Friday, June 28
The trip was quite comfortable and the 15 hours on the plane were not too bad. But I did not sleep for more than maybe three hours and after a total of 19 hours of plane traveling (with a change in Johannesburg) I arrived utterly washed out.
We are staying in a charming B&B-in the Bo-Kaap neighborhood of Cape Town. A two story little house with a kitchen, a common space and three rooms. All very modern and in good taste, recently renovated. We are alone here. The owner, a handsome Canadian transplant to S.A., has 4 of these B&Bs. After a nap we investigate the city. The first thing I notice in this city is a light traffic and very pure air. Later we learn that this is owing to the wind pattern: the wind blows mostly from behind the Table Mountain, deposits its moisture there as clouds, than descends to the valley much drier and blows the city pollution toward to ocean
The sun moving from right to left, traffic on the left side, and the bath water drains into the pipe in a counterclockwise swirl. All screwed up.
One end of our street is a mountain, the other is downtown. Bo-Kaap means ‘high cape’, as it is located at the foot of a mountain. Our neighborhood known for its colorful houses. The story goes that this is where freed slaves lived. They celebrated their freedom by paining the houses in cheerful paste colors. We pass few inviting cafes, furnished in the Victorian style. Smiling faces of the waiters. A sense of no rush. Short distances, no particular architecture: modern ugly, modern nice, Victorian, art deco, blocks, all together. A slow coffee outdoors watching a street market closing down. We are taking it in. At six we go to Marco’s African restaurant recommended by the proprietor. Huge, very popular. Quiet atmosphere despite many people. We eat meat: ox tongue for me, a sampler of ostrich, gazelle, antelope for Philip. Ostrich the most flavorful and gamy, gazelle the most tender. Nice evening despite my profound tiredness. At 8 live music starts; rather bland, we do not stay. We take a quiet side street home. A mix of complete decay and gentrification. Empty lots, nice facades, ruins, altogether. A couple stops us to tell us not to walk on such quite streets at night. There is a lot fear here, which of course leads to more crime as streets are deserted at night. I leave my rings in the room at night.
Saturday, June 29
Sleep deeply and long, wake up to a brilliant cool sunny day. We make our own breakfast from the well-stocked refrigerator and pantry. The other occupants who arrived late at night are gone, the place is all ours. Philip has already planned the day for us: the Red Bus City Sites that circles all the interesting sites, which we can embark and disembark as many times as we want. The main attraction is the Table Mountain, which we reach by cable car. Prices are very accessible here. From the top of the mountain we can see the stunning topography of the city. The guides talk a lot about winds here; having an address that is shielded from the wind is a great asset. On this clear brilliant day we can see the Atlantic, but only the barest indication of Cape of Good Hope. The side of the mountain facing the city is covered with flowers. The imported Italian pine trees dot the ridge of the hills. For some reason I think about the Pines of Rome composition by Respigi.
A nice coffee at the foot of the cable car. Smiling friendly service everywhere. We continue the sightseeing ride along the shore. It is really very beautiful here: the beaches are a mix of white sand and big rocks like on the North shore of Boston. All the beaches are accessible to the public. Playgrounds, picnic areas dot the line of beaches. Across the road some of the most expensive real estate in the world. Tightly packed brilliant white villas climb up the hill. From their terraces the see the beach, the bay framed by mountains, and residents of the city: all kinds of people.
It is already 2:30 by the time we get to off at our next major destination: the Harbor. We find a perfect place to relax over lunch. An outdoor restaurant shielded from the bright sun by rows and rows of overhead solar panels. We sit in deep soft couches outdoor, watching hydroponic lettuce and other greens growing from the openings in the vertical tubular metal frames. I have never seen anything like that. Tired to the bone by yesterday’s travel and the jetlag, I briefly lie down on the couch before they bring the food. What a great place to be. Without rush we have a very slow lunch, then we start wandering through the area. First take a wrong turn, which costs us half an hour of walking, then we enter the old harbor. Parts of it are like Coney Island: and amusement park, shops, restaurants, festive atmosphere. Very pretty low buildings, benches, ferries, lots of moored ships and sailing boats. This is Saturday afternoon on a nice winter day and everybody is out. We do a little window shopping without much interest.
The atmosphere is festive around us, except that I have had more than enough for the first day. It is 5 pm and suddenly I am completely out of energy. A meltdown. We take a taxi home. Again, we are alone in our B&B. A cup of tea and a nap. Check the TV: only two news channels available, both in a language we do not recognize. The guidebook says that there are four main official languages: Afrikaans, English, Zulu and some other African language. I wonder how many people actually speak all four of them. Obama is visiting S.A. I follow the sign langue person to follow the news, not very effectively.
Late light vegetarian dinner in the Indian restaurant across the street. Half of the patrons are the local muslins. This is a Muslim neighborhood with several mosques. A quiet evening indoors, writing, reading, Philip reports on the news around the world, reading from his tablet, while I write the journal.
24 hours after our arrival at Rose lodge we feel already at home here. The lodge is actually a street-level apartment with 3 rooms; a shared kitchen, and private bathrooms, in one of these bright colored (yellow) ex-slave houses (the slaves were not allowed to paint their houses, so they painted them when freed). Yesterday afternoon we arrived after 15+ hours flight from NYC; after a quick visit to Halina’s mother in NY; after an awful busride from Newton (5.5h). I had a few agonizing moments when I could not leave the lodge; but was saved by the next renter. The houses here are protected by double iron fences, in addition to the usual locks. My first walk was through this little street with colored houses and 2-3 mosques; and then to the city center, where I could buy a necessary electricity adaptor. Back in the hotel Halina looked revived and refreshed; we took another walk downtown which ended at Marco’s African restaurant, a very nice and colored place with (later) live music. The neighborhood was supposed to be safe at night although people were warning us when we walked home.
Today (Saturday) we made our own breakfast; and walked to the red bus; recommended by Brian, our host. This hop on-hop off bus was a bargain ($15 pp). We got a nice city tour on the open roof, and the bus brought us eventually to the foot of the Table Mountain; where we took the gondola to the top. The views from the rotating gondola and the table top were spectacular; and we made a nice walk around the table top watching the “dassies” (a sort of rodent) and with spectacular views over the town, the harbor, Robben Island, and the Atlantic Ocean, with a bright sun shining in the north. (while I write this at 6 pm, the muezzins from multiple mosques are calling us to prayer).
Down again we took coffee, then made a great tour by bus along the sea side, with upscale neighborhoods and hotels, beaches, and rocks. The skies are very clear due to winds that are cooled down over the table mountain, and then blow the smog away over the city. We ended up near the harbor; after a beautiful harbor walk which became a dead end, we finally made it to the nicely redeveloped harbor area near the clock tower and the place where the ferries to Robben island start. Our belated lunch (after 3 pm was at a sort of urban farm restaurant, with hydroponic lettuce growing along the outdoor terrace, and we being shaded by rows and rows of solar panels. The food was excellent: boerenwors (farmers sausage) for me and a chicken hamburger for Halina; with a metropolitan as a starter. We lingered at the terrace, walked around the harbor which became more and more like Coney Island, but with nice life S. African music here and there. Halina however still fights her jetlag so we needed a taxi home.
Sunday, June 30
Our plan is to visit the Jewish museum, then pick up the rented car and go to Cape of Good Hope, and at noon drive toward Stellenbosch.
It is a bright sunny and chilly morning. The black tile floors in our B&B, designed for summer weather, get very cold at night. We walk toward the Jewish museum through the cultural-political center of the city: the National Library, Parliament, and the National Gallery. All located in a large and lovely park. On this Sunday morning there are very few people here, in fact the entire city seems asleep. The trees here, most of which I do not recognize, are in veracious stages of winter existence. Some have lost their leaves, others are full of them, others yet are half way in between. That, and the thriving-looking palm trees create a counterintuitive image that confuses our New England-trained minds. Jewish Museum is part of a complex of structures, including a synagogue, a cultural center, a holocaust memorial, a café, a library, and a building looking like a school. All well taken care of and very much alive on this Sunday morning. At the synagogue entrance a man in a yarmulke, somewhat older than Philip, greets us and takes us on a tour of the synagogue. It is one of the most beautiful synagogues I have ever visited: its perfect proportions, the warm wood, the stained glass windows, and the size (for a few hundred people) all fit together perfectly. The man, Saul something or other, turns out to be a very articulate, knowledgeable and well-connected person who quickly engages with Philip in a long conversation about the history of apartheid and its demise. Saul knew personally some of the key players in that story, including the Minister of Police and others, and is a great story teller. This is Philip’s topic, and I listen mostly silently. By the time we finish the conversation I have not satisfied my curiosity about the present lives of the Jewish community in South Africa, but we have been talking for what feels like almost an hour, so it is time to move on. Sol’s daughter lives in Swampscott on the Boston’s North Shore, so we exchange addresses for the future.
The Jewish museum is a modern beautiful building, with a permanent exhibit of immigration of European Jews to S.A. I check the passenger lists of the ships arriving between 1890s and 1930, but find no Szejnwalds or Szymszewicz’s. We skip the holocaust memorial. Have tea and muffin at the outdoor café, and head back. By the time we get back to the B&B to pick up my passport and Amex card and then make it to the car rental office (all within a few city blocks) it is ten past one in the afternoon and the office is closed for the day. Very luckily, Philip has a phone number of the manager, and the number turns out to be his private cell phone. He tells us that in 20 minutes he will be there to open the office. The next 20 minutes we sit on a little stone ledge of the building on a deserted street. Occasionally, someone passes but otherwise this street and all others we can see are empty. A security man hovers from time to time, clearly keeping an eye on us. There are many of these men on the streets of Cape Town, armed and carrying a sign Public Safety on their green phosphorescent vests.
The car rental guy come as promised, the transaction gets completed; we drive back to the B&B, load the luggage and go. By now it is 2 o’clock. Our car is the smallest Chevy they probably build, just enough for the luggage and us, and to get us from here to there. Driving on the left side, with a clutch on the wrong side, is a challenge, but Philip gets the hang of it rather quickly. He is really a man for traveling.
The way out of the city is through the same coastal road we travelled yesterday on the Red Bus. This city is really spectacular. As Sol told us about Cape Town: you do not need to be rich to live a good life here. Access to beauty is for all to enjoy and the size of the city makes mobility widely accessible. We head south toward Cape of Good Hope but it is clear that we cannot make that destination today. We drive about a third of the distance south, then cross the narrow peninsula eastward and head toward Stellenbosch. Most of the time the road is cut into the mountain cliff overlooking the see. The views are spectacular, some of the best of this type of views anywhere. The sea here is turbulent and it is easy to see why over the centuries there have been so many ship wrecks. When the Portuguese sailor Barthomew Diaz, a comrade of Vasco Di Gama first discovered Cape of Good Hope in 1488, he gave it a name Cape of Storms. It is unclear why the name changed. These are historic places. Di Gama discovered in 1498 this shipping route to India and Far East (six years after Columbus set out to find India by going west).
At some point the road leaves the coast and enter a different landscape of white dunes and low grasses, very reminiscent of Provincelands on the Cape. Except that there are these dramatic tall mountains framing half of the horizon. The road is almost empty. We stop in Fish Hook for a very late lunch at around 3:30 at an outdoor beach restaurant. The food turns out to be overprized fast food, not so great, and the road through the town is congested, at snail pace.
