18 Trek Into Zululand
We need the tonic of wildness, we need to witness our own limits transgressed, and some life pasturing freely where we never wander.
- Henry David Thoreau
On November first, a French gendarme in his office one block uphill from the port issued me a clearance certificate. Within the hour I was back aboard Atom, slipping out of St. Pierre's small-boat harbor. My planned course lay to the south of Madagascar where the steady warm breezes of the tropics give way to variable and strong winds born along the tight isobars that encircle passing anti-cyclones. The pilot books and weather charts indicated that once I got closer to South Africa, the southwesterly gales would follow one-after-the-other in menacing processions. I expected to face a storm-ridden passage, and from the stories of other sailors, it looked like few yachts make the passage without a good bit of punishment.
As intimidating as it sounds, the alternative route to the Atlantic, via the Red Sea and Mediterranean, is far more challenging for the solo sailor. The choice for me was easy. I would sooner face ten storms on the open sea than contend with the contrary winds and currents, the reefs and pirates, the hostile Arab ports and the bureaucracy of a Red Sea passage.
For four days my sails did their work quietly under the last breaths of the Southeast Trades. The motion was easy and the progress steady. On our fifth day out, I began to feel the swells of a distant storm mixing it up with the familiar wave patterns. A boat as small and light as Atom cannot hide from the effects of changing wave patterns as she lifts and rolls to the slightest touch. After a few of these cross-swells tumbled on deck, I took the warning and tucked a reef in my mainsail.
All day I had felt unusually weary and could not find the strength to finish my habitual two hours of exercise. That night a terrific pain grew behind my eyeballs, followed hours later by fever, chills and an agitated stomach. I recognized the malignant stowaway of malaria come back to haunt me.
My thoughts went back to New Guinea where I lay close to death in a mountain village during my first encounter with the fever. What would it bring this time? Incapacitated and unable to navigate, would I drift uncontrolled into a storm or be pulled down on the lee shore of Madagascar? The Australian doctor I saw in Port Moresby had prescribed anti-malarials to kill the parasites hiding in my liver, but explained that the other second strain of malaria I carried was drug-resistant and had a lifespan of five years. As it turned out, I had yearly relapses for exactly five years, and nothing since. That night before retreating to my bunk I swallowed a heavy ear-ringing dose of quinine from Atom's medicine cabinet.
My journal for the next few days is mostly blank. But I have snatches of recollections, beginning with Atom hard-pressed for another reef in the sails, as I lay lethargic and deaf to her plea, drifting through fragmented dreams. Flashback to a wild-eyed shaman chanting to the spirit world in cadent monotones as he drifts above me where I lay in a smoke-filled mountain hut. With the next sideways slam in the trough of the sea, my mind flew forward to Mauritius where Dolores ran across a pink sand beach, the wind blowing her dress into a cluster of dancing flowers. Dawn overtook the night, as lonely hours turned into lonely days.
Sledding down the building waves, Atom repeatedly broached under too much badly balanced sail, burying the side deck under the sea and sending me sprawling across the cabin with a cascade of loose gear. At some point I pulled myself on deck and put a sloppy third reef in the mainsail and changed down to the storm jib. My worries were not so easily reefed-in as I lay face down on the cabin sole, dripping with salt spray and perspiration and shaking with fever.
A loud bang and my world turned on its side. The steering line from wind vane to tiller snapped and the tiller began pounding itself against the side of the cockpit seat. I listened and waited. I tried to care. Storing up my energy, I told myself, “Action is needed. Get up. Do it now.” I don't remember getting up but do recall hanging over the transom trying to get a new line routed through the aluminum tubes of the steering gear. The sea repeatedly lashed out with a wet fist to my head and, more than once, I felt a hot jolt of pain as the steering gear rudder pinched my fingers against its metal frame as it swung from side to side.
Eventually, the quinine took effect and, to my great relief, the fever disappeared almost as quickly as it came, leaving me in a weakened state as my blood rebuilt its exploded cells. I was able to bring out the sextant for the first time in days and found myself some 80 miles south of Madagascar. Somehow Atom had run wildly along, without my control, and was still, more or less, on course.
Here I turned more directly west to compensate for the south-setting current. As the weather and my health improved, the seas calmed. We drifted all night without a breath of air to stir the limp sails and I welcomed the rest it provided. The following day was less restful as I worked to trim the sails and adjust the helm to light puffs of wind, mainly from the north.
