Travel

Bad Antogast: Stillness In The Black Forest

Going on a ten-day silent retreat in Bad Antogast, a small hamlet on the edge of the Black Forest in Germany punctuated by a handful of farmers’ houses and terraced fields, was my wife’s idea of a fun vacation, not mine. Left to my own devices, I would have preferred to trace the Alps, hiking a well-known trail and marking it off on my list of accomplishments. I get a kick out of tangible outcomes. My wife suggested I learn to quieten my mind. I was unconvinced. She booked me in anyway.

Located in Germany’s deep south, close to the Swiss and French borders, Bad Antogast is encircled by mountains and forests, making it difficult to reach from any German city. That’s not necessarily a bad trade, for all the clockwork German precision also melts away as one leaves the hustle of the cities behind. Appearing unannounced in a valley, it’s a village custom-built for experiments with reclusiveness. There are no markets to be seen, no traffic. A mineral water spring is the only tourist attraction.

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The Silence Retreat is located on a slope. My room was a minimalistic rectangle, the windows of which opened onto the forest. Wooden flooring, thick woollen blankets, and a warm bed turned it into a comforting nest Cellular network didn’t penetrate its walls. Everything about the retreat suggested silent enquiry, mostly within. The trouble with wandering minds like mine is that even silent pauses are pregnant with planning. In my free hours, I conspired to mountain bike to the neighbouring villages of Maisach or Griesbach or go looking for the hidden spot, somewhere up in the mountains, from which a sole parasailer sometimes appeared out of thin air and remained hanging in the blue vastness for long hours.

Conversations were difficult to strike up though. Walking past the cowshed next door, I’d spot men separating hay into small heaps for their animals, and women working on the slopes, growing potatoes and cabbage. In this part of the world, they still dress the old German way in Iederhosen, the leather pants that last a lifetime. The farmers smiled at me, and treating this as an invitation, I walked up to them to learn more about their lives. They didn’t know English though, and I had never really taken my German lessons seriously. Silence was less of a choice, more a necessity.

To fill the hours of my ten-day stay, I took to walking with the feverishness of a dervish. The trails here gain a gradient as they slant upward, with temperate mixed forest of pine and oak taking over the fir that lines the lower hills. There are no beginnings or ends to the paths. They all seem to merge into one another, before circuiting to the tarmac in the valley below. From the gaping slits in the curtain of trees, thatched huts in pastel hues of red and yellow are visible far out in the valley. After a day of walking, once the sun lost its shape, I would walk back towards one of these huts and curl up next to a fireplace.

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The next morning, the cycle would begin again, and I would follow another forest trail. So often was I spotted on the dust-laden tracks zigzagging across the forests that the village folks would wave at me from a distance. For once, in these narrow settings, I became a recognizable figure. The Black Forest is a neat absorbent It ingests everything: the sound of my footsteps crushing dry leaves, the vaporous puffing from the efforts of a solitary climb, an orphan grunt from slipping on a wet stone. It transforms these noises into a gentle nothingness, returning not even the slightest rustle. Somewhere on the trail, I stopped to listen. My breath was still heavy from the strain of the climb, and despite the chill, sweat droplets tracked my brow. No birds chirped, even the gurgling of the streams was out of earshot. Stillness dominated.

I noticed that my urge to speak had diluted, and then disappeared. With silence, my perception also sharpened, and I began to notice things that previously would have gone unnoticed. I reflected that people here didn’t blab mindlessly. They spoke in monosyllables and only when needed, as if words were potent vehicles to provide clarity, and should be used sparingly. I stood soaking in the silence. For once, thoughts failed to bubble up, and the indecisiveness I had carried with me faded away. All I could notice was the several shades of green that prevailed on the thick cover of the trees around. Never before, outside a box of crayons, had I perceived such variety of a single colour.  I stayed there looking at the valley till the sun disappeared. And thought of nothing. All the travels I had taken so far, all the flights I had negotiated, had brought me to this one suspended moment I closed my eyes. The timelessness was comforting.

feast-of-san-jeronimo

Feast of San Jeronimo – Masaya

BEGINS 30 SEPTEMBER AND RUNS EACH WEEKEND THROUGH TO EARLY DECEMBER.

