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I could never be a hunter. I don’t have much of a stomach for blood, guts and gore. My father, eldest son in a farming family that spanned back generations, spent his childhood on a large dairy farm in rural New Zealand, surrounded by animals, bailing hay and milking cows – good honest blokes stuff. Decades later, no doubt eager to share the joys of country living with my eight year old self, he took it upon himself to take me to see a calf being born.
When we arrived, there was evidently a complication with the birth which required some human intervention to resolve. While the others were milling around deciding on a course of action my Dad handed me a transparent, shoulder-length glove and casually suggested I stick my arm inside the cow and feel the unborn calf within. So revolted by the mere thought of this I chose instead to flee back to the car, leaving my Dad standing there – plastic glove in hand and a puzzled look upon on his face (and yes, I’ll admit it, I’m a total chicken.)
If you’ve ever been unfortunate enough to have seen footage from industrial farms and slaughterhouses, you’ll be all too aware the horrendous conditions in which animals are raised and killed before finding their way to our dinner tables. A few years back, after having seen one of these videos myself I was sufficiently repulsed to experiment with being a vegetarian. I lasted only about five weeks before one fateful night at a Chinese restaurant Sweet and Sour Pork became my downfall – and I’ve never looked back. As much as I hate to say it, I just love meat too much to seriously consider life without it.
My thoughts on hunting and animal welfare aside, I can actually understand why the original explorers to Africa would take to big game hunting. If you’d grown up in England or the Americas, your experience of wildlife limited to livestock, domestic animals and perhaps the occasional fox ; coming across an animal as preposterous as a giraffe or elephant must have been completely unfathomable. I also suspect that without the evidence to back up your claims, very few people back home would believe your tales of yellow, long necked herbivores roaming the African continent.
We saw all the famed ‘Big 5’, originally a term used to refer to the five animals said to be most dangerous to hunt in Africa – Lion, Elephant, Leopard, Rhino and Buffalo. Lions are remarkably lazy, I’m not sure how they made the top 5, I could have easily killed a dozen lions if I had so desired. Every one that we saw was asleep in the sunshine, their most strenuous efforts amounting to nothing more than the occasional flick of the tail – far from the active, predatory animals I had imagined.
Despite being an eager zoo visitor as a kid, it turns out I knew very little about the animals which I’d admired in their enclosures so many times. Hippopotamus, who I’d once considered rather boring and docile, are actually responsible for the most human fatalities in Africa every year. Fiercely territorial, they will charge at up to thirty miles per hour to protect their domain and something as small as getting in between a hippo and the water is enough to provoke this aggression – almost always with dire consequences. Tito, our guide with Absolute Africa, told us he’d seen with his very eyes a hippopotamus attacking an Australian girl by the side of Lake Naivasha where we were staying. Ignoring thrown stones and shouts from aghast onlookers, they had to resort to ramming the large mammal with a truck to get it to shift back to the water, but sadly, it was already too late for the Aussie. Needless to say, none of us took a stroll around the lake that night.
The following day we took a boat ride around the lake to see the hippos up close and personal. When our small boat was a few metres away from a group, the skipper would kill the engines and we’d bob up and down in silence, watching with nervous fascination. With a sharp snort, one by one they’d drop beneath the waves, no doubt planning some sort of terrible revenge on the boatload of humans invading their turf. We waited with bated breath as the captain yanked again and again on the starter cord, trying to get our stubborn outboards to spring back to life. Thankfully, the engines would always eventually roar back in to life and we would escape the fearsome hippopotami and continue on our way.
After leaving Tanzania we spent a few nights in Lilongwe, the capital of Malawi. Mike and I decided we’d had enough activity for a few days, so we found some nice, comfy couches at our campground and proceeded to spend the remainder of our time in the city reclining in comfort, savouring the free wireless internet and close proximity of the bar. On our third day of sitting around on the same sofas, the bartender brought us out two beers telling us they’d been purchased for us by another customer. Mystified, Mike and I looked around the bar trying to catch the eye of the shy lass who’d obviously been so taken by our handsome good looks, yet was just too timid to introduce herself. After much observation of our fellow patrons, our anonymous beauty had still failed to make herself known, so I approached the bartender and asked after her identity so that I might do the gallant thing and introduce myself. Unfortunately, it turns out that our secret admirer wasn’t an admirer at all, but a Japanese business man who had just abandoned his surplus currency behind the bar before heading to the airport. He’d advised the bar staff to buy drinks for their best customers. So sadly, not only were we not being eyed up by the lady folk of the campground, but being classed as “best customers” could also be a construed as being a vague accusation of being alcoholics. (Damn…)
From Lilongwe we travelled to Caroline Bay on the shores of the immense Lake Malawi. Miles from anywhere, we’d failed to realise that they might not accept credit cards and we found ourselves in something of a financial predicament. After counting every last Kwacha we had, we worked out that our daily budget encompassed two options: three regular sized meals plus water, or two cheese-and-tomato toasted sandwiches plus half a dozen lagers each in the evening. (Errr, we chose the beer.)
