Monday, January 29, 2007

Joburg part 2

Finally, we are back in the world of computers. Not that I didn't have a great time away from computers -- I did -- but I think this post will be a long one since it's been so long since I last posted. You may as well grab some refreshment now and settle in for a long read. We are now staying with Auntie M and Uncle C in their gorgeous old house of wood floors, high ceilings and many-paned windows and French doors. It is surrounded by a stunning garden with lots of different levels of decks, patios and lawn, lovely little nooks and crannies, golden stone walls (topped with three electric wires), a dark blue pool complete with a fountain tinkling into it, and a variety of birdsong that I don't even remember hearing at the zoo's aviary. All this is on top of a large koppie with a stunning view of terracotta rooftops, and across the valley I can see the skyscrapers of downtown Joburg. I think the pictures I took this morning across the valley are probably the closest I will get to photographing inner city Joburg, as we leave tomorrow, and I'm not sure people would be willing to accompany me.

Auntie M is a psychologist, and the first time I met her I was intimidated, worried that she was psychoanalyzing me and knew the things that I would prefer to keep private from my first introduction to Sugar Daddy's family. But then I discovered that she loves the same reality tv shows as I do, has a wonderful sense of humour and a lovely wide smile that she unleashes frequently. They have 10 (ten!) cats, most of whom have just arrived and been taken in by the soft hearts of Auntie M and Uncle C. She told me there is one beggar she sees regularly, who is apparently deaf and dumb. She was suspicious at first, thinking that the deaf and dumb thing was just a way to get more money from people. But as she was plotting a way to test his disabilities, she came upon him in the supermarket unexpectedly. When she saw he was buying catfood, and that indeed he was unable to speak to the cashier, she put him in her good books, and always gives him money whenever she sees him now. Because of the catfood. Uncle C is lawyer (I think they call it a barrister here), and a pleasure to converse with. He is a voracious reader, and unlike me, he remembers everything he reads and kindly shares it. He's truly
fascinating to talk to, loves music and film, and good food.

Auntie M's son, Cousin M, is hugely intelligent and perceptive, and is studying at Oxford on a Rhodes Scholarship, so sadly we didn't get to see him this time. Last time, he took us around town to the art gallery, and a dance performance, and really showed us some of the vibrant culture of Joburg. Sugar Daddy's other cousin, Cousin R, one of Auntie J's sons, is also hugely intelligent, and he makes music and edits an online music journal. He was supposed to be in New York doing a month-long film course this month, but he had to cut his study short to come back for a sudden and unexpected funeral here. Since he was around, he decided to join us on the trip to Pilanesberg, to have a much-needed holiday. Although it was under such tragic ircumstances,
it was a real pleasure to get a chance to visit with him again, and he was great with Swee'pea. I think he really enjoyed spending time with Swee'pea, and it was nice to see Swee'pea enjoying his attention.

On Friday morning, Auntie M came to pick us up to take us to Pilanesberg Game Reserve, a couple of hours northwest of Joburg. I didn't really realize last time just how hilly Joburg is. I remember I did a project on South Africa in grade 7, and learned that Joburg is on the highveld, a high plateau about 2000 metres above sea level. At the time, I imagined the country being made up of a series of huge flat steps, but that's not the case at all. In fact, between Joburg and
Pilanesberg, there really isn't any flat land. There may be patches of flat land, but the koppies rise up out of them quite suddenly. The koppies seem to me to be misnamed. Koppie sounds like a cute little sort of miniature hill, but in fact they're huge and steep, sometimes almost the size of mountains, but rounded.

I expected the trip to Pilanesberg to be made on a large highway, but it was all on two-lane roads lined on either side with wide dusty red shoulders. It was quite rural, with occasional outcroppings of craft shops and roadside fruit and craft vendors under small awnings for a
bit of shade, and the parking lots were mostly unpaved, covered with the same beautiful red dirt of the road shoulders. I love the colour of the dirt here. It seems so lively, and well, African I guess. So from the roads I watched the koppies rise up and slope down, and I couldn't stop imagining them as giant animals sleeping under a cloak of grasses and thorny shrubs and small trees. I guess it's called bushveld when it's quite shrubby, and just veld when it's more just grass punctuated by small trees. It seems like nearly all the shrubs and trees have nasty-looking thorns, some of them a couple of inches long and white like teeth, I guess because the foliage is so valuable and hardwon in this arid land. We crossed the Magaliesberg (pronounced Mahaliesberg with a lot of spit and phlegm in your throat on the hal part), an ancient mountain range mostly rounded by time, and Hartebeespoort Dam, with a large almost suburban development on its shores and speedboats on its ripples.

