“Safe travels, mon frerr,” I hugged Manu before he boarded the San Miguel dinghy for the last time after sailing with Captain Francois for the last 17 months.
With almost five months of traveling together, we split ways in Toliara, Madagascar. He was heading to the French-owned Renuion Island, just east of Madagascar while Francois, myself and our newly joined crew – Alex (Gallitheian – Spain) and Carven (Australian), a couple making their way to Spain without flying – were to head to Cape Town, South Africa.
It would include the treacherous crossing of the Cape of Good Hope – one of the most dangerous regions for any seaward vessel in the world.
Especially in cyclone season – the very season we were in.
The predicted 8 days to cross the Mozambique Channel had, as was custom on San Miguel, turned to 12 days of battling 12-foot waves (against us) in 25 knot winds. The waves were so big that as they grew and approached the boat I thought they would attempt to jump on board and hitch a ride.
They didn’t. But they did manage to throw me from port-side to starboard-side as I sat minding my own business in the cockpit. Luckily, the table broke my fall (and my shin bone). But with only my ego bruised and my shin grazed, I promptly sat on the lower part of the bench as Francois internally tsk-tsk-tsked me (for all those concerned, the table was unscathed).
That night I sat with Carven and Alex under the canopy of a clear, star-filled night. As we chatted something flew from the water from starboard.
Alex was scratching his newly Carven-made dreadlocks as the flying object deflected off his hand towards me. I too was scratching my sea-made dreadlocks when the object deflected off my hand and over my shoulder back into the water.
It was a flying fish that had almost re-enacted Fabio’s goose-in-the-face incident some years back with me playing Fabio.
On day 12 we entered the marina of Richard’s Bay, the first port of call on the eastern side of South Africa. A major industrial port, we saw a cargo ship at the entrance of the channel that led into the safety of the marina.
Only, just its bow was breaching the shallow waters. The rest of it was sunk.
“It sunk about eight months ago,” a local Afrikaans relayed the story as François and I hitch-hiked into town a day after we had been cleared by immigration. “Got caught on a sand bar in a huge storm. The tide was going out and that left the stern without support so it broke off. They dragged it out to deep waters and sunk it. There still salvaging the bow.”
“And where is the town?” François asked.
“I’ll take you to the shopping centre,” the driver said. “That’s the only good part of town.”
After almost six months of exploring villages and remote locations, the last thing either of us wanted to see or experience was a shopping centre. We were dropped off in the car park of a very Westernised mall where Angel and her Dutch boyfriend Renee had taken me to get some Rand, the South African currency, just a few days before.
“We’re going to drink tonight and see who the weakest link is,” Angel had declared.
I grinned. Usually, people who declare said statements are the ones to fall first and Angel was no exception. She’s a Zulu who works on cruise ships in the Mediterranean and was currently on vacation. Her sister, Veronica, a coal train driver, had joined us as did their brother, Mossie, a waiter at Dros Bar and Restaurant, just a few feet from where we had tied the boat in the waterfront.
All were smashed by 02:00. I was drunk but not the weakest link, representing the Aussie drinker with pride.
At 03:00 I headed back to the boat.
Fuck, I thought. Where is it? I was standing on the dock but all I could see was the mast. I looked down. The tide had dropped by two meters and San Miguel floated way below. To get to the boat meant climbing awkwardly in my drunken stupor to the deck below.
The next morning François was woken by a troop of Vervet monkeys who had climbed onto the boat.
“You must close all your hatches,” informed Hert, the security guard that had greeted us when we had docked. “There are thieving monkeys and they can open hatches and steal anything.”
“And where is the town?” François had asked him.
“There’s a shopping centre but it’s far. You need a car,” Hert had said.
And so we had hitch-hiked to town, being dropped off at the shopping centre. We stopped a local walking by.
“Excuse me,” François approached him. “Where is the town? I mean, is there a downtown with side streets, bars, alleyways?”
“No,” the local said. “Just the shopping centre.”
“Can’t be,” François said as I thought the same.
“This is the town,” the local said with sadness as he seemed to realise that that was all his town had to offer.
In the car park we encountered another local.
“Where is the town?” François asked him.
“Go through the shopping centre,” he smiled. “Many shops.”
“But there must be a downtown with side streets, bars, alleyways?” Francois said.
“Yes,” the local widened his smile. “Go through the shopping centre. Many shops.”
“Looks like they’ve built a shopping centre around the town,” I said, staring at the concrete, modern building housing fake air, fake smiles and fake food. I shuddered at the thought.
I’ll skip to Wednesday when Angel, Renee and Veronica picked Francois and myself from the boat to go to Shakaland, the most touristy place I’d ever been too (and hopefully the last).
It was an hour’s drive through rolling sugarcane fields, lush green mountain ranges and toothpick-thin gumtree plantations used to make paper. Shakaland is where the TV series of the same name was filmed. The place had gone from a small Zulu village explaining the cultural significance of the famed tribe to a full on lodge and resort complete with pool and buffet hotel western food.
Hanging above the entrance was a large gazelle skull with twisted antlers while inside the complex, besides the stunning views of what appeared to be man-made Phoebe Lake surrounded by lush forests, were the restaurant and souvenir shop.