The lazy, care-free days and familiar puffy white cumulus clouds of the tropics lay behind me. Cirrus, and other high-altitude clouds, suggested a shift in weather patterns. Sunsets here were no less brilliant, as the pink-tinged sky reflected off the aquamarine sea, but while sunrise the world over is a universal symbol of hope and renewal, a setting sun evokes something different. Even the most scenic sunset, for the solo sailor entering high latitudes, is a harbinger of a long night filled with the slight unease of the unknown.
The jumpy barometer, recording a series of frontal passages and shifting winds, kept me jumping to the sails at all hours. Tack, reef, adjust course and count each mile as its own success. The days passed in this anxious way until one night I stood on deck sniffing for the next breeze in the calm and noted a flashing light sequence identifying a lighthouse ahead. I was approaching the African coast some eighty miles northeast of my destination at the port of Durban. This was no accident of navigation, it was exactly where I wanted to be. With the current moving at seventy to eighty miles a day to the southwest, wind or no wind, I could be certain I'd be carried to Durban the next day.
Lightning flashed in the distant north as I spent a peaceful night drifting along the coast. As if by command of the sun, a fair wind rose at sunrise and bore me over the waves with a combined speed over ground of eight knots. A thick haze hung over the low hills and empty coastline in the rising heat. The local radio station reported the noon temperature ashore at 35 C (100 degrees F). When the concrete towers of Durban's skyline pierced the horizon, it lifted my spirits to think that Atom and I had coaxed and cared for each other across yet another ocean.
I passed a group of anchored ships lying exposed in the open roadstead outside the harbor inlet, then hoisted the yellow quarantine flag to announce my arrival. Before I even entered the breakwaters, a police launch met me with a line and towed me towards the yacht club. As I glided through the harbor they shortened the towline and a customs officer reached over with a clipboard full of papers attached to a long pole. There I sat, filling out forms before even touching shore. It was a fair taste of the stiflingly eager bureaucracy permeating South African society.
The launch brought me along a pier where I moored alongside the other international yachts facing Durban's main waterfront street. Four officers in brightly trimmed uniforms, from three different offices, checked my documents and poked around my boat before handing me over to the secretary of the Point Yacht Club next door. I was pleased to hear I could stay at the pier and use the yacht club facilities for no charge.
Back among the cruising community, I recognized several friends and boats from earlier ports of call sharing a similar route around Africa. Canadian Alan Butler, whom I had gotten to know in Mauritius, was moored nearby with his 26-foot Heavenly Twins catamaran. He was attempting to make the smallest catamaran solo-circumnavigation (which he eventually completed). By coincidence, we had each departed different harbors on Reunion Island on the same day and both arrived in Durban within an hour of each other.
Other boats here were new to me, including the 25-foot wooden sloop I was moored alongside. This thirty-some-year-old boat named Tarmin, belonged to John Sowden, who was twice the age of his venerable little boat and had already been around the world, solo, two times, since the mid 1960s. As you might imagine, this senior singlehanded sailor was, by now, highly opinionated. He was also a touch eccentric and borderline anti-social as viewed by the younger and more gregarious sailors around the club and international jetty. Few of the other sailors here could tolerate John's dismissive attitude and he seemed indifferent to their companionship, or their approval. I looked at him as a godfather and took his advice whenever it was offered. Perhaps John and I saw something of ourselves in each other and we became friends in the way of men pursuing similar paths: myself at the beginning of my adventures and John nearing the end of life's voyages.
Early each morning John emerged from Tarmin's ill-kept cabin wearing the same old pair of torn and stained shorts, clutching a mug so encrusted with dried sediments that it remained half full even after he finished his drink. I almost asked John about that mug but when he offered me a similarly silted cup, I drank without comment. When not busy repairing and preparing our boats for the upcoming passage around the African cape, I spent hours listening to John recount his adventures in the South Seas. He had been to places where the islanders had never seen a Westerner on a sailboat. John witnessed the world as it was being discovered by yachts and tourists during the past twenty years, and he made a point of telling me that his experiences then were not repeatable. I thought I knew something of the sea by this time, yet when John spoke of those magical times, and related the techniques that kept him and Tarmin from misadventure, I listened like a wide-eyed child on his grandfather's knee.