There are still quite a few homemade tin shacks along the road, but there are also many brick and stucco houses, some just being constructed, which I find encouraging. And the shacks are more spaced out than in the townships of the cities. Outside of these homes, I noticed lots of people gathered at picnic tables under trees, or sitting on verandahs with a drink, and it looked peaceful and nice. I would have loved to take pictures of these people relaxing on a Friday
afternoon, but I also didn't want to stop with Swee'pea sleeping.

In the car, we talked about crime, among other things. I think Joburgers tell their crime stories (and I think every Joburger has them), the way new mothers tell their birth stories, except of course that nothing good and precious like a new life comes of them. They can be almost humourous when the person emerges from the experience (relatively) unscathed. But Auntie M has told me some truly horrifying stories. One of her friends was hijacked with her husband and young daughter in KwaZulu-Natal, and closed into the trunk of their car while their hijackers drove around for hours. Eventually, they let the husband out and told him to run, while they raped M's friend. I don't know what was happening to the daughter at this point, whether she was kept in the boot or freed with the husband, or, God forbid, raped with her mother. But Auntie M says her friend is recovering remarkably. Some people are amazingly resilient. She also told me about another friend of hers who was gang raped for hours, I think in the cottage of her own garden, when her husband was out. They have left Joburg, and she hasn't recovered as well as her other friend. As horrible as they are, I think it is good for me to hear these stories, otherwise I suspect I am dangerously naive, wondering if perhaps the walls and alarm systems
aren't just a bit paranoid.

As we got closer to Pilanesberg, I noticed huge reddish rocks scattered across the landscape and up the huge koppies, and when partly hidden by large shrubs, they looked like elephants' backs. After a fairly relaxed two-hour drive, we arrived at the thatch-roofed chalets of Manyane
Resort, just outside the gates of the game park. When we got out of the car, the heat really packed a punch, even hotter than Joburg or Cape Town. Luckily, the chalets are airconditioned and the thatched roofs keep them quite comfortable.

After we unpacked, Cousin R went for a walk, and Auntie M, Sugar Daddy, Swee'pea and I went for a drive in the park. By this time, it was 4 or 5 in the afternoon, so the animals were starting to stir from their siestas. One of the first animals we saw were zebras. Surprisingly, when they're at a distance and among the scrubby bushes, they are remarkably camouflaged. I felt like I was looking at one of those magic eye pictures, and eventually a zebra would coalesce out of the bushveld. But if I looked away, and then back to where I KNEW there was a zebra, I couldn't see it anymore. Later, we saw some right next to the road, and they were impossible to miss. We also saw a couple of rhinos, a mother and child pair, but they were fairly far away. Luckily I had a big fat zoom lens on my camera so I could see them a bit better. At one point, we came upon a clearing with several zebras and a herd of dainty little impala. It was a bit unnerving because every single one of them was staring somewhere behind us. At first we thought it was a truck that was coming up, somehow more interesting than we were, but then Sugar Daddy made out the silhouette of a predator under a tree some distance behind us. I took some pictures, which clearly show the shape of a spotted hyena. We tried to back up to get a closer look, but the hyena ambled away. I think it's quite rare to see a hyena, and I was excited.

When we got back to the chalets, the sun was about to set and it had cooled ever so slightly. We decided to go for a swim in the pool, since Swee'pea is so keen on splashing right now. I took a few pictures of the beautiful pink and purple spreading across the western sky, and the veld behind our chalet lit golden by the sinking sun. Then we got into our cozzies and went to the pool. The water held absolutely no shock as we got in, and felt warmer than the air once we'd been in it for a moment. It was magical to float and watch Swee'pea splash in Sugar Daddy's arm, huge smile across his face, while the African sun sank lower and spread its magenta rays above us. When we got out, the sky was mostly inky blues and greys, the stupendous sunset moment gone except in our memories. I think those moments in the pool will remain a highlight for both Sugar Daddy and I.

