South Africa: Not for the Faint Hearted

In the Southern Hemisphere Autumn of 2018, I took a trip to the motherland of my lovely partner.  Such beauty, diversity and intrigue inspired me to finally write.  What better way to start a blog than with my first trip to the alluring African Continent?

We wind our way through Pretoria, Cape Town, Franschhoek, Hermanus, Wilderness and Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe.  Travel blog posts will be complete with a sprinkling of some more practical tips for those looking pre-trip and of course, ideas for a “capsule wardrobe” for an Autumn South African getaway. 

Arrival

The heavy scent of humid air and red soil hits the nostrils as the exit doors slide open from Terminal A of Johannesburg international airport. We are greeted by the chaos of traffic horns and those scouting for any kind of work that will gain a few rand out of fumbling, jet lagged tourists.

“Hello, my friend. You need a taxi, my friend?”, “ can I help you with your bags, my friend?”.

“No thank you, my friend, sharp, sharp!” (I come to know “sharp, sharp,” as the Black African version for what Kiwi’s would say was, “all good”).

The locals I am with know the game, and thank goodness for that. There is a certain lingo that is used around each different main ethnic group in South Africa – White English South African, White Afrikaaners, Coloured and Black Africans, with the latter accounting for around 80% of the nation’s population. I still really struggle with such blatant separate ethic identification and I cringe even as I name these groups on paper, largely defined and grouped by skin colour. No where else in the world have I identified people in this manner. At home in New Zealand, we are generally sensitive to our use of ethnic identification, race, sexual orientation and even gender identification. To point out such groups by skin colour would especially be scant disregard for etiquette or even racist. But in South Africa this is the norm and simply a way of characterising the main groups of people living in cohesion, with one thing all in common – they are all “South Africans”. How beautifully diverse.

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On the drive going North from the airport towards my Partner’s family home in Centurion, Pretoria, I am already experiencing the new and different. Sunkissed skin walks on the side of heavy motorways in peak hour traffic, slow-paced and thin. We drive past what the locals call squatter camps or what I know to be slums. Kilometers of corrugated iron, brick and then satellite dishes, sprinkled like icing sugar on top, cover the warm bodies of thousands of black locals and immigrants from countries further North within the African continent.

Despite expectations, at that moment I realise (the very obvious). We are in Africa. The poverty, the outcome of government corruption and the ongoing determination to live regardless of these aspects becomes immediately apparent. The tin sheds, street walkers, and the people begging or selling anything they can at each set of traffic lights (or “robots” as I came to know them by local lingo) tug at my heart-strings. I feel a sense of sadness and utter hopelessness, but I also wonder if pity is only judgement around here.

The beautifully made-up white woman next to me kindly helps to explain the cluster of tin sheds and satellite dishes to my left. A vast untitled piece of junk land thousands call home. She uses the word “they” a lot as a what I consider to be an unemotional generalisation. “They” are lazy and wont save for real homes. “They” spend all their money on alcohol and drugs. “They” spread aids and diseases. And even, “they” live like animals.

I nod my head as a sign of understanding but I keep my questioning and thoughts on her opinion to myself. For she is the one who has lived in South Africa and I know she has had some unfortunate experiences, heard horrific stories and has formed her opinions as such. It is apparent to me now that, for some, skepticism and judgement still divide skin colour here.

Following a rather thought-provoking introduction, the warmth of the people I meet and the beauty of the surroundings in South Africa become more prevalent to me than any of the more damming realities. I have never seen a horizon so far and deep across shallow rolling hills as I have in the Pretoria area. They don’t sing about African sunsets for nothing! My Partner describes the colours of the South African scenery as “desaturated” and now I can appreciate his description. Coming from New Zealand, all bush, water and vibrant colours, it seems as if i am looking through the lens of a camera with a filter that takes the colour out – no Instagram filter needed here.

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The Cape: Cape Town, Franschhoek, East Coast and Wilderness

Capetonians ooze coolness, friendliness and a real sense of “ristagh” (meaning relaxed in Afrikaans, I like that one). We visit at a time the city is in a critical water crisis following four years and counting of ongoing drought. It hasn’t rained enough to adequate fill water dam reserves for four years and the government has been slow to act to provide alternative sources of drinkable sanitary liquid gold. A new leader of the African National Party brings new promise of investment in infrastuture and anti-corruption regulation, yet he startled global media readers in February 2018 when he announced plans for the Government to take land from “Whites” without payment, or “expropriation without compensation”.  A move that gutted Zimbabwe’s economy 30 years earlier.