Back on the road, at some point we pass Khayelitsa. Philip knows the name as the great township slum from the apartheid days, the Cape Town’s equivalent of Soweto in Johannesburg. We saw such slums in Rio – the favelas – but this is closer to us and bigger. It is situated right along the road, surrounded by chain-link fence, and on this flat land it reaches as far as the eye can see. Huge, its population is in the millions. It is the worst kind of a prison: so close to the prosperity of Cape Town but totally without a connection to it: no transportation, no visible places to earn a living, no plumbing, no electricity. We see some electric wires hanging over this squatting city, most likely steeling electricity from street lights, but no other sings of modernity. It is hard to imagine that twenty years of the post-apartheid this place still exists. It is really shocking. We need to ask the locals more about this place and its inhabitants.
We arrive in Stellenbosch around 6 PM, just as the daylight is rapidly disappearing. As far as we can tell, this is a small city of one and two story houses, very quiet. Our hotel is located in a fashionable center of boutiques, cafes, and art galleries. It is a very old hotel, nicely upgraded and maintained. High ceilings, fine tiles, a deep bathtub and gleaming brass bathroom fixtures. And cold interiors. These buildings here have no insulation and no central heating. There is an electric heater in our room that turns it into an oven when on, and into a fridge when off. Those are the options. Otherwise, I like this place.
We return the rented car at a nearby gas station and take a walk in the very quiet neighborhood, and chance upon an opening of a new clothing boutique. It is a party, with wine and hors d’oerves. We join, warmly invited by the small crowd. Everybody is eager to talk, the young owner, her mother, the mother’s boyfriend, and best girlfriend and her handsome husband. We get tips on where to eat and drink, where to travel. We exchange notes about New York with the mother’s boyfriend. It is really very nice to drive into this situation in a foreign city. After a while we head to a nearby café for light dinner, outdoors under heat lamps. It is all very pleasant, but I must say it does not feel at all like Africa. Rather, it feels like a university town for white kids. And since this is a school vacation period, it is quiet.
More wine, more conversation. I feel that my jet lag is finally disappearing.
Saturday evening we ended up at a small Indian restaurant across the street: very nice chicken tikka and some vegetarian meal under neon lights; but very tasty food. We had also bought some liquor at a local liquor shop which looked very much African, with lots of black guys and loud hiphop music; and a policeman guarding the door.
Sunday morning (today) we had a nice breakfast with boiled eggs; and we left the apartment for a walk to the Jewish museum. The walk was beautiful, through the city park. In the synagogue we had a long and very interesting conversation with the guardian, who told us about his personal history with Apartheid; and how he personally convinced the Justice minister Lagrange to change his mind. The rest of the compound had an interesting history of the jews of Cape town, including their roots in Lithuania; we did not have time to visit the holocaust museum; but we did have a very nice coffee in the sun.
We walked back to the hotel and then to the car rental; which we found closed. Luckily we could call the guy; who showed up about 20 minutes later. The mini car was rented and off we went, collecting our luggage, and off to Cape point. Driving left was quite a challenge; I actually lost some sleep over it the previous night; but I managed somehow. The views were breathtaking along the coast. At a stop to take some pictures I overlooked a steep curb; and fell flat; while the lens of my SRL camera rolled across the road. I was more shocked by the loss of my camera than by the gaping wound in my knee (just healed from the previous fall from my bike in Amsterdam, in May). I was able to put the camera back together; and it sort of worked with some glitches.
We could not reach Cape Point but turned halfway across the peninsula to Fish Point, where we had a downscale lunch in a family restaurant near the sea. The views were great, but the food was less than mediocre. We continued across other breathtaking landscape; one through a dune reserve similar to Provincetown, but vast, with a view of the sea and steep mountains as backdrop. We were both shocked when we drove along Khayelitsha, a huge township (1m? 2m?) people, nearly all living in shacks. None of the upscale stories about Soweto we saw here; these were heartbreaking shacks as if nothing has been changed in the last 20 years (apparently not).
Towards sunset we reached Stellenbosch; a vast area without signs. We somehow reached the center and found our hotel; which was cold but very nice. We unloaded the luggage and returned the car; then walked back. There was a group of people standing outside drinking wine; we looked and it turned out to be the opening of a boutique. Just as 13.5 years ago in P-town, we invited ourselves in, and were showered with wine, munchies, and good conversation with nice your people (and their parents). Eventually we ended up in Restaurant Java, where we enjoyed an excellent meal and good wine. In the meantime the hotel room was heated up; and Halina could take her bath and relax. We ended the evening with making plans for the coming days.
Monday, July 1
Another sunny morning. I consider each of these sunny days to be a gift, as this is a rainy, drizzly, cloudy, windy season in the southern S.A. I take it slowly this morning. Philip went to the conference at the Spier wine estate first thing in the morning, using the conference shuttle. I will do so at 2 PM. I did not register for this first day of the conference, which is mostly official speeches, and the registration cost is high. This afternoon at 3 PM there is a side event sponsored by the innovation industry in Stellenbosch. I will go to that and will meet Philip there. Otherwise, I give myself a slow morning of exercising, catching up on the journal, and exploring the neighborhood. The newspaper is full of President Obama’s visit, which brought him to Cape Town yesterday, just as we were leaving. Mandela is still hanging on to life in a Pretoria hospital, but it may not be for too much longer. They affectionally call him Mandiba or Tata Mandiba, which means father of the nation. Every day papers have op-ed articles about Mandela that read like eulogies.
Walking around the town center. Very cozy, with some old Dutch Cape architecture, thatched roofs, wavy gables. The economic engine of this city of 150,000 is the university. Depending on who you ask, it has 25,000 to 40,000 students. This is a winter break and the locals say that the town is deserted. But it does not look deserted to me: cafes are full and many of the stores do not seem to cater to students: expensive art and boutique clothes, and several real estate agencies. Clearly the real estate market is doing well. This town is a hybrid of Amherst and Paulo Alto; it could be anywhere in the world or in space, nothing that I associate with Africa. It is beautiful and it is repelling at the same time.
At 2:30 I catch a ride to the conference center in Spier Wine estate. The driver is talking the entire time. I ask him about the township slum of Khayelitsa that we passed along the way. Apparently, there are close to a million people living there. They use kerosene lamps for light and uncontrollable fires happen with regularity. The driver tells me that these people are waiting for government-provided housing, but the list is so long that it takes years and years. These slums are called euphemistically ‘informal settlements’.
I make it to the conference just in time for a coffee break and two sessions on local innovation district. The first session is five formal presentations. One is actually interesting, about Mxit a social media platform for old discarded cell phones, but the rest are atrocious. Boring, pompous, old. The guy from Harvard is the worst. The second session is interesting: five local innovators present their work, and then the audience votes. I enjoy it, especially the technological/social innovation called iShack, which involves generating solar electricity in the slums though a system of social cooperatives, etc.
The day ends with a lavish hors d’oerves session with fine local wine. I meet some old and some new faces, and the conversation is interesting. I learn from Frank Geels that Johan Schot got the job of SPRU director at Sussex University, for which I was briefly a candidate. He is truly a great choice, and only 52 years old, and there is no shame in conceding to Johan. Back in Stellenbosch we share a light late meal around the corner, with Harn from Singapore, Philip’s friend. We recently met him at dinner at Nicholas’ house in Brighton. This is our global circle of friends, colleagues and acquaintances.
Tuesday, July 2
The second day of the conference, this time I participate in the full day. Philip gives a presentation and leads a roundtable discussion on GRF. Well attended. A real discussion; the only one I experience at this conference. Most papers at this conference are not very interesting, starter papers by doctoral students. One superbly interesting plenary presentation: by an African, about Africa. Heading toward more than 50% urbanization; the middle class is growing, and so is the underclass. Seemingly unsolvable problem. I can see the MNCs licking their chops at the sight of the middle class. Stability of political system and democracy; and potentially huge new consumer society. The shopping malls are surely coming.
During lunch, Jos, Philip’s friend from long ago, shows up and attends Philip’s session. He emigrated from the Netherlands years ago when he married a S.A. woman. We will visit him on Friday for lunch. A long day, several interesting conversations with people. Thank god. Interesting professor from University of Cape Town. People around the world are pondering the same vexing questions: growing economy and consumerism, unemployment, sustainability. Philip does the business of organizing GRF. He is so very good at that. Networking is his gift. My gift in that respect is very modest. We have a meeting with a group of people at the terrace to follow up on the roundtable. I see several competing agendas, not clear if GRF will work out or not, I am not sure if they are ready for Sustainable Consumption. But definitely interesting people.
End of the day: a banquet in a huge tent. The grounds of this wine estate are very nice; woody, twinkling lights, gazebos, outdoor bar and armchairs. But it is damn cold! They distribute blankets and I wrap myself on one from my chest down to my toes. They are in denial that winter is a legitimate season. The buffet offers immense amounts of food, especially meat. What it lacks in refinement it makes up in quantities and freshness and strong smoky flavors. The conference is so amazingly international. I meet old friends from various European countries. Conversation at the table about ‘what is a dignified life” I talk about Mama in her last years of life. That is dignified. We talk about taking care of elderly (Japanese, Hong Kong, Singapore). Entertainment is very noisy. Harn, Philip and I do not want to wait for the scheduled shuttle to Stellenbosch at 10:30. I therefore go looking for a solution. I find a guy at the bar behind the tent who is willing to call his friend in Stellenbosch with a car to give us a ride. We settle on the price and 15 minutes later the guy shows up and takes us to our hotel.
Wednesday, July 3.
We are slow this morning, Philip’s business is done, I do not like to rush to breakfast at 7:30. We get to the conference after 10, just in time for one good presentation about sustainability reporting by companies. It confirms the findings of my previous research on GRI. An interesting plenary presentation by Pauli. He presents the promise of amazing technological innovations that can solve the problems of unsustainability: fuel from wild grass in Corsica, medications from some other waste, etc. But on the second look it is really the same old story of technological fixes – new materials, greater efficiency, reduced waste — and no parallel changes in social institutions and political power relations. I question this approach. Later, several people thank me for asking these questions. Summary of the conference follows: tedious, not necessary. Philip is one of the summary presenters. He ties his summary to the plenary speaker, which works out very well.
Today is warmer, brilliant sun. In the afternoon we are taken on an organized trip to the local slum. This slum is a spillover in 2006 of the big slum, over the fence. 2500 people live in the small slum. A public school right over the fence, in the big slum. Incredible poverty. Lives in shacks, trash everywhere, no paved streets, no electricity, portable toilets, trash removal and drinking water provided by the municipality (55 people per toilet; 85 per outdoor water tap). No central governance, no self-organization, which is surprising. A shack costs about $350. Some shacks are more prosperous, have cars. The university runs a student project to provide three shacks with solar electricity, aiming to expand it. It costs $10/month to rent such a solar installation, and there are 200 families on the waiting list. Another project installed a few modern toilets that use gray water and processes waste; it costs $5 per family per month to have access to such a toilet. The founding comes from Gates Foundation. It all seems like a drop in the bucket. We really do not understand why these settlements continue to grow, what the solutions are, how they function. Why there are so few food gardens in this climate of perpetual sunshine and with so much land everywhere. Even here on the slopes of this hill there could be livestock. They also have their entrepreneurial class: the guys from Somalia run the shop with fuel and engage in other commercial activities. Sometime the unrest breaks out; mobs set the Somalis’ property on fire. A little pogrom. The poorest of the poor have their Jews to resent for having a few more crumbs.
While our group keeps walking I have an interesting conversation with the tall Swede. I tell him how I improvised last night and found a guy who, for a price, came from Stellenbosch and drove us to our hotel in Stellenbosch. He was astonished about my enterprising ideas. He said that in Sweden, where all the anticipated human needs are institutionally taken care of by the state, people do not improvise in unexpected situations, don’t even think about alternative options, and are indifferent to the problems of others who did not anticipate possible difficulties that could be handled by the state. They do not feel it is their job to help fellow humans in trouble. With regard to our small dilemma of not wanting to stay at the dinner until the late, he told me that in Sweden people would not even think of looking for help from others. If I asked the guy at the bar for help in finding a ride home, I would be told: “take a taxi or a bus/train and do not bother other people with your problems or with your change of plans. Their job is to serve drinks to guest, not to look for a ride for me, and you are messing up this order.” This comment really shook me up, not because I felt criticized but because living in such a society is a scary prospect. If nobody asks for help and nobody feels obligated to offer it, then this is inhuman. Just a well-oiled machine. I wonder if this has anything to do with the high incidence of depression and suicide in Sweden.
After the tour of the slum we all go to a local club on the edge of the township. This is a show and dinner. The show is a story Club: ….Long tables, a show, music, dancing, a story of this group of artists-entrepreneurs and their struggle to survive. They are talented dancers and singers who also double up as waitresses, and probably grill our chicken wings outside. At the end of the show the entire club is dancing, not one person sits. We are having a great time, all of us! Afterwards we go back to Stellenbosch. Philip low on energy after all the conference stuff. We avoid company, have drinks in Cuban café, which is full of students, yet calm. Big armchairs, people speak softly.
Tomorrow we hit the road.
Thursday, July 4
We pick up the rented car and head for to the Cape of Good Hope with Harn on the back seat of our miniature Ford. Back on the road that brought us here three days ago, cutting between mountains on the one side and the ocean on the other. Today is a windy day. What a WIND this is! I used to think that Mongolia’s steppes were the mother of all winds, but now I begin to think that the Cape province may hold the record. No wonder people always talk about a wind here, especially in relation to real estate investments.
Harn is a native of Singapore, married to a Lithuanian woman, and a father of 8 month old twins. We met him a month ago at Nicholas Ashford’s house, whose former grad student he is. Philip has been working with him at a distance on the GRF. He shows up with an enormous suitcase, which barely fits our miniature car. I wonder what he carries in that suitcase for a one week trip to a conference in Africa and a couple of extra days of sightseeing. Harn is a very nice travel companion. He is calm, warm, easy to laugh, and has a fine sense of humor. I learn that he is a former world silver medalist in triathlon. It is a different triathlon than in the Olympics: the distances are much longer. What do you know: a slender shortish Asian man.
Our main destination is the tip of Cape of Good Hope. This is a desolate rock, reachable by cable car, with an amazing view of these treacherous waters. The ocean is very turbulent, even from this high distance I can see rocks sticking out of the water. This is where Flying Dutchman ship became a ghost. This is where Lusitania sank. During the WW II the Allies had to go around this place to deliver supplies to their armies in East Africa, and Germans stationed here a huge fleet of U-boats, shooting them like sitting ducks. I imagine Bartholomew Diaz and Vasco Da Gama discovering this place and the route to India. The wind on the top here must be somewhere around 60-70 miles an hour. I have to hold on to the banister of the stairs to steady myself.
We have lunch in a very nice restaurant overhanging the cliff (Harn treats), then head for Cape Town. What seems like a straightforward relatively short drive turns out to be quite a challenge. Our rented car has no windshield cleaning fluid and the windows are getting increasingly opaque. And since we are heading north-northwest in this winter afternoon, the sun is shining straight into our eyes. The light is very strong because of the reflection in the ocean water. With these dingy windshield we sometimes get so blinded that Philip needs to bring the car to almost a complete stop for a moment until we can see anything. And it gets worse as we continue. We take a one wrong turn which gets us into Fish Hook, with its long traffic jam. When we finally approach Cape Town, from the direction we did not expect and Philip did not study we find ourselves in a maze of highways, half blind, having to make split second decisions about turns and exits (and all of this in a manual shift car driving on the wrong side of the road). I turn on the GPS on to find Harn’s, hotel, but the damn things speaks Africance! Thank god that Philip can understand enough of it to know left from right. After a while I begin to make sense of these spoken directions.
By the time we drop Harn at this hotel we are pretty much wiped out. Fortunately, it is very close form here to Andrzej. We arrive at his house at around 5:30, happy to be home.
Andrzej lives in a big urban house with a view, in the desirable Sea Point neighborhood. His work in market research (he is now in a managerial position) has done well for him financially. He is this same Andrzej I remember when he was a high school senior living with us in Newton, almost 20 years ago, just his face is a bit more round, just like David’s. And his hair is receding. He greets us really warmly. He has one floor of this big house, behind a high wall with electrified wires on top, like all his neighbors. It has a very large living room-dining room-kitchen area and three large bedrooms. On the second floor his brother in law and wife live. Next door, his widowed mother in law lives. This is one extended Greek immigrant family. Christine, his wife, is a pretty charming woman, mostly interested in family life. His older daughter Anna (6) resembles so much Ewa, as I remember her when we first met at age 8, that it is really spooky. The younger girl Lena (3.5) if fiery and dramatic, and looks like her Greek grandmother.
They make dinner while we talk and play with the girls. Andrzej is such an interesting articulate young man. He talks about the year he lived with us in Newton as the time when he was my adopted son. I feel really at home here. Philip has a long conversation with him about Africa and their lives here. Andrzej sees this as a wonderful life and also a very unstable life. They live in a bubble here. They have two servants (one comes every day for a full day, the other comes only some days in the week). The monthly pay of the full time maid is $250. The girls go to a private school, the neighborhood is quite self-contained, heavily Jewish, and trying very much to hold on to this good life.
We have dinner with the hippie-looking brother in law and his lovely sad wife, and with the mother in law. As the evening progresses I have a long quiet conversation in Polish with Andrzej, while Philip is working on his computer. We talk about his life, his nonsense job of helping Coca Cola and other big companies find ways to make people buy what they do not need, about his unfulfilled creative side, about the pleasures of traveling around the world. We briefly talk about his parents’ marriage and his view of it, which is surprisingly close to what I know about it. I go to sleep late and tired, and feeling good about being here.
Friday, July 5
In the morning we are slow. Andrzej gets bagels for breakfast. These are definitely not Rosenfelds. More talking, his warm memories of David and Steven, the house of Fenno Road and the house in Wellfleet. The black maid takes a family photo, and by 11 AM we are off. I am sure that I will see Andrzej one of these days in the US. Jasiek, his brother, just got a post-doctoral position at Harvard Medical School.
Our first stop is again at Stellenbosch, where Philip left a camera at the hotel. It is practically on our way to where we will have lunch with Jos and his girlfriend Gabriela. These people live on the side of the mountain in a small house surrounded by a beautiful garden. It is a little paradise here and a rich neighborhood. We later learn that they are renting this house from Gabriele’s German parents. Jos is a fried of a friend, a Dutchman who came to SA 20 years ago to follow a woman. The marriage produced three children but did not last. The relationship with Gabriele is about four years old. She is quite a personality, a strong woman with strong opinions. They welcome us very warmly, the meals is spectacular (ostrich stew with various side dishes and a really fine bottle of old wine), and the conversation just flows. Jos is a poet, a philosopher, an artist, a man connected to the local art scene. Gabrielle used to own a bookstore. She is very cosmopolitan: born in Namibia to German parents, married first to a Finn (and lived in Finland), then to a South African, now with Jost. Three hours go fast. We talk about South Africa and its problems. The flood of legal and illegal immigrants from other African countries, the tensions between these people and the millions of SA blacks, the incredible poverty and corruption, and so on. We talk about personal things. At 4 PM we urgently need to go because it will get dark in two hours. They get in their car and lead us for about half an hour to give us a head start toward our destination for today.
The trip east is OK. Part of the way is has spectacular views of the mountains and the ocean, but most of it leads through small sprawling towns that are only a step above the Main Street USA. We get to Hermanus in the dark and feel lucky to find a rather nice room and a beachfront Windsor Hotel: once great but today rather tired. I hear the ocean roaring outside our window. Tonight we are both tired from the intensity of our interactions with people. This is Friday night. Since Monday morning we have been non-stop with interesting, fascinating people, but now we are saturated. I look forward to the next few days of just us.
Jos and Gabriele are wonderful people; she is a warm and also adventurous women who lived all over the world, from Finland to Central African Republic. He is a philosopher, artist, a very nice and sensitive man who loves modern music and writes poetry. We talked about ourselves, S. Africa, politics, the past and the future. We left them far too late, about 430; they drove us all the way until the beautiful coastal way began. This road was stunningly beautiful; of course my eyes were glued to the winding road. We passed Rooiels and Betty’s bay, where we started to look for accommodation. Betty’s bay had nothing and did not appeal to us, either; so we drove on. No accommodation in Kleinmond, although it looked like an attractive beach place. About 15 km further we tried a resort, but it was too luxurious so we turned around and ended in Hermanus. By now it was pitch dark, but I was not as scared as before about driving in the dark, so we did OK. After some ups and downs we found the Windsor 3 star hotel; not great, but a room with a beautiful view of the sea. Halina found the lost camera in her bag! We walked in the dark along the boulevard and found a nice restaurant, where we had our half liter of wine and a light evening meal; excellent. At 11 pm we were exhausted and went
Saturday, July 6.
The days are sunny and in the 60s and the nights in the 40s. Today is probably the warmest of all. We drive toward Cape L’Agulhas, the southernmost tip of Africa. It is less than three hour drive. These are secondary two lane road, almost completely empty. This land is so vast and so sparsely populated. There is room for everybody here, all the people we saw in the slums. The landscape changes, though the ocean is never very far away. First we drive through dramatic landscape between mountains and the ocean. Then the mountains are replaced with hills covered with dense and rich brush. Hardly any threes, probably owing to the winds and poor soil. We see some huge private estates along the coast, bordered with fences. After a while we enter agricultural land. These are picturesque hills, somewhat reminiscent of South of France, except that the agriculture here is on a very large scale.
We pass through small towns of no distinction – the main street, a few stores, low residential and commercial structures, eating places. Lunch at a small café in Bredasdorp; good, inexpensive food and a young waitress with beautiful green eyes. I tell her that. We arrive at our guest house at around 2 PM. It is a modern house on a hill, with an incredible view of the Ocean. The owner lives here and keeps two rooms for B&B. Our room is large and luxurious, facing the ocean. After unloading the luggage we hasten to go for a hike, to make it before dark. The most popular trek is the one to the L’Agulhas point. The landscape is ragged here, a sort of a tundra on hills. Tundra but a lush one, with thickly packed shrubs and groundcover of many different kinds of plants, often flowering, mixed with stony undersurface. No trees. The coast is rocky, somewhat like the North Shore of Boston, but there is no high drama of the cliffs of Cape of Good Hope.
