the UFO-shaped restaurant cum observation platform of Bratislava’s defining SNP Most

Even though the weather hasn’t improved, really, our entry in Bratislava shows some hopeful signs, not in the least thanks to a rare moment of sunshine on its UFO observation desk.

We are definitely in Central Europe: all roads may lead to Rome, but only one leads to a collection of Central European capitals.

Not only because it is the capital, but more even because it is really the first town across the border, when you get to Slovakia from Western Europe, is why we start our exploration of the country in Bratislava. Still cold, still overcast, we’ll first find back the Danube – which is not difficult. More surprising is the collection of rather modern architecture we encounter, just east of the old town. It is not quite Rotterdam, or Baku, for that matter, but nice enough. And they are not yet finished, judging from the many cranes around.

entry into Bratislava, the UFO from a different corner

modern architecture in the Eurovea shopping centre

and the eastern skyline: as I said, perhaps not Baku, but an attempt to modern architecture

But the most impressive modern piece of architecture is the SNP Most, or bridge, one of those 1960s follies for which whole neighbourhoods had to be dismantled. So that the motorway can deliver its traffic right in the centre of town, slicing neatly in between the old town and the city’s castle. The defining element of the bridge is the UFO observation platform, in the form of a circular dish, which contains not only a restaurant with fabulous 360o views of Bratislava and the countryside around, as far as Austria and Hungary, but also a platform from which you have the same view in the open air. The whole of which looks a bit like a UFO – or rather, what one associates with an UFO -, which is where the platform gets its name from.

or what about this building, modern?

So we took the lift to the top, and climbed the last few stairs to the observation desk, 95 meters above the city. Just when the sun, for the first time today, decided to break through the clouds. Only for a few minutes, but long enough to provide a fabulous view of the city we are going to explore.


the Danube from the UFO observation platform

and the dockyards, in the distance

view of only part of Petrzalka, Bratislava’s social housing estate – those who have followed my blogs know my fascination with palatis, the soviet-era monoblocks

quite a contrast with the swanky apartments literally overlooking the Danube on the other side of the river

and just for good order, this is the other half of Petrzalka

oh, and being all the way on top in the UFO restaurant, we had to have a drink, of course (my travel companion has abandoned the gin & tonic tradition…)

a little alley in Passau, on the Danube River

On the way to Slovakia we stopped in Passau, on the Danube – a river we will encounter more than once this trip. Which started less than ideal.

We had planned to leave early, on Monday morning. It is some eight hours drive to Passau, in Germany, where we planned to overnight. But I didn’t sleep well, the night before, and in the end we left much too late. And the drive took forever, as we needed to stop frequently. No good.

So when we finally arrived in Passau, just before the Austrian border, it was already late in the afternoon. By the time we had checked into our hotel – the adventurously-called Hotel Wilder Man, a beautiful old building which, according to the hotel info, has played host to many of the rich and famous over the centuries -, and were ready to explore, the town was empty, deserted. And it was cold, and overcast. Which doesn’t help when taking photos. No good.

Many of the restaurants are closed on Mondays, and some others had decided to have a rest day, too. Luckily, even though it was a bit early for dinner, we found the Altes Brauhaus, with good beer and solid food. Afterwards we took a stroll through town, still deserted, still cold. Around eight o’clock most coffee bars had already closed. No good.

the type of castles guarding the river, to extract toll

another tower, strategically positioned for financial gain

the Danube in Passau

Yet, between the late afternoon and another walk the next morning we did enjoy Passau. The Altstad, the old centre, is located on a peninsula, where the Inn River empties in the Danube. And the smaller Ilz River does the same from the other side, which was the sign for local power brokers in the Middle Ages – we would call them war lords, these days, a bit like the ones in Somalia and Afghanistan now – local power brokers, thus, to build castles on the various river banks, to control trade. Control, in those days, was a euphemism for charging exorbitant amounts of money for no other reason than financial gain of the warlord in question. Except that some of that money was invested in reinforcing the castles, of which we still see the impressive results today.

along the water, just in case someone falls in, there are poles to hold on to!

the old town with its arches and gates

part of the cathedral

which, inside, looks a lot more impressive

As empty as it was late afternoon, so busy had it become during the morning. Passau is a favourite stopping place for Danube river cruises, and everywhere we saw the results thereof, groups of tourists tagging along with a guide, who would sometimes be dressed up in Middle Age attire to create even more atmosphere – which contrasted somewhat with their microphone mouth pieces, tied to their heads in order to reach the whole group.

frescos outside one of the buildings

another alley in town, quite picturesque in fact

At the end of the morning we left for Bratislava, another four hours, or so, down the road. Of which about two of those through Austria. For which we had to buy an Autobahn vignette, of course; the shortest one is for ten days. And two hours later we bought another one, this time for Slovakia. For no less than thirty days, more than enough to cover our expected two weeks in the country. We are still a long way away from a united Europe.

and the frescos on the outside of the town hall, impressive local power brokers, no doubt.

Books have been written about this subject, full of details, and full of scholarly debate; not everybody agrees on each and every element of this complex issue. Below a short recap of the most important, eye catching episodes in Central European history, without any claims to be correct neither complete. Just so we know what we are going to look at, in the next five weeks.

