Category Archives: Sunday Times – Accidental Tourist

SWAT a Nuisance

Call me a Philistine but, after nine days, I was Pharaoh-ed out, tomb-ed out, hyroglyph-ed out, Egyptian-ed out; instead I amused myself with some birding from the open deck of the Nile Cruiser, surrounded by flappy-stomached Brits baking in the spring sunshine.

The boat was also surrounded – four police launches, manned with blue-bereted, green-jerseyed, machine-gun toting officers. In addition, a couple of mercenary-looking armed youngsters in black T-shirts were perched on the prow of our boat, with two more aft.

“Purple gallinule. In the reeds.” It is a bird one sees in the books, but never seemingly in real life. I had evidently travelled all the way to Egypt to see this one, but in a flash, it disappeared.

“Smyrna Kingfisher!” shouted the only like-minded passenger with glee. “Gone!” And that was how it was.

It was the police outrider dinghies that were scaring off the birdlife, especially when their sirens kicked off. So, I thought, this is what it is like to be on the inside of a blue light brigade. Unlike our politicos, though, I found it embarrassing, noisy and rather patronising.

This high security was, we were told, normal and unconnected to Alexandria’s bombs of the previous week. The Egyptians won’t allow anything to happen to their tourists, and here we were, sitting ducks on the Nile. Literally. Stepping off into one of the towns that stretch along the banks, we were greeted by the mayor and then despatched on a tomb-spotting expedition, shepherded by four bakkies marked SWAT and an armoured vehicle. On one occasion, 70 troops altogether accompanied us into the sandy wastes, where our guide helpfully pointed out that one is most at risk in the desert. From what, he did not say.

We reached a temple. The troops fanned out onto the hilltops; the SWAT team in Kevlar, scarves and helmets, silhouetted against the skyline, alongside every pillar, mounted on every mound, like so many real-life Ninjas.

Egypt has the tenth largest army in the world. Most of it seemed to travel with us. Everything ancient – every well-dead pharaoh, crumbled-nosed sphinx or collapsed temple – seemed, in my photographs, to sport its own incongruous 21st century sentinel with an AK47.

Soon, everything looked the same. Every figure had its left foot forward and a hand outstretched, much like the bullying salesmen in the souks. “Bonjour. Guten Morgen. Special price. Only one pound.” At least our security phalanx spared us the predations of the plastic-pyramid and model-tin-camel sellers. These were English pounds, not Egyptian.

And the place-names! When the guide tried to get us correctly to pronounce Hatshepsut, Akhenaten and Al-Dier-Al-Bahari, I tried in him on Tweebuffelsmeteenskootmorsdoodgeskietfontein and then Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch, but he wasn’t playing along. So we stuck with Cheops and Giza, which we could all do.

South African history, I get. I was once a tour guide for the colonial wars. Dead Brits’ graves, I can do; Boer memorials; Zulu monuments. It all seems relevant to our current world. But these venerable Egyptians are so long-dead that nobody knows much about them except their names and the type of furniture they had buried with them. Nobody believes in their gods any more. Nobody is mummified. OK, apart from Walt Disney.

It is as if, in five thousand years’ time, future Azanians will be digging up graveyards in Mpumalanga and knowing only that we were Van Schalkwyks or Mnisis and that we bought our wardrobes at Joshua Doore.

I was musing on all this – and my hopeless cynicism – when somebody shouted: “Duck!”

It was not someone throwing a bomb, though. It was just another gallinule.

South Africans know it is good to be home

She looked at me as if she might collapse and weep.

“There was a fire in the camp site and they lost three huts. An old lady threw out some embers, the wind caught them and set alight to the bush all around. The people were so upset for us.”

Naturally the locals were distraught for this charming (if, unintentionally, patronising) American visitor that she had to witness the devastation that had befallen “her” camp, but they were also showing a stalwart stoicism in being upset for the khaki-clad, camera-toter and not for themselves. It was indeed a big fire. As it happened, whole villages had been reduced to embers. Crops gone. Animals, probably, too. But the first concern was for the visitor’s spoilt holiday.

