South Africa through the eyes of young travelers
text and photos: Dominika Zaręba
We stop over to have a picnic underneath a blooming coral tree with a vista spreading out before us of seemingly endless rocky bluffs of the Sabie River Valley, somewhere in the middle of the High Veld plateau which envelops a considerable part of South Africa. A scarlet-chested sunbird perched above is drinking the nectar from the red flowers. My daughter, Jagoda, draws a picture on the first page of her travel diary of a little bird with a curved beak and scarlet tummy. I will always have this image in front of me when thinking about the South African spring, which starts right about the time that in Poland we slowly say goodbye to the summer. Warmer days are ahead, and mild weather at night means comfortable conditions for camping, allowing you to really enjoy and get the most of nature and its nocturnal sounds. On the golden savanna, on the vast plateau lands and in the so-called Dragon Mountain range (Drakensberg) – everywhere here thorny trees and bushes are flowering, and amidst the still yellow grass, there are many tens of species of exotic flowers and herbs.
Giraffes on demand and lion roars at bedtime
The most important aim of our trip with young travellers is to observe the animal life and learn about African nature. Children mark off in an animal atlas what species they’ve been able to spot or… hear. Almost every day we are in some park or nature reserve, which South Africa is famous for, as is the small neighboring country of Swaziland.
Mom, remember when right after we crossed into the Kruger National Park, Staś said: „I wanna see a giraffe”. And a couple of meters down, next to the visitor center a giraffe was just standing there and grazing on the savanna like a cow or something? – Jagoda recalls.
We pitch the tent right after sunset at a neat little campsite on the southern side of the park in the lower reaches of the Sabie River. It’s a warm, August evening, the cicadas are singing, my birthday’s today and it’s our first night in Kruger National Park that I’ve read so much about. Before falling asleep the kids hear the distant roar of a lion, an elephant trumpet and the howling of the hyenas.… The next day we find out from the park rangers that there was in fact a lion prowling in the vicinity. We’re glad the roar of the ‘king of the beasts’ wasn’t just a figment of our imagination but the real call of the savanna… – The lion, after the tiger the largest cat in the world – the male lion can weigh up to 250 kg – I read to my kids from my nature notes. It lives in prides, each of which is ruled by a head lion. What a shame these magnificent animals live for such a short time – somewhere between 10 and 15 years… – I sigh as I celebrate my „lion” birthday.
Kruger National Park, the most famous national park in South Africa stretches 350 km along the border with Mozambique from the Limpopo River Valley to the Crocodile River. It was established in 1898 to protect African fauna against uncontrolled hunting. It was founded by Paul Kruger, the then President of the former South African Republic, which was part of today’s Republic of South Africa.
The monotonous, grassy savanna is bristling with thorn trees. Silence, wind and all around us a home without walls for wild and free animals. In amongst the hostile, thorny vegetation, you get frequent glimpses of herds of charming impalas and zebras, elephant families communicating with booming grunts amongst themselves, pairs of giraffes munching on thorn tree leaves, crazy warthogs with their babies as well as hippopotamuses with bloodshot eyes hidden deep in lush swamps… We’re slowly getting better at identifying the different species of antelope – greater kudu, blue wildebeest, bushbuck, duiker… on occasion a troup of Chakma baboons crosses the road we’re travelling on, in the process eyeing us in a rather hostile way. We feel like we are in a never-ending nature film. I can remember bone-chilling accounts of baboons in one of Alexander Lake’s books, which he referred to as „grey villains”. They’re intelligent, even dangerous, especially if they become furious. Even leopards feel respect toward them. Baboons supposedly have a habit of throwing their victims over a cliff edge… – On the upside, they are very caring and protective of their offspring – I make this point to my kids, so they’re not overwhelmed by the intense description of the species I’ve given so far and I look over at a baby baboon holding on to its mother, which is sitting some 50 meters away from our car.
Kids enjoy listening to stories about animals. I often read out to them from my own notes. We’re travelling with a book full of African folk tales illustrated with photographs by the Polish reporter and traveler Ryszard Kapuściński. In every tale there’s an animal – you could say it’s the age old synergy of humans and nature in Africa.
– The crocodiles were the most terrifying – says Jagoda after an encounter with the reptiles in the Mlilwane Nature Sanctuary in Swaziland. It gives you the chills. When zebras, giraffes or antelopes have gathered to drink from a small lake or river, a crocodile can drag these creatures into the water where it will suffocate them and then leave in a swampy area for it to rot. Only then does it tear it up into shreds and swallow its victim in pieces, because it can’t chew its prey. The more spoiled the meat is, the yummier it is for the croc… yuck! – the young student of nature has a telling grimace on her face. – We once stayed over with a super family, who took baths in a small lake, where crocodiles and hippos were swimming around. There was always someone on the lookout for them. They invited us to go swimming with them, but luckily we got to the lake when it was already getting dark. The only thing looking at me from the water were the eyes of the crocodiles and hippopotamuses – Jagoda remembers.