They actually built a boardwalk leading to the Point, but once we pass it (with an obligatory photograph) the path is rugged and stony. There are surprisingly few people here. We pass maybe 30-40 visitors, while we expected mobs of tourists. We walk until the famous landmark of a shipwreck, then turn around and go back. With a few breaks, it takes about two hours. Sitting on a rock and watching the wild foamy ocean one can become mesmerized. It occurs to me that there are many such shores around the world: in Scotland, or Ireland, or Massachusetts, or elsewhere: rugged, rocky, a wild sea. But for me this is different. I think of the sailors of the past who tried to navigate these dangerous waters, the explorers looking for the passage to India, the lost souls who drowned here; and this makes this shore special, different.
We get home in the low light of a setting sun, long shadows. Relax in the room for a while. Dinner in the tiny village. The first two restaurants we try have TV sets blasting with some important rugby match. The third place is simple, has a fire roaring in the fireplace, and serves simple fresh food. Tonight we have a long quiet night in the room.
We woke up with a view of the sea. After breakfast we made a short walk along the boardwalk; but it was not very interested and we left soon. We actually did see our first whale close to the coast! We had booked a room in L’Aguilhas, the southern tip of Africa. Off we drove, starting around 11 am, leisurely towards this southern point. The landscape became flatter and flatter, with large stretch of agricultural land, like the US Midwest. We had a light lunch in Bredasdorp, served by a young woman with beautiful eyes. That was about the only beauty there was in that town; although the outdoor restaurant was quite pleasant. Towards L’Aguilhas there was a smattering of holiday houses, but not very big; it is not a touristy area. We went straight to the southern point, which was marked by a plaque. We spent some time there, taking photos and enjoying the sea and the scenery. We walked back to the car, found our lodge close to the lighthouse: a surprisingly modern building.
After checking in we walked again along the beach, this time 3-4 km towards the old ship wreck. A very nice walk, although at the end our feet were painful from walking on pebbles, and board walks. After refreshing ourselves we found a restaurant where they served wine by the bottle; and it had a nice fire and was the most quiet of the three we tried. We enjoyed a long and quiet evening in our beautiful room.
Sunday, July 8
Over breakfast we talk with the proprietor, a semi-retired successful Dutch businessman. This guesthouse is a hobby for him, a way to meet people and to anchor himself and his wealth.
We drive for about four hours through a changing landscape, this time inland: mountains, hills, and undulating fields. Mostly, this is an intensely agricultural area, with crops and livestock. It looks like large family farms, perfectly cultivated, not a single neglected field. This is such a rich country, this S.A. We ponder why it has not become another United States: it has so much space, so much land, and so many natural resources. It has plenty of access to water and a good climate. No earthquakes, not floods, a lot of sunshine, moderate temperatures. We try to figure it out ourselves, reflecting on these warring African tribes, and the centuries of unsettled ownership claims between the British and Dutch. But we really do not understand it. Need to ask Dave Bell when I return.
The scandal with Mandela’s family continues. We get only bits and pieces of it from the car radio and newspaper front pages. TV is mostly in Africaanc or other languages. This family does not let Mandela die in peace.
In the early afternoon we arrive in Wilderness. This is a resort village squeezed between thickly forested wild mountains and beautiful white beaches. Our guest house is a five star affair (for $60 per night!) facing the ocean and the beach. A private residence of an Africaance couple of Dutch descent (since the 1700 hundreds), a huge private house with 6 guest rooms, one grander than another, and gigantic common spaces and ceiling heights. It is all decorated in the late Elvis Presley style, quite unbelievable in its overdone gaudiness. The proprietor seems to be a retired fellow, like the one last night. Perhaps this is what financially secure white people do here in their retirement: build an expensive beach house for themselves with several additional guest rooms. We choose the most modest of the rooms with a view of the mountains, not the ocean, a balcony, and the softest towels I ever used. This is really the nicest room because its décor is under control.
After lunch we go for a hike in the local National Park. The “little walk” that our proprietor has described (clearly he has never done it) turns into a very challenging two hour hike up the steep mountain and back. This rainforest is really amazing: dark, moist, dense, and all new to us in terms of trees and flowers. The views are dramatic down the river valley below. People camp here along the river in nice little wooden cabins and enjoy the boat rides on the river.
Dinner in a small Italian restaurant down in the village, a few minute drive from our guest house. At night we can see all the fancy houses climbing up the side of the mountain. These may be second homes for the rich. The village is tiny, and clearly serves tourists: nice cozy restaurants and shops. We are in white South Africa all the way. A group of Dutch people at the next table. Maybe 10 of them, I cannot figure out what the relationships are. Not a family, not several families, some people come later and greet others as friends who live nearby and see each other from time to time. One man notices that we are surreptitiously staring at them, and makes a direct eye contact with Philip. This leads to a conversation and explanation: they are taking a 5 month course on how to reduce stress. Why in South Africa?
Getting up with another wonderful view of the sea. It was cloudy and rainy, but that would not last. We got an excellent breakfast from a retired industrialist from The Netherlands, trading with the Russians in oil and gas; more recently advising Mozambique about their fossil energy policies. He brought us excellent old Dutch and Swiss cheeses, as well as other goodies for breakfast.
We were somewhat in a hurry to leave, because we had a long drive in front of us. We left around 9:15, which was a good time. We drove through Bredasdorp and towards route 2. The landscape was empty, boring as hell. Towards Swellendam the landscape became more interesting; a mountain ridge showed up. We drove along Heidelberg and Riversdale, with a short break for drinks. We reached Wilderness around 1 pm, which was excellent timing. Just before Wilderness the landscape changed dramatically; we drove a narrow maintain road which opened up to a wide valley, with white beaches and green mountains on the left. A little paradise. Even better when we reached Xanadu, our 5- star B&B, which was beautifully decorated and had all these wonderful rooms all furniture in different styles and colors. Our room faced the mountains but had full sunlight n the spacious balcony which was tiled and with comfortable furniture. A luxury treat. We had our lunch in a nearby restaurant overlooking the beaches and the sea. Beautiful, but the lunch was substandard, and the public was all-white, rich retirees (dissimilar from us).
After lunch we went to the national Park; after some searching and false starts we walked into the wilderness on a wooden walkway across some wild land. The wilderness was stunning; a true rain forest with lots of birds and animal sounds; beautiful flowers, and wild vegetation. We walked along the river or laguna for about half an hour; and then intended to close a loop. That loop was quite a surprise and challenging; steeply up onto the mountain. It was wet, rather cold, and rather dark, with patches of sunlight; we were however sweating and completely wet from our hard work. The ascent went on and on; everytime we thought we were going down, we went up again. Finally we got our view: stunningly high and steep; pretty dangerous, but with a bench!
The walk took longer than expected but was quite rewarding. Back in our guesthouse I caught the last rays of the sun; and now I am still enjoying the beautiful rose and blue colors in the sky.
In the evening we had a pleasant dinner at an Italian restaurant downtown. We made eye contact with one of a group of Dutch people sitting at the n3ext table; and found out what they were doing here (they were studying bodily responses to mental stress, or something). They were the first Dutch people we met in S. Africa. I spent part of the evening planning the next day, including lodging.
Monday, July 9
After breakfast we take a short walk on the endless and totally deserted white beach. It is lined with absurdly large houses, just like the one where we are staying. Mostly modernistic design, full of glass and sharp angles, flat and boxy, completely unfitting this magical beach with mountains in the backdrop. The smallest of the houses must be 5-6,000 square feet, to say nothing about their 15 foot ceilings, two or three stories high. Someone’s idea of prosperity has gone mad. And Philip and I are talking about sustainable consumption! Are we so naïve?
Today we explore the Little Karoo area, inland. We take small roads, then smaller roads, then dirt roads. Hardly anybody drives on these roads or lives on this land. We drive through mountains, hills, flat, dry areas like the US prairies, agricultural fields, rivers, again different mountains. So much space! A lot of aloe plants in full bloom, some much taller than me. The aromas are intense; we hardly recognize the trees and plants. Today I saw a perfectly green bird, a solid dark green like spilled ink. At some point we take a walk on a secluded dirt road along a very small vineyard. A man is working the field. Occasionally we pass small cottages, some looking very poor, others more prosperous. Occasionally a group of black children walk by, probably on the way from school.
We have left the wine country and entered an ostrich country. Many ostrich farms here, though we have seen only a few birds so far. There is no place to eat here. By three o’clock we luck out and discover a family restaurant in a children outdoor park, with camel rides and all kinds of games. The sign say that this place has been in operation since the 1880s. This is a kind of cafeteria where the food is ordered at the counter and waiters bring it to your picnic table outside. As soon as we enter a smallish blond woman approaches us with an offer of help. We must look like foreigners. She helps us navigate the menu and even brings a couple of dishes so that we can look at them and decide. Very nice. I order an ostrich neck stew (with bones), which turns out to be the best dish I have had during this vacation. The meat is tender and flavorful. Philip likes his ostrich wrap. On the way out I search for the little woman to tell her how much I enjoyed the food, but she is nowhere to be seen.
As we approach our guesthouse for tonight in a small village it becomes clear that B&B is a major industry in this region. The roads are dotted with signs for guesthouses. Ours looks like an old farmhouse with later additions of several guestrooms. The proprietress is very welcoming. This is the first time that we are not greeted and served by a black servant. This hostess cooks and serves the breakfasts, and really engage with her guests. I see her two teenage children helping in the kitchen. Her English sounds somewhat Scottish or Irish, with rolling r’s. In general, I have noticed that locals speak with markedly different pronunciations here. It feels like there is no such thing as South African English; that this is all a conglomerate of many very localized dialects. This whole issue of language is a puzzle to me. There are five very official languages in S.A.: Afrikaanc, English and three local languages (including Zulu). Then, there is a longer list of official 11 languages that are commonly used, reflecting the major tribes and ethnic identities. English is not a required language of instruction in many public schools, just a second language. That means that children of the poor blacks who attend local schools dominated by some tribal preferences often speak very poor English, which puts them at great disadvantage in finding employment. Why would they parents prefer school instruction in other than English?
Before it gets completely dark we take a walk in the neighborhood and discover several other guesthouses as well as an ostrich farm nearby. Finally I can get a good close look at these birds. One of them is very comfortable with people and approaches us with curiosity (up to the thin wire fence). This bird is about 2.5 meters high when it stretches its neck. At some point the ostrich opens its wings to their fullest spread and I cans see its regal feathers and the incredibly muscular thighs. Wow!
It is a cold night, probably the coldest we have experienced so far. We have a cup of tea with cake in the main lodge and skip going to dinner tonight. A nice quite evening in the room.
Mostly foreign tourists come here, our landlady tells us.
The house was pretty ridiculous: oversized, over-furnitured, everything excessive. The breakfast was modest (for our half-price, off-season). After breakfast we made a pleasant morning walk on the beach; and then hit the road again. Today we would travel leisurely, our destination north of Oudshoorn was only about 1.5 hours away. Soon after leaving Wilderness and George (awful shopping malls) we arrived what turned out to be the Little Karoo, part agricultural, partly semi-desert, vast, wide, beautiful with mountain ridges in the horizon, very quiet. We arrived in Oudshoorn where Halina indulged in an ostrich-leather bag, very beautiful and pricy, but a very good buy. We got an extensive explanation how to distinguish real from false ostrich.
