Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Was Pofadder South Africa Named for a Snake?

The owner of the guesthouse where I stayed in Upington had a visceral response when I told her that I was traveling to Pofadder.  “You are staying WHERE,” she screamed.  “There are so many other really nice places to visit and to stay in South Africa.  Why on earth are you staying in that shitty little town?”

Logistically Pofadder was the best choice.  It was about midway between Upington and Springbok that sits on the N7 highway.  Staying in either Upington or Springbok were options but doing so would have sharply cut into the amount of time I could spend in the desert each day.  For me there was no other option than to stay at the Pofadder Hotel.

When I asked the guesthouse owner why she disliked Pofadder so much she said.  “I drive through there every time I have gone to or from Cape Town.  I have been doing that for more than twenty years. They have an orphanage in Pofadder and I become so depressed seeing those children and seeing the conditions they live in.”   She was upset.  “Pofadder is a dirty filthy rundown town with maybe twenty five residents.  OK, maybe there are thirty residents but not many more. There are no trees. There is nothing but dirt and desert in every direction for miles around.  It’s just the most god-awful hell hole on earth.”    

She asked where I was staying and I said the Pofadder Hotel.  “Oh my god you are NOT staying there!  That is the worst, most run down hotel – if you can call it that – in South Africa.  It might be the worst hotel in all of Africa!”  I asked if she had ever stayed there.  “No I have never stayed there and I never will.  Once on a trip back from Cape Town I was so famished by the time I arrived in Pofadder I stopped at the hotel for lunch.  Instantly I became ill.  It had to be food poisoning.  I was throwing up.  I had diarrhea.  I could barely keep my car on the road for the drive back to Upington.  And then there was the rat.  I saw a rat in the hotel restaurant.  That was the final straw.”  She could tell that I was a little nervous and then said, “I will be happy to make a reservation for you somewhere else, anywhere else, if you decide you don’t want to say at the Pofadder.”

By now I was giving it serious thought.  The town sounded it was run down and in disarray.  There were maybe thirty people living in it.  It sounded desolate and depressing plus she had become violently ill after eating there.  Perhaps the wise move would be to stay somewhere else.  However logistics was my Achilles heel.  I was intent on spending time in that part of the desert. There were numerous birds I had not yet seen that could be found fairly regularly and easily near Pofadder.  Most importantly was the issue of gasoline consumption.  I was paying the equivalent of $5.00 US for a gallon of gasoline.  Despite my rental car giving me an average of sixty miles per gallon (the car was not made in the United States so great mileage was expected) I still did not relish the idea of having to drive the 240 or so miles round trip each day to Pofadder so I could spend time in that part of the desert.  Finally I thanked her for the offer to change my reservation and made plans to leave soon for Pofadder.

“Elizabeth, I am just going to tough it out and stay in Pofadder as I had already planned.  I will only be there a few days   If staying there becomes unbearable I will leave and go to Springbok.  For now, however, I want to stay in Pofadder.”

“I’m sorry to hear that,” she began.  “I just hope nothing bad happens to you while you are there.  If you get in trouble or if anything bad happens you know you can call and we will come take care of you.  I will pray for you that nothing bad happens.  May god be with you.”

I was petrified and not only second guessing but third and fourth guessing my decision to stay in Pofadder.  The winter before when I began planning for this trip I was searching the Internet for information about Pofadder.  Once in a Google.com search I typed in “Pofadder Hotels” and was directed to several sites about a venomous snake with the same name.  In response I sent a message to the South African bird watchers list serve and asked if anyone had any information on places to stay in Pofadder.  The excellent Southern African bird finding guide I carried with me said that accommodation was available in Pofadder but failed to provide even a name.  A very kind person from Cape Town responded to my request and wrote back saying that there was one hotel, the “Pofadder Hotel.”  He and his wife stayed there every time there are in the area.” 

Looking back on his email I wondered if I had asked the man in Cape Town what he and his wife thought of the hotel and the town.  After all he said they stay there “every time” they are in the area. Could “every time” have only been once?

