Tuesday, November 5, 2013


After the elephants crossing the Letaba River had long disappeared into the tall hardwood trees lining the river, we drove on towards our next camp, Tzendze (and if you have no idea what I am talking about, skip to the bottom of this post and start the journey from the beginning...). 

Tzendze is described by magazines and other campers as a jewel - small, thick with trees, no electricity, very quiet. No bungalows, you needed either a tent or a camper. I had booked two nights here, poring over maps and recommendations back in Brooklyn, making the reservations online, mentally taking us farther and farther from People, who stayed in the south, where the lions preferred to hang out. We were heading north, into mopane veld, poor hunting for lions, but good for birds and misanthropes.

To check in at Tzendze we had to shoot beyond it by a few kilometers, to the larger camp called Mopani (after the vegetation type we were now traversing, characterized by the tree of the same name, with its two-lobed leaves, and monoculture uniformity), with its thatched reception area, shop, paved roads, and gas station. 

And on the way we met these guys, a triumverate of ground hornbills, looking just like diakens in the Dutch Reformed Church, and about as humourless. They are the size of very large turkeys. And they didn't like the car. They pecked its bumper repeatedly, standing right in from of us and attacking their own reflections. And if anyone cares to squat down and look above the left front tire, they will see three dents made by one of these idiots. We could not drive away from their attack or we would have squashed them. We were tempted. Peck, peck, peck. 

One is asked to report sightings of ground hornbills at camps, because they are so scarce. I can see why. Dodos in waiting.

At Mopani, after I'd checked in and been given our papers for Tzendze, and Vince had gassed up the 4 x 4, we stopped - a ritual now - at the shop to see about ice, to sniff around for greens (as if: iceberg lettuce... I mean, you could revolutionize these stores - you have this captive audience, the park's South African side is rich farmland - but it's pale pink tomatoes, iceberg, tired apples and if you're very lucky, a pineapple, which is at least local. What gives? But I digress) and to buy a bottle of brandy. We were out of gin. It happens. And I was going to teach Vince about Klippies and Coke, a sacred Afrikaans cocktail of Klipdrift brandy topped with cold coke. It was a moment of weakness. We blame it on the relentless monotony of the mopane. 

Impala lilies (Adenium multiflorum) outside the shop were gorgeous on their bare, succulent and gnarled stems. And there was a baobab. There were also black guests, at last, for the first time. In the park the visitors we saw were white, while much of the staff, from reception area to rangers, was black. At least that aspect was encouraging. But it is a(nother) disturbing legacy of apartheid, when the last thing on black people's minds or within their financial grasp was conservation. If these magnificent parks are to survive this century they need the support and interest of the majority of the population. 

I marched around about in the dry winter grass looking for the baobab's fruit. 

And then, after a long story involving a case of mistaken camp stand identity - all my fault, but at least I made a couple of friends in the process and wasn't rude to anyone (close call!) -  we found our assigned stand and set up house. And did some laundry. The wide open ablutions block with its pretty thatched roof gave us deep basins for washing and we soaped up and rinsed the clothes as a team and hauled them back to an improvised washing line where they were dry in a few hours. 

After making polite small talk with our elderly neighbors, a dairy farmer and his wife from Napier, in the Cape, staying in a camper van with a screened off porch (they would be here for a month. A month!) to our left, we relaxed.

I inspected, and nibbled at, my baobab fruit. I'd love to see one in bloom. 

Time for that drink.

If we'd known what lay ahead we might have had two. If Vince had known that this would practically be another Paternoster, he might have given me four, to knock me out.

But first. While our supply of future braai meat had been stowed carefully in the communal freezers, I started our supper for that night early - a slow stew that would need hours in the ashy coals. I used the lamb we had bought in the Karoo, at the Travalia Farmstall, en route. 

I start these bredies, or stews, over very hot coals, sizzling the oil and onions together, browning the meat and spices. Then I add the liquid and herbs, and cover with coals. While I worked at this early stage our Napier farmer-neighbour came over tentatively to the line of trees that separates each stand from the other, stood there barefoot in his short shorts and asked deferentially but with utter concern, if my fire was alright. Is alles reg met die vuur?Because daa' is nie vlamme nie. There are no flames. Nee, Oom, I said, No, Uncle: I made it with charcoal (which I start, even worse, with nothing more than newspaper). O.., he said, ambiguously, his accent thick doubt. 

Perhaps it was blasphemy. You can buy very nice dry wood in the park, and it sends flames shooting feet into the air. And in South Africa, the white man is in charge of the fire and the braai. Even if he does not know how to turn on the oven in the kitchen, he cooks meat on the fire. Except in my family, at least on my mom's side, where the women are the braaiers. My mom, my cousin Andrea (her sister's daughter), and me - we braai. 

If you'd like a recipe for this tomato bredie, it's over at (The Food), a classic from a few years back, when we camped very happily in the Eastern Cape's Mountain Zebra National Park. While it cooked we went on a slow and short game drive. Vince took some wonderful elephant pictures. And we saw another baobab. 

Back in camp we met the famous and loquacious Roger, whose friendliness has made him well known in camping circles, and by the time he had stopped talking, our stew was ready.

It was the first of two long nights.

In the tent, while Vince slept a pure sleep, I lay awake and listened to the unforgettable sound of elephants tearing branches from trees, and wondered if they were in the camp. They sounded close. At Balule fellow campers who'd just left Tzendze had said that the perimeter fence had been breached by three elephants. Now, there was an angry trumpeting,  whose effect on one's heart is hard to describe, and more ripping of trees. I imagined them coming to snack on the nice foliage right beside us (not boring day-in, day-out mopani) and squashing us. I sat up and listened and tried to see through the dark trees in front of the tent. I woke the Frenchman. In the end we reasoned that since we'd never had any fruit or food in the tent (a big no-no) they'd probably avoid it if they did come close.

Morning came, and breakfast-coffee. The camp staff confirmed that elephants had come into camp. There was some fuzziness about whether or not the electrified fence was electrified or not. Then came game driving and lunch, and outdoor showers and another braai and an owl sighting.

On our second night a wind kicked up as we braaied and we ate our dinner in the lee of the car, on its tailgate. By the time we had showered the wind had turned into a dry, whipping storm and we battened down the tent with every line it possessed. All night it bucked and shook as a roar like the freight train you read about thundered through the tall trees. I have never heard anything like it. Spots of light came on over the camp as people came out to tie things down and catch what was pelting away. I dreamed of death and catastrophe and in the morning the camp was upside down but we had not been flattened by the falling trees I had imagined.

Over our second morning's coffee and ruks at a nearby picnic site under beautiful trees and overlooking a dry riverbed, we looked at each other and decided with little discussion that heading farther north into more mopane territiory had lost its appeal. We had PMS. Predominent Mopane Syndrome (later it became Post Mopane Syndrome). We felt hemmed in, and thought that our short time in the park might be better dedicated to grassland farther south. Where you can see.

So we went back to Tzendze, shook out the dust, folded and flattened the camp, found Roger and his colleague and tipped them handsomely for keeping everything so nice and clean (our fireplaces were tidied and washed before we were awake), and pointed the Landcruiser's nose south.

We may have hummed a little.

Our Trip so Far:

Cape Town to Bloemfontein
Bloemfontein to Dullstroom
Dullstroom to Tamboti
Tamboti - Camp Life
Tamboti to Olifants
Morning in the Kruger
Balule - the Tiny Camp
The Bridge over the Letaba River

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