When we got back to the chalet, I decided to check out the loft above the living room. There was a bedroom with a large bed that we'd sleep in, but I wondered what was at the top of the steep narrow steps lined with sandpaper for traction. I almost took Swee'pea with me, but decided the stairs would be dangerous. Up above there was an airconditioning unit and two twin beds. I looked for some paper to write about the sunset swim, but didn't find any, so turned around to
go back down the stairs. I guess I lost my footing on the top step, and as I started falling, my life flashed before my eyes and I thought simply, "Oh SHIT!" I tried to keep balance backwards so I would somersault down, and bumped/slid down several steps. Eventually I stopped, my ass and thigh burning and tingling, both my wrists aching and my elbows burning from the ineffectual sandpaper. My first thought was profound gratefulness that I hadn't been holding Swee'pea. My
second was "Ouch, did I break something?" I didn't, but the back of my upper thigh swelled up like a third ass cheek, or so Sugar Daddy told me, and has now turned a very dark purple, almost black, bruise, nearly 5 or 6 inches in diameter. After I walked gingerly down the last few steps, Sugar Daddy gave me a big hug and told me to sit down. I started to cry; I'm not really sure why, fear and relief and pain, I guess, and Sugar Daddy just hugged me. Sometimes, actually most of the time, he knows exactly the right thing to make me feel better. These moments make me very glad to share my life and family with him, and I am grateful for the reminders, however painful they may be.

Auntie M and Uncle C brought some truly delectable nibbles, and we ate VERY well. After dinner and drinks, the three of us were left alone in our chalet. Swee'pea had a field day opening and closing the empty cupboards, and discovered the magic of drawers, although with a few
pinched fingers. At some point, I noticed a very large spider in the middle of the floor. Sugar Daddy got a glass to put over him to remove him in his customary way, but he had to be precisely accurate because the spider was nearly the same diameter as the glass. He was and he
slid some cardboard under the glass, took him outside and released him far away from the chalet. We saw two more smaller spiders that night, which he also removed. At this point, things got a bit silly. Sugar Daddy removed the pillows and duvet from the bed, just to make sure
none were nesting there, and we actually slept with the light on. It kind of freaked me out that Sugar Daddy agreed to all my paranoid ideas. Apart from the spiders, it was actually a really nice place to stay; the bed was big and comfortable, with nice soft sheets; the chalets were private; the pools lovely; monkeys, baboons, ostriches and impala roam freely, continuing the game park experience without the dangerous big game like lions, rhinos, hippos and elephants. I would certainly recommend it to anyone going to Pilanesberg.

The next morning was deliciously lazy and we set out for the park around 2 or so. This time it was all of us, and Uncle C was a real addition, with his knowledge of elephant behaviour, ability to identify birds, and share interesting trivia about the landscape and animals. Apparently Pilanesberg is in a huge ancient volcano. My mind still can't quite wrap around this because the volcano must have been like a hundred kilometers across or something, and so ancient its walls are huge koppies that look like giant dinosaurs in repose. Uncle C says it was the largest or second largest volcano ever on earth. We didn't see a huge variety of animals on this drive, but we had a great elephant encounter. At one point, the breeding group complete with little twin
babies came so close to the car that even Swee'pea pointed at them.