There have been only three times that I have stayed in a hotel that thoroughly disgusted me.  Once was in Jarabacoa, Dominican Republic.  Chris Haney and I stayed in a supposed hotel set above a store.  There were two beds, a sheet on each, a broken toilet and a “shower” that was a spigot like in your bathroom sink and out of which came a single stream of water.  Then there was the “hotel” in Linares, Mexico, that stank of cigarette smoke.  It had a bed with one sheet that was pock-marked with semen stains, some still wet, and it had a toilet that would not flush.  I took a dump in the toilet to add to the biomass and curled up on the bed fully clothed and waited for dawn.

Probably the worst hotel, however, was the Ramada Inn at the Fort Lauderdale Florida airport.  It went downhill on arrival when it took more than an hour to check in the couple ahead of me and then me.  Then there was the dinner special that was widely advertised but consisted only of cold chicken, cold potatoes, cold corn on the cob, and warm salad dressing.  No amount of complaining could fix the dinner.  During dinner the wife of a couple seated next to me was in tears through her entire meal.  He husband kept trying to console her saying repeatedly “It’s just for one night, honey.” The tears kept flowing and nothing got better.

Then there was the room.  Although a non-smoking room it stank of cigarette smoke.  There was no toilet paper in the toilet and no shampoo or even soap on the sink counter.  Paint was peeling from the walls, several ceiling tiles were missing and several of those still in place were falling away, one of the electrical outlets was burned out and the television wouldn’t work even after giving up on the remote control and just hitting the buttons on its side.  The crowning glory, however, was the rat.  As I laid in bed reading I heard a noise and then saw a large adult Norway rat leap up on the bed and scurry across my feet before disappearing down the other side of the bed.  When I called the front desk to report the rat I was told it was impossible that a rat could be in their establishment.  I told the front desk person it was highly possible because one just ran across my feet while I was lying in a bed in their establishment. The front desk person blew me off saying that they would send someone up in the morning to check it out.

I left the Ramada Inn Fort Lauderdale Airport three hours early the next morning.  I did not take a shower before I left.  My taxi driver told me horror stories about the hotel after I said to him as we pulled away, “If you ever have a passenger who asks where to stay for the night make damned sure you do not take them to this dive.” 

The taxi driver said, “I once had a woman who almost had to be sedated after a night there.  She was so upset that her husband canceled their cruise and they flew home that morning instead.”  On my return home I wrote to Ramada Inns and told their corporate management about the rat and the condition of the rundown room. Ramada chose not to write back to me and I have chosen not to stay in a Ramada Inn ever again.  If the choice was a Ramada Inn or sleeping on a park bench in downtown Miami, I would be camped out on the park bench and never give it a second thought.  As I left Upington and drove toward Pofadder I wondered if a park bench along the Orange River might be a wiser choice.

A screaming cat fight broke out in the courtyard of my Upington guesthouse about three o’clock in the morning.  The growling and hissing and carrying on made me wonder if the fight wasn’t between two small native wild cats and not two Morris the cats.  Grabbing my flashlight I darted out the door just in time to see both cats fleeing.  All that remained was some cat blood and a large glob of cat hair.  I hoped for massive internal injuries and returned to bed.  However it was futile to attempt sleep again.  Instead I showered and left the guest house. Driving away from my lodging I found a cat lying freshly dead in the street.  Its body hair was the same color as the glob I had just found among all of the cat blood outside my door. 

 You know you are in the Kalahari when Gemsbok dot the landscape

The road toward Pofadder traverses endless mile after mile of Kalahari Desert. Gemsbok and springbok dotted the landscape reminiscent of flocks of pronghorn antelope on a Wyoming prairie.  Grazing flocks of both species moved slowly across the desert cropping one clump of grass and then moving on to another.  I wondered what predators controlled their population.  Certainly before humans tamed the desert there were lions and leopards, and maybe a cheetah or two might enter the mix.  Now, however, things and changed and those first order predators have been eliminated.  I checked my copy of the Field Guiled to Mammals of Southern Africa and confirmed that lions and leopards and cheetah are all gone.  Even spotted hyenas and wild dogs have been eliminated from the landscape in this part of Arica.  About all that remains are the Labrador retriever sized black-backed jackal and the aardwolf both of whom could be a threat to young antelope but rarely or never an adult.  The caracal, a wild cat with Dr. Spock-like ears is the only native cat remaining that was marginally big enough to take down a young antelope.  However that was the extent of the natural predators remaining on this once pristine desert that might be able to keep antelope populations in check.