There was little privacy for the yachts moored along this waterfront esplanade of Durban. Throughout the day and into the evening people wandered along the pier twisting their necks to peer inside the homes of this floating gypsy tribe. I imagine the foreign-flagged yachts coming and going from the pier made some of the locals uneasy – especially those who longed to travel but had put down roots too deep to pull up.
Working on deck under Atom's American flag, I was barraged by increasingly tiresome questions and comments from passersby. “Did you sail all the way from America? Don't you get lonesome, frightened, seasick?” At least once a day someone was so keen to see the boat that I invited them aboard. Most were the English or Dutch Afrikaners who ruled the segregated country in those days before black rule began in the 1990s. I also hosted Indians, blacks and the multi-racial Coloureds, each of whom came aboard in strictly segregated groups, as was their custom.
A block away from the yacht jetty was a secretarial school for Coloured girls and each lunch hour they came to ogle Atom and her skipper. Groups of four to five girls found their way aboard where I told them about the strange world of sailing and they told me about their stranger world ashore. The girls were mainly of African/Indian mixture, often with a trace of European ancestry as well. In America they would call themselves blacks, or for those identifying themselves as being of a tribe of hyphenated-Americans: African-Americans. Here in the stratified system of apartheid, they are considered one step above pure Africans on the social ladder to whiteness. If they could not decide this for themselves, there was a government tribunal to choose their racial classification.
For some people the fate of their entire life rests on a few percentage points of black ancestry. Families had been broken up because one member was too light or too dark. Once they are classified, they know which township to live in, where they can go to school, who they can marry, even which bus to ride or toilet to use. Ironically, a population of several million Coloureds in South Africa proves that white and black racial separation was not always popular in less “civilized” times.
One weekend the girls asked me to come with them to Durban's beach. As we walked the two miles through town to the beach, I felt the disapproving stares of the whites. More than one Afrikaner crossed the street to tell me I should not be walking with “Coloured girls.” Someone called out “kaffir-boetie” (nigger lover) to embarrass us. I felt badly to be attracting this unwanted attention to the girls but they had heard it all before and pretending not to notice, told me to ignore it. I was glad I had not brought Dolores to this country because I could not bear to see her hurt in this way.
At the beachfront we passed a fence and sign declaring “Whites Only.” We stepped on past the “Indian Beach” and “African Beach” and turned through the gate to the “Coloured Beach.” If the sign was not there I could tell where I was by the exclusively brown bodies lying on the sand and playing in the surf. If this was a beach to be avoided by whites, I could not understand why. I was far more welcome here than I had been minutes before among the whites on the street. Stepping down a rung on the social ladder, as I was perceived to have done, was merely frowned on; stepping above your position was absolutely forbidden.
One of the girls came back with a paper bag from the Indian grocery across the street and pulled out some “bunny-chow” – a hollowed out loaf of bread filled with spicy vegetable curry, topped with grated carrots. We sat in a circle in the sand with our bunny-chow in the center. Many hands in turn broke off pieces of bread and scooped up the curry. The other popular food along the beach was a fast food version of the English potpie – South Africa's equivalent to the American hamburger – and even less appealing.
Back around the yacht club lingered a few black men seeking employment repairing and maintaining boats for the white owners. A man named Boi, from the Zulu tribe, approached me for a job, saying he had painted and repaired boats for several years and charged 10 Rand (US$4) a day. Boi worked alongside me for two weeks, varnishing Atom's weathered teak and mahogany trim, repairing leaks and repainting the deck.
We then moved Atom to a nearby beach where I careened the boat at high tide with lines to posts holding her along the shore. At low tide Atom lay over on her side exposing her fouled bottom to our scraping blades and paintbrushes. Every six hours, for three days and three nights, Atom went from upright to forty-five degrees as we painted one side, then turned her to paint the other side. Despite the discomfort of sleeping at various extreme angles it was an affordable alternative to the marine yard.
