“What’s bil-har-zia?” my older nephew asks me, enunciating slowly and pronouncing it perfectly. I am walking ahead of him to board the pontoon boat for our trip through the Blyde River Canyon.
I stop. Bilharzia? Here? I try not to look alarmed as I return to where is was standing, reading a sign I had dismissed when I walked by it as just another liability clause, exempting tour operators from “the usual” risks of death by crocodile, or mauling by hippo. It is a standard disclaimer sign, but the very first item noted, before crocodile or hippo, is bilharzia. I knew it was a problem in other African countries but didn’t realize it is also in South Africa.But I remind myself, while explaining to our family, that although bilharzia is a parasitic disease, we can easily prevent it by avoiding contact with the water. Everyone is satisfied with the description, and our conversation returns to the other sign we read near the parking lot, which referenced, several times, the “Dam River.” We distract ourselves with “dam river” jokes until we wear them out, until it is time to disembark. I’m sure we giggle a little too much.
“Blyde River Canyon is the third largest in the world,” our tour guide Thulani explains as the boat pulls away from the dock, “and the greenest.” It is certainly one of the most majestic and lush I have ever seen. The dam wall was built at the confluence of the Blyde and Ohrigstad Rivers.
Our guide is a Zulu tribesman, and his name, Thulani, means “keep quiet.” He enjoys the irony that his job gives him the opportunity to regale customers with stories and facts about the area. He talks about the rock fig trees, or wild figs, clinging to the canyon walls. The fruit has been ripe now for the better part of a month and we watch as a troop of baboons finish emptying one of all its figs.
In a small cove we pause. Thulani calls this the “hippo maternity ward,” where the hippos come to give birth. The cove is quiet and empty, and we move on. The Three Rondavels loom above the canyon and we crane our necks to try and see the vista high above us, where we had stood earlier in the day, admiring the rondavels, the canyon and the river far below.
The Three Rondavels, shaped like traditional African huts, are mountains, rounded and softened by erosion. The quartzite and shale formations are a perfect complement to the canyon below. Having stared at them from the viewpoint above, and now from the water below, I find them equally beautiful.
Thulani continues to mingle history with anecdotes. Leopards, he tells us, are still present in the canyon. There is at least one who calls this territory his home. But he is elusive, and even Thulani has only seen the leopard three times in the last ten years. We do not change his luck today.
He chatters easily and sincerely about the canyon and rivers and wildlife. He talks about a large crocodile nicknamed “George.” He tells us about the poisonous Euphorbia Tree, also known as the African Milk Tree. “It burns the skin. It blinds you. And bushmen used it to hunt.” Thulani tells his stories well and we listen closely, wondering about this deadly tree on the banks.
He also shows us the baobab trees in the canyon, and we learn that instead of being poisonous like the Euphorbia, the baobabs actually are medicinal. While traditional African healers mix the fruit in milk, water, or food, the pulp has the most widespread usage in making Cream of Tartar. Some locals now even call it the “Cream of Tartar” tree.
We are all listening intently to our lessons on deadly and edible trees, and my sister-in-law craftily uses the information for a teachable moment with her youngest son: “That’s what we use to make Snickerdoodles!” I watch his face as he thinks about his favorite cookies, and looks at the baobab trees. He has made the connection, and I’m happy we’ll visit another “Cream of Tartar” tree up close while in Kruger National Park to reinforce the memory.
I take in Thulani’s stories and facts, listen to the chatter of other boat passengers in languages I don’t understand, and realize I am in sensory overload. I give myself a moment to unplug.
As our tour guide continues steering the pontoon to where he finally finds some hippos popping their heads above the water, and shows us a large sluggish lizard on a rock, I let myself drift in a different direction. I tune out the conversation and the humming motor and just watch the poetry of the tiny birds I see flitting in dappled sunlight among the reeds. I hold my own silent conversation with the sunlit canyon walls and the growing shadows on the trees. I think I understand why this river got its name. “Blyde” means “happy.” It is a Happy River, indeed.
The sun is sinking and I re-engage with the tour just as Thulani is guiding the boat into a cove filled with white-breasted cormorants. Above us the slender waterfall known as Kadishi Tufa is loaded with calcium from the dolomite rock. Instead of eroding the rock as water normally does, the calcium water actually creates formations. This waterfall is famous for its rock formation that resembles a crying face, known as “The Weeping Face of Nature.”
We admire a large cave that he tells us is 40 meters deep. I watch both nephews get excited as he continues on, telling us that it is filled with the bones of animals the leopard has killed.
Soon we leave the nesting cormorants and waterfall and finally meet the large, Nile crocodile that Thulani calls “George.” He and a slightly smaller croc are difficult to spot in sunlight, their rough skin coated in a soft, sandstone mud. We tease our younger nephew about dangling him over the side of the boat for the crocodiles. He is only slightly amused.
As the pontoon makes its way back to shore, we talk about how much my husband, Kurt, who had to work, would love to take boat trip when we’re in the area again.
When we meet up him later that evening and recount the day’s adventure, we also joke about hanging the younger nephew over the edge of the boat. “Forget the crocodile,” the fourteen-year-old says, “just don’t dip me in the water for the bilharzia insects to get me.”
I realize I haven’t explained correctly what bilharzia is, but it doesn’t matter since we’re all laughing over his comparison. Knowing he has our attention, he adds quickly “Anyway, Kurt, let’s just say that you need to take a boat ride on that Dam River!” And I’m sure we all giggle again, a little too much.
An American Expat in South Africa, Marla is a freelance writer and global explorer. She creates travel adventures for herself following in the footsteps of her favorite authors. An American expat, she currently lives in Pretoria, South Africa, where she blogs her adventures on travelingmarla.com and is revising her first manuscript.