THIS IS LIKE A NEVER-ENDING STREET PARTY.

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This party has the honour of calling itself the longest festival in Nicaragua. The celebrations kick off when townspeople carry an enormously heavy effigy of Saint Jerome from the church through the streets of the village.

NOT TO BE A DOWNER BUT, IS THAT IT?

It wouldn’t really be much of a party if that was the end of things. Following the street parade for Saint Jerome, the people of Masaya recreate the Torovenado parade that honours the Nicaraguan Saint Silvester – this other-worldly street march has participants dressed in all manner of weird and wonderful costumes – from unusual animals and folkloric demons to caricatures of famous Nicaraguans. There is music, dancing and food, and at night the whole thing turns into one huge party.

WHY DOES THIS HAPPEN IN MASAYA?

This village is known as the folklore capital of Nicaragua, which is why the party goes on and on for weeks and weeks after the initial parade. In fact, there’s a party every weekend for three months following the last day in September.

Langebaan: A Coastal Paradise Filled With Beauty

The Sand Bar in Langebaan – the local after-work hangout – is a few streets from the beach. Inside, I find a row of men hunched over their beers. One man looks up when I enter, nods and goes back to staring into his glass. On the dance floor, a woman dances to Foreigner’s “I Want To Know What Love Is”. On her own. Yes, a weeknight in winter is probably not the best time to sample Langebaan’s nightlife, but a travel journalist can’t always choose when a trip should take place.

The town curves around the Langebaan Lagoon, with Club Mykonos at the northernmost end and the West Coast National Park to the south. Across the lagoon, I can see the flickering lights of Langebaan’s neighbouring town, Saldanha Bay. It’s late, but Saldanha is still hard at work. Cargo ships load iron ore under orange floodlights; ore that has been transported to the sea by rail from mines in the Northern Cape. Red-brown dust covers everything in the area. Here in Langebaan, however, it’s the opposite. No heavy industry is allowed and everything is quiet.

Langebaan

Langebaan

The lagoon is an offshoot of the bay and the town is protected from the stormy Atlantic by a long peninsula. It’s a holiday town and it bursts at the seams during summer when visitors fill the beaches and restaurants. Don’t worry – there’s still a pulse in winter. Most places are open year-round and you won’t have to wait in a queue for anything. In spring, the landscape around town explodes with flowers. So when is the best time to visit? Any time!

Lake Tanganyika: Tanzania’s Masterpiece

Kigoma and the lake – A lake calms me down, and calm is what I need today. Yesterday, my girlfriend Alice Inggs and I drove 440km: from close to the Rusumo border post between Rwanda and Tanzania, to Jakobsen Beach and Guesthouse just outside Kigoma on the shores of Lake Tanganyika. The drive took all day, mostly along decent gravel roads with a short stretch of tar leading into busy Kigoma. It was a nervous drive, even if I tried to hide it. This western part of Tanzania is off the major tourist routes.

In September 2016, we left Cape Town in a Toyota Fortuner and drove to Tanzania via Zambia. We went to Dar es Salaam first, then explored the parks in the north of the country before entering Rwanda in early November. Rwanda is where we turned around, heading back south, with a few scheduled stops along the way. I had heard that there was a time, not too long ago, when tourists had to be escorted in armoured convoys through this part of Tanzania. The region had become unstable after refugees had fled from neighbouring Democratic Republic of the Congo and Burundi.

 Zambia

Zambia

The situation had improved by the time we arrived, although I still saw a big refugee camp from the road. We didn’t stop often, just to fill the Fortuner with diesel and ourselves with cold Coke and slap chips. When you drive a nervy stretch of road, a prayer or two is always close at hand. All day I kept my fingers crossed. No flat tyres, please. Fuel when needed. May the summer rain stay away so the road remains dry. And – most importantly – may the destination typed into the GPS actually exist. Jakobsen Beach exists, and now we’re here. Ten seconds after taking a dip in the clear water of Lake Tanganyika, Alice and I decide to stay for two nights, not just one as originally planned.