For lunch, Boi took over galley duty and invariably prepared cooked vegetables with red-hot chilies and pap, a lumpy porridge of cooked corn meal that is the staple of the African diet. If I had not employed Boi, I would not likely have a chance to get to know a South African black because friendship between black and white outside of work was considered not only incomprehensible, but dangerous as well. If I had tried to visit his home in the black township outside Durban, I would have been turned back at the police roadblock. If I managed to evade this obstacle, Boi told me he would be marked as a police informer by his neighbors. Anyone suspected of collaborating with the police risked receiving a “necklace,” which is an innocuous-sounding name for being bound hand and foot with a gasoline-soaked tire lit afire around your neck. As if this weren't sufficient to keep tourists from wanting to visit the townships, Zulu and Pondo tribes had clashed recently in Boi's township using knives, firebombs and homemade guns, killing over a hundred people in a few days. As in New Guinea, the river of tribalism in South Africa runs deep and wide.
A peculiarly South African incident took place when Boi guided me to the outdoor vegetable market in Durban. At the market entrance, he stopped to use the public toilet while I waited with a crowd of blacks milling around outside. A minute later Boi came out chuckling quietly to himself and hurried me away from the staring eyes. Boi told me a young black man claiming to be a soldier for the ANC (African National Congress) had followed him into the toilet and said, “Quick, change your clothes for mine and jump out the rear window and run away.” The man assumed I was undercover police and bringing Boi to jail. Why else would I be walking with a black man in this part of town?
On another day, when I offered to buy Boi lunch I learned apartheid cuts both ways. We went to his usual place, a restaurant/bar called the Regent. At the door I sensed something wasn't quite right when the Zulu security guard asked what we wanted. “Just food,” I replied and we were reluctantly waved in. At our table the waiter took Boi's order and then walked away as if I didn't exist. I called him back to take my order and he stood in silence looking at the floor. Eventually, the Indian manager noticed us and came over and told me he could not serve a white person because he might lose his license. “If you must eat here, perhaps we can serve your meal in the closet off the kitchen,” he said with a bow and a smile. I felt deeply insulted – and then remembered that this was merely a harmless little taste of the injustices and humiliations millions of non-whites go through every day.
The passbook for blacks that Boi carried permitted him to enter the city only while working during daylight. The city at night belonged to the whites. I could see a deep resentment in his eyes as he showed me his passbook, though Boi guarded his tongue until he knew me better. Some days later he admitted his sympathy was with the ANC and believed in their goal of violent overthrow of white rule to be replaced with their version of a communist system. “I'm sure in my lifetime we will break apartheid and regain our dignity and the wealth that now is in white hands.”
Since most blacks living around Durban were not permitted to enter the city at night, the side streets and alleys became deserted after sunset. As I walked by the park near the yacht club one evening, an unmarked van squealed to a halt next to me and five white police in plain clothes leapt out the back doors. I froze as they brushed past me with drawn nightsticks and pulled a black vagrant out of the shadows. Seconds later he was tossed in the van and sped away.
In complete contrast to how they treated their countrymen, the locals treated us sailors at the international jetty like heroes, inviting us to their homes for the weekends and on sightseeing tours of the countryside. Typical of the kind folks I met here was Colin and Mary Rose, English South Africans who, months earlier, had called out to me on Atom from the beach back in Mauritius where they were on vacation. They asked if I was stopping later in Durban and promised to look out for me when I arrived. I never expected to see them again and was surprised when they located me here three months later. I spent several restful days at their home in Margate, about an hours drive south along the coastal highway from Durban. Like many middle-class, white South Africans, they lived comfortably in a spacious home complete with built-in swimming pool, a black maid and gardener.
On my travels around the suburbs and small coastal towns of South Africa, I noticed there was something extraordinarily tidy about each place. It took some time to put my finger on it and then I realized there were no telephone poles or electric cables to mar the skyline. These lifelines of civilization were all buried underground where they belong. Colin said one of the first things they noticed on a vacation to America was that virtually every road was accompanied by a sky-cluttering array of poles and cables. It's funny the things we learn not to see.
Colin and Mary Rose acted as tireless tour guides, taking me to the scenic park of Oribi Gorge where waterfalls plunge over orange sandstone cliffs to land in the Valley of Mzimkulu (Great Home of All Rivers). In their effort to give me a more balanced view of apartheid, they drove me through the Coloured and Indian townships, pointing out how the people lived in subdivisions of brick and wood houses that on the surface looked not unlike some American neighborhoods.
