My heart lies in the Eastern Cape, in South Africa. It is my birthplace, my spiritual and community home. How apt that Leasa Marie and I should begin our journey in this drought-ravaged, parched landscape tended by the most caring, committed and resilient folk I have ever encountered.
Here we met with loved ones, moving along the coastal towns and villages, to celebrate the festive season, to commiserate with the loss of their livestock and to re- kindle precious bonds. Our route culminating in Morgan Bay. To leave its vast swathes of white sand, unpredictable ocean currents and rip tides, pounding at the bases of dramatic cliffs where my forefathers’ ashes are strewn, is more difficult than I can ever express. Days later, our quest to push up into the unspoilt beauty of Sodwana, and to stick to our itinerary, gave us the incentive to move on.
The views of Sodwana Bay are quite literally, breath taking. I had never been to Sodwana before and I can honestly say, that it’s one of the most beautiful places I have visited. We were in the heart of iSimangaliso, an independent kingdom, free of South Africa’s rules and regulations and in Sodwana Bay, one of the top dive sites in the world! Such a privilege and a thrill.
Hanging out with Pedro, Janu, Valentina and Sirreal in The Pizza Place in Sodwana on the first night, and on subsequent nights, was both comforting and liberating, as we became woven into the fabric of this barefoot, wild coast culture and its welcoming local community. The whole vibe of this place was relaxed, friendly and unpretentious. Phenomenal pizzas, cold beers and a spontaneous jamming session were the perfect backdrop to the first rains that had fallen since we had been in South Africa.
Our senses were zinging as we processed the earthy scents, the celestial pattering of raindrops, heavy with promise and the responsive call of the insects.
We silently gave thanks for the relief these blessed rains would bring to all those we had left behind in the Eastern Cape – each drop representing kindness, life and love. Our hearts had been heavy with the weight of drought and death as we had travelled through the Transkei, on our journey up here. Nature was now in metamorphosis, soaking the life giving rain, transforming itself into green shoots of grass, waterholes and silvery river beds.
Our first impression of Sirreal, an 11 year old, local boy, was of a smiling, confident, and friendly kitchen porter, at work as an equal in The Pizza Place. Yet, like so much else in this place, his appearance belied the truth of his situation. At the age of 9, Sirreal came to ask Janu and Pedro for a job, so that he could support his family. Within a year, this enterprising young boy had saved enough money to hire out the Pizza Place and to pay for all his friends and family to have a party. At 11, his passion for conservation, his community and the ocean is amazing. His diving skills have been fostered by Pedro and he invests his savings into his family, diving equipment and continues his own education by exploring the coast. The wonder and courage of the human spirit continued to inspire us.
On another occasion, Simon, owner and front of house, welcomed us into Sunrise Tavern on the outskirts of Sodwana. This little shebeen, had all the characteristics of a Western out-post saloon: roughly hewn benches and tables, candles, iron grilles and a clientele of sober, even-tempered men who soon became drunk and belligerent as evenings became long nights. We saw symbolism round every corner, here no less than in the capricious, volatile nature of man and the sea.
Word amongst the locals was that there had been a dearth of game fishing in the area. So, we took to the air! A microlight flight along the coast to track the game fish seemed the most effective way forward. From that height, the reefs were awesome, giant scribbles on the ocean floor. The colours of the sea, a moving counterpane of azure, aquamarine and sapphire. Our hearts were hammering, our spirits high, filled with reverence for this astounding beauty. Nothing could stop us from venturing further along the coast.
Who better to go exploring this amazing coastline with than my old school-friend, Darren. For seven days, we travelled in his jeep North toward Mozambique, hunting out the choicest bases to trek, swim and dive from. Travelling this far North into unmanned reserve does not come without its security concerns, both while on the road and camping. Having tactical strategies in place for possible eventualities and a constant awareness of your immediate environment is a necessity and a price paid for accessing this untouched coastline. iSimangaliso Wetland Park gave us the opportunity to get in and under some of the roughest, tumbling, dumping waves that we had encountered. Darren, a seasoned master diver and all round ocean child, revelled in this amphitheatre of danger and drama. We sought refuge in the natural coves and holes, hiding away from the washing machine effect of the waves. They bounced off the colossal reefs and climbed out of the depths of the massive drop-offs, threatening to scoop us out and toss us around like playthings. Such exhilaration!
In contrast, on one of our calmer dives, spotting a solitary manta ray was awe-inspiring and the first that Darren had seen in all the years he had been diving along this coast. The sea and its deception…a different mask for every occasion and never more enigmatic than in these powerful, forceful, loving waves of the Southern African shoreline. We fell in turbulent love with the place, daily.
Further down the KwaZulu Natal coast to the magnificent beaches of Balito just North of Durban, we met extraordinary fishing cultures with a love and zest for the ocean, the source of their livelihood and joy. One such character, Tarreck, did not seem to have the expected fear of creatures lurking below his small, fishing kayak. He only seemed a little phased when a 3m Bull Shark, also known as a Zambezi Shark, launched itself at a friends fragile vessel and tried to take him out, sideways! He was only too happy to return to the same spot of the attack, on the same day, to lead me to the pugnacious predator. His sound navigational skills dropped me pin point above the boat wreck 400m beyond the shore break, where they had encountered the bull shark hours before, and to so generously, send me into the depths, armed only with a camera, we unfortunately didn’t see or butt heads with the maniac.
As all itineraries tend to do, ours swung back on itself, pointing us, in the direction of The Pilansberg Game Reserve, a geological phenomenon. As an ancient, volcanic complex, it features as one of the largest and most important in the world. We were drawn not only to its spectacular scenery but to experience an area that was brought back to life through Operation Genesis; re-stocked with wildlife and reclaimed from human settlement in 1979. The question was how to gain an overview of such a magnificent, vast area in a very short space of time. The answer – by hot air balloon.
At 4.00, the air is particularly fresh, unsullied by neither heat nor dust. Our view from the basket…perfect! What struck us most, was the disinterest of the animals as we floated above them, parallel and therefore, unthreatening. Moving without force, resistance or control, we noticed the zigzag patterns of the crocodiles’ prehistoric spines as they lazed in the waters below. In fact, there were patterns everywhere. The systems, order and constellations of nature had never before been so distinct and evident. The rains had transformed this landscape into a tapestry of rich hues and textures.
Leasa loved the close contact with the white and Bengal tigers in the Wild Predators’ Sanctuary, located in the Pilansberg National Park. Hand-reared, they were comfortable with her caresses and attention and these vulnerable, charismatic and fickle bundles of fur, entranced us.
We were at the end of our journey, and it left us with profound, emotional and stirring memories; flickering and flying through our hearts and minds daily. They continue to do so.