Another journey: the dawn

Travelling evokes a tremendous sense of satisfaction, yet simultaneously creates a certain restlessness. After Borneo, I was left with many wonderful memories and experiences but also an itch to get back on the road, to take to the skies and seas of the world. They call it the ‘travel bug’ and I, like my mother before me, am well and truly infected.
So, within a month of having returned to England, I found myself poring over maps spread over the kitchen counter, travelling continents with my fingertips, oceans with my eyes. Where to go? Everywhere. But I had to be realistic and I narrowed it down, first to Asia and then to the South East. At the beginning of January I had booked my flights: London to Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), Singapore to Kilimanjaro (Tanzania) and Kili back to Blighty. I had also booked a tour around Myanmar (Burma) for May, which started in Thailand, giving me effectively three months to get to Thailand. My vague plan was to travel up North through Vietnam, down through Laos, across Cambodia to Thailand, tour round Myanmar, then travel South through Thailand and across to Malaysia. Since returning from Borneo, my desire to climb Mt Kinabalu, for me an image from trek of perserverence and strength, had only grown and so I planned to include this in my travels. My adventure would be concluded with an eight-day climb of Mt Kilimanjaro with my family – standard family holiday. I would be away approximately six months.

I said goodbye to my family, and to York, on the 29th of January. The sun was shining as the train departed York railway station, reflecting the tears in my mother’s eyes, and in my own, through the open window (which I was politely asked to close). Waving goodbye made all my plans seem solid, less of an exotic fairytale, and I felt equal amounts of excitement and trepidation. Before I left the country, I had a fun weekend in London with a few of my best friends, some of whom would be joining me in a few months for some of my travels. It was the perfect way to spend my last few days in England.
When I left my friend’s flat in Barbican on Tuesday on foot with my huge backpack, the sky was still dark, the stars veiled by London’s shroud of pollution. I took a tube and two trains to the airport, where I met a several friends who would travel with me to Saigon. My first stop was Mumbai, India, where I would spend almost ten hours trying to sleep on cold marble benches in the airport’s ‘garden’ and being bitten by the flies that dwelt among the plants. It was a bit worrying that our flight to HCM wasn’t actually on the departures board and, on investigation, it transpired that we were actually travelling via Bangkok, Thailand. Nice of the airline for telling us.
It was a beautiful flight, although I slept for much of it (surprisingly: I never sleep on flights). Leaving Mumbai was like a scene in a travel documentary. Looking out of the window, I could see where the land met the sea, blurred by a soft blanket of mist. Flying over India, mountains rose gently above a swirl of cloud, which emmenated a golden glow in the morning sun. Watching this elegant landscape pass me by made me rather sad that I wasn’t visiting India, which is probably in my top five of countries that I wish to visit. When we arrived at Bangkok, we didn’t actually leave the plane, but sat, sleepily bemused as a purposeful-looking team of aircraft staff cleaned the plane around us in about ten minutes flat. I don’t think I’ve ever seen such cleaning efficiency; I was very impressed. As the plane lifted off again, I fell asleep, briefly waking up to an exquisite view of a shimmering network of rivers meandering like veins across an emerald province.

We touched down in Vietnam to the sight of the setting sun over a patchwork of paddyfields. Leaving the airport, we ran with our heavy bags to catch the bus to take us to our hostel, but it turned out that this was the last one, leaving us with no other option but to take a taxi. After several arguments with various taxi companies trying to charge us extortionate rates, we eventually managed to get ourselves some sort of discount (it still wasn’t a very good price but we were too tired by this point to haggle any more; we got them down by almost half). Half an hour later, we were standing at the mouth of an alleyway in a mostly deserted fruit and vegetable market, while traffic and people streamed by on the road behind us, a cacophony of car horns. The email from the hostel had told us to ‘get in the alley’ and, after a deep breath, we did so. When it came into sight, a few doors down, we gave a great whoop: we had finally arrived!

Good evening Vietnam
Good evening Vietnam

The first sunrise, rain in Africa and the dead zebra.

The sky was lovely on our first morning drive. It was that early morning kind of lightness, which makes everything look surreally bright. The sky ahead of us was lavender-lilac as the hills dipped down, fading to a pale pink. As the sun rose higher in the sky, the light turned the grass and trees a rosy pink, which changed to a golden orange. Wisps of pale smoke twirled up into air from the site of the fire the night before and the air still carried a faint smoky smell. We sat with blankets heaped on top of us in the crisp morning breeze. 

We went to a neighbouring reserve that day. The owner must be pretty rich as he has wild dogs, cheetahs, elephants, rhinos – pretty much every African mammal you can think of apart from lions. Whilst there, we saw more rhino. FIVE RHINO. We are incredibly lucky on the rhino front, even if we haven’t yet seen a leopard!! Two of them stood protectively in front of the others for a few minutes. Their heavy front feet stamped into the ground, whirling up little eddies of dust which blew away in a soft gust of wind. After a while though, they lay down, watching us first with wary eyes then relaxing into the mud. Two others lounged in the background while one was set apart from the others, lying in the dappled shade next to an impala drinking from a trough. It was a serene, prolonged moment.
The next day, it rained. RAIN. In AFRICA. I was not terribly impressed. We drive around on an open top vehicle so there is no shelter from the pouring torrent which slaps your face a thousand times and makes you thoroughly soaked and miserable. Not the most fun day I’ve had here – I eventually wimped out and asked to go in the front, which was marginally better. On the bright side, we got a bag of free biltong (South African dry cured meat) as the reserve had caught some poachers stealing our cameras, so when we got them back we were given the biltong too. It’s a MARATHON to chew, but took my mind off the dreadful weather!!