Angel had taught me some basic Zulu and I was saying “Saau Bone Kunjani,” (‘Hello, how are you?)” to every Zulu I met who seemed to be impressed.
We witnessed traditional Zulu dancing by warriors of the Zulu tribe, all dressed in traditional loin clothes made of cow skin, lion mane and leopard skin. Halfway through the dance I was asked to volunteer for the hunting dance.
“Just follow the leader,” explained the host in the domed air-conditioned hut (yup, air-conditioned) where the chief sat upon his throne flanked by his two wives.
Above him the skull and tusks of an African elephant shaded them while the dancers danced to the beat of the drums the drummers were beating high up on the platform above them.
I attempted to kick as high as the leader who had no qualms of raising his legs well above his ear lobes.
Should have stretched first, I thought.
“You need more practice,” said the host as he thanked Renee, myself and a very enthusiastic Russian for volunteering.
They told the story of the Anglo-Zulu war of 1879 where the Zulu, armed with nothing but spears, shields and ferocity had beaten the musk-armed British.
“I’d shit myself if I were a British soldier encountering a Zulu warrior in the bush,” I whispered to Francois. You know you don’t mess with a tribe that can defeat armed forces with spears.
Lunch was an all-you-can-eat buffet for 165 Rand ($16.5 AUD). It was good food but not along the lines of the traditional foods of the Zulu that the website had advertised.
“And the Zulu beer?” I asked one of the waiters.
“You should have asked for some at the dance hall,” she said and sent someone down to fetch a pitcher of the clay pot brewed stuff.
“You know it’s only 1% alcohol,” said an Afrikaans at the next table as I was served with a milky looking product.
I poured a little into my glass and took a sip, immediately regretting it. “Wow,” I winced. “Tastes like sour milk.” I offered some to Francois.
“Tastes like shit,” he spluttered the obvious.
I added some brown sugar at the recommendation of the waiter and although the taste was easier for consumption, let’s just say that, like wrestling a crocodile, you should only try it once.
From Shakaland we drove over to a small town called Eshowe (pronounced ‘E-shower’) where we stopped by the aerial boardwalk in the Dlinze forest. A 20 Rand entry fee was paid ($2 AUD) as we declined the offer of a guide to lead us through the bush. Angel was worried about not having the right footwear for the hike so I offered her my flip-flops ($3 in Toliara, Madagascar) while I hiked barefoot, my favourite form of footwear.
We reached a short platform of wooden planks that had been built over the tree canopies ending in a 20-meter tower that we climbed. It was a smaller version of the Otways’ Tree Top walk ($24 AUD) near Apollo Bay on the southern coast of Victoria, Australia.
We rested at the top of the tower, enjoying the bushland views of our first African nature park. The sky had darkened with grey clouds pushed along by strong winds. We climbed back down and took a track leading into the woods.
We passed tangled vines hanging from trees that had killed other trees in a ferocious competition to reach sunlight, dense shrubbery and a trickling creek. The track wound its way down to a grassy clearing with picnic tables and the ‘Bishop’s Seat’ where a bishop would conduct his sermons.
“We should U-turn and try the other path to get back to the car park,” suggested Francois.
I agreed and we back-tracked to make a left at a forest intersection when we were surrounded by three Mouse Deer with tiny antlers and feet. And a face that would have made a mother mouse proud (but a mother deer disappointed). They ran around us in circles as we continued down the path. We should have taken it as a sign to turn back as we became lost in the forest.
“Should have taken the ranger’s offer of a guide,” I muttered as the clock ticked towards sunset and the temperature dropped. We were 500 meters above sea level and losing light, going around in circles.
“OK,” Francois took the lead. “We’ll backtrack to the intersection and climb back to the car park. It’s the only safest way. I don’t plan to spend the night here.”
We walked briskly and after an hour made it back to the car park in the dying rays of daylight. The rangers had shut up shop and left, thinking we’d make it out on our own.
We drove back to town and picked up a few beers to celebrate our finding the way back only to get lost in town, driving around in circles. Even the GPS couldn’t figure out how to get us back on to the R66 Richard’s Bay-Durban highway as the main road was half-closed due to construction work.
After an hour and asking four different people we managed to escape the clutches of Eshowe and made our way back to the waterfront for an evening of pizza, beers and watching England’s Manchester United beat Greece’s Olympyakos 3-0 in the Champions League coming back from a 2-0 aggregate to Olympyakos’ advantage (Dutchman van Pearce scoring a hat-trick).
The next afternoon we sailed out to cheers from the waiters of Dros who we had befriended and some boats whose captain and crew were out on deck and blew horns as we motored out of the marina towards the Indian Ocean. With Richard’s Bay being a busy industrial port, cargo ships, tankers and super tankers were anchored all around. It was like riding a push-bike through a shopping centre’s car park on Boxing Day. Only we were on a 47-foot sloop and sailing.
“Try not to get too close,” directed Francois as I took first watch.
No shit, I thought. Last thing I wanted was too collide with a metallic cargo ship the size of Tasmania.
Still, it might have been better than battling the 14-foot waves in 40 knot winds that hit us the next day.