Caracal - Its like a cat hybridized with a Vulcan

Aldo Leopold in his classic tale A Sand County Almanac tells a story about the day he killed a wolf.  He was in southeastern Arizona in the very early 1900s when his group encountered a female gray wolf with a litter of half-grown pups fording a stream.  Leopold and his colleagues began firing into the group of wolves killing several of them.  At the time he thought that his actions were the right thing to do because if fewer wolves meant more deer then no wolves would mean a hunter’s paradise.  Leopold presented several other similar philosophies and concluded by lamenting the fact that later in his life he witnessed large areas where predators had been eliminated and the herbivores they preyed on increased exponentially. Eventually and ultimately the herbivores overgrazed and ruined their habitat and their populations crashed.  I am not sure how the dynamics of Kalahari Desert grasslands operate but my guess is that they do so just like natural grassland habitats in North America.  If there are no predators on gemsbok or springbok or other large grazers what will these Kalahari grasslands look like in a few more years.  I won’t be alive to see what happens but someone will be. The real question becomes will the gemsbok and the springbok also be alive.

Pofadder came nearer the longer I was on the highway. Road signs every six miles each told me every six miles that Pofadder was coming closer. When I made my reservation for the Pofadder Hotel I read a description of the town where it said that Pofadder was a “typical South African one-horse town.”  At this stage in my trip I traveled through hundreds of South African towns yet I still had not seen a single horse.  That observation also held for Pofadder.

There were a few more than twenty five or thirty people living in Pofadder.  In fact the 2001 census showed 2,923 residents.  There is little industry here other than grazing cattle and goats, working in nearby mines, managing one of the two gasoline stations in town, operating one of the stores in town, or hanging out in front of the Pofadder Hotel.  My quick assessment on arrival in Pofadder was that hanging out was the principal activity and most of it was done in front of the hotel. 

One thing there is plenty of in Pofadder is conjecture about the origin of its name. There is a traditional sausage named Pofadder made from lamb’s liver and wrapped in netvet  (Afrikaans for “just fat”) but it is highly unlikely the town was named after the sausage.  There is the highly venomous and luckily very sluggish snake called puff adder that is quite common in the desert here that many claim the town is named after.  Some also claim that Pofadder is named after a man named Klaas Pofadder.  However a consensus seems to be building that saying the town is named after Mr. Pofadder is an exercise in latter-day political correctness because no documentation appears to exist anywhere proving that the town was not named after the snake.

More people in Africa die from the bite of the highly venomous Puff Adder than from any other species of venomous snake

I once stayed in a hotel that was named after a snake, the Hotel Anaconda along the Amazon River in Leticia, Colombia.  I had never before stayed in a town named after a snake.  In my view to hell with political correctness, I want to stay in a town named for a snake.  Currently the name Pofadder is used throughout South Africa to denote a place that is far away and out of the mainstream.  Just as Timbuktu (correctly spelled Tombouctou) in Mali is widely recognized as an out of the way place around the world (“he went to Timbuktu and back looking for his glasses”) and Kalamazoo is used in the United States to denote remoteness, Pofadder is South African for remote and it is.

The Pofadder Hotel 

Edward, a local whose facial expression reminded me of former Washington Nationals outfielder Nyger Morgan the day he attacked an opposing pitcher on the mound, came running at me from across the street.  “What do you want here? What do you want here?” I wanted to get out of my car and register at the hotel but Edward’s pushiness made me a little reluctant to do so.

