he BC Blog


South Africa, February 2007

We send out lots of email while we travel. In fact, of course, we send email much more often than we update the web. We can never quite remember who we told what to, so this page is meant as a sort of bulletin board for our most recent whereabouts, impressions, and comments while we work more slowly and deliberately on the permanent web pages.

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Wednesday, February 7 — Day Off

We've taken a day off, so are able to post this blog entry and the ones written earlier but not posted. In fact, this is a good time to note what dates mean on our blog: they denote when we wrote the major part of the entry, not when it was posted. Depending on our internet access and our review process it might be a considerable while after composition before posting. In the meantime we might update and augment our original efforts.

Tuesday morning we got up as usual (at least since we arrived jet-lagged from Australia), just before dawn. That's our plan: go to bed early and get up early, to be in tune with the wild animals we want to see in Kruger and other game reserves. Working in the dark room, Gerry used our new wireless internet access for the first time, sending and receiving email. The session required a total of 4.2 MB of transfer, and on the plan we chose, that cost R4.20, or about 60 US cents.

After email it was time to finish packing and then have breakfast. We loaded the car and set off for Punda Maria, the northern-most entry to Kruger, about 600 km to the north east. We were on the road by 8:20, Jan driving. This was her first time behind the wheel in over two years, but she got the hang of it very quickly. We weren't going to go to Kruger all in one day, or even to rush there. We planned a night at Polokwane (formerly Pietersburg, before the victors started to rewrite history), and then another just outside Punda Maria, visiting Emily, a Peace Corps volunteer, in her village, Nghezimani.

We took route R101 north, rather than getting on the parallel M1/N1 freeway, so that we (mostly Gerry) could see South African life rather than whiz by it. Jan would have preferred the more secure freeway in our first days travelling, but Gerry was adamant and we had after all made it safely from Johannesburg to Pretoria already ex-freeway. After about 15 kilometers we were well out of the Pretoria agglomeration and enjoying the countryside. At first the area was relatively flat, but after a few hours we were in rolling hills with mountains visable in the distance. There were some interesting large formations, including an impressive mesa to our northeast and later a mountain shaped like a dwarfs house to the northwest.

Overall the terrain was green but dry,where 3-4 meter scrub bushes predominated, but there were also some taller trees, including eucalyptus and a flat-topped tree that might be a thorn tree. Over all it impressed us as being like the wetter parts of Arizona's desert or some of the drier parts of California, such as in the central coastal range near Morro Bay - San Luis Obispo. But the comparison is not important; what is important, is that it was pleasant; we were literally having a joy ride. We hoped and expected to have as much fun driving around South Africa as we had in Mexico and Central America.

We wanted to break the trip to Polokwane somewhere and scoured the map for a place. The most reasonable seemed to be the Doorndraai Dam Nature Reserve, which is 15 km to the west of the R101. An hour before getting there we were coming into Modimolle and saw a KFC. We thought we'd eat there and go on to Doorndraai. But when we saw the enormous crowd in the tiny KFC we decided to buy and carry it with us, perhaps to a city park or perhaps to Doorndraai itself.

Gerry went in while Jan guarded the car and our things; we never leave anything unattended. It was rather amazing: he'd never seen such a busy KFC. There were eight lines, each leading to one of eight cash registers (all IBM; they are in this business BIG!). Every line was filled, from order point back to the door. All blacks (or maybe coloreds too) except Gerry. In Indonesia the prices were 1/2 what they were here and yet KFC was a place for the elite; the masses could not afford it. Here, these folks, who might think themselves poor or middle class found it normal. We should qualify this by saying that most of them had probably come off one of the buses parked in front and the fact of being able to travel shows them to be relatively better off. Still, the prices, if not the food, were classy compared to Indonesia eateries where buses stop.

Jan got to watch activity in the bus station. While much of South Africa seems very first-world, for example, the fact that you can drink the water safely, this part of it was most certainly third-world. A bus pulled up in front of the KFC and the entire bus emptied out as passengers went in search of lunch. Meanwhile, just by the door to the bus a crowd of would-be passengers started to gather. At first it was just one or two, then there were 10, then 20 and it was clear that if most of the disembarked passengers were to return, most of those waiting would not get a seat. There was no sign of a ticket office, of an official, or anything resembling organization. After fifteen minutes or so, when the crowd was at its biggest, some man came by and managed to convince some of those waiting to go off somewhere else, probably to another, less crowded bus. Those left waited patiently enough, but Jan never got to see the end of the story because at that point Gerry arrived with our lunch and off we went to Doorndraai.

