An African Introduction

Words Wouter Erasmus Photography Elana Erasmus

Do we take for granted what’s right on our doorstep? A group of friends take a young Swedish learner camping in the Pilanesberg in order to give her a taste of South African outdoor living – and find themselves gaining a new appreciation of what South Africa has to offer campers and caravaners.

An African Introduction - Caravan & Outdoor Life magazineThere’s no disputing that children soak up almost everything like a sponge, including information and new experiences. Knowing this can sometimes mean untold angst for parents: they’re aware that their children’s perception of good and bad, of morality and of suffering in the world, depends on their nurturing efforts – or failures.

Naturally, most of us focus doggedly on educating our children as best as we can. We tend to invest in all the intellectual stimulation we can afford, giving not nearly enough thought to the importance of basic life skills.

Whether as parents or as professionals involved in the schooling system, we often don’t place enough value in promoting independent exploration, or in the importance of developing individuality and character in our children – at least as much as intellectual developmentBut that’s where camping and caravaning can help! These activities provide multiple development opportunities for kids: on camping trips they get to deal with things like dirty clothes, faces and fingernails, making new friends, watching insects and birds, and, most importantly, gaining independence – all within safe boundaries that aren’t necessarily defined by high walls and electric fences. There’s also the invaluable and increasingly rare commodity of time, without which parents and children can’t truly connect and communicate. For parent and child alike, nature remains our connection to a world beyond all the crazy demands of life; it also reminds us adults why childhood is so precious. Camping allows us to live closer to nature, which gives our children so much more than the fundamentals of counting, reading and reasoning, which they’re exposed to at school. Josefine, the Swedish exchange student

As South Africans, we’re predisposed to being children of the bush and veld: we don’t need coaxing or a conscious effort to get out there. This became so much more apparent to us on a recent camping trip to the Pilanesberg. Because our daughter, Kyla, is ‘BFF’ (best friends forever) with Rachel, my wife, Elana, and I have developed a close friendship with Mike and Liz Vincent, Rachel’s parents.

Somewhat unexpectedly, Mike and Liz, who’s an English teacher at the girls’ school, Cornwall Hill College, had an additional child in their home, albeit for a just two weeks, as part of an exchange programme with a school in Sweden. Their enterprising daughter had taken it upon herself to apply on behalf of the Vincent family, via the school’s website, to host a foreign child. This is how Josefine, born and raised in Copenhagen, Sweden, and already a remarkable young lady at 13, came to experience the Pilanesberg with our families. Little did we know, as we set out, that this camping trip would reinforce for us how we’re shaped by nature, and how we have the freedom to experience it, living here on our mother continent.

Going camping
It goes without saying that as extensions of the BFF pairing, we and the Vincents are partners by proxy, and this partnership includes our sons, Thomas and Dirko. Liz suggested that we all go camping to give Josefine an authentic ‘African bush experience’.

We needed no convincing. Elana has the bush in her veins, and relishes any opportunity to camp and photograph the landscape and the living creatures that inhabit it. For me it would be an opportunity to put our new Fendt Bianco 465 SFB caravan through its paces. We chose the well known Manyane Resort, a mere stone’s throw from the Pilansberg National Park. Our friendship with the Vincents is built on mutual interests and a shared commitment to school activities, but we had never camped together before. So I admit to a fleeting concern about whether we would make a good match on this front too.

Pilanesberg National Park
In 1979 the South African government launched Operation Genesis, the aim of which was to restore the wildlife that had been present in the ancient volcanic crater that is now the game reserve for countless centuries prior to colonisation. Today the park accommodates more than 7000 animals representing a wide variety of species, not least the Big Five. The close proximity of Gauteng allows a large number of visitors to enjoy an authentic African bush experience without having to travel very far. This also made it the ideal setting for a camping excursion with our foreign visitor. Another key consideration was that we wanted to expose Josefine to as many animal species as possible, all in one place. On this score we knew the 55 000 hectare park would not disappoint, with its variety of common and rare animal species, like the brown hyena, cheetah, sable and hippo. For those who have an affinity for birds, more than 300 species have been recorded. Majestic elephant herds move in absolute synergy across the landscape, which provides the perfect setting for renewing your sense of wholeness and oneness with nature. Bath time at the Mankwe Dam is a rare and memorable spectacle, thanks to perfectly choreographed antics by the elephant bulls, always determined to entertain not only themselves, but astounded onlookers too.

Sadly, the park, which once had 200 km of sedan-friendly observation roads, is now misrepresented by its brochures. Poor upkeep has left the roads littered with potholes, and I anticipate that soon enough an average sedan will not be able to negotiate these routes. I asked Josefine about the incidence of potholes in Sweden; her immediate ‘No, there aren’t any,’ made it clear that this would be the first of many unique experiences for our young visitor. I consoled myself with the untainted beauty of our surroundings.

Elana, the avid amateur photographer
As I’ve mentioned, my wife’s love of camping and the outdoors coexists with her other great passion: photography. So it didn’t take her long to arrange her equipment on the car seat and urge me to the steering wheel with a ‘Hurry up, the light is deteriorating.’ I suspect my face was a mask of neutral submission as I briefly returned to a sulky teenage state, grumbling ‘Whatever!’ to myself. Elana knows that nature photography is the perpetual search for a special moment captured for all eternity. Moments and eternity can’t be captured in the photographer’s absence, so I, as the designated driver, am under immense pressure during these photographic excursions. Heaven help me if I park where the perfect moment is obscured by a stray tree, or perhaps at an angle that is off by a couple of centimetres. Cries like ‘Forward! No, no back! Argh, not so far!’ have become all too familiar to me. Not only have I become adept at navigating my vehicle with the utmost precision in the shortest time, but I’ve learned to do so in silence, a feat by anyone’s measure. In fact I’m now a manoeuvring magician: I improve the light miraculously, simply by turning the car on a tickey!