The Indians are now the shopkeepers of the country after having been brought over by the British to work the sugar-cane plantations of Natal. Many now live in relative mansions with a staff of African servants and twin Mercedes-Benz parked in the garage. In most cases, whites have buffered themselves from the blacks by placing an Indian or Coloured township between them. This flaunted wealth at the edge of black townships is partly why blacks dislike the Indians as much as they dislike whites, and vent this anger when they burn and loot the Indian settlements.
We also drove through a newly built black township of neat brick homes constructed, and mostly paid for, by the government. The new school had already been burnt down and the whites pointed to this as proof the blacks could not yet be safely integrated and that they preferred to destroy that which could help them. The blacks, I suspect, would counter that it signified their refusal to accept the gifts of apartheid.
I twice visited with Colin's neighbors at their frequent braais, or backyard barbecue dinners. As a vegetarian I couldn't help notice the South Africans are ravenous meat-eaters, even out-consuming Australians in thick steaks, spare ribs and hamburger, all washed down with generous amounts of beer. At these gatherings their conversation always turned to emigration. Due to recent disinvestments and international banking policies, the South African currency had plummeted in value. This, along with the upsurge in ANC bombings and general violence, left South African whites feeling there was no future for their families in this country. The majority of the white people I spoke with were on an emigrant waiting list for Australia, Canada, or the United States, or had friends who had already left.
I returned from Margate to Durban by train to catch another view of the coastal countryside. At the station I dutifully took my seat in an empty passenger car marked with the sign Blankes (Afrikaans for Whites). I settled into a plush leather seat surrounded by varnished hardwoods, polished brass hardware and a porcelain washing sink as the diesel-powered engine pulled our ten-passenger cars forward.
The first thing we passed was an antique steam-powered locomotive moving the opposite direction on the narrow gauge tracks, spewing black soot as it trundled past. Our track followed the rocky coast, at times within sight of the crashing surf. We rarely got up to speed before slowing down to stop at the next station. There were about thirty stops on this three-and-a-half hour run, each stop part of a blur of children begging pennies beneath the windows and signposts marking the stations: Mercury Halt, Umzumbe, Scottburgh, Mtwalume, Amanzimtoti.
Our Afrikaans conductor herded the blacks on and off the train with his stick, then waved it to the engineer to set us rolling north again. Gangs of a hundred shirtless black men sweating under a midday sun worked repairing the track with their white overseer standing nearby.
Leaning out the window, I noticed a steady stream of mango and banana peels tossed out the windows of the cars ahead. Bored in my empty luxury car and curious, I made my way forward through two more empty first-class cars and flung open the door to third class. The rough car benches were filled to near-capacity and the aisles crammed with luggage and children. The air was filled with the lively clicking and musical sounds of the Zulu language. Young girls sold fruit from boxes as they moved up and down the crowded aisle. I bought a bagful of mangos, passed some out to my neighbors, and wedged myself into a hard wooden bench between a dozing, wrinkled, old man and a heavy Zulu woman with a baby on her knee. I looked up to see the conductor glaring down at me with a tired look of “here's another trouble-making kaffir-boetie.” Instead of bashing me with his stick, he pointed with it back towards the first class cars and said, “No whites allowed in third class.”
Back in Durban I accepted an invitation to travel inland to a strawberry farm in the Valley of a Thousand Hills by the manager who was a member of the yacht club. An entire village of Zulus worked the farm. Women harvested the crops with babies riding strapped to their backs or wrapped in a blanket and set under the shade of a banana tree. Some young women wore light brown clay smeared thinly on their face, claiming it kept them cool in the sun, though one admitted to me that the men said it made them more attractive. At dusk I heard them singing as they walked up the hill to their village. The men drove tractors, repaired fences and buildings, and drove the produce to town. These people work for a dollar a day and rarely go shopping in the city because the bus fare alone cost two days wages.
I stayed in a guest room in an elegant house with the manager and his wife. One of the house servant girls spoke some English and told me her name was “Queen Victoria.” When I asked for her real name she showed me her passbook and I saw she was telling the truth. Many Zulu children proudly own royal names of England I was told. Giving a powerful name to your child was a way of directing a portion of that power to them. Victoria's sister's name was, not surprisingly, Queen Elizabeth.
Despite the often-smiling faces, I felt tenseness in the atmosphere here. My host, I noticed, was never far from the pistol he usually carried in an ankle holster. At night the holster hung from his bedpost. Putting on a gun was just a part of getting dressed. There had been no confrontations yet on this farm, although closer to the Mozambique border, white farmers were being bombed, shot at, or burnt out by ANC terrorists, and sometimes by their own hired help. It was only a matter of time before the killing reached this valley as well. The thought of being murdered in our beds made for uneasy sleep.
