south africa

Picking Potjies

Potjie (poy-kee): Noun. Afrikaans. A three-legged pot-bellied cast-iron pot used for cooking over a fire. Usually by pot-bellied beer-drinking men.

It’s that time of year around base camp where we feel it’s not quite hot and dusty enough, so we light a huge fire and gather round to cook in cast-iron pots all day long. It’s the annual Potjie Cooking Competition, an homage to our South African employees and contractors. Last month Seb and I celebrated our fifth.

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Geography (or, Don’t you live in South Africa?)

Sorry, Sara, I’ve got to post another map. After three and a half years of living in Congo, I’ve collected three and a half years of stories about people assuming we really mean South Africa. It’s kind of funny, really. On a visit back home in Kansas once, I caught my Dad saying repeatedly that I lived in South Africa. I finally wrestled out of him why he was saying this. For one, it’s not too easy to say “the Democratic Republic of the Congo”—it doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue. (Which is why I almost always shorten it to just Congo; technically incorrect too, but it’s a place to start.) For another, he figures most people would have trouble relating to something so remote. South Africa is not just easier to say, it’s easier to hear.

He’s right. We travel home to Arizona usually about once a year to catch up on shopping, business meetings, and medical appointments. Time and time again I’ve had some variation of the following conversation, whether it’s with doctors, dentists, acupuncturists, hotel receptionists or sushi connoisseurs:

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Mpumalanga (or, Where God Must Live)

Will Smith remarked on his first visit to Africa: “It feels like God visits everywhere else but lives in Africa.” I don’t know if he was specifically referring to South Africa when he said that, but if he was, then I think we stumbled upon God’s hometown. It’s in Mpumalanga province, specifically along the Drakensberg Escarpment, where the highveld is separated from the lowveld.

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Safari Days 3-4 (or, Leopard’s Leap isn’t just a bottle of wine)

Gary wanted us to watch the sun rise from the top of a bluff, on foot. We were well on the road by 6am and on top of the bluff fifteen minutes later. Gary poured us a cup of coffee as the sun peeked over the horizon, and we listened to the sounds of the bush as it woke up. The first one to greet us was a klipspringer, a little antelope that bounces all over the rocks so quickly he “springs” from one to another. These animals have a little pad of flesh that grows in between their hooves on the bottom of their feet, giving them a softer landing and more staying power on the slippery rocks.

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Safari Day 2 (or, The Brotherhood of Lions)

“Did you hear the lions roaring last night?” Gary asked us as soon as we reached the breakfast table, around 5:45 in the morning. We had, though at the time we thought it could have easily been our over-active imaginations. “There are four brothers in this territory. We saw one of them last night, remember? At the moment they’re spread out, but they were roaring all night long, locating each other. We estimate they will meet up sometime this morning. You’ll want to be there to see it when they do.”

So we slammed a cup of coffee, grabbed a danish, and, as soon as our safari mates arrived, jumped in the Land Rover to set off for the lions.

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MalaMala Safari (or, Don’t Pet the Cats Here)

This story is dedicated to Ethan, who turns 7 years old today. Happy birthday, sweet nephew! May you have many excellent safaris in your future.

Bellies full and Table Mountain crossed off our to-do list, we left Cape Town and flew 2½ hours east to begin the next phase of our vacation in South Africa: an actual, honest-to-goodness, wild animal safari in the bush. We were headed to Kruger National Park, or rather just outside it, where many people opt for a self-drive safari. Us, on the other hand… we didn’t like the idea of wandering aimlessly around a savannah loaded with dangerous animals. We kind of wanted an expert to handle that.

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Cape Town (or, Every Town Needs a Mozzarella Bar)

Tearing ourselves away from the delicious enclave of Franschhoek, we continued driving towards Cape Town with a slight detour to check out the nearby whale capital of Hermanus. This is the bay where hundreds of whales settle between June and November to court, mate, and birth. The town is so well known for the whales that there’s even a town crier whose job it is to roam around with chalkboard and bullhorn, directing everyone’s attention to the right spot.

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Knysna (or, Getting There is the Hard Part)

My protective and well-intentioned husband who’s sure I will lose my passport if left in charge of it keeps it in his safe at work. When it needed to be sent to Kinshasa for an updated visa, he took my stapled-in yellow fever vaccination card out before sending it on. Normally, a good idea. When my passport came back from Kinshasa with the updated visa, I wasn’t even allowed to see it. “It’s in my safe, it’s safe! Don’t worry,” he assured me. The night before we left for South Africa, he brought both our passports home. I admired my new visa for a few moments and put it away in my travel bag for the trip.

The next afternoon we landed in Johannesburg. At the immigration check they asked me for my yellow fever card. It’s stapled in the back, I said, instinctively. No, it’s not, they answered. I asked to see it. There’s the mark of the staple, where it used to be. Confused, I checked my bag, thought for a few moments, then looked over at Seb, who was just getting the green light at his immigration check and heading on through. “Where’s my yellow fever card?” I hollered. Also confused, he thought for a few moments, then remembered: “Oh, shit, it’s still in the safe.” I stared at him, dumbfounded. This can’t be happening. He came over and we tried explaining the situation to the immigration gal. She clicked her tongue and shook her head and said, “It’s gonna be a long trip back to Congo.”

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2 Weeks in South Africa

You would think living in the heart of Africa we would get to see lions, zebras, and hippos on a regular basis. Nope. Congo has been without any large animals for a few decades now. Apparently war, poverty, and hunger can do that to a place. A farmer who lives nearby told us that once upon a time elephants and giraffes roamed his property. The last time he saw anything like that was in the 1980s.

So apart from the Lubumbashi Zoo (which was, surprisingly, a fun little trip), we have to leave the country to go on a proper safari. We chose South Africa as the first recipient of our tourism dollars on this continent, cleverly timed to celebrate our first wedding anniversary.

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