As you know, we’ve been enjoying a special Christmas break–one spent with friends in South Africa. I sometimes shake my head in wonder–how did I get to South Africa?
As a child, I remember hearing about apartheid and seeing news about Nelson Mandela on TV. Then, as a college student, I remember that the place was the murder capital of the world, and carjackings were happening constantly. The news even featured a segment on a flamethrower that could be mounted underneath your car to prevent carjackers from stealing your ride.
As a result, heading there was the farthest thing from my mind.
But things change. And whats more, bad news is mostly what makes it onto TV. Quick: name a good event that’s happened in a foreign country lately. What comes to mind? What about a bad event? Anything scary? Something horrendous? I can think of a couple of those much more easily than I can something cheerful. That goes for places on the traveler’s radar, too, like European Union countries. What did I really know about South Africa at all? Not a lot. I’ve seen a couple of movies about Nelson Mandela, but what did Clint Eastwood’s Invictus (which chronicled Nelson Mandela’s attempt at using the world of sports to help unite his countrymen) really teach me about the place? Again, not a great deal.
My lack of knowledge about SA started to change as Jenia and I made friends with a pair of South African couples. They’re charming, funny, and engaging. And I can certainly say they’re more than generous, too, especially considering all the effort they put into helping us have a great holiday over the last couple of weeks. But I risk getting off-track–what did I start to learn about South Africa? I learned our friends had a strong devotion to their country, and a fierce desire to return to it. They talked about the beautiful scenery and the wonderful wildlife. One teared up when talking about the ailing former President, Nelson Mandela, asking that we pray for the country. And it made me wonder, is it still dangerous? Our friends seemed to kind of skirt that question: “We live in a security complex, so you’ll be fine,” they said. “There’s no reason to ever see that side of South Africa,” they told us. “Just don’t stop on the side of the road,” said one. “I’ve got good insurance on the car, so if anything happens, don’t worry.” The other friend added, “Ya, don’t stop unless parts are falling off.” Pause: “And then don’t stop.”
In essence there’s the short answer: SA can still be dangerous, it’s true. The long answer is this: learn what areas to avoid going through at night, find out when and where it’s a bad idea to stop beside the road or at a filling station, and in general avoid presenting an easy target for thieves, and you’ll be fine. This makes it like any other city in the world. Also, the relatively small city of Cape Town is safer than Johannesburg. Since Cape Town and the Western Cape province is where we spent our time, that’s all I can really write about. I never felt threatened at all, and I’d highly recommend visiting the area if you ever get the chance–it’s truly a beautiful place, with stunning vistas at every turn.
Our friends were instrumental in getting us to visit the country. To begin with, they gave us a reason to go visit. Then the helped us figure out what kinds of things we should do with our time there. They even recommended what airline to fly (for us, taking the South African Airlines flights that are operated by Emirates is the best option).
So this is how we got to South Africa. Other than being pretty, you say, what’s the place like?
When we arrived on December 16, the entire country was mourning the loss of former President Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela, who passed away on the 5th. His funeral had already taken place, but there was a second memorial service being broadcast as we were finding our way out of the airport. During the first week of our trip, were touched to see “Memorial Stations” set up throughout the city in various locations, including the airport, where people could come–and they queued right up to do this–to pour out their sympathies, grief, and condolences, perhaps leaving cards or flowers. It was very clear Mandela was adored by all. “He just had that power,” said my friend’s dad. “He made you feel important.” Mandela dominated many of the conversations I had with older people, and even people my own age, for a significant portion of our trip.
Mentioning the former president inevitably brings up discussion of the current state of politics. The place has a very forward-thinking constitution, which they sometimes find difficult to implement. The dominant ANC party has become corrupted, and even the president himself corrupt. Most notably, he misused a ton of public funds on his own luxurious compound. “The law allows him to make security improvements and have them paid for,” my friend said. “But he called his swimming pool a ‘fire pool,’ like it was a reservoir they could use to put out fires.” Yet folks are hopeful that the government will change and get back on the track it was on when Mandela and his immediate successor were in office. But I’m not a politician or a political blogger, so I’ll leave my observations on the topic at this: the place is a country that is developing, and it has got a few hurdles to overcome, mostly, it seems, in the political arena, so that development can really take place. I seriously hope that this happens sooner rather than later, because it’s a place that deserves to shine.
And what are the people like? Warm. Welcoming, friendly. Cheerful and upbeat. Everyone speaks English, and it’s a nice, mellifluously accented sort. They also speak Afrikaans, which is a very pleasant sounding blending of Dutch and English. We picked up a handful of words and phrases like “Lakker,” “Lakker slap,” and “More more [pronounced more-uh],” meaning “sweet” or “nice,” “sleep well,” and “‘morning.” They tend to drink a bit, perhaps owing to the fact that there are tons of vineyards in the area, and they absolutely love to barbecue out on the weekends, or, it seems, anytime there’s a good excuse. This is called “braai,” and it’s usually a wood fire built in a brazier of one sort or another. We even had fire bread one night (the last bit of baking done over the coals). They know how to relax, but they’re also hard workers and they’re often health-oriented and outdoorsy.
Now about those vistas–there are too many lovely sights to recount. Table Mountain towers over Cape Town, which more or less surrounds it. Hiking trails await; I experienced only one, a steep one descending Table Mountain. On the way down I had to pause and touch the rocks every now and then and say to myself, “I’m in Africa. These are African rocks. I’m amazed to be here.” My calves were screaming at me for a couple days after that hike–and I thought myself in reasonably good shape before that! Beaches and bays with near-white sand and icy cold water await sunbathers and hearty swimmers, too; rocks rise out of the water and mountains peer down into it. Skies are perfect blue. Beautiful.
The flora is greatly varied and changes greatly as one drives north or west from the city. In Cape Town, things start out pretty green. Before long, you’re in Stellanbosch, the winelands, surrounded by vineyards on terraced hillsides with dramatic peaks soaring above. I loved watching the clouds pouring over the tops of the mountains, the mists rolling slowly. If you take N1 going northeast, you’ll experience the Garden Route, where the land flattens into softly undulating fields, and this time of year at least, the fields are golden and low-cut. We went as far up the east coast as Knysna, where there are pine forests and thick, hilly bushland, and on the west coast as far as Veldriff, where the landscape is sandy and bushes grow low to the ground.
As for memorable stories, we’ve got a few. For example, we got hands-on time with a cheetah, some birds of prey, a porcupine, and elephants–although I will go ahead and admit that those animals were all quite tame.
Maybe in our next post, we’ll share some particular stories. For now, though, I fear I’ve dragged this one on for too long, trying to squeeze 17 days into one entry. Until next time.