Sunday, December 06, 2009

South Africa, Day 4 (part 1)

A long night’s sleep is about 5 hours, apparently, and I was wide awake with plenty of time to get ready and start packing before breakfast at 7am.

Pieter arrived just before 9am, and we went directly to the curio shop. On the way, we passed the American embassy, which is built like a fortress and mostly underground. It doesn’t exactly scream “welcome friends”, but I suppose it was a product of its time. Still, I had to cringe a little at the sight.

The curio shop drained my financial reserves completely, as the variety and quality made it impossible to settle on one (or two, or three, …) item. Plus, I had permission from my lovely wife to buy African art, so there was implied permission. Handmade baskets made of telephone wires are particularly spectacular, as is the beadwork, carvings, batiks, masks, and much more. I will need an extra suitcase to bring everything home, and fortunately I brought one (stuffed into my other bag so I didn’t have to check luggage).

After the curio shop, Pieter and I stopped next door at a pancake franchise. While not hungry enough to order food, I did enjoy a fruit juice while perusing the menu. The pancakes are more like crepes, filled with a variety of savory or sweet options. I wished that I hadn’t eaten breakfast at the lodge and had waited until the pancake house instead, as the options were mouthwatering.

During our conversation, I mentioned to Pieter my inability on the previous day to find a hat that fit, and Pieter took that as a challenge. He took me to another branch of the same store nearer to campus where, to my surprise, they actually had an XXL in stock. So I now was completely kitted for the bush and, likely, would stand out as an obvious tourist. Perhaps not as an American tourist, though, but more as a native tourist.

Pieter returned me to the hotel in time to leisurely pack all of my belongings into two now very stuffed suitcases. The duffel bag got all of the art, cushioned lovingly by wads of dirty laundry, so that I would not have to subject those beautiful objects to the vagaries of airport luggage manglers. Now all I have to do in ensure that my fellow travelers don’t crush everything trying to fit their own, lesser, souvenirs and dirty laundry into the overhead bins next to mine.

Roelf #2, who just happens to be the dean of the college of engineering at the University of Pretoria, volunteered to be my traveling and safari companion for the remainder of the trip and turned out to be a fabulous companion at that. I enjoyed our conversation on the 3 ½ hour drive up to the Madikwe park and, indeed, throughout the weekend. Again, I felt very welcomed and at home throughout the trip – above and beyond what would be expected of a traditional business trip.
The drive up to Madikwe was enlightening in many, many ways. I got to see parts of Pretoria that I had not seen before, filled with people going about their business; and I got to see the “real Africa” outside of the cities, something unlike anything I have seen before.

We had some trouble with the GPS to start, as it led us on a winding route through the city (so some things are the same in the US and in South Africa). At one point, as we were crossing an intersection, the traffic came to a stop completely. Moments later, a police van came screaming onto the scene, stopped just in front of us, and police began pouring out. Roelf #2 very wisely decided to turn onto the cross street so that I did not have a very different Africa story to tell upon my return.

Pretoria is the administrative capital of South Africa, and most of the downtown buildings appear to be government related. The city is crowded, but not New York City crowded. There are bus taxis everywhere, and they all seem to either be crowded with people or sitting idle in parks on the side of the road. Women carrying suitcases and other parcels balanced on their heads mingle with men in business dress (not suits, though). People trying to sell you something or asking for money or offering to take your trash for a donation are at nearly every intersection. (One memorable young man had a cardboard sign reading “I would rather die of hunger than steal to live.” Another had a handwritten sign that said “support our cricket team”. Both seemed very innovative to me, but maybe that’s through the eyes of a visitor.)

Eventually we left the city and started northwest on the highway. In many places, the highway was wide open and looked generally like any other highway in the world except for the lack of ubiquitous McDonald’s signs (not necessarily a bad thing). Eventually, however, the road started having stop signs at intersections and slower speed limits as we passed through towns, which gave me a chance to see more of Africa outside of the cities.

What Americans would consider shanty towns are everywhere by the roads. Houses not more than 10 feet by 10 feet (if that) made of corrugated metal comprised entire towns with the occasional shipping container thrown in as a store or larger home. Sometimes there were larger homes with fences and gates (and sometimes there were smaller homes with fences and gates), but even the large homes were small and surrounded by dirt. It was a scene that would be soul crushing in most of the western world, but is the best that South Africa can do at this time. The government gives people a house if they ask for one, which is better than (for example) the slums outside of Mexico City, but the government cannot possibly afford anything substantial for the huge and growing population immigrants and refugees flowing into the country.

Everywhere there are people walking on the side of the road, waiting for buses, and trying to sell something or ask for money at every intersection. Cows and goats wander into the road and can be a hazard especially in the higher speed areas of the highway. The scenery is achingly beautiful thanks to recent rains and contrasts starkly with the poverty.

Along the way to the reserve, we crossed a significant dam. The road is only one lane wide on top of the dam, so traffic is stopped in the other direction while cars past. Of course, there are people selling goods along the side of the road while traffic is stopped. I imagine they change sides when the traffic goes the other way. The spillway of the dam was the most beautiful I’ve ever seen, even when rushing past (nowhere good to stop and we had a deadline to meet). The water cascades over a series of rocks and into an iconic African river with a waterfall cascading in the distance. Words cannot convey the captivating beauty of the place.

The last place to stop for gasoline on the way to the reserve is outside of Sun City – a relatively famous resort and casino. My personal experience with Sun City is from the Little Steven song “I Ain’t Gonna Play Sun City” in the anti-apartheid cassette that I played incessantly in college. It was surreal to actually be at the place in person, although we didn’t actually enter the gates. Sun City is now open to all races, and there was a major international golf tournament starting that weekend. Life under apartheid must have been surreal, and the changes since the switch to democracy overwhelming for many South Africans.

As predicted by the directions to Madikwe Game Reserve, the paved road ended many kilometers before reaching the reserve. Roelf #2 did a masterful job of speeding over the road and around the occasional ruts and dips. Fortunately, it had not rained in several days and the dirt was hard packed. We encountered almost no traffic on this last leg of the drive.

About three and a half hours after leaving Pretoria, we arrived at the gates to the Madikwe Game Reserve.

The rest of the story:

No comments: