The importance of being Stoned

Driving into foreign lands, prepare for strange customs and stranger sign-posts

The town goes by the lyrical name of Loitokitok and looks southwards from Kenya over the back of Tanzania’s majestic Kilimanjaro. When Kilimanjaro can be seen, that is.

We weren’t here for the climb. Or for the view. A friend was building a lodge outside nearby Amboseli and wanted us to choose the exact piece of Africa on which it should stand. We should contact Diana on arrival, he had said. She was well connected and would provide the necessary information.

We approached Loitokitok and two things happened. The mountain poked its head through the cloud and my cellphone rang to announce that my colleague had been stopped at the border for importing a vehicle into Kenya without permission. Things had become heated. He was threatened with arrest.

Colleague had told Customs that I was on my way. Customs was now threatening to arrest us both. I approached the border gingerly, keeping the engine running and the door open as I went in to negotiate.

The little man was implacable, delusional and ranting with rage. The border was closed for the day and Colleague wasn’t to be allowed in or out of Kenya. All logic had been abandoned until we persuaded a rusty-haired independent arbiter from Immigration to allow Colleague a night-pass into Kenya.

It was blowing a gale and a light drizzle was settling on Loitokitok.

The poison dwarf impounded the first vehicle, pending an Interpol investigation into alleged vehicle-smuggling. I rushed to the other vehicle before he could snatch that; the others ran to catch up and we sped into Kenya, like the fugitives we had become.

Diana, when we called her, turned out to be a pre-school teacher with no obvious influence over the Kenyan Secret Service and no idea where we could camp for the night.

Then a sign rose out of the gathering fog: Kilimanjaro Guest House.

Four attempts at directions later, we stood in front of an impressive gate, shouting “Hodi! Hodi!”, Swahili for “Hi, here we are, politely making a noise, in the hope that you will hear us and let us in!” Eventually an askari heaved open the gate.

The rooms were full but we gave up flapping our tents in the wind, opting instead to sleep on the dusty floor of the conference room – an open-sided barn with star-gazing sized holes in the roof, through which the rain settled on our sleeping bags.

Customs had recovered the next day. He declared Interpol satisfied and let the bakkie leave, but charged a penalty in rental for parking at the border all night.

We found Diana at a petrol station and headed out into the bundu to unearth Sammy, our Maasai guide.

Sammy was twice the height of any of us and needed two blankets to ensure his modesty. He clanked with chains, beads, earrings and spears and had to fold double to get into the front seat of the vehicle.

We pulled off the road. Sammy signalled with his fingers: left a bit, right a touch, left, round that rock, past that shrub, through miles of seemingly identical bush. He signalled a stop at a tiny stone. “This is the corner of the property,” he said, unwinding himself from the vehicle.

Behind him, an umbrella-thorn stood silhouetted against the sky. Ahead loomed snow-crowned Kilimanjaro. To the right stood Amboseli. It was African perfection.

The ideal spot for a lodge.

As long as Sammy’s there to lead the way to that all-important tiny stone and the border officials stay off the funny stuff for long enough to let the clients in.

For the Love of the Land

Something all owners understand: it takes patience to keep a Defender moving

 

We call him Larry. We don’t often name our cars, although I did once own a Fiat Uno Turbo named after Enzo Ferrari and, later, a Renault 5 called Gigi after a Parisian call-girl.

Larry is neither Italian nor a prostitute but he’s equally temperamental. A typical Defender. That’s why Defender drivers wave to each other on the road – not a hysterical hi-de-hi wave; just a subtle lifting of the fingers from the wheel. Understated. A small gesture to acknowledge that it requires patience to keep a Land Rover moving.

Apart from the bling on his dashboard (a Maasai blanket) and an oversized roof rack, which once led a Kenyan pump jockey to admire how we’d “pimped” him, Larry is like any other Defender. He rattles like a baby, sucks in dust like a vacuum cleaner and breaks down like a neurotic.

His worst tantrum left us stranded on a gravel road in Zambia, where we were ferrying a friend’s driver, George, to his bushcamp.

Larry didn’t explode. He merely glided to a gentle stop, his accelerator flat on the floor and no power to his wheels. Helpless.

With my co-pilot, I climbed out to identify the problem. Larry had blown a pipe. There was water all over the dust. George sat in the back and watched.

Twenty minutes later, we were still fumbling with an inadequate Leatherman when it occurred to us that George might have some pliers.

“George, do you have pliers?”

“Yes, sah,” he replied.

Propped comfortably in the back seat, George showed me his extensive tool collection.

“Are you a mechanic?”

“Yes, sah!”

“Well, would you mind fixing the *$&%# car?!”

Larry was soon mobile again. In camp, he got a good going-over from George and all was well for a few hundred kilometres. Then the wheels, or rather the pipes, came off again. And again.

We could cover only 15km between breakdowns. We were towed by bakkies, buses and Belgians. Everyone had a theory. No-one was right.

At a roadside quarry, we spent a night on the staff ablution-block floor, while the mechanic cleaned Larry’s radiator. It was no good. He needed professional help.

“We’ll get a Teepo,” they said, “to carry him to Lusaka.” We didn’t know what a Teepo was. Some kind of Korean tow-truck? It sounded ideal.

We waited. Grey dumper trucks came and went, filled with quarried gravel.

The Teepo took eight hours to arrive and turned out to be, well, just like all the other trucks. But blue. A Tipper-truck.