I came to observe the almost apathetic way Capetonians simply carried on living life.  No one I spoke to there really took Government seriously, read the newspaper or listened to the news.  To bury one’s head in the sand, so to speak, is dangerous.  But in South Africa, what’s the point, some might ask?  Why engage in something that upsets you? So they carry on.  Streets buzzing, people dancing and playing music, flocking to watering holes of new stylish coffee joints in the day and to bars selling the latest craft beer creation at sundown and beyond.  As we join our Capetonian friends and, for a very short time, mould into the culture of the Cape, covered in an ineluctable layer of dust from drought, I test my own thinking on a certain way of, well, distatchment.

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We are lucky enough to stay at a delectable Dutch-colonial style AirBnB (my go-to travel accomodation platform) in the coolest and stunning suburb of Vredehoek.  Located at the base of Table Mountain (or “Tafel Berg” in Afrikaans), we soak into our surroundings, so different from North of the country we had just come from.  Webs of narrow, steep streets boast Dutch-colonial style architecture, cafes appealing to kale-munching hipsters and boutique bars.  As a Wellingtonain, I am in heaven.  Heaven with a twist.

Like most of South Africa, you will still observe poverty in Cape Town on scales unprecedented from where I am from, and you still need to keep your wits about you when walking down the street. I think this is largely a matter of common sense though, keep your phone in your bag or pocket, put your bag in between your feet at cafes, take Ubers instead of walking after sun down (for us, it was an extremely cheap and safe way of getting around at night), and avoid the city centre. I should note that I feel saddened by the prevalence of poverty and desperation during our trip, but instead of feeling frustration or judgement for the vast and blatant wealth gaps I try to remain the quiet observer, as I imagine all seasoned travelers might.

Moving onto Frannschoek, the small wine region an hours’ drive from Cape Town, the little town is more boutique than Stellenbosch down the road, and there is a sense here of peace, humility and community.  The town boasts a gorgeous Main Street, surrounded in vineyards to the South and Mountains to the North, and a delightful local Saturday morning market (I like to buy gifts and trinkets locally when I can to support ethical, sustainable products and local crafters). We visit local vineyards via the WineTram and experience the delicious result of grapes ripened under the roaring South African sun.  This was a day that of course, ended too quickly.  Our AirBnb host here was lovely – he had lived around the world but was always drawn back to South Africa.  I like the way he concluded his positive description of his home country, “…but it’s not for the faint hearted”.

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Throughout the reamainder of our time in the Cape, I am overwhelmed by its beauty and excited by all the amimals we spot during driving!  As we approach the Garden Route, which unfortunately we did not have enough time to delve very deeply into, the scenery becomes more green from golden and the dense bush and rivers flowing near the sea start to look more familiar to me, more like New Zealand.

In Wilderness we were lucky enough to stay in an Eco Cabin, hand built by its beautiful owners who ensured the cabin merged with the forest outside.  Highlights include bush walking the Circles in the Forest track and spending an afternoon at Buffels Beach.  The beauty of this part of the Cape wouldn’t be the same without it’s people though.  My partner’s Godmother hosted us during our visit.  After having a successful career in IT she decided to live off the grid and relies on solar power and rain water for all her necessities, feeding off only her garden when she can.  My partner’s Godmother and his family are truely some of the most beautiful humans – inside and out – I have ever met.  I think this is a testament to the warmth of the South Afrikan or Afrikaans culture.

Zimababwe

For some reason I had imagined Zimbabwe would almost be miles of golden, dry lengths of land, with lions roaming around in packs and on killing sprees like we see on National Geographic.  Perhaps I had, admittedly, generalised an entire continent to a single idea.  Well, I guess that’s why we travel, right?  To prove ourselves wrong.

We stayed in a family-run game lodge near Victoria Falls, nestled amoung lush greenery, bird and animal life, and a wide, lazy flowing river. For a week, we have literally nothing to do but relax.  Safari at sundown, swim in the pool, say “goeie more” to the resident hippopotamus and crocodiles in the morning, paint and “kuier” with family.  Not being able to go outside a small fenced off perimiter for fear of being the lion’s dinner was hard for a busy-body like myself at first. I have to confess I quite quickly became accustomed to this way of life though.  I will simply let pictures speak to this part.

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Africa, we will return to go further, and deeper on our next adventure.