Before I could make these excursions outside Durban's port area, I was required to obtain a special travel permit. Around the time I applied for the permit, I noticed visitors to Atom were becoming fewer by the day. Even the lovely secretaries were gone. Our novelty has finally worn off, I told myself. At the end of Boi's last day of work he said, “Did you know that policeman has been watching you for two days,” and nodded towards a man in dark sunglasses and plain clothes sitting on a bench on the jetty.
“Don't be silly. Why would they be watching me?”
The following day the yacht club commodore visited Atom. “James, the police are watching you,” he said.
“Are they? I can't imagine why.”
“Perhaps it's because of...all those...those non-whites you've been associating with. Better watch your step,” he warned.
As the commodore left I walked up to the man sitting behind the newspaper ten steps down the jetty and asked, “Are you here for me?” He looked at me expressionless for many seconds then got up and walked away. If my friends were wrong and he wasn't police, he certainly would have thought my question odd enough to send him on his way.
The next day at my immigration office appointment I was told to sit in the corner where I waited several hours like a punished child before being gruffly told to leave and come back tomorrow. This charade was repeated for the next three days until they grew tired of trying to wait me out. Compared to them I was powerless, but I had patience. At last, a huge, stern-looking Afrikaner in a uniform barely containing his bulk, presented me with the pass I had so long awaited. As he handed me the well-stamped paper, he glared at me with a look that said he would gladly crush me with his bare hands if only he could find an excuse for it in his color-coded law book.
These officials were descendants of the same people whose laws caused a young lawyer named Mahatma Gandhi to begin formulating his non-violent resistance-strategy when he lived in South Africa. Perhaps Gandhi sensed the futility of his struggle for men to be treated as men, regardless their color, at that time in this land. Later, he moved to India and worked tirelessly and successfully to drive the British out.
Rather than follow tourists on the obligatory bus tour of the African game parks, with my coveted travel document in hand, I accepted an invitation to join the Durban Ramblers Club for a three-day weekend, trekking through the Drakensberg Mountains of Natal Province. Our plan was to follow the Miambonja River to its source in the high plateau country of Lesotho and to climb nearby Rhino Peak. We would sleep in caves previously inhabited by a people known simply as the Bushman. Our group of ten, including Afrikaners, English South Africans and an ex-Rhodesian, drove in three cars to the Himeville Nature Reserve where we pitched our tents along the river as darkness fell. The mountain air was refreshingly cool during a night of light rain showers.
By dawn we were packed and moving up the river, crisscrossing in shallow places and making steady progress up the gorge – a watery avenue among giant wind-scoured peaks. From rolling grasslands we moved up into the narrow gorge, surrounded on both sides by fantastic rock formations jutting out over our heads from the red-orange walls. Below, the green grasses of the veld were littered with gray boulders as if tossed by Hercules from the high pillars. In the distance, rocky spires rose like islands across a sea of grass. Hawks and eagles soared on thermals up the faces of the cliffs. Dwarfing them all, with his ten foot wingspan, was a lone bearded vulture called a lammergeyer.
Our unspoken group leader was Tom de Waal, an Afrikaner in his early fifties who had traveled extensively in the “Berg.” Being an amateur naturalist, he, best among us, understood the plants, animals and geology of this region. From Tom, I learned that millions of years ago in this area a volcanic upheaval lifted the basaltic lava miles above the surrounding plains to form this “roof of Southern Africa,” which today is the independent black nation of Lesotho. For millions of years, wind and rain have eroded this eastern edge of the plateau, leaving a multitude of strange formations – sharp pinnacles, overhanging cliffs and caves, river-cut gorges among crumbly basalt and sandstone. Early European settlers named these the Drakensberg (Dragon) Mountains for their jagged dragon-like spine as seen from the east. Zulus living below the mountains say the edge of the escarpment resembles a row of spears they call Ukhahlamba.
As we walked through a light rain, a troupe of baboons on the cliff above screamed and threw rocks at us before disappearing into the fog. Of all the dangers of the wild, until now I had never considered an animal might one day strike me down with a thrown rock. Footing became treacherous on steep, sliding gravel. The less-fit members of our group retreated to meet us at a lower elevation later in the day.
