In October 2018, ten of us, cousins and spouses, ventured on a two-week trip to South Africa, organized by our youngest cousin, who grew up in South Africa. We took an overnight flight from Zurich, and arrived 9 hours later in Johannesburg where we were whisked off to the Johannesburg Country Club, a left over cluster of old manors and lounges from the Brits, sprawled over a few acres of groomed gardens and surrounded by a ten foot high wall, topped with electric security wires. Over a scrumptious, extended lunch we were treated to a bit of history from our cousin who loved this country of his birth with a natural passion and he also knew that we were curious and keen to know where we were.
“South Africa is a country that occupies 1% of the earth’s total land surface encompassing every possible landscape from desert to forest, mountains to coast. It is made up of 9 provinces and sports 11 official languages. It has six biospheres and contains 10% of the worlds known bird, fish and plant species and over 6% of the world’s mammal and reptile species including the big five: Lion, leopard, buffalo, rhino and elephant. It is a staggeringly beautiful country and it also has mostly balmy, sunny weather. It’s summer down therewhen the northern half of the planet is stuck in winter. The population of about 50 million people is made up of roughly 80% African (black), 9% European descendants (white), 9% coloured (a mix of ethnic backgrounds) and about 2% Indian/Asian. All of them are fervently united, standing shoulder to shoulder behind their national soccer, rugby and cricket teams, the Bafana, Bafana, the Springboks and the Proteas. Politically SA is a democracy only since 1994 when Apartheid ended and Mandella walked free and despite all the innuendos, opinions and rumours there is progress on every front: education, housing for the poor and infrastructure. That’s South Africa in a nutshell.”
“How many people live around here?” One of us asked.
“About 10 million people live in and around Johannesburg, if you include areas like West Rand and Lenasia. It also boasts the largest man made forest of about 6 million trees. About 400 thousand families own all the wealth, (ca . 1.6 million people), and the rest live in systemic poverty in the sprawling townships of which Soweto with 1.3 million people is the largest. In most of these townships have clean drinking water is available, some electricity but not much in the way of waste treatment or sewer.”
As we drove around for the next couple of days we saw these corrugated tin slums, which sprawled right along the highway, on the other side of the street from the new glass and steel towers of Standton, Johannesburg’s new shiny business district. We passed many walled in estates, compounds and private schools, which are surrounded by electrified security fences and high walls. We even drove by Nelson Mandella’s last residence. “What’s missing is the middle class,” I said. “Yes, and the poor townships are the natural breeding ground for the legendary criminals prowling the streets of Jo’burg,,” my other cousin said, but we personally did not see any evidence of them, apart from the security patrol vehicles in all the upscale neighbourhoods. To the contrary, all the people we met and interacted with were super friendly and hospitable but we did not walk around any neighbourhoods or unprotected areas, which gave us a slanted view of security.
“Each family in the townships usually have one family member with a job, in the past it was most likely in the gold mines, which are today 5 km deep and mostly exhausted.,” my local cousin explained. “Also the price of gold hasn’t really moved in ten years and South Africa hasn’t diversified or educated its vast, cheap labour population. Many work in the service industries in the upscale neighbourhoods and glitzy new downtowns and then go home to their hovels in the townships. It’s a big challenge and problem for the reigning governments, even though since 1994 the African National Congress party rules the roost but they first and foremost look after themselves, their families, friends and tribes. Corruption is widespread and endemic but the people of South Africa are still much better off in general than they were 30 years ago, so progress has been made but it’s slow. Unemployment is the biggest challenge, which in 2016 stood at a staggering 26.6%.”
“This city doesn’t seem that old and it looks like it’s growing,” I said.
“Johannesburg didn’t exist until 120 years ago when in 1886 George Harrisson (not the Beatle) discovered gold on a farm. Gold carried this country for over a century until in 1974 Nixon abolished the gold standard, which plunged the Rand from being on par with the dollar to 15 Rand per dollar today”.
There was a lot to learn about this fascinating country, considering that only a couple of days ago all I knew about South Africa was the Krüger Park and the noisy vuvuzelas during the FIFA world cup in 2010.
From Johannesburg, which sits at 1800 m above sea level, we drove north for about five hours to spend three days on a game reserve in Welgevonden, housed luxuriously in a timbered and thatched roofed private lodge. Silas was our daily guide and driver in a canvas covered Toyota Land Cruiser that had seats for all ten of us. We spent up to six hours a day driving around the rust coloured gravelly roads in the 370 sqkm, large reserve. Every day we saw wild animals, which although contained in the large reserve, live free and wild, have their young and roam at will. We watched and observed from up close half a dozen elephants, a male lion, the lioness with her offspring, dozens of wilderbeasts, kudus and zebras, several giraffes, baboons, white rhinos and their young and once from afar, a black rhino and baby of which there are only about 2500 left in the whole world. We even spotted a crocodile lounging beside a brackish pool, which also hid a hippo. Only the ears and eyes poked out. Silas, our guide, informed us of the habits of all these animals. Take the regal lion for instance, the king of the jungle. “He will never grow old and die a natural death,” Silas told us, “he will be challenged by a younger male and eventually be killed by one of them; it could be his own offspring. The new head of the clan will then kill all the old lion’s brood and start his own gene line. The lioness is the huntress and the male does nothing but provide the genes for the next generation. Not exactly the Disney version of the lion king. As for elephants the bulls don’t die a natural death either. As they get older their teeth rot and fall out and when the young bulls become aware of the old bulls handicap they oust them from the herd, and the old bull then eventually succumbs to starvation.” It’s a mean wild kingdom out there and it’s always about the next generation and guaranteeing the survival of the species. Silas also explained how giraffes have a special one-way valve in their heart, which has to pump the blood all the way up to the head. The valve prevents the blood from flowing back down, which means that the giraffe cannot keep his head down to drink or feed for very long because all that blood would make it very dizzy and could cause a stroke and even death. That’s the problem if your neck is too long and your head is in the clouds.