After a coffee in an outdoor café we decided to make a little roundtrip, first to the west, and then back; and have our lunch in a village 10-13 km to the west. This village never materialized, but instead we took a side road, unpaved. The first thing we saw were our first real ostriches; who were running in a meadow. We enjoyed wooing them, and then moved on. The landscape became mountainous and very beautiful; but our progress was slow. It was completely deserted; just us and a beautiful landscape. We took a turn into a nature reserve called “red mountain”, and indeed the mountains were impressive red; nicely contrasting with early green leaves, and eerie bald poplars. We took a lot of pictures, and enjoyed a short walk along a river. Back in the car we drove and drove, along winding dirt roads, wondering if we got lost. It seemingly took hours; but Halina tremendously enjoyed this, so I was happy too. Finally the road became asphalt again, and the tiny little houses that emerged became bigger and more prosperous.
We ended at a holiday farm at the waterside with a restaurant, a real family business since 1897, were we got our belated lunch. Halina enjoyed her 2nd ostrich ragout and real ostrich neck, a delicacy I am told. We were not far from our B&B, which we reached around 4pm. This was a very beautiful, very rural set of buildings; where we were welcomed by a nice young woman; a relieve after Dutch industrialist and a former boer. We enjoyed a quiet end of afternoon, reading and dozing; and a nice early evening walk in the falling dusk, where we again met our friends the ostriches. We enjoyed fruit cake and tea in the main room, and then retreated to our own room.
Tuesday, July 9
This is the last day of driving through Cape Province. What makes driving through this countryside is so pleasant is that the roads are mostly empty and there are no billboards. The absence of billboards allows us to focus on what we see around us, see it better, and it makes me aware of how distracting the advertising is in our lives. And at 33 latitude (compared with 42 in Boston) the light here is very bright. This makes the contrasts between light and shadow greater, and when the air is pure (which is most of the time during our trip) the big mountains on the horizon seem almost within arm’s length.
We cross the Black Mountains Range using the Groot Swartbergen Pass. The dirt road takes us through some very dramatic views and landscapes. The vegetation here is mostly low brush. We come across a strange animal the size of a fox, with large ears and eyes resembling a bat. According to our guidebook it is bush baby, a primitive kind of primate. There are several of them here, totally unafraid of us, staring me straight in my face. On the other side of the mountains we drive through a dry prairie-like area: no houses, no people, no cars. This goes on for hours. We pass a few more ostrich farms, occasional cultivated patches of soil. A couple of times we encounter large groups of baboons on the road. They are used to the cars and mostly ignore us. These are maybe families, as I always recognize one large specimen (the male?) and one or two mothers with little babies on their backs. And lots of ‘kids’, some with still fuzzy fur. Earlier on, signs on the road warned us that baboons are dangerous aggressive animals, so we stay in the car. And in any way, they move away into the shrubs when I make a move to lean out the window with my camera. I could stay here and watch them for a long time, this fascinating bunch.
We do quite a lot of driving today. After about 5 hours of it I determine that four hours is the limit of how much driving I would like to do in order to truly enjoy the day. As we approach the Cape Town valley through another mountain range a cloud of pollution and moisture hangs over it. So much for my note that the air is so pure here. And then, to add to this sobering reality check, we get stuck in a horrendous traffic jam at about 30 km from Cape Town. After an hour of misery we come to the closing of the entire highway. We get off, and fortunately, with the help of Philip’s great sense of direction and our GPS, we make our way through side roads back to the highway several exits further, after the blockage. Now we can watch the misery of the drivers in the opposite lane. What makes things worse is that sun is very low on the horizon at this hour, blinding us. I find these stretches of glare far more tiring than Philip.
We make it to the guest house in the early darkness, quite tired. This place is unremarkable compared with other four star guesthouses: not very clean, not well managed, with plenty of signs of neglect. Across the street, in one of the three properties these people own, is a food service. They call it a restaurant, but it is mostly the breakfast place. After days of forced and jarring modernity in our guest houses, the Victorian clutter of this place is a welcome change. A woman in the kitchen is white, skinny, has teeth missing, and has a nervous and weird body language. She tells us from the outset that she is stressed and that if we want a meal in less than forever she can offer us a salad and lasagna: either vegetarian or with meat. I like this woman with her stress problem. Something so human about her. I imagine that the owners, who clearly do not manage this place with any competence, have no idea what it takes to feed the guests and to keep this dining room going. The food she offers us is quite good.
Before going to sleep we drive to the airport (10 minutes from here) and drop the car off to lessen Philip’s anxiety about doing it in the morning while trying to catch a flight. Come home by taxi. Sleep well.
This was the day of the great trek back to Cape Town. We started early, about 8:45; and took the winding mountain road across the Groot Swartbergen pass to the north. The pass was really beautiful: the light, the colors. We saw what we thought were bushbabies: little animals with big eyes, staring at us. Later we saw a lot of baboons. We stopped briefly at the pass, but unfortunately there was no time for a real hike just a short climb on the rocks. The road was unpaved and completely deserted. Across an impressive “gorge” we reached Prince Albert, a nice, wide, and rather small village. We drank the most awful coffee of the trip here sitting on broken chairs. We also walked across what looked like a gathering of women, some men, and a group of boys, loitering. This looked rather African too me. So far, we mainly saw whites, and of course the townships.
Beyond Prince Albert the road became flat and straight, and we made very good progress. We reached the N1, which was going to bring us all the way to Cape Town in about 4 hours. Around 12:30 we stopped for filling the tank and lunch in Laingsburg; a rather nice restaurant.
We drove, and were amazed about the beautiful landscape; the nearly complete lack of traffic; a snow-capped mountain near Worcester. Near Paarl we exited the main road, and went on a high pass. On this road we encountered the 2nd group of baboons; sunning and playing on the road; rather at ease with us spectators; and some of them carrying little babies. We reached Paarl, which was less impressive as we hoped for; and rejoined route 1. We got stuck in the most horrendous traffic jam: basically hardly any movement for at least 1 hour. Finally we squeezed ourselves along some waiting lines into an exit; when it turned out that the entire route 1 was closed at that point. The low sun was glaring into our eyes when we slowly made our way back to route 1. The final part of the trip went uneventful through busy traffic; and we reached our B&B about 6:30; about 1:30 h later than planned. The hostel was a disappointment: from the reception (first cars needed to be moved before we even could enter). We got a simple meal by an overstressed (she said) elderly lady who needed to serve all guests while the owner (?) left. Our internet did not work; the room was not entirely clean; and this for a relatively expensive 4-star B&B. After the shock of the traffic jam we decided not to take chances and to return the car to the airport in the evening; rather than getting stuck in traffic the next morning; and to take a taxi instead. We were both tired from the long day; and finished our (small) bottle of whiskey.
Wednesday, July 10
11 AM flight to Johannesburg. A nice young man meets us at the airport and drives to Geene Gaap Guesthouse where we will spend all our nights in Joburg. On the way from the airport we silently contemplate the haze hanging over the city. Our driver explains it as fine dust from the surrounding dry lands, but to me it looks like a garden variety pollution. This neighborhood is called Melville. It is somewhat away from the city center.
Our guest house is a simple affair, but is very spacious, clean and well supplied. We have a large living room with a kitchenette and a good size bedroom, and there is a little garden. Like everything else in this country, there are walls and metal fences and metal gates, and many keys to use. Layer upon layer upon layer of protection in this fortress world. The black servant who welcomes us, Patience, has the most contagious laughter in the world. When I ask for the second explanation of which key opens which door, she laughs so hard that all I can do is join her. Thomas, who prepares and serves breakfast, an immigrant from Malawi, feels like family. Someone tells us that many businesses prefer to hire African workers from other countries because of their strong work ethics.
We settle in and head for late lunch. The first place we find, an Italian restaurant right down the street, has nice ambiance and a friendly waiter who looks like a Clark student, but the food is inferior. Then we explore the neighborhood. It is artsy and on the rise. The center village is about 5 streets in each direction, on a grid, numbered as streets and avenues. The housing stock is quite shabby, one and two story buildings that are either ugly, shaky, or renovated. But the real scene is on the street level. The village is full of trendy cafes, antique shops, second hand clothing shops, restaurants and bars. People are mostly young, and, for the first time during our trip, it is a mix of races. Many are dressed in trendy clothes. This area is clearly a hip enclave on its way to gentrification. We walk, take coffee and tea in an internet café, walk some more. And we are done. We have covered the neighborhood! Now what? It is too small for us, and there is no public transportation in JoBurg to speak of.
So this is a bit disconcerting. After an afternoon indoors, we venture out again to get some drinks in the neighborhood bars, and then get something to eat. It gets dark really early here, about 5:30, and evenings are colder than in Cape Town (the altitude here is 2000 meters). I feel a little homesick, in this tiny neighborhood, in this strange big foreign city.
Once we are out we discover that the bars and restaurants are full of young people and the atmosphere is very lively. The little pizza restaurant we like is full, so we tell the woman that we will be back in half an hour and go to the bar Philip has had his eye on since the afternoon. This place is full of young (people in their 20s) and mostly black. People are chic and casual. I notice all the beautiful women and handsome men; Philip notices the beautiful women. Maybe this is the future of South Africa, these confident and lively people. And staying in this neighborhood for four nights does not look so bad anymore.
A waiter with long dreadlocks gets us a little cocktail table with his stools and two drinks, and we really enjoy being here. This is a smoking room but hardly anyone smokes. The background music is hard and loud, but not quite so loud as to chase me away. Since the second drink is free at this hour we order the seconds and then move to the restaurant across the street. The place brings a surge of memories of the Village in the 1970s: causal, inexpensive, good food, the same decorum. For a moment the sadness is overwhelming when I look at these kids in their 20s. My time came and went, and will never come back. Neither will the Village I remember from my 20s. This crowd is a little quieter than the first one, and more white than black, but we both sense that skin color is not an interesting topic for these people.
We walk home in the quiet streets, passing security guards and their designated corners. We have been told that it is safe here until 10 o’clock. At 10 o’clock the announced power outage begins. There is little to do at home but write the journal and go to sleep.
After breakfast and checking out, the day so far is uneventful: we got our taxi to the airport; and now we are in the air above what looks like a desert. The take-off was pretty spectacular with views over Cape Town, Cape Point; Somerset-West and other points we recognized from our trip. Upon arrival we were picked up by Jaco, who offered to bring us to the Apartheid museum. Instead we preferred to check in at the Guesthouse; and to explore the local neighborhood. Melville is an artsy, partially run-down; partially gentrifying neighborhood with a lot of trees; and in the main street a lovely amount of bars and restaurants. We explored the area, bought a little elephant sold on the street; and decided which cocktail bar and restaurant we wanted to try out later that day. We took a rest at the guesthouse, and tried to figure out what options we had for exploring Jo-burg. The flipside of Melville is that it is rather far from the center; which does not make it easy to explore it.
At dinnertime we found out that we needed to wait and reserve a table; so we went to that cocktail bar full of beautiful black young people; where we had our 1+1 happy hour cocktails; and enjoyed the colors and the scenery. The meal was good; but late; and we both were very tired; sleeping on a full stomach is not advisable; and we decided that we should take our meals earlier of possible.