Hours later, four of us gained the ridge of the escarpment and were amazed to stand in patches of snow on the highland plain. Summer snow is uncommon, even at this high altitude, so we made use of the novelty with a brief exchange of snowballs. A Sotho herdsman on horseback, wrapped in a colorful blanket against the cold wind, passed us to round up a stray cow grazing on the sparse grass. He seemed as out of place in this sterile land as white men throwing snowballs. To survive here, the Sotho bring their cattle and pack mules down into Natal to trade wool, mohair and hides for cornmeal and other goods.
We took a compass bearing on Rhino Peak just as it disappeared behind a veil of rain from blue-black clouds. My companions stopped somewhere short of the peak and told me we must turn back or risk being caught in a flash flood in the gully on the way down. A group of climbers died this way the year before when a fast-moving storm overtook them and they were washed away in a flood of rocks and water. I didn't feel ten minutes more would change our fate and so ran off alone to bag the peak.
When I returned, my brooding friends asked what was the point of reaching the top when there was no view to be seen in the cloud and rain. What could I say? If one climbs mountains solely for the view he will often be disappointed. Inexplicably, I needed to reach every peak I set out for, regardless of the mountain's tempestuous moods. Fortunately, the rain remained light as we bounded down the loose rocks of the riverbed. Across the rocky slopes a group of deer-like rhebok outpaced us in sure-footed leaps and bounds.
We met up with the rest of our party and carried on to our night's campsite at Nutcracker Cave, so named because of its skull-cracking five-foot ceiling, as more than one of our group discovered the hard way. The cave was actually shallow, more of a recess in an overhanging cliff, with a trickling waterfall over the entrance and a sweeping vista over the river and valley below. Leaning back in our sleeping bags that night, Tom told us some stories by candlelight about the recently-vanished bushmen that inhabited these caves until driven out by Zulus and white settlers.
The Bushman was a little man, about five feet tall with brown skin and Mongolian facial features. He was superbly adapted to the feast or famine lifestyle of the African hunter, soaking up water and food like a camel before running across a barren desert. Actually, he preferred to run everywhere and was hardly seen to walk at all. A true stone-age man, he was a hunter-gatherer with few possessions and no agriculture whatsoever. His language was a complicated set of clicks and smacking of lips. He was so sensitive of his size that it could be fatal to mention his smallness in his presence, which was reflected in his standard greeting to fellow bushmen: “Tshjamm” (I saw you looming up from afar and I am dying of hunger). As an expert botanist, bushmen knew how to use the plants and roots for food, medicine or poison. While the women gathered roots and berries, he hunted Africa's largest game with his poison-tipped arrows, tracking a wounded animal for days if need be, until it dropped of exhaustion.
The bushmen's rock paintings of wildlife, hunting parties and dancing ceremonies scattered about these caves eventually came to record the bloodshed and tragedy of Zulus and Dutch settlers encroaching on their ancestral territory. His little poison arrows found the Voertrekker's cattle an easy target, but a poor defense against farmer's guns. By the 1890s he was exterminated from the Drakensberg. Other groups of bushmen retreated to the howling deserts of the Kalahari where they lived as close to perpetual anguish and deprivation as any human settlement on earth. Up until a few years ago, small bands of bushmen still roamed the trackless wastes in search of game and the life-giving rains that come briefly once a year.
As the evening rain fell, the streaming waterfall blocked our cave entrance and we tucked ourselves closer to the back wall to stay dry. The conversation eventually turned to the current strife in this country. The ex-Rhodesian in our group remarked with some bitterness, “We white Africans are like the bushmen of today, surrounded by hostile blacks and economic sanctions from the rest of the world. We surrendered to the blacks in Rhodesia and they are turning a prosperous country into another failed African state. The blacks don't care about our European standard of civilization. My family has been in Africa 300 years, developing and civilizing this land. I cannot, and will not, live as a black man and we will fight to keep South Africa under white rule. In any case, I have nowhere else to go.”
He was right to see the irony of our group sheltering in the same caves where the Bushman sheltered when they ruled the land. The waterfall thundered outside like the beating of Zulu war drums. The Bushman had been a passing shadow over the land and the shadow of white rule was also destined to pass. Maybe whites and blacks would learn to live together, or maybe not.