“What do you want here,” he bellowed at me through the driver’s side car window that was now completely and safely closed and locked.  “I want to get out of my car and register at the hotel.”

“You can’t do that? What do you want here?”

Edward continued to jabber in Afrikaans.  Exiting my car with him still bellowing “What do you want here” he followed me to the hotel entrance.  He was waiting there when I returned a few minutes later to retrieve my luggage.  He continued to pester me while I took my belongings into the hotel and would not take no for an answer.

“Oh, that’s just Edward,” the woman checking me in said.  “He’s totally harmless.  I think in England they would call him the village idiot or something like that.”

I returned to my car half an hour later when Edward was across the street chilling out in the shade of one of the many giant trees that line the streets.  He saw me and instantly was on his feet crossing the street jabbering in Afrikaans.  Having reached my limit of wanting to deal with Edward I grabbed him by his collar, pulled him to me, and screamed “What is it about no that you cannot understand?” I lifted him off the ground as I had this little chat and then I let him go. When his feet were firmly back on the ground Edward got the hint and ran off.  Some people just learn more slowly than others.

Despite the earlier dire warnings about what a horrible place the Pofadder Hotel was going to be it was not.  In fact it was very nice.  My room was spacious with high ceilings, art hanging from the walls and a television that picked up maybe twelve channels from as far away as London.  The two beds were comfortable with obviously new and firm mattresses.  The floors were clean and spotless and the maid had left a wrapped chocolate on each of the pillows.  The bathroom was large and functional with all the requisite accoutrements.  Outside my large windows was a courtyard set among several gigantic trees providing shade.  It was the perfect place to sit during the heat of the day sipping on beer and writing notes and just thinking.  The only negative about the Pofadder was that crackpot Edward waiting like a lion ready to pounce outside the front door.  I paid more than $100 US per night for the guesthouse in Upington.  In Pofadder I paid $38 US for a nicer, more spacious and quieter room.

A room at the Pofadder

A dirt road stretches north from Pofadder to Onaskeep along the Orange River on the Namibia border.  I spent the remaining daylight hours traversing the road to and from Namibia seeing only one fawn-colored lark.  The South African bird finding guide painted a rosy picture of the potential for many species of birds along this road.  The authors must have been here on a much better day.

The road to Onaskeep

A British couple living in Hong Kong with their twenty-something daughter sat at the table next to mine during dinner at the Pofadder Restaurant that evening.  “We just arrived a bit ago from Kimberley,” Nigel, the father, said.  His family had binoculars around their necks having gone directly from their car to the restaurant.  I had my binoculars sitting on the table in front of me.  I asked about Kimberley and the two highly localized bird species that can only be found there.

“Those bloody pipits,” Nigel said.  “They were a bitch to find but we found them.  We hired a guide, a cheeky black fellow, who knew exactly where the pipits like to hide.  Took us only twenty minutes and cost me eight pounds sterling but we got the birds and got them fast.”

Nigel asked about my trip to South Africa and I briefly recounted my trip.  “Have you had any problems with the black people,” he asked.

“No I have not,” I said.  “In fact the only thing I’ve really had a problem with is all the racism I hear from white people.”

Nigel either did not hear me or did not take the hint said, “We used to come often to South Africa when we lived in London. Beautiful place it was but it’s a shame what the blacks have done to this country.” 

I asked what they had done to the country. “Well they have ruined it just like they have ruined every other country in Africa.  They are lazy, violent, uneducated and all they do is sit around waiting for handouts.”

Being a little tired of this entire topic I asked Nigel, “What color is the skin of the people who provide all this aid to keep the black people lazy and waiting for handouts”?  Stumped by my question, Nigel thought about my question for a minute and then abruptly returned to his meal, now cooling on its plate, without saying another word to me.

A long and torturously bumpy road leads south from Pofadder into the remote wilderness of Bushmanland.  If South Africa has an equivalent to Australia’s Outback it’s the Bushmanland area of the Kalahari Desert.  My friends Neels and Jan were headed toward this region of Bushmanland when I met them while getting my punctured tire fixed in Calvinia. Something I read suggested that the area south of Pofadder might be productive for finding a honey badger and after wishing Nigel and his family a friendly farewell I sought out this pugnacious mammal.