Between, shall we say, ‘intestinal troubles’ (must have been those toasted sandwiches…) and Frank Herbert’s novel Dune, I was in little mood for conversation for most of the time we were in Caroline Bay. Mike having finished his book was left desperate for reading material and after scouring the resort for something new, he returned with the only text he could find – the Gideon’s Bible.
With the Good Book in hand, Mike took great delight in spending the majority of the day quoting to me from the scriptures and otherwise informing me of the error of my sinning ways. Michael’s conversion from Atheist to Christian Extremist seemed to come to an appropriate climax when after snaffling some fireworks from the resort later that evening, we let them off on the lake shore only to find out that the building behind us was in fact a mosque, resulting in us being chased down the dark beach by an irate Muslim for interrupting his evening prayers with explosives.
From Malawi we had three options on how to make our way down to South Africa: six full days in a cramped, thousand degree minivan; an overnight coach that ran through Zimbabwe, stopping off in Harare; or to fly. Option one seemed way too sadistic and option two would almost certainly result in being mugged, stabbed or beaten so we took option three and booked flights from the southern city of Blantyre down to Johannesburg.
Blantyre is an industrial town, named after the Scottish birth place of famed explorer, David Livingstone. There isn’t really much to see in Blantyre, the only real attraction being the Carlsberg Brewery – Mecca for African beer drinkers. With our flights early the following morning Mike, Tony and I decided we’d use our spare afternoon and go see where the magic happens.
Far from the Willy Wonka experience we might have imagined, the brewery turned out to be sterile, foul smelling and decidedly yawn inducing. After an hour of plodding around feigning interest at vats and loud machinery we got to the eagerly anticipated sampling session. We’d been forewarned by a fellow camper that sampling time would last a mere 45 minutes, so we took advantage of this knowledge and necked as many free lagers as we could – mostly the potent Elephant brand clocking in at a respectable 7.4%.
Three quarters of an hour later we found our inebriated selves ejected from the brewery, so we did the only sensible thing one can do in the these situations and along with some others from the tour, we staggered back to our campground bar in search of another cold drink. Some hours later, after an relaxed afternoon of sitting in the sunshine, chatting up fellow campers and drinking yet more beer I finally decided to leave Mike at the bar and go climb in to my sleeping bag – mindful of our flight in the early hours and the hangover that was sure to ensue.
Woken by my alarm at 5am the following morning I reached across the tent over to poke Mike in the forehead – (his least favourite way to be roused from slumber) – only to find my errant cousin missing. I strapped on my headtorch and went looking for his comatose body in every chair, hedge and any other place I thought might seem a promising option for a drunkard to pass out; yet after walking around repeatedly shouting out his name – no doubt waking everyone else in the campground – I had still failed to find any sign of him. With dawn breaking and the clock ticking down, I gave up the search and went to start pulling down the tent, hoping he would show up of his own accord.
An hour later, our taxi arrived and Mike was still no where to be seen. Not willing to forfeit our US$500 plane tickets for his stupidity, I scrawled a quick note calling my cousin a retard, wished him luck and told him to meet us in Cape Town. Stuffing the note in his bag, Tony, Wendy and I climbed in to the cab and set off for the airport.
About the time Tony, Wendy and I were finishing our airport check-in Mike awoke dazed and confused in a room with one of the girls from the night before wrapped around him. Noticing the sunlight creeping in through the curtains he suddenly remembered the flight and in a panic, pulled on his trousers and dashed out the door with barely a word to his half-asleep lady friend. Sprinting out to the tents, he found the spot bare and proceeded to leg it down to reception to find his pack already sitting there waiting for him, “Please get me cab,” he pleaded with the reception staff, “AS FAST AS YOU CAN!”