My generation doesn’t know better than that the Czechs and the Slovaks were united in Czechoslovakia, but in fact this has been the exception, rather than the rule, in the history of the region. The first time they were joined was at the end of the 8th Century, when they were both part of the Great Moravian Empire (which also included parts of Poland and Hungary). But that unity ended a hundred years later, with the Magyar invasion – indeed, the proto-Hungarians coming in the picture – in 896 AD. From that moment onwards, and for the next, say, 1000 years, the Czechs were always more German-oriented, and the Slovaks Hungarian-oriented. No wonder there are significant cultural and social differences between the two peoples.

the Holy Roman Empire around 1600 – without Slovakia and Hungary

The Czechs went their way, first Bohemia as a vasal state of the Holy Roman Empire – mostly Germans, indeed -, and later as an independent country, led by the Premyslid dynasty, which only ended at the beginning of the 14th Century. Prosaically, with first the death of Vaclav II from ‘consumption and excess’, and a year later with the murder of his teenage son, who had no offspring yet. His four sisters, well, they were women, and thus excluded from the throne. They then got the House of Luxembourg to come to their rescue, which was a smart move, because the second Luxembourger to lead the country, Charles IV, next to being King of Bohemia was also elected Holy Roman Emperor (the emperor was, in those days, elected by an electoral collage of princes and high-ranking noblemen). This established Prague, the Emperor’s favourite city, as the cultural capital of Central Europe, at least for a while.

Unity was not to last. Charles’ son Vaclav IV reigned during a time of increasing religious fracturing, all over Europe. Schism in Rome, but also in Bohemia, where the preacher Jan Hus, a man of the peasants as opposed to the elite, protested against the corruption in the church, and especially the religious indulgencies. Hus’ capture and subsequent execution – burning on the stake, no less – by the authorities made him a widely admired martyr, and led to the Hussite wars, inaugurated by what has become known as the first Prague defenestration: several Catholic councillors being thrown out of the window of Prague’s town hall. Note ‘first’ here, indicating that this was going to be repeated at least once more.

The various factions in the Hussite wars, like conservatists, religious reformers and wholesale reformers, reached a kind of a compromise again in 1634. First, an elected local regent assumed power, on his death a Polish dynasty took over, and in 1526 Ferdinand I, the then Holy Roman Emperor, was crowned King of Bohemia, so establishing Habsburg rule over what is now the Czech Republic.

Not that this augured peace and stability. The Catholic Habsburg were increasingly at odds with Bohemia’s predominant Protestant nobility, and when a few Catholic nobles were thrown out of the window of Prague’s castle in 1618 – there he is, the second Prague defenestration! -, this started the Thirty Year’s War, involving local Protestant nobility, and support from Protestant Saxons and the staunch defenders of Protestantism, the Swedes, together fighting the ultimately victorious Catholics. After the final battle in 1648 the Swedes went home, the Bohemian nobility was dismantled, witches were burnt, and Czech identity reduced to the peasantry. The focus of the Habsburgs shifted decisively from Prague to Vienna.

The Slovaks, on the other hand, became part of Hungary after the collapse of the Moravian Empire in 896 AD, and stayed that way until the end of WW I. Which means that Slovakia, essentially known as Upper Hungary at that time, largely shared Hungary’s history, apart from a few short periods of semi-independence linked to strong-willed individuals.

Hungary first enters history as part of the Roman empire, around the middle of the first Century. But the Romans had long left when Magyar tribes, under the command of Arpad, invaded from the east and gradually expanding their land-grab. They settled in what is now Hungary, built ties with Bavaria and sought recognition from the Catholic church. Which led to King Istvan, great-great-grandson of Arpad, being crowned a Christian King in 1000 AD. That’s how you join the establishment.

Except that not everybody respects the establishment: the Mongols invaded in 1241 and sacked large parts of Hungary, and decimated the population, if not at the hand of the Mongols then due to following famine and plague. Soon afterwards, the Arpad dynasty died out, and the establishment restored itself again: several foreign royals succeeded each other, perhaps attracted by the rich gold mines that had been discovered in the region. Which also facilitated a lot of German and Slovak immigration in what then were largely empty lands. When the last of the foreigners, Sigismund of Luxembourg – also King of Bohemia and the one who betrayed Jan Hus: it is a small world -, died in 1447, the Ottomans were just about to invade. Thanks to a local Transylvanian warlord, Janos Hunyadi, they were defeated, which brought Hunyadi the title of Prince of Transylvania, and his son Matyas Corvinus, ultimately, the Hungarian throne.

Matyas did well, not in the least by establishing a large standing army paid for by the nobility, which kept the Ottomans at bay. Except that he didn’t produce a legitimate heir, so on his death in 1490 the nobles elected a more pliable king, one that would reduce their taxes, and allow them to further squeeze the peasantry. With the predictable effect of a peasant revolt, and a further withering of the standing army because of limited funds. Which opened the door for the Ottomans to invade once more, this time much more successfully. In the Battle of Mohacs of 1526 the Hungarian army was completely wiped out, including its royals, its noblemen and its commanders.

