Our corner camp stand at Balule
It seems impossible to wrench myself from a sticky Brooklyn Sunday, the lilies on the terrace, the basil waiting to be planted, to return to the story of the Kruger, whose pull I feel too strongly for comfort. But it must be done.
A strange thing happened soon after we had chosen our camp stand at the small Balule campsite. It was a hot day, and we had arrived a little early. Check-in at all camps is at 2pm but the staff at Olifants, the large rondawel camp on the riverside cliff 30km away, where we had spent the night and which serves as check-in for this tiny satellite, had told us we could arrive at any time. We had swung the heavy gate at Balule open at 11am, wary at first about electrocuting ourselves. Was the current on or not? Not.
Campers were still in their morning routines - back for hours, in some cases, from their early game drives, and others still packing up to leave, so we hung about in the shade waiting to see which camp stands would open up. At a camp you always look for a nice shade tree, so that the tent does not heat into a sauna during the blazing bushveld winter day, and you hope for a site near the all-important Perimeter so that at night you might see nocturnal animals as they go about their business. While we waited we could hear the sonorous grunt and bellow of hippos, invisible just beyond the fence, which was fringed with tall river reeds.
At last we made our way to the top of the campsite, much drier and hotter than the rest, but where there was only one inhabited stand along the fence. There was an empty lot at a corner, so that we had the ugly electric fence stretching on two sides. About as much privacy as a camp here can afford (we missed the unimpeded sense of emptiness that we enjoyed in the Namib, but were relieved that predators were kept from us). And the ablutions block was nearby - not too far for me to walk in the scary night. As I walked about, searching for just the right spot for the tent, still packed deep in the 4 x 4 idling nearby, I sensed our new neighbour watching. This was perfectly normal.
Everyone is friendly to each other in these camps. You never pass someone without exchanging a greeting - it is as much a part of the culture of the north as it is about these camp sites, where you join a tribe in constant flux: you are one of us, you camp. But first the license plates on cars are immediately assessed and snap judgements made. GP - Gauteng, the country's nearby hub, and the park's predominant plate; EC - Eastern Cape province, a smattering; MP - Mpumalanga, just next door, plenty; L - Limpopo province, many; NW - Northwest, exotic to us, but there in force; KZN - Kwazulu Natal - unusual. NC - Northern Cape - infrequent.
And CA - Cape Town, the end of the earth and a rare site. Beautiful Cape Town, the mountains, the sea, the winter rains. Another country.
In our entire ten day stay in the park we saw one other CA registered vehicle. It doesn't mean there were no Capetonians there, but if they were there they had flown in to nearby Nelpsruit, and rented an MP car, a booming business in that small city of hills and subtropical plantations. We, reckless, diesel-burning devils, had chosen the road. The long, long road.
Soon after the tent was set up our tall, bearded, shirtless neighbour (EC) walked over to greet us. He looked at me as though seeing a ghost and asked in English, Where do you come from? I felt he didn't mean Cape Town, as he could see that from the car. Not even hearing my answer, he went on: I thought you were my daughter. You look just like my daughter. I wondered, Why is she here??? I laughed and said we might be related, but he didn't laugh and kept on looking right through me, and inside I wished I could see a picture of his daughter.
Later I could see his wife looking at me too, carefully, politely. He came back in the afternoon, while I was making dough for our roosterkoek that evening, my hands sticky, to ask if we needed anything from "the shop". This was 30kms away, at Olifants. The shops all have wood and charcoal, drinks and canned food and frozen braai meat, and five fresh items: pink tomatoes, tired iceberg, mottled bananas, onions in sacks and a pineapple, if you are lucky. Once, we found avocados. The Kruger is hugged by farms that grow some of the best fresh produce South Africa can offer. Inexplicably, it is not sold in the park.
But I digress.
Dough for roosterkoek
I placed an order for tonic water. We were running dangerously low. After we returned from our sunset game drive we found the bottle on one of our camp chairs, sitting upright in a canvas seat in the shade. I went over to their camp - a caravan with a long table set at right angles to it, a tarp on the dust, a light strung up in a thorn tree, a little homestead - with some money, and met his wife who smiled at me with gold fillings, and was shy. He still looked at me as though he was having a dream. They were about to braai their chops and wors, and I returned to our camp to start the fire.
Tiny, shy klipspringer ("rock jumper"), seen on our drive
New neighbours behind us had just begun to chop the local wood, long shards of it sold in long bags, as hard as a rock. The man used a metal spike to split the wood. We saw many of these on the trip. We had no spike. They were a mother and father, and grown up daughter, another caravan (NW). We had exchanged greetings earlier, as I walked past them to wash our lunch things at the open air scullery in the middle of the camp. Middag - "Afternoon" (and spoken mirrag, my accent becoming colloquial, the tongue softening). I always offered Afrikaans, first. Unlike our stunned EC neighbour, few campers used English as a first language.
In the evenings, at these camps, I was comforted by a sense of quiet self sufficiency. The security of knowing that everything we needed was contained feet away in the car, that our bed was within the tent, that fire, water, shelter were within reach. Preparing the braai and food while it was still light, the coals ready as the night flooded our campsite, illumination coming only from our old fashioned candles inside their glass chimneys. The solid darkness beyond that pool of warm light. The optional security of Vince's powerful little flashlights in case I heard a disturbing rustling or a whickering of hyenas near the fence. The comfortable sense of other campers nearby, because I am always afraid of what lurks in the dark, their white and bright-bright LED light blazing within their camps' footprints, their soft voices, the smoke of their fires.
I grilled chops over the fire and as it hissed and sent wonderful smells into the night the hyenas came, sniffing the air and yipping and crooning to each other. I trusted that fence. People feed them, which is why they come. We did not feed them.
The night, as we lay flat on our backs in the zipped-up tent, windowflaps open to see the stars and the night animals, the air mattress beneath the comfortable warmth of two spread-open sleeping bags, was alive. The hippos on the far side of the camp shouted and bellowed, like the deepest of notes from the bassest of saxophones. The hyenas on the other side whistled and squeaked and chastised each other.
In the early, early morning, an African fish eagle split my heart open with its mile long cry.
Our Trip so Far:
Day 1 - Cape Town to Bloemfontein: 12 hours, many miles
Day 2 - Bloemfontein to Dullstroom: smoke in the heart of the country
Day 3 - Dullstroom to Tamboti: bushveld
Tamboti - Camp Life: wild fruit and winter flowers
Tamboti to Olifants: small owls and long necks
Morning in the Kruger: enamel cups and strong coffee