UNDER AFRICAN SKIES
Traveling to Africa leaves you speechless, then turns you into a storyteller. Here, then, are some of my stories. (There are a great many more, but that would require a novel, not a Postcard.) It all started with a charity auction for my hospital. Miki had left me alone for three weeks to travel with sister Eva to Chile last year, and one of the items on auction was a safari to South Africa. Deciding that it’s easier to get forgiveness than permission, I bid on (and won) the stay in Ezulwini (“paradise” in one of the local languages, of which South Africa officially has eleven.) Now, we were committed to an experience that has been on my bucket list for some time, despite some reservations about joining the neocolonialist community that, through sky miles and vacation days, has effectively turned the developing world into a Sandals resort.
More than 3 million years ago, Australopithecus africanus, the southern ape men from whom homo sapiens evolved, roamed this land. Everyone is related to Africa; we are all distant cousins. The country is larger than Germany, France, Italy, Belgium and Holland combined. Kruger National Park, the world’s largest game reserve, is bigger than Israel. The country has more animal species than North and South America combined, and is the only country to have an entire floral kingdom within its borders. It has 23,200 plant species – a greater variety than the entire northern half of the planet.
The journey to Johannesburg (or Joburg, as the locals would say) involves a 5 ½ hour flight from LA to New York, then a 15 ½ hour flight from New York to South Africa. I know Miki would have preferred staying in New York the whole time, but even her skepticism of the travel was erased by the wealth of amazing sights and experiences our journey provided. We had been wisely advised to spend a couple of days in Joburg on arrival to allow recovery from the trip and visit some of the local sights.
Conrad and Brenda Holtzhausen manage Maritime Bushveld Estate on the outskirts of Johannesburg, one of two Ezulwini properties outside the game reserve. Conrad – tall, blond, friendly, rugged looking – central casting’s poster boy for an Afrikaner – picked us up at the airport, and deposited us at the Estate. The walled property on several acres consists of individual thatched houses of varying size, along with a large club house and adjacent pool – currently empty (an important fact to remember when walking the grounds at night.) Small antelopes (springbok) were roaming free, along with a variety of bird species. The trees and flowers were just starting to come into bloom, and since we arrived before the rainy season, bugs were yet to be a problem.
In Africa, they say “a person becomes a person through other people.” Words cannot convey the manner in which Conrad and Brenda made us feel at home, welcomed us as though we were part of their family, shared with us their personal stories (and excellent wine) and allowed us a glimpse of their beautiful country, filled with both promise and tragedy, sorrow as well as hope, through their own eyes. Through them, we learned the story of how Ezulwini came about, a little about the Saad family who brought it to fruition, as well as something of their own personal and family stories. Conrad cooked a braai for us, a traditional outdoor barbeque of steak, chicken and boerewors (farmer’s sausage.) He told us of the time in 1994 when he, along with most Afrikaners, expected an all-out genocide by the black majority after years of repression and speechless indignities against them by the eight percent white minority, and how Nelson Mandela, himself a prisoner in those jails for over twenty years, single handedly kept that from happening. (If you haven’t seen the movie “Invictus” it depicts the story fairly accurately, though Conrad thought Matt Damon was way too small to play the role of the rugby captain of the Springboks.) Though we only had a brief amount of time together on a short two day visit, we felt as though we had known these people for a very long time, and had a connection with them that (hopefully) will last through years to come. This is not an experience we commonly encounter.
Reflecting back, the three highlights of our trip were the people we met, the animals we saw, and the beauty and variety of the lands we visited. Amos was our guide and driver during our Joburg stay. A retired teacher (he told us the only career options open to him under apartheid were those of policeman, clerk, priest or teacher) of not quite ebony skin, stocky, and possessed a wry sense of humor, he educated us about politics (no one is happy about the current corrupt government,) education (worse with the one pass/all pass policy of the schools,) crime (wide-spread, often run by ring leaders from other African countries,) violence (avoid confrontation with drivers of minibus taxis, as it likely will get you beat up or killed, and avoid lands adjacent to Mozambique, where rogue soldiers often raid and pillage,) as well as a host of other social and religious issues. Despite a hard life, he managed to raise children who are well educated and leading productive lives. He also exhibited a kindness and a smile which we found amongst many of the black people we encountered. (As an aside, 80% of South African people are black, 8% are colored, i.e. mixes of black and white, 8% are white, and 2% are Asian or Indian. To underscore how rare it was to see white people in parts of the cities around Joburg and Pretoria, Miki, and her blond Latvian cousin Sandra, both had black people requesting to have their photos taken with them.)