I mean, it’s paradise! It even looks like paradise: calm, warm water perfect for swimming; a palm tree; a fisherman fixing his net; big boulders like the ones you see in pictures of Llandudno… I’m glad I’m here with Alice. She’s a good co-pilot. She reads to me when the road gets long. She passes me snacks. She makes me laugh so I stay awake when the afternoon sun hits me in the face. But most of all I like her being here because, like me, she marvels at the world. Marvelling at the world is what Lake Tanganyika makes you do. It stops you in your tracks. You want to pick up each moment like a pebble and slip it into your pocket.

Ujiji and the old man – By 1914, the Germans had built a railway line between the coast and the lake – Dar es Salaam to Kigoma, a distance of 1250 km. The railway is still operational today and delivers you right to the harbour. From there, you can board a variety of watercraft to take you north to Burundi, west to the Congo or south to Zambia. Before the railway, however, the centre of strategic importance was the town of Ujiji, about 6 km south of Kigoma. Ujiji was a hub in the era of ivory and slaves, when Arab trade routes infiltrated some of the most remote places in Africa.

Ujiji Beach

Ujiji Beach

Scottish-born missionary and explorer David Livingstone was one of the major anti-slavery campaigners of his time. In November 1871, no one really knew where Livingstone was. The New York Herald sent Henry Morton Stanley to Africa to “find” him, and on 10 November 1871 he found Livingstone at Ujiji, sitting under a mango tree.

“Doctor Livingstone, I presume?” said Stanley. (Although whether Stanley actually said these famous words is in doubt; Livingstone couldn’t remember him saying it. You know, journalists…) Now Alice and I are standing in front of the closed gate of the Livingstone Museum in Ujiji. On the other side of the fence, a herd of cattle are grazing with horns bigger than most elephants’ tusks. A security guard opens up and we meet the museum guide, an old man called Kassim Govola Mbingo. “Aha,” Mr Mbingo exclaims when he hears we’re from South Africa. “You must know my friend Kingsley Holgate?”

He met Holgate years ago, during one of the bearded explorer’s African journeys. We stroll to the memorial near two mango trees. The original mango tree is long gone, but these two were grown from its cuttings. We sit down on a bench while Mr Mbingo talks us through Livingstone’s many travels. I’ve been to several notable Livingstone sites in Africa: a tree in the Northern Cape where he preached once; the ruins of his first mission church in Bechuanaland; the lonely place where he died in Zambia; and now here. A block-mounted poster inside the museum is captioned: “Dr Livingstone sitting under the mango tree thinking about slavery at Ujiji.” I do the same. So much of our continent’s hardships have their roots in the savagery of the slave trade. It’s humbling to think that 146 years ago, almost to the day, another man sat right here thinking about how to stop the madness.

Ujiji is sleepier than Kigoma. In the old part of town, hints of Arab architecture prevail in the low, weather-beaten houses. Along one street women sit embroidering bedspreads and other things. We stop to buy one such bedspread, fabric the colour of blue vitriol, with an embroidered peacock fanned out in black, white, red and yellow. It’s a unique keepsake, and I know it will transport me back to Ujiji every time I unfurl it back home. Down at the lakeshore, fishing boats are dragged out onto the narrow beach. Boat builders are hard at work with hammers, chisels and saws; wood chips fly from the stern or bow of the vessel they’re building. Huge baskets woven from grass and filled with ripe tomatoes stand ready to be carried to a boat moored offshore. A few crates of Kilimanjaro beer too, and some boxes of London Dry Gin.

Lake Tanganyika

Lake Tanganyika

We buy a short wooden paddle from a fisherman – a gift for Alice’s mom back in Cape Town – and some boat builders invite us to join them for lunch. We sit in the shade of a half-built boat, rolling balls of pap between our fingers and dipping them into little bowls filled with fish and chicken gravy. One of the bigger boats nearby says “Kwa Neema Ya Mungu” on its side – a Kiswahili phrase that means “By the grace of God”. Lake Tanganyika’s best-known ship is much bigger than any of these boats. The MV Liemba was built in Germany in 1913 and originally named the SMS Goetzen. After it had been built, it was dismantled and shipped to Dar es Salaam in thousands of crates. The railway to Kigoma had barely been finished when these crates made their way to the lake, where the 71-metre-long ship was reassembled. Although it was destined to be a passenger and cargo ship, it was almost immediately called into military action at the outbreak of World War I, to give Germany dominance over Lake Tanganyika.