Thursday, July 11
It is hard to fully capture this day, it was so full. We went on a guided tour of Soweto and then to the Apartheid museum, each of which deserves a full day. Jaku, the young man who gave us a ride form the airport is our driver and tour guide, and we share it with a nice couple from New Zealand. Jaku is handsome, young and artsy in his linen shirts, uncombed hair and pointy boots. I cannot remember her name. His is Wayne. They took three months off from their/his jobs in order to tour Africa and are now about half way into it. They are educated, in their forties, curious.
Soweto, which stands for South-Western Townships, was created in the 1930s as a kind of model town for black mine workers who were living in a tent city in that area. The oldest part of the township consists of so-called matchbox houses: little square identical cottages, about 300 square feet each, with outdoor toilets and water foset. Over the decades it grew and grew, but most of it still consists of little one story houses, not, as I had imagined shacks. About five million people live here. There are many villages and neighborhoods, with names, cultures, traditions, ethnicities. We start the tour with Mandela house. It is undistinguished, a touch bigger than the matchboxes, treated with reverence. We were lucky to get here before buses full of people started coming. Down the street from Mandela’s house is the house of Desmond Tutu. In front of the house a local artist is selling intriguing clay figurines dressed in outfits representing different tribes, different from anything else we have seen among street vendors. Our companions get one, and we get one, except that we pay less because we negotiate and they do not.
The next stop is a little café where alcohol was being brewed and sold over the years. Black people were forbidden by law to sell or produce alcohol, so this was an underground establishment. The benches are old car seats and anything else one can scrounge in the dumps. We are given a local drink to share, served in a round clay bowl. It is a kind of a weak beer. It smells and tastes like yeast and I find it revolting.
Our next stop is a small park where we climb to the top of a round tower, known as Oppenheimer Tower. There is a story behind the 49 steps we climb but I do not remember it. Oppenheimer was a rich German industrialist who, shaken by the living conditions of the tent city for migrant mine workers, donated large sum of money to build the first batch of matchbox houses. The most interesting thing about this visit is the view from the top of the tower on Soweto. It is huge, of course, as we all knew it, but it is not a slum. Rather, is looks like a bad product of bad land use planning. A huge one story sprawl, with no design, no center, and limited public transportation. It is a place that perpetuates poverty because it is far from where the jobs are. Perhaps this is no accident that the houses we pass in the car, adjacent to the main transportation routes, look prosperous enough to call them middle class. These houses have tall fences and some interesting architectural details.
Next to the Oppenheimer tower is a place called Credo Mutwa Cultural Village. I really do not know what to make of it. It was built by some do-gooder with the purpose of preserving old shamanic traditions that were disappearing in S.A’s. It has various large god-like figures and is full of other symbolic statues and structures. The round thatched roofed huts are used for training courses in traditional rituals, music and beliefs. The fellow who gives us a tour talks a mile a minute, hard to understand, and I am somehow not drawn to the whole thing.
Hector Pieterson Museum comes next, about the 1976 Soweto uprising, sparked by protesting schoolchildren who did not want Afrikaanc to be the language of instruction. The 13 year old boy was accidentally shot. The iconic photograph of his lifeless body held by a man, with the sister running alongside, face distorted by a scream, reminds me of two other such iconic photographs: The naked girl running from a napalm bombing in Vietnam, and the girl kneeling next to the victim at Kent State University. I like this museum: about the beginning of apartheid and the long struggle.
Back to the car, and now we are driven to a monument to freedom, commemorating the 10 principles of the new South African constitution. It is an ugly tower standing in the middle of a huge square and next to a equally ugly hotel built in the worst of the 60s brutal architecture that claims to have hosted celebrities and heads of state in its luxurious interiors. We now have another guide: a smallish athletic looking black fellow, a friend of Jaku, with extremely white teeth, who is being followed by a girl who is a guide-in-training. I like this man (I do not remember his name). Every time we meet a new guide we start with formal introductions. This fellow is actually interested in talking with us. Jaku tells us that this part of the tour is special, that regular Soweto tours never get further that this point, and that we are going to see the inside of the poorest part of Soweto because the fellow is his friend. Well, we do. We cross the railroad tracks using an overpass bridge and suddenly we are in the middle of a smelly, crowded, colorful slum. Shacks, garbage everywhere, people everywhere. They steal electricity from municipal street lights.
We see plenty of commercial activity. We are told that more than a dozen African nationalities live here, many illegal immigrants. This slum will never disappear because as soon as people move out, new immigrants move in. Also, he tells us that some people who get free apartments from the government do not move into them but instead rent them out and continue living here. This issue of poverty and slums is so complicated that we cannot grasp it. I do not know if many people can.
We walk, people say hello, and everybody is busy going somewhere or doing something. We visit a preschool. 250 children and 16 staff, of which 10 are teachers. The director reminds me of Miss Kay in New Heaven. The children are grouped by age, in one or two year intervals. These are beautiful children from homes that speak a dozen different languages. Clean, well fed, healthy. Totally outgoing: run into us, grab us, give us high fives, even the one-two year olds. Amazingly outgoing. A small vegetable garden in the yard, not enough production for this school. A washing machine and drier, a fridge. All from the stolen electricity?
We walk back, talking with the guide about poverty and its endless cycle. He lives here.
This would be more than enough for today, but we are not done. Now we go to Apartheid Museum while the New Zealand couple goes back to the guesthouse. We have 1.5 hours before closing time and even less energy than that. The museum is very large and totally chaotic, and to take it in one has to read and read and read. The most interesting part for me is the Mandela exhibit, showing his evolution from a an impatient opinionated man, authoritarian, a fighter, a revolutionary prepared for bloodshed tactics into the statesman we know. Gabriela was right when she said that the prison made Mandela into the man we know. I find his ability to adapt his tactics to situations and his attention to the image very interesting.
Another interesting thing: we learn how the apartheid came about.
When Jaku pick us ups at 5 we are both complete wrecks. Warm bath, reading, quick dinner in the Indian place down the street, and collapse in bed. I look forward to what I imagine will be the silence of safari.
Today we took a tour to Soweto and the Apartheid museum. We went with guide Jaco and another couple, from New Zealand. The first stop was the Mandela house. It had a surprising amount of interesting information about the life there of the Mandela family. We also roamed the streets, and I bought a small Soweto house; and Halina a pipe, smoking Xhosa woman with a bundle of wood on her back. We also went to a Sheebeen (?), a local café, where we drank local brew made of wheat and yeast. I rather liked it, but Halina found it awful. Most of Soweto looks pretty well built up, with small stone houses, each with a small garden and the unavoidable walls and iron gates. The roads are asphalted, at least the main roads where we went.
We next went to the Hector Pieterson Museum, named after a boy who was killed in the demonstrations in 1967(?). The spark was forced education in Afrikaans; but of course the resentment of the black and colored population was much deeper than that. Our next stop was a tower, donated by a Oppenheimer, a wealthy German industrialist who built a large number of houses in that part of Soweto. We climbed the 49 steps of the tower, which gave us a great view around Soweto; we also saw the former gas(?) towers which were now painted with scenes from the apartheid history. Next we went to the nearby Credo Mutwa cultural village; built by some sort of prophet who want to teach traditional skills and believes, and who foresaw the 9/11 disasters and others, depicted in this village by him. He also built monstrous images of gods, which were partially Christian images (father and son?) and also the almighty female goddess figure. The guide’s explanations were not easy to follow. Next we visited Klipspruit, the oldest settlement of Soweto; next to a 4-star hotel there were real slums. The monument commemorating the 10 governing principles was very beautiful and impressive; we then crossed the railway tracks to visit this slum area. Among the shacks were, surprisingly, some gardens where people grew vegetables. We visited the kindergarten for kids 1-5 or 6; Halina was immediately embraced by lovely 1-year olds who stormed towards her. The kids were lovely, not shy at all, very curious, and of course happy to be photographed..
By now it was nearly 2 pm and we were starving. Jaco dropped us at the Apartheid museum where we had lunch in the garden; we then visited the impressive museum which also had a special exhibition about Mandela. By 5 we were picked up again and transported to the guesthouse; where we struggled with internet and all kind of household issues like the laundry and tomorrow’s breakfast. We finally got ourselves to go to a restaurant; tonight it was a local Indian which tasted really good.
Friday, July 12
Pick up at 7:30. Our tour group is only three people: us and Talia, a college girl from NYC, on an internship in Soweto. Our guide/driver is Kyle: round faced, open, blond, outgoing, warm.
We travel in a comfortable minibus. It takes one hour in a traffic jam to get out of Johannesburg
We drive through an open landscape, then hills. Plenty of livestock in pasture. We stop at Blyde Canyon, the third deepest in the world. Nice view. We stop at a waterfall. This is not Niagara. The landscape reminds me of Upstate New York.
We pass an unbelievably large man-made forest: long stretches of hills covered either by pines (for lumber) or eucalyptus (for paper). It continues for at least an hour. From very far away it looks like a beautiful green pastoral landscape, but close up it is really bizarre, these patches of identical trees of the same height, no vegetation on the forest floor, no birds or flowers. Reminds me of these children clones created and reared strictly as future organ donors in “Never Let Me Go” by Kazuo Ishiguro.
Get to the camp around 5:30. Very nice camp. Huts large and comfortable. Dinner with Talia and Kyle. Talk about animals. With Talia, there is a limit to our conversation. Something irritates me about this girl. She is 21, a Jewish girl form New York city, pretty, and impressive in her academic accomplishment and her interest and understanding of the world. She is articulate and capable of having an adult conversation with people the age of her parents and grandparents. So what bugs me? After talking it over with Philip I realize that it is her lack of youthfulness and charm, her cultivated grating voice, her self-assurance and the absence of any visible uncertainty or curiosity about the people around her.
Drive to Kruger Park.
We got up early; and promptly at 7:30 our guide Kayli called upon us. She is a very nice, young and experienced guide. We had to wait till the other passenger, Talia from new York, arrived from another lodge. She told us she was robbed the previous evening in Soweto on gunpoint. After we left, we got caught in anther traffic jam, which cost us at least another hour. Finally we got out of Jo-burg and hit the road towards Kruger. The landscape is agricultural and rather boring; after 3-4 hours of driving we had lunch at some road restaurant. In the afternoon we took a scenic route; towards the Blyde canion; a really beautiful view across a wide and rather green landscapes of canyons and rondaveel-shaped mountain tops. Another stop was at the Berlin falls. We drove through interminable woods of production wood; planted by multinationals for their wood and paper provisions.
Just before sunset we reached our beautiful lodge at …..river; we just caught the last rays of the sun overlooking the river and the majestic landscape of Kruger park. We had dinner outside in the dark; and went to bed rather early. It had been a long day; and the next day would be just as long…..
Arrival 5:30 at lodge; dinner 6:30 with view over river
Saturday, July 13
Safari is a long slow drive through the park in search of animals. We do so from 7AM to 5 PM. The vehicle is a small pickup truck outfitted for that purpose: it has three rows of seats in the back and a canopy ceiling made of a military tent material. Otherwise it is all open. Our driver/guide sits in a front cabin much lower that we are, and the cabin has a window that connects her with us, so we can have a conversation with her throughout. The morning is freezing, about 7 degrees centigrade and when the car starts moving the wind blows in our faces at the speed of the car: between 20 and 40 kilometers/hr. It is really freezing. My six layers of clothing and the blanket are barely enough to keep me warm. Over the course of the day it gets very warm, and we shed all the layers of clothing, but the wind never stops. At the end of the day my eye are burning from this wind, and it gets worse on days two and three.