We declined to visit Soweto, as I don’t subscribe to the growing global phenomenon of poverty tourism (“poorism”) where rich people pay to be guided through shanty towns and favelas. We did, however, visit the jail in Joburg where both Gandhi and Mandela were held for a time. In operation until 1987, it held over 2,000 prisoners with 12 toilets and showers, along with procedures designed to maximize degradation of the body and spirit. “Horrible” and “inhuman” barely begin to describe what we saw. Amos wisely balanced this experience by next taking us to the new constitutional court, where issues pertaining to the new democratic charter are decided. In the afternoon, Amos drives us through the countryside to a village where we are to experience the lifestyle of the Zulu, Xhosa, and three other tribal groups. Designed obviously for tourists, we are surprised that aside from four airline attendants from Qatar Air, we are the only visitors. Nonetheless, we are given the full tour, including demonstration of tribal dances. Our hostess, in Zulu native dress, turns out to have applied for a job with Qatar Air, and chats happily with the crew about her job prospects. We do live in a global village! There is a banquet of native foods, including ostrich, crocodile and impala – all delicious. Amos, who obviously enjoys his food, had as delightful time as we did.
We met Sandra (Miki’s cousin from Latvia) and her husband Edgars at Johannesburg airport for the flight to Hoedspruit, the airport that is the gateway to Kruger and the safaris. We hadn’t seen them since our meeting in Ireland, and while they had made their own safari plans, we would met up again afterward and spend the rest of our time together in Cape Town. In Hoedspruit, we are met by Peter, a jovial Afrikaner with a rugby player build. A local boy who worked at Ezulwini for over five years, he now freelances, but is obviously knowledgeable about all the surrounding flora and fauna, as he gives us a mini preview of our bush experience. He has the same outgoing, friendly demeanor that we continue to experience with most of the Afrikaners we meet during our stay.
Ezulwini has two lodges, and the first two days of our stay are spent at the River Lodge, appropriately located on the bank of a river. We are in one of the thatched roof bungalows, complete with a canopied bed covered with mosquito netting. I look around and fail to see Kathryn Hepburn, Humphrey Bogart or the African Queen sailing up the river, but there is no doubt we are in Africa. There are impalas grazing outside, and I catch sight of a velvet monkey on the walkway to the river. (He, or one of his friends, was later to snatch some of my lunch, a clear signal I had probably eaten enough.) Glory, a young black woman with a radiant smile, is our hostess during our stay. She, along with the rest of the staff, never seem to forget our names, and everyone goes out of their way to make sure we are comfortable. We soon meet another pleasant couple from Hawaii, one form Colorado, as well as a pair of older ladies traveling from San Diego. We discover that all of us came to Ezulwini through some kind of charity auction, which from my point of view, is a brilliant marketing ploy.
Animals are most active at sunrise and near sunset, so the safaris are scheduled to take advantage of this cycle. We are awakened at 5:30 AM, offered coffee, tea and biscuits (not too much – there are no bathroom facilities in the bush, and while one can take advantage of the bush itself, it’s not considered advisable to leave the relative safety of the Land Rover, lest you become prey yourself.) The Land Rover seats a maximum of ten people, including the driver/guide, as well as the tracker, who sits on the front left of the hood. (In Africa, like England, they drive on the left side of the road.) We have a roof on the vehicle, but the sides are completely open, making for a cool ride, especially early in the morning and after the sun sets. The tracker scans the dirt road for foot prints, and when he sees fresh ones of an animal of interest to us, he directs the vehicle off road into the brush. As most trees and bushes in Africa come equipped with large thorns, this can at times be quite exciting.
