The Closest Feeling to Being African
I am a summer person, but since moving to Nova Scotia, fall has captured my senses most acutely. It is a unique season to me - a northern hemisphere picture book straight out of my southern hemisphere childhood stories. It is a season of road trips in both hemispheres. Perhaps because the weather is turning chilly and a cozy car with good tunes, coffee in a flask and (travel food) are hard to resist. In South Africa, autumn was the season that went hand in hand with trips to the province of Mpumalanga (meaning the place where the sun rises). It is big game territory, and fall and winter, when the long grasses die back is the best time to go “on safari” because it’s easier to see the animals and it’s much cooler than the sweltering hotter months. In the 6th grade, I went on my first school trip to the Kruger National Park, one of Africa’s largest game parks. The “park” is nothing really like a park at all. It covers approximately 7,523 square miles, which is roughly the size of Wales. It borders South Africa, Zimbabwe and Mozambique and ranges in vegetation from savannah and forested areas, to grasslands and rocky outcrops. It has it all – trees, birds, mammals and reptiles, all of which are completely wild and endemic to Africa, living in their natural surroundings.
I remember arriving by school bus at the gates to the entrance of the park, so excited to be away from home and in the ‘real wild’ for an entire week. Everything about that trip was an adventure. We stayed in rustic camps inside rondavels (little round houses with thatch roofs) and slept on creaky, metal beds behind mosquito nets, diligently popping our quinine tablets and spraying ourselves with repellant for fear of catching malaria.
In the evenings we would huddle around a fire, talking excitedly about the days events; the smell of boerewors (sausage) and pap (thick corn porridge) with onions and tomato gravy, cooking on the braai (barbecue) for dinner. I would stay up long after “lights out” with my best friend Jeanette, chatting about a boy called Jeremy; the sound of lions roaring in the distance, giggling until we fell asleep.
At sunrise we would pile back into the school bus and the adventure would continue for miles along the dry, hot, dusty roads, keeping our eyes fixed on the for signs of the “big five.” I saw things that trip I had never seen in my life…a heard of elephant crossed the road just meters in front of us flapping their giant ears; we sat in awe as wildebeest, impala, zebra and giraffe came down to drink at a water hole; a heard of baboons surrounded the school bus jumping playfully on the hood; a pride of lions fed on a carcass so close we could hear them gnawing. An African childhood experience, that remained deeply embedded.
This season of road tripping to the Bushveld (a vast savanna of scrub, trees and grass) continued for as long as I lived in Johannesburg, taking on different twists and adventures into adulthood. From hiking trips with a girlfriend, that found us on a trail in the Soutpansberg Mountains for five days and getting lost in the thick mist; to an exhilarating night time game drive tracking a leopard; and a game lodge where we thought the room was haunted – only to discover a giant bullfrog under our bed; to a rustic, reed and thatch hideaway up in a sprawling Stinkwood tree where we decided to get married. No surprise then that this where we ran to on the day we exchanged vows – our happy place, the journey as much a part of it, as the destination.
There was always a checklist of things to do before embarking on a road trip…bird book, binoculars, Cliff’s bush hat, coffee and music; anything else was really just a bonus. To get to the gates of the park before they opened at 10am, taking into account the six-hour drive from Johannesburg, we would depart at around 5am, when it would still be dark outside.
By the time we hit the N4 highway out of Johannesburg, Winston Mankunku would be playing on the car stereo, coffee would get poured, and we would officially be in our “road trip” zone.
Our collection of snacks and supplies was as essential as gas in the tank. There would be droewors (thin dried sausage); biltong (dried meat similar to jerky) no self-respecting Kruger National Park visitor could embark on a journey without it. Coffee in a flask with condensed milk (a kind of alchemy seems to happen to coffee when it meets a flask because it never tastes better, I blame my dad for this); rusks (double-baked biscuits) for dunking, dried guava rolls that you could peel off like bits of sandpaper, and naartjies (clementines).
The African bushveld is majestic in its vastness. The tall grassy savannas would be turning yellow heading into the dry season. Acacia trees with long thin, lethal thorns I once cut my head open on, are gathered in dense clusters, the flat landscape dotted with koppies (rocky hills) in the distance.
The unmistakable smell of the bush, of dirt and veld and sweet Mimosa trees that would waft through the rolled down windows as we pulled up to the gate. It demands that all senses be present. Its timelessness, its unmistakable silence, its echoes of wild sounds at night, an escape from the real world, it is still the closest thing I have to feeling…African.