I cannot really describe safari, other than saying that it is awesome. Nothing like that. An amazing experience. So below I list the animals, and a few notable birds we see on the first day:
Rhino, Kudu, Steenback, Leopard (from very far away, recognizable only with strong binoculars, eating its pray), male lion (wounded after a fight, limping), Crocodiles (a whole bunch), Hippos (a herd), Storks (beautiful and graceful), Buffalo (a huge herd of many dozen, crossing the road in front of us), Impala (the most numerous of all animals, so incredibly graceful, and all around us), Warthog (a really weird looking animal), Zebra (my favorite, with these amazing stripes; a family crossing the road in front of us), Giraffe (my second favorite, with beautiful eyelashes and vacuous dull eyes, always chewing, from left to right), Bushbuck, Nyala, Waterbuck, Baboons, Vervet monekey (with white fur and black faces, very cute), Southern Guinea fowl (looking like turkey), Guinea fowl (to us: chicken), Banded mongoose, Barre owlet, Wildbeast, and Elephant (a family, feeding right next to us), and Vultures.
We sleep in large military-style tents furnished with comfortable beds and refrigerators. The night is very cold, the cold wakes me up a few times.
We got up before 6 in the dark; breakfast was at 6:30; and we were scheduled to leave immediately after. It was freezing cold when we ascended into our safari car, which was open. An icy wind made our layers plus blankets plus hats plus gloves an absolute necessity. It took some time to check out and to enter the Park, but finally we had reached our destination. The day started slowly; but the first animal we saw was no less than a rhino. Very soon after we saw our first lion; lazily lying in the grass; and only after a while raising up and showing its full majesty. We saw impalas, warthogs, and a real rhino from nearby. The absolute topper was a leopard: too far away to see properly, he was devouring some prey; you could see its dots and occasionally a lot of blood red prey (or maul?). We further saw one wildebeest; vultures; and a steenbok with long horns. There was an entire herd of buffalos; surrounding the car and crossing the road; soon there were as many cars waiting and looking as there were buffalos.
Just before lunch we saw an enormous amount of hippos at the waterside; also crocodiles, storks, and a turtle. After lunch we saw kudus with white stripes; and finally a bunch of elephants. We saw steenboks with their long and turned horns; and finally a bunch of baboons. We also saw vervets (white monkeys with black face) and this weird bird with red and black face. Finally, at the end of the day, we saw giraffes and a herd of zebras, majestically crossing the road; and a second lion, at great distance.
Other animals we saw were: bushbuck; nyala; waterbuck; southern ground hornbill; chickens-guinea fowl; banded mongose; barred owlet.
Around 5 pm we reached camp; and we were assigned to one of the tents, with water and facilities at walking distance. The good news is that we have electricity. We had dinner with our guide Kylie and Talia.
Sunday, July 14.
We are up at 5:30 and by six we are on a morning hike through the bush. There are seven of us and two guides with loaded rifles. We hike in a single file, in silence, stopping occasionally for an explanation or to see an animal. This morning hike of 2.5 hours is definitely the apex of the Safari experience. Being here in this bush on the same plane with the animals, in their territory, hiking through this bush, is euphoric. Despite the tiredness of last night, despite the freezing cold, despite no breakfast, I am full of physical energy and am sorry when the hike ends. I could go on for another hour or two.
Impalas and Kudus run in front of us. We watch two elephants at a distance. Then we meet them again, this time they are just next to us, behind thick bushes. We cannot see them but we hear the branches being broken as they feed, we hear their voices, they are in the same room with us. The leader hears a voice of male lion (we do not hear it) growling very low and tells us that the lion is letting the elephants know that they are approaching his territory and should take notice. We follow the tracks of a white rhino: first his dung, then his foot imprints in sand, finally a deep indentation in the sandy soil where it slept last night and probably just left.
At some point we pass a tall rock formation perhaps a hundred feet high, which looks exactly like the rock from the Lion King movie. I would not notice it but for Talia, who brings it to my attention. We laugh and the thought we instantly share. The sun is rising and it gets warmer. We take a short break for a snack. Then we go again. It is a fantastic expedition.
Breakfast in the camp, then we take a break on this sunny warm day. Hang around the tent, I shower, groom my nails, catch up on the journal. It is quiet here at midday, and very warm.
At 2 PM we take another short ride through the park. This time, after the morning walk, I see the park differently than before. I see the signs of animal presence everywhere. The trees stripped of bark to the height of two meters or so talk about elephants. On the river banks, there are thousands of different footprints in the sand and mud: I see the presence of large and small animals in these footprints. Literally, a convention taking place. Broken branches of high shrubs tell me that a giraffe was here not long ago; and the finally kicked around piles of manure are the clear sign of rhinos’ favorite path.
This afternoon we are lucky to see numerous groups of animals crossing the road in front of us. The big animals always move slowly, majestically. There is no rush to anything in their lives, unless of course they need to run away from predators. The best moment is when a dark old elephant approaches us, almost within reach of an outstretched arm, looking straight at us. Then turns and continues eating a big piece of wood.
From 4:30 to 7:30 we take a sunset ride. A different guide and a larger vehicle, full of people. It adds a few more animals to our list: Jackal, Whitetail mongoose. Nothing much happens otherwise, and we are getting bored and tired, when, suddenly, we come upon three female lions maybe 15 feet from us. We watch them for a long time. The lions are on their evening hunt. They are digging a hole, trying unsuccessfully to hunt down some animal hiding underground. They are frustrated. One digs, two others walk around. They sit, watch, get up, change places, start going way, then again cannot let go and come back. They are not happy.
It is seeing these animals in their habitat that is the essence of the safari trip. For me, it clarifies the boredom I always felt, even as a child, with a Zoo experience. It is not about seeing the animals; it is about taking in the world of the animals. And no documentary can convey what we feel when we watch these three lionesses.
We got up at 5:30 and without showering or breakfast hit the road for our jungle walk. We had two black guides, armed with real rifles, ready to defend us in dangerous situations. They drove us about half an hour deeper into the park. Our group was about 8 people. We walked into the bushes, over animal paths. The sun was just going up; the landscape was wild and beautiful. Birds sang everywhere. Very soon we saw a bunch of impalas jumping through the bushes. We got explanations about the droppings of white and black rhinos, and how to distinguish them from each other. Soon we saw an elephant (with a second nearby) moving through the bushes; and if I understood well we were going to cross its path. This did not happen, but we were very happy to see elephants in the wild, and being on foot. We further saw several kudus; and after being back in the car a rhino with young, probably feeding it; and another giraffe. The walk was awesome not only for the animals we saw, but also for the atmosphere, the light, the landscape…..
We had breakfast, and Halina and I took a break, while Kylie and Talia went for another drive. They saw a leopard, which we this missed. However, we had a great time sitting in the sun (me) and/or showering and sitting in the shade (Halina). For the first time during these holidays we felt we had time to linger and do nothing; which greatly refreshed us. We did not even go to lunch, but bought some sandwiches which suited us much better. Far too early we went for an afternoon drive. We saw a lot of animals that decided to cross the road: impalas, elephants, giraffes.
After a very quick break, in which I changed from shorts and summer clothes into jeans and winter outfit, we joined another guided tour. This “sunset” tour was guided by a jolly black guide, who made a lot of jokes. We had a bus full of tourists’ but for a very long time we saw little; and the road was bumpy and uncomfortable. Sometimes we forget that a big part of a safari is suffering extreme cold or heat; bad roads, a long time not seeing anything interesting. It became dark and we reached another group who told us the lions had just left that place. It became clear that this was a three hour suffering with little rewards, until……suddenly the lions were there: in the pitch dark, very close to the road, three females were running around, apparently hunting some small animal like a porcupine that had dug itself in a hole. The flashlights made it a fabulous experience; it was more than worthwhile the long suffering.
Afterwards we had dinner in a railway station. It was a surrealistic experience to enter a railway station in the dark in the middle of the bush. But it turned out to be a real railway station and a real steam train; the last on that entered there decades ago and apparently never left. It was the cleanest station you have ever seen, and the food was also much better than we had had in days.
Monday, July 15
Another very early and freezing morning. This time we get to the observation deck over the river to see the early morning life there while the sun is rising right in front of us. I thought that we have seen everything, but this is something else: a large group of hippos sleeping and taking showers after their morning meals. And a crocodile right below where we sit, motionless, observing in its own way, the scene. It is hard to know what is more interesting: the life in the water or the life in the trees, full of water birds like igres, corcorans, and herons. There must be about 20 people on this observation deck, some of them with the most amazing cameras. One camera has a lens so big that it looks like cannon. There is a Chines guy with a camera that sounds like a machine gun when he deploys it (softer, of course). By the time we leave this place, totally enthralled with the river show, the sun is well above the horizon.
Another ride through the bush, this time nothing of special interest except two amazing hyenas. Their raised convex backs and low hanging heads make the look menacing, scary. They are walking on “our” road, totally oblivious to our presence, then turn and disappear in the bush.
We are going home. First breakfast, then we change the cars. Finally, I am really warm and my eyes can rest.
Half way to Joburg we stop and switch cars. Kyle is going back to Kruger with another group form JoBurg, while a driver from JoBurg takes us back. While the two of them are transferring luggage and paperwork the two groups of us are standing around at the parking lot. The three of us have the experience of safari and the nine of them do not. I would expect that someone would ask: so, how was it? Or that one of us would volunteer a comment. But nothing like that happens. We just stand there.
It is great to be ‘home’ in the guest house. Patience volubly welcomes us, and we welcome a comfortable bad and a change of clothes. Tonight, a walk through the neighborhood, which I appreciate very much, an early dinner, and early bed. I am very tired from the safari trip, just as Kyle predicted when we started.
Again up at 5:45; packing our bags, and leaving for a last sunrise drive. This turned out to be a real delight. First we saw two hyenas on the road, from very close. They were clearly hunting; and they are among the mostugly animals. We then went out of the car for a quick coffee break; and walked through an encased walkway to an observation post above a river or lake. About 20 people were sitting there with cameras and binoculars watching the most incredible scenery: crocodiles practically beneath us, a whole bunch of hippos lying in groups; birds sitting on branches, or flying around feeding their family members. In meantime the sun appeared in-between the clouds. The only sounds were the low sounds of the hippos, the birds, and the clicking of the cameras; some sounding like machine guns. It was awesome a d we stayed for a very long time; it was a really emotional experience.
Afterwards we drove for a (too) long time; had breakfast, and changed into a “normal” car, which was a delight after the cold ride; but also scary because of the high speed we were not accustomed to any more. After a while we swapped cars, said farewell to Kylie, and got a new car and driver. The rest of the trip is hopefully uneventful; we took a quick break for lunch in the same place where we stopped on the way to Kruger, and now I discovered the possibility of typing on a tablet while sitting in a car. A new discovery, at least for me, although my fingers get somewhat numb after typing on a glass surface for a while.
We arrived in Jo-burg rather early, around 4:30 pm; so we had time to unpack; Halina took a bath; and at 6pm we went again out for dinner. This was hilarious, because we were out of cash; the ATM did not work; and the restaurant we thought was nice did not accept credit cards. We ended up having a drink there; and then moved to another restaurant where they accepted credit cards.