After much looking (our map was not up to Michelin's 1:200000 series) we found the sign for the turnoff; hard braking got us stopped just past the turn off and with a little reversing we were enroute the last 15 km. Or the last paved 15 km. For at the next sign to the reserve we left the paved road and went down a dirt road for 5 km. It was our first experience in S.A. of a dirt road and we supposed that we'd be on many like it in Kruger; we hoped as good. At the reserve the attendant had to fill out a long form before he could charge us R30 to come in; if we'd only be hiking (we should have said that) it would have be only R5 each; if we'd been hunting (we were told there are plenty of giraffes and wildebeestes and similiar) we don't know what astronmical charge there would have been.

But we were just picknicking. Down near the lake formed by the dam we found a picnic table and enjoyed our simple meal. We had a view of the lake and down to the left, at a small bend or cove, Jan's sharp eyes spotted about 40-50 water fowl. With our new binoculars we were able to see them distinctly. Gerry walked over half way, scaring some away, but getting an even better view of the others. They were about the size of medium-sized geese, but very colorful, with a white beak, black back of head, mostly grey-brown body, with a nice stripe of black and black tail feathers.

After lunch we considered setting out in chase of giraffes. A trio of men from Zimbabwe (the only other people we saw in the reserve, except some on the far side of the lake) told us that 5 km down the road lots of wild animals could be seen. As they were drunk (and drove anyway) we didn't know how much credence to give to their story.

While eating Jan had thought she'd seen something in the bush. As we left we discovered she had: it was a lone wildebeest (or similar; we don't do a good job of naming). Our first wild animal in Africa! May there be plenty more.

Leaving the picnic area we went further into the reserve for a few kilometers. As expected we saw nothing; certainly not some heads sticking way above the trees. So back it was to the main highway, with Gerry taking over the driving for the rest of the way to Polokwane.

We'd discovered on the map the Moorddrif Monument and wanted to see it, whatever it was. Back on R101 we went north and passed it, almost missing it. That became no surprise, after we stopped. It's small, a collection of bricks in the form of an obelisk, about 1.5 meter on a side at the bottom and 3 m high. It commenmorates, from the Voortrekker viewpoint, a battle in October-November 1854 between Voortrekkers and opposing Ndebele forces led by Mokopane (aka Makapan). Nearby are the Makapan Valley Caves. They are significant both for their millions of year old remains of proto-humans that were found there and because it was where the Boers led by Piet Potgieter gave siege to his enemies after they massacred numerous Voortrekker women and children at Moorddrift. After black-rule the nearby town of Potgieter was renamed Mokopane and the obelisk stripped of some of its insignia and left to rot by lack of care.

At this point we were about 70 km south of Polokwane and thought we'd be there in a little over an hour. We hadn't reckoned on the import of the various signs we'd seen advising taking parallel (and toll) N1 instead of R101. Up until this time we'd been remarking about the wonderful state of R101. Now we discovered that we had travelled the part recently rebuilt. Going on we would travel the part being rebuilt. Long segments had only one lane open, with traffic alternating in direction every 15 minutes or so. Happily the spot where we waited the longest was on the top of a hill with a great few of the valley below, all green.

February 7, 2007

Monday, February 6 — Web Wonders

We've arrived where we should have been all along: in the unwired age. When Gerry was investigating the purchase of his Sony-Erricson W300i he was most interested in the fact that a) it was a telephone and b) that it played MP3. The fact that it could also serve as a wireless modem for connecting to the internet was interesting but not something that he thought he would use.

Not! When we got to Johannesburg it turned out there was another a) and b): The a) is that prices in internet cafes are pretty high and the b) is that it is cheaper to get internet via the mobile phone network.

One of the first chores we set ourselves after arrival in Johannesburg was to get a local SIM card for the W300i. At the time of purchase at Paddy's Market in Sydney we'd been assured that the phone was unlocked. We were a bit apprehensive about this but it turned out to be true: we selected service from the South African company MTN and with the assistance of staff in the shop the new SIM was installed and worked.

While in the shop we learned that MTN offered wireless internet service over the cellular network. If we had been wise — that is, decisive — we would have signed up then and there and had the same friendly Afrikaans fellow set it up. But maybe that isn't quite accurate: the truth of the matter is that we were at a guest house, the Gemini, where internet service was free and consequently the normal, high price hadn't sunk in. Only when we left the Gemini and went to the Pretoria Guest House in Pretoria and were faced with additional out of pocket expenses did we decided that MTN wireless was a good idea.

