Maritzburg students' spring adventure

2007-11-12 00:00

AS a rule, roadtrips are supposed to be fun, festive and full of thrills. So when a group of overseas students (American nogal) invited me to join them on their “spring break” excursion that encompassed St Lucia, Swaziland, Kruger National Park and Mozambique, I hastily shelved my holiday plans for projects and procrastination and tagged along.

Once we had got the extended birthday celebrations of one of the travelling party out of the way, the first leg of the trip took us to the far reaches of KwaZulu-Natal, to St Lucia.

Our single-night stay was eventful, including the first of numerous braais, and a special treat for our mostly American contingent, as they saw a live Zulu dancing performance. Despite numerous requests, no amount of bargaining could persuade yours truly to join my fellow Zulus on stage - some things are best left to the professionals.

Although our stay was brief, many of the travel brigade left a mark on the picturesque town, in the form of being sick from the water! Nonetheless, the highlight of our two-day stint was a two-hour barge cruise around the estuary, which saw us getting rather comfortable with a large crocodile on the banks. Despite our captain's insistence that we were perfectly safe, our hearts were in our mouths - especially when he switched the barge engine off!

We happily departed in one piece, and made the trek to Swaziland. Perhaps our expectations were too high, but Swaziland was somewhat disappointing. Then again, staying in backpacker hostels does diminish the quality of one's stay. After a fabulous Swazi breakfast, we spent the morning walking around Mababane's vast market, where our foreign friends were introduced to the subtleties of muti, and the distinct flavour of amahewu. As expected, the drink was not to everyone's liking, much to the delight of the Swazi market women. The sight of so many white people in one place prompted one young Swazi to scream “abelungu!”, before bursting into tears.

With a full tank of petrol, we then tackled the treacherous mountain short cut that would lead us to somewhere near Nelspruit. What was expected to be a pleasant mountain drive turned into a Paris-Dakar simulation, complete with emergency toilet stops for the panicky passengers. Coupled with the fact that we were racing against the clock to get to the border, it was a small miracle that both our Nissan X-Trails made it through unscathed.

So we made it back to South Africa on September 24, and what better way to relax than have a braai? The term “barbecue” was thrown around by our American friends, but they were quickly corrected. This is Africa, and we braai.

Our Kruger leg of the trip started badly, with a heated discussion over the residence status of the American students, which was quite significant at Kruger National Park because residents pay a mere R30 entrance fee compared to R180 for tourists. In student currency, that is a lot of drinks! Once that situation was sorted, the fun and games began. Kruger, being our national park, provided a real sense of pride for yours truly.

Not withstanding the fact that I struggled to tell the difference between springbok and impala occasionally, I was the designated tour guide. And what a tour it was. It was on that memorable first day that we almost died. I do not exaggerate.

A couple of grazing buffalo were minding their own grass, so to speak, when we got a little too close for comfort. All was well until I ridiculously suggested to a snap-happy companion to slip quietly out and get a better camera angle. No sooner had the door opened than the buffalo were up and ready to charge through the foliage! All speed warnings were forgotten as we fled the scene like Bryan Habana making for the tryline.

With all 11 revellers still intact, our trusty X-Trails were tested further by the rather inadequate roads of Mozambique; that is, when they were not being pulled over by policemen who popped up out of nowhere. Never in my life have I been subjected to so many probes, bribes and ridiculous compromises. Four fines for petty traffic crimes certainly soured our stay in Maputo, and we were happy to escape to the relative calm of Tofo, a small seaside resort nestled between Maputo and Bazaruto.

Two days were simply not enough on this slice of scenic heaven, complete with blue water and white sands. My abiding memory is of us standing excitedly around a woman selling chicken kebabs on the street at about R3 apiece. Sometimes simplicity is best.

One last night in Maputo was a bridge too far for our weary legs. The plan was to finish off with a bang, by visiting the famed nightclubs of the capital, but a combination of torrential rain, fatigue and yet another altercation with policemen keen to get some money off us put paid to our best-laid plans. So it was off to bed, before tackling the long drive back to familiar haunts in Maritzburg.

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