A meeting with a rhinoceros
– Staś? What are you favoritre animals in Africa? – I ask.
– Rhinoceros is the first…that’s easy… Second place is the hippo, third place goes to the elephant. That elephant which showed its butt to us on the savanna… – replies the little discoverer with an Innocent smile…
Staś was four years old then, and he really did take a great liking for rhinoceroses. We saw white rhinoceroses – the largest species, with a wide mouth, and black rhinoceroses – a critically endangered species. Efforts to save these remarkable animals from extinction are being undertaken on the most ambitious scale by the Hluhluwe-iMfolozi National Park in eastern South Africa, the land of the Zulus. After a couple of hours driving around the park we stop in the middle of the main road and start studying the map to see where else we can go to look for rhinos. All of a sudden Staś shouts – Hey! All three of us almost at the same time pop our heads up from under the map…and what we see leaves us speechless. There, a female white rhinoceros, which is calmly chewing on some thorny twigs taken from a bush, is passing by in front of the hood of our car with a baby rhino as if nothing had happened. Right behind them follows an enormous male with huge curved horns; the larger of the two horns has got to be literally a meter and a half! The three animals look like they were the essence of gentleness and calm – hard to believe that when on the run they can somtimes reach speeds of even 50 km/h! – You know, Staś, that rhinos live a long time, some 40-50 years. Maybe one day when you come back here, you’ll meet the same rhino, and I think the baby one may even be around your age…
To the delight of our youngest traveler, we end up seeing these spectacular animals a few more times. Staś keeps a memento of his trip to South Africa – a 10-rand banknote. The front has an image of Nelson Mandela, while the back – an image of a white rhinoceros. What an interesting combination!
In the land of the Zulu
“The family that takes baths in a small lake with crocodiles and hippos”, which Jagoda talked about earlier consists of: Ronell, Charlie, their son Felix and a friend of the family – volunteer by the name of Pushi. They live on the Mbazwane dunes, a few kilometers from the shore of Indian Ocean, near Sibaya lake, in the land of the Zulu people. Through the couchsurfing service they have invited us to stay at their home, which is located on a small organic farm atop a sandy hill and surrounded by the savanna, where a warm and strong wind is constantly blowing. A wind turbine provides them with electricity and is also used to pump up water from a depth of almost 100 m underground. Ronell Mostert is a native Afrikaner who speaks Afrikaans, a language originally spoken by Dutch settlers who came to what is today South Africa in the 17th century. She helps the local Zulu community run cultural and environmental projects. She set up a local organization, a cultural & meeting center and a community vegetable garden. – My dream is for ecotourism to flourish in the region – she says – I’ll show you what we’re planning on doing. Ronell takes us to some friendly neighbors who are local Zulu – to the house of Nomosanto and Nokwanda Zikhali. A dozen or so cheery kids are running around with our kids in the courtyard. Language and cultural barriers practically disappear, they even end up dancing together. Jagoda looks on with amazement at the smoothness and harmony in the movements of the native South Africans. Their sense of rhythm is truly something to envy! In the meantime, the grownups are looking at a collection of mats made of plaited grass and rush and a Zulu round reed hut in the shape of a beehive, which is to be rented out to tourists. As the sun sets, we all take part in a photo session. Ronell to this day continues to write to me on a regular basis with updates on what’s going on ‘on the ground’, what they’ve been able to accomplish together, what problems and challenges they’re up against*. I look on with hope at how people of different colors in South Africa are building relationships with one another. I talk with Jagoda about apartheid. I tell her about Nelson Mandela, how he fought for the freedom and equal rights for black and white South Africans – All people have to be treated equal, no one’s better or worse, more important or less important… – declares Jagoda. In South Africa, after the end of apartheid there are 11 official languages! You know, Jagoda, that the Zulu language is spoken by one-fourth of the population of South Africa, and half the population of this country understands it?
It’s hard to end on a few pages the story of my African adventure, as if it wasn’t quite over yet. I wouldn’t want to miss out on telling these stories. There were many. How the mischievous mongooses settled on the beachside bar in Sodwana Bay with its brilliant view onto the Indian Ocean, and what trouble they caused at sunset. How a band of intrusive monkeys planned to break into a beach-house to get bread, bananas and corn flakes. How 200 meters from our tent, snorting hippopotamuses were walking around in search of food. And finally, how small African penguins were participating in swimming races on one of the southernmost beaches of Africa, not far from Cape town…Oh, and also about a certain ostrich, which was in the habit of posing for photographs on the Cape of Good Hope.
When you’re on the road with kids, you see the world through their lens – it’s a more diverse, peculiar, unpredictable world full of details that would often be overlooked by an adult. – What’s Africa’s color? – I ask Staś – A bit of blue, because it’s so big that it almost reaches the edge of the sky. And green as well as golden … I like golden and blue. But mom, the animals from Africa I like the most are actually grey.. Fine, grey is also an all right color. And these animals, I’m sure they love the color green best, just as the color of the grass on the savanna…
copyright: Dominika Zaręba / English translation: Piotr Szmigielski