The destroyed camp was near Thohoyandou, but we meet such folk everywhere and especially in rural parts. Decent, helpful, mildly eccentric South Africans with a polite welcome, exemplary manners and an unending enthusiasm for our land. Every tourist that comes here is blown away by the warmth of everyone they meet. We must remember that.

Hello, how are you? The standard South African greeting. The answer: We are fine. Always. Can’t complain. Sikhona. Ke teng. Goed dankie, self?

Even if we did have a problem, why would we tell a visitor. It doesn’t help to ruin someone else’s day, just because yours isn’t going so well.

We know disaster and we put it into perspective. Fire, flood, pestilence, crime, drought and cold are all part of life and we don’t use them to seek sympathy. In the face of chaos – and let’s face it, we’ve had a bit of that – we pull together with our unique ubuntu-based community spirit. We don’t make our problems other people’s problems.

Middag, Oom.” A young fair-haired child walks towards me across the parking at Kruger’s Mopani Rest Camp. I reply, asking him how he is. He says he is fine, thank you, Oom.

He greets the man behind me, who has a longer chat with the boy and instructs him to tell his parents what good manners he has.

He agrees, with a modest grin.

The Kruger National Park has a particular capacity to bring out the best in us. Recently, near Pretoriuskop, we came across nine sable and we were so chuffed that we made it our business to wave down passing tourists with a “Do you know what that is?”

“I sink it is an antelope …”

“That is an antelope alright. Even better, that is a sable antelope. One of the rarest creatures in the country. You will never see another one.” I wanted them to be as excited as I was – and they did their best. Moments later, we saw six hartebeest. I almost had to be tied down to prevent me going back to find the Germans, tell them and then invite them home for a braai with pap and a 3-bean salad.

Last week, I met an “ex-South-African”, now working the till in a hardware shop in southern England. Although both English-speaking, we spoke Afrikaans because he missed it and using it apparently helped with his homesickness. I told him that I lived ten minutes from the Kruger National Park. He looked a bit upset and then, with a wry smile, told me that he still managed to come “home” every couple of years.

Have you tried ordering a coffee in a café in Europe recently? Often, you are met with a surly get-it-yourself scowl. Order a coffee in South Africa and, once you have fought your way through the tangle of how-are-you-fine-and-yous, and although admittedly you might get a cup of tea, it will arrive with a huge smile.

That’s why most overseas visitors, at the end of their holidays, say “I am going home, sadly.”

The returning South African says “I am going home, and I can’t wait!”

Sightings in Sussex

Rambling in the English countryside is more perilous than the African bush

I had never before wondered what Priscilla Presley, Marlon Brando, Leonard Nimmoy and King Hussein of Jordan might have had in common.  After all, King Hussein isn’t much of an actor. Neither is Priscilla Presley, actually.

It had been an uncharacteristically warm start to Autumn in England. The trees were turning gold around fields under the plough.

There was a harvest festival in every church but old traditions had adapted. Altars were no longer decked with sheaves of corn but with tins of baked beans. Stalls didn’t brag giant marrows; they held cupcake-decorating competitions. I daubed mine with a proud SA flag, which was roundly approved by the South African vicar.

The English talk a lot.  You bump into them by a stall at a fete or a ploughing match or a garden-opening or an apple fair – there’s a seemingly endless string of lane-clogging local events – and you accidentally ask how they are. They tell you. “My joints are playing up a bit in this damp” or “Coming down with a bit of a cold” or “I am fine but my spaniel’s developing a nasty rash.”

They dawdle. They walk slowly, they think slowly and they order slowly in pubs: “Ooooh, I don’t know. Nothing alcoholic. Gives me headaches. What do you think I should eat, Susan? The Vegetarian Rissotto with Shiitake Mushrooms or the Sea Bass with Mashed Swede?”

Who on earth wants to eat mashed swede with their fish? Or with anything?

We had walked there through the woods. Everyone else was in jeans and gumboots. I was in shorts and vellies. I had slipped on slimy bridges, trodden in badger poo, been stung by nettles, tripped over mossy tree trunks and fallen down holes in the bracken.

