In the cloying heat of a hazy African morning, I'm finding my surroundings more than a little surreal. Above my head, giant animal skulls signal the entrance to a Zulu settlement and, just ahead, an athletic-looking young African wearing an animal-hide loincloth and brandishing an assegai (spear) beckons me forward in a language I don't understand. Nearby, a dark-skinned woman adorned with rainbow-coloured beads sits on the reddish earth - she's weaving what looks like a raffia mat, and is eyeing up this solo white woman entering her domain.
I'm five days into a road trip which began in Cape Town, South Africa, and headed east along the coast to KwaZulu- Natal. I'm going to be travelling up through Swaziland and into southern Mozambique, before crossing South Africa's remote north into southeast Namibia, then back down into Cape Town 21 days later.
The Zulu village of Shakaland, nestled atop the beautiful Entembeni Hills, is a real find on a deliberately "open plan" itinerary by which I'm exploring Africa, off the beaten track. About 90 kilometres north of Durban, it's the oldest village in Zululand, inhabited by Chief Malinga and his family. The traditional umuzi (homestead) consists of a number of round huts built around a cattle kraal. By appointment, visitors like me can stay a night, see how the locals live, their customs and crafts, and sample Zulu dancing and feasting. The experience fulfils the very thing I have come here for - to get a taste of a world far removed from my own.
Unable to speak any Bantu languages, I communicate with my guide, Kuzumi, through sign language as he shows me round the homestead. I marvel at the ingenious natural construction of their huts, clothing, craftwork and tools. In the evening, during a spectacular electrical storm, the whole community puts on a similarly electrifying dance performance, full of shrill screaming, leg-kicking and fighting moves, all to the pulsating rhythm of three huge animal- skin drums. It's the Africa of storybooks and movies.
After two days of Zulu immersion, I'm back in my Chevrolet Aveo (guarded by a Zulu warrior for the duration of my stay) and crossing the verdant hills of northern KwaZulu-Natal towards the Swaziland border at Golela. I know only two things about Swaziland - it's the birthplace of actor Richard E Grant and is one of the world's last absolute monarchies. As I drive through the beautiful Ewulzini Valley towards the capital, Mbabane, I discover that for such a tiny country - it's a bit bigger than Hawke's Bay - it feels remarkably spacious, with well-maintained empty roads winding through beautiful misty- mountain landscapes.
It takes barely a day to cross Swaziland to the Mozambique border at Namaacha. I'm nervous about Mozambique. I've heard stories about basic infrastructure, corrupt police, and difficulties at border posts. But the country qualifies as Africa off the beaten track, and I've come too far to wuss-out now.
As it turns out, the border official sees my Kiwi passport and exclaims "All Blacks!", to which I nod and smile vigorously - and that seems good enough to let me through.
Driving north towards Maputo, the roads become increasingly shambolic. As in so many parts of Africa, roads are the arteries along which the local population flows, plying their wares, travelling from village to village, living their lives. Horses and carts jostle with local minivans, men weave in and out of the traffic selling everything from newspapers to nuts, women balance piles of crates on their heads and glide expertly through the chaos. I marvel at the scene from behind the wheel, marvelling at the sights while trying not to hit anybody.
Approaching a village just north of the capital, oncoming vehicles flash their headlamps - a police roadblock? This time it's something far more confronting. A little boy is lying motionless in the middle of road. Traffic is manoeuvring around him, but no-one is stopping to help. I, too, weave around the lifeless body but my conscience kicks in and I pull over to alert a policeman to what I've just seen. As I pull away, I see in my rear-view mirror the officer get into his patrol car, but with no sense of urgency. I'm baffled by this apparently inhuman display, but decide it's probably best to keep moving.
Navigating up the coast of Mozambique is slow going, and it's getting dark by the time I reach the beach town of Praio de Xai-Xai. The one decent-looking motel is right on the beach, and I manage to get my humble 2WD bogged down in soft sand - much to the amusement of a gaggle of African kids, who watch as I dig myself out, red- faced from exertion and embarrassment.
Xai-Xai is a beautiful spot, but I quickly realise why the guide books say "lack of tourist infrastructure". My motel room has no furnishings and intermittent electricity. The landlady also warns I will be lucky if my car's wheels and windscreen wipers are still intact by morning. I gulp, wondering if my insurance extends to those eventualities.
I needn't have worried - my car's untouched, if a little heavier with mounds of Mozambican sand in the wheel arches.
After several days crossing South Africa's remote north, along the edge of the Kalahari, I'm traversing the wild lower reaches of the Namib Desert, heading for the coastal town of Luderitz. The terrain here is other-worldly - it's like driving on the moon - and I navigate through undulating misty-grey sand dunes with no sign of life for hundreds of kilometres.
Near the coast, wild sea winds whip up the dunes, smashing waves of dense sand against my windscreen till I'm forced to pull over. Then through the sandstorm looms a sign: Kolmanskop - Ghost Town, which seems appropriate in such a haunting landscape. This town was once inhabited by Germans during their occupation of Namibia, but it's long abandoned and is being gradually reclaimed by the dunes.
Luderitz itself is similarly spooky - an old colonial town full of crumbling Bavarian buildings battered by the sea winds and sand.
After 8000km on the road, I'm finally skirting Table Mountain on the way back to Cape Town. I'm greeted by bright banners heralding the 2010 Fifa World Cup. As I hand the keys back, the rep tells me how excited South Africans are at the prospect of foreigners visiting during the event. I smile enthusiastically, but inwardly hope that hoards of tourists won't descend on the magical, remote places I've discovered on my road trip through wild Africa.
- The Dominion Post