By 1916, however, the tide of war had turned against the Germans and they decided to scuttle the Goetzen – carefully, with plans to salvage the ship later. But they lost the war – and their East African colony – and it was British engineers who eventually salvaged the ship in 1924. Despite having been underwater for nearly a decade, the ship was still in remarkably good shape. It was repaired, refitted and by 1927, resumed service as the MV Liemba. During our visit, the Liemba was in the Kigoma harbour for repairs. Someone told us a group of tourists had rented it for a day trip, just to say that they had been aboard.

Drakensberg: The Perfect Place To End Your Holiday

You can’t explore the Zulu kingdom without breathing the crisp air of the Drakensberg and swimming in its bracing rivers, so set forth to MOORFIELD MOUNTAIN FARM, 90 km from Dundee. Perched at the top of Muller’s Pass, this guest farm borders the N CAN DU NATURE RESERVE; bubbling and gurgling tributaries of the Ncandu River flow past the houses. After all the driving and bucket-listing, it’s the perfect place to end your holiday with a book under a tree in-between strolls.

Drakensberg

Drakensberg

And better strolls you’d be hard-pressed to find: One of the paths takes you from highland plains into a kloof brimming with ancient yellowwoods. Another trail meanders through forests draped with old man’s beard to a spectacular waterfall. The unexpected clash of grassland and forested gorge makes the farm a birdwatcher’s delight. If you’re feeling adventurous, abseiling can be arranged (R250 per person), as can a guided horse ride (R100 per hour). Later that evening, after one last invigorating dip in a nearby river pool, light your braai fire as the sun vanishes behind the mountains and the night reveals the finest display of stars you’ve seen on this trip.

STAY HERE

MOORFIELD MOUNTAIN FARM – Sleepover options include the nine-sleeper Tin House, built by a land surveyor in the 1890s using tin and wood shipped from Canada; a two-person thatched rondavel or backpacker-style accommodation.

Dundee: Unique Experiences Combined For You

Your history lesson begins as you head out of iMfolozi’s Cengeni gate towards Ulundi and on to Dundee, the gateway to Zululand’s battlefields sites. About 25 km before Dundee on the R33, take the Dejagersdrift turn-off and follow the gravel road to the BLOOD RIVER HERITAGE SITE. This is where the Voortrekkers fought the Zulu army in 1838. (Entrance R40 per adult; R25 per child; plus R20 per vehicle).

Watch a video at the visitors’ centre that details the battle, then walk to the life-sized laager of bronzed wagons. Explore the sites around the battlefield using the map provided and don’t leave without ordering the legendary mince vetkoek (R50) at the Trekker Kitchen. (Book beforehand if you’re a group of 10 or more.) After Blood River, carry on into Dundee along the generously speed-bumped R33. Go through town and carry on for about 40 km, then turn left onto a gravel road that plunges down a valley into the heart of Zululand. This road takes you to ELANDSHEIM RETREAT where you can base yourself for a visit to RORKE’S DRIFT and ISANDLWANA up the road.

Dundee

At Elandsheim, manager Kristie Paine can put you in touch with an expert battlefields tour guide, who can show you around depending on what you want to see (full-day tour R1500-R3 000 per group). She can also supply you with a detailed map if you’d prefer the DIY approach. (Entrance to Rorke’s Drift and Isandlwana R35 per adult at each site; R20 per child; R3 for a map). Back at Elandsheim, the kids can release their pent-up car energy on a zipline (R120 per person) or on the local archery course (R65 per person; be brave, parents). There are also lots of hiking trails in the neighbouring reserves.

Before you leave Dundee, stop in at the TALANA MUSEUM for more battlefield history, plus a glimpse of life in this farming and mining town. Pam McFadden is the enthusiastic curator (entrance fee R30,20 per adult; R2,40 per child).