The Turks reached Bupa – one half of present-day Budapest – and so occupied about half of what is currently Hungary. The western-most part of the country, including Upper-Hungary – Slovakia – got a new king, self-appointed Ferdinand of Habsburg, who needed a buffer between the Ottoman forces and Vienna, his capital and the ultimate Ottoman target. Suddenly, Central Europe had become the eastern frontier of Europe. And a restless frontier is was, for a few hundred more years. The Ottomans had a different approach to war; they would shamelessly exploit the peasants, and carry off villagers and townsfolk as slaves to Constantinople. It took until 1699 until they were finally beaten back, but a multi-national European army. The opportunity for the Habsburgs, of course, to expand their Catholic rule over the rest of mostly Protestant Hungary, too. The Hungarian War of Independence, a misnomer, from 1703-1711, was to no avail, lost against a militarily superior Habsburg.

the extend of the Habsburg hereditery lands at the end of the 18th Century, after Ottoman withdrawal

Hungary was left a country with a small, but rich land-owning aristocracy served by a serf-like peasant population. Deserted after years of war, a policy of immigration created room for people from surrounding countries, of which Germans were the most successful, helped by the Habsburg to dominate education and culture. The Magyars became a minority in their own country. Yet, nationalism proved strong enough, and with attitudes in Europe changing, and Habsburg weakening, Hungary declared independence in 1848. Only to be crushed again a year later, when the Russian tsar send his armies in support of the Habsburgs. However the genie was out of the bottle, and increasing integration of Austrian and Hungarian economies led to the Dual Monarchy, henceforth known as the Austro-Hungarian Empire, in 1867. The small compromise for Hungary, of having to adhere to diplomatic treaties that Austria had made – like the one with Germany –, seemed small beer compared to the country gaining status and prosperity. Besides, and to the chagrin of the Slovaks, Hungary now assumed rule over Slovakia again, which since Habsburg takeover in 1526 had been directly ruled from Vienna. Suddenly, Slovaks were exposed to Hungarian nationalism, Hungarian language, and no participation at all in matters of state. Many voted with their feet, and emigrated.

In 1914 Austria declared war on Serbia. Germany joined in, and Hungary had no other option than to become part of the Axis, too. With disastrous results, and defeat in 1918. On the embers of the Habsburg Empire grew a number of successor states, the most surprising one being Czechoslovakia, by mutual consent of Czechs and Slovaks. Already during the war they had great difficulty with the idea that they had to fight together with their old enemies, the Habsburg Austrians and the Hungarians, against their ethnic brethren, the Russian and Serb Slavs. Never mind that the borders were pretty messy, with German-speaking parts of Bohemia and Moravia – the later Sudetenland – declaring themselves independent (to no avail), and including lots of Hungarians, whilst leaving out lots of Slovenians, stuck in rump-Hungary. I say rump-Hungary, because the country had not only lost Slovakia, but also the large region of Transylvania, which was given – some would say, returned – to Romania.

What was left of Hungary became, briefly, communist, and then a Kingdom again – without a King, but with a caretaker regent, Admiral Miklos Horthy. (Which prompted US president Roosevelt to ask: so Hungary I a Kingdom, but without a King, run by an Admiral without a navy?). Resentment over lost territory and an increasing shift to the nationalist right, accompanied by anti-Semitism, drove Hungary inevitably into the Axis-side of WW II, once again losing, and once again losing Transylvania (which, with Nazi-help, had been wrested from Romania for a while).

With the arrival of the Nazis, Czechoslovakia was split again, into an annexed Sudetenland, a German-led Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia and an independent Slovakia; independent in name, because they equally quickly expelled Jews, and after a rebellion in 1944 were occupied by Nazi Germany after all.

From there history is common-knowledge, I guess. The Russians won the war on the eastern side of Europe, installed their puppet-governments in once again joined Czechoslovakia and in Hungary – and to make sure, aggressively suppressed any attempts to liberalise away from Soviet control, in 1956 in Hungary and in 1968 in Czechoslovakia. But the Soviet Union, perhaps the last empire to control large swaths of Europe, also disintegrated and collapsed, and its vasal states became independent republics in the centre of Europe. One more, actually, in 1993, when the Czechs and the Slovaks amiably parted ways and Czechoslovakia split up in the Czech Republic and Slovakia. Like it has almost always been.

the growth of the Habsburg lands over time

I suspect paprikas will form an important part of our diet, in the next five weeks or so…..

When we said to each other some time ago that we would leave traveling through Europe for the time we are getting old, we hadn’t expected that that time would arrive so soon. But with the world still in the grip of the Corona pandemic, making long distance adventure travel not only complex, but also a little too adventurous, we are necessarily focusing on European destinations. Not that there is anything wrong with that: we did enjoy our month-long exploration of the Northern half of Italy last year, and we equally liked the trip to the Czech Republic.