Later we stopped for a picnic on top of a koppie overlooking a dam. The picnic area is fenced from the park so there is no risk of a lion snatching Swee'pea or a hippo charging us. Apparently, hippos are the most dangerous animals in Africa, responsible for the most human deaths, because when the fight or flight response is initiated they have absolutely no flight response. Their only predators are humans, so they have evolved to just fight anything that threatens them. We noticed a huge number of cars parked along the road on the other side of the dam. Uncle C got out his binoculars and hypothesized that the people must be looking at a lion. Anything else to attract that many cars, like an elephant, hippo, rhino or buffalo, he would surely be able to see. Uncle C and Auntie M have been to a lot of game reserves, and never seen a lion, which they are ok with but believe that some kind of hex is on them. We figured that by the time we piled back into the car and drove around, the lion would be long gone. Amazingly though, as we drove around we saw many many cars still parked there. And we saw a lion, a female walking through the tall golden grass. A minute or two later, she plopped down for a rest, lazily turning her head here and there occasionally. I actually found the experience a bit anti-climactic because lions are just so lazy. It's not really that interesting to watch a cat resting in the sun, no matter how large and majestic. We drove on, and spotted ANOTHER lion resting in the sun. The gates of the park were going to close in half an hour, and we didn't think they'd do anything until closer to sunset so we left. It was still impressive, and I did get one photo of the
first lion walking in just the right slanting sunlight to accentuate the definition of her muscles.

We had another sunset swim, although this time the sky was cloudy and not really colourful at all, and another al fresco delicious meal, and went to bed. This time we left the living room light on instead of the bedroom light. But as we were settling down, the power went out. The room became that pitch black that makes you think you're blind because your eyes are open and you can't see a thing. I had noticed the two candles and box of matches next to the bed when we first arrived, and thought it was cute that the resort was willing to provide a bit of romantic ambience for those so inclined. Now I realized that the candles served a much more practical purpose.
I opened the curtains a bit to let the moonlight in, and the night air started to flash and roar with lightning and thunder. Thunder sounds different through a thatched roof, more immediate. And the lightning was impressive, providing flashes of daylight over the veld. It rained a bit, and we fell asleep. Eventually, I don't know how long it was, the power came back on and the hum of the air conditioner woke me up. I was relieved that the power came back on, because I felt really uneasy being in an unfamiliar chalet, virtually in the middle of nowhere, with no lights and a pack of large scary spiders somewhere out there just waiting to crawl across our faces. Despite all that, we all slept well, and woke up refreshed.

Driving back to Joburg, we nearly ran out of gas because the gas stations are so few and far between. The first gas station we stopped at, nearly on fumes, was also a bottle store, and lots of peole were sitting under the trees lining the dirt parking lot with large bottles of beer. I noticed lots of people walking around dressed up in suits and dresses, which Auntie M surmised was their Sunday best (since it was Sunday and all). I also noticed quite a few people wearing khaki
uniforms that were mostly too big, which I guess might have been the closest outfits they have to a suit. I find it surprising how many people walk along major roads and highways here, seemingly in the middle of nowhere. In Canada, anyone who lives in the country can also afford a car, so it's really not something I'm used to seeing. We drove passed a couple of modest cemetaries, which made me sad, thinking of all the people who have probably died from AIDS buried there. I also noticed that the really neat and tidy houses had dirt yards, that lovely rich reddish dirt, which I guess they must sweep regularly or something. Other houses, which looked sort of unkempt, were situated in yards with the long grass of the veld.

When we got back into Joburg, we met some of Sugar Daddy's friends for lunch. At one major intersection, we noticed a sign that said "Smash and Grab Hotspot." Apparently, if you leave something valuable on the passenger seat, someone is very likely to smash your window and grab it. Sugar Daddy told me to take a picture, but I didn't think I'd be able to get my camera out on time. Plus, it would be highly ironic if my camera were smashed and grabbed out of my hands as I took a picture of the smash and grab warning sign.

We ate lunch at a nice Italian restaurant in a local mall, and talk was babies babies babies. It struck me as funny that it was the three men who were friends from high school, but it was their wives who did most of the talking. One couple had a two-year-old son who was just a baby last time we got together, and the other couple is expecting a baby any day in the next few weeks. The expectant father published a novel nearly a year ago, and we were able to buy it on our way out of the mall. When we got outside the sky was grey and ominous, and a few raindrops sprinkled on us. We saw distant lightning and Sugar Daddy was hopeful that I would get to see my first Joburg summer storm (it didn't storm the last time either). But the storm passed by us without much excitement; just rain. We could see lightning on the top of the next koppie but nothing here. Sugar Daddy was also hoping that I would get to see a Parktown Prawn, a huge ugly insect that seeks shelter in people's houses from the rain, but I also didn't get to see one of
those. I've seen pictures online, and I don't really feel the need to get too close to one of those.