STAY HERE

BATTLEFIELDS CARAVAN PARK – On Menteith Farm outside Dundee, near the turn-off to Blood River. The campsite has clean ablution blocks, kitchen facilities, a lapa, a trampoline and a pool. Rates: R170 per caravan or tent per night, for four people.

BLOOD RIVER HERITAGE SITE – Three-star accommodation and delicious boerekos meals at the Trekker Kitchen restaurant. There are braai facilities, too.

ELANDSHEIM RETREAT – This peaceful place is 55 km outside Dundee, surrounded by private game reserves. Visit the sandstone Lutheran church built in 1921 on the farm.

Hluhluwe: Unforgettable Views That Will Relax You Instantly

Hluhluwe might be right next door to iMfolozi, but it’s a very different game reserve. It’s hillier than iMfolozi so good views are guaranteed. If you don’t feel like moving all your gear, you can visit Hluhluwe for the day via the Nyalazi gate – just be sure to get back inside iMfolozi before 6 pm. The other option is to spend the night at HILLTOP RESORT in Hluhluwe, or at HLUHLUWE BACKPACKERS just outside the Memorial gate.

Break your game drive with a boerie braai at the Siwasamakhosikazi picnic site on a bend of the Hluhluwe River. Then follow the tar road up to Hilltop Resort. If you’re not staying over, stretch your legs with a ten-minute walk through the forest, which starts at the swimming pool. In the afternoon, drive east towards the Memorial gate, into a lower-lying area called Magangeni, where you should encounter herds of boisterous buffalo. From the gate, backtrack to the Magwanxa area (3,2km away) and take the gravel loop to the Isivivaneni area via the Maphumulo picnic site. Rhino photos, guaranteed.

Hilltop-Hluhluwe

HILLTOP RESORT

The loop is fine for a family car. It meanders next to the Hluhluwe River until it joins the tar again at Isivivaneni. From there, take an easy ride back to your chosen accommodation spot. If a herd of game vehicles packed with foreign tourists obstructs your view along the way, be patient – they’ll disappear in two shakes of a selfie stick.

STAY HERE

HILLTOP RESORT – A big rest camp with fully catered and self-catering accommodation options, at one of the high points in Hluhluwe. There’s a pool, a jungle gym and a restaurant. No campsite.

HLUHLUWE BACKPACKERS – A relaxed, friendly atmosphere with basic private rooms and dorms, just 2 km from the Memorial gate into Hluhluwe.

Ndumo: Discover Peace In The Middle Of Wildlife

Today it’s time to set course for Ndumo Game Reserve. Watch out for cows and goats wandering onto the P522. Day visitors pay R60 per adult; half-price for children; free if you stay over in the park. Ndumo has buffalo and rhino, but you’re not here for the big guys; you’re here to see birds and there are an astonishing 430 species on record.

Joseph Gumede has worked as a guide at Ndumo for 24 years, and he says the park’s location is the reason why the birds (and the birdwatchers) flock here. The combination of sand forest, floodplains and pans is the perfect convergence point for perennial streams of birdsong. When you arrive, head to reception and book a guided walk with Joseph for the following morning (R150 per person, including the services of an armed ranger). If you’re in a two-wheel-drive vehicle, take the Balemhlanga route along the park boundary. But if you’re in a 4×4, then pack some boerewors and charcoal and drive to the Red Cliffs viewpoint overlooking the Usutu River separating South Africa from Mozambique. There are braai facilities, picnic tables and a loo with a top-notch view.

Usutu River

Usutu River

On your way back, stop at the viewing tower at the entrance gate for a panoramic view of the Lebombo Mountains in Swaziland and the plains of Mozambique. Another 5 km further, back towards the campsite, turn left to the Ezulweni Bird Hide, fine-tune your binoculars and start working your way through your Roberts guide.

