Crocs and apple pie! A good day in KZN

Trip Start May 25, 2005
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Sunday, December 18, 2005

Sunday 18th December. My last day before the trek across the Wild Coast begins. A day to regroup, do some laundry, relax and prepare my body and soul for the forthcoming weeks.

So it was quite a surprise to find myself sitting inside a bakkie, legs astride the gear stick, heading back to St. Lucia.

One of the researchers at the camp had a visitor from the UK staying for a few days, and had promised him an excursion to the coast. A free trip was just too good an offer, and the destinations were places I had missed, so I found myself unexpectedly agreeing to an early start and a cramped journey.

Our first stop was to try and find some lions they had encountered the previous day in Hluhluwe-Imfolozi park. As it was part of the route to the 'outside' we swung by the river to see if the lions could be found dozing. Fresh prints and scat indicated they were close, but the tall reed beds were the shade they needed to remain outside our view.

Oh well. On to Mtubatuba for some diesel. Even though it was a Sunday, the streets had people milling around.

'Whatever you do, never ever use that petrol station, or that one, or that one.' The words rang through the air as we followed Sue's guidelines of where to stop. I was happy to defer to her knowledge of the sprawling city, a knowledge built up over the past five years.

As I went to buy a newspaper (the only day worth bothering in South Africa, for news printed in English anyway!), it was clear that even in this 'safe' area, the atmosphere could change quickly and without warning. Perhaps St. Lucia would be a better option after all.

So by lunchtime we had arrived at the Crocodile sanctuary located just outside the park boundary. Squeezing through the crowds, it was interesting to see these beasts close up. The parks authority have realised what an important role these dinosaur relics play in the wetland ecosystem, and so have developed a place where they can breed and be conserved.

As with all 'captive' wildlife places, I felt torn in my emotions. I was thrilled to get so close to the magnificent and curious reptiles, but sad that their lives were not as pleasurable as they might have been. Was I anthropomorphing the situation? Maybe. But as I had to ask one man to stop poking one crocodile in the eye with a long stick ('I just want to show my daughter that they move sometimes' Idiot!) I couldn't help feel saddened by their exposure. And to think they have lasted so long in their natural environment without human interference. What are we doing to the world?

There is also a worrying trend in many African zoos when it comes to snakes. I have encountered the same situation now in Ghana, Zimbabwe and South Africa. The philosophy is that the best way to have a snake display is to have a small amphitheatre where lots of people can sit within feet of the poisonous snakes as they are manhandled by the lunatic staff. No thanks!

So we gathered around the Gaboon viper pit, trying to spot the snake in the leaf litter. Eventually we discovered it, but by goodness, you would have little chance of seeing them when walking though a forest. Yikes, I hope there are none in the Wild Coast.

Time for a spot of lunch, so we headed into the metropolis otherwise known as St. Lucia. Considering the proximity of the beach, it was with little surprise that we drove past car after car, all trying to find somewhere to park along the main drag. The main street is lined with malls, all with exclusive surfing and beach shops, restaurants, pubs and stalls selling traditional African crafts, imported of course!


So we sat and ate our fish and chips (posh style, plates, condiments, knives and forks) as people wandered aimlessly between the commercial boxes; sarongs and flip-flops spilling out of their trendy 'Billabong' bags. Sunglasses on, fashionable hats shading their faces. It was a world that I just have never had the energy or finance to enter. Plus, I was determind that we should find the elusive wildlife of St. Lucia.

The estuary, just outside the park, is worth a visit, and is free to use. Small toy-sized sailing boats were dotted along the water and hippo and crocodiles lazed on the sand bars. We had booked to go on a ferry down the river, and so in the meantime, relaxed on the banks, watching the fishermen cast into the murky water.

All of a sudden, the crocs began to move. They silently slipped from their sandbar, three following a path to the west. What had they seen?

I hadn't realised that the small toy boats were fishing tools, used to drag the lines into the faster water. And one particular fisherman hadn't realised his boat was the target of the crocs.

Closer and closer the crocs drifted, before diving under the waterline for a faster, closer approach. People started shouting, 'Reel in your boat! Reel it in! Quick man, sharp, sharp!'

