Starting North

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Leaving Durban on the solstice, June 21st, an - unplanned - auspicious start to the return trip back to Ireland, I pulled out of Home Backpackers (Des, Jackie and Debra pictured right) loaded and geared up for the first time in quite a while. It felt exciting. I was on the road again!

Hours north through miles of sugar cane and timber plantations of Zululand, my first stop was the Isinkwe Bush Camp near the Hluhluwe/iMfolozi game park. I appeared to be the only guest, as it was off season. And a bit chilly! I knew I should take the opportunity and visit the park, apparently most well known for its population of the endangered white rhino. My problem was that I was itching to get on the move and progress into Africa, after two months enjoying the comforts and soft life of South Africa. The dilemna was solved for me - as there were no other guests to go on a safari, it wasn’t going to happen. I knew there would be plenty of opportunities up the road for viewing game.

U.S. Cultural Imperialism
Later in the evening a group of young Americans arrived, disappearing off to bed at 8.30pm. The following morning I discovered the four girls were on their way down to Durban for a short break from their work in Swaziland. They were excited about visiting the beach, seeing a few films, and eating in restaurants! At first I took them for Peace Corps volunteers,
a few of whom I had encountered on the journey through Africa. No, they told me, they are social workers and counsellors in a village. They were vague as to who employed them, even slightly evasive, until the word ‘ministry’ gave me a clue - I had had an inkling from their fresh faced enthusiasm and cheer.

The jury was still out for me on the Peace Corp’s role in the developing world. Some of the individuals I’d met I’d really responded to, though am uncertain about the bigger picture. For what purpose is the US government funding this development work? But the presence of evangelical US Christian churches I had a problem with, perceiving them as pushing a conservative, fundamentalist agenda intolerant of alternative attitudes and differences in cultures. I neatly put the girls into this box. They were young, educated, from apparently comfortably off Christian families, coming over to spread ‘the Lord’s word’. I was reminded of a young Peace Corps volunteer in Burkina Faso, a graduate in business studies, describing to me her work, which involved ‘educating’ the local population against the danger of AIDS. I questioned how effective was a twenty two year old girl telling a thirty five year old male Burkinabe the importance of wearing a condom. “I know it sounds bad,” she replied, “but because we are from America, they seem to listen to us.” The attitude of ‘we know what’s best, we are from the West’ seems to suggest an arrogance to me, which doesn’t take into account the experience of their ‘subjects’.

A Humbling Story
“We work with orphans in the Pigs Back area of Swaziland”, said Julie, describing the region as very impoverished since local mines had closed up years ago. Their role was to try and support the many children orphaned because of the serious AIDS problem there. She then told me a story which made an impression. “Three months ago we started caring for an abandoned 11 year old with the virus. She was really withdrawn, her arms and legs were like sticks, she wouldn’t smile, was so nervous. Over the next few months it was so great to see her come out of herself more. She started smiling and giggling when we played with her. She died last week.” This was said matter of factly without sentiment, obviously death was part of the territory. I was so touched by the account. Whatever that church’s agenda, whatever motivations were involved, ultimately that little girl died being cared for.

The King of Swaziland
It was encounters like this I felt so lucky to have, and warmly wished them farewell before getting on my way. Striking on towards the Swaziland border, the landscape changed to a more undulating, scrubby bush, private game reserves flanking the road. The border itself presented little problem and soon I was riding across the poorer unfenced land, all belonging to the King of Swaziland. At one stage the traffic ahead of me was stopped outside the Lis More Guesthouse, engines switched off. A policeman at the front of the queue furiously motioned me back into the left as I was slowing near the centre line. After five minutes waiting I was about to dismount to investigate the delay when a motorcade came up the opposite side – first six police outriders on BMW 1150’s a couple of whom nodded in acknowledgement to me on my bike, followed by a number of shiny 4x4’s occupied by sharply suited characters most of whom were wearing sunglasses, then one with a middle aged mustachioed gentleman in traditional garb – the King himself! With the passing of the last car, everyone started up and we proceeded.

