By Myrtle Ryan
Durban - Nature-lovers Charles and Julia Botha, well known for their books Bring Nature Back to your Garden and Bring Butterflies Back to your Garden, are avid travellers.
On returning from their adventures, Charles often gives talks as fund-raisers for societies devoted to the well-being of nature. Before one such recent evening – a talk on their travels in Laos and Cambodia, held in support of the Botanical Education Trust – there was time for a brief interview.
Their focus during their travels, said Charles, is not just on wildlife and nature, but also to gain some insight into the lives of the people. China – where they spent about four-and-a-half weeks – is their favourite destination in the East because its diversity and sheer size offers endless scope.
The couple are not partial to guided tours but, as they do a lot of research in advance, no time is wasted. Even so, they feel they have only brushed the surface.
Coming from crime-ridden South Africa, inevitably I wanted to know if they had had any encounters of the unpleasant kind. “Being mugged in Prague,” said Julia, “soon after the Berlin Wall came down. They sprayed something in my face and stole my moonbag containing our passports.”
Scathingly, Charles said their police had not been the brightest. He felt that as there had been no real crime during the communist era, the police were not equipped to deal with such incidents.
“It was like something from a film festival horror movie.”
It took from after lunch until 11pm to get a police statement so that they could claim from their insurance company.
By comparison, the South African Police were infinitely better, said Charles.
However, it is not the unpleasant which remains fixed in the traveller’s mind, but rather the encounters with a difference. In this regard, the Bothas recall staying in the 1 200-year-old village of Pinyao in China, in a traditional-style hotel.
“The beds were slightly raised off the ground, hard and spartan,” said Charles.
They found the Chinese food very different from that served in Chinese restaurants in South Africa, where the emphasis is on Hong Kong-style cooking. “I was not a fan of noodles before I visited mainland China,” said Charles, “but now I love them.”
They both recall the pavement stalls with delicacies such as scorpions and starfish on sticks. Not that they tried the scorpions. “Evenings on the street were like a huge braai,” they said.
They said they had travelled from Dalian in north-east China, as far as Guilin in the south, and Datong, in Inner Mongolia, usually spending three to four days in a place.
“China is still a police state, so tourists feel safe, even when using the subways. The security is so tight, it is difficult to carry even a nail file on trains, and serious crime is harshly punished,” said Charles.
Ordinary overnight trains were diabolical, but the fast trains between big cities were excellent.
“When we used them, they reached speeds of up to 370km/h, but this has now been reduced after a recent accident.”
Of course, all is not perfect. If the Bothas have to point a finger, it is to the unpleasant habit the Chinese have of spitting, the mess they leave on tables after eating, and burping while talking (an acceptable custom of expressing appreciation).
The law of allowing only one child per couple means Chinese children are often spoiled rotten, with the worst behaviour indulged. Public toilets were also horrific, although those in some big tourist spots were well kept.
Citizens, they said, can only own a flat or house for 70 years, after which it reverts to the state and so cannot be handed down through the generations.
Of Vietnam, they said one of the most difficult places to reach had been the Perfume Pagoda, about 60km from Hanoi.
Unless one joined a tour, it required travel by bus, boat and a cableway. If you didn’t use the cableway, it entailed a long walk.
Cambodia, too, proved fascinating. Drawing comparisons with its wealthier neighbour, Vietnam, Charles spoke about the difference in the border post facilities between the two.
“On the river, you literally walk the plank – a narrow plank walkway – into Cambodia, whereas Vietnam has a modern building.”
Corruption in Cambodia, he felt, made South African officials seem honest, and while we bewail the state of education in this country, in Cambodia at least a tenth of the children never get any schooling and many get only about three years of formal education.
Skinned frogs, a local delicacy, are also on sale in the supermarkets; weddings do not have the bride in a frothy white gown, but a colourful outfit with fancy pants – which are tight on the lower leg and balloon out with many pleats around the thigh and bottom.
Cambodia, he feels, is the litter capital of the world. While leaves are neatly raked together, garbage virtually bubbles and ferments in the street.
In the villages, some people sleep above their late grandparents because the house is on stilts with the burial grounds underneath.
Even the animals are often housed in small structures on stilts to protect them from floods.
For the Bothas, the temples of Angkor, many of which are surrounded by jungle, are a highlight of a visit to Cambodia, while some of the Killing Fields memorials are moving.
Closer to home, their favourite destination is Botswana’s Okavango Delta. “There is nothing else in the world like it. Only the Pantanal in Brazil can compare with it,” said Charles.