Wednesday, May 03, 2006

At home in the African bush

HE'S GOT A heart of gold, but he's living in the past," Gill Langebrink says with an affectionate chuckle. "He's living just like the colonials used to. Who in this country still leaves their drinks tray out all day, every day?"

The retro-man she's talking about is her neighbor, David Lambkin, with whom I've swapped houses for a week. He gets my Baltimore digs. I get his South African farmstead.

Truth be told, when I agreed to temporarily trade lives I had no idea, not the foggiest notion, that my counterpart was the type of person to keep a drinks tray--an elegant brass one, laden with numerous crystal decanters of port, gin, and scotch--perched upon his living room tea table.

Note to self: Check closets for polo ponies.

Lambkin, a novelist and former denizen of Johannesburg, recently abandoned the brash city in favor of renting a quaint, ramshackle farmhouse from Gill and her gracious, if taciturn, husband, David. It stands a couple of hundred yards from where I'm now sitting, inside the Langebrinks' open-air, rear garden room (think fully furnished triple garage with no doors), enjoying a cup of tea and a homemade jelly roll.

"We've had a satisfying life here, and we still have a satisfying life," says Gill, who at age 69 has a youthful, lilting voice that reminds me of cathedral bells chiming.

She came to Johannesburg in 1960 from her native England for an extended visit with a cousin. Fate intervened a few years later: Gill met and married David, permanently switching hemispheres in the process.

They have raised two daughters on this 7,400-acre farm that David's father first began working 68 years ago. It lies among flatlands in a historically conservative Afrikaans area of the country. Just under an hour's drive south lies Pretoria (Tshwane), the administrative capital of the country--a cultural hub with nearly two million residents and 70,000 flowering jacaranda trees. A half hour's drive north is Bela-Bela, a pleasantly flayed town that caters to just-passing-through tourists headed for the wildlife bounty of Kruger National Park 250 miles to the northeast and other big-name, big-game reserves strung along the Zimbabwe and Mozambique borders.

The Langebrinks used to be avid horseback riders. They'd saddle up at sunrise and trot the veld. "That is the most glorious time of day," Gill coos. Swallows swoop through the room as she speaks, and the metronomic tick-tick-tick of a lawn sprinkler punctuates her sentences.

Yes, a wonderful South African life. The jacaranda trees are in full, soft-purple bloom. David notes that 433 species of birds frequent the farm. Meanwhile, Gill tells me about once being chased by a pair of crazed young warthogs (adults are capable of killing a lion), about farm animals she has slaughtered for food, her recipe for antelope jerky, and the cobra that slithered into the house and attacked their Jack Russell terrier, Mia.

"We've seen lots and lots of pythons," she adds. "I've shot lots of puff adders."

Ah, that voice may be soft and sweet, but those hands can make a shotgun sing.

Isak Dinesen owned a farm at the foot of the Ngong Hills. I borrowed one on the outskirts of Bela-Bela. We were both the better for it.

I HAVE COME TO South Africa to sample everyday life, and accordingly I vow to shop for local thrills. After all, the point of house-swapping is to step into a relative stranger's life, to slow down and absorb the rhythms of an alternative world. The way I see it, spending a day here doing "nothing" might wind up being the best investment of my travel time.

My loaner farm has plenty to offer. Why, there are animal-viewing opportunities to be had right inside the Lambkin house, which David shares with Wolfie, his ever-faithful, ever-lumbering German shepherd, and 11 cats. (Or is it 111? When you're dealing with anything beyond four cats, it's impossible to get an accurate head count.)

Of course, the farm contains genuinely wild wildlife, too. I jog or walk the property almost daily, catching glimpses of warthogs, impala, kudu, a brown-hooded kingfisher, and a pearl-spotted owl. The duikers, steenboks, and porcupines have hidden out. At night I hear a jackal yammering. The stars are plentiful and on fire. They look seductively close, as if inviting me to step out into the universe for an evening stroll.

Late one afternoon I go on a bouncy mini-safari with the Langebrinks. Gill and I sit in the bed of their Isuzu truck. David takes the wheel, at one point pulling to a stop at a far corner of the farm in front of a gnarled camel thorn tree.

"It's a family joke," Gill explains. "We're all supposed to salute because his stepmother's buried under there." "Why this tree?" I ask.

