I sit in the shade of reception at Orange Elephant backpackers in Addo, Eastern Cape, South Africa, protected from the scalding sun. My interviewee is irked when he arrives because his washing is not fully clean, despite putting it on two separate cycles. He is a man of average proportions, mediocre if you will, but with a long, glorious mane of hair. He sits down, wearing a t-shirt with Louis Theroux’s image emblazoned on the front and readies himself for my questions by tying back his flowing golden locks.
So Greig, you’ve been here in Addo for a month now. To help the audience visualise our location, could you please describe the setting?
Of course. Addo town centre consists of a petrol station, a police station, a small grocery store and several ATMs. It is found along a seemingly perpetual road from Port Elizabeth and is surrounded by bush, farmland and game reserves. The vast majority of farms are owned by white people and worked by black people; most of whom live in the neighbouring township. This may seem like an anachronism, but the pace of change since apartheid fell in 1994 has been slow, just like everything else in this place. There really is no rush for just about anything around here, apart from maybe for booze, braais and potjie.
Could you describe your top three experiences in and around Addo for us?
1. The Wildlife
Number one on the list is obvious. The main attraction here is the Addo Elephant National Park, where other than the obvious, you can see lions, cheetahs, rhinos, zebras, kudus, buffalos, warthogs, tortoises, dung beetles and more.
On my first visit I managed to see the only two cheetahs in the park and on my second, lions and their cubs. I’m a lucky boy. The other main highlight was of course the elephants dominating the watering holes. While the zebras and buffalos didn’t dare to challenge the established hierarchy, the warthogs were cheeky enough to chance their arms and take a sip.
Ultimately, it is sad that such magnificent creatures are confined in any way shape or form, but an existence on huge, protected national parks is better than being completely free and poached to extinction. As humans have and will always be irresponsible dickheads (there were only eleven elephants left in Addo in 1931), this seems like the only real solution.
And the second…
2. The Rainbow Nation
My first experience of The Rainbow Nation at work was during a one-day cricket international between South Africa and Sri Lanka in Port Elizabeth. The preconception I arrived with was that cricket was a largely white sport and I assumed there would be mainly white fans. However, St George’s Park was a melting pot of white, black, coloured and Asian people, which produced an incandescent, distinctly South African atmosphere; a welcome antidote to the dull game of cricket.
After Sri Lanka’s dismal innings and several beers, everyone was in full voice and the vibrancy of the choir (it would be a disservice to call it otherwise) was notably different to the sound of a rowdy bunch of lads with short-back-and-sides wailing VINDALOO, NA NA NA, VINDALOO, VINDALOO, NA NA. The unity I experienced there truly channelled the spirit of 1995 and reaffirmed the power of sport in bringing people together.
Socialising with other volunteers has kept me sane. Since Addo’s range of activities is – to put it mildly – limited, drinking games are rife amongst the staff. It’s been a bit like a month-long fresher’s week, except you’re older and not chundering everything back up (apart from those two nights). I’ve met some amazing people who I’d like to think I’ll stay in contact with forever as well as some amazing dogs who lived at the backpackers.
Another notable thing to add is that insufferable pricks are not quite as endemic to the volunteering sector as you’d think they’d be, unless I am myself an insufferable prick, in which case I would be incapable of recognising who is and isn’t an insufferable prick.
What have you learned, other than the fact that you might well be an insufferable prick?
Haha, if I wasn’t such a great guy I’d have a right mind to get in touch with your boss and make sure you never work in media again.
I didn’t mean to offend…
Well, the damage is done so I’ll just answer your question. First and foremost, I’ve learned that I am extremely British in terms of the TV shows I love, the music I’m into and the terminology I use. I’ve accepted that while I am of working class stock, I’m actually a member of the metropolitan elite. I adore my Mac, black humour and Jeremy Corbyn. I hate manual labour, Mrs Brown’s Boys and Nigel Farage and nothing is going to change that.
Secondly, I’d say I understand the mechanics of rural life much better than I did before. There are different rules out in the sticks and everyone is much more autonomous. It would be a heinous crime, for example, to pay someone to fix a toilet flusher, whereas in England you wouldn’t think twice about calling a professional. The agricultural population would, without doubt, survive a zombie apocalypse but equally would find rush hour on the London Underground to be another type of Armageddon. Farmers tend to be gruff, whereas I am verbose. It has been a clash of cultures, but an educational one nonetheless.
How did your thin white skin cope under the hot African sun? And were you able to stay vegetarian?
My skin has coped horrendously. As we speak my face is peeling and my blood has been pillaged by crafty mosquitoes. I’m an itchy, scratchy, pink wreck. And as for vegetarianism; it doesn’t fucking exist out here. Meat for breakfast on your cereal, meat for lunch and meat for dinner. Bacon cookies for supper with a nice glass of lard. I’ve had to sacrifice some of my principles to survive in the wild and now I think I understand how people become cannibals under extreme situations. Not to compare my month in Addo to being stranded on a frozen mountain with nothing to eat other than your dead best mate, but still.
This interview was conducted by Greig Robertson on 2 February 2017. All jokes made were relevant and funny at the time of writing.