Larry stuck out at the back by more than a metre and was held on by nylon ropes with rocks as chocks. Our R300 000 vehicle would balance on a dump truck for 650km.

The tipper’s cab was full so we climbed, contorted, into Larry and bumped along to Serenje, playing cards to distract ourselves from the rocking motion and occasional snapping of ropes.

For fear of roadblocks, we could only travel thus for 200km, so, at midnight in Serenje, we bade Larry farewell and boarded a bus to Lusaka, lurching in the stairwell as there were no seats available. The conductor put his foot on our heads whenever the police stopped the bus, which was permitted 65 passengers and carrying 120.

We overtook Larry at about 3am. He was bouncing, slightly askew and lonely, on a lightless, smoke-billowing truck.

“That’s my car,” I proudly told the conductor, “on the back of that Teepo.” And I waved.

He looked at me as if I was deranged. He’s obviously never owned a Land Rover.

French Kissing in the RSA

From “love” signs at the local market to swooning over the view, Chris Harvie falls head-over-heels for Parys

Wandering up the N1 on a Sunday afternoon, we were looking for the Vredefort Dome.

It is 300km wide, so it shouldn’t have been hard to track down, but our first two attempts led us onto badly corrugated gravel roads where, in French style, we surrendered. On the third gravel road, however, we recovered our pluck and pushed on, ending up, to our surprise, in Parys. Very French.

The last time I had visited, Parys was still on the highway to Cape Town and consisted of a long road filled with warehouse antique shops. Nowadays, it is a charming backwater country town with a range of stores selling both quality and tat furniture and collectables, some fine restaurants and – when we were there – a very good NGK kersmark (Christmas market) with everything from smoked olives to those ubiquitous “peace” and “love” signs. Where do people put those things?

Anyway, we unsuccessfully trawled the riverbank for somewhere to sleep. The lines of abandoned guesthouses were all evidently closed, so we crossed the bridge into what was now technically North West province. And what a revelation.

Here, we were in conference-and-wedding-venue country and endless possibilities emerged. We could, for example, choose The Home of the Lion or Stonehenge in Africa Lodge. Why, I wonder, would anybody want to get married at a reconstruction of an English prehistoric monument, built here in a crater formed by a 10km-wide meteorite that struck over two-billion years ago?

For this, we discovered, is what the dome is all about. The meteorite was twice the size of the one that wiped out the dinosaurs.

However, not wanting to get married, to confer, to meet a lion or to hang out under artificial caveman rock arches, we pushed on and, a couple of kilometres later, stumbled across SunWa River Lodge. Like all the other places, it is designed for team-building, but it’s just as good for weekenders.

With a wooden walkway over rock pools full of ducks, the lodge scatters along the bank with a restaurant and bar at its heart. Our room was on stilts, with a view over the river and the mountains that rim the dome.

There’s both a swimming pool and a pool table. There’s volleyball, paintball, quad-biking, rafting, kayaking and a climbing wall. More surprisingly, there’s also a ski slope – and how about some pole-fishing or blindfold-soccer?

For the more sedate of mind, there’s a game drive, up close with giraffe, zebra and a variety of antelope, including a sable with horns so long they touch his back when he walks.

We opted for a gentle drift down the Vaal. The river was fairly tame, so we took the rapids backwards to liven things up. The scariest part was at the drinks spot, where we disembarked on the riverbank only to be charged by a couple of St Bernards.

At dusk, we settled on a bench and watched the sun go behind the distant koppies. A troop of whinnying horses came down to the river to drink and below us a pair of otters splashed into the water as the last of the rafting groups came home to roost. Another peaceful night on the riverbank lay ahead of us.

Before heading home the next morning, we indulged in a bout of bargain-hunting and then lunched at Ruby’s restaurant, where the food was unforgettably delicious.

The view outside Ruby’s was bizarre. Opposite, a pink Chevy stuck out of a diner’s roof. It was a weak impression of the Champs Elysées’ Hard Rock Café, but Parys, Free State, is about as far from Paris, France, as you can get. No Eiffel Tower. No Notre Dame. No River Seine.

But there’s the Vredefort Dome, the NGK and the Vaal. And it’s a great place for a weekend.

So forget “Vive la Paris!” Viva Parys Viva!

WHERE IT IS: On an open stretch of the Vaal River, an hour’s drive from Johannesburg.

WHY GO THERE: For a fun-packed weekend with a bunch of mates or just go on your own. You’ll have just as much fun.

WHAT IT HAS: 68 vaguely Swiss-looking rooms and the most bizarre selection of activities imaginable. Imagine you are on Survivor.

AND THE FOOD: A stonking breakfast to set you up for your energy-sapping day and plentiful and tasty carvery to refill you when it’s all over.

RATES: From R400 per person sharing. Dinner R136. Breakfast R80. Rafting R280 for a half-day.

GETTING THERE: From Parys, cross the Vaal, turn left and travel 10km past the lions and the not-so-ancient monuments. SunWa is on the left.

WHAT THERE IS TO SEE ON THE WAY: More antique shops than you can shake a stick at.

CONTACT: SunWa Lodge: Phone 056 817 7107, visit www.sunwa.co.za or e-mail goraft@sunwa.co.za. Ruby’s Restaurant: 37c Bree Street. Phone 056 811 5080 or go towww.rubysparys.co.za.