It was far more perilous than a walk in the bush at home. We had crossed fields on guilty footpaths and skirted people’s gardens, trying not to stare into their kitchens. We had passed an amateur toy aeroplane show – there are professionals at this game? – and a miniature boat regatta on a murky pond. More events. More eccentrics.

After lunch it was off to the railway and a car park packed with aficionados hoping to board a steam train to East Grinstead. A woman blocked me: “Do you mind if Clemmie takes a picture of your hat? She’s collecting hat photos for school.” Of course she is.

“It’s an African Hat,” I startled Clemmie. “Kudu skin.” But Clemmie wasn’t impressed. Her mother was born in Kenya. Blimey. They traded a ranch in the Rift Valley for this?

I retreated to the men’s lavatory. A sign on the wall: ‘Please adjust your dress before leaving’. I was not wearing a dress, then I realised what was meant.

At a table in the car park, behind woven webs of cable and heavily-wired boxes, sat a bunch of old men with glasses and big noses.

Train spotters. No. Wait. Amateur radio enthusiasts.

They wanted to regale me with the details their pastime and would surely have gone on for hours had a train not steamed in, with a piercing whistle, just in the nick of time. I took a brochure. Priscilla’s call sign is NY6YOS if you want to get in touch. She’s probably free. She certainly won’t be talking to Marlon or Leonard or Hussein who are ‘Silent Keys’, as the radio hams call them. ‘Dead’, we might say.

In fact, the Departed Ones are probably all talking to Elvis. It beats going to a ploughing match, I suppose.

A Road Trip through Heaven

They say ‘Don’t drive there’. Don’t listen.

The cashier peers curiously at me and asks whether I am Cuban as well.

As well as what, I wonder. Is everyone else here Cuban? It seems unlikely. This is Mthatha.

The advice has always been the same: Don’t drive through Transkei.  They drive straight at you and then swerve suddenly.  They don’t place rocks in the road, they place whole kopjes. The potholes are the size of a Kimberley mine. They actually keep cattle on the highway. They throw boulders at bakkies. Uncle Frikkie and Auntie Magda set off down the N2 from Kokstad in 1979 and have never been seen again …

Well, it is rubbish.

Yes, there is road-kill. Plenty of it. Although some is clearly fresh and I don’t look too carefully, none looks human. Goats. Cattle. Chickens. No Frikkie, no Magda.

I am rushing. Mthatha Airport is staying open late for me to collect a missing bag and, in my little white toaster-sized hire-car from ‘Maritzburg, I splatter speedily through squashed bovine corpses towards Transkei’s Big City.

Trucks indicate that I can that I can safely overtake in the dark and, holding my breath, I trust them. They know the road. They could drive it with their eyes closed. In fact, they probably do. Often.

The only traffic police are blue-flashing an overturned oil tanker, gurgling ominously, where it straddles the highway. The taxis approaching Mthatha don’t use lights at all – not even during loadshedding – although they too pull over, unfailingly polite.

Bag recovered, I turn in at a Sasol petrol station, smiles all-around in the half-glowing lights.

“Where are you from?” a Pirates-capped taxi-driver asks the man before him at the till.

“Bangladesh,” comes the reply. He is dhoti-clad and chestnut-brown.

“Is that in Africa?”

“Yes,” the Bangladeshi assures him, thinking fast on his sandaled feet, but there is no sign of xenophobia here.

My interlocutor declares himself from Havana when I reveal my own total lack of Cuban-ness. He looks disappointed. Perhaps he is lonely. Maybe he arrived as one Manto’s doctors and turned to the more lucrative business of supplying fuel to the Eastern Cape. I feel a twinge of guilt.

A few days later, the dawn drive home from Umngazi along the gentle national road is a delightful counterpoint to the night terrors of the highway.

Past Lusikiki, I motor through lovely hills dotted with pale blue and burnt orange houses and white rondavels emitting occasional puffs of smoke. Wound with laundry, collapsing fences sway in the sunshine before leading down bush-laden river gorges.

Blanketed women are genteelly escorted by bent old men with sticks, woolly hats and close-fitting buttoned jackets, their church-bound milling faces brushing through the tall yellow flowers on the roadsides.

Here and there, a large tent promises a wedding or remembers a departed neighbour’s well-lived life in this rolling unspoilt landscape.

