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Tolkien and South Africa.


A picture of me at the place where J.R.R. Tolkien was born. Just to establish nerd credentials for all time. It did amaze us that this is not a tourist spot at all, that there is no J.R.R. Tolkien Museum in the town where he was born, or anything similar. If he had been born in the U.S. we felt the town he was born in would have long ago converted his name into tourist dollars. Nemo propheta acceptus est in sua patria.

It was very surprising to us that Tolkien could have been born anywhere but in England. And yet – somehow it makes sense, given his racial cosmology, that Tolkien was born in South Africa. I have written about the racial overtones of Lord of the Rings before; I think for Tolkien it is all summed up in the one word, fair, which means good, just, beautiful, equitable, desirable, and light-skinned.

The Birthplace of J.R.R. Tolkien.


June 27th.

Bloomfontein. Bloomfontein is different from the other places we have seen; a large, sprawling city, with more middle-class homes than we have seen anywhere else. Much of it looks like the middle-class suburbs of Los Angeles: sundrenched gardens made leafy by ample water, gardens closed off by attractive walls of adobe and concrete, multiple cars in the driveways and absolutely not a soul to be seen on a Saturday afternoon. In general this is how we tell the white areas of the country: the places that look empty, where there are no people, probably are owned by whites.

Downtown it was quiet, and somewhat depressing. We were on a pilgrimage to see the birthplace of J.R.R. Tolkien; little information was available about the site, but our guide book recommended going to the Hobbit Hotel, where the local Tolkien Society meets, and ask there. There was a plaque at the hotel, proclaiming that Tolkien had been born on the spot in 1892. I had read elsewhere, however, that he was not born there, but nearby, but the house was destroyed in a flood and bits of it had been used in the construction of this building. But this building was heavily restored, a modern hotel not suffering from a horrible excess of quaintness or character. The concierge knew nothing about Tolkien, not even about the existence of the plaque in the room next door, much less anything else about the Tolkien sites.

From the hotel we went off in search of the Anglican cathedral, where he was baptized, but we could not find it: we asked around for it but no one knew where it was (and I suspected many did not quite know what it was either). We asked at the Bloomfontein Museum, to no avail; we tried to ask at a Catholic church, but it was locked and bolted, as all churches are in this land; we even went to the town’s fire department, which we presumed would know about all the buildings: after some hesitation they directed us to a church, but neither an Anglican one nor a cathedral.

The old presidential mansion.

We were affected by this especially because it seemed symbolic of life in Bloomfontein. Downtown is dominated by monumental sandstone buildings, mostly from the days of the Republic, the Orange Free State which had been founded by Boer trekkers to escape from British rule. The British had annexed it in 1848, lost it in 1854, regained it during the Second Boer War, after which it became a province of the Union of South Africa, with Bloomfontein becoming the home of South Africa’s Supreme Court. Its buildings had the sad, slightly decrepit air of things which had outlasted what they were built to represent. We saw the Presidential Mansion of the Republic, its gate bent on its hinges, the place quiet and weedy, with no indication of what it might be used for today; a court-house all boarded up; the museum where we asked for directions was locked even during its open hours, and it took much banging on the door to get someone to come to it. And such things as an “Anglican Cathedral” or “Cathedral of the Church of England” – it was a phrase that no longer meant anything to the people on the street.





June 26th.

We made it to Graaff-Reinett, a pretty little town in the Karoo. We are staying at a lovely bed and breakfast, where we were greeted with a glass of sherry and shown to our big four-poster bed. I’m in the tub now. As usual the place is empty, though it’s Friday night and we were told school holidays begin today, and accommodation would be harder to find. We get the impression that no one in the country is travelling.

Our host is quite an interesting man, with an accent utterly different from other South African accents we have heard: he is from Durban. He says “ellyfont” for elephant. He owned a sugar-farm in Natal, before retiring and moving into the Bed-and-Breakfast business.

Leaving Addo.


Leaving the park we quickly went into the town of Addo to get some gasoline.  The gas station was swamped, with hundreds of people: they were all lined up at the two ATMs, chattering away.  Stores in the small town were also open, past five p.m., which is not normal.  Trying to bring the car into the gas station I had to yell at people to step aside so we could bring the car up to the pump.  As the attendant pumped the gas – all fill stations are full-service here – I asked her what was going on.  ”Payday,” she said.  ”Last Friday of the month.”  ”Everyone gets paid the same day?” I asked, incredulous.  She said yes.  I suppose everyone here lives hand-to-mouth.  And the crowd had a terrible, nervous energy: everyone was going to get drunk tonight.

In the Peaceable Kingdom.


June 26th.

Well, we came to Addo for the Elephants, and we got them: they are everywhere here. Our guide pulled up right next to an elephant feeding beside the road, and we just sat there watching him, only fifteen feet away.  He continued grazing undisturbed by our presence; I don’t know if I’ll ever forget the fluttery crunch of the foliage as he brought it to his mouth, one proboscis-full at a time. Petrus Gillius, in his Descriptio Nova Elephanti (1614), says of elephants:

In itinere promuscidem gerit porrectam ad terram usque, et nisi paululum eam incurvaret, reptantem humi traheret aut pedibus calcaret: ipsam huc illuc circumfert, semper inquirens aliquid quod edat, nunquam otiosam habet, nunc folia stringit, nunc herbas decerpit, quas ut fruticosas esse percipit, earum cacumine proboscide corripit, pede autem radicitus evellit, eo pedis impetu utens, quo agricola ligonis extirpat frutices: nunc a vicinis quippiam exposcit, et cum haec desunt, petras volvit aut terram proicit.

