Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Prepping the 4x4 and heading north

Today I am checking in from Durban, South Africa and I can officially say the Long Drive North has begun. The last week has really just been spent gathering supplies and as a result somewhat uneventful, yet personally I've experienced many new, fascinating, beautiful and enlightening things.

When we last spoke, I had just arrived in the town of Dundee, South Africa so that is where we will pick up. Weon's famiy owns the Kwa-Ri Caravan Park here in town so that has been our base of operations. The place is in fact an old quarry where clay was dug to create the bricks you see above, and about ten years ago transformed into the excellent place it is today.

Of the many shops in this small town we visited, one we became regulars at was the auto parts store. At this shop we bought the basics like a new air filters, fuel filters, spark plugs, oil and other fluids to give the bakkie (or a truck as us Americans call it) a tune-up.

This is as good a time as any to mention it, so I'll drop it in here; South Africa is far more diverse than I'd ever imagined (the auto parts store, like many we visited was run by distinct ethnic groups). Being an American with honestly a very limited knowledge of South Africa, I was not expecting to see such established communities of Arab Muslims, Hindu Indians, Asians, a few Jews and then the various whites and blacks I did expect. Walking down the street in South Africa past Afrikaners, blacks, Muslim women in full burkkas, through Asian grocery stores then past Indians and Sari shops like those I'd seen in India itself was eye opening.

After a day of work, I relaxed around the camp site enjoying the new wildlife, including a great number of these weaver finches, who create a number of different nests in trees, then the female picks the best of them to lay her eggs.

Weon's parents have been amazingly friendly and helpful during our trip preparation. Not only simply letting us stay at their home and business for a week, but driving us around town, cooking us meals, helping with welding and much more. Thank you!

The next day was more preparation, including a top-to-bottom inspection of our vehicle that turned up a badly cracked fan belt. Overall our vehicle is in great condition, and I have a great amount of faith it will bring us through Africa with minimal problems.

Africa in the summer is hot. Especially when you came straight from winter in the North West United States! Luckily Kwa-Ri has a nice pool with even a covered grotto area to be totally out of the sun for cooling off.

Having a Braai (a barbeque) in the evening.

The next day was a MAJOR shopping day, going to nearly every hardware/gear shop in the town walking down every isle and grabbing items as we went. Rope, shovels, machetes, straps, cooking gear, plastic bins and more were on the list, and we walked away with a stack of supplies but much lighter wallets.

In the evening, we had intended to watch one of the 300 or so movies I have on my laptop, but Weon's dad said there was a 'South African movie' on TV and invited us to watch it with them. It turned out to be the classic film 'The God's Must be Crazy.” Now I'd seen this movie way back in either elementary school or middle school and remember it fondly, but had not seen it in over a decade and didn't know it was produced in SA. Funny, it makes the movie one of the only pieces of pop-culture that as an American I've ever experienced. (the other is the band Die Antwoord!) and I thoroughly enjoyed it.

After the movie and well after the sun had gone down I went on the hunt for night creatures. The place is quite noisy after dark, with various birds, frogs, insects and others staking their claim in the audible spectrum and I set out to find them. Among those I found and photographed was this praying mantis, a tiny frog, a snail and a large centipede.

In the morning it was time to pickup a critical document: our carnet de passage. This is essentially a document we had to pay 3350 rand for, that states that we are only driving through countries and not selling the vehicle, thus exempting us from paying import tariffs. It was supposed to arrive the day before but the delivery company dropped the ball, but it wasn't a big problem.

It was another day of work ahead of us, and part of that work was creating some anchor pins we could pound into the ground then tie our winch onto when we get the truck stuck. This involved a bit of metal cutting and welding, which I haven't really done before but I found quite fun.

We went to another town a short white away, Glencoe, for necessary yellow fever paperwork and ran into Sam while at the hardware shop. Abdool Samath, Sam, is a 67 year old guy from India who has lived in SA for years. When it was 64, he began a TWO-YEAR drive from South Africa through the middle east all the way to China! We stood outside the shop chatting and listening to his crazy travel stories for quite some time, when he invited us to his home to see some of his photos and to give us some of his gear. Now this was one of those fantastic moments that only happens when you are a traveler: you just happen to run into the right person at the right time, and everything just works out perfectly. This is why I travel. He told us to meet him the next day, because he had more gear to give us.

Also, he has inspired us to continue to push for the full Cape to Cairo drive. He said he managed to get into Egypt without paying the 200% deposit, so as it stands our goal is again the full trip, and back!

One of his biggest pieces of advice besides “Don't be in a hurry!” and “Don't fight!” was that he had pictures of Nelson Mandela on his 4x4, and that that image got him out of many sticky situations. One of the news paper clippings he had framed in his home said 'Saved by Mediba Magic” ('Mediba' Mandelas nickname) and he told us to do the same. After we took off on our way, we went straight to Sign Masters in Dundee (if you ever find yourself in Dundee, SA and in need of signs or stickers for your car, call them at 082-9517-393!)

We were initially just looking for a few Mandela magnets to put on the front doors of the truck, but after talking about it with the owner and mentioning we met Sam, who also had his stickers done at Sign Masters, the owner decided to 'sponsor' us and totally do up our truck with stickers all around at cost! The results speak for themselves: The front has a photoshop of the three of us with Mandela himself, the phrase “Mediba Magic”, the sides have “On our jorney from Cape to Cairo”, more pictures of Mandela, and the SA flag, the back has three more flags, two more pictures of Mandela and much much more. Sign Masters were really fantastic in doing all the work for us, and I have no doubt it will be helpful. Sam said people would come up and kiss the pictures of Mandela on his 4x4, and I know of another story where a picture of Mandela in a magazine saved a mans life when he was about to be killed by AK47 wielding guerrilla soldiers!