Disused collapsing stores shade languid cattle and wagging-tongued, mating dogs. Three donkeys stand unmoved in a pathway while chickens pick at the dust and a cattle-warning sign hangs forlornly aslant alongside a rusting overturned bakkie, its wheels still turning where a child spins them in the sun.

I am listening, aptly, to Ode to Joy. Heaven must be like this, I decide.

Two traffic officers are sleeping peacefully on the roadside, windows down, and the child beams at me as I bawl the words to the inside of my car-roof.

Do, do, do drive through the Transkei. It is achingly beautiful and unerringly courteous. Whether you are from Bangladesh, Cuba or Kokstad.

And if you should see Frikkie and Magda, leave them be. They probably chose to stay.

‘Abandoned’ in France

Those who want to be hand-held through a holiday should go online before they leave home

“We have a dishwasher in the tiny kitchen, but we can’t get it to work. Nobody explained it to us,” the crimson-faced Englishman bawled into his held-aloft cellphone in the WiFi-lounge-cum-games-room of our Alpine self-catering apartment block.

He was evidently hopeless, not only for his inability to use a dishwasher – or, heaven forbid, to find an alternative involving using his hands, the sink and some dishwashing liquid – but also for having failed, before hitting the ski-slopes, to apply sunblock to the areas of his face not obscured by his ludicrous goatee. The room fell silent. Children stopped playing pinball, ping-pong and pool. Adults looked up from their online newspapers in disbelief.

“Oooooh, I know,” replied the dismembered voice inside the phone for all to hear. “I read online that the place has a problem with dishwashers. Everyone’s complaining. But it’s better than the other review I saw about the fully-catered chalet next door, where they were given steak and ale pie. I mean, that’s not very French is it? At least you are not staying there.”

Imagine their disgust if they had been served frogs’ legs or thrushes’ gizzards instead. That’s very French …

“It’s disgraceful,” continued the increasingly red and apoplectic Goatee Man. “There’s nobody here to ask. No receptionist. We have been left totally alone.” The room-full of people again looked surprised. We didn’t feel alone. There were dozens of us, listening to his idiotic diatribe.

Luckily there was a defibrillator on the wall behind him, in case, as we say in South Africa, his heart attacked him.

We had found the place, on the contrary, to be remarkably well-equipped. The beds were comfortable, the furniture was sturdy and only in France would a self-catering flat include such crucial equipment as a carafe and a glass lemon-juicer. There were two salad bowls (because to a Frenchman, one salad bowl is never enough) and the provided rubbish-bags had built-in little strings to tie their tops tidily.

In the lounge, the ubiquitous music that risked drowning Goatee’s complaints was delightfully cheesy. France is stuck firmly in the Seventies –tight John Travolta pants, loads of Abba and D.I.S.C.O. – but in a country that produces 600 cheeses, I guess the music mirrors the diet.

The blue-sky views from the huge windows of towering, snow-clad mountains promised many days of enviable skiing. Had we a complaint, it would merely have been that the room smelled of stale cigarettes, but it seemed oddly apt in the land of Gauloises.

An irresistible rummage through the establishment’s online reviews unearthed proof, not of any inadequacy in the establishment itself, but of the appalling incompetence of the people frequenting it. There was the usual whinging and whining, my favourite involving a family, left similarly “totally alone” by the management, only for one of them to get stuck in the loo. In the absence of a receptionist, they had been left with no choice but to call the fire brigade, who had smashed the door down.

The reviewer’s indignation was multiplied ten-fold when he was charged for the broken bathroom door and for the callout of the emergency services.

As I read it, and aptly for many reasons, Waterloo was playing in the background.

This was the “worst hotel in the entire world”, wrote our keyboard warrior. It was entirely management’s fault that he was incapable of extricating a family member from the bathroom without structural alterations. And nobody spoke English. How disgraceful! In France!

I hope these people didn’t try to use the dishwasher. The chances are they’d have needed someone to help them to operate the defibrillator as well.

For whom the bell tings

The constant clanging of ice-cream salesmen is only the beginning of beachside holiday hell

I am not a fan of the sea. It had therefore been twenty years since my last beach holiday. For the first couple of days on the sunny coast, though, I had thought I might relent slightly. Only slightly, mind you.