As he walks he keeps his trunk pointed at the ground, and if he did not slightly curl it, it would drag in the dust or get caught underfoot; he moves it to and fro, looking always for something to eat, never letting it be idle: now he strips off leaves, now he plucks up plants, and if he sees any to be the size of shrubs, he grabs them with his proboscis while pulling them up from the roots with his foot; using the force of his foot the way a farmer rips up shrubs with a a spade; now he begs for something from his neighbors, and when all these are lacking, he turns over stones or tosses the ground.

We did not see all these behaviors, but that the elephant appears to be constantly engaged in the act of feeding we were able to see for ourselves, and our guide confirmed it. “What does an elephant do all day?” he asked us rhetorically. “Eat,” he responded. They were so intent on the task that they did not bother with us very much: it was all they could do to pass enough vegetable matter through their bodies to maintain their massive frames.

We saw males stalking through the savannah, all alone, which is their mode: the females and young we also saw, in herds. Our guide put us right in the pathway of one such herd and cut the engine, and slowly the elephants approached, then swarmed around our truck, and continued on the other side. Every herd had numerous young of all ages, and it seems the elephants are doing well here; there are now more than five hundred in the park.

Our guide said that elephants can cause tremendous problems, but most of the major problems, at least here in South Africa, seem to be in the past. Tourists don’t feed the elephants as much as they used to, and of course they can’t hunt them in the parks either, and so the elephants now neither harass nor attack nor flee people. For centuries wild elephants have been the enemies of man, as it is almost impossible to practice agriculture in areas with large concentrations of them. They supposedly especially enjoy oranges – destroying the orchards as much as they enjoy the fruits. Farmers killed them whenever they could, and even game reserves did not want them until finally someone came up with a cost-effective elephant-proof fence, here at Addo. Now an entire generation of elephants has been confined to the reserve, away from farms and hunters, and the result is harmony between man and elephant, each on his own land.

Of course there is something slightly sad about knowing that in the end the great animals of South Africa live inside fences: apparently only the leopard, of the great animals, still wanders the mountains and lives truly free.

But to come here and see these elephants graze these hills which are all their own – to see them serenely strip entire trees of their leaves, to watch them nurse their young and see the adolescents butt heads and tangle trunks, to live with lions and hippos and crocodiles and yet flourish and multiply – it is the peaceable kingdom made manifest.

My mother said I needed to come to Africa and see this before it was all gone: throughout much of Africa the big animals are giving way to development: wherever people want to grow food, or keep their children safe, they tend to drive away or kill the large, dangerous animals. But here in South Africa the situation is quite different. These fenced parks and preserves are becoming more common, not less, and more land is being conserved yearly: the big animals are big tourist business, and they are supporting a fairly complex economy: the national parks require rangers, scientists, guards, hospitality staff, restaurant staff, and guides; private game reserves also employ butchers, taxidermists, chefs, and the like. And South Africa appears to be having tremendous success restoring functional ecosystems: Addo and Pilanesberg, both of which were restoration projects, now support large, healthy, reproducing populations of both predators and prey. The diversity of the hoofed animals is mind-boggling: we cannot even learn to identify them all, these springboks and impala and hartebeest and wildebeest and kudu and eland and gazelles and antelopes and reeboks and ruisboks and everything else: they are all roughly deerlike, with a bewildering variety of horns; and there are of course the rhinos and hippos and zebras and giraffes and so much else. None of them are here in vast herds, the way they seem to live in the Serengheti; whether this is due to the choice of the restorers (emphasizing diversity?) or is the result of the different, more temperate climate here I do not know.  But there are so many large animals here, and of such diversity, it seems to be succeeding well. And the area was, not long ago, all just farms: you can still see the vegetative shifts, in large square blocks, which mark the old fields. It’s an amazing success story for habitat restoration.

They have fenced off a large area within the park too, to keep elephants out, as they are studying the effect large numbers of elephants have on the vegetation. Elephants don’t seem to have any natural predators – lions can get young ones only when they are left alone, which is not normal – and their numbers continue to grow here. In the afternoon almost every hill seemed to have a little herd of them, and from a distance it looked like the boulders were slowly changing places on the hilltops, shaking the trees as they passed.

Beautiful Woman In Lion Country.


Could you cycle this? Yes, you probably could. But watch out for the lions - it's Addo Elephant National Park.

June 26th.

We came down to the water-hole after lunch at the lodge to look at the animals – the lodge is sited on a ridge above this water-hole – and found ourselves surrounded by birds, begging for a bit of our orange (I took a video of one particularly vocal cara avis, but my computer is refusing to upload video files). As we sat there, a beautiful woman sat down on another bench right by us, and we started talking. Her name was Sophie. She had the willingness to engage which is the sign of a solo traveller.