As I mentioned Uncle C is a voracious reader and I got to inspect his book collection. I noticed he has a lot of Bill Bryson, who I'd heard of but had got mixed up with a concrete poet named bill bissett (I think). He told me that Bryson writes very funny sort of travel memoirs and that he can't read them in public because he laughs out loud a lot. When Swee'pea fell asleep in my arms a bit later, I took advantage of the opportunity to read some of Bryson's Australia book and I'm hooked. Must find some at the library when we get home. I would also like to look up some David Goldblatt, a South African photographer who had some beautiful, arresting images on exhibit at the gallery in Cape Town and who is also a friend of Grandpa Cape Town.

* * *

So it is later today and I still haven't had a chance to post this. Their computer was disconnected for renovations until today so there were some logistical difficulties. This afternoon Auntie J took us around. We went through the edge of Hillbrow, which I guess is the worst neighbourhood in Joburg. I'm quite curious about it, especially since I discovered a book of photographs of it in the 70s at Auntie J's house. Back then it was quite a cosmopolitan place, with modern high rises with penthouses, and a vivid night life of discos and late night street food. It looked like quite the happening place (full of white people of course, because it was still under apartheid, and black people weren't allowed to live in Joburg). In the 80s I think Hillbrow started to degrade, and now is rather slummy, very high density living. The apartment buildings I saw didn't look very nice, like the apartments South of Bloor (SOB) in Oshawa (I don't know Toronto very well, so I'm not familiar with the equivalent areas there).

Auntie J very kindly took us through some areas of urban decay where it was likely safe for me to take pictures. I mostly shot through the moving car though, so I don't know how well the pictures will turn out. All in all though, Sugar Daddy thought the downtown core seemed much
cleaner than before, the result of considerable effort to build housing and bring people back downtown. (As I understand it many businesses just up and left, leaving it a sort of dangerous ghost town.)

So we are nearing the end of our last night in Joburg. Tomorrow morning we will go for a walk with Auntie M, then fly back to Cape Town. I have really enjoyed the company of Sugar Daddy's friendly and intelligent family, and now I am wishing we were staying here longer. Of course,
there is still lots we want to do in Cape Town before we leave, so it's ok. Off to pack, now.

ps - dial-up again, so no photos for a while... sorry.

7 comments:

Mimi said...

You write a really great travel narrative! I'm really enjoying learning about SA through your eyes. Although I am so wigged out be spiders that I don't even like to read about them ...

Anonymous said...

Hi sort of delurking. I'm an Aussie who lived in RSA 97-01. I get quite homesick reading your adventures. I can picture the whole Pilanseberg adventure. My recollection is there are no spotted hyenas in Pilanseberg so you may have been lucky enough to spot a brown hyena much rarer. Keep safe...

Anonymous said...

Hi sort of delurking. I'm an Aussie who lived in RSA 97-01. I get quite homesick reading your adventures. I can picture the whole Pilanseberg adventure. My recollection is there are no spotted hyenas in Pilanseberg so you may have been lucky enough to spot a brown hyena much rarer. Keep safe...

Heather said...

I'm so enjoying hearing of your travels, even if I'm pea green with envy.

Aliki2006 said...

I love reading your narratives--if I haven't told you enough I'mt elling you again!

So sorry you fell and got that bruise--and sorry about the spiders--yech!

cinnamon gurl said...

Hey, anonymous delurker, thanks for sort of delurking. ;)

I seem to remember seeing spotted hyenas on Pilanesberg's list of animals, but perhaps it is a new introduction? Regardless, now that I have seen a bigger version of the photo and the silhouette, I think maybe it was a wild dog, which may be even rarer.

Claire (anonymous delurker) said...

Hi again,

I checked out the website, and they have both hyena species, wild dog and also aardwolf. So your initial thought could well have been correct. Though I am sure within the context of your trip this is of little consequence. Glad you returned to Cape Town safely. It really is a beautiful place. Enjoy