And just in time the fisherman realised his madness. Fast, fast, fast he began to reel in his line, and the chase was on. The crocs weren't giving up that easily, and they doubled their speed. What did they think would be so tasty about a wood and cloth sailing vessel?

On and on they swam, the water leaving trails from the chase. The man looked worried. This was no time for a reeling disaster. Don't get the line caught or your boat will be gone. At the sight of this invasion, the other fishermen began to reel in their boats too. It was like watching Jaws, as people scrambled to get from the water.

They made it, and the crocs slowed. For the next twenty minutes the crocs patrolled the water, waiting for the first fool to let his boat drift from shore. No fishing was going to take place anytime soon today!

As we boarded the ferry to go up the river, and bought the last muffins on ship (a very English thing to do!) the clouds began to grey. What happened to the sun? But we went up on deck nonetheless, huddled into a corner and set about seeing the wonderful St. Lucia birds.

Everything seemed a bit glum, roosting, trying to get out of the wind and rain. So although we saw plenty of fish eagles and storks, the weather made it impossible to get a good picture. The hippos were feeling lazy, and we passed large pods that were snoozing by the banks. The calves nestled into the warmth of the group, almost appearing to smile as we went though.

The larger adults were trying to graze without leaving the water, twisting their flip-top heads and biting large chunks of the banks. No wonder it was so eroded and full of teeth marks. Eating so much dirt to get a small smattering of grass seemed insane, but why move if you don't have to? It was like a family watching TV, with the snacks handily beside.

On and on we sailed, but the grey skies closed in all around. The rain was needed. The water level was so low it impossible to sail the great majority of the river. But regardless, it was an enjoyable time; peaceful at least.

Racing back to get to the Hluhluwe-Imfolozi gate at 7pm the storm arrived big time. With the wipers on full speed and the lights on full beam, we picked our way up the mountain, surprising the few predators that were out in the rain. And then three sets of eyes shone back through the gloom. Lions maybe? Let's stop and take a look.

And there they were, three buffalo, who had decided to come and investigate this tin can of people. So we waited and waited for them to move, unable to go around, and unable to get them to move. We switched off the lights, wound down the windows and banged on the sides of the door. We were just too much entertainment and the stand off continued. 10 minutes passed with no amount of nudging making any difference to this crowd. One of the buffalo was staring so intently at the bakkie, we daren't go past through fear of a charge, damaging the animal and the truck to boot.

Fifteen minutes, twenty minutes. And so we waited, and waited.

The lightning was spectacular. The air was thick with rain. The flashes hit the mountain, and the illumination hung in the air, dissipating long after the original beam. I had never see lightning behave in such a way. It was like watching fireworks, the flashes lasted for so long.

Finally, as the rain increased and the thunder rolled, the buffalo moved off to graze. Who knew they could be such lengthy companions? But dinner was already cooking, so it was back up to the top of the mountain for some grub, head torches at the ready incase the power was blasted again.

The master's students from Groningen University had cooked up a fine feast. Lasagne with real vegetables, jelly with real fruit, and apple pie with cinnamon and raisins. It was just what we needed after a cold wet day.

And then it was on to play '30 seconds'- a renowned South African game, where you have 30 seconds to act out 5 people/sayings/places to your team mates, to get points along a board.

What fun!
Who the hell is 'Klaus Hoffman' anyway?
You never saw the 'A-team? How old are you?'
'No, I'm not a fan of David Hasslehof!'

With five nationalities, a heavy splattering of languages, and a game that relied on your knowledge of South African sporting heroes from the 1980's, it was a fun time.

'Not the northern hemisphere, but the other southern one.'
"No way man"
'What?'
"You can't say the answer in the clue!"
"But I didn't, did I? Damn it! I did!"

Still, it wasn't bad considering this game was being played in English, which was a third language for some!

So much for my relaxing day! At 11pm I returned to my shack, packed and set the alarm for a truly alarming 5am. Who knows what tomorrow would bring, but today had been strangely good.

Thanks Hluhluwe-Imfolozi. I'll be back soon.
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