Elana is an acrobat who commands the back seat like an Olympian, moving from side to side, up through the sunroof, back down again and side to side once more, in perfect synchronicity with nature’s moments. This dedication is often rewarded, and the Mankwe Dam was no exception. Although we were 50 metres too far off to capture the droplets shining on the elephants’ hides, Elana caught a moment of moments when the elephant bulls fell backwards into the water with pure delight, entertaining observers with apparent relish. Thanks to committed wildlife photographers, people from all over the world, like Josefine, get a taste of our great continent.

It’s over there, Josefine!
We’d taken a long weekend for the trip, by stealing a Friday from school (with permission, of course). Setting up camp was a communal and convivial affair, but it wasn’t without a little sadness that we beheld the dilapidated and neglected state of the once pristine Golden Leopards Resort. For Josefine, who’d never slept in a tent before, the excitement was palpable, which made the experience even more welcome for us. We gathered around a huge campfire that evening, enjoying the animated conversation of our children and their individual idiosyncrasies until the late, quiet hours of night. Armed with torches and sleeping bags, the boys fell asleep long before the giggling that only girls can produce fell abruptly silent. Saturday was another early start as we made our way into the park. Josefine’s face as she saw a giraffe in its natural habitat for the first time will forever be etched into my memory. It struck me that as people of this beautiful country, regardless of age, we seem to have the innate ability to spot animals in our vast, endless veld. It’s not a conscious thing, but it became quite obvious as Josefine repeatedly exclaimed, with intense frustration, ‘I don’t see anything,’ when Rachel and Kyla pointed out animals on the undulating terrain. But as I drove closer to the giraffe, Josefine whispered, her voice laden with quiet emotion, ‘Wow … it is real!’ I turned to her and said, ‘Yes, Josefine, it is’. We went to great pains to find as many species as possible, and even greater lengths to point these out to Josefine. She could recognise the animals by species, but her ability to detect them in their natural habitat was severely constrained. A near run-in with an aggressive bull elephant that seemed set on rearranging our vehicle’s planned route left a lasting impression on her. I’m sure this was another life-changing experience for the young girl!

For all of us returning to camp, hot and tired, the resort pool beckoned. A simple traditional South African meal consisting of boerewors, pap and gravy was prepared for dinner. Josefine was less than partial to the droëwors and biltong, which our own children consume by the kilo, given half a chance. However, a tentative nibble at the boerewors elicited a big smile and a declaration from the young Swede: ‘This is nice!’ Even the pap and gravy were appreciated.

I must confess that I took something of a liberty by likening South African pap to Italian polenta, in order to make it less unfamiliar to her. Josefine ended up loving her supper. Unlike the previous night, all the children succumbed to exhaustion and fell asleep with little prompting. This gave the adults the opportunity to greet the next day at midnight.

Sun City, here we come
Our route to Sun City took us through the Pilanesberg National Park, which was a refresher course on the unusual beauty of this ancient crater. It prompted me to fall in love with our country all over again, and also fortified me for the day ahead, which I knew would be spent at a man-made ‘sea and beach’ among hordes of people – not my favourite setting, by any means. The children, however, felt differently: they were up early, champing at the bit in anticipation of their day at Sun City. A R50 entrance fee was charged for each of us, regardless of age. As we approached the Lost City, I was surprised at the visual impact of the place. It’s another world within our world. It sits snugly at the base of a koppie, a silent but imposing observer of the endless parade passing before it. The moving, rumbling Bridge of Time welcomed us as we made our way to the Valley of the Waves, but not before a photo session was duly completed. The entrance fees (R120 for adults and R60 for children under 13) seemed a small price to pay for everything that awaited us. In my opinion, the activities and staff at this place are unparalleled in South Africa. It was a huge source of pride and relief for the boys that they met the 1.2-metre height requirement to experience the Mamba, Viper and Tarantula water slides. They were joined by the girls, who defiantly challenged the expectation that they would stick to the gentle tube rides. The ‘ocean’ had waves just high enough to ensure a perfect day on the beach of the North West province. We ended off on a tremendous high, and as we made our way back to camp, the wind began to blow with gusto. The Mozambique Channel was hosting the tropical cyclone Irene, who refused to pass through unnoticed.

A final word
Having had an opportunity to observe Josefine Wedelius’s many firsts on this trip, I was reminded of how privileged we are, and how quickly we can become desensitised to the beauty of our country. I was reminded how being of this place shapes our ability to see and perceive, and how much more we should do to embrace the exploration of our country by us and our children. Africa, in turn, will remain with Josefine as a place to be loved and explored. Good friends became excellent camping partners. Our country implores us to look closer, beyond the politics and the corruption, beyond incompetence and neglect. We need to see her for what she truly is, uniquely beautiful in every way and the most inspiring playground for our children, encouraging them to grow beyond mere intellect, to acquire life skills that give a deep appreciation of diversity and a respect for oneself and other living creatures and natural things.

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