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'..the most scenic hostel setting in Southern Africa'
Twenty minutes after the large town of Manzini, I arrived at the gates of my destination, Sondzela Backpackers in the Mlillwane Wildlife Sanctuary (above), “One of the most scenic hostel settings in Southern Africa,
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overlooking a valley where wild animals roam and impala (right), zebra and warthog graze on the edge of the gardens” according to the Coast to Coast guide – the free backpacker accommodation bible. All true, as well as the intimidating ostrich that wanders around displaying no fear as it checks out what you are eating! It really is a magnificent spot and I ended up spending a few memorable days there, really getting my first feel of walking through dry African bush.


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Mozambique Holiday
I was joined there by Debra a friend from Durban and the two of us decided to nip over to neighboring Mozambique in her car, only a few hours away. Entering the capital Maputo was exciting, the Latin buzz of the city contrasting with the more English influence of South Africa. Cafes lined the busy streets as we found our way to Fatimas Backpackers, the oldest hostel in the city. It didn’t impress but the better option as we’d heard, ‘Base’, was full.

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Fifteenth Century Dessert Recipes
I had got a recommendation from an expat about a restaurant newly opened that was getting quite a reputation for seafood. And the prices were still affordable! So into a rambling forty year old Mercedes taxi we hopped, arriving clunking to a stop outside the restaurant on the seafront, if not with class then certainly a little style. The décor of Zambi is modern – bright, spacious and cream coloured and we managed to get seated at a booth at the rear, sinking into the luxurious leather cushions. We shared prawns in olive oil and garlic to start and the huge mixed seafood platter with massive prawns, a firm fillet of fleshy fish(!), crab, calamari, and crayfish. I will just say that this was the real thing – fresh, cooked perfectly with a slight hint of some herbs - and loads of it. Probably my best crustacean experience ever!

And the dessert… Finding it difficult to decide, I tried my mothers trick of asking for a bit of this desert with a little of another. A few minutes later the chef came out, slipped into the large booth with us and began to talk about the desserts. A large man, of Portuguese ancestry but with a broad South African accent, he started by telling us he had recently spent two years travelling to old Portuguese colonies – Goa, Angola, Brazil – ending up in Portugal researching, of all things, “fifteenth and sixteenth century dessert recipes”! And apparently the old colonies were the best place to find any remaining information. As Fernando explained, the recipes were developed mainly by the clergy, as they had the resources and the time. Would we like to try some? Of course! When a selection arrived, Fernando came out and explained each of them. Most were seriously eggy, very rich, heavy and sweet. One that I found very savoury was made from egg yolks and the fat from dry cured ham!

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The following day a three hour drive on good roads, took us across the flood plains of the Limpopo river, where only a few years previously, unusually heavy rains across the top of South Africa had caused floods across a huge area of the Limpopo river flood plains – only the tops of a couple of the taller buildings in Xai Xai visible above the water. A further ten kms and we were at the beach.
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It was what we were looking for – the warm Indian Ocean to relax by for a day or two. The sun shone, the water sparkled, the company was pleasing and I felt like I was on holiday! In the morning sitting on the sand we had breakfast of papaya with lemon, pineapple, tangerine and banana – all purchased from a lady with a basket - along with a few dozen small oysters a local fisherman had prised off the rocks that morning then opened for us. The day was spent lazing on the empty beach and swimming in the calm waters sheltered by an offshore reef. In the evening more fresh prawns in the Golfinho, a ramshackle restaurant on the beach, washed down with a few 2M beers.

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So my brief excursion to the south of Mozambique was a success – I had loved the different feel to the country, the Portuguese influence. And I was interested to note my first impressions that the country’s infrastructure wasn’t as rundown as that of Angola’s, both countries having experienced a lengthy and destructive civil war. The visit had whet my appetite. My planned route would bring me back up through South Africa to Zimbabwe, then across Malawi to the northern part of Mozambique.


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