourist attraction. But the daily spectacle of the park’s non-human inhabitants takes center stage in that department.

As for the injured buffalo, he was gone from sight this morning. But June says he and his able-bodied buddy aren’t far. I’d like to see them again before we depart for our return to Johannesburg, now less than 24 hours from now.

Inb the bush

Saturday, February 27
I’ve started reading Paul Theroux’s book about traveling overland from Cairo to Cape Town. In the introduction, he says the word “safari” means “journey” in Swahili and has nothing to do with animals. But for Americans like me it has everything to do with journeying into the bush and shooting animals — either with guns or (more often today) cameras. In my mind, it comes with even more specific imagery — sitting around campfires in a wilderness an order of magnitude wilder than anything in the Americas.

I’ve learned that the reality of contemporary safaris is actually not so wild. From what I gather, you either drive yourself around in a car and camp at a crowded campground in a place like Kruger National Park, or you stay in a 5-star lodge, paying $500-$1000 a day for pampering and chauffeuring around in a Land Rover. But we’ve found a middle ground which has dazzled us.

We’re staying in a game reserve called Madikwe. It’s about 4 hours northwest of Joburg, on the Botswana border. Now the fourth-largest reserve in the country, when it was created in 1992 more large mammals were relocated here (around 8000 of them) than has been done anywhere else in all of Africa. You can only enter if you’re staying at one of the 20 or so lodges, all of which are 4 or 5 star facilities. Or you can stay at Mosetlha, as we’re doing.

Here there’s no electricity or running water. But there are 9 raised wooden platforms scattered around the grounds. They have corrugated metal roofs and the walls are closed on two sides, but openings in the other two are open enough to make you feel that you’re more outside than in. You have to wonder why the baboons and lions and mongeese and wild dogs and Mozambique spitting cobras and puff adders and other creatures who live here don’t enter the cabins at night. But apparently something about the human presence puts them off.

There ARE currently two Cape buffalo who’ve recently taken to visiting the grounds. I heard one of them at 2:30 this morning, walking past our platform, chomping on something herbivorous and occasionally snorting. I’m furious with myself for not getting up to look at him. But frankly, I was too scared! Buffalo rank among the legendary Big Five — the most dangerous large mammals, in the one-time estimation of hunters. And of the 5, the buffalo is considered the most dangerous of all. Plus he sounded immense (they weigh close to a literal ton).

The owners of Mosetlha, Chris and June, happen to be staying here at the moment, and Chris insisted at breakfast that the buffalos actually are “nice old boys” (best avoided on foot, but fine to look at from the safety of our platform. June says almost every major animal type that lives in the reserve has wondered into Mosetlha at some point or another, with the exception of the white rhino (and they’ve been seen right outside the gate). Just a few weeks ago, lions killed a hyena next to her house here.

But we guests at Mosetlha don’t just wait passively for animals to wander in and visit us. Like the folks at the safari lodges, we also go out on two major game drives per day. Steve and I experienced our first one yesterday.

We arrived around two, ate a lunch of hamburgers and salads, got settled into our cabin, and then set off in the Land Rover around 4:30. The only other guests in the camp, a South African couple named Rene and Mandy, accompanied us. Our driver and guide was a tall muscular and knowledgeable fellow named Andrew. The color of dark chocolate, Andrew has a calm demeanor, and he steered the Land Rover over the dirt trails with the focused patience of someone who is used to hunting, day in, day out. At first I felt distracted by the big picture. Madikwe is mostly what the locals call “bushveld” – an ecosystem similar to the savannah but with more trees. Bushwillows and more than a dozen species of acacia predominate. This time of year (the rainy season) the myriad grasses have grown dense and green. A couple of dramatic hills rise up, against a backdrop of surrounding countryside that looks as vast and uninhabited as anything I’ve ever seen in the American West.

Soon, however, Andrew was pointing out animals that yanked my attention in closer. We passed a group of Burchell’s zebra grazing side-by-side with a dozen impala. We only glimpsed the baboon dashing across the road far ahead of us, but we were able to pull up and park no more than 20 feet from the lioness and her two 7-month-old cubs gnawing on zebra parts under the shade of some trees. Later, we spotted an acacia swaying in the distance. After a while it cracked and fell over – pushed over by a big bull elephant who had recently been in a sexual frenzy. We caught up with him and watched him nibbling on the leaves that once had crowned the tree. That’s all he wanted; he would leave behind the rest.

You can read my words and think, oh yeah, she’s on safari. Of course she’s going to see lions and elephants. I myself of course expected to see lions and elephants, of the sort I’ve seen in countless nature programs and National Geographic photos.

What I still don’t understand is why the actual experience of seeing them in their native habitat moved me so profoundly. At times my eyes filled with tears. Was it the sheer physical beauty of the tableaux? Or the depth of my gratitude that I’ve lived to experience this? Was it the sense of amazing interconnectedness that overwhelmed me? I have no idea, but for maybe the first time in my life, the word “dumbstruck” really makes sense to me.

Our Joburg Insider tour

Friday morning, February 26
The most interesting site from the tallest building in Africa, for my money, are the saffron-yellow hillsides visible in so many directions. They’re just a mile or two from downtown Johannesburg, which is where the tallest building, the Carlton Center, is located. But they’re not really hills but rather the tailings from the gold mines that put this city on the map 125 years ago or so. Danie Pretorius, the private guide we’d hired to show us around on our first afternoon in South Africa, says the government has ordained that the mine remains be restored to a natural appearance by 2012. He added that modern technology now allows for enough gold and uranium to be extracted from this one-time refuse so that the proceeds will pay for the restoration. But for the moment, they remain an exotic reminder of Joburg’s lustrous underpinnings.

