January 30 - April 16, 2007
Foto ShowsKruger Animal Drives
North: Joberg etc
Why South Africa?
We had been hot and cold about visiting South Africa for a long, long time. On the plus side was its inherent interest and our desire to see our long-time faithful correspondent, Pam, who has lived all her life there. On the negative side was the distance and the reports of crime.
We assumed when we started our permanent travels that we would some day find the right moment to renew our acquaintance with Pam, whom we met in France some 34 years ago and had not seen since. When she most recently visited England, we were in Israel. While she was skiing in Europe, we were in Central America, and so on. We flirted with visiting after our trip to Moscow, but couldn't find the right combination of cheap flight and circumstances to overcome our hesitations. We are notoriously opportunistic and while trying to find out about South Africa an apartment rental in Athens fell in our lap and so we took that instead. However, while in Sydney two things coincided to bring a South Africa trip to reality.
Soon after our arrival in Sydney, we had seen advertized a round-the-world fare from Sydney that would allow us to take in South Africa on our way to Europe and then return to Sydney via the United States. At the same time we were trying to decide what to do about the three-month limit on our visa to Australia. We loved Sydney, but wanted to explore further afield too. To get an extension on our visa required either leaving the country and coming back (perhaps to New Zealand) or jumping through some bureaucratic hoops and paying a substantial fee with no guarantee of success. While pondering this we received an email from our friend Veronica offering her apartment in Paris for spring/summer 2007. Knowing that this period included the presidential elections in France we were sorely tempted. When we put that together with the round-the-world fare the decision was fairly easy. We got out our calendar and sketched out a year's worth of travel based on the round-the-world fare that included almost three months in South Africa. And that was that.
When thinking about South Africa in Moscow, we had thought about renting an apartment for a month or so in one of the big cities like Capetown or Durban and perhaps buying a cheap second-hand car for a subsequent trip around the country. For once Craig's List did not have anything suitable and that is partly why those plans came to naught. Meanwhile Gerry had found a very nice book about South Africa and had begun to have a better idea of what we should see and do. His conclusion was that even three months might not be enough to see everything and that we should therefore rule out extensive stays in any one city. When we met a young South African in Sydney who assured us that we could find a reasonably priced rental car and said that driving around the country was not a dangerous proposition at all we thought we'd give it a try.
And so we made our decision, booked our tickets and left Sydney on January 29th for an eleven-week stay in South Africa. We had hoped to be able to fly into Capetown and make our way overland to Johannesburg but as only very few seats for our kind of ticket were available on each flight we had to settle in the end for flying both into and out of Johannesburg making a circular trip essential.
We started by spending a few days in Johannesburg to get our bearings and overcome jet-lag Then we rented a very small and very old-fashioned VW Golf, called a Chico. It had no air-con, no automatic anything except for the windshield wipers, but it was economical on gas and sturdy enough for the numerous unpaved roads that we travelled. It was too small to hold all of our luggage in the trunk, so we always had the back seat filled which made it difficult for us to safely leave the car while en route from place to place. We paid a very reasonable $32/day (16 pounds or 25 euros) including all insurance and unlimited kilometers. Gas was just under $1/liter. We might have been able to save money had we bought a car, but learning how to buy and sell a car might have used up too much of our valuable time and so we preferred the no-hassle aspects of renting.
Our trip ultimately took in all but the far west and northwest of the country. We covered 11,000 kilometers and were in eight of the nine provinces of South Africa. We visited most of the major cities: Johannesburg, Pretoria, Durban, Pietermaritzburg, Port Elizabeth, Capetown, and Bloemfontein. We saw animal parks galore, great and small, including Kruger, Ado, Mountain Zebra, Mkhuze, St Lucia, Karoo, Royal Natal and a handful of state parks and Hluhuwe and Hlane parks in the independent enclave of Swaziland. Apart from Swaziland we also visited the mountainous redoubt of Lesotho, another independent enclave. And of course we saw the beaches, the vineyards, the deserts, and the mountains, notably the Drakensberg of which we had heard many times over the years from Pam and finally got to experience with her during our last days in the country. And how can we not mention Table Mountain itself, the dream of a lifetime? A dream that came true and was thrilling. All told to say we loved the trip is to understate things.
South Africa and Crime
As mentioned we had our reservations giving the terrible reputation of South Africa for crime. Jan especially was extremely nervous on arrival. Her nervous state was only exacerbated when we found that our guesthouse in Johannesburg was fitted out like an armed camp with high stone walls all around topped with barbed wire and a huge heavy metal gate that only opened with a secret code. The staff at the guesthouse did not encourage unescorted outings, preferring in retrospect of course to charge guests for tours of various kinds. They did offer a daily shuttle to the nearest shopping mall where we equipped ourselves with cellphone SIM cards and a phone for Jan so that we would always be able to contact one another and/or the police. Our one real excursion from the guest house was to the Apartheid museum on the other end of town. Our taxi driver added to the fright when he told Gerry it was too dangerous to stop in the middle of town for a picture of the train station. Not an auspicious beginning.
Nonetheless we rented the Chico and set off. Off to see the real South Africa and off to find out that the reality was much kinder than the reputation. In our 11,000 kilometers and ten weeks of driving we never, ever had a single problem. (Unless you call people warning us of danger a problem.) We walked around the centers of Pretoria, Capetown, Peter Maritzburg, Bloomfontein, and numerous smaller towns with no problem. But we did not take chances. We always parked in highly visible places, if possible with some kind of security. We only rarely went out after dark, notably in Durban with our friend Pam, never drove after dark, and so on. Even though we were obviously tourists — Gerry always had his camera with him, which is large and impossible to hide — we were never bothered by anyone. The one exception was while walking along the beachfront in downtown Durban with our friend Pam, where for once Gerry did not have his camera, and Jan was the only one with a handbag: we were stopped by a police car who told Jan she was asking for trouble carrying her bag. She explained that there was nothing in the bag but a comb and a dollar and he responded: "But the thieves don't know that!" As we had nowhere to hide the bag (we were all in shorts and T-shirts) we compromised by having Gerry carry the bag. As an aside, the policeman, who was white, turned out to be an immigrant from the northeast of England not far from where Jan was born. Asked if he liked South Africa he replied that he would never swap it for England.