I noticed the English South Africans in our group were less certain that their privileged white rule was sustainable or even desirable. By the time I returned to South Africa nine years later, the whites had handed the country over to the blacks, virtually without a shot being fired in its defense, despite the promises I heard from some Afrikaners that they would fight to retain control. Even though the “whites only” signs would soon come down, how long will the apartheid of our hearts linger?
We got up to meet the sun as it poured down the valley, turning the sky from pink to the flame blue of the African summer. Tom led us across the lower valley and up to the cliffs on the opposite side where he wanted to show us a gallery of Bushman rock painting on the overhanging ledges. While most of us walk blindly through life, Tom missed nothing, whether watching the bearded vulture soaring on air currents a half mile away or bending down to identify a specie of grass, calling out its botanical name as if Latin where his second language. Even if unaware of the classification, we could not fail to observe the masses of blossoms painting the high veld in waves of color: red bottlebrush, white, yellow and red proteas, and scattered terrestrial orchids.
Tom was fluent in Zulu, which sounded odd bubbling from the lips of a white man. With each peak that hove into view Tom delighted in shouting its name: “Indumeni” (Place of Thunder) then the jagged peaks of “Ndedema” (Place of Reverberations). With a tilt of his head he indicated “Intabayikonjwa” (Mountain at Which One Must Not Point) – if pointed at, you risk being punished by storms. One hardly need point at all, since almost daily, wreaths of black clouds and thunder spilled down the highest peaks.
During a lunch break I climbed a rock overhang for a better view with Michelle, an airline employee from Durban. Thousands of feet below, the Polela River lay out its serpentine course towards the sea. Michelle pointed out a herd of black wildebeest grazing on the sweet grasses along the river. Before the weekend ended, we also saw the elk-like eland and red hartebeest. Leopards and other rare creatures lived here but stayed well hidden.
Again we split into groups of those who wanted to rest and those ready for several more hours of strenuous climbing. To be back to our campsite before dark, we set out at a fast pace, moving through the sea of grass under a high and hot sun washed by the summer wind. “Safari” (we march), I repeated to myself as I kept pace with the others. And march we certainly did. The mountain's seemingly absolute shape morphed into an infinite array of profiles as viewed from the differing angles around its base. The heat intensified along the cliff side. We sucked our water bottles dry as we moved along rocks radiating the afternoon sun like spitting yellow cobras. All-too-real were the poisonous snakes watching us from under shaded rock ledges. An eagle climbed into the sun and disappeared.
Suddenly, we were in the merciful shade of a rock shelf and staring at a smooth light-brown rock surface adorned with the crude and eloquent stick-like figures painted by Bushman artists hundreds, or perhaps thousands, of years ago. What amazed me most was how the ancient paint of mineral oxides, blood, urine and tree sap applied with animal hair and feathers, barely shielded from the elements, looked as fresh as if applied yesterday.
The Paleolithic graffiti began at one end with a group of hunters pursuing antelope. Further along the rock face the figures danced. Then a battle scene of bushmen being attacked by a black tribe. To ease the artist's fears he painted himself as a giant among other giants. At the far end of the wall he painted his last scene – white men on horseback. The Bushman called themselves the “harmless people.” He lived simply off the land until he died and the land absorbed him. He could not be tamed and so became one of the ghosts of Africa. Only an aura remains, a state of mind, and a legacy of painted figures on rock. To read the story requires only open eyes, an open heart and an open mind. I'm reminded of “The Song of the Rain” from The Lost World of the Kalahari, by Laurens Van Der Post. As they wait for the life-giving rains, a woman sings:
Under the sun
The earth is dry,
By the fire
Alone I cry.
All day long
The earth cries
For the rain to come.
All night my heart cries
For my hunter to come
And take me away.
A man hears her song and tenderly sings back:
Oh! Listen to the wind,
You woman there;
The time is coming
The rain is near.
Listen to your heart,
Your hunter is here.
Returning to my boat in Durban, I felt as alien to the people of the city as a Bushman, and was eager to get under sail. Somewhere along the way I began to understand that my views, my values, my morality, had been largely dictated by society. This country of the cruel and the kind held no more absolute truths than any other. The world over, an angry person sees corruption wherever he looks, while the thoughtful person sees beauty. And it is a beautiful country.