Wednesday, April 9 2003
setting: Knysna, Western Cape, South Africa
Today we packed up our stuff and drove further east to Tsitsikamma National Park. On the way, we just happened to catch an interview of Joan Armatrading, who just happens to be in South Africa. Gretchen is a huge Joan Aramatrading fan and she couldn't believe her good luck.
At Tsitsikamma we checked into a campground called Storms River Mouth on the rocky Indian Ocean coastline. Here the only sand is the crumbled shells of sealife, a material that resembles granola. The only available cabins were in the low-rent "Forest Huts" section, where "ablution" and toilet facilities are shared in a common central building. When we finally saw our cabin, we were amused to see that it was named "Stinkwood." Other cabins nearby, none of which appeared to be occupied, carried the names of less scrappy trees. Gretchen was immediately inspired and developed one of her characters. Suddenly she'd been transformed into a feisty African American woman and Stinkwood was her Compton. She spoke of marching up to some other cabin, one with nice views and an integral bathroom, and demanding to use their shower. "And don't give me none that Suave neither," she'd say, addressing a hapless hypothetical occupant with a sideways nod and an extended palm. It was fucking hilarious, in the way that private transracial salutes often can be.
Before venturing to our cabin, though, we walked a trail called the Otter Trail through amid the massive lichen-stained boulders and occasional intrusions of dense forest along the coastline. From a couple vantage points we could see the fins of large schools of dolphins cutting the water. In other places we were treated to the peculiar reality of powerful waves and recalcitrant quartzite-veined rock. The oddest example of this was a tidal pool filled with sea foam, little balls of which kept being caught in the wind and blown like tumbleweed along the rocks.
For lunch, we ate at the camp's restaurant. I had some sort of fish and chips and it was reasonably good, though Gretchen wasn't especially pleased with whatever it was she'd ordered. Part of her problem stemmed from her aversion to cucumbers, which seem to end up in everything she orders. Meanwhile the restaurant speakers were playing an entire N'Sync CD. It was an indication of the difference between the way American culture is absorbed in America versus South Africa. No American restaurant, not even one trading on a perversely wicked irony, would ever play a single N'Sync song, let alone an entire N'Sync album. Though popular in the United States, N'Sync is understood as the bubblegum music of juveniles. Nobody with money enough to eat at a restaurant would ever want to hear them. In South Africa, though, popular American music is snapped up as instant culture, to be applied everywhere as the latest thing, no matter how inappropriate. Telling though, many crucial aspects of contemporary American culture, the kind not as easily discovered as lines on a pop chart, have been overlooked. In South Africa there are only two kinds of beer widely available, Windhoek and Castle, and they don't differ much in flavor. There's been no microbrew revolution. Meanwhile, the coffee of choice in South Africa remains, as I've already reported, Nescafé instant. There's been no gourmet coffee revolution. Sadly, the only revolution South Africans have embraced is the boyband revolution.
In the early afternoon after we'd moved into Stinkwood, I went down to the seashore to look for small-scale life forms. Behind a bank of rocks near the shore enough freshwater had ponded to support a small group of tadpoles. Only a couple dozen feet away were saltwater tidal pools, which were now at lowest tide. I finally got see what I'd wanted to see earlier today - several species of sea anemones and at least one variety of sea urchin. There was also a kind of starfish which was cream-colored and about the size of a quarter.
Later in the afternoon I drove us to the headquarters of Storm River Adventures for our supposed "treetop hike." With us on this expedition was a five-member British family comprised of a father, a terrified-of-heights mother, and three boys, none of whom Gretchen found as annoying as she normally finds children. The "hike" actually consisted of a series of steel cable ziplines strung between huge Yellowwood trees in a valley occupied by virgin forest. We all wore body harnesses equipped with pulleys and a variety of idiot-proof backup safety features. Our two guides stood in the treetop platform at either end of a particular cable run to launch us and ensure that we landed safely. Though it might have looked kind of crazy to a casual observer, it wasn't exactly Mountain-Dew-drinking extreme. Indeed, it was sort of a bore, since the experience was largely centered around techniques and technical matters and we had to spend a considerable amount of time waiting on others before getting to go. In this way, it seemed to combine the worst traits of horseback riding and baseball. Gretchen had hoped for it to be more of a nature experience, but aside from the huge trees, it was mostly about cable and pulleys.
For some reason the experience ended with a light meal back at the headquarters, though neither Gretchen nor I could really partake because the main course was too rich in both eggs and meat.
Back at Stinkwood by the sea, Gretchen received a cell phone call from Dina, who was reporting that Saddam Hussein's Iraqi regime had just fallen "like a house of cards." I remember being disappointed, feeling that the last thing this administration needs is an easy victory (even if, when one battles failed states, this is a foregone conclusion).
I went to show Gretchen the tidal pools, and on the way back her cell phone accidentally dropped into a tidal pool. I immediately scooped it out, but it was already showing signs of trouble. So I completely disassembled it, rinsed it out with fresh water, and suspended it near a lamp to dry out.
For dinner, we returned to the Storm River Restaurant, and this time I ordered a prawn dish with rice. It was greasy and, aside from a farmyard quality, mostly flavorless. Gretchen's entree was similarly unpleasant. Adding insult to injuring, the dining room's speakers were still playing that damn N'Sync CD we'd heard at lunchtime!
It was chilly in Stinkwood, which was unheated, so I ventured off to the communal ablution facilities for a shower. They didn't disappoint. The showers delivered unwavering hot water at incredible pressure, strong enough for me to clean my teeth.
See some photographs from the South Africa trip.
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