21 May 2008

Grasshopper's Revenge

It’d been at least five years since I was in the socioeconomic experiment known as the Rainbow Nation; returning a joy. That combination of developed and developing (whatever those narrow worldview terms are meant to describe) undeniably makes for a very different kind of trip. Since I started dating men instead of women, I must also admit there’s been a bit of a theme with this neck of the woods, so ok maybe that’s part of it too (I’ve been single for ages now…). Ms S was so helpful on VS601 from London Hellthrow to Johannesburg. The gentleman who'd enterprisingly improvised an economy flatbed in the middle block of the 747, at possibly a tenth the price of the equivalent in Upper Class, was already determinedly inviting sleep five minutes after take off. Ms S, being a diligent and efficient cabin service team member (air stewardess, thanks) advised he attach a seat belt before sleeping, lest she had to disturb him later. But Ms S is a serious girl and goes the extra mile; in she climbs to free that belt and buckle him down good and tight. What service! Quite a lot of fuss. Being the nosey bugger I am, I can't prevent myself observing a slight rouge-ing on Ms S’s fair cheeks. Oh, now was that a cheeky wink as she bids her passenger a good night? Said passenger being a gorgeous South African Hunk of course. You were in row 38 if you are reading this. Cheeky Ms S, good on you girl, although I do wonder if some greasy corpulent one would be quite so well seen to. I don’t bother trying it on in the vain hope of winging some service treats – Ms S is a seasoned cabin crew professional and can spot a gayer far quicker than me. 10 hours and I wonder how much carbon later, some circumstantial realities are immediately apparent on arrival. The airport functions well, but there lingers a hint of chaos somewhere, maybe infused in the walls. But South Africans are clean people, verging on the maniac; hence people are wiping and scrubbing all available surfaces. Labour supply is high and therefore cost is low, resulting in 2-women teams everywhere, one mopping, the other drying alongside, wafting whatever comes to hand. I couldn’t help noticing that everything was already spotless though. And the smiling – South Africans (on the whole) are incredibly smiley people and by gum does that make you feel good after a decent dose of ubiquitous London arse-slapped faceness. Londoners are now only able to smile at strangers on internet dating photographs. It’s official. All fundamental interactions are radically different here – impromptu conversation is usually accompanied with rather prolonged eye contact. Again, a soothing antidote for a Mancunian like me. Jo’burg’s airport has been renamed, again. Previously Jan Smut’s became Johannesburg International. Minority government references safely substituted with a pure location-function designation. Arguably better. Now it’s going back the other way, kind of. I don’t like it when people name airports after individuals. I’ve nothing against tributes. Tributes can be beautiful. A four hundred year old tree, ok, but not an airport. However this time it’s only gone half way and we’ve two names combined: Johannesburg OR Tambo. It took me over two weeks to overcome my ignorance and realise OR signifies someone’s initials and not ‘alternatively’. In the meantime, with OR meaning or and not O.R., every road sign bemused me with their apparent need to continually emphasise the alternative name. Why are you capitalising OR? If it’s that important, just rename it; ban the old name if you must, on pain of Robben Island. 5 hours later, across the expanses of the Free State under that gigantic sky, we were rollicking with lion cubs. Giant kittens. Difficult to find something more South African. Never mind the boerwors, we were playing with lions. It’s an amazing but simultaneously confusing experience. At 3 months they are impressively strong and their precocious claws demand strategic care, but otherwise they are identical to kittens; the equivalence with the family moggy unsettlingly acute. The knowledge, hard to acknowledge, that these ever playful but slightly dangerous fluffballs develop to occupy the top of the food chain real estate imparts a precious sense of wonder. We were actually on a lion farm – those words not appearing to sit well together in the same sentence. Lion breeding centre sounds better, at the risk of being euphemistic. Unsurprisingly, the industry (there are now 90 lion farms in the Free State alone) is not without controversy, in some cases deservedly I expect. Breeding lions in captivity so a tourist can shoot them raises plenty issues. If the odds were more equitable (notwithstanding the artifice of