Out on a game drive today and we passed close by a large bull elephant. He turned and faced us, flapped his ears out and started to run directly at us! Thankfully, he stopped about twenty yards away. Helen took a few pictures, understandably one’s a little blurry; her hands were shaking uncontrollably.
South Africa – October 2013
We were told that the python in the rafters of the observation tower was friendly? A friendly python? So we walked out to take a look; he was massive, coiled up in the timbers.
After the morning game drive, we went out to read in the tower and the python was still in his spot. I joked, “we’ll be fine unless we look up and he is not there.” Sure enough after about an hour I looked up and he had slipped away without a sound. I looked all over and there was no sign of him anywhere.
Helen went back to the room and I would furtively glance around every so often. Suddenly, I could see the python’s head sticking out of the roof looking right at me! I stayed out there but it was hard concentrating on my book with my friend staring down at me.
I heard some noise; looked up and he was slowly coming out of the reeds of the roof to his perch on the rafters. Five minutes later he stopped; he was not fully out of the roof but there was a least ten feet of snake that I could see. That thing was a monster. I prudently decided to go in for lunch.
We took our first game drive early, 6:00 am, when the animals are most active before the African sun becomes too hot. We set off in the well-used but reliable Land Rover, with our ranger Greg, and tracker, Richard, who sits on a seat mounted to the hood of the rover. We crested a small hill and immediately saw a lioness lounging on a rock in the sun.
Greg pulled within ten yards and it was only after we stopped that we noticed another lioness. Greg pointed out two more lions in the grass, less than six feet away, directly in front of me, totally camouflaged, almost impossible to see.
The lions were totally unconcerned with our presence, like we were not there at all. Greg, explained that The Rover is neither prey nor predator, so the animals for the most part ignore it. Suddenly, one of the lions got up and walked towards us, Greg: “trust me: remain calm and don’t move”. Easy to do; I wasn’t even breathing. The lioness came within a few feet of the Rover and did a full circle around us; I could have leaned out and patted her on the head.
Jail and techno?
We visited the dingy main jail in Jo-burg during Apartheid, that is now a museum. I won’t go into all the descriptions and first-hand accounts, but lack of food, beatings, rape. It’s all there in vivid detail.
During Apartheid, Jo-burg was a white-only city; black people would have to carry working papers to be in the city and then have to be back in the townships at night. If a black person was found in the city without papers or at night they would be thrown into this hell-hole of a prison for multiple days. It’s hard to believe but this happened until the late eighties. The late eighties. Shocking.
The day we looked around, In the courtyard directly above the prison, there was a gay-rights rally with food and info stalls and a DJ pumping out music. It was bizarre wandering around the jail with loud techno music in the air.
South Africa has come a long way in just over twenty years; there is a lot left to do but it is encouraging.
Soweto; Don’t believe the hype.
From everything we have read about Joburg, it sounded like a war zone. All of the tour books listed the many dangers in the city And warned don’t wear jewelry, never take your camera out, half of the city is totally off-limits, never go out at night. Car jacking is epidemic, if anyone approaches your car and you feel threatened, you can legally run a red light. Could this all really be true, we wondered; could it be that bad?
Of all the areas of Joburg, Soweto has the most dubious reputation. Soweto is short for SouthWest Townships and was essentially a camp where blacks were segregated in Apartheid. Now, between 1.5 to 3 million live in Soweto and its reputation has not changed much. It’s a maze of corrugated tin shacks and tiny houses with a reputation for violent crime and poverty, however over the past decade there has been a rise in the black middle class here. We had read that over the past few years guided tours started in Soweto and have become popular; not only that, but night tours have started visiting shabeens, (local bars). During apartheid these were illegal; shabeens were essentially speakeasies serving a home brew beer made of maize. Helen and I consider ourselves connoisseurs of dive bars and so and the idea of a shabeen tour at night intrigued us. We heard back late that afternoon from the tour company, Imbizo, by email; we did not have much info other than it was from 6.30 to 11pm and they would pick us up at the hotel.
So we pulled into our small boutique hotel in Joburg; through the fortress-like gates, there was a Rolls in the courtyard and the staff met us with a glass of sherry. The room had a walk-in closet and the bathroom was bigger than our living room at home. It was over the top, kind of embarrassing in a way, not really our thing, but you can’t complain! Helen had got a great deal for the night but we had no idea that lodging, food and drink are about half the price compared to the states, so it was completely excessive.
At 6.30 we got a call from the front desk; in a questioning voice the woman said, “there is a driver here to pick you up?”. We walked into the courtyard and two kids in their twenties were standing in front of a red VW Gti from the mid-eighties. We introduced ourselves and hopped into the VW to the wide-eyed amazement of the hotel staff.