We all feel a little silly driving in a vehicle that looks as ours does, but we know it will be helpful along our trip and are happy to have it.

That night while sleeping in my tent, I was woken up my a massive rain, thunder and lightening storm. It was certainly some of the harder rain I've seen in a long time, with the lightening illuminating my tent brighter than daylight, the thunder shaking the ground and rain so hard I soon found myself in a 2 inch deep pond/river! Luckily my tent has a built-in waterproof base and I stayed dry, but my flip flops were floating and I saw frogs swimming past my tent under my rain fly!

The next day we returned to see Sam. He was very impressed by the graphics on our 4x4, and told us enthusiastically “That will get you half way man, BELIEVE ME!” He also gave us his old roof-rack that has since turned out to be a life-saver, off road lights, jerry cans, water jugs, and numerous other parts that he used on his two year trip and we are now bringing along on our adventure. Thanks Sam!

We decided to have a bit of a relaxed day, and saw some sights of Dundee. Our first stop was one of the big hills above town that offers an excellent view of town. It was nice, but I decided to improve it by climbing this radio tower and the improved view was worth it and more!

Our next stop was the museum, where I learned a lot about this history of Dundee as well as the history of South Africa. Much of the museum was focused on the coal mining that was the areas economic engine, as well as the battles the Boer Wars with the English from 1899-1902 to gain their independence. It was slightly amusing to me as an American, because the Boers essentially fought the British the same way we did when fighting for our own independence, but it seemed that the British still hadn't learned any lessons from it and lost in just the same way!

Dundee is a small town, but one of the things that struck me was the number of funeral parlors and other death-related services. At times you can stand on the sidewalk and see three at once. When I mentioned this to Chris and Weon it all came together: The 30.2% AIDS rate in South Africa is a a a major part of existence here, and the funeral parlors are both a necessary service and a stark reminder of the devastation caused by this virus.

The caravan park is home to a group of 3.2 million (so I am told) swallows who every summer come and spend the nights in the reeds of the park. Each night around 7pm, the skies fill with these fast and agile birds, spinning, swirling, chirping and showing off the awesome power and beauty of nature. Now this is only the first or second time I've ever done any real shooting/editing of video, and certainly my first of wildlife footage, but I did my best and this kind of thing is addictive!

Once again, the next day was spent on supplies and outfitting the truck. One of our biggest projects was modifying Sam's roof rack to fit out truck, and fabricating a metal support that would go into the back of our truck to help support the weight of the rack and it's gear, since the fiberglass canopy would never be able to take the weight.

We worked into the night on the truck,doing final touches by headlamp, but we got it done.

That morning, we took off towards Durban. We got out of Dundee at 5:30am with a vehicle packed much tighter than any of us expected and much more to buy still, but off we went, and the trip is on!

Durban is one of the larger cities in the area and we went for supples that we could not find in the small town of Dundee. It turned out to be a serious mission to get around town and find the places we were looking for. As a result, we spent all day driving in circles looking for shops that didn't have the right gear, but we did find a few critical items like a folding table and cookware, eventually ending up at the massive Gateway Mall. Now this palce is huge. Somehow like in Cape Town, I've ended up at a huge, nasty, mall (I hate shopping malls) that is so big and modern it has it's own indoor rock climbing tower, IMAX, wave pool and more. Ugh, we walked through it for hours getting a few supplies but mostly getting frustrated.

It quickly became clear we would need to spend more time in Durban than hoped, and we headed off to the Happy Hippo International Backpackers lodge. This is a place Chris knew about and had stayed in earlier, and while 130 rand is far more than I was used to paying for a place to sleep during my trip in Asia, I guess it's as cheap as it gets here in SA. The place is big, open, has lots of travelers, a pool table, bar, (20 rand/hour) wifi, and secure parking, so we headed in for the night.

In the morning we (well, mostly Weon) spent a long time trying to sort out where to buy a propane powered refrigerator, and then headed off to the dive shop. As I've mentioned before Chris is a dive instructor and Weon is a divemaster, so diving is going to be a big part of this trip. As a result, I needed my own set of gear so we headed off to the shop just down the street and for just about 6,500 rand I picked up a full dive setup (well, minus a cylinder ) of quality new and used gear. It's a big investment, but one that will pay off as soon as I'm underwater swimming with manta rays and whale sharks!

There was a problem with my debit card however, and the purchase was declined. Chris took care of it for me, but after talking to the fraud department with my card, I found out that SA is a hub of card fraud and my charge as well as recent ATM withdraws set off bells, cutting off my card. It's fixed, but it made shopping for supplies today difficult.

Boring, but again the rest of the day was on the hunt for supplies. We crisscrossed town looking for a winch, camping gear, various electronics and more. Again it took longer than hoped, and we are spending a second night at the Hippo, but it was still a very productive day. Driving around Durban we constantly saw the recently built stadium, but our minds were on productivity and not sight seeing.

Well. That brings you all up to date. Tomorrow we hope to finalize our gear, picking up the last of our 4x4 gear, getting the fridge, my dive gear (since it needed to be checked over/serviced) and food, then we are out of Durban! Next stop is St. Lucia for a night then to Sodwanda to finally get into the water and dive!

Also, in the next few days is when it starts to turn into 'real Africa' and I can't count on regular internet access, or even power, or running water for that matter. I'll do my best, but my goal is to get new posts up every two or three weeks. So if it's been a while since my last blog or email contact, don't panic! I hear it snowed big in Seattle yesterday, so I may be in Africa but home is always in the back of my mind. Until next time folks, thanks for reading.