Travel Memoirs of the Wanderlust-struck, PART 4

Orange River Rafting

When I was 19, I spent the Easter holidays in a soggy canoe barrelling down the Orange River, the longest river in South Africa and the mighty waterway that constitutes its northern border with Namibia. You’ll notice this if you look at Namibia’s eastern and southern borders. The former is a clean cleave right through the left ventricle of the subcontinent, while the latter, which follows the meandering course of the river, is wonkier than your life choices after your fifth tequila. For the trip, we hired the services of a river rafting company that supplied everything we needed – canoes, guides, equipment, food, and watertight storage – while we were tasked with bringing our own beverages and sleeping gear.

On day one, we landed at base camp after a long, dusty drive up from Cape Town and, on the banks of the Orange River, got acquainted with our guides and our fellow intrepid explorers. These were a rambunctious lot of my parents’ vintage (with kids my age) and thank goodness for that because there’s nothing worse than travelling with boring people. After a welcome braai (South African colloquialism for “barbeque”), several beers, and final preparations, we retired to our cabins for a night of civilized sleep: our last for the next seven days.

Daytime on the Orange River

Orange River rafting South Africa

As the sun came up, the heat descended. The north-western border of South Africa is several hundred kilometres closer to the equator and with the cold Benguela current, which flows adjacent to the west coast, imparting little moisture to the atmosphere, the air here is dry and the landscapes parched and dusty. Of course, the Orange River gives life to the trees, bushes, and reeds whose seeds won the lottery by falling near enough to its water to germinate and so there is some greenery. This is strongly juxtaposed by the warm oranges and reds of the iron-rich soils, which is where we and many like us assumed the river gets its name from. In fact, it was named in the 1770’s by a Captain in the Dutch East Indian Company after Prince William V of Orange.

The days spent on the river were long and afforded us a sneak peak at the lives of people who spend the majority of their waking hours engaging their hands and bodies, a digression for most of us middle-to-upper class families whose jobs or studies have us desk-bound. I found myself relishing the simplicity of the day’s work: the rhythmic, repetitive motion of rowing, the trees and rocky red landscape drifting idly by, and the hypnotic ripples caused by our canoes cutting through the muddy green waters of the not-so Orange River. The hours trickled by as new landscapes evolved and melted past us punctuated by the odd series of rapids we’d have to negotiate. I also kept mental note of the birds we saw – goliath herons, African fish eagles, hamerkops – which I would write down on my list when we stopped to camp for the night.

Orange River rafting South Africa

With all the arid beauty of this region and its rich birdlife, there was always something to keep the eyes engaged but untethered from the insular concerns of my fairly sheltered life, my thoughts were allowed to wander precariously to the future and to my dreams of travel. I was only in the second year of a Bachelors Science Degree and so my soul belonged to academia, a demanding and occasionally traumatizing mistress who would, every now and then, award you with enough validation to get you through the next six months of intellectual toil. I had a fair slog ahead of me before I’d be able to hit the road but the point is that the dream, or rather need, to see the world was there, gnawing steadily at my inner fibres.

This was daytime on the river – row, row, row your boat; think, think, think about shit – and for every toll it took on the body, it gave back in mental rejuvenation. Never mind the intense heat of the near-equatorial sun, the physical demands of rowing for eight hours a day, and the blisters caused by the oars rubbing wetly against the soft flesh adjacent to the thumb. You do your best introspection when there is nothing to distract the mind and there are few people to talk to. It’s the people who struggle with solitude and who constantly need to be surrounded by chatter that tend to have shaky relationships with their inner selves. And if they can’t be along with themselves and their thoughts, what makes you think it’s safe for you to be?

Don’t date those people.

Nighttime on the river

Orange River rafting South Africa

African sunsets are something to behold. There is some magical quality to the air here that creates the most spectacular sunsets, the intensity of which I’ve simply never witnessed anywhere else in the world. Perhaps it’s not so much the visual spectacle as it is the multi-sensory performance of the sun setting below the African horizon: the accompanying smell of the burning Earth and its parched shrubs; the chorus of the weaver birds, sparrows, and starlings settling down for the evening; the way the light falls over the landscape like a golden veil. Then, very suddenly, the night descends and, by God, it was my favourite time of day on the Orange River.