This year’s target is a continuation of the latter journey, and will take in Slovakia and Hungary, not only geographically, but also historically in the heart of Europe. We’ll drive to Bratislava, from where we slowly move eastwards, through picturesque villages and the Tata Ranges – Slovakia’s preeminent mountains -, to the old towns of Levoca and Kosice. From here we cross into Hungary to the famous wine area of Tokaj, which is also the base for exploring the villages in the Zemplin Hills and the Erdohat, towards the Ukrainian border. From where we make our way back again, westwards via the puszta – the Hungarian Great Plains – to Budapest and, in a convoluted way, to Vienna. I know, that’s Austria, but so close…

Five weeks, is the plan. Enjoying nature and culture. Recurring themes will be the castles, the churches – from large basilicas to small wooden ones -, and the old cobbled town centres: unlike the Medieval Czech towns the ones in Slovakia and Hungary will be of later, Baroque date. After all, they have suffered much destruction, not just from several Word Wars, but also at the hands of the Ottoman occupation force in the 16th and 17th Century – Hungary may be Central Europe now, but in those days it was the frontier, in permanent stage of war with the Turks to the east.

Habsburg rule, and the Austro-Hungarian empire, has left the area with some fabulous, opulent palaces. Favourable geology has created the conditions for warm water spas and bathhouses, unmatched anywhere else in the world. And climate appears to support a wide variety of grapes, of which a wide variety of wines are being made. Which may need to be tested. And which may need to be used to wash away the food, in which we have somewhat less confidence.

As always, watch this space!

Even though I have been working on the site for almost ten years now, it is still very much work in progress. Here you’ll find what’s new on (and when I added it).

  • The follow-up of my East African entries – below – was a trip in 1991 to Southern Africa, which I have now put together in a diary. In the process I also added to the Zimbabwe page, and created the Namibia and the South Africa pages (June 2021).
  • After my years in Tanzania I briefly visited Zimbabwe and Botswana, for which I also put some memories and pictures together. Mostly pictures, really (March 2021).
  • I spent a few weeks sorting out old, now-digitized slides from my years in Tanzania, and wrote up some distant memories, on the East African Memories page. Apart from a, related, Tanzania page, I also created pages for Rwanda and Malawi (Feb. 2021).
  • Having been back to Italy in October 2020, I expanded the Italy page, and also included a Northern Italy page to list the relevant travel blog entries. In the process, and for completeness sake, I decided to add a San Marino country page, which is nothing more that the blog entry (Nov. 2020).
  • Following our trip to the Czech Republic in July 2020, which is described in the Czech Republic blog, I also created a country page Czech Republic, under the SE Europe section (Sept. 2020). The locations on this page link directly to the blog entries of these towns.
  • From the start of this site I have created the attic, with the intention to post items for sale that we have collected over the years, but have no space for anymore in our home. Instead of using, I have created two satelite sites, the ethnic attic and the artworks attic, where I have uploaded a few pieces already, and to which I will be adding in the – as yet vaguely defined – future.
  • Sorting through my old photos I came across the pictures of a trip we did in 1992 to Egypt and Jordan. Which I turned into an Egypt page and a Jordan page (both May 2020), both mostly photos because the memories are limited after such a long time.
  • And then I also put some reading material for Haiti on the site (April 2020, and an update May 2020).
  • I transfered the Back to Haiti blog, initially published outside this site, to theonearmedcrab, and whilst I was doing that, I also added the experiences and observations from three earlier years in Haiti (2000-2003), as The Haiti Diaries (March 2020).
  • Inspired by friends who went to Guatemala, I added the Guatemala page and filled it with our own experiences, from 2000-2003, when I traveled there frequently for work, and occasionally took some time off. A couple of locations, and also the exciting Semana Santa processions in Antigua Guatemala (Dec 2019).
  • Whilst on the Iran page, I added a Dutch language article I wrote some years back, just after we returned from Iran, about Ashura, the mourning for the profet Hussain (Dec. 2019).
  • I also added locations to the Chile, the Peru, ánd the Iran page, something I had not done earlier. I also added some slider photos to the latter. So now you can directly click through to a specific location we have been to, without first accessing the blog (the locations do refer to the blog entries, though) (Nov./Dec. 2019).
  • After our Caucasus trip of September/October 2019 I rearranged the blog, Travel in the Caucasus, on a dedicated page. I also created pages for the Caucasus, for Azerbaijan and for Georgia, with links to the blog and to the individual locations. And I added a short reading list for the Caucasus. (Nov. 2019)
  • Following our Chile and Peru trip I share a short reading list of the books we read on the way, and afterwards. (July 2019)
  • I wrote an entry on Trento, in Northern Italy, which we visited in August 2018. (June 2019)
  • After our Chile & Peru trip I have rearranged the travelogue for easy old to new reading, and called it Costa Pacifico (April 2019). And I created country pages for Peru and Chile (April 2019) – I still need to add some photos here, though, and the locations.

May 21st – Giant Castle National Park

view of the Drakensberg

Having had the Drakensberg in clear view for the last few days, it was time to explore in more detail. Not in the least, because the lower part of the Drakensberg consists of sandstones, some of them cavernous, in which Bushmen – the San people, more properly – have left their paintings.