The weather was better the next day – not warm, but not raining at least!! There was a nice view of Jozini dam as we drove to our sites for the day. There are abandoned buildings randomly dotted over the reserve. They are sad, lonely, empty things and we had lunch at one of these that day.

A week ago, we discovered a dead zebra on the hill behind our accommodation. It was a sorry sight, with the life faded from its button black eyes, but the stripes still as bold ebony as ever. We didn’t know the cause of death. Because it was lying in the middle of the road, we had to drag it to one side. It was incredibly heavy; literally a dead weight.
I’ve been running the last few days and I have to run past this zebra every day. It has been very informative about the decomposition process. A little too informative, perhaps. The first time, the eye had disappeared along with its bottom half. I tried to avert my eyes from the maggots and flies crawling all over its poor body. Something I cannot put into words is the smell. It gets worse day by day. My run several days ago was almost unbearable as I struggled to get my gag reflex under control. Someone or something had dragged it into the middle of the road again; it was awful. Yesterday’s drive revealed a mere pile of bones. The smell had not yet faded, unfortunately.

The first drive, a braii, the fire and the perfect end to the evening

The sun was strong on our first drive – I definitely was glad I had remembered to put sun cream on. I’ve realised I have the best sun cream ever – it has glitter in it. When I’m in the sunlight I am level with Edward Cullen in sparkliness. Score.
So on our drive, we went round checking motion sensor cameras, which Wildlife Act has installed all over Somkhanda and some of its neighbouring reserves. These cameras sense movement, so take a picture whenever an animal passes (it also takes a picture whenever grass moves, as they are quite sensitive, so we end up with a lot of blank photos which is a bit annoying!!) The purpose of them is to collect data on how many leopards are in the area, as this is a reserve which concentrates on leopard conservation. When we think we know how many there are, we can take the data to the hunting authorities to try to get them to issue less leopard hunting permits. The leopards have not shown their gratitude for our efforts to help them, as they have not yet appeared, but we’ve seen evidence of them on the cameras and are still hoping to see one before we leave. The hunting issue also sucks because it makes the animals, especially a lot of antelope species, pretty skittish, which means we see less when we’re out.
We go round checking these cameras every day. There are 66 cameras at 33 sites spread out far and wide, and we have to check every camera once a week to get the photos from them and to replace their batteries. That first drive was the first time I’ve used a hand drill. It was pretty exciting; I felt very manly.
Despite the fact that all I’d really done was sat on the back of a jeep all day, I was pretty wiped when I got back. The roads really are pretty bumpy and it’s a bit of an effort to hold on – checking cameras is more tiring than it first appears!! We went through the photos we collected from the cameras that day; no leopards, but some other interesting animals including genets (which are these cute little cat things with stripy tails), porcupines and giraffes (although you can only see their legs!!) Some of the photos are pretty amusing, as some of the animals are clearly alarmed by the flash of the camera and jump several feet into the air!! I did not know giraffes could jump. Fun fact.

For dinner, we had a braii (a South African BBQ) with impala (type of antelope) sausages and butternut squash. The light was fading as our food cooked over the smouldering hot fire (made with firewood which we had collected ourselves). Just as the food was ready, Brett got a call from his boss saying that there was a fire in Somkhanda and it was spreading towards some of the camera sites. The cameras are expensive, and we didn’t want to risk losing them, so the food was forgotten. We bundled into the truck, with woollen blankets to protect from the raw night wind.
As we reached the main reserve, we first glimpsed the fire. Angry orange lines cut into the a cold black, as the flames devoured their furious way along the hill. The sky glowed scarlet, as flickering red smoke billowed into the night. It almost looked like the sky was burning from the bottom up, like the edge of newspaper held to a flame. It was a sight such as I’ve never seen before: frightening, but beautiful in a wild way. It really took your breath away.
Luckily, we managed to snatch a pair of cameras from the fire’s clutches, but had to leave another pair, as it would have been too dangerous to drive that close.
We’d taken a red spotlight with us, so on the way back we were able to do some night time game watching. Herds of impala watched us from the trees in the gloom, although for once did not run, as they could not see the light of the spotlight. It was quite eery as their eyes glinted crimson in the darkness. We didn’t expect what stepped onto the out of the trees next.
A white rhino, looming huge and silent in the road in front of us took a step in our direction. The engine was hurriedly turned off and we began to roll quietly down the hill away from the rhino. Rhinos can be unpredictably aggressive and we prayed it would not charge us. Tension hung in the air, as it took one last dismissive look at us and disappeared, as quickly as it had come, into the darkness. We waited a few uncertain moments to check for sure that it was gone, then drove on.
Little did we know how much luckier we were about to get. A few minutes later, we saw another rhino. It was not alone. Two females and two babies were walking down the road in the opposite direction to us. We stopped and stared in astonishment at the sight we had stumbled upon. I felt privileged to witness the little family as it hurried away from us down the road. We had been incredibly lucky: Brett has seen 2 rhinos in Somkhanda the 2 months he has been here and we had just seen 5 in one night!!
It really was the perfect end to the evening.