With no light pollution and few obstructions in a 360-degree sweep around us, the night sky yawned above us, a fathomless black vault set ablaze by trillions upon trillions of twinkling stars. The starlight was so intense and the night so still, it was almost as though one could hear the universe gently breathing in and breathing out. I looked at the gentle silvery light on my arm and marvelled at the fact that the photons pummelling my skin at that very moment were likely older than the Earth. Total nerd that I am, I had brought along a star chart of the Southern Hemisphere (I was taking a university course in astronomy at the time) and delighted the other families’ children with the names and mythology of the stars, planets, and constellations. Nighttime on the Orange River was my favourite, even though the mosquitoes were relentless in their bloodsuckery.

Earning your experience

Orange River South Africa

We slept in tents, cooked over the fire, and went to the toilet in the bush with sweeping views of Namibia one night and South Africa the next, depending on which bank we camped on. We paddled hard during the day, swam in the river to cool off, and, on the third day or so, hiked up a hill to an abandoned fluorspar mine, where shards of the snot-coloured mineral lay scattered everywhere. These, we threw onto the campfires at night to unleash their enchanting properties of thermoluminescence, which is nerd speak for something that lights up when it’s heated.

The Orange River was a magical experience from which I returned with bulging deltoids, sun-bleached hair, and skin so tanned that I barely recognised myself in the mirror. Basically, I looked like a dried-out bag lady but with an enormous white smile. Every meal, every night’s rest, and every breathtaking view I had experienced during those seven arduous, euphoric days on the river had been earned. From the ephemeral streak of meteorites in the night sky to the spectacular pink sunrises, the bubbling stews on the campfire and the vegetal smell of the river… we had earned it all and the experience was all the more thrilling for it. I returned to city life and the rigors of university refreshed, invigorated, and refocused.

Oh, and I earned a distinction in astronomy.

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Travel Memoirs of the Wanderlust-struck, Part 3

The Lion King

As a child, I was obsessed with The Lion King. For one, I had an all-out crush on Simba that transcended the species and spatial divide between us: I was a human, he was a lion; I was 3D, he was 2D…it was just never going to work out. Anyway, being a Lion King nut, I amassed a rather decent collection of Lion King toys. I had Simba, Scar, Pumba, and Timone figurines with articulating joints, and I had non-movable molds of Nala, Zazu, and a bevvy of other critters, which I would spend hours playing with. In our backyard, I’d make them little homes out of rocks and sticks and play out sweeping sagas of action, romance, drama, and occasionally pornography.

lion king toys

The only Lion King toy I didn’t have was Mufasa, the true Lion King, friendly Darth Vader, and Simba’s majestic AF father before the little shit went and got him killed. It was on our trip to Singapore, killing a few hours in an airport lounge, that I finally clapped eyes on the missing piece of my collection. There he was on a shelf in a toy store, ensconced in shiny packaging, muscles rippling beneath his tawny plastic hide and with a flowing coiffed mane that would have made Elvis envious. I practically drooled. I took the $25 toy off the shelf and approached my parents with the biggest, moistest, most beseeching eyeballs I could muster.

cat Shrek sad eyes

Sadly, the answer was no. My brother and I had already been treated at the Singaporean installation of Hamley’s that day – the oldest and largest toyshop in the world – so I could hardly expect my parents to fork out even more money. My parents understood that no good ever came from spoiling a child; we had our limits and they were enforced, unlike today’s  parents who seem to think they can buy their children’s affections.

Instead of crumpling to the floor in a cacophony of snot and tears, I got busy. I scraped together every last coin I had left over from the little allowance my parents had given us for our trip and counted about $12.00. Okay, halfway there. I then scampered off to source the rest.

How?