It turns out she had cycled to Addo from Cape Town, a distance of 500 miles. And it seems she had done it almost unexpectedly, as adventurous people often do things: not much planning had gone into it. A friend had invited her down to South Africa – she was from Belgium – to do some housesitting. She had stayed for awhile, and then a bike fell into her hands, and she decided to go see some of the coast.  Off she went.

“I had heard that you can’t bike into the park,” she said, “but I figured out a way to get past the guard and I was going to do it until I heard that there was a group of lions hanging out right by the park entrance. So I decided to hitch a ride into the park rather than bike in.” This sounded like a good choice.

We discussed her experiences so far – everyone, she said, had been wonderful – and the fears which keep people back. I asked her what the plan was from here. “Probably to go all the way to Mozambique,” she replied. “Everyone says I shouldn’t do it, it’s too dangerous, you really can’t do it, but that’s what everyone has said about the whole trip. And I haven’t had any problems at all.” I noted that she was correct, that everything I had seen between Cape Town and Addo revealed a great cycling route – plentiful restaurants and accommodation, fabulous scenery, good wine, good roads, etc. But I also noted that people had told me – though I did not know for sure – that the stretch from here to Mozambique included some areas supposedly much less hospitable for cyclists, the “wild coast” where there was little development and much rural poverty. The coast was supposed to be highly indented as well, and the roads slower. Meanwhile, further along, near Mozambique, were tropical wetlands where malaria might be a possibility. I noted that we had driven the inland route, Route 62, and it would probably be another fabulous cycling route, if she wanted an alternative to the Wild Coast.

She didn’t seem too worried about it. I’ve met other people like her – people who mix bravery with what seems to me a bit of recklessness. It seemed to be working very well for her. We are probably far too fearful, and underestimate the extent of the possible.  That said, I still guessed that the smart thing was to head back via 62, and I suggested as much.  It’s not that other things are impossible: it’s just that it is not always worthwhile to pay their cost.

Oliphants Stop the Traffic.


June 26th.

We are now awaiting our “game drive,” as it is called, when a safari guide will take us out into the veld animalia ad videnda; we spent the morning doing a game drive of our own, as the South African national parks allow people to go out into the wild themselves. Our resolution to have a proper guide was strengthened considerably after our own efforts: we soon came upon a herd of elephants crossing the road, but we were quite uncertain how to deal with the situation. How close could we actually get? How dangerous were they? They are huge animals, towering over our car. Ever since we rented our car – a tiny little thing called a Chevy “Spark,” the cheapest and tiniest thing available – Catherine has been afraid that it would make a tempting target for an elephant. “The car’s pretty little,” she said when we were first looking at it. I thought she might be worried it wouldn’t be great in the event of an accident or something like that. But then she revealed her real worry: “The elephants are going to stomp us!” It’s been a refrain the whole trip. Now here we were, trying to proceed on a road which was blocked by elephants. Catherine wanted to inch closer, but then we held back – “Uuuuuhhhhh the elephants are going to stomp us!” I treated them as I have treated buffalo in the past, keeping a hundred feet between us and them.

But then on our return to camp – the road being blocked, we had to go back – we saw a huge elephant behind a bush right by the side of the road. There were other cars nearby, and the elephant paid them no mind at all. So maybe we can get closer. But I’d rather we not be the ones who get stomped.



June 26th.

When we woke up this morning there were monkeys in the trees playing by our car, and playing seems to be the right word: they seemed to live perfectly unserious lives, wrestling with each other, pulling each other’s tails, running up the trees and then back down them again as if energy were the cheapest commodity in the world. Locals dislike them, and claim that they are a terrible nuisance, and we kept watch on our belongings and made sure the car doors were locked, but had no trouble. The monkeys here have whitish-gray fur with black fur on their faces and paws, and long, almost catlike tails [they are vervet monkeys, Chlorocebus pygerythrus]. I had an idea somewhere in my head that Old World monkeys were tailless, which is obviously false: I think it is more correct to say that only New World monkeys have prehensile tails; Old World monkeys have either catlike tails or are, like the apes, tailless.

On Safari.


It’s hard to hide behind a tree if you’re an elephant.

Under the Stars at Addo.


June 25th.

Our rondavel before we went to candles.

We drove in the declining evening from Jeffrey’s Bay to Addo Elephant National Park, getting a bit lost in the outskirts of Port Elizabeth, but eventually arriving. And now we are here, at the main camp, staying in a plastered mud hut with a thatched roof and nice detailing – safari chic, they call it. Catherine is pleased as punch, taking pictures of the interior of our little hut, lit by candles under the African skies. Outside this little enclosure where we are staying are the great animals – elephants and lions and rhinos and giraffes.

You never know quite how these things will affect you, until you are there, but I have to say, to me this is the most romantic place in the world. I can’t quite explain how this works, but somehow, to me, man and woman in nature is the most cosmic, and hence the most romantic thing there is – the situation that makes us, not this person or that person, but Man and Woman.

Tomorrow we go on safari.