It’s amazing how an animal as large as an elephant or a giraffe can become invisible to your untrained eye! When the guide point left, and says, “giraffe”, you look, and at first you see nothing but trees and bush. Then, all of a sudden you see – not one, but four giraffes, grazing placidly amongst the tree tops, moving slowly with that particular graceful lope, not more than ten yards away from you. Soon, we come upon a herd of impalas. They look healthy, graceful with their curved horns, beautiful in their sleek, light brown pelts, with the characteristic dark brown streaks on their posterior flanks in the shape of the letter M – marking them as the fast food for all the predators of the veldt. Half way through each safari, we find a clearing, where we can safely get out of the jeep with good visibility without concern that something will stealthily sneak up on us, and have a coffee break in the morning, or wine, beer or soft drink at sunset.
Our two guides, Alexander and Rex, and two trackers, Richard and Franz, are all very, quiet, soft spoken people. They all grew up in the bush, and were taught by their fathers the art of tracking and the vagaries of animal behavior. We realize we are totally dependent on their skill and knowledge, both in finding animals to see, as well as for our safety, for none of the guides carry guns, and none are permitted on the reserve. We had one episode where one of the elephants charged our Land Rover, giving Miki quite a scare, though the guide was prepared, having approached the animal by backing the vehicle toward him, and being able to accelerate away. However, if the car stalled….I was told that an elephant flipped a jeep the year prior. Nothing in life is without risk.
Words, and not even photos, do no justice to the experience of seeing these beautiful animals moving in their natural environments. We saw all of the Big Five – lions, leopards, elephants, cape buffaloes, and rhinoceros. (Called the Big Five because they are the most dangerous to hunt on foot.) We also saw hippos, crocodiles, hyenas, jackals, an assortment of antelopes, not to mention more birds than we could identify with our field guide. Still, nothing describes the experience of coming eye to eye with a majestic leopard. We were so close! I was staring at him for a long time, and I felt a recognition with my own nature. Amazing! Then, watching a pride of lions feasting on the zebra they had just brought down, the mother lying on the ground looking out over the dry grass, while the cubs, with their muzzles smeared with blood, were getting their bellies filled – so primal!
Billy’s Lodge, the larger and more luxurious of the two lodges, was our home for the last three days of the safari. Here, we were fortunate to meet Laurence, the owner, who had just arrived for a visit, and was accompanied by some of his local friends. Laurence is married to a British woman, lives part of the year in London, part in Seattle, and part in South Africa. He was having a braai for his friends, and was not only kind enough to include us, but also had us down in his wine cellar for a special tasting of some of his favorite wines. The cellar itself is amazing, with one wall of natural rock, dug out under the main building, with a beautiful table carved from a tree trunk. One of his friends present was the architect, and he did a remarkable job. After the wine tasting, and prior to the meal, the staff (numbering around 14) danced and sang a traditional song of welcome – umakoti ngowathu isyavhuma. It was a once in a lifetime experience under African skies.
All of Laurence’s friends had interesting stories to share. We especially bonded with Marita of the sad but smiling eyes, originally from Slovakia, currently living with her husband in Bulgaria, but looking to move elsewhere, with the entire world being considered. Meeting these great people, along with our fellow travelers, added immeasurably to our experience.
All too soon, it was time to leave Ezulwini and fly to Cape Town. We again met Sandra and Edgars at the airport, and took off. On arriving, Sandra had arranged for our condos on the VA Waterfront. We were each supposed to get a one bedroom place, but lucked out in each getting a two bedroom three bathroom suite with balcony overlooking the canal. The place was almost bigger than our house, and wonderful. Cape Town is a beautiful cosmopolitan city, backed by scenic Table Mountain and Lion’s Head, fronted by the Atlantic Ocean. Besides the harbor, the Victoria & Alfred Waterfront is home of numerous shops (though we did almost no shopping, save for a few souvenirs for friends and co-workers,) restaurants (outstanding, with reasonable prices), a great Aquarium, which we visited, and the port for the ships going to Robben Island, visible off shore, where Mandela was the most famous prisoner.
