'How many virgins can we find by six o'clock?'

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Indy Lifestyle Online
Justin Cartwright's British passport holds dozens of stamps for South Africa. He was born in Cape Town and lived there until the age of 19, when he came to England to go to Oxford.

Since 1994 he has been back six times to research his latest book Not Yet Home, which is billed as a travel book, a cultural grand tour, and a personal memoir of South Africa in the three years since the inauguration of President Nelson Mandela.

Cartwright attended the Rugby World Cup, witnessed the Truth Commission, interviewed Bishop Desmond Tutu - and saw something called the Venda Python Dance. "Up in the north of the Transvaal, the Venda, who are relatively traditional people, perform this extraordinary dance," explains Cartwright. "A lot of near-naked girls dance glued together in a tight conga like a python for hours and hours. A cultural group we met performed it for us first, but we wanted to film it for a BBC documentary and needed to see the real thing. I found myself shouting: 'How many virgins can we find by six o'clock?' Then we heard of a dance going on, talked to the chief and for a small sum of money we were allowed to watch."

Cartwright takes his research seriously. Before writing his novel Masai Dreaming in 1993, he stayed with the Masai. Masai country follows the Rift Valley through Kenya to the plains of Tanzania.

"We walked a lot looking for goats, and hung out," says Cartwright. "I didn't try Masai food, though - they live on blood, milk, and maize meal. They put an arrow in the veins of one of their cows, draw blood, and drink it. I have to be honest, I had a guide, a tent and my own food."

Cartwright is currently working on a novel about Thomas Jefferson and native American indians. Last October he went to the Chippewa Indian Reserve in Michigan. "It's not quite as exciting as one might imagine," Cartwright recalls. "They live in trailers and there are few pure bred Indians in Michigan. The only obviously Indian thing that I saw were little pairs of moccasins in the cemetery, placed beside the spirit houses, which look like small dog kennels and mark the graves."

Cartwright's researches have taken him to many interesting destinations, but the one place he has never been and would love to go is South America. One wonders if he feels a novel coming on ...

'Not Yet Home: A South African Journey' is published in paperback by Fourth Estate, price pounds 6.99.