Drakensberg sandstones
same, in a bit more detail
and you can see how caves easily develop, in this fairly soft sandstone, capped by a hard cover

I had booked a room in a hotel in the Giant Castle National Park. Unlike in Zimbabwe and Namibia, and other parts of South Africa, visiting rock paintings here is not a matter of turning up and finding the caves, but more of turning up in time for the next tour. So I joined the tour to the so-called Main Caves, together with a group of eight others and a guide. The walk to the caves was an easy half-an-hour affair, with nearly the entire path laid out with cement tiles, and steps wherever it became a little steeper. This is the highly-sophisticated and developed South Africa of the white minority again – and indeed, only the guide was black, the tourists were all whites.

At the cave, the guide opened the fence – these caves are fenced off! – and switched on a tape recorder with commentary on the paintings. And then let us explore the paintings by ourselves. It is claimed that the Drakensberg contains something like 40% of all San rock paintings in South Africa, and here it shows. There is a large collection on the walls of the two separate caves we visited, and also on the occasional large, loose boulders, in a variety of colours, although weathering has affected some of the images. Unfortunately, the photos I took are also not that good. There are more photos here, for the real enthusiasts.

animal panel of the left of the Main Cave
two figures in the Main Cave
a close-up of the left side of the central panel, Main Cave (top to bottom approx. 15 cm)
a painting of an eland, one of the sacred animals for the San people

The hotel I was staying in was more of the holiday resort type, which kept its customers entertained with activities from morning to evening. Not my cup of tea, so I spent the time after dinner in the bar, talking to the hotel staff, the bar tenders and the waiters, all Zulu people. Their solution for the future of South Africa was quite shocking, actually. They bluntly stated – when there was nobody else in the room – that change will only come through war, and they would fight for power, and don’t share it. Not with the whites, and not with the ANC either. And they justify this by the fact that it has always been this way, the people of South Africa have always fought in order to get what they wanted. End of story. Quite frightening, to be honest, in a time that people try to come to a negotiated solution between the various interest groups in this country. The conversation abruptly ended when the video showing next door was finished, and the other guests were pouring into the bar.

therianthrope – part human, part animal – figurines in Battle Cave, in the Giant castle area of the Drakensberg
another detail of the fighting scene below

For the next morning I had signed up for another tour, to Battle Cave, the other main rock painting site in the Giant Castle area. This time there was only one other couple in the group besides myself, and a guide. It took us a leisurely two hours to reach the cave, an easy, mostly flat walk along the river, with the spectacular Drakensberg peaks to one side. And a fabulous gallery of rock paintings at the end, these are perhaps some of the best paintings I have seen so far.  And it is obvious why this one is called Battle Cave. More photos here.

incredibly detailed figure with arrows and quiver, part of the fighting scene in Battle Cave (this painting perhaps 15 cm high)
and this is the full the fighting scene that Battle Cave derives its name from

May 23rd – Cathedral Peak

fairly limited vegetation, at this height

High up in the next valley north of Giant Castle is the Cathedral Peak Hotel, well below the 3000 m high mountain top of the same name. From here I was going to find the Sebaayeni cave, in the upper ranges of the Ndedema Gorge – also called the valley of the Bushmen, on account of the many San rock paintings in a number of caves along the gorge. Luckily, I didn’t have to find the Sebaayeni cave all by myself: I had been assigned a guide, Johannes, who – even better! – was also prepared to carry my backpack. Given that we were looking at an eight hour round trip, a pleasant surprise indeed.

Although the rock paintings were the day’s objective, the walk itself was already more than worth the effort. Like earlier in the Giant castle National Park there are fabulous views over the high peaks of the Drakensberg, whilst the lower ranges, where we are walking, are brilliantly red and brown in autumn colours. Not a lot of trees here, anymore, we are obviously much higher, but we do come across the occasional protea, South Africa’s national tree.  The last part of the walk was a long descent into the Ndedema River valley, from where it is a short climb up to the cave.

but whatever there is in vegetation, is in beautiful autumn colours
one of the valleys leading to the Drakensberg proper in the distance

Sebaayeni Cave is reckoned to contain some 1000 different paintings, by far the largest gallery in the gorge. And it is great to wander around here, on your own – Johannes had stayed down at the river – and admire the ancient rock art, however ancient it may be. In South Africa, like in Zimbabwe, there is not a whole lot of interest in this part of the cultural heritage, and thus not a lot of research, either. These paintings maybe 3,000 years old, or perhaps they are only a hundred years old, they are difficult to date, even if you show interest in the subject. I find them fabulous, whether depicting large animals, or hunting scenes, of shamanistic figures. More photos of the cave here.

the right side of the main panel in Sebaayeni Cave, animals and people (top to bottom approx. 85 cm)
detail of a group of dancers with remarkeble hats (top to bottom approx. 30 cm)
my guide Johannes next to the Zeni rockface with San paintings

Back down at the river, Johannes had made some tea, and we had lunch, before we returned to the car, and to the hotel.

