Day #9,467-69: After 40 hours of traveling from LA to DC to Senegal to Johannesburg, the newly married Mr. M & I touched down in the city of Durban on South Africa’s eastern seaboard.
It was midnight and the first time my feet had ever stood on foreign soil.
My first night abroad was not meant to slip unnoticed into the annals of our travelogues. We got lost driving into the city (it may have had something to do with the fact that it is VERY Difficult to drive a stickshift on the wrong side of the road, especially when sleep-deprived. Trying to shift with his left hand while pumping the clutch with his left foot while remembering that right turns were actually like our left turns, Mr. M turned into a very panicky one-man band and started shouting concerning things like wait-which-pedal-is-the-brake?!?).
Travel Lesson #1: As late as it may be and as stupid as you may feel, a few practice laps around the rental car facility never hurt anyone.
We must’ve been trying to stay alive instead of reading the map because rather than arriving at our bed & breakfast, we slowed the truck for a stray dog to cross and noticed we were on a narrow dirt road surrounded by several oil drum bonfires, which were in turn each surrounded by very-rough-around-the-edges young men. All of whom were now staring at our stopped truck.
Because we were very clearly not where we were supposed to be.
A couple of the men rather menacingly began approaching the truck, and Mr. M seemed all of a sudden to have figured out which pedal was the gas because he rammed it in reverse, and we took off backwards in a black cloud of dust.
Travel Lesson #2: Invest in a good map. Or at least have a vague sense of the good and bad parts of town before you attempt to navigate. At one in the morning.
The next day, having been recharged by both bed and breakfast, Mr. M & I were off on our first… maybe second considering the night before… South African road trip up the coast to the Hluhluwe-Imfolozi Reserve. (Any guesses on pronunciation? Shla-shloo-way Oom-fa-loh-zee. I did not get there on my own.)
Travel Lesson #3: Learn how to pronounce the places you’re going. Sounds obvious. Our run-ins with other travelers make me think it’s not.
The drive up was Incredible. Women walking on the side of the road with huge stacks of firewood and massive water jugs miraculously balancing atop their heads… villages pulsing with color and sound… men herding cattle across the road… Incredible.
The drive continued to earn its amazeballs status when our first animal sighting occurred only minutes after crossing into the Reserve.
We ended up seeing a Cape Buffalo, rhino, and giraffe on our drive through the reserve to the Hilltop Camp. I’m honestly not sure why Kruger is SO much more popular for safari excursions than the wild jungles of Hluhluwe.
While Mr. M & I didn’t yet understand South Africa’s indifference towards the Warning Sign, we saw enough signs at Hilltop reminding us that there were no fences to keep the leopards out to be a bit concerned about our post-dark journey to the cafeteria for dinner.
The camp layout, with its bunks on one end and cafeteria allll the way on the other end- with a lot of signs reminding you to “heed wild animals with respect,” was clearly someone’s idea of a funny joke. Convinced we heard the sound of padded paws and hungry leopards licking their lips at our heels, Mr. M & I seriously sprinted to and from the cafeteria that night. I’m certain I’ve never run faster in my life.
Travel Lesson #4: A tiny bit of dangerous adventure is the MSG of travel: it’s an addictive seasoning that makes every trip taste even better. [In researching this post, I’ve learned that Hilltop has since surrounded its camp with an electric fence and found myself a little sad. Weak sauce, people. Get your sprint on.]
After a morning game drive further into the reserve, it was back on the road for an impromptu stop by the Indian Ocean.
Just east of Hluhluwe-Imfolozi is the St. Lucia Wetlands Park- the first world heritage site in South Africa and supposedly one of the best places to see hippopotami in the wild.
Despite the warnings- or, let’s be real, because of them- Mr. M & I decided a close-up with a real live hippo was most definitely in order, and we joined one of the boats run by KwaZulu Natal Wildlife.
As children of Southern California, Mr. M & I immediately thought of the Jungle Cruise ride at Disneyland.
Even so, this real life Jungle Cruise along the edge of South Africa blew Disneyland out of the water.
Travel Lesson #5: The world is even better than Disneyland rides suggest. Thank goodness.
As we drove back to Durban for the next leg of our journey, Mr. M in control of his reverse-bizarro stickshift vehicle and I with much improved navigational prowess, we realized that our first few days in a different country on a different continent had to be a whirlwind lesson in understanding travel.
Although I do think Mr. M could’ve skipped the getting lost in a township at midnight part.
Details of the Day:
Just so’s ya know: Even after we made it to Durban from the airport (VICTORY! Slap it high), we found ourselves a bit surprised by the reception. The Goble Palms Guest House was lovely and in a great part of town.
In retrospect, we should’ve realized the area’s safety was evident because every house in the neighborhood was attended by a rifle-toting guard (and not in spite of that fact, as we originally thought). Very visible, armed security guards are- or at least were- extremely common in urban areas in South Africa. It can be a little surprising for the uninitiated, just so’s you’re prepared. ;)
In the same category (and this may have changed since the country hosted the World Cup in 2010), we were interested to learn that South Africa doesn’t believe in The Room Key like we’re used to in North America or Europe.
While all rooms had a chain lock that you could use while inside your room, only our hotel in urban Cape Town came with a room key; otherwise, the room was left open to staff who might need to clean it. I suppose when you’re guarded by wild leopards and very well armed guards (see above), perhaps one doesn’t need to worry about petty theft. :)