Trip to South Africa
July 1-20, 2002
Our trip to South Africa was taken after attending a FUSION conference in Helsinki. We literally traveled from the top to the bottom of the world. This was actually our second visit to South Africa, the first being almost thirty years ago in 1973. A lot has changed.
Tues, July 2 - After arriving in Joburg, we stayed with our long-time friends, J&H. Thanks to Enron, WorldCom and other greedy companies, we found out the USD had dropped 12% to ten ZAR to the USD. :-( During our first day, we made our way to the Apartheid Museum and spent more than two hours following the story of the rise and eventual demise of this crazy institution, apartheid. In the evening we saw Footprints at a nearby casino, a terrific show which depicted the story of South Africa in song and dance. It was very professional and quite enjoyable.
Wed July 3 - The next morning we were up early to drive west of Joburg to see the Cradle of Humankind, a recently approved World Heritage Site. J has been doing some of the legal work for the new site and arranged for our own personal tour. Mandy, our guide, was a paleontologist who's been working at the Sterkfontein site for nine years. She was very knowledgeable and gave a long and detailed story of the search for hominids in South Africa. We saw where the original Australopithecus Plesianthropus (nicknamed Mrs Ples by the local press at the time) was found. This area is so rich with early paleontology finds! Later we visited a nearby dig, Zwarkrans, where I stood where the first known man-made fire has been found. Lunch was at the nearby botanical gardens which have a very wide variety of plants found all over South Africa.
Thurs - July 4 - Up early again to pack the cars for a four hour drive to the Madikwe Game Preserve, near Botswanna. J&H are partial owners in the Tamboti Lodge and have two weeks a year in the game preserve. The lodge has facilities for ten, so the six of us were joined by other family and South African friends. We arrived about noon, fed ourselves and had to immediately prepare for the first trip game watching with Jaacko, the lodge's guide.
July 4-10, at Tamboti Lodge - Our separate sleeping quarters were very nice, affording each couple their own separate grand view of the bush. The main lodge had a large kitchen, indoor and outdoor dining tables and plenty of comfortable chairs in which to relax. The common room deck overlooked a small water hole and we often able to sit in comfort watching animals visit the water hole. This place was just wonderful!
Each day started with a game watching trip at dawn (6:30AM) and then another trip out in the late afternoon, into the evening. Each trip took about four hours. We drove around in a huge Land Rover which afforded each a clear view, as well as exposing us to a bone chilling breeze when the sun was not around. Jaacko was clearly very knowledgeable, easily identifying animals and birds. Since the group included several birders, we spent quite a bit of time checking out the birds, but no fear, there was plenty of game to see. Over the six days we saw:
South Africa Without Apartheid
One of the strongest memories we had of our first visit here in 1973 was an incident with the young black janitor in J&H's apartment building. We came down the hall and he plastered himself to the wall, and mumbled "I'm sorry". Another incident involved queuing in a line at the bank where the line parted so I could move to the front. Both incidences led to long conversations with J&H to understand what was going on. We were embarrassed, humiliated and outraged with our special treatment.
What a contrast the South Africa of today is! We had lots of interactions with blacks in many roles and there was, thankfully, not the slightest hint of the behavior we observed in the past. In our very limited experience here, the blacks and whites mix much as we do in the US. I'm sure there is still plenty of racism around, but the change from apartheid to today is amazing, as well as gratifying to see.
The country has a long way to go and there are enormous problems of AIDs, poverty, joblessness, housing and a host of other things. We were amazed and encouraged at the changes in society. Somehow South Africa managed a transition of power without the enormous problems seen in Zimbabwe and numerous other countries which have seen large changes in the past decade or so. President Bothe and Nelson Mandella somehow pulled off of a miracle, a refrain we heard repeated many times.
Barareng Primary School, Atteridge (near Pretoria)
H has been doing some work with this school and Paulina, the principal who almost single-handedly has worked a miracle in this town. Barareng services mostly children from a nearby squatter's camp - where parents are so poor, they cannot afford the tiny annual school fee of ZAR 50 (5 USD).
Paulina is most extraordinary woman who has received all sorts of awards for her garden project which now has grown and now provides a warm meal for the children (often the only meal they get). The garden project was conceived when she realized many of the children were simple too hungry to do well in school. We heard stories of her perseverance and successes. The most recent success has been to convince the Japanese Embassy to build three new classrooms and a media center. Now she must convince the local school authorities to provide furniture.
