|The funny thing about the town of Knysna (pronounced nyzz-NAH) is that the professional association for nurses in NY is the NY State Nurses Association, abbreviated NYSNA, and pronounced the same way as the town. So I’m accustomed to the name in conversation but not as a place in South Africa. It doesn’t seem to be a thriving town although there are lots of tourist attractions and lodgings around. There is a small mall in the center of the city and another at the waterfront. A lot of working class neighborhoods, a yacht club, and what not. But it’s in the midst of the Garden Route, beautiful but rocky and a little dry landscape and mostly rocky coast of a very busy ocean.
We stayed in a place on the estuary of a river that the people have always called the Knysna Lagoon. Don’t know why. Our hosts were Marion and Gavin – lovely people who struck us a bid oddly at first – it seems like English is Marion’s second language, at least – though she is quite fluent, her sentences almost all ended in Yah, Yah, except those rare times she expressed a distaste for something, when her sentences ended with Nah, Nah. But their breakfasts were tasty and quite good, Gavin preparing a wide range of hot breakfasts and helping me choose tea (I’ve been drinking a lot of tea! Even the Afrikaners seem to drink a lot of good British tea.) And when Robin and I decided to have a light dinner in our room, on the patio overlooking the lagoon, Marion directed us to the Woolworth’s in town, where we bought cheese and fruit and palmiers made with onion, cheese and paprika, and some other stuff, while I added a can of vegetarian baked beans. Not only did Marion heat them for me, kindly, but she brought it to our room in a lovely bowl with a serving spoon, on a tray with silverware and napkins. Now that was just plain nice! In the best and richest sense of the word nice.
Now you may be thinking two things: why not bask in dinners out on vacation, and Woolworth’s? As for dinner, eating out in South Africa has so far always been a leisurely affair, when rushing people through a meal seems unconscionable, and bringing a check at the end of the meal takes a while. So every night, we’d have a fine meal – some certainly much better than others but only once was the food worse than decent – but get back to our room much later than we wanted. So gathering the makings of a simple meal, and eating in the comfort of our cozy room, outside, quietly, seemed like, and was, a luxurious event. And we’ve been enjoying each other’s company so much, it felt like a little celebration of being us. As for Woolworth’s, we’ve seen branches in every town and airport we’ve gone through in South Africa. Some sell only prepared food and better grocery items. One sold only clothes and home goods – around the same quality (as judged visually only, while walking through) as Macy’s. Most sell both, with cell phones, electronics, small appliances, jewelry - on one or two or three floors. It feels like a flexible reinvention of the department store, selling what they hoped people needed where and when they needed it. If it ever had any relationship to the American five-and-dime Woolworth’s I do not know.
This has been such a thoroughgoing vacation that many little facts I might normally run to look up just pass me by, and I have had no need to know everything I could. Of course I may just run to look things up when I get home – I’m fascinated by the Afrikaans language, want to know more about the ethnic and cultural mix here, let alone the little “I wonder why’s” that I’ve not asked. Oh, and the current state of politics here post-Mandela, when the ANC coalition he led has become less cohesive with more opportunists at the top and progressives and Communists and Socialists on the outside. No one we’ve spoken to seems to think much of the president. And most seem quite aware of the rancid fascist Trump.
So we moved on from Knysna to Port Elizabeth, where we were due to catch a six am flight the next morning. I want to move on to where we are right now, on safari, so I will rush through one and a half days, as if I was a South African driver on a South African highway going uphill in a 120 km/h zone at – at least – 140 km/h. Only once did I see a police car anywhere on a main road. The drivers are very polite, though. Except around the big cities, it seems, where the M-class four or six lane divided highways have been, the N class highways are mostly two lanes with no divider, and a third lane going up steeper hills. If you’re driving slower than the guy behind you, you shift, still driving 90 – 120 km/h, onto as much of a shoulder as there is, so the car or cars behind can continue at speed. If the passing car has to straddle the middle of the traffic line, so be it. If there’s no oncoming traffic, even better. It’s worked every time I’ve been driving – oncoming traffic knows to anticipate passing cars heading towards them, because they’re doing the same thing. Trucks by the way are extraordinarily good about driving as far left as they can so everyone can pass them. Except for the history of apartheid and its predecessor oppressions, it’s an extraordinarily decent society!
We stopped at a little town named Wilderness – because when it was built, the first settlers were said to be building in the wilderness. The town has a beautiful white sand beach on Plettenberg Bay, and, among other shopping, a small village of stores on a hill opposite the beach. I bought a burger at a little hole in the wall, which was better than most I’ve ever been served at restaurants in the US, and Robin got some disappointing pad thai. I also got a little extra bonus a couple of times during the following night, but we won’t discuss that in polite company. Memo to self, however: when traveling abroad, avoid buying food from little holes-in-the-wall in little towns named for the wilderness. The beach was lovely, though.
We proceeded to three more activities, which I realize could not all have taken place on the same drive, so for the actual sequence of events, I direct you to Robin’s blog entries, which at this point are far superior descriptions of our travels together.
We hiked in the Tsitsikamma National Park, on the suspension bridge trail. So it was no surprise when we, along with about 25 other tourists with Germanic accents (I cannot tell the difference between people speaking German, Afrikaans, and who knows, Flemish or Dutch or Luxemburgian – they all sound pretty phlegm-ish to me) reached two suspension bridges across a rocky inlet of the Plett (for Plettenberg Bay). Those who know me well know that I am no fan of heights or of bridges that swing side to side above rocky bays when you walk on them. But I know they are actually safe, it’s just the thoughts of falling, or crazily impulsively jumping, that make me scared. So I controlled those thoughts, by recognizing them as fears and not reality, and I walked across – not, mind you, when there were more than five people on it at the same time – the more people, the more the bridge creaks and sways. And when we stopped along our drive so Robin could see the tallest bungee-jumping bridge in the world, I stayed happily by the car, whistling a carefree tune, off-key as always. But I did cross these two bridges when I came to them, and there lies all the difference!
We also stopped at two sibling wildlife preserves, Monkeyland and the aptly named Birds in Eden. Both house multiple species of rescued animals in the eponymous animal families, both offered mind-bogglingly close passage with animals you couldn’t imagine being that close to, seeing that intimately, where both you and they are moving freely without bars or bondage. Amazing experience, and a foretaste of our safari to come!