The next morning I teamed up with Johannes again, for a few hour’s walk to a rock paintings site nearer the hotel, the Zeni rockface. Here the images were more domestic, and more monochromatic than those of the day before, but once again very vivid, and great detail: a wonderful gallery.

the domestic scene of the main panel (left to right approx. 30 cm)
and the rhebuck of the main panel (top to bottom approx. 25 cm)
a young giraffe, perhaps? (giraffe 8 cm high)
bright autumn colours, this time yellow and green
even the occasional tree is nice

May 24th – Royal Natal National Park

The South African side of the Drakensberg is dotted with national parks, and the Royal Natal National Park is yet another one, further north from the Cathedral Peak area. I had gone here to walk to the so-called Amphitheatre, with 5 km wide and some 1300 m high perhaps one of the most impressive cliff faces on earth. I had read about a walk to the base of the Amphitheatre, a good half a day along the Tugela River, with at the end a gorge and a real tunnel to pass! Since this appeared to be a very popular hike, I had decided to start early, to try to beat the crowds, and indeed, at seven in the morning there was nobody.

the Amphitheatre, from a distance

The first one-an-a-half hours were easy, along the river and occasionally through a forest. Then the path disappeared in the river bed, mostly dry as there wasn’t a lot of water at this time of the year. However, the further upstream, the narrower the river, and the more difficult progress became, stumbling from boulder to boulder. Finally I arrived at the ‘tunnel’, in effect a narrow passage, perhaps two to three meters wide, in between overhanging rocks, so that often the sky was no longer visible. Of course, such a narrow passage wasn’t dry anymore, and although boulder-hopping I got a long way, in the end I returned to the beginning of the tunnel, to avoid wet feet. This being South Africa, there is an alternative, of course. A real chain ladder allowed you to up a steep rock face, and through a joint in the rocks, helped by tree trunks and steel cables and metal pins I managed to bypass the tunnel altogether, and descent on the other end. Into the Amphitheatre!

the gorge in the Tugela River, wet feet unavoidable at the end
the chain ladder, start of the by-pass to avoid those wet feet
the Amphitheatre in its full glory

Difficult to describe, this Amphitheatre. You see before you a mountain of stone towering up, hundreds and hundreds of meters, up and up. Only near the top there are some joints and fractures, where in rainier days no doubt several rivers cascade down, but for the rest it is just one, immense vertical wall. And me, all alone, in front of it.

herdsmen (?) and cattle, and an eland on top, Sigubudu Cave (top to bottom approx. 35 cm)

On the way back, up the steep track and down the steel cables and the chain ladder again, and then back on the path along the river. Where I met all the other walkers, who had left later, more than 30 of them, in small groups or in couples, still on their way to the gorge. There is a funny sort a camaraderie, they all greet you enthusiastically, they all want to know how far they still have to go, and was it nice? Silly of course, but never mind.

After lunch I went to see more rock paintings. The booklet I had talked about a 45 minute walk one-way, but after about 15 minutes the path ended, in the Sigubudu Cave. Which was adorned with great paintings of elands, considered sacred animals by the San people. I still find these pictures fascinating.

fabulous panel of several eland, Sigubudu Cave

May 25th – Witsieshoek Mountain Resort

although this is, technically, not a Homeland, there are black people living here

Witsieshoek was not in the original planning. But in the last few days I had been told that close to the Witsieshoek Mountain Resort there is a way to climb to the top of the Drakensberg plateau – so looking down into the Amphitheatre! – and back in one day. With a mostly horizontal geology, the base of the Drakensberg is sandstones, including the cavernous layers that contain the caves with San painting. And on top of the sands is an over 1300 meter thick layer of basalts, the vertical wall of the Amphitheatre. Having looked up at the basalt peaks for the past week or so, I though it would be nice to also get to the top.

The Mountain Resort is petty high up already, at some 2200 meters, in between the basalts, and from here it is but a short drive to the parking place from where the path up the mountains starts. It was foggy when I set out, but soon, zig-zagging upwards, I reached above the mist, which provided a whole new experience: Drakensberg mountains sticking out of this white blanket of clouds. As if you are in a plane, really!

slowly getting above the clouds, view of the Drakensberg
another view, with Devils’ Finger in the distance
and even higher, as if you are in a plane

The path is not for the faint-hearted. Part of it leads past one of the high peaks, the Sentinel, leaving you to carefully shuffle forward between a sheer wall of rock on one side, and the abyss on the other. Only to end up at a chain ladder, with a hundred rungs, or so, that takes you up – vertically up! – one of the main basalt layers.

And then you are on the plateau. Suddenly you see all these peaks, the ones I was looking up to the day before from the bottom of the Amphitheatre, now from behind. And I can look through the joints and fractures, down to where I had been the day before; I could see the gorge, and the tunnel, and the river, the path I had followed. Quite spectacular!

the chain ladder up Sentinel peak, to reach the plateau
the mountain wall itself is steep, made up of bare basalts
and this is how the plateau looks, flat, wet and grassy
with lots of cracks to allow a peep down
for instance, into the Amphitheatre, where I was the day before
close up of Devil’s Finger – that is to say, I didn’t get close

I spent another few hours, walking the plateau, occasionally encroaching the escarpment, holding my breath every time I bent forward to look down. The plateau itself is grassy, with a few streams meandering through. As we are at around 3000 meters, and the winter is nearing, some of the water had frozen over already; weird, touching ice in May, after having spent almost two months in the heat of Southern Africa, in the desert even. Yet I came to the conclusion that this was probably the most spectacular scenery I have seen during this entire trip, it beats the Namib Desert, it beats Victoria Falls from a few years ago, or the Tanzanian game parks of even longer ago. Really. How privileged I am that I could do this, and could do this all on my own, without any other tourists around.