We were ensconced in a pristine KZN North Coast apartment which had apparently once belonged to the late Louis Luyt. The balconied beachfront flat, with a suitable grandstand view of the Indian Ocean, was well-furnished with not-too-great a preponderance of orange and red swirls. Everything worked, down to the air-conditioning and the rugby-lover’s home theatre, although we had no intention of using either. A swimming pool sparkled blue in a neatly trimmed garden. There was no smell of drains or worse. Friendly staff went beyond the call of duty.

The weather was perfect. Clear skies blazed above an infinity-bound aquamarine sea, trimmed with fizzing white froth. Gambolling children of all hues and cries scattered happily in the waves and across the beach. Dolphins frolicked in the offshore swell. The sharks were at bay, beyond their nets.

So far, not so bad.

I think it was the ceaseless ringing of the ice cream salesmen’s bells that changed everything, ultimately tipping an otherwise cheerful and newly ocean-enamoured Chris Harvie back over the edge and into a terminal never-again downward spiral.

I am sure, however fond they might be of the jingle of a bell, that any post-yuletide vacationer, even the keenest campanologist, perhaps even Quasimodo himself, would have agreed with me that it was excessive. And in a week on that beach I don’t think I was ever aware of a single ice cream being sold, despite the passing every 30 seconds of a ringing red cool box. So not only is it rampantly headache-inducing, it blatantly doesn’t work.

Surely somebody could put an end to this irritation? The crash of the waves and the sound of joyous children armed with boogie boards and bat and ball all make sense, but the constant ding-a-ling just jars.

There were other problems too which now became more obvious in the light of this artificially inflicted tinnitus. I had distant and probably equally artificial memories of lengthy empty golden sand beaches stretching uninterrupted to north and south, of bobbing gently on high surging waves, of swimming way out to sea, of lithe and lissom bronzed physiques and of fresh seafood in beachside restaurants.

The reality, I now realised, clear as a bell, in the weeks after Christmas was rather different. While the shopping centres and theme parks were perfectly clean, much of the beachfront reeked of bulbous bodies and fast-food, the evidence of the latter trodden and plastered into a hot-doggy, burger-pulp strewn with popcorn and strings of chewing gum into every pavement and piazza. Even the seafood’s not fresh any more.

And, as if the peace wasn’t already shattered enough by the interminable tinkling, some wise official had armed the bored lifeguards not only with their bizarrely-shaped flotation devices which they had used to mark out an extensive encampment on the beach, but also with shrill whistles, with which to call in errant swimmers who had strayed outside the narrow stretch of surf to which they were supposed to be confined.

As the week drew on, the permitted swimming area between the lifeguards’ flags became ever more shrunken, the undertow stronger and the bluebottles more numerous, driving the glutinous masses out of the sea to overflow instead onto an already heaving and overburdened stretch of sole-burning sand, gazebos springing up like a refugee camp in a Saharan drought.

Please, Authorities, stop the piercing trills and the constant jingling, power-spray the esplanade and maybe get the public to shed a significant percentage of its body weight or cover up, and I might be convinced to go down to the sea again, as the poet said, but not until then.

Ban the bells! Bring back the belles! Ola, Goodbye!

On the Cutting Edge of Tourism

A hidden sharp object and fear of discovery make for a paranoid ride

“Why do you have a chainsaw in the car?” A Kruger gate-guard. It is a long story, we say, but we have no alcohol and the generator is irrelevant too. Do we look like rhino-poachers? He seems to buy that.

Back on the road, pre-prepared choccachinos in hand, the possibilities are endless. We hadn’t planned for the chainsaw to be discovered, of course, buried under a pile of tents and other necessities for a visit to a truly third world country.

Innocent smiles restored, we head into the bundu. A few minutes, a couple of zebras and a smallklomp of wildebeest later, a white Suzuki hoves into view and signals to us conspiratorially that we should pull over. We wonder. How could he know about our in-vehicle bush management armoury?

“On the right, 50 metres in, look carefully, two lions mating’” he whispers. Erm. Thanks.