We then drove east toward what Deon Meyer calls: the aching vastness of the Karoo, the 750 sqkm, semi desert national wild life park in the Western Cape. We stayed at the park’s Lodge and early the next morning we bundled up and were driven around for 4 hours in an open Landcruiser until the wind chill and cold morning air froze us to the bone. We did see herds of springbok, the South African small deer, as well as three black rhinos across the sparse, brown valley but we mainly stared out silently across the barren, rocky terrain, wrapped in blankets. “There is life in the Karoo,” our driver assured us but we felt more dead then alive from the cold we didn’t expect.
South Africa is vast and empty with huge tracts of fenced grassland farms, void of trees and populated only by sheep and cattle, which appeared now and then in the distance, almost indistinguishable in the brownish landscape just waking up from winter. “There’s an ostrich,” somebody yelled from the back seat. Sure enough there was a flock of the strange looking creatures, parading around on their skinny legs, their long, snake like necks pecking the ground. We drove into an ostrich farm where a lively tour guide told us all about the famous plumes, the precious leather and the lean meat. We even were treated to an ostrich race between ‘Speedy Gonzales’ and ‘Ferrari’ jockeyed by two skinny guys holding on for dear life. Of course we had ostrich steak for lunch. With wine, as always.
We drove on and suddenly we were surrounded by steep desert canyons and when we emerged on the other side it was a different world of lush green pastures, undulating hills and fertile grasslands and way off in the distance we could see the blue of the Indian Ocean.
We overnighted in Knysna, on the coast north of George, which is part of the Garden Route. The dramatic headlands jut out from hilly shores, which have all been razed by devastating forest fires, only a year ago, which burned down dozens of homes and every tree in sight. Today the hills along the spectacular shore are green with new growth, shrubs and feynbos and some of the residences are being rebuilt. We dined at a cool waterfront restaurant, which used to be a power station. The old turbines and generators are still in the vast industrial space, painted and cleaned up and mixed in with lounges, dining tables and a bar. A lot of the houses along he shore were obvious holiday dachas, shuttered up for the winter. We walked barefoot along the shallow sandy beach, pretending is was summer. At least we had our feet in the Indian Ocean and straight south of where we were standing was Antarctica.
The next morning we meandered along the Garden Route, south towards the cape, past Eligin and Swellendam and vast orchards on either side of the road. We even passed a flock of blue cranes, South Africa’s national bird, in a field right beside the highway. This is as good a place as any to mentions the roads we travelled on. They were first class, no potholes and well maintained, the only nuisance being the endless caravan of haul trucks, moving goods around the country in lieu of a national railway. There are railways but they are privately owned. Too bad if you have to move your ore or barley and you’re not part owner of the railway. Your stuff moves on wheels. We arrived in Hermanus, an upscale beach town, famous for watching the Southern Right whales and surrounded by well established wineries.
We usually stopped for lunch at roadside restaurants, which always took time. “The service in restaurants is dreadfully slow in South Africa, and that goes for the fast food places as well,” my cousin told us. And he was right. I watched an entire soccer match between ordering and the arrival of the food at a fancy restaurant in Johannesburg. The main dietary ingredient in South Africa is meat: Lamb, beef, ostrich, kudu, pork and not much chicken, stewed, grilled and dried as biltong. Three times a day there is meat to be had and meat for dinner is as commonplace as pasta is in Italy. Then there is wine, excellent and in all varietals. We visited several established wineries around Hermanus, like the Hamilton Russel Vineyards, whose wines rival any in France, Italy, Spain or for that matter the Okanagan in B.C. The clayey red soil that permeates all of South Africa’s fertile lands mixed with plenty of sunshine and southern exposure provides ideal terroirs for viniculture. We sampled abundantly and constantly.
We observed a glamorous sunrise right from our hotel room window, which looked out onto Walker bay. The Southern Right whales come here from Antarctica to calf and nurse their young. They don’t feed but swim close to shore where we watched and observed them with bare eyes, breaching, dipping and cavorting with their young ones beside them.
From Hermanus we drove along the coast past some of the most fertile land in all of South Africa. We stopped for an extended lunch at the Vergelegen Wine estate in Somerset West. The next morning we started with an hour long walk in the hills overlooking Gorden Bay and Strand and then drove on to Franschoeck, a touristy Hugenot town filled with plenty of restaurants, craft shops and galleries. And then we arrived at the Protea Hotel, an old converted farm estate, on the outskirts of Cape Town, our final destination. That night we ate the best steaks ever at ‘Nelson’s Eye Restaurant’, which is inconspicuously housed on several levels inside an old apartment building. The next day we were tourists again, lining up with hundreds of others for the cable car up to Table Mountain which offers spectacular views of Kapstadt, Hout Bay, Lions Head and Devil’s Peak . We could easily make out the large oval of the Green Point stadium which opened in 2009, just in time for the FIFA world cup. In the afternoon we drove to Simon’s town, home of the Boulders African Penguin colony. It is there where my cousin and I actually fully submerged for a few seconds in the Indian Ocean, right beside the cute penguins. Needless to say it was an antarctic experience.
For our final cocktail in SA my cousin, who was a star for the past two weeks and was sure to suffer some form of post-cousin stress disorder, took us to the Silo which is a spectacular revamped grain silo complex with a five star hotel and bar added to the top featuring garage door sized windows overlooking the new and modern harbour front. It was the culmination of an unforgettable two week trip through diverse parts of South Africa which at least afforded us a glimpse of the magnificence of the landscape, the diversity of its people and the abundance of its wildlife.