As impressive as Paulina and her accomplishments were, we were told that she is hardly unique in South Africa. All over the country there are examples of men and women who overcome the most amazing situations to improve the lot of people around them. It makes on hopeful for the future of South Africa.
SecurityWe've all heard stories of how the crime in South Africa is so high - perhaps the worst of any large city in the world. We were not in Joburg very much, and of course, we were sheltered by our friends. All houses all have electronic security measures (motion detectors, alarms etc.) As we drove around our neighborhood, we saw almost no whites on the streets - no children playing outside or at parks. All the houses are walled, but at first this did not seem so strange.
After all, in many places (think of California) you'll see every yard fenced, but there is a difference here. Soon I noticed the barbed wire and electric wires on the tops of the walls. This is not privacy, but rather serious security. Every drive has an electronic gate and seemingly every middle class person can tell a personal story of robbery or worse.
Later we flew to Port Elizabeth in southeastern coast of South Africa on the Indian Ocean. One of the first things I noticed there, was the lack of walls. Sure, there was still plenty of security, but by comparison with Joburg, this was nothing. As we drove west towards Cape Town, we stopped in several smaller communities and were told it was safe to walk around town (which we did). We never felt threatened in any way.
So, security is a serious issue in South Africa, but hardly all over. Large towns are certainly less secure (Joburg clearly the worst in this regard), but there are still places which are reasonably safe. In a discussion with an older black woman, she said "In some ways the old times were better. At least I was safe then."
Certainly a large factor here is the vast disparity in wealth between almost all whites and most blacks. There is a growing middle class of blacks and you will see them today in places which would have been impossible ten years ago. For most of South Africa, the greatest barrier these days is economic and no longer legal.
South Africa, On Our Own
After the game watching, we flew to Port Elizabeth to meet friends who have retired and are living in a small town on the coast. Here again, we saw another South Africa - rural dairy land, not unlike the midwest we've known all our lives. We visited the nearby Woody Cape Reserve which has some of the largest mobile dunes in the world. This entire area is very popular in the summer for two months of the year, but is relatively empty the rest of the time. The beaches are large, empty and a delight.
The last week we were completely on our own, taking a rental car and driving from Port Elizabeth to Capetown. The weather began as wonderful as you could want, sunny and clear. A storm system started at the Cape and moved east towards and eventually past us. First we drove north to the Karoo, a large semi-arid area in the south middle of the country where a large merino sheep industry dominates. At Graaf-Reinet we visited the nearby Desolation Valley which afforded great views of the town and Karoo. A few days later after we left, the area north of here was blanketed with snow!
We dropped south again and headed along the coast to Tsitsikamma National Park which has dramatic canyons and great views mountains to the north and ocean to the south. It is in this area where the Indian and Atlantic oceans actually "meet" to provide pretty turbulent seas. An extremely impressive area is Storm River Mouth in the park which has miles of the most impressive waves we've ever seen. Since it was the off season, we were able to get one of the cabins right at the edge of the surf. The pictures only hint at the scale of the waves and power we felt.
The low front from the Cape came through and it made for even colder temperatures (low 40s F), high winds and thundering surf. It was awe inspiring and while pretty in its own way, also very cold. We put on just about all the clothes we had along and slept in them with all the covers we could find. Laying in bed that night, we could hear the ocean pounding. Surprisingly it was not constant, sometimes quieting to a mere roar, and then you could hear it build and build as the waves pounded into shore and the cabin shuttered every so slightly. Very, very impressive!
With the bad weather leaving, we continued west, staying in a couple of small towns in the Cape wine country. Being winter, the vineyards were very quiet, but the land was splendid. We skirted the mountains to the north and drove into the little town of Franschhoek which must be in one of the prettiest settings anyway. Our last night was in nearby Stellenbosch and then a quick trip to Capetown to catch our flight home.
South Africa is a wonderful place to visit. It's a gorgeous place of many natural wonders and is amazingly inexpensive. In one restaurant we had very nice fresh fish meals for four of us, including a bottle of wine and a several beers for ZAR 260 (26 USD). The people were uniformly friendly and open and we felt very welcome. It's a long way to South Africa from the US, but well worth the trip.