On the right, only five metres in, just discernible between the giveaway Toyota hordes, two lions obviously mating, just as the man said. A roar louder than anything our power tool could hope to emit, and it is all over for twenty minutes. No time to wait.

Onwards, Croc Bridge- and Moz-bound, a large amorphous dead mass lies in the road ahead, a crane and a number of khaki-clad rangers of the long-sock variety looming over it. A car-struck hippo, thank goodness; no fear of suspicion that we might have de-horned a rare pachyderm with our kettingsaag.

Gathered after a coffee in Maputu and the chainsaw now so deep into the camping gear that it risks re-emerging through the exhaust, we push north.

A scream of sirens skirts the capital and we seep a little deeper into our seats. A blurred, motorbike-perched ball of authority swerves by, launching a sharp knee-length, leather-booted kick at an oblivious taxi-flank in front of us, before a pod of slick dark Mercedes arrogantly cruises past. A seemingly-rushed Presidential escort; no doubt it would have displayed a little more caution in its queue-barging had it known of the deadly assassinatory weapon cached between the hot chocolate and tent pegs in the back of our bakkie.


A hundred kilometres on, a rolled bus tumbling across the Limpopo causeway towards us looks as if its top has been hacked off with a saw. Time to flee again lest we come under suspicion. Oddly, we drive into a Xai-Xai carnival with an anti-speeding theme.

Through a hazy road-peak, a brown figure. “O Kak,” mumbles Tom the Pom, slipping into unaccustomed Afrikaans. No, a traffic cop.

We both know we’ve been going a smidgeon too fast, a fact reflected in the broad smug smile greeting us below the raised open hand.

He scans the car. Too fast, 2000 Mets. Maybe 1000, for cash. Unaccustomed Tom the Pom stares at his toes, fearful of being forced to expose his cutting gear stash to alien authoritarian eyes. A speeding fine in a foreign land is shame enough without being found to be in possession of lethal tools.

“Receipt please. We do not pay bribes,” say I, primly, from the passenger’s seat.

Not to be defeated in the quest for free cash, the self-proclaimed oke-in-charge then waddles up to Tom’s window. Reading each other’s thoughts and abandoning the available violent approach of chain-silencing the man, we refuse him too. And get our receipt.

A few days later, homeward-bound and lost in search of an escape route from an overgrown Transfrontier park, our path is blocked by elephant-damaged trees and the bonnet-clogging nets of myriad golden orb spiders’ webs. It is a situation screaming out for suitable tree-decimation paraphernalia, but we have sadly left the chainsaw with our coastal host, at his behest, leaving us to explain to Customs at the border, why, precisely when we had needed one and having declared one on entry into Mozambique, we no longer have a chainsaw in the car.

A Bull and a China Shop

Some creatures make a big impression, some leave no trace of themselves at all

“You gave us the wrong fingerprints,” the baffling woman repeated. “You must do them again.” I had come to pick up my driver’s licence from the Sabie Traffic Department. She had said it would take six weeks. Pointlessly, I had given her a precautionary three months.

She was unbending in the face of my explanation that – maybe rather foolishly – I had brought the same fingers with me this time as the last. I must reapply using whatever fingerprints I had to hand.

Bowing to her superior understanding of bureaucracy, I was resigned to the fact that I must take my next road trip through a bunch of countries renowned for traffic police more awkward than ours, carrying a temporary licence and somebody else’s fingerprints which I had always taken to be my own.

We counted the road blocks – seven in Mozambique, six in Malawi, 14 in Zambia and 21 in a four hundred kilometre stretch of Zimbabwe. Not one of them was fazed. In fact, with its parchment shape, its dazzling crimson stripe and its ridiculously handsome photograph, I think the temporary version may have looked more official than the permanent.

There were hold-ups of a different kind to beef about en route, though.

We wove a wary path between the potholes to Beira. They say that if you see a pair of ears sticking out of an indent in a Mozambiquan highway, it signals not a rabbit but a giraffe. My bakkie swerved in and out, throwing itself at Africa with its customary fearless abandon.