There's a pause, then Gill breaks into a devilish grin, "Well, I guess because it's the farthest one from our house."

That presumably evil stepmother lived her last years next to the Langebrinks in the fenced compound David Lambkin now occupies. There are two satellite rondavels: conical, thatched-roof huts that can accommodate spillover guests. The two-bedroom main farmhouse was built in 1922. Its pressed-iron ceilings are high. Its pine-plank floors squeak in protest with every footstep.

Stacks of books line hallways. Animal skulls and animal skins lend an age-of-empire touch to the decor. A large, unscreened garden room faces the backyard, which has a plastic-bladder camp shower strung from a tall tree. Beyond a blanket of green lawn, scruffy veld stretches as far as the eye can see.

The place has the welcoming feel of a weather-beaten beach house filled with friendly ghosts of clambakes gone by. It's cozy and comfortable and conducive to lazy-bone hours of pleasure reading. Why not take advantage of this rare opportunity to sink into a spongy couch and devour an author's work within the confines of his own home, inside the very laboratory where creative juices bubble over onto the printed page? I choose Lambkin's The Hanging Tree, a winding-narrative novel with a large cast of characters, but, surprisingly, only one cat.

The nonfiction world can't be totally ignored, however. One day, I drive into Bela-Bela. I stop for lunch at the combination tree nursery-restaurant run by Jannie Bosch, an Afrikaner who moved here 14 years ago with his wife from the industrial city of Krugersdorp. "I think when you're living in nature," Bosch says of his rural lifestyle, "you're living close to your Lord."

Bela-Bela is known for its mineral springs. Aventura Warmbaths is a resort in the heart of downtown. I expect to encounter self-segregation on a grand scale. Instead, I see hundreds of blacks and whites soaking together in hot pools, gliding together down waterslides, zipping around together on go-karts. It's almost like stepping into an "I'd Like to Teach the World to Sing" Coke commercial.

Likewise, I'm heartened by a short walk through Bela-Bela's black township, unbowed by poverty, its streets buzzing with people in motion and children at play. When the cement was freshly poured for one of the curbs, somebody had written a message now fixed for posterity: Be Free for Love.

That wouldn't make a bad name for a certain homestead I know: Be Free for Love Farm. It has that requisite good vibe. Partly that's owed to the presence to Patrick Moyo, a Zimbabwean who is Lambkin's all-purpose majordomo. Soft-spoken, hardworking Patrick keeps the house in running order, makes breakfast and tea, builds cooking fires and does laundry on request, and answers oddball questions. When I spot what looks like a hairy Abominable Snow-midget squeezing through a hole in the back fence, Patrick sets me straight on what's going on.

"Vervet monkey," he tells me. "They come for the oranges."

ON THE RECOMMENDATION of David Langebrink, I phone Hugo Kuschke, a local surveyor and hiker. He lives about 15 miles from Bela-Bela, near Kranskop, a mountain that stands alone on an otherwise flat plain like a giant spaceship making an emergency repair stop in South Africa.

The next day we're on the trail by 5 a.m. Kranskop is considered by some to have mystical, holy powers. It definitely exerts a pull on Kuschke. He first climbed it when he was 12. He's now 78, still going strong despite two artificial hips and shoulder surgery. He hikes Kranskop every New Year's Day with members of his church; he trudged up it to seek solace last year when his wife, Elfriede, died.

We summit in just over an hour. It's an easy scramble, but one that rewards you with panoramic views of the Nyl River Valley. Kuschke shows me a metal pipe poking up from a cairn made of big boulders: a survey stake he set in 1952. There are old missionary reports of rhinos roaming the mountain, says Kuschke. Nowadays it's a playground for baboons.

"I'd rather stand here," he says, "than be in a sitting room and yap, yap, yap. I told my children, when I die they should throw my ashes on Kranskop. End of story."

And speaking of stories, I'll have plenty to tell when I get back home. Anecdotes of life in South Africa have been the best part of my house-swapping experience--such as the memorable mealtime conversation I had with David Lambkin's friend Pam Carr, an artist who grew up in a Zambian bush village. Pam told me about African witchcraft and villagers stomped by elephants and devoured by crocodiles. That's definitely not the stuff of dinner conversations back in Baltimore.

By: Dunkel, Tom, National Geographic Traveler, Apr2006