Crouching Monkey, Hidden Path

Trip Start Jun 25, 2003
Trip End Sep 2004

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Friday, April 30, 2004

Hi Everybody,

Following Jordan's epic battle with the ocean, we decided it was best to leave the beautiful Transkei coast and head for the safety of the nearby Drakensberg mountains on the border with Lesotho. Drakensberg means dragon's mountain in Afrikaans, itīs Zulu name Quathlamba translates to battlement of spears. Upon arrival we understood why these imposing mountains were given such fearsome names. A foreboding sheer brown granite wall rises dramatically up from rolling foothills which from a distance look as if they are draped in rich green velvet. We spent our first day hiking up to 2100m (6300 feet) from where we had sweeping views of the valley below and the peaks above. We continued along the contour to a shady spot next to one of the many waterfalls cascading down the mountain, where we stopped to eat our picnic lunch before heading back down through the valley. On our way back we heard a loud crashing noise and saw a rock slide occur just below the path. Running from the rocks were several large dark shapes; we had come across a troop of baboons. Hiking the Drakensberg is hard enough due to the exposed steep terrain, but I had no idea we had to negotiate monkey landslides, not to mention baboons are notorious lunch stealers. Jordan was excited that he got to hike with monkeys and continued to look for more, even letting out an occasional monkey hoot in hopes he could beckon them close enough for a photo, but I just kept a wary eye out for troublesome thieves around every corner - no hungry monkey was going to get my last granola bar.

On our last day in the Drakensberg we were joined by two other hikers for an ambitious all day hike over a steep ridge then down into the adjacent valley. We had heard a part of the trail was closed but well marked and that we should have no trouble following it. Carrying large lunches and lots of snacks we headed off shortly after dawn. I only hoped that I would be able to eat most of my food before running into any monkey bandits. The first half of the hike went smoothly as we followed the well marked trail and had no baboon sightings. Though not wanting to push my luck before deciding on a lunch spot I made a thorough check to ensure no monkeys were crouching behind any rocks ready to swipe my peanut butter and jelly sandwich.

After lunch we headed off confident we would have no trouble making it back to our lodge in time for an early beer. But within half an hour I found myself wishing for something as simple as a lunchtime monkey food raid, something much worse had happened, we completely lost the trail. One minute we were happily walking through a dense forest following marks painted on trees to guide our way and the next we were completely and utterly lost. It turns out that the genius that marked the trees along the trail used white paint, not taking into account that the moss that grows on the trees is the exact same shade of white. Standing in a dense forest with white splotches on every tree in every direction I would have gladly traded a baboon my sandwich if he would just show me the way out.

We scrambled to the highest part of the forest and spotted that the trail crossed through a clearing about one kilometer away over a small ridge and a narrow valley. Only problem was that to reach it we had to traverse dense thorny thickets taller than our heads, and god only knows what creepy, crawly, slithery things called those thickets home. But after searching though the forest a bit longer with no sign of the path we realized we had no choice but to bushwhack our way out. As Jordan was the only one wearing long pants he trudged to the front mumbling something about death adders not caring if he was wearing long pants or not. We pushed through the massive thickets trying to head for the point we thought the trail would emerge. Jordan occasionally stumbled, stepped in water, and I would have lost sight of him among the dense leaves and thorns if not for his big red hair. But fortunately after about an hours hard slog we finally emerged onto the path, nursed our scratches and scrapes and headed along the trail down into the valley in search of a well deserved beer, actually Jordan got beer, I got ice-cream.

Leaving the Drakensberg behind we traveled to the St. Lucia World Heritage Wilderness area known for its hippopotamus and crocodiles, the area is also known for its snorkeling which seems counterintuitive. On our first day there we took a river boat out to view the wildlife in the estuary behind our hostel. Despite their ferocious reputations, the sleepy crocs basking on the river bank were so still they looked fake. And the hippos submerged up to their eyes and ears in water, seemed to hardly merit the title of most dangerous animal in Africa.

Looking to seek out the more wild aspect of the wild kingdom we went for a dawn game drive at nearby Umofolozi National Park. Riding high in our open air safari vehicle we were afforded sweeping views of the rolling bush lands that surrounded us for miles. Within an hour after sunrise dark rain clouds began to gather which I assumed would put a damper on our game viewing. I always pictured zebras and giraffes frolicking under sunny African skies. But our local guides excitedly pointed out that the big predators were most active during inclement weather. The guides were right, in addition to the usual suspects (e.g., zebra, giraffe, impala, kudu, baboons and rhino), we were lucky enough to see a stalking pack of endangered wild dogs (very rare), a hyena (not normally seen during the day) and a cheetah. The cheetah was the most exciting as we saw him actually stalking a troop of baboons sheltering from the rain in a tree. We didn't hang around long enough to watch a kill, which didn't necessarily upset me as we were in an open air vehicle after all and I didn't want the cheetah in his excitement to mistake me for a well-dressed baboon.

From St. Lucia we left South Africa for Swaziland. Swaziland is a small autonomous monarchy tucked in the corner of South Africa and bordered on the east by Mozambique. We stayed inside a game reserve and on our first day there joined some other backpackers to excitedly head off under sunny skies for a game walk. The bright sky lit up the gorgeous game reserve and made me doubly happy as I assumed most predators would be asleep out of the hot sun. We hiked around the beautiful park along well-marked trails (which we have come to appreciate) past warthogs, impala, zebra, kudu, ostriches and monkeys. Eventually the trail passed a water hole where we saw large crocs and hippos. As the trail approached the water I quickly abandoned my initial impression of crocs and hippos as docile. On foot walking a path bordering an unfenced lake, I could only focus on their ferocious reputations. I walked the path as quickly as possible, making a point to stand next to someone who looked particularly tasty.

After a few beautiful days in Swaziland, we boarded a minibus taxi to cross the border into Mozambique. Following three hours crammed in a taxi with 15 other people and their belongings, we arrived in the capital, Maputo. Maputo is broken down city with crumbling concrete buildings lined by streets with potholes large enough to swallow a car. However, the smiling faces of the people as they walked beneath beautiful green trees lining the broken roads under a vividly bright blue sky redeemed the dilapidated city making it seem not as bad.

Leaving Maputo and once again on a minibus, this time for eight hours headed north up the coast for Inhambane and beautiful Tofo beach. Tofo is not just known for its beautiful rolling surf, but its abundant and cheap seafood swimming just offshore. Our first day there we joined with some other backpackers to head for the local market where we purchased just over six pounds of prawns for less than $5US. That night we had an absolute feast; well deserved after all the peanut butter and ramen noodles that make up the majority of the backpacker diet. Finally I was dining the way I was intended to.

We spent a few more beautiful days on the beach sampling the other local (and cheap!) delicacy - cashew nuts in between seafood dinners. Reluctantly we left the beach for Maputo to begin our long multi-day journey all the way back to Jo'burg via Maputo and Swaziland.

Now we are about to leave our last big city (Jo'burg) to head off for two months of hard core African adventures complete with travel by 4x4 trucks, sleeping in tents and cooking on campfires, its no wonder we spent our last big city day going to a shopping mall to watch "Starsky & Hutch".
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