This week we saw our last sunset, and sunrise, over the African bush – a bittersweet feeling. It has become a running theme, every evening (whether while helping me braai, walking to a restaurant, cruising down the river, looking out of a hide, on an evening game drive etc.) I ask the kids what that orange glow on the horizon is and they dutifully refuse to say until eventually one gives in and notes that it is a ‘Beautiful African Sunset’. Tonight will likely be the last one we see (no offense to Johannesburg or Or Tambo but my hopes of natural beauty are low).
We started our return visit to South Africa in Mapungubwe – it is not the most game rich of SAN Parks but its landscapes may be my favorite outside of the Kalahari. Sitting along the confluence of two major rivers (the Limpopo and the Shashe), both of which are eerily dry this time of year, it adjoins the Tuli areas of Botswana and Zimbabwe forming the point at which the three countries meet. The rolling sandstone hills are dotted with legions of baobab trees (Eliav’s favorite, ask him I dare you) and hide ancient treasures – or at least used to before the treasure hunters and archaeologists had their way with them. You are only allowed to explore the archaeological area as part of a guided walking tour with a minimum age requirement of 12 (for safety reasons since there are elephants and leopard around and for the sanity of other guests) – but with no one else signed up for the afternoon walk and our kids clear bush savvy the guide was willing to relax those requirements and take us up Mapungubwe Hill explaining the finds. This site was the precursor to Great Zimbabwe and it was interesting to see the development of the first sub-Saharan African kingdom from its beginnings to its apex and through its breakdown at Khami and later. Our visit also coincided with the annual Tour of Tuli bicycle event – a five day, three country ride in the Tuli area raising funds to support local communities in wilderness areas. While in the end we didn’t crash their late night party, we met some of the volunteers as we ate lunch and drove through their makeshift camp site.
Our next stop, and last night truly in the bush, was Sable Dam Overnight Hide in Kruger. By day it is a standard bird hide on the lovely Sable Dam – at night the bird identification panels fold down into 7 beds with a braai area outside and a long drop toilet for one party to sleep surrounded by nature. Since we were back in the area, we took the opportunity to meet up with our old friends Denis and Elma who camped next to us at Lower Sabie. It was nice catching up with them and a good reminder of the people we have met and friendships we have made over the course of our journey (and it was very nice of them to take care of our laundry for us). We didn’t get very lucky with wildlife our night at the dam (or the subsequent morning on a short game drive) with a lone steenbok grazing alongside the hide and a few scrub hare hopping in the grass interrupted only by the occasional splash of a fishing bird or attacking crocodile. Even so, the magic of the sounds and smells when sleeping out like that is unforgettable and will be missed – and the faint glow of Phalaborwa’s lights over the horizon reminded us that we will soon be missing it.
We made our way briefly around Kruger saying goodbye to our last elephants, giraffe, zebra and impala. On our way out of the lowveld we stopped at the Hoedspruit Endangered Species Center for some close views of their cheetah, wild dog, lion, vultures, rhinos and other stars from our trip. They do seem to be doing genuinely good work rehabilitating rescued animals and returning many of them to the wild – but the visit was just another reminder for me that no matter how good the cause I don’t get anything out of seeing wildlife in pens, even well designed ones. I also continue to question the benefit of humanizing wildlife. If the reason to rescue them is because they are cute or because you ‘love animals’ then truly effective conservation, being at the mercy of it coinciding with human emotional tugs, is doomed. Trying to undo the impact of human interference (forget when people try to undo nature’s course because of its emotionally distressing results) with more human interference is unlikely to end well even when well intentioned.
As we made our way around the mouth of Blyde River Canyon (billed as the third largest in the world so as not to step on Fish River’s toes), through and over the eastern extent of the Drakensberg escarpment I was reminded that the most frustrating driving is that done in populated areas. Driving slow because of poor roads, rocky obstacles, deep sand, wildlife and even goat herds is fine – but the crawling slog making your way around slow moving cars, trucks and minibuses is quite frustrating. I guess it served as a small glimpse of what I get on my return to DC traffic next week. This did slow down what was already a decent trek and as our long drive west out of the bush wound down we watched the beautiful African sunset ahead of us – finally arriving at our destination in the dark for the first time since our second night on the road out in the Little Karoo. We made it in time to return to our Bela Bela home (also known as Forever Resorts Warmbath; aka The Waterpark) – we have all earned a day of water slides and hot springs to burn off the dirt of months on the African road – just one of our 57 African homes adopted on this trip to go along with our ‘home home’ and ‘Bonaire home’. At this point, as our kids point out every time the song comes around in the rotation – we are Africa, just like Bono we flew in here and became one with this land, now we are frickin’ Africa.
This week also brought with it one more authentic African experience – visa challenges and useless government officials. As of now, we may all be banned from South Africa for the next two years. Upon re-entering South Africa at Pont Drift, after driving across the Limpopo riverbed, we were informed that our visa had expired. Well, that wasn’t surprising we have been out of the country for 8 weeks so had assumed our visa had expired. What was surprising was that he didn’t issue us a new 90-day tourist pass instead insisting all he could do was give us a transit visa of 2 or 7 days – unfortunately our flight was in 8 days. I tried to rationally get my hands around the situation – if we had flown home to the US and back to South Africa would we get a new 90-day pass? Yes he said, but that would be at the airport. Ok, what if we flew into Botswana and crossed into South Africa here for the first time – could you issue us a 90-visa then? Sure. Great, so how is this situation different? Because I can only issue transit visas to citizens of other countries. Huh, you just said you would give me the 90-day pass if I had flown into Botswana so clearly you could issue it to me… I can’t, I’d get in trouble. After 20 minutes of this, interrupted only to let the lucky locals get stamped in/out, we left with 7 day transit visas that expire one day before we leave the country. By current law, that means an automatic placement on the undesirable list for two years – quite the ironic end for a family that has travelled around your country doing nothing but enjoying its pleasures and spending their money. Ah well, we will try to resolve it in Johannesburg but my hopes aren’t high – this is Africa after all.
There is still enough tension to be resolved as we spend the weekend in Johannesburg before flying home Monday evening – a final discussion with Carel regarding Aardwolf’s demise, attempting to resolve our visa issues without becoming undesirable, seeing if the Kaizer Chiefs can beat the Stars at Soccer City. How will it all end – only time will tell.