firearms), I’d find it harder to object; although not necessarily impossible. But a Disneyesque pursuit of a not-quite-wild lion in a not exactly savanna-scale enclosure (“canned lion”) I find simply pathetic and somewhat sickening. But happily we weren’t visiting such an enterprise. We were at a White Lion breeding centre where the animals were destined for game parks or zoos. The opportunity to be in their presence feeling like a simple honour. Continuing the theme of animal rights, some days later, following the kind of spectacular sunset that makes you wonder how anyone ever thought the world was flat, I transgressed at the other end of the food chain. I ate my first grasshopper. Alive and all. A pathetic victim to peer pressure, I submitted and crunched the arthropod dead and then swallowed. Not a disgusting flavour at all; a hint of bitterness a bit like chicory, a flavour whose popularity I've never understood (but I’ve never had to do without coffee in a world war). Locals are known to cook and eat grasshopper in this part of the world, so the interest to try is real. Just like a non-frenchy’s first frog's leg. But, while later trying to get to sleep, revenge was sweet as another one or maybe ten kept jumping on my head. Either that or another example of the spectacular panoply of jojos you find out here on the edge of the Kalahari in north west South Africa. The lodge, reassuringly basic but outstandingly beautiful, perches on one of the part-vegetated deep orange sand dunes that radiate across the tree-peppered veld in this land. This is exactly the kind of place you need to experience this environment. You’ve got what you need, including what could be the best ever view from the shower, but no more, nothing to pollute the essential. I have always found this landscape unexpectedly alluring. Intrinsically, it’s monotonous: slightly undulating, dichromatic, with a random but predictable distribution of bos. But it relaxes the eye and calms the soul. Here the day retracts to the underworld after bidding a deep orange farewell. The eyes then only gently excited by the campfire and the comfortingly intimidating wallpaper of the Milky Way. Sleep isn’t far, notwithstanding the grasshopper’s revenge. Agriculture out here is unrecognisable to me, having grown up amongst the dairy farms on the valance of the Peak District. Farms meant lots of lovely black and white Friesian moo-moos atop a bright green (often wet) field – there are none left now, I think all the milk must come from Poland. These black and white mowers comprise such a lovely evocation that Hackney council now paints its big street bins Friesian colours. It wasn’t all innocent-smoothie-esque teletubs farmy-warmy though; there was getting drenched in intrauterine slop during calving and the omnipresent, omni-odoriferous cowshit. Nevertheless, a newborn calf sucking on your fingers is not something easily forgotten. Unsimilarly, farming in the semi-desert Kalahari is defined by its rareness – rare as in the antonym of dense. The Europeanised name, Kalahari, derives from Kgalgadi, place of dryness in Tswana. Farms here are almost indistinguishable from the surrounding bush. At times you may be lucky to spot a cow – it requires fifteen hectares to rear a single one here – but the farms’ real imprint on the giant fingerprint of these dunes is the wind-powered water pumps. Standing tall under the impertinent sun, ever patient for the wind, they both demarcate distance and reassure the existence of water. One morning, we had to go and fix one. Not that I’ve ever done that either but it felt like prospecting for oil (although it’s for the underground metal deposits that the region is mined). Six men, a backie, an improvised crane + pulley exploiting a telegraph pole, lots of sweat and grease and an hour later the coaxial Archimedes screw had surfaced from a depth of more than fifty metres; the offending puncture, all of five millimetres wide, sneeringly grinning at our effort. We replaced the broken pipe and winched the bore back in its unfittingly wet conduit. The men reengaged the motor (this one was electric) and we waited, trying not to only hope it had worked. The water gushed out to our (or definitely my) unquantifiable relief. To this bore’s hinterland at least, the subterranean aquatic lifeline had been restored and the land was viable again. Such is the crucial dependence of insolated, sandy surface on isolated, humid depth here on the edge of the desert. Matters and hearts lightened, we backie-surfed back to the farmhouse. Sheila the sheepdog always mans the back of the backie, nose out to the bush, her higher senses always alert, a canine version of the Lancaster bomber’s watchman. Living with dogs for a week (there are 6 on the farm, of all shapes and sizes) almost perfected this Kalahari experience. The ostrich, the missing essential characteristic in this locality, had all ‘left’ since my last visit, again choosing not to fly but wander off elsewhere. However the farmers now insist on their reintroduction – it’s simply not a Kalahari farm without them (we did see a neighbour’s brood though). So the dogs, from mini Jack Russell to giant Mastif, 8 to 80 kg, accompanied us at all times, their different personalities and aptitudes projecting onto different functions through the week. The big girls, Frumples and Rumples (roll the r), specialise in noise and stature (as massive, very scary guard dogs) and slow, strong, insistent affection, their signature piece an extremely destabilising lean. Sharing a single bed with such a massive creature is quite a challenge, but one that became harder to avoid as the week progressed and the dogless days approached. I’m usually not a huge Jack Russell fan, the utility of this small extremity of dogworld was not previously apparent. But the dog was surely champion when its size, speed and agility enabled it to instantaneously bisect a very dangerous zebra snake that had taken refuge outside the kitchen door one evening. Talk, and awareness, of deadly snakes is necessary culture in much of Africa. But encounters remain thankfully unusual; a disarmed lethally-venomous reptile perfectly chopped in half by the family dog even rarer. If, like me, you grew up with dogs and haven’t yet engineered a way to incorporate them into your predominantly urban life, then a week like this is effective therapy. But then you have to leave them. They should run a kind of package tour for people like me. You go somewhere gorgeous and walk dogs day and night. Should be available on the NHS, like social services taking asbo-trophy kids from Croydon to Chile, that favourite anathema of the Daily Hate. From Gemsbok (Oryx), Springbok and Cattle, thru Dog, Ostrich and Snake; on to Horse. I’ve never officially been taught to horse ride. I was given a crash course on this very farm about 5 years previously. It’s definitely the way to do it. Yes of course trotting hurts the arse a bit, even with harmonious timing; rising horse - falling arse antiphase-resonance is to be avoided at all cost if you want to preserve your pelvis. But galloping here across these sandy dunes provides a reassuring introduction. Possibly hopelessly naïve, but the thought of an equine ejection, I said ejection, is not so scary with the sandy soft-standing underfoot. Full pelt across the veld. Exquisite. We could combine this with the dog walking. I feel an eco-tour coming on. Heartbreakingly leaving this unexpectedly hospitable land, later on I was driving up the NI to Johannesburg in heavy Sunday night traffic. Like the airport name, the N1 says a much about South Africa today. As a highway, it has been significantly improved; the wide, smooth black tarmac forms a major artery connecting Jo’burg to its surrounds. A fast, safely constructed, modern road. About 60km south of the city however, the road traverses a danger zone. The nature of the risk not conspicuously apparent, but denoted by a regular series of large warning signs – obstructions in road! – and an 80 km/h speed limit. What’s going on? Improvised road blocks. This part of south Gauteng (itself not paradoxically an anagram of get a gun), suffers much violent crime. One such activity involves blocking the NI with rocks and then committing all manner of horribleness to the car, its contents and its occupants. Nothing ensues of course as I drive through – the statistical probability of anything actually happening to a visitor in South Africa remains low – but such signs are a reminder of a grimmer reality in this state of eleven official languages, but also a marker that it is not being totally ignored. On to Cape Town. Obviously, by virtue of its geographical-geological situation more than anything else, an apparently small town that happens to be a world city. I got there courtesy of one of SA’s low-cost, Kumala. If there is one reason I was happy with this airline, it’s for the simple reason that when it comes to irrationally ridiculous safety announcements regulation, they clearly took the piss: “In the clearly impossible event of a landing on water, …”. “If an oxygen mask drops from above your head, stop screaming and put it over your mouth.” Yes they really did say all that, and more, and my how it was refreshing. The Economist would be proud. It’s far too big a subject to get into right now but there’s a cavalier, more maverick approach to life in SA. I’m not unconditionally supporting – look at the road death stats for example (look