Wednesday, October 24, 2007

lowveld

Since we had “free” transportation and there was a public holiday in the offing, I decided to take The One to see the lowveld. The only accommodation we could afford was camping, which would also be the ideal opportunity to break in our “new” one year old tent. The very same tent that we had taken all the way to the Cape last year, only to return with it unused.

Most places I contacted didn't even respond to my queries about camping rates. In the end, we decided on Gecko Bushpackers outside Hazyview simply because they had the lowest rate.

Even though it was supposed to be a long weekend, The One still had to work in the library on the Saturday until 13:00, so we only left when he finished work. I spent the morning cleaning the house and packing.

The drive was more or less uneventful. The One can sleep instantly as soon as a vehicle starts to move… I am becoming used to the solitude by now. It was only the second time in my life I negotiated the Long Tom Pass. It was as beautiful as I remember; The One even woke up for a while to appreciate the impressive views. As we passed the summit, the lowveld lay stretched out before us, fading in the distance. Because the rainy season had not yet started, the air was quite hazy from all the fires blazing through the many plantations.

We reached our destination at dusk. There seemed to be a lot of young people camping, but we found a very secluded spot far away from everyone else and hidden from view. Pitching the tent was much easier than I had thought it would be. The entire camp was set up in less than half an hour. Then we discovered that the braai area had no grill. We desperately needed one since our only supper was meat and we didn’t have any other way to cook it. In a mad rush we drove into Hazyview to try and find an open shop. We were lucky enough to squeeze through the doors at a Pick ‘n Pay just as the security guards were closing them. After another mad rush through the store, punctuated by my cursing, we located the grills. We bought a medium-sized one for the price of a small family sedan and drove back to camp at a more sedate pace.

As a child, I was a member of the Voortrekkers. I suppose you could compare it with the Boy Scouts; maybe the movement is slightly more patriotic, focusing on teaching young (white) people the culture and traditions of their Afrikaans forefathers. Despite what people think, I don't think it was ever a political organization. They taught me many useful things, such as how to survive in the wild and how to do Volkspele, which is a traditional Afrikaans dance. But I digress.

As a Voortrekker I went on numerous camps, sleeping in the bushes on the bare ground under the stars in a thin sleeping bag on a thin ground-sheet without second thought. But. I think that I must be becoming old, because I did not sleep a wink on that fist night. The ground was extraordinarily hard. After the first hour both my hips and both my shoulders felt as though they had been dislocated. I couldn’t sleep on my back, because then I was unable to breathe, and I have never been able to sleep on my stomach. It didn’t make it at all easier to hear The One snoring away next to me. What made it even worse was that all the young people had seen before were having a very loud party. And a rat or some hellish creature was gnawing away merrily at something outside the tent right next to my ear.

When I had to get up to urinate in the middle of the night, in the total darkness all I could think about was The Blair Witch Project. I have yet to figure out how to hold a torch while urinating… At 7:00 I could finally get up after what felt like the longest night in my existence.

For that day I had planned quite a lot. First we drove to Sabie. I think all of South Africa’s bananas are produced in the area between Sabie and Hazyview; for many kilometers banana plantations are all that you see. We visited the three waterfalls around Sabie: the Bridal Veil Falls, The Horseshoe Falls and the Lone Creek Falls. Even though those are the only three waterfalls I have ever visited in the lowveld, we decided that we had had enough of waterfalls and that we wouldn’t visit any of the other ones. In retrospect, it was not such a good decision, since we may never get to see the others now. But you can only appreciate so many waterfalls in one day. Besides, entrance fees are prohibitively expensive. They are focused on the foreign tourists, I suppose.

After a quick meal at a Wimpy in Sabie, we drove all the way to The Pinnacle and God’s Window, which I found somewhat disappointing. But I suppose that if it we had gone after the rains had begun, the air would have been clearer and it would have been possible to see further. It was still very beautiful, though.

Next we visited the Bourke’s Luck Potholes. An entire new dimension was added to my suppressed vertigo with little bridges that shake when people walk on them. And there were enough people to make it feel like an earthquake. We cooled our feet in the clear, cool water and watched an idiot trying to blow the water from his cell phone and camera which had fallen in the water. My sister told us that the holes had been very dry when she saw our photographs, but I suppose that means we got to see more of the holes themselves and less of the water.

Then we drove to the Three Rondawels and the Blyde River Canyon, which in my opinion was the most awe-inspiring place we visited that day. From the viewpoint, the open space before you is so vast that it is difficult for your mind to grasp. In the end it looks like a painting or, at most, a photograph.

