It took us a bit longer than usual to write our posts for South Africa as it was an experience that feels hard to describe and one of mixed emotions. You can see from our Garden Route post that there is a lot of beauty in the country, a lot of great people and a lot of good things to experience, but there is this undercurrent, a feeling that is always present that just doesn’t let you quite settle.
As we planned for South Africa, we did a lot of reading about our intended destination. In the readings, including our trusty Lonely Planet book, we heard a lot about Safety issues in South Africa. The Lonely Planet stated – “People who travel overland through Africa from Cairo without a problem, get cleaned out in Cape Town”, this we learned, was indeed the case – more on that in a bit. We also meet a lovely German couple in Tanzania; they had lived in Cape Town for more than 20 years before moving back to Germany, so we decided to pick there brains on the best things to do and see. During our conversation, I asked them about safety, I wanted to know if everything I read was true or if we were reading to much into it and being paranoid. The conversation then preceded into a 20 minute safety manual – walk on busy streets during the day, don’t walk at night, avoid alleys, don’t wear jewellery, don’t carry anything of value visibly….and so on – you get the picture – and her final parting words to us “Never alone, remember, Never Alone”, then they stood up and the husband said confidently, you’ll have a great time, try not to spend it looking over your shoulder, just remember the rules. So needless to say I became a bit nervous – I can get a bit worried about things – , Marcin of course declared confidently “It’s fine.”
As we began driving around South Africa, Marcin turned to me and said – “whoever got into the barbed wire business is making a killing”. This was one of the first things you need to get use to in South Africa, every house and building has walls with barbed wire on top, gates, fences, bars on windows and an alarm system. Being surrounded by that, at least for us, immediately puts a sense of unease in you – I mean this is not just a little security, it is like doomsday preppers level security and everyone has it. So all of those warnings you heard and all the the stats about crime are pushed to the forefront of your mind. On top of that, there are little things that keep sneaking up, here is a “for instance”. When you park your car, there are always either security guards watching the parking lot and who expect a tip for making sure your care doesn’t get broken into or there are shady characters who equally expect a tip for watching your car – and you are never quite sure if you are paying them to break into it or to watch it. For us, this was a lot to process.
But as you spend time in some areas in and around Cape Town – Greenpoint, V&A Water Front and the coastal suburbs like Houts Bay and Camps Bay – they start to put you at ease. We had one of these particularly nice days, the sun was shinning, we saw the city via the albeit cheesy yet effective City Bus Tour and then we drove the coast to a suburb called Camps Bay. We parked our car – a shady man said he would watch it – and we set up on the beach. After a few hours, we hit a cafe, Marcin had some intense fruity alcohol drink and I had a cappuccino and we sat and watched the bustling street scape. When we were ready to head home – in day light as aways – we drove back down the coast and stopped in an area just next to ours to go to a bank machine. Within 5 minutes we found ourselves A LOT lighter in the wallet, highly disgruntled and a wee bit stressed out….that’s right…. we got cleaned out – turns out Lonely Planet is highly accurate.
As you can imagine by this point we just wanted the heck out of Cape Town and South Africa – but we had 3 days left and had booked 2 tours. So we stiff upper lipped it and got on with it. We awoke the following day – more accurately we just got up from lying down as neither of us slept – to meet our guide who would take us up Table Mountain. It turned out to be just what we needed – an active day, with a great guy who knew the mountain inside and out and took us up a completely unique route. Our guide was Riaan Vorster – http://www.hiketablemountain.co.za
We started the climb early, around 6A.M, the fog was thick as we drove to the base of the mountain, but after only 30 minutes of climbing we broke through the fog just in time to see the sun’s first beams of light coming from behind the mountain. We now found ourselves standing above a world blanketed in white, only mountain peaks disrupted the vast pillow before us and all was quiet. I think our dangerously high blood pressure finally dropped. We scrambled up the side of the mountain for the next 5 hours, never seeing or hearing another soul until the very top. Unfortunately, right after the hike, reality set in as we had to head to the Police Station to make a report – all I can say is Gong Show – and in the 20 minutes we were in there 12 more people came in who had been robbed!
Next up was our Township and Robben Island tours – this would be a full day, with our hearts still heavy we set out again to greet another day. The Township tour was fascinating, and our tour guide was quite knowledgable as she lives in one of the townships we visited. The juxtaposition of wealth of a few and poverty of the many in Cape Town and South Africa is shocking. Although we knew a little about Apartheid, it is different to speak to someone who lived in and lives with the repercussions of it. Apartheid is Afrikaans and literally means separateness or being apart. We learnt about how the Land Act of 1913, which was introduced 3 years after South Africa gained independence, marked the beginning of formal policies of segregation. (Of course the complexities of the situation leading up to this are far to in-depth to go into here). In 1948 the National Party (NP) came to power and started to enforce racial segregation via the legislation it called Apartheid. Under Apartheid legislation, all people in South Africa were classified according to a certain racial group. These classifications dictated where people could live, work, go to school, facilities they could use and more. Our guide shared more about the history, but more importantly, we got to go into the areas – the Townships – that were a result of these policies. It was a very powerful tour and a lot of what South Africa is dealing with today is the result of so many years of injustice, and the poverty the majority face today.
From this tour we went on to see Robbin Island and learned more about Nelson Mandela and other freedom fighters and their struggle to overcome Apartheid. Our guide on the island was a former political prisoner there during the time Mr. Mandela served so he was able to give an incredibly personal account of life in the jail. It was very powerful; we saw the limestone quarry where Mr. Mandela and fellow political prisoners were forced to work and of course we saw the cell that Mr. Mandela was in during his time there. In all he spent 27 years of his life behind bars, most on Robben Island before being released in 1990. It was a great day and we enjoyed learning more about South Africa as it does help to put some of the things into context that you have seen while you are there.
We will be posting most of our Table Mountain pictures on a separate post – Marcin must sift through them…which can take a while 🙂
Not counting the dynamic history we learned about during out Township and Robbin Island tours, the top 10 things we learned in South Africa are:
1. When someone offers to help you…with pretty much anything….but in particular an ATM…they are in the process of robbing you.
2. Lane demarcations, seat belts and car seats are all merely suggestions.
3. There is always room for just one more in the city taxi vans
4. Even South Africans need power adapters for their plugs
5. Maxi pads are truly an effective tool in first aide treatment in the backcountry
6. Putting a high wall, with barbed wire on top, followed by a security gate, followed by bars on windows and doors and topped off with a security system that offers armed response, does not make you paranoid – it makes you both sensible and insurable
7. People do apparently get excited about cricket
8. If someone tells you they haven’t really been effected by crime, it really means they have only been robbed 2 – 5 times
9. Walking, biking, selling your wares – all perfectly acceptable activities for a highway
10. It is virtually impossible to have a good hair day on the Cape.