After a leisurely Full English breakfast and few cups of mediocre coffee Tony, Wendy and I strolled down to the departure lounge and prepared to board our plane. As we stood queuing, a dishevelled Mike burst through the door, complete with bed hair, bleary eyes and the pungent smell of alcohol oozing from his pores – and only minutes to spare.
Arriving in Johannesburg was a welcome reunion with civilisation, after two months in mainland Africa I had almost forgotten that there were such things as smooth roads, broadband internet and white people. Celebrating our return to the first world, the four of us found it fitting to order delivery pizza and spend the afternoon crashed out on the sofa watching trashy celebrity documentaries on TV.
We only spent one night in Jo’burg, the tales of gun violence and car jacking was enough to convince us that there was no reason to delay getting to Cape Town. We made a quick stop at the Apartheid Museum before we departed, a stark reminder of South Africa’s troubled history. Apartheid may officially be over, but it seems to live on in the hearts and minds of the people. So many South Africans we have met spout venomous abuse towards the blacks, blaming equal rights and black politicians for what they perceive as the decline of their country. In my outsiders opinion, there is still a long, long way to go before South Africa becomes a truly racially equal nation.
We’ve now been in Cape Town for five nights, only a few more days until Mike and I depart for Asia. After a lethargic couple of weeks, we decided a few days ago that some exercise was a good idea so we set out to climb Table Mountain, the immense stone ridge that provides the backdrop to the city. We arrived at the beginning of the trail early afternoon, the hot South African sun high in the sky, and started climbing the steep path. Not long after we began our ascent we found ourselves drenched in sweat and struggling for air; falling against a rock we huffed and puffed trying to regain our composure, only to be put to shame by a passing pre-adolescent girl who didn’t even seem to notice the incline. Suddenly we were regretting our decision not to take the cable car.
After a slow arduous climb we arrived at the top, all too aware how unfit the two of us have gotten since being in Africa. Finding a rocky overhang we sat down, exhausted. Drinking in the view of Cape Town miles below, Mike and I sat with out feet dangling over the edge of the precipice and made a pledge to alter our hedonistic ways and start living healthier lifestyles – (although thus far we have yet to follow through…)
The following day, departing from the small town of Gansbaai on the southern coast, we set out by boat to find the largest predatory fish in the ocean: the Great White Shark. Using a slab of tuna attached to a buoy and “Gladys”, a floating seal decoy, the boats crew lured the aquatic death machines up to the boat. Shortly the waters were writhing with sharks, eleven in total, all about five metres (16 ft) in length – their fins slicing through the surface, radiating eternal malice.
With the boat now completely surrounded, we set about donning wetsuits and masks and dropped in to a metal cage suspended in the cold sea off the side of the boat. Completely submerged, the seven of us in the water would make a quick check to make sure none of our limbs were protruding in to shark territory and then through the steel lattice we’d watch the sharks savagely attacking the bait and decoy – their cold, dark, lifeless eyes watching us from just inches away.
In a burst of aggression, one of the male sharks surged at the side of the cage, latching on with his teeth and shaking us all around violently. Thankfully, as quickly as he came, he released us and vanished back off in to the depths, giving us a mighty whack with his tail as he left.
The African leg of this trip is now coming rapidly to a close, Mike and I depart Cape Town in only a few days from now. It’s been a fascinating nine weeks on the continent, needless to say that life here often takes a markedly different form than that of us in the Western world. The people have been great, from the locals we have talked to on the streets and met in stores, restaurants and bars, to the traditional Masai warriors in Kenya and the poverty stricken blacks in the vast slum cities skirting Cape Town; Africans may carry out their lives differently from you or me, but it seems to me that ultimately they want the same things as all of us – health, love, comfort, respect.
I’m sure my travelling companions would agree that the highlight of this trip has definitely been the wildlife. Words can’t adequately describe how it feels to climb through dense jungle on the side of a volcano in Rwanda and found yourself surrounded by screaming, chest-beating Silverback gorillas existing in their natural habitat, the way they have for eons. Diving with Great Whites and sleeping in a national park, our tents surrounded by Baboons, are also experiences I am unlikely to forget any time soon.
Usually I’m not prone to homesickness, but with my first return trip to New Zealand in years now only a couple of weeks away, I suddenly can’t wait to get out of Africa and start working my way homeward. With just over a fortnight to go I can almost taste Pineapple Lumps, L&P and the steak-and-cheese pies!
Bring it on.
NEXT STOP: Singapore