Saturday, our first day in Pretoria, we went to the Hatfield Mall, a few kilometers from the PGH, hoping there would be a MTN shop — and there was. That was the good news. The bad news was that we arrived a minute after they closed, at the incredibly early hour of 3pm. That's life in a big mall in the capital of South Africa. But, the assistant there was helpful: he listened to our request and tried to set things up for us, only to fail, he said because the W300i was programmed wrong. It would have to be cleared, whatever that precisely meant. We went away intending to try to clear it and to come back on Monday for his help.

On Sunday, a fortuante meeting reinforced our desire to get wireless internet. At breakfast at the Pretoria GH we met three Peace Corps volunteers who are serving in the countryside north and east of Pretoria; they were in town for a training meeting. One of them, Erica, told us that she was in a small village and rarely could find internet and then it was expensive. Another, Peter, said that he was near a larger town, Nelspruit, and was happy that he had wireless internet of the kind we'd been investigating, that it worked well, and that it was much cheaper than alternatives.

So Monday we went back to the Hatfield Mall and the this-time-open MTN shop. The same fellow cleared the phone and entered all of the parameters for access. And declared it wouldn't work. Our phone was partly unlocked and, quite annoying, partly locked. We could get normal phone service outside Australia but internet service only in Australia.

Was there a solution? Yes, MTN technicians could sort it out provided we would pay a small fee and wait a week. We baulked at the delay and perhaps with reluctance, he told us to go to the One-Stop Mobile shop, elsewhere in the Hatfield Mall to see if they could help us out. Off we went the 100m and were quickly talking to a young man who said he knew the solution and could do it. It would cost R280, which is just about A$50, which is just the same price every mobile phone shop in Sydney had said it would cost to unlock (illegally) a phone sold attached to a service contract.

Miffed at the additional expense, but really wanting the service, we said yes. He said come back in three hours. We went off to do laundry and a few other chores, including read the newspaper, and were back just before the appointed time. Mbele, as he told us he was called, said things were all set. We knew from long experience that until the last detail is done, in this case we actually achieved a bit of web browsing, things were not all set. We got out Gerry's laptop and asked him to make the actual connection.

That's where it became clear to us that more software was needed inside the laptop. Mbele searched for it and found it, as he said, corrupted. Where was the W300i setup disk? Not in our back pocket or backpack. Gerry made a dash to the PGH and was back in 30 minutes.

Now Mbele was as good as his word. He did the installation, essentially of a driver, and followed the wizard through the setup. And then we used Google to search for "chandlerbates" and it was found. Lo, we were in the promised land.

The next morning we did an actual email session and it worked wonderfully, It ran at 115 kb/sec, which is twice as fast as the fastest dial-up modem, but slow, very slow, compared to broadband.

Through this whole process we were like babes. Although we are (or used to be) computer experts, it was an expertise of another kind that was needed for this set up. It was much easier for us to let those who have gone through the process many times to "fill in the blanks" than for us to study, at a very high overhead, since we'd do it only once, what we should be attempting. This went from the simple set up of the SIM for voice calling to the more complicated setup for internet service. Compare this to Mbele; he said he'd worked in the shop two years and taught himeself everyting, learning one thing at a time by watching and listening. He'd even taught himself (better?) English and four or five other of the eleven official South African languages. He could talk to just about everybody who walked into the shop.

It was only at the end, when we actually used the service, that we realized what we had been provided: simple, old-fashioned, dial-up service, just like we used to use to access AOL when we started with internet ten years ago.

February 7, 2007

Friday, February 2 — A Taste of Apartheid

We've been in South Africa all of four days and are still suffering from jet lag, Jan far the worst! She writes "It was a 13-hour flight over 9 time zones (going backwards of course) and I just had forgotten how awful jet lag can be. I should probably have tried to sleep more on the plane, but turbulence put paid to that. Right now I have to go to bed at 8:30, but I wake up at 3 in the morning. Bummer! Never mind, by the time we get back to Sydney in December I should be an expert on the subject of how to avoid jet lag as we will have covered all 24 time zones and all in backward order by then."

Our only true outing so far was on Wednesday to the Apartheid Museum. (We have also been to the Balfour Mall twice). We declined the tour to the museum and Soweto, offered at R390 each, and shared a taxi with two Norwegians to go there, and only there, at R80 each. (It would have been cheaper to rent a car for a day but we weren't that far advanced in our planning and we were not well enough informed about parking once we got there.)

The museum is about 25 km away from GGH, on the other side of the center of Johannesburg. We drove through the heart of downtown and (Gerry) didn’t see anything that seemed worth being frightened about; nonetheless, the black taxi driver strongly recommended against deviating a few blocks from our route so that we (actually Gerry; the others weren’t interested) could see a bit more of downtown; the driver assured us that he didn’t want his windshield broken by somebody trying to steal a camera. We're not sure if every taxi driver follows the same practice, but ours removed the taxi sign from the roof of his car for the whole time we were with him. Was it to make him less conspicuously carrying foreign tourists?

