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A multilingual menagerie

A multilingual menagerie I know this sounds like racial stereotyping, but you just can’t keep Italians quiet.
They’re loud, they’re gregarious, and they shout even when they’re talking to the person next to them. So asking them to achieve a bit of hush on a game drive through the Kruger is a polite but pointless exercise.
Besides, as the only South African on a tour with a bunch of foreigners, I was rather chuffed to hear their appreciation of our wildlife. A chorus of “molto bello” greeted every sighting, be it wide-eyed impala or a haughty giraffe. Even the warthogs basked in the glory of endless “è bello.”
Yet my tour through the Kruger, Swaziland and Mozambique wasn’t turning out to be as much fun as expected. As a singleton I often hook up with a bunch of strangers on a group tour for company when I go exploring. But these strangers were very strange indeed. There were no other South Africans, gregarious Aussies or dry humoured Brits to be my new best friends for the next two weeks.
Instead, as my travelling companions and I exchanged tentative smiles at the meeting point, I realised this trip could be more of a trial. There were four Russians, four Italians, a German couple…. and me. Throw in a couple of guides from Zimbabwe and South Africa, and you’ve got the United Nations travelling road show.
Except the United Nations has professional interpreters, and generally tends to agree on at least some issues. Our group mostly used sign language, and couldn’t even agree on the time to eat dinner.
As our bright red minibus sped off towards KwaZulu Natal, I was grateful I’d brought a lot of books and a Blackberry full of music. After two days I cunningly took to decanting a bottle of wine into an empty Appetizer bottle, for a reviving slug whenever the multilingual madness got too much. But for most of the time it’s amazing what you can achieve with a few big smiles, waves of the arms and the realisation that you don’t really need to know what they’re saying anyway.
The trip itinerary was fittingly as odd as the people on it, and the most fascinating part was watching foreigners experiencing rural Africa.
Some of it was very ‘bello’ indeed. A visit to a Zulu Village near Kosi Bay was magical, with the foreigners wandering into straw-and-wood houses, fingering a ceremonial spear and shield, and the Italian ladies trying to out-dance the children.
But other moments elicited a torrent of linguistics that made me grateful I didn’t have a fine understanding of Russian swear words. The main problem was that the foreign booking agents hadn’t translated the agenda in its entirety. So no one expected some of the lodges to have shared bathroom facilities. The Italian and German couples might have been hoping for a romantic African safari, and ended up with less privacy than a Scout camp.
The first night at Mkuzi Game Reserve in KwaZulu Natal the Russians had a fit when they saw their sleeping quarters were tents raised on wooden platforms. Pretty comfortable, I was thinking, when an explosion of Chernobyl proportions erupted nearby. They weren’t happy – all of us understood that much.
A few nights later none of us were delighted when Hlane Game Reserve in Swaziland gave us four bedrooms sharing one bathroom. Worse, the walls between each room didn’t reach the ceiling in the quaint but decidedly inappropriate rondeval.
Eventually the Italian mother and daughter stopped bickering with each other and we all nodded off, until they started again at 4am, in an insistent whispering that’s more irritating than an all-out slanging match.
We all emerged bleary-eyed for a 5am game drive, but first formed a multinational queue for the solitary loo.
Soon The United Nations became the Divided Nations. At meal times there was the Italian contingent, the Russian cluster, and the German couple trying to snatch a few intimates moment of togetherness after hours cooped up in the tour bus. The guides and I formed an African table of our own.
There were some moments when we achieved a lovely warm Kumbaya atmosphere around the campfire. The tall, skinny old Russian man would burst into song, then toast everybody liberally with a pint of boxed wine. Next the Italian man would burst into a competing song, making our gathering a hearty imitation of Idols.
I know they didn’t have the time of their lives in South Africa, but the animals won them over in the end. The rhino, elephants and those comical warthogs were just so ‘bellissimo.’

Published in The Sunday Times Accidental Tourist column 5/2/2012