Except that I still have to descent again, using that scary chain ladder. All on my own, too!

May 28th – Lesotho

The last few days of my trip I spent in Lesotho, with friends. On the drive here I passed the Golden Gate Highland National Park, another of the Drakensberg NPs. More scenery, a valley through massive sandstone outcrops on both sides. But after the scenery from the top of the Drakensberg, this is small beer.

In Lesotho itself I don’t do a lot. There is some political unrest, so we keep a low profile, don’t go out much. I do get to see the rock paintings at Ha Khotso, another San site. But having seen so many excellent examples already, in the past few days, these images look a bit more fainted, a bit of an overkill, too. Or maybe I am ready to go home, maybe I am mentally preparing myself for the end of this trip.

equally vivid paintings, of eland
the Ha Khotso shelter in Lesotho, the only rock painting site I visited here
and very detailed images of people

In a few days I drop my rental car off at the airport of Johannesburg, and I fly back to London. After some eight weeks of travelling. But what a trip it has been!

Sebaayeni Cave

In the Ndedema Gorge and River, part of the Cathedral Peak area of the Drakensberg, some 17 shelters have been identified with Bushmen paintings – San people paintings, really. Sebaayeni Cave is the most important site, with over a thousand individual images. Unfortunately, the photos are not very good, a combination of youthful incompetence in 1991 and the deterioration of the slides before I had the chance to scan them. But these do give you an idea of what to expect, except that being there yourself beats any pictures.

Zeni rockface

Not far away is the Zeni rockface, with more paintings, although less varied than the Sebaayeni Cave.

Other caves nearby are Main Cave and Battle Cave.

lovely little a young giraffe, at the Zeni rockface near the Sebaayeni Cave (giraffe 8 cm high)
a panel in Sebaayeni Cave, with female dancers and orange-white eland (left to right approx. 50 cm)
a battle scene, perhaps? or hunting, with the rhebuck on the left (top to bottom approx. 50 cm)
a group of dancers, in a trance (top to bottom approx. 70 cm)
several figures and rhebuck (left to right approx. 30 cm)
a battle scene, people fighting? (top to bottom approx. 20 cm)

the next series of photos are of the main panel of the cave, and several details – all but invisible from a distance.

the main panel in Sebaayeni Cave (left to right approx. 550 cm)
detail of the left side of the panel, group of dancers (left to right approx. 75 cm)
detail of the previous picture, three dancers with remarkeble hats (top to bottom approx. 30 cm)
and another detail of the main panel, two shamanistic figures (top to bottom approx. 40 cm)
the elands under the dancers of the main panel, being hunted (left to right approx. 65 cm)
two more eland, right top of the main panel, maybe walking in a stream? (left to right approx. 45 cm)
another detail of the main panel, two dancers and an eland (top to bottom approx. 55 cm)
three delicate figurines, armed with bow and arrow, and two eland, with another person superimposed on one of them (top to bottom approx. 30 cm)
the right side of the main panel, more animals and people (top to bottom approx. 85 cm)

Below some of the images from the Zeni rockface, more monochromatic, and less varied, but equally finely executed – note the detail in the people, and the rhebuck, and not to forget the giraffe at the top of this entry!

overview of the panel at the Zeni rockface, note the orange eland on the top, and another, red one, upside down in the left lower corner (left to right approx. 55 cm)
the domestic scene of the main panel (left to right approx. 30 cm)
and the rhebuck of the main panel (top to bottom approx. 25 cm)

The Battle Cave, near the Injasuti camp in the Giant Castle area of the Drakensberg, has been so named because it is one of the rare places where San people – more commonly known as Bushmen – have painted what looks like a battle scene, with arrows flying in all directions. But there is lots of other subject matter in the paintings, like a variety of animals beyond the usual eland and buck, and shaman-like images of people. Not the best of photography, I am afraid, but all the more reasons to go there in person. A beautiful gallery.

Near by is Main Cave, one of the prime San rock painting galleries in the area.

a small panel with people and animals, superimposed (left to right approx. 50 cm)
therianthrope – part human, part animal – figurines in Battle Cave, in the Giant castle area of the Drakensberg
the fighting scene that Battle Cave derives its name from
detail of the left side of the fighting scene panel
detail of the central part of the panel, with arrows flying in both directions
detail of the figurines on the right of the fighting scene panel
a rare depiction of a cat-like animal, lion or leopard perhaps (left to right approx. 25 cm)
other unusual animals, maybe warthogs (left to right approx. 40 cm)
and two rhinoceros, also not often seen here (left to right approx. 70 cm)
eland and hunters (left to right approx. 90 cm)
group of buck – note the almost invisible white elements, too (left to right approx. 70 cm)
another panel, with eland and people, probably hunters
detail of the panel, two point-headed figures (top to bottom approx. 35 cm)
very dark-coloured eland, very expressive painting (left to right approx. 75 cm)
in the same area as Battle Cave is also Fergy’s Cave, a smaller overhang, with this family scene (left to right approx. 60 cm)
also in Fergy’s Cave, this small, flower-like structure (and note the pots at the bottom) (top to bottom approx. 25 cm)

The Main Caves are one of the most accessible San rock art sites in the Drakensberg, an easy half hour walk from the nearest accommodation camp. The paintings are distributed overs several caves, and although weathering has taking its toll, many are still in good condition. I am afraid my photography at the time – slides, which I have since scanned – wasn’t up to standards, but the photos do give an impression of what San rock art involves. Nothing beats being there in person, of course, a really fabulous gallery of images.