The Apartheid Museum is situated on the site of an old gold mine tip. It is a modern, almost post modern building, made of exposed concrete, with two wings forming an L. One is the museum proper, and the other, smaller part has offices and a small cafe where we took our lunch. The museum gives a good, if very grim, history of racial relations in this country, covering things we knew, used to know but had forgotten, and much that was new. Sometimes it seemed the narrative was not completely honest, spinning things to the black perspective, but it was honest enough.

Most of the museum is made up of posters and video displays. There are two small cinemas that show films of about 20 minutes. Scattered about are two dozen or more monitors that show historical clips of 15-90 seconds. The only major object to be seen was a large police riot truck, rather impressive here in the museum. What did the crowds for whom it was a strike weapon think?

This morning (Friday) we made up our mind and rented a car for the rest of our stay in S.A. It will be delivered tomorrow (Saturday) and we’ll set out for Pretoria, about 60 km north of where we are now. It appears there is less paranoia there and we’ll get a chance to see the Voortrekker monument and a few museums. Then we'll be off to Kruger National Park where we’ll spend a week working our way from north to south, seeing, we are assured, plenty of elephants, giraffes, buffalo, and impalas. With luck we’ll see the big cats. The park is about the size of New Jersey or Israel. Quite amazing.

After Kruger there will be plenty more. We expect to work our way along the entire southern coast, from St Lucia to Durban though the Garden Route and on to Cape Town. If we don't dilly-dally too much there will be time to do more on our way back to see the Drakensburg, where we'll end our trip with a friend, Pam, from Durban.

February 6, 2007

Wednesday, January 31 — Johannesburg Beginnings

After so many years of thinking about it we have finally made it to South Africa. We count this as our first trip to Africa, since we don't really count Egypt as being in Africa; it is in the Middle East!

We flew, without problems, on January 29 from Sydney to Johannesburg. Most of the thirteen hour flight was over water and that part was disappointing. Naively we'd expected to fly over much of Australia. But a check of the globe shows that the shortest line from Sydney to Johannesburg goes generally in the direction of Melbourne and then over water!

Just an hour before arrival we reached land; Jan was sleeping and missed it but Gerry was delighted with his first glimpses of South Africa, even if he didn't know precisely where we were. It was evident, but just barely from our great height (10,000 meters), that we were flying over lands with major canyons and cliffs. By the time we were in the outskirts of Johannesburg we were pretty low and we began to get an impression of the city. It was obvious that there was a great mixture and differentiation: some areas were composed of solidly midddle-class single family homes with lush gardens; others were clearly shacks side-by-side.

The Captain had announced that we'd have rain upon arrival but as landing was almost upon us he said it wasn't raining. Nonetheless there was a front or something that made the air very turbulent and we had the most unsettling approach and landing. We told ourselves that all would go well but there was something inside that questioned our judgement.

After landing, etc we called the Gemini Guest House, where we had reservations, and they picked us up after a 30-minute wait. We drove for about 20 minutes from the airport through Edenvale and then to Kew Gardens, along a route that was hard to follow. For the most part the areas we passed through seemed pleasant suburbs, lower density than what we were used to in Monmouth County and much lower density than would be seen in an English urban area.

It was starkly evident that what Lonely Planet had said about most backpacker guest houses is true: the place was isolated. We'd chosen it because the alternative, being in center city, had been advised against by Lonely Planet. Everybody is advised not to walk in downtown and every body is advised not to walk too far away from guest houses — you never know what might happen. Initially that wasn’t too important because we were pretty tired and needed some time to get over jet lag and do some chores.

Two of our chores were related to cell phones: We needed to buy a local SIM card for Gerry's cell phone (bought two days earlier in Sydney) and to buy a cell phone plus SIM card for Jan. The Gemini has a twice-daily shuttle to the Balfour Mall, a shopping center (filled with elderly Jews) about two miles away and that is where we of course went. Our first time there we just had enough time (the return at noon only allowed three hours) to get acquainted with the place, get basic information on the SIM cards, and do some food shopping for our self-catering at Gemini. The second time, having studied things, we bought Jan a cell phone and got Gerry's SIM. (While in Sydney we'd bought a reconditioned Motorola for Jan and returned it because it didn't work. Now we got a brand-new one for less.) Gerry also managed to buy new boots, something he'd failed at in Sydney while Jan had succeeded; these, we thought, would be vital for the hikes we'd be taking.

February 2, 2007

February 7, 2007