Unable to find a campsite in grimy Tete, we settled instead on a roadside motel for the night. One uncomfortable bed was evidently stuffed with concrete and the other with popcorn; squadrons of bat-sized mosquitoes circled ominously under the dysfunctional fan. There was no door on the bathroom and the TV channels ranged from Islamic prayer to fishing on the Yangtze with no option of news or movies. We beat it to the bar for a 2M beer and some supper, bombarded by a video of Velvet Revolver playing a tuneless composition entitled Train Sucking Blues.

A more musical metal-rending crash then broke the dusty darkness followed by a deep and lengthy groan and cursing in Portuguese. Perhaps someone had sucked up a train outside the hotel? No.

Although the dying groans of a truck-bashed bull seemed perversely to improve the music, the staff disappeared to witness its pain first-hand and the service came to a standstill for 15 minutes.

We survived the night and my companion’s disagreement with his curry, which rendered the lack of a bathroom door all the more unfortunate, and awoke with the dawn. The dead animal was still lying on the roadside, minus a couple of rump steaks, as we escaped in the direction of Zuma’s empty Malawian thoroughfares.

Zambia’s road blocks were for the most part elephantine and Zimbabwe’s merely a demonstration of paranoia so it wasn’t until we got back to Bushbuckridge, Mpumalanga, that we saw a lurching Ni-Da piling into another bull, believe it or not, just outside the China Shop. The imprint on this unfortunate beast was deeper and with more immediate effect.

Far, far deeper than the imprint of my finger which was never found. I eventually got my new licence and, in place of my isithupha, appear the words “No Print”. I look forward to that discussion with a traffic cop if ever I strike an itinerant steer. “Why don’t you have any fingerprints?”

“I just can’t seem to make a good impression,” I shall say. No bull, my china.

Party Train to Pasture

Larry the Landy’s last dance was a festive affair with trompoppies and hooch

Larry and I had co-travelled many tens of thousands of kilometres but we now had to finalise our impending divorce before Death itself should us part. It was heart-rending. My Land Rover was slowly giving up the ghost. I could no longer afford the medical bills.

Travel had become much tamer in recent times. We couldn’t risk breaking down in Deepest Darkest; there was no bundu-bashing at Mana Pools, no hurricane-dodging in Niassa. Instead, our most recent foray had seen us topping up his water in the car park outside Shoprite in Graaff-Reinet, again outside Spar in Jeffrey’s Bay, followed by Woolworths in Plett and finally Checkers in Bredasdorp.

It had been a glorious winter trip of sunshine and whales, white surf crashing onto white sandy beaches, cliff-top walks and empty roads, until we reached Cape Town, where the doof-doof from the Waterfront was muted. The city was in lockdown pending the arrival, not of me and Larry, but of the most powerful man on earth. Obama was heading for Robben Island.

We went instead to a mechanic near the Castle who insisted that he wouldn’t be able to look at my car for two weeks. It was the straw that broke the Landy’s back. I went straight to the railway station to book the last berth to Johannesburg for me and the last spot in the vehicle carriage for the Land Rover. I wasn’t going to risk a breakdown and two weeks in Leeu-Gamka.

In his outlandish turquoise and purple outfit, Spoornet Man could not have been more helpful. He even promised me that the food on the train had improved. Spoornet’s infamous coffee was back, he said, and I must try the Pap en Tik.

This, I had decided, would be Larry’s last ride.

We arrived the required three hours prior to departure, allowing time to fill both fuel tanks and thus to weigh down and manoeuvre Larry successfully under the roll-up door and onto the train.

The riotous din of the boarding hordes was a magnificent manifestation of rainbow polyglot joy, wherein a preponderance of gap-toothed women yelled “waars my f@#*%n sakkie?” and “wie het my f@#*%n kind gesteel?” as they kept noisy tabs on their belongings and their offspring.

A mother from Rondebosch gently placed her hands over her daughter’s ears.

A couple of hundred passengers have loaded onto a train here every other day for I don’t know long but still it was as chaotic as the first day of a massive department store sale. Then into the pandemonium strode a snake of paired-off touring trompoppies from Bellville, in yellow track-suits and green beanies. The noise cranked up another couple of hundred decibels as they boarded the train with a gaggle of mothers in pursuit in DRUMMIE MOMMIE jackets.