Nearby is Battle Cave, another great San rock painting gallery

a painting on a loose boulder, outside the cave
image of four dancers (top to bottom approx. 50 cm)
animal panel of the left of the Main Cave
detail of the previous photograph, left side (left to right approx. 35 cm)
another detail of the panel, now right side (left to right approx. 40 cm)
and a third detail, in the middle, of two fighting eland detail of the previous photograph, left side (left to right approx. 40 cm)
detail of the left side of the central panel, Main Cave (left to right approx. 30 cm)
a close-up of the picture left (top to bottom approx. 15 cm)
right half of the central panel in the Giant Castle Main Cave, from left to right perhaps 200 cm
two figures in the Main Cave detail of the panel above, right top corner (top to bottom approx 50 cm)
a tiny detail of the fighting scene, righthand top corner of the central panel (top to bottom approx. 40 cm)
a panel full of dancers, on the right-hand side of the Main Cave
close-up of two of the dancers (top to bottom approx. 25 cm)
another close-up of dancers (top to bottom approx. 30 cm)
detail of feline figurines in the right hand bottom of the dancers panel (left to right approx. 30 cm)
the main panel in the second cave, full of animals (left to right approx. 200 cm)
detail of two elands, in the right top corner (left to right approx. 60 cm)
and a detail of people, right of the middle, above the crack (left to right approx. 20 cm)
a second panel of paintings, in the second cave of the Main Cave site (top to bottom approx. 100 cm)
a painting of an eland, one of the sacred animals for the San people

May 21st – the Homelands

Today I drove from Fort Beaufort to Kokstad, with a detour via Queenstown and Ladygrey and Barkley East. A long drive, some 700 kms, but the detour turned out to be fully justified, by my first views of the Drakensberg. This is South Africa’s central mountain chain, and its highest, with peaks to almost 3500 m.

view of the Drakensberg
the Homelands, with Ciskei in yellow and Transkei in orange

However, starkly contrasting with the beauty of the Drakensberg is the landscape in the Homelands to the south, Ciskei and Transkei, where I also drove through. The Homelands, also called Bantustans, were created by the South African Apartheid regime in the 1950s to establish a sort of quasi-independent territory for Blacks, outside the areas where the White people lived. Well, not so independent that I could not drive in and out without being stopped – for the white person there are no limitations, only blacks need a reason to leave and enter white areas. And there are plenty of reasons, of course, because the total land surface of the Homelands is some 15% of the country, and is supposed to house 75% of the population. Without any local economy to speak off, as the agricultural land is of poor quality, suffering from soil erosion and overgrazing. So most black people find work outside their homelands, in white-owned factories or on sumptuous white-owned farms. However, no work, then you must return to your Homeland, assigned to you by your ethnicity. Which essentially turns the Homelands into a labour reservoir for white South Africa, without the responsibility to look after their workers. Charming.

I had read about this situation, of course, but seeing it is believing. Entering Ciskei, suddenly there were huts built everywhere, along the road, in the fields. Gone was the vastness of the scenery I have been admiring everywhere in this country, gone was the emptiness. Until I left again, back into the wilderness, the views of the Drakensberg.

Transkei is much bigger, and driving through for a couple of hours, allowed me much more time to reflect on what I was seeing. How shall I put it? Where I have been saying so many times, in the last few weeks in South Africa, that I had to adjust to a much more developed image of Africa, here I was back in Tanzania, Malawi, Zimbabwe. Back in the Africa that I had come to appreciate in the years I lived there, but also back in the poverty, back to the basics. Houses here are not decorated anymore, no nice gables, no nice gardens, no flowers. Roads are poorly maintained, full of potholes, and littered with car wrecks, often burnt out, or upside down.

the sad reality of the Homelands, degraded soil and randomly constructed accomodation

Many of the houses are rondavels, round huts, well-constructed and sturdy. Many are close to each other. Cattle and sheep are grazing along the road, and in between the houses. And there are people living here, there is a lot of activity. In one of the towns I see hundreds of people gathering, a colourful sight. The lack of white faces is conspicuous. Of course they don’t stick to the pavement; there is no pavement. It is all a bit chaotic, but it is lively. Unlike in the rest of South Africa, which, come to think of it, is quite sterile compared to this.

After a while I noticed that most of the men I saw were all quite a poor lot, they didn’t look very healthy. The women, on the contrary, looked much stronger, well fed, some quite good looking, and proud. And then I realised that all the healthy, strong men were absent, of course, working in South Africa for white South Africans, to support their families back in the Homelands. No wonder these places are not economically viable, they have never had a chance.

next: last stop is the Drakensberg

cattle being driven across the main road through Transkei