at the driving!) – but when you’ve had enough of the H&S / constant vigilance / politics of fear of current urban Britain and similar then it’s like taking a cool shower after mending a water pump under the African sun. Ok I’m sure it often goes too far, but the more relaxed and less regimented attitude to life is so invigorating. And I’m British, not German. Britain has changed. Cape Town in the new SA. The same, shockingly beautiful situation, clinging to the side of a very odd mountain just before it plunges into the icy sea (shame, that last point). Now it’s mixed, very. Much more than I remember before. It’s African. Even the plane down here was maybe 60% non-white. Such things still feel quite new and yes, regrettably, some whites were looking on in what can only be described as bewilderment. In Cape Town, you hear Xhosa everywhere, something I love. In rural SA, it’s not obvious much has changed. The poor blacks have, if anything, according to some, a rougher deal than before. But then there is, for example, the enormous house building, employment rights and electricity distribution programs, whose increased demand is undeniably connected to the now regular California-style blackouts. But apparently health care for the lowest socioeconomic class has gone to the dogs. In the Kalahari we learnt of a young boy who’d died, presumably of internal bleeding, after being kicked in the groin during football. He’d twice been ferried 150km to the nearest hospital only for the doctor to turn him away as it was Sunday. Speechless. In a place like Cape Town there are still countless poor non-whites of course, most still concealed in the expansive Cape Flats, but there is now a clearly visible black middle class – and more. It’s inevitable, expected and indeed an economic aim, as it should be. But I hope the innumerable chronically poor don’t get forgotten in this complicated new land. But as the government’s past attitude to the HIV that is ravaging the country can really only be explained as a turn-blind-eye, slow, incidental genocide then care and regard for the poor don’t strike you as an administrative priority. For those that think I’m being hysterical then how else would they explain the Minister of Health advocating Rooibos tea (or whatever it was) as an antiviral, clearly knowing it is an evil, malicious, murderous lie. It’s as bad as reports of catholic missionaries in Africa preaching that condoms contain holes and are therefore useless. Further on the endemic HIV, until Africa in general de-taboos and discusses its active clandestine homosexual activity (which surely has undoubtedly contributed to such a widespread transmission of the virus, and let’s not even start on dry sex) and embraces safer sex of any kind, then the whole damn thing is near hopeless and millions will die. Ah, but then that’s maybe not a problem to the government of such a budget-stretched overpopulated country? But Cape Town, that magical city (for the whites, strangely, English speaking out to a radius of only 5 km before returning to Afrikaans), carries on. The table still presides and the beautiful beaches still beckon. Ok, around Kloof St some of the whites are so irritatingly pretentious that they can compete with Miami, and the crack dealing on Long Street isn’t so lovely, but Cape Town remains intoxicatingly amazing. It’s still the world’s best big-town-city. During this visit adjacent Zimbabwe attempted its last election. In fact, as we know, the election was entirely successful. However, while I’m writing this, as you know, the debacle isn’t over and the despot clings on – of course what else would he do? And the international community, predominantly featuring Zimbabwe’s neighbours, remains apathetic. I did see one shining protest however, tucked away in the Cape Town National Art Gallery. This photo, taken by an SA artist, is of a stuffed baboon that locals in a border town on the Limpopo have made up as Mugabe. Living right next door, they see enough of the economic side effects of his Machiavellian reign. Some may be shocked and presume the installation is playing a racist card, black equals monkey bollocks. That’s not what this is about at all. The image visually paraphrases the very ridiculousness and viciousness of Mugabe’s presidency. And this image is in South Africa’s national gallery. Baboons can be clever and very nasty when they are in need. And such creatures should never be presidents. The expulsion and retribution of Zimbabwe’s incumbent is critical for all of Southern Africa’s future. As I leave South Africa, I beg that they get the fucker out.

2 comments:

Andreas said...

this is some of the best erotica i have read in years

bomon said...

it's the photo of me working...