Sunday, November 23, 2008

Travelogue: Richard's Bay, South Africa, and the cultural experience from hell

It was supposed to be a half-day game drive followed by a Zulu "cultural experience" including food and dancing. It turned out to be quite a bit more, er, authentic, than I had anticipated.

The game drive started a bit late (2 PM) and the drive to the Hluhluwe (the H's are pronounced sort of like a cross between SH and CH) reserve was a bit longer than I would have hoped (an hour and a half from the port in Richard's Bay) but otherwise it went smoothly. We saw an amazing collection of white rhinos, which this park is largely responsible for bringing back from the bring of extinction. (For those of you who don't know, the white rhino is so called not because of anything having to do with color. It's a mispronounciation of the Afrikaans word "weidt" which means "wide" and refers to the shape of the animal's mouth.) At one point there were six of them in view at the same time, one of which had a horn that looked like it was -- no exaggeration -- five feet long. Somewhere on my hard drive I have photographic evidence.

By the time we were done it was starting to get dark. We re-boarded the busses to drive to the Zulu cultural center, which we expected to be, well, a building, where we would be fed and watch some Zulu tribe members dressed up in native costumes for the tourists.

The drive was again longer than we had expected -- the better part of an hour -- and it took us into the middle of nowhere. It was dark like I've never seen dark before. I had never realized the extent to which artificial light has permeated the night time of the western world. Even in the middle of the desert there is usually a glow from a nearby town or gas station or streetlight. Here there was nothing. We were probably sixty miles from the nearest electrical outlet.

To my surprise (and perhaps dismay) our bus turned onto a dirt road and our guide announced that we had 5 km to go. It was a single-track road, and despite the fact that the highway we had just left was pitch black, it somehow seemed even darker here. We bounced along for a good half hour, and I started thinking to myself that it felt like we had travelled a lot more than 5 km, a suspicion that was confirmed when our guide started making calls on her cell phone (amazingly there was pretty good coverage out there) and having a rather urgent-sounding conversation with the person on the other end which included phrases like, "No, we didn't see anything like that. The sign says what again?"

We had taken the wrong road.

Now, you have to picture the situation here. We're in a bus on a single-lane dirt road many miles away from even a vestige of technological civilization (notwithstanding the cellphone coverage). The bus is quite a bit longer than the road is wide. Oh, and did I mention that there was another bus behind us? And apparently they didn't have a guide because ours suddenly stopped the caravan and went out to talk to the other driver.

About five minutes later our guide came back looking white as a sheet. The bus began to do an amazing twenty-seven-point turn maneuver that eventually got us headed back the way we had come. And our guide is looking rather urgently out the window saying something about snakes.

I learned later that our bus had run over a snake just before we came to a stop. We had injured the poor creature, but not killed it. It was writhing around on the ground in full view of the people in the bus behind us. When they saw our guide emerge from our bus they had tried to warn her, but the word didn't get through. Fortunately, the guide by pure luck never came in range of the snake because if she had it almost certainly would have bitten her, and she almost certainly would have died.

It was a black mamba, the deadliest snake in the world.

So we trundled back out to the highway, hung a left, and kept going up to the next dirt road. After a few more urgent phone calls we finally saw a sign for the Zulu cultural center, but when we turned in there was no hint of anyone being there. There were no lights, no buildings, no people, nothing. More cell phone calls, until eventually out of the darkness a truck appeared which lead us into a gravel clearing that served as a parking lot. Everyone bailed out, and someone started leading us down a path.

Now again you have to picture this. This is a tour group of about fifty or sixty people from a high-end cruise ship. The demographics are, shall we say, tilted heavily in favor of the retired. Some people are walking with canes. And we are being led down a dirt path in pitch blackness with no light at all except for a dim glow cast by a dozen or so cell phones, PDAs, and keychain LED flashlights.

After fifty yards or so (in retrospect -- it seemed quite a bit longer at the time) we start to see the glow of some kerosene lanterns lighting the path, which improved progress considerably. We eventually get to The Place: not a building, but simply a roughly constructed circular wooden fence making an enclosure around a bonfire and a large tree. Oh, did I mention it was starting to rain?

There are chairs set up in the enclosure and people start to file in and sit down when someone asks, "Is there a bathroom?" We've been on the road for several hours at this point so it's a fair question. The guide says, "Uh, the bathrooms are back in the parking lot where we just came from." There is some hurried negotiation and the guide agrees to take a landing party back to the parking lot.

Three minutes later a troupe of Zuli dancers exploded into the enclosure and started to do their show. I guess they got tired of waiting for us, the upshot being that all the people who went to the bathroom missed the show entirely, which was quite a loss. I didn't enjoy it as much as I would have wished at the time because I was wet and hungry, but in retrospect I realize that it's probably the most authentic cultural experience I've ever had and likely ever will. These were not westernized Zulus getting dressed for the tourists, this was the Real Deal. This place was in the middle of nowhere because this is where these people lived.

The dancing and drumming were frenzied and energetic, similar to Maori dancing but friendlier somehow. Oh, and the girls were bare-breasted. It was more National Geographic than Playboy, but it was cool because it highlighted the fact that this was real Zulu, not Disney Zulu.

After the show we were herded out of the enclosure and back down the path to eat. Off in the distance I could just make out the dimly lit outline of an A-frame. It had no walls, but at least it afforded some shelter from the rain. Unfortunately, half the tables were set up outside the confines of the A-frame. A mad rush ensued for dry seats, and an incredibly chaotic effort to raise umbrellas over the rest was mounted. Nancy and I managed to grab a pair of seats under the shelter, which unaccountably had dirty place settings and used wine glasses even though we were, as far as we could tell, among the first arrivals. No one seemed to be in charge. Our poor tour guide was at a complete loss. She looked as if she was attending her own funeral.

Eventually, and with the help of some of the passengers, clean dishes were issued and food and drink was distributed, though I decided that if the serving was so poorly organized that I wasn't sure that the curry chicken was a risk worth taking. I eventually made a meal of bread, potatoes and vegetables. Under the circumstances, it tasted quite good, and was probably better for me than my normal diet.

At last it was time to go home, and to put the capper on a string of disasters, we had to crawl home at about 30 miles an hour because (as we learned when we finally got back to Richard's Bay) the lead bus had broken windshield wipers.

I have never in my life been so happy to see an electric light.

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