Susan, a forty-something resident of Pofadder was at the hotel for dinner and asked me if I was enjoying my meal.  She then asked what I was doing after dinner.  I told her about my quest for a honey badger and with no hint or inclination of a hint from me that I wanted her along Susan said, “I really want to see a honey badger!”

She seemed genuinely interested in honey badgers and we were soon bounding along on the horrific road hoping for a nocturnal interlude with this elusive animal.  I would stop intermittently and get out of the car to listen to the desert’s silence and perhaps to hear the chortle of a honey badger.  We kept hearing nothing but silence.  An hour into our jaunt and maybe twenty miles south of Pofadder I exited the car to listen and on my return found Susan in her seat, her blouse and her bra removed as her hands were busily sliding her jeans off her ass.

“What in hell are you doing,” I asked.

“I’m just so horny and I haven’t had a strange cock in weeks.  My husband is in Cape Town until next Monday and I’m so tired of fucking black men.  I need some variety.”

“Your husband?  You never mentioned anything about a husband!”   This brought back instantaneous memories of a very similar situation on Viti Levu, Fiji twenty years earlier.  “You never asked if I had a husband so I didn’t think it mattered.”

“I didn’t ask because I thought you wanted to see a honey badger.”

Reported to be the most fearless animal on earth, Susan didn't want to see one but I certainly did

“I could care less about a fucking honey badger,” she said.  “I thought since you were so far from home that you were just as horny as I am so I thought we would take care of that.  Now let me get my pants off so we can fuck.”

There had been a time not so very long ago when I would have been all over Susan like white on rice.  However those days were long past.  “Ah, Susan, sorry but I don’t have sex with married women unless I am married to her.”

“I am just absolutely crazy horny,” she said as the bottom of her jeans slid off her feet and she laid the passenger side seat back making a little bed.

I turned the car around and returned to Pofadder.  Susan masturbated as we drove down the bumpy road.  Neither of us said a single word to each other during the hour long bumpy and dusty ride back to Pofadder.  She didn’t get laid and I didn’t see a honey badger.  I guess it was a disappointing night for both of us.

Taking a break from the gonzo travel schedule I had been under I slept late the next morning and decided to see the desert for the flowers for a change.  After a late South African breakfast I drove west to Aggeney’s and then south to the Koa Dunes.  This outlier of brick red dunes reminded me of thr red clay soil of Georgia.  Red lark, a highly localized species restricted to red colored sands like those in Koa Dunes was quickly and easily found clamoring around on the desert floor.  

Koa Dunes - note the cattle pens in the background

A large group of Namaqua sandgrouse flew to a cattle watering trough where they hurriedly gulped their one drink of the day and then flew away like children with a case of attention deficit disorder. Bradfield’s swift swooped by overhead several times raising havoc with the local insect population.  As predicted by the bird finding guide a Ludwig’s bustard erupted from the desert grasses like a phoenix rising and sped away to its hidden sanctuary.

Namaqua Sandgrouse

Bradfield's Swift

On my return to Pofadder I decided that I had driven on enough kidney-jarring utterly horrible roads so far to last me a life time.  Instead of bird watching any more that day I spent the afternoon discovering Pofadder.

I met Jolene, a twenty six year old waif at the post office. She was so tiny I thought she was in her very early teens and she surprised me when she told me her real age.  It also surprised me that she was wearing a diamond ring.  When I asked how long she had been married she flashed her left hand at me and said “oh this.”  She then told me that she was engaged.  When I congratulated her and asked when she was planning on getting married she said offhandedly “sometime next year or maybe the year after, it’s no big rush.”

I asked about her fiancé and she shrugged her shoulders saying he was “just a truck driver.”  She made him sound like he was a consolation prize not the love of her life. “South Africans get divorced all the time,” she started.  “It really wouldn’t be a big thing.”  Talk about setting the bar low enough to step over it. 

