I arrive in Natal on a Sunday, October evening to hear tiny, silvery tree frogs calling in high whoops, but I do not see the four foot long snake lying on the patio. My hosts, Julie and Julian, conceal its presence from me in case I panic and go home. They laugh and tell me it was there only when I board the plane to return to the UK. They think we Brits are soft. That night a gecko is spread on the side of the brick step, pale and still, which speeds away at the click of the outside light.
It’s a precipitous landscape. On Monday we walk out to a breathtakingly high spot near the house, and sit on muddy pink/brown sandstone rocks above a dizzying drop. Below us, hundreds of feet down, is cool, dense, lush green forest, where a waterfall gushes into the tropical stillness. I hear the high pitched calls of birds and see an occasional pinky red flash as locusts fly past. About half a mile distant, across the gorge, and ahead of us on a dry outcrop, is a lookout for bushfires, to the side of us another outcrop. The bottom of the gorge has a road on which enormous articulated trucks and cars speed along, looking like tiny Matchbox toys.
On Tuesday we eat brunch overlooking the Valley of A Thousand Hills, a wrinkled land mass that extends for many miles. We take a drive on a dirt track through a valley, where silvery monkeys cross the road ahead of us, yellow weaver birds are everywhere and their spherical nests hang like fruit from the trees over the water. Julie tells me that the males make the nests, the females inspect them and, if unimpressed, they will rip it to shreds leaving the male to try again. This afternoon the rose by the door is inhabited by a silvery green and pink tree frog who sits in the centre with its eyes swivelling to watch us as we inspect him, as if he knows how beautiful he is, and has chosen this perfect placement to set him off to advantage. I am taken to the home of Julie’s friend which sits on top of a sheer drop into a tree lined valley where we had planned to walk. It makes my stomach lurch; it is as though we are on a platform from which we could so easily tumble. Two yellow billed kites circled level with us, looking like British buzzards and the children find a newly dead blue-headed lizard in the garden, its head so brilliant it is more like turquoise.
Wednesday’s trip is a walk at Kloof Gorge, where we hike on a winding path through trees. Small lizards, brown with a horizontal orange stripe, dart away from us, and the Cicadas are deafening as we pass them. The sheer sides of the gorge are brown, squared-off, sedimentary rock which looks as though it has been chiselled. I sit for a while above the river where it tumbles over a great drop. Dragonflies hang in the air above the spray and dart past us, and fabulous butterflies fly close displaying their aquamarine and green wings. For more than an hour, I sit and absorb the primeval atmosphere, on a rock overhang warmed by the sun. The bottom of the gorge is hundreds of feet below and the gorge winds away into the far distance. Kites glide level with my dangling feet and small striped lizards sun themselves near the rock. At the start of the walk, by the river, I am reminded of Dartmoor, as the formation of rounded flattish slabs of rock with the river running past and over them feels so familiar.
It is pouring with rain on Thursday. This part of Natal, high up and out of the town, is very humid, and the huge drops of rain are heavy. I look around the garden. There is a Liquidambar tree, similar to a maple, tall and green, and Jacaranda trees, which are my favourite, with ferny leaves and violet blooms. When the rain stops, we drive out to visit another friend’s house, and pass weeping bluegums. A kingfisher sits on a pole watching the water.
Julie has planned a treat for the weekend and on Friday, Julian drives us through heavy rain and cloud to the Drakensburg, stopping at Howick Falls for brunch and a look at the waterfall and craft market. We are booked into The Lodge at Giants Castle which is built into rocks 150 million years old, with enormous boulders forming part of the walls. This is a perfect villain’s lair for a Bond film, built and styled in the 1960s to a grand scale. I have never been in rooms of this size. The living room and bedrooms are enormous, with wall length picture windows overlooking the mountains. My own room is vast and contains two double beds, and I look out through the floor to ceiling wall of glass at a breathtaking, unbroken view of ancient landscape.
I feel the need for solitude within it. I relish this opportunity to be in Africa, where all mankind originated, and to tread the same tracks of the old hunter gatherers, so on Saturday, I walk in silence along the path lined by long grasses, flowers and Protea trees with the Bushman’s river in almost full spate thundering past below. It is warm and pleasant, bugs and butterflies are everywhere but there is no sign of the presence of man, apart from the trail. The San hunted cattle, and lived simply under rock overhangs, not in caves. There are paintings of eland, medicine men and hunters, women and babies on the rock walls. Although some are crude, others are elegantly executed by primitive, long extinct bushmen, and I wonder at the lives of those people who, on the same spot 2,000 years before, stood making their marks on the rocks. Still taking cattle generations later, they came to be seen as primitive poachers, and a nuisance by a newer, subsistence farming community, so they were wiped out. I learn the poignant story of the last bushman to be killed here, an old man who, when his body and clothing was examined, was found to be carrying a pouch containing all his artist’s materials and, with him, the knowledge of their cave paintings and their lives died. Their history has been unravelled by examining their bones, their homes, and tools and weapons, and they were a tiny people, a fully grown adult being about the size of our twelve to fourteen olds.
It is a glorious sunny morning on Sunday, with a clear blue sky, and just puffs of white clouds hanging above the mountains. We all walk up and up, like the Von Trapp family, over acres of wild grasses and flowers, where burns run down from the mountains and hills all around us. There is a great sense of space and the expanse of grassy mountain and sky is exhilarating. When we arrive back at Julie’s house that night, the tree frogs are calling again and the great awkward, ungainly Hadida birds are croaking.
I experience my first African thunderstorm on Monday night. There are great sheets of light over the sky. It is shocking and electrifying, a sky of high drama but, instead of clearing the air, Tuesday in intensely hot. At Tala Game Reserve there are rhino, giraffe, zebra, wildebeest, impala, and bushbuck. Hippos are in the water. They snort a bit, but rarely surface. Dragonflies are everywhere, and there are many birds including a hoopoe. We see a warthog with its baby. It is silent, hot and peaceful, and tonight, there is another thunderstorm, but only a few forks this time, tame by comparison to the previous display.
After the humid atmosphere of Julie’s garden, and the dry heights
of the Drakensburg, on Wednesday we go nearer the sea, to the Botanical
Gardens in Durban, where it is very peaceful and also very windy, and
also visit Umloto beach with a hot sun and with a warm breeze like a hairdryer
blowing. This is absolute bliss and I drop off to sleep to dream of tiny,
tribal people, dressed in leather and skins, tending their fires, telling
stories, making their paintings, and tracking mammals amidst the splendour
of the mountains.