From the peace of the Drakensbergs to the edgy chaos of Jo'berg
After leaving Bulungula, I made a quick stop in Durban for a day just to break up the trip up to the Drakensbergs. Durban seems to be a nice enough city but I didn't have too much time to explore it before moving on. One thing I did notice though, there are a lot of Indians. :-) Someone told me that the city has the biggest population of Indians outside India and honestly there were moments when I felt like I was back there... especially at the farmers market I went to in the morning. I was sampling curried this and pickled that... :-) I didn't get a chance to try the local specialty though - something called "bunny chow". Apparently it's a hollowed out loaf of bread filled with some kind of curry. Doesn't sound too bad but I haven't heard rave reviews so it's likely good that I didn't get to taste it.
Anyway, next I was off heading towards the mountains. I had met a married couple while in Botswana that were Peace Corps volunteers near the Drakensbergs and had decided to stay in their village after their two years of service was up (and continue to work there helping the community) and they were nice enough to invite me to stay with them so I was heading to a place called Bergville. After a series of minibuses I found myself in a pretty scruffy looking town that seemed to have nothing but supermarkets of various sizes. Apparently, my friends lived outside of Bergville, in a village called Woodford so I got in yet another minibus and eventually found them because everyone, including the minibus driver, knew Melissa and Derrick - the only white people living in the vicinity.
They live in a small, two room house behind their host family's house and I stayed in a thatched-roof rondoval their "sister" rents out. The family's kids liked to hang out and play in my rondoval so I was certainly entertained. Two young boys in particular seemed to treat my hut as their play area so I got to learn how they use a piece of paper as a mini soccer field with a tiny bit of rolled up paper as their soccer ball. They alternate trying to score on each other's goal by using the top of a click pen - using the release mechanism to fling the ball into their opponents goal. They even have some paper defenders that theoretically could block the ball but in essence they were just flicking the ball towards a hole they tore out of the paper, hoping it would go in. It never ceases to amaze me how kids with nothing are able to entertain themselves...
This game kept them busy for a good hour but once they caught sight of my trekking poles, it was floor hockey time (using a badly chewed up eraser as a puck). And when one boy spotted my tent, he had to sleep in it. His mother was a bit concerned (it wasn't really clear why) at first but eventually she covered him up with six thick blankets and went inside. I woke up in the middle of the night to use the outhouse and the tent was gone... I found out in the morning that he got so cold that he moved the tent into their kitchen and slept there! I knew Africans didn't deal with cold well but that was pretty hysterical to me. :-)
Anyway, I spent my first day in the village wandering around the tiny village attempting to use my very poor Zulu, reading a Roald Dahl book that Melissa had that I somehow missed as a child, and trying to bathe in my hut using a random assortment of buckets. Obviously, considering the number of third world countries I've been to, I have practiced the bucket shower method many times. However, this was my first attempt to do it without a drain. Meaning, I had to try to keep the splashing to a minimum so that the water stayed in the one large tub that I was standing in. Needless to say there were quite a few puddles on the floor when I finished. No idea how Melissa and Derrick do this every day in their tiny bedroom without soaking their mattress! That's a skill I certainly don't have.
Luckily, I only had to do that once because I spent the next three days camping in the Royal Natal National Park which is one of the many parks that make up the Drakensberg mountain range. Derrick was nice enough to drive me the 45 minutes it took to get to the base of the mountains. There were barely any other campers seeing as it's winter so it was really secluded and quiet. I don't really see why people don't come much in the winter though because the weather was wonderful. I did one amazing hike - I took a trail called The Crack on the way up and Mudslide on the way down. Both trails involved a series of sketchy chain ladders and I did have a few flashbacks to the movie "127 Hours" (look it up if you don't know it!) so I made sure to be extra careful because there was no one around. I did fill out the hiker register at the trail head but who knows if the park employees ever actually check that thing! Anyway, everything was fine and I actually really loved being up in the mountains all by myself. The views from the top of the escarpment - the cliffs actually looked a bit like the Simien mountains in Ethiopia - were beautiful and it was sooo quiet. There is a huge "Amphitheatre", basically a semicircle of cliffs in this part of the Drakensbergs. I saw it during the drive to the park but unfortunately my camp was too far from it to hike there but the sections of the escarpment I saw were stunning anyway.
I did a bit more hiking over the next two days but also enjoyed the quiet by relaxing by the creek reading and trying to learn some French since I'm leaving for Madagascar in two days and I've heard there aren't many English speakers there. Derrick and Melissa picked me a couple days later and after one more night in the rondoval I head to Johannesburg. I have to admit the rumors I've heard had a big impact on me because as much as I tried to give the place a chance, I've never felt so intimidated by a city in my entire traveling life. Granted, I've also never really seen so many people out in the streets of a modern city... people were everywhere - in the streets, on the sidewalks, selling stuff, dodging cars, blocking traffic, etc. I had a booking at a backpacker hostel in one of the suburbs and assumed that I would be able to get a taxi from wherever the minibus dropped me but there was so much chaos in the streets, I wasn't so sure... so I asked one of the women in the van where it would be best for me to get out if I wanted to get a taxi to Kensington. There was some discussion in Zulu amongst the passengers and all of a sudden the woman told the driver to stop and told me to get out in the midst of a huge crowd of people. "Go that way to get a taxi!" she said urgently and pointed down a street full of people, hawkers and street stalls. Um, no. I'm not getting out here. So I didn't... In the end, the woman, realizing I was a little unnerved by the activity going on, was kind enough to walk with me to a corner where I found a taxi (there were none to be found anywhere near the bus station which I found extremely strange but even the one I ended up in had it's "taxi" sign inside the vehicle instead of on the roof).
I have no idea how warranted my nervousness was but as we walked the few blocks from the mini bus station I was grabbed several times - by the arm and by the pack. I certainly stood out with my huge bag on my back and it seemed like everyone's eyes were on me. I really didn't want to fall prey to the stereotypes and the reputation Jo'berg has but I was very happy to arrive at my backpackers safely. I leave tomorrow for Madagascar and am quite happy about it. I don't think I want to spend much time I this city. I'm actually really sorry to say that... I was hoping I would feel differently... like I did in Nairobi... even though it's known as "Nairobbery". Maybe if I meet a local who can show me around... we'll see. I've lasted this long on my trip without having anything stolen or anything really bad happening to me and I certainly don't want to press my luck now.