It was not a peaceful journey but it was a happy one, the shouting, the stomp of running drummies and the strong smell of hooch only subsiding at about 2am somewhere near Kimberley. The by-now more subdued crowd finally disembarked in Johannesburg at dusk the next day, a respectable seven hours late.

I waited for Larry to appear. “Nice vehicle!” said one onlooker.

“If it had been a nice vehicle, I’d have driven it here, and not paid R4000 for it to come by train!” I muttered and then realised she wasn’t looking at Larry.

A shiny black Jeep appeared from the vehicle wagon, a mid-20s Naomi Campbell lookalike at the wheel. The number-plate read PRENUPT WP. As I was finalising the end of my time with my Land Rover, this Jeep symbolised the beginning of a marriage. An intriguing lobola.

Relieve me

Never tell a Zimbabwean you are going to Zim or you may find yourself smuggling strange goods

We’d driven the pile of nappies over hill and dale, lake and mountain, gravel and pothole and through four countries. Now we had finally reached Zimbabwe and could dump them. So to speak.

I’d originally agreed to carry a small parcel to Bulawayo. Six boxes had turned up. Six vast boxes, unsubtly labelled Dis-Chem and containing a hundred and fifty adult nappies. Half a bakkie-load. And there was a blanket too. But not just any blanket. One of those giant blankets that comes with its own zip-up carrying bag. A blanket large enough, in fact, to make a sizeable bivouac.

Never tell a Zimbabwean you are going to Zim.

We cunningly buried the boxes under our camping equipment and agreed to tell any inquisitive officials that they were for my personal use. In my fiftieth year I was obviously about to lose control of my faculties and liable to urinate or, heaven forbid, defecate uncontrollably at any moment. The disposable contents of the boxes would allow these actions to be carried out discreetly. I suggested, when crossing borders, that I should perhaps wear a pair of absorbent briefs over my shorts, superman-style, to reinforce the situation, as it were, but it was agreed that this strategy would come into play in emergencies only.

Our padded contraband passed unnoticed out of South Africa and through Mozambique, unsullied even after a dodgy prawn in Inhambane. We had established, in case explanation was required, established that the local word for nappy is fralda and that incontinent, not surprisingly, isincontinente in Portuguese. So far so good.

On reaching the Zòbué border between Mozambique and Malawi, however, things got a bit, erm, stickier.

We declared ourselves to be carrying ‘camping equipment’ but officialdom wasn’t having it. A sturdy woman in a tight-fitting uniform into which you couldn’t have squeezed a small tissue, let alone an absorbent pad, insisted that we provide a detailed list or unpack the vehicle. And no amount if jolly humour on our part was going to talk her out of it.

Item by item, we slowly removed bicycles, tents, sleeping bags and mats, food boxes, a braai grille, kit bags, charcoal, a tool kit, a 40-litre water tank, two pairs of muddy hiking boots and then our secret weapon – an open bag full of dirty laundry. At this point she quailed. No smuggled discovery was worth the discomfort of dealing with soiled clothing. Little did she know what else was lurking deeper under the canopy …

The nappies passed unchallenged through Malawi and unnoticed into Zambia where they spent four happy nappy days in South Luangwa before pushing south-west and unsprayed over the bridge at Victoria Falls. And now here they were in Bulawayo.

We called the number we’d been given to arrange delivery. In Hope Foundation Road – how apt, we thought. Look for a nurse in a pink T-shirt.

We drove up and down the road. No nurse. No pink T-shirt. We called again.

Next to the Greenhouses? Green houses? Or greenhouses? Just past the Sunlight bus stop.

We asked a blue-overalled passer-by, pushing a bicycle. “I don’t know, boss, I am new here, sorry, from Masvingo, but, please boss, I need job.”

Still no pink T-shirt. Stymied at the last. We’d driven these oversized pampers 8000 kilometres around Africa. Now we couldn’t deliver them where they were so sorely needed. Giving up reluctantly, we left them at a spaza shop with a gentle dollar-bribed guard.

I heard later that afternoon that the nurse had taken delivery. Mission accomplished. Just in time, according to Nurse. I was so relieved I almost wet myself.