No Postcard from me is complete unless I say something about the food. Varied and outstanding are two words that fist come to mind. Cuisine ranges from Cape Malay curries and spices to game roasts and local fresh fruits and vegetables. You don’t have to ask for “organic” here, for everything is. Given the international flavors of South Africa’s heritage, it is not surprising that the foods reflect these influences. We ate in some excellent restaurants in Cape Town at prices about half of what we would pay at home. Stand-outs I would recommend are Den Anker (Belgian, great view and food,) Willoughby & Co. (incredible sushi and seafood, as attested to by the always full tables,) and brunch at the Cape Grace (a classic hotel whose décor, fine linens and service will transport you to the apex of what once was the best of the British Empire). And if you’re a real foodie, the restaurants in the wine regions I speak of below offer world class cuisine to match any found on the European continent.
Bo-Kaap is the home of Cape Muslims and the Malay culture of Cape Town. Here is the oldest mosque in the area, along with houses painted in bright colors and pastels, creating a photographer’s paradise. Not far from here is the City Center, with British colonial architecture admixed with modern glass and steel high-rises. Here also is the Houses of Parliament, the official seat of the South African government. Flanking the famous Company Gardens, originally established to provide ships rounding the Cape of Good Hope with fresh supplies, are the Natural History Museum and Planetarium, The Jewish Museum, the National Gallery, and access to the Table Mountain Cableway.
We hired a car with a driver, a very pleasant and soft spoken young man who turned out to be a refugee from the Belgian Congo. He led us on the scenic Champman’s Peak drive, overlooking pristine white sand beaches and expensive sea side communities. We drove all the way down to the Cape of Good Hope, the most southwestern point of the African continent. It is often cold and drizzly in this area, and our visit was no different. As soon as we had our obligatory tourist photo of us grimacing into the wet wind as we stood behind the iconic sign, we headed back to warmer climes and sunny beaches. We stopped to visit the African penguin colony, and had an excellent seafood lunch in Simon’s Town. We were also lucky enough to spot several right whales right off the beach. We watched these amazing mammals rolling about the sea for some time before heading further up to the beach where more great white sharks have been reported than anywhere else in the world. Miki stopped to have a photo taken with one of the shark spotters. They have flags indicating the presence or absence of sharks in the area, and if one of the sharks is close to the beach. If there is no flag, it means there is no one watching, and you’re on your own.
Kirstenbosch Gardens is the most impressive arboretum I have ever visited. Covering two square miles, the gardens have a dizzying array of plants indigenous to South Africa, as well as from around the world. The avenue of camphor trees were planted by Cecil John Rhodes in 1898 along his favorite ride.
South Africa is the home of some great wineries and excellent wines. Accordingly, we spent a day in Stellenbosch and Franschhoek enjoying the spectacular scenery of the countryside with hills reminiscent of Yosemite Valley, then rolling lands and grapevines scattered below. Naturally, we tasted some memorable and occasionally forgettable wines, had a wonderful lunch by one of the wineries, and enjoyed the luxury of a wine tasting experience where one of us did not have to be the designated driver.
We realized looking at the map and sightseeing options that we were barely scratching the surface of all that South Africa offers, but I prefer to explore one area in greater detail than just checking off destination points to say I’ve been there. What I regret the most is not having had more time to get to know some of the wonderful people we met during our adventure. We offered you an invitation to come and visit us if you’re ever in the Los Angeles area, and we want you to know that our offer is genuine. In the same manner, those of you who asked to see us again, beware! We are the type of people likely to show up and take you up on the offer. (If you were just being polite, start thinking of excuses now.)
It was wonderful to share this experience with Sandra and Edgars, both of whom are seasoned travelers (who else do you know can manage a two week trip with just a back pack and a carry-on?) Fortunately, we will get to see them again early next year when they are due to visit the States.
St. Augustine observed that travel is more than a series of sights. It is a change that goes on – deep and permanent in the ideas of living. One thing can be said for sure – South Africa never leaves one indifferent.