Tuesday, July 16.
Today we explore downtown Johannesburg. I am reluctant and have very low expectations. And of course there is that question of safety, when we know so little about this city. But Philip’s plan is very good: the Red Sightseeing double decker bus. Since the Cape Town experience I have become an enthusiast of these hop-on-off buses and plan to use them in the future in all major cities. It is really a great way to see the key neighborhoods and eliminates the problem of transportation.
They still have not fixed the internet access in the guesthouse so we start the day in the nearby internet café. Then a taxi takes us to one of the neighborhoods recommended by Philip’s guidebook as a cultural center, with several museums and green spaces. The reality is very disappointing. The area is desolate, the Africa Museum is completely empty, with very old pathetic exhibits targeting elementary school trips. It takes us about 15 minutes to get out of here. Outside again, we make a wrong turn and as we walk the street is becoming more and more decrepit, looking like Bowery district in New York in the 70s. Only the derelicts sleeping on the street are missing. It feels creepy. So we turn around and retrace our steps, at which point Philip realizes our mistake. We do not try any more museums in the area, just head for a Red Bus stop. But by now we are tired and feeling deflated about this city, so we take a lunch break in an almost empty restaurant.
Walking toward to bus stop the scene gets livelier. We walk the streets full of shops and people. Everybody is black, not a single white face anywhere. The shop merchandise is cheap stuff, but the atmosphere is nice, with stuff displayed on the sidewalks, in stalls, and in shop fronts. This is, according to Philip, real urban Africa. We continue the walk and enter another neighborhood altogether: the corporate headquarters of Anglo American, the biggest multinational mining company, which, despite its name, runs most of its operations in Africa and other developing countries. I interviewed these corporate people when I did my research on GRI. It is thrilling to see their global headquarters.
In fact, this part of the city comprises headquarters of all the major multinational and financial interest in South Africa, as well as the corporate history of mining in Africa. There are legal offices here and the Chamber of Mining. For the first time we see white people on the street. They are rushing form one building to another, holding paperwork. This is also a kind of an outdoor museum. Among tall nondescript buildings there are displays and statues related to the mining history of this city, which only 130 years ago was just a patch of grass. There is a tall mining elevator, a machine for pulverizing gold-carrying rock, a wagon very similar to those used in the frontier America, a monument to African miners, and several information gablottes of the people and companies that made this city. There was this one German geologist who discovered gold, platinum, chromium and some other rich mineral deposits here. We also come across an outdoor café with only white patrons (and two well-dressed handsome black men). I can almost feel the conversations about money, large sums of it, filling the air.
At this point we get on the Red Bus, which shows us a city with much more life that out initial impression suggested. Joburg downtown is busy and vibrant. And practically all black. The architecture is totally haphazard: occasional 19th century opulent buildings one would find in Vienna, some art deco architecture here and there, a lot of ‘brutal’ ugly concrete architecture form the 60s, and the rest is whatever the builder threw together. No beauty or planning here to be found, but plenty of life.
Our major other stop is the Constitution Hill. This is the location of an old fort and a prison as well as that of Supreme Constitutional court of South Africa. They incorporated the remains of the prison with the court building in a brilliant way. We visit the prison complex, with the cells and toilets left unchanged, and visit a small exhibit dedicated to Gandhi, who practiced law here in S.A. for about two decades. He was also an inmate in this prison for a time. It is here that Gandhi became radicalized, developed a following and a political base, and where he developed his methods of peaceful resistance before returning to India.
When we enter the Supreme Court building there are no other visitors. Since the court is not in session, the chamber where the cases are argued is open and deserted. We sit down in the chairs of the justices (Philip choses the Chief justice’s seat) and take a long peaceful rest. This is pretty cool to be here in these armchairs.
The bus takes us through a few more areas of the city, and when we get off the taxi that brought us to the city is waiting for us. A perfect arrangement. Home at 5 PM.
This was our second and last full day in Jo-burg; after longish negotiations we decided to go downtown around 11am; and spend a few hours there; I gave up on my idea to go to a meeting Rasigan organized in the evening downtown. I first got my cash at a working ATM in main street; then we spent some time at the internet café in Melville because the Ginnegaap wireless broke down. The previous evening I had spent a lot of time figuring out what to do in downtown Jo-burg; and I finally had a plan. A taxi driver brought us to Newtown; and we got his telephone nr for when we wanted to come back. We were dropped of at the Mary Fitzgerald……square; which proved to be a huge disappointment. A fully paved square, no trees or grass or anything. The neighborhood looked like the Bowery in NY in the 70s; totally run-down and broken. We first went into the African Museum to inspect it as well as to catch our breath; and plan ahead. The African museum was probably modern in the 70s; and since then had stopped upgrading. A lot of people hung around doing nothing; and there were no visitors or tourists. We then walked into Breestraat; which was more and more desolate with people hanging around doing nothing, and run-down and/or closed shops. No tourists and not a single white person. After a while I realized that we were 180 degrees off; and walking away from city center. Still this was a memorable walk into places where no tourist goes.
After turning around we diagonally crossed the square again; it was hot and we were looking for shade. We found a nice restaurant where we had lunch (as only guests) close to a beer brewery. We then walked straight into Africa: sidewalk markets full of shoppers and vendors; a very lively, but somewhat surprising experience. We walked through Market street and towards ……street, which was announced as a memorial for mining. Suddenly we were in a pedestrian area, full of modern building of mining companies; and full of photographs, statues; and a real mining shaft. We took a lot of photos with Halina’s smashed camera; which turned out to be surprisingly good after downloading them on a computer. Jo-burg started as a gold mining town late 1900s; and then it boomed and became a big city.
We entered a red bus; which had only been established in 2013. We were nearly the only tourists; but we got a nice tour and explanation by the earphone system. It was interesting to see the same places from the bus; and to get upbeat explanation about all wonderful activities that were going on in Jo-burg. We got off at Constitution Hill; a wonderful place with the constitutional court; but also with an enormous former prison complex turned into a museum. We entered the prison complex; and also visited a Gandhi museum; Gandhi spent some time in this prison. We then visited the Constitutional Court and sat down to rest in the seats of the Justices. Even in the 1.5 hours we had we had not enough time to visit the rest of the complex: the old fort and the women’s prison. The red bus took us further acrss town; and finally we got off at a place where the taxi would pick us up. There was some hassle due to the enormous traffic, and because the bus rerouted and we lost track of our exact location. But we found the zebra-striped taxi which brought us home to Melville around 5 pm. We took a rest and then went to again a restaurant; this time the Italian where we ate too much and too rich. The evening I spent downloading and ordering photos from our two crooked cameras; in anticipation of our travel home.
Wednesday, July 17.
This is the last day of our trip. We are ready to go home. I am ready to ditch the restaurant food and the two pairs of jeans and two Indian cotton shirts I have been wearing for three weeks. Philip is ready to go to work.
It is a beautiful sunny day in Joburg today, in the mid 50s but very warm in the sun. We have a slow morning, packing, strolling, doing computer work. Jaku the guide will come at 2 Pm to take us on a tour of Joburg neighborhoods and then take us to the airport. This drive through the neighborhoods would be impossible without a guide, especially one like Jacu who loves this city. We visit some of the richest places and some of the poorest and crime infested. He takes us to emerging hip neighborhoods like Melville (though bigger), in one of which we have lunch. He takes us to obligatory shopping areas for African crafts and for expensive designer clothes, jewelry, furnishings. We just look, not interested in shopping.
The last stop is the most interesting. We come to a neighborhood of boarded up deserted buildings which is coming back to life. The story is not entirely clear, but what we get out of it is that a very wealthy businessman is buying up these desolate streets block by block and renovates them: new building exteriors, freshly planted trees, renovated lofts for artists and storefronts for funky stuff. And it works. We visit a large interior atrium of artists’ studios, outdoor café tables, a jungle of tress, and a defunct vintage car from the 40s. Unfortunately, we got here too late: most places are closed, except one studio and gallery of drawings and sketches. Amazingly, I recognize the woman from last night dinner: she set at a nearby table with a tall man. We are all amazed at the coincidence, and my memory for faces.
Outside on the street there is a mix of food vendors set up in shacks, artistic shops, run down houses and empty lots, and a bicycle rental place, full of very old and mostly rusty bikes that work. At night, according to Jaku, there is a vibrant multicolored nightlife in this area
What Jaku has been showing us it his great hopes for this city where he spent his entire life. We of course wonder, quietly, what will happen with the current residents when the city continues to gentrify. We are going home!
Today our last day in S. Africa; tonight we fly back to NYC. We got up, packed our bags, and had another great breakfast, this time on the porch outside. Our plan is to explore Melville and the internet café this morning; and at 2 pm do the neighborhood tour with Jaco, who will then drop us off at the airport. The leisurely pass of this day was wonderful. The internet café was full of people like us, working and playing on their laptops. Afterwards we walked through the mostly residential neighborhood. Afterwards I went once more, but the internet was too slow to do serious work like JCP. I was witness of a vicious fight between a man and a woman; something to do with the router or the server; I do not know. The woman was basically thrown out; but later came back to collect things.
We said farewell to Ginnegaap and uploaded the luggage in Jaco’s car. The tour was interesting and low key: first a sort of upscale artsy shopping center, where we saw beautiful scarves and jewelry. Next another suburb where we visited the African shop. Next lunch in a nice outdoor restaurant in yet another upscale suburb. The most interesting and intriguing visit was to a new development in Fox street downtown Jo-burg, which used to be one of the most rundown and dangerous areas. Somebody with money started to buy entre blocks and redevelop them into art galleries, shops, and restaurants, as well as (I presume) housing. The place was very impressive; we entered a printer shop where we bought a book with drawings of modern J0-burg, which appealed very much to both Halina and me. We walked around the formerly dangerous streets, not quite sure how far we could go; but it all seems extremely safe; there was even a bike rental company.
We needed to leave for the airport, which was still a stiff drive, but no major traffic jams. The Jo-burg airport looks beautiful but is a disaster of lack of signage and people who sent you in the wrong direction. Eventually Halina got some of the VAT taxes on her bag back (on yet another credit card); and we bought some souvenirs. So far the plane ride is uneventful; both Halina and I managed to sleep; we had 4 seats to our disposal, which was much better than the first overcrowded flight.
This was the end of a wonderful holiday and trip; which brought us unexpected variety of experiences and impressions. The country itself has a long way to go; many people are optimistic that it can be done; but some are not at all. The political system is corrupt; and the differences between rich and poor are appalling; segregation is of course outbanned but is very alive in both housing and the economy at large; crime is still high, although somewhat declining; and some people become very entrepreneurial. The enormous influx from the rest of Africa is both a problem and an asset: apparently they are mostly good workers (like Tomas in Ginnegaap from Malawi); contrary to the local black population which is said to be without initiative due to long segregation, domination, and originally slavery. Having said that, people in for instance Soweto are very proud; and Soweto seems to be much further developed than many other townships like Khayelitsha. The Safari was a wonderful break; to see some of the origins of the African landscape, as well as all those animals was a real treat. Of course it is a tourist trap; but unbelievable how interesting it was to spy on animals in their own habitat. I/we are not sure if we would do this again; the early risings; the cold, the long distance driving, and other hardships were good for this time and give us wonderful memories.