When I first heard that Danie was going to take us to the top of the tallest building in Africa, I wondered if it was a good use of our time. When our plane had landed at 8:40 a.m., low-lying rain clouds were drenching the city. But the rain eased up by the time we met Danie. He drove us in his Suburu downtown, and we quickly realized what a good choice that was. Back in the 1980s, the center of Joburg was a cosmopolitan cluster of highrises from which the richest city in the richest country in Africa conducted business. According to Danie, you could walk anywhere, even after dark, and be free from crime or fear of it. But after apartheid ended in 1993, the area became the epicenter of the shocking criminal violence that exploded when Zulus and Xhosas battled for control of the new political regime. Brutal murders, terrorist bombings, and other atrocities quickly drove the corporations to flee to the suburbs. And even though the intertribal warfare has ended, the buildings for the most part remain vacant.

This is all Danie’s version of events, of course. But when we parked in the Carlton Center (in a handicapped space, for which Danie tipped the parking attendant), the scene there seemed to confirm his words. Shoppers, almost universally black, strolled around a bustling street-level shopping mall, but when we took an elevator to the observation deck on the 50th level, it was shockingly empty, except for us and one other pair of white tourists (and their guide). In every direction, Danie pointed out landmark buildings that had failed to find replacement tenants.

Despite that, the cityscape, viewed both from above and from ground level when we returned to our car and drove around, surprised me. It was shabby and filled with black people, but it reminded me much more of Detroit or Cincinnati than Cairo or Shanghai. Danie pointed out the enclaves, such as the neighborhood next to the university, that he didn’t feel safe entering at any time. Once it was a trendy student center, but now it’s a haven for violent and drug-dealing Nigerians. But for the most part, presuming one acted sensibly, visitors were fine there, he assured us.

Danie’s a white guy, I should mention, probably in his late 50s. His great, great, great-grandfather, Henries Pretorius, was one of the founding fathers of South Africa — the man after whom the capital, Pretoria, was named. Henries’s descendants became farmers and Danie continued that tradition (growing corn, raising some cattle and chickens, and dabbling in other crops) until the new South African government decided that he and some of his neighboring farmers needed to sell their land. They fought this edict in court for 9 years, but finally lost, and they received about 40-45% of the fair-market value (as Danie reckoned it). Yet he seemed appreciative things hadn’t turned out worse, as they had for the farmers in neighboring Zimbabwe (whose land was simply stolen outright). Searching for a new career, he’d trained for certification as a tour guide, and has run a tour business in the seven years since.

Given that history, Steve and I were fascinated by his empathy for what black South Africans had endured under apartheid and his optimism about the country’s future. (He thinks once Mugabe leaves power in Zimbabwe and things improve there, most of the Zimbabwean refugees who are so straining South Africa’s social networks will leave and South Africa will prosper, as it helps to rebuild its neighbors.) He seemed relaxed and full of good will as he took us into Soweto, the black township of more than 3 million people that was the flashpoint that eventually brought about the end of apartheid. But he also readily recalled his reaction back in 1976 when the South African police opened fire on a crowd of schoolchildren there, killing dozens of them. Far off in the countryside, he and even his black farmworkers (or so he claimed) assumed the kids were criminals. They thought the police should have been even tougher, Danie said.

Head-spinning stories like this seem part of the warp and woof of this country. And they only intensified after we left Joburg the next morning, picked up our tiny Tata rental car at the airport, and drove out to the bush camp where we’re now esconsced.

The yotel

London, February 24
We lucked out. For all the weather-caused travel delays other folks have endured over the past few months, we arrived in both Chicago and London within 5 minutes of the scheduled times. Our flight to Joburg also was on time,,, and less than half full. That allowed me to snag a row of four middle seats for myself, something I haven’t accomplished in years. And our Yotel stay in Heathrow was an unqualified success.

I no longer remember where I first heard about the Yotel, somewhere online. It supposedly was started by a fellow so dazzled by his experience in a British Airways first-class sleeper cabin that he wanted to extend its pleasures to the masses, providing a comfortable respite in a small space, rentable for anywhere from 4 hours on. So he created in-airport hotels that were designed by the same folks who designed those first-class sleepers. One is located in Heathrow’s Terminal 4. I made my reservation as soon as I could (six months ago).

Steve and I once spent a night in a microhotel in Tokyo, and this was way more convenient. An hour and a half after touching down at 6:40 a.m., after going through immigration and getting our boarding passes for the next (8 p.m.) flight and making the long journey (by underground train) from Terminal 3 to Terminal 4, we were escorted to our “cabin” in the Yotel. The fixtures and lighting of the lobby are a bit dim and 21st Century (think Blade Runner, but chic), but the corridor and cabins recalled nothing so much as a train and sleeper cars, only without the clatter and motion. Within minutes we were snuggled into our bunks. Everything was spotless, the beds firms and linens first-class, the pillows abundant, the lighting intelligent, the design taking advantage of every inch of space.

The one thing that made us raise our eyebrows was the separation between the bed/study part of the room and the toilet/shower area — just a clear glass (presumably waterproof) slidihg door. For privacy, you could pull across a curtain — but it was about 3 feet short of screening what most of us would prefer not to display. Fortunately, public toilets right next door gave us a more private option.

If we’d had time we could have watched TV on the flat-screen panel or bathed under the rainshower or ordered room service. But after napping for about 5 hours and charging our laptops, all we could do was spend a little time on the (free wifi) Internet, eat a bit of breakfast at the nearby cafe, and get cleaned up a bit. Then it was time to check out. Still as we made the journey from Terminal 4 to Terminal 5, we pitied all the poor folks who’d spent hours suffering the indignities of Heathrow’s public waiting rooms. Would that every major transit airport had a Yotel!