This time we drove straight to Hazyview from Graskop, skipping out on Sabie. It ended up being a much shorter route (doesn’t look like it on the map) and we were back at the camp within an hour and a half. The myriad trees in the plantations we passed were striking, especially the pine trees. Millions of them lined up in neat rows, standing as straight as… a plank. We passed a huge fire in one plantation; the smoke was so dense that I had to switch on the car’s fog lamps to try to see the road markings.

Back at camp, we had a braai on our new grill once more. And, as on the night before, we had a shower in the open bush showers which was embarrassing and felt great. The Night lay before me like an enormous black ocean which I had to cross somehow. I took the blanket which we had slept on (if you could call it that) the night before and folded it lengthwise four times to form a soft, thick band which I put across the middle of the tent floor, more or less where our hips would be. Then I took one of my pillows and put it under my shoulder. It didn’t help much. My shoulders and hips still ached, but I think from sheer exhaustion I had a bit more sleep than on the night before.

The next day was the long weekend’s public holiday (Heritage Day). We were up at 7:00 again and had rusks with coffee we brewed on my mother’s gas stove. Then we broke up our little camp and were ready to leave by 10:00. Paying for the two nights’ accommodation took forever as I paid with my card and they only had the hand model of the card machine, which I didn’t know was in existence anymore. So the somewhat frightening hostess had to phone the bank for authorization. I know it’s rude to judge a book by its cover, but I think the woman may have been a witch.

Our destination for that morning was Nelspruit, which I consider to be the capital of the lowveld. On the way there we stopped at a little farm outside White River where they manufacture orange wine, which we bought two very expensive bottles of. We also bought dreadfully expensive macadamia nuts, which The One loves.

In Nelspruit we visited the Botanical Gardens. A new entrance has been added, with a decked walkway and viewpoints that afford magnificent views of the Cascades Waterfall. It’s a pity it was so dry though, because the waterfall was not very spectacular. A very long suspension bridge crosses the Crocodile River a little bit upstream from the waterfall and joins the older part of the gardens.

I have only been to the Botanical Gardens in Pretoria except for the ones in Nelspruit, but I think the latter are much more breathtaking. The rain forest is wonderful and the walkways on the edge of the river are lovely. It’s a pity that it was so dry, because the other waterfall you can see from within the gardens, where the Nels River joins the Crocodile River, was completely dry. But even though it was so dry, the greenery was lush and beautiful. I would definitely like to visit there once again.

After leaving the Botanical Gardens we drove around the city a little bit. Yes, we were actually looking for a MacDonalds where we could have lunch, but we couldn’t find one so in the end we went to Wimpy again. After that we had to hit the long road home, only stopping quickly at the Halls Farm Stall just outside Nelspuit for a few avos, some tremendously expensive macadamia nut butter for The One (which they didn’t have at the farm we were at before), hideously expensive and utterly tasteless homemade nougat and something to drink on the road.

I like driving on highways, as long as there are no slow moving vehicles when you can’t pass them. We had a few huge lumber trucks, but nothing too serious. The road was very busy though. Al the Gauteng people returning home after the long weekend, I guess.

At Waterval Boven there is a long forgotten railroad tunnel from the days of the ZAR. On the other side of the tunnel is the waterfall which gives the little town its name. The tunnel, which passes through a mountain, is not artificially illuminated and it goes round a bend which means that for a small part of your journey you are in complete darkness. I also discovered (the only time I visited the tunnel before) that touching the wall doesn’t help, since there is an alcove about halfway through the tunnel which means there is no wall to touch and you are left directionless in the dark. I am sure a vampire lives in that alcove. I am not joking. In any case, before, entrance was free but this time we were charged R20 per person (which I think is daylight robbery) and we were actually issued with a very dim torch, which didn’t help at all. But we made it safely though the tunnel to look at the waterfall where many people have apparently committed suicide. We made it back through to the other side again. Halfway through, I had The One pose in the vampire’s lair for a photograph. It just proves that at least one of the old wives’ tales about vampires are untrue. Vampires do not sleep during the day.

Waiting to turn back onto the highway from the tunnel, we had to wait for all the huge lumber trucks to pass first. The rest of the journey back home was plain sailing, except for the hour and a half we were stuck on the highway just outside Middelburg, waiting for an enormous accident to be cleared from the road. I think we counted six cars next to the road when we finally moved past the accident scene.

And so we came back to our silly little lives. I must say that I was really glad to see our bed again.

Our other photographs from the trip can be seen here.

Written by I
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