Leaving the Garden Route behind, we arrived in the resort town of Ballito, near Durban on the Dolphin Coast. It was low season and the town had that folorn look common to seaside towns in winter the world over. A few determined holiday makers pushed lonely trollies around the Spar and valiantly did battle with barbeques under golf umberellas in the rain.
A welcome entertainment had been laid on for us nevertheless: families of humpbacked whales danced daily along the horizon for our viewing pleasure. Waving their great fins and slapping their great tails, they torpedoed their hulking forms out of the water, crashing back down in a mushroom cloud of spray. The promised and supposedly prolific dolphins, however, had presumably taken the week off and failed to keep their end up.
Dangerously low on clean clothes, we repaired to the local laundromat. The establishment was presided over by a senior citizen we came to refer to affectionately as Racist Woman (for screaming at her employees and regaling us with tales of 'thieving blacks'). We'd have walked out but we'd been a week on the road and somtimes pants trump principles.
With clean clothes and dirty consciences, we quit Durban for the Drakensberg mountains. Out of the city, the countryside was thoroughly English, green and rolling. Only the outsized fields and the townships hanging from the hillsides betrayed the fact we weren't in Kansas anymore. Road signs bore strange, unpronouncable names: KwaDabeka, Molweni, Mpumalanga. Other names seemed stranger still: Dundee, Newcastle, Utrecht.
The pastoral backdrop and smooth motorway gave way to the battlescarred backroads and the grasslands of Zulu country. The endless dry straw hills were etched here and there with checkerboard squares of blackened stubble, giving them a post-apocalyptic look. Lean cattle and rangy goats grazed beside the road. Round-faced, round-eyed children roamed alongside them, displaying an impressive disregard for the Green Cross Code. The townships had morphed into Zulu settlements (same poverty, better views) with their traditional round thatched huts. You could almost see Micheal Caine fingering his collar as he worriedly scanned the ridge. The effect was slightly spoiled by the use of cinderblock instead of mud but presumably pleasing the tourists wasn't their first priority.
In the 'Berg, we trekked up the Thukela river valley to the Amphitheater, a magnificent semi-circle of folded vertical rockface that spread its arms wide to embrace the valley. A narrow path wound up around the slopes of the gorge, through patches of cool woodland, over boulders and across icy streams. Hot wind stroked the dry grass. Descending again, the afternoon turned caramel and dripped down the rocks. The clifface shape-shifted, revealing hidden depths flattened by the harsh morning sun.
Back at our old colonial hotel, we took GnTs on the veranda and watched the buttery hills melt in the setting sun. Crop fires sketched vivid orange lines across the darkening fields. A plump African moon rose red behind us in sympathy and a herd of eland swept majestically across the plains. Sundownwers downed, we went in to dinner to find a coach party of Germans had swept majestically through the buffet.
After the Drakensberg, we stopped off to take the waters in Natal Spa. As we soaked our weary feet in the steaming pools and enjoyed the peace and quiet, a triumviate of Indian families rocked up with multitudinous offspring. Seating themselves directly before the enormous red placard of rules, they proceeded to swiftly break most of them.
We ended our road trip with that quintissential African experience, the safari. Cameras locked and loaded, we hunted the Big 5 through bushland of vivid green fever trees, splayed acacias and sureal sausage trees. Rhinos rumbled through the undergrowth like prehistoric juggernauts and a lone cheetah loped silently along the dawn road like a languid supermodel. A family of grazing giraff swivelled their necks as we passed; zebra kicked up their op-art heels and cantered away.
Back at the lodge things were no less wild: scurrying ginuea fowl and beautiful nyala roamed the grounds. Mulleted warthogs munched the manicured lawns and peeped curiously through the glass walls of our bathroom. A gang of vervet monkeys staged a dawn raid on the breakfast table. One made off with a piece of toast, another came back for the jam.
Our travels were finally at an end and I was dropped off to await a transfer to my first project in marine conservation. I was excited to meet my fellow volunteers but more than a little nervous. What would they be like? Would we get along? Was I going to be the granny of the group? Nothing for it but to wait and see...