At 6 am the following day, Joseph will drive you to the banks of the Phongolo River and you’ll wander through forests of fever trees that flutter with turacos, flycatchers, shrikes and woodpeckers. During our walk Joseph saw a rare Pel’s fishing-owl, but I did not. Which begs the question: If a Pel’s fishing-owl is spotted in a forest and no one is around to point out that it was your guide who saw it and not you, can you add it to your list? Unfortunately, I think the answer is no.

STAY HERE

NDUMO REST CAMP – Ndumo’s main camp is basic but comfortable, shaded by lots of trees. There are self-catering, twin-sleeper chalets and a campsite with electricity. The chalets and campsite share ablution facilities and a pool. You can buy basic supplies at the reception shop. Drinking water costs R11 for 1,5 l or bring your own.

las-bolas-de-fuego

Las Bolas de Fuego – Nejapa, El Salvador

31 AUGUST.

WE CAN’T HELP BUT NOTICE THAT TAKING PART IN THIS FESTIVAL LOOKS DECIDEDLY DANGEROUS.

There are some local festivities that we recommend you observe from a safe distance; if the balls of fire shooting back and forth, inches from participants’ faces, hadn’t already tipped you off, let us say – keep back, right back.

YOU DON’T HAVE TO TELL US TWICE.

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What looks like an out-of-control street fight to the uninitiated is actually an established tradition for the people of Nejapa. In 1922 the town was threatened by the eruption of a nearby volcano, and as the volcano emitted flaming rocks, the townspeople interpreted it as their patron saint Jeronimo fighting the devil to save their homes. As a gesture of gratitude, the battle is now recreated in the streets each year with rival groups (usually exclusively young men) facing off and throwing fire at one another.

THAT’S CERTAINLY AN INTERESTING WAY TO SAY THANKS.

Despite the obvious health hazards there are surprisingly few injuries each year. That said, the sidelines are still the best place to be while the flames are going down.

Lake Jozini: The Place Where Water Is All You Need

When it comes to Lake Jozini, you want less Jozini and more lake. That’s where the lodges on the southern shore come in – they’re far from the urban cacophony of the eponymous town, but close enough to quieter Mkuze if you need to stock up. Jozini is actually a dam (official name Pongolapoort Dam) and the water level is low at the moment due to the countrywide drought. As a result, the houseboats and fishing boats have had to change their routine courses to avoid getting stuck in the mud.

But the tiger fish are still out there, says Jean Toucher from GHOST MOUNTAIN INN, adding that the best time to drop a line is during the warmer months from September onwards. There are several charter services. Jean’s advice is to check whether your chosen operator charges an hourly rate, and then to ask what this rate includes to avoid paying hidden costs. At Ghost Mountain Inn, a half-day tigerfishing package costs R685 per person (minimum four people); full day R915 per person. These rates include a boat with a skipper, fuel, bait, rods, tackle and drinking water. Bring any other drinks and food. Besides tigers, you can also expect to catch tilapia, catfish, mud fish and carp.

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Lake Jozini

After a day spent on the water, you’re going to want to get into it. If you stay at UMZIKI CHALETS you can do just that: sliding and screaming down a 58m-high supertube. Watch the sunset from a deckchair on the jetty at Ghost Mountain Inn before heading around the corner to the MKUZE COUNTRY CLUB for a generous meal. Try the rump, egg, chips and onion rings (R100) or the bacon and feta pizza (R85). You’ll need a doggie bag.

STAY HERE

GHOST MOUNTAIN INN – A decadent country hotel in the heart of Zulu land. Stay here if you feel like a break from dust and cold showers. There are a variety of rooms, a spa, lush gardens, swimming pools and a fine dining restaurant. Safaris and other outings can be arranged.

UMZIKI CHALETS – Warthogs roam between the self-catering chalets that sleep two to four. Chalets have basic kitchenettes, but there’s a well-stocked communal kitchen too, as well as a boma and that waterslide.

NKONKONI FISHING CAMP – Safari tents and self-catering chalets near the water’s edge, surrounded by bush. Watch animals and birds from the two on-site hides. Manager Lee Rodrigues can put you in touch with local fishing operators. Rates: Each safari tent sleeps up to seven and costs R300 per night plus R230 per person. Chalets from R500 per adult sharing; half-price for children under 12.