We instantly hit it off with our guides, Moyo and Sumi, who later said they were worried when they pulled into the hotel that we would be stiff, and were happy to see us come out in t-shirts and jeans. We asked how the tour worked, “are we meeting other people? “, “No just you two, it’s a private tour, we will fit right in with us and this car”. That sounded great to us.
We stopped for a quick bite and a beer at a popular spot on Vilakazi Street and we chatted about the neighborhood; both Desmond Tutu and Nelson Mandela have houses on the street; only street in the world to boost two nobel peace prize winners. According to Moyo, there is not a lot of crime in Soweto; not a lot to steal, the robbers go to the more affluent areas; the Robin Hood idea, an ‘informal redistribution of wealth’.
We next moved to a shabeen up the street; The Shack’, Built mostly with corrugated tin and two by fours for support. The bar was a large window with steel bars, which the bartender handed beer through. The furniture was a random assortment of plastic cars old car seats and a couch made from an old bed-frame.
Moyo knew a few people who invited us over to drink with them, but first they had to find us some crates to sit on. I sat next to a slightly inebriated fellow. I could only understand about half of what he said; but luckily this worked out because he kept on repeating himself….drunk. He was teaching me curse words in his tribal tongue until the conversation moved to a car maneuver popular in the township: spinning, which is donuts where I come from. Essentially this is driving in circles as fast as you can with the wheels spinning; I was quite good at this in my youth, and so told him “I can out-spin you any day”. He stood up, pulled out his car keys and said “let’s go right now”. Luckily Helen saved me with a decisive “You are not getting onto a car with him, and You, (pointing at my new friend) you should sit down”. Which, wisely, he did.
The next stop was a open-air club next to a old abandoned coal power plant. There was a DJ and accompanying drummers. Everyone in the place was dancing, so we ordered some beers and joined in. I am the epitome of a white man who can’t dance; no rhythm, off beat, stiff, with moves from the eighties. Not only was Moyo, Sumi and Helen making fun of me, but complete strangers were ribbing me. After a few beers I didn’t care, it is more embarrassing for Helen! Anyway, it was all in good fun and we had a great time.
We pulled up to the hotel, well after 1am! Tour was only supposed to last until eleven, so we offered our two friends some more money but they refused, saying “we should pay you – we had a great time”.
We gave them a healthy tip and hugged them goodbye. They had mentioned earlier that the people of Soweto were welcoming to visitors that made the effort to visit the neighborhood. That’s exactly what we found; everyone was great and interested in ‘the foreigners’ and we felt totally at ease. In fact, totally the opposite we felt in Joburg. Don’t believe the hype!
I ain’t gonna play Sun City
Arrived in Joburg, rented our 4×4 pick-up and got to our accommodation, the Airport Game Lodge about 11pm. It was a strange little place with a fenced-in area with impala and ostrich. We were a little peckish and parched from our long flight, so we were happy to hear that the bar was still open. Turns out the bar consisted of a vending machine with snacks, beer and wine. That works.
We got up early for our two-hour drive to Sun City where we were spending the night. Sun City is a casino/resort built in the late seventies during Apartheid and was for whites only. It was the first casino allowed in South Africa through a technicality, and quickly expanded into multiple hotels, restaurants and a concert venue. There was an anti-apartheid song from the 80’s, “I ain’t going to play Sun City” sung by a collaboration of artists; good intention, bad song. Anyway, the place was no longer segregated and looked kitschy and bizarre and so a good place to get over our jet-lag and get acclimated.
As in England, they drive on the left side in South Africa. The steering wheel is on the left, the peddles are the same but the gear shift is in your left hand. With a mild case of jet-lag, driving in sprawling Joburg was a bit of a challenge; left hand turns were the worst. The biggest problem I had, was that the turn indicator lever and the windshield wipers were reversed; Whenever I went to turn, I would hit the wipers. It drove Helen nuts; but that’s ok, that’s my job.
We drove past the outskirts of some townships with corrugated tin shacks packed in tight; dirt roads and lots of people walking; bleak, like nothing I have seen before. Only a little later we were driving through the affluent northern suburbs. We passed gated communities, high-end car dealerships, large malls: All of them surrounded by ten foot high walls with razor wire and electric fences. They were like mini-fortresses with huge metal gate and guards: one even had guard towers like a prison.
We rolled up to Sun City which, like Vegas, is in the middle of nowhere, rising out of the scrub brush like a surreal temple of doom. Sun City has a jungle theme with elephant bridges, monkey mountains and lagoon pools; A fake jungle in the real African bush. After lunch we went to the wave pool and water park; I’m a sucker for waterslides and have been known to push small children out of the way to be first in line!
Sun City was surreal and odd but we got a chance to recharge for our upcoming, intimidating, return to Joburg.
After two days in South Africa, I was having a hard time getting my head around this complex country; the first world and the third world living side by side, the filthy rich and the dirt poor; the fake and the real, the black and the white.