By stealing of course! On hands and knees, I managed to pick up a few dollars’ worth of carelessly dropped coins beneath the cash registers at various airport stores. I also begged my parents for whatever coins they had left over – we were about to depart the country anyway so they wouldn’t need those. But I struck the true mother lode when I stationed myself outside the currency exchange counter, where some businessman had dropped a BRITISH POUND on the floor. To this day I wonder if he did it on purpose, seeing me desperately scrounging about for coins. Barely higher than the counter myself, I handed my bounty over to the teller and, when added together, managed to come up with the necessary funds. This was in the good old days when currency exchange stations still accepted coins. I marched triumphantly to the toy store, dumped two fistfuls of clinking treasure on the counter along with my trophy Mufasa figurine and, at the tender age of 9, made my first ever solo purchase.

When I trotted up to my parents minutes later with Mufasa in hand, they thought I had stolen it off the shelf only to find out – much to their astonishment – that their little daughter was resourceful and as crafty as a fox. Clearly, my grandfather’s Jewish blood flows powerfully through my thrifty veins.

Budget traveling

budget travel

What in God’s name does this lengthy story have to do with travel? Well, first of all, it all took place at Singapore Airport, so technically it is a travel anecdote. A more compelling reason for telling it, however, (and the moral of the story) is to emphasise the importance of being thrifty if you have your designs set on seeing at least a fraction of the world before you exit this mortal coil.

I have no qualms about eating at local hole-in-the-wall restaurants or open air markets rather than expensive establishments; and you’ll never catch me in a taxi when there’s a perfectly efficient and inexpensive public transport system to use. Besides, the ubiquitous crazy folk and Jesus-hawking zealots you tend to meet on public transport provide the most thrilling entertainment on long rides back to the hotel. I also have no qualms about staying in a simple motel, inn, or sharing a dorm room and enduring the snores and nocturnal farts of others if it means cheaper accommodation. Because, my friends, in a country in which the currency isn’t worth its weight in nickel, cheaper food, transport, and accommodation directly equates to more travel.

I’d far rather spend money on travelling once or twice a year than only once every two to three years, as is typically the case with my fellow South Africans. And if I budget well, I can see and do far more than I would if I blew two thirds of my budget on eating, sleeping, and getting around. I’m talking about affording to see more attractions, engage in more activities, and explore more of my destination, sending me home with a heart full of stories and sublime wonder.

Budget travelling is one of the best and most powerful methodologies one can employ to truly see and experience a foreign city and, in a lifetime, dozens of cities on every continent…except maybe Antarctica, although nobody’s judging anyone’s bucket list here.

Penguin Antarctica

More important than being able to hit the road more frequently is the fact that budget travelling eliminates the pretences and inauthenticity of well-heeled travel so that the experience you have of a place is raw and honest. It’s about spending 10 hours+ a day on the road, in the bush, or tramping through a concrete jungle. It’s about feeling the climate – the humidity and the heat – rather than banishing it from your experience, and eating where the locals eat for a fraction of the cost of some fancy restaurant. To budget travel is to live like the majority of locals live and it’s to leave that city or country with a lasting impression of its supreme beauty, charm, culture, and cuisine but also its struggles.

The suggestion here is not to sleep on a park bench and drink nothing but tap water; rather, it’s to stay in hostels with other travellers, to couchsurf, “Air bnb” it, or do some kind of house swap. It’s to share a table with other locals and travellers at an open air market or eatery and to witness the city in motion from a bus, train, or even tuk-tuk. I never turn down the chance to meet and get to know other travellers because you never know what kind of opportunities a friendship will open up to you. Sure, there’s a lot to be said for staying in a luxury hotel – I mean, given the offer to stay for free, I’d likely choose that over slumming it – but it does provide somewhat of a sterile travel experience. And what could be better than playing pool, drinking tepid beer, and getting to know fellow budget travellers in the rec room of a hostel?

So…rather than travelling like the Queen of Sheba and only being able to afford a holiday once every two to three years, budget travel. Experience your destination in all its authentic, raw, and occasionally painful beauty!

Grand Canyon