She was born in a nearby mining town and moved with her family to Pofadder when she was nine years old.  She had never been to Johannesburg or Cape Town; the furthest away she had been was two hours down the road in Upington.  Her life was like so many other black South Africans I had met – insular, isolated and in-bred.  She would likely marry her fiancé because there was nothing else to do in Pofadder. A few years from now she will have a litter of children who will live like her on a subsistence foothold.  A few years after that, she will divorce her husband and the cycle of black South Africans will begin anew.

I asked Jolene if there was much crime in Pofadder.  “Here not so much but in other places its really bad.  At least that is what I have heard.”  I asked why there was so much crime in South Africa.  “We have nothing,” she started.  “They have all the money and they own everything and they get rich while we live from day to day.  Sometimes people decide they have had enough of living like they do and they rob people.  It’s just how it works.”

I walked to the Pofadder police station and went in to ask some questions.  Three thousand people of both races live in town.  There were sixteen police officers on duty in the middle of the afternoon.  I had seen only one police truck on patrol during three days in Pofadder.  Melvin, a sergeant, said there was very little crime in Pofadder.  He said it was because nobody has anything anyone else wants to steal. 

“How many murders are there each year,” I asked.

“Oh maybe one a year or so,” he guessed off handedly.

In a population of less than 3,000 people that was a substantial murder rate, one person per year is a rate of 0.3 people per thousand or thirty people per 100,000 people.  The national average for South Africa in 2011 was almost thirty two per hundred thousand! The murder rate in this sleepy little town named after a snake where it appears that the only thing for certain that happens each day is the sun rises and then sets again, had a murder rate almost exactly the same as the remainder of the country.  The BBC recently reported that about fifty people are murdered every day throughout South Africa. By contrast the murder rate in gun-happy United States in 2010 was almost five per 100,000.

“Almost all crime in Pofadder is black on black. Things just boil over and someone pulls out a gun and shoots someone else.” Melvin then added, “The truly sad thing is that almost everyone here is related to almost everyone else here so we have family on family crime.”

I asked what could be done to slow the crime rate in South Africa and his answer was simple.  “People need jobs. If they had jobs then they would feel better about themselves. They wouldn’t want to steal from others if they had enough for themselves.”  That’s a topic the United States needs to address as the gap between the haves and the have not’s continues to widen.

I didn’t ask Melvin what kind of jobs were needed and where but one I thought of immediately would be the upgrading and paving of that horrific thing called a road, the R355 north to Calvinia.  That would keep many people working for years.

Late afternoon was spent in the court yard of the hotel under blazingly clear blue skies reading Should I Stay or Should I Go?  This series of short essays was written by various South Africans who emigrated away and then returned or who emigrated and couldn’t get far enough away.  The two recurring themes among most authors who moved away and stayed away was low paying jobs and high rates of crime.  The one theme among those who returned was the feeling of having abandoned where they belong.  Most authors heaped great praise on South Africa and on South Africans comparing the country and its residents to, say, the United States or to England or Australia or even China, and almost repeating Dorothy’s famous chant from the Wizard of Oz, “There’s no place like home.”  As I finished the book I realized that South Africa had come to feel like home.  The uncertainty and fear had left me and been replaced by a feeling of familiarity.  And no place in South Africa felt more like home than Pofadder.  I began giving serious thought to the title of that book I had been reading – should I leave or should I go?

I didn't see a single horse in this "one horse" town

Despite the dire warnings of this guesthouse owner in Upington this “one-horse town” in the Kalahari that has no horses seemed like no other I had experienced.  I went to bed that night profoundly sad that I had to leave and probably would never return to Pofadder, a dusty little town named after a snake that suddenly had more appeal than any other place I had been.   I need to email that guesthouse owner in Upington and tell her she was completely wrong. 


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  4. What a great account of the Northern Cape. I lived in Pofadder for 2 or so years back in the late 80's. Technically the town was named after a Bushman bandit who was named after a snake. The hotel saw many beers consumed by myself and fellow geologists. Great to see it is still there.