Exploring the Republic of South Africa and its Neighbors: Problems, Wonders

"Exploring the Republic of South Africa and its Neighbors," with photographs taken by Marcia Jacobson, The Syracuse Post-Standard Sunday STARS Magazine, Aug. 7, 2005, 7-9.

“Our troubles started when the white man landed and reported that there were no people here.” (Former political prisoner on Robben Island who was imprisoned there with Nelson Mandela)

“Let me break into my story.” (Ron McGregor, our tour guide)

South Africa is a beautiful area, rich in natural resources, but it is a troubled area. The term South Africa denotes both the Republic of South Africa and a conglomerate of countries, many of which we visited, including Swaziland, Botswana, Zimbabwe (the former British colony Southern Rhodesia) and--very briefly--Zambia (the former British colony Northern Rhodesia).

My wife and I bought a tour to South Africa from Smartours, a middle-priced tour company whose clients tend to be well-traveled people who have been to most of Europe. Their tours are good value. Smartours does not use travel agents and sells packages directly to clients. Omitting the middleman--the travel agent--reduces costs. Their tours vary but usually include airfare, a tour guide, some local guides, first class (but not deluxe) hotels, buffet breakfasts, and a handful of other meals. Smartours also had a number of options on this tour including a four-day three-night extension to Victoria Falls (Zimbabwe), which substantially added to the cost. Both the South African tour and the Victoria Falls extension included safaris to observe wild animal and exotic birds. With the optionals and the meals we purchased, our cost was about $4200 each.

Smartours sells the tour as its own, but (and this is a common practice) they outsource the trip to a local company, in this case Atlas tours, who in turn outsources the Victoria Falls extensions to yet another company who, if readers can believe this, outsources the Safari day in Botswana to yet a fourth company. Smartours keeps their price below competitors by selling as options what some other tour companies include and by leaving clients to buy more of their own meals. The upside of this is that one spends less time with the tour group, not such a bad thing when one considers that, unless you take along your own friends, you will be spending a great deal of time with total strangers—perhaps more than you spend in a year with your adult children, parents, and closest friends.

In part to reduce the days on tour as a way of reducing the price, Smartours often does in 12 days—the length of the basic tour without the four day Victoria Falls add on--what it takes other companies 15 or 17 days to do. (Our dates, before the add-on, were May 15-27th ). This can mean the inconvenience of changing hotels every night as we did at one point four nights in a row. Smartours takes more clients on its tours than some of the higher priced companies. Finally, Smartours often keeps the price down by having passengers fly from one city—in this case, Atlanta—which means added cost to get to that city unless one happens to live there. On some tours they do offer—for an add-on--other additional originating cities.

The flight from Johannesburg on South African airlines is a 17-hour plus nightmare-- and that was followed by a three-hour layover and two hour flight to Cape Town. We returned from Johannesburg on a 19-hour flight after a two-hour flight from Victoria Falls to Johannesburg followed by a six and half hour layover in the Johannesburg airport where Smartours arranged for us to use one of the elite lounges. The flight is so onerous that the crew changes at Sal, a small Portuguese Island that is part of the Cape Verde cluster, where the plane does an hour fuel stop without allowing passengers to deplane.

South African Airlines belongs to the minimalist school of airlines—inedible food, perfunctory and indifferent service, untidy if not disgusting bathrooms, and an unspoken but clear sense that comfort matters less to the passengers in economy than to the crew. One occasionally encounters this attitude on shorter flights by some of the less distinguished airlines—read: various US carriers-- but this was my first experience of this on a flight of the ten-hour plus variety.

The Atlanta-Johannesburg and Johannesburg-Atlanta flights are among the world’s longest and in economy (or steerage) class they are a challenge to even the most experienced traveler. One of the people in the seat behind me—a member of our tour—had what could only be called a mini-nervous breakdown because he thought my wife was moving too much while sleeping. The upgrade to business class can cost more than the entire tour, but if you have frequent flyer points it is an option worth considering.

Our tour guide, Ron McGregor, was knowledgeable and articulate, but, on occasion, prolix to a fault. To be sure, he was a great source of information and conscientious in following his company’s tour plan and able to improvise slightly when necessary. Ron would talk for hours on end to the captive audience on the bus, and, while profiting from his knowledge, I for one found his oversimplifications, reductive explanations, and stereotyping to be annoying. Part of the problem is that the South African Republic has two histories, a black one that began with racial suppression but has a new volume with the end of Apartheid and a white one that includes a history of colonial dominance and a conflict between the British and Afrikaners-- a group descended from the Dutch—which crystallized in the Boer War. While the British-Afrikaner history occupies a central place in the white imagination, it is of little moment to the majority black population.

We have traveled with Smartours before and we find that the quality of our fellow traveler’s intellectual curiosity varies. Few of our group seemed interested in an in depth understanding of what makes contemporary South Africa the country it is and might become. If one prefers an engaged group familiar with history and culture and wanting to engage in informed discussion, I suspect an Elderhostel tour or one organized by a university or museum would be better. On tours we have taken to Egypt, India, and China—with India being the only Smartours trip of the three--we found our fellow travelers more informed and better read about the places we visited. Our group included a tightly knit group of Jehovah’s witnesses; keen photographers (especially of animals on our safari days); and, not surprisingly, considering South Africa’s growing reputation as a wine producing country, some serious wine connoisseurs. Many of our fellow travelers slept while the guide discussed history and culture –admittedly at times in greater detail than necessary and often losing the thread of his narrative—and a few were rather gossipy and judgmental about their fellow travelers.

Cape Town was our first stop. It is a beautiful seaport on the Atlantic Ocean with a rebuilt vibrant if commercial waterfront area. We spent four nights at the Protea President hotel, the chain that Smartours used for most of its stops prior to Victoria Falls. Protea hotels ranged from what I would rate high four star in Durban to more modest properties such as the lodge next to Krueger Park or the Protea President at Sea Point in Cape Town which had the disadvantage of being located some distance from the museums and sites of downtown Cape Town.

Because we were in the Southern Hemisphere’s late fall, daily temperatures tended to be in the 60s and evening temperatures in the 50s. In Cape Town we had occasional rain which did put a damper on our visit to the Botanical Gardens, The rest of the weather was excellent with the added bonus of its being too cool for mosquitoes when we were in the bush, Although we still took the CDC ‘s (Center for Disease Control) recommended precaution of taking anti-malaria pills,

To understand The Republic of South Africa one needs to understand Apartheid, a political system by which the ruling white minority in 1948 that divided people into four racial groups: white, black (the vast majority), colored or mixed race, and Indian. The word Apartheid is the Afrikaans word for segregation and it describes a policy in which racial classification determined where one could live and work and with whom one could have intimate relations. Blacks who actively opposed the system—many of whom belonged to Nelson Mandala’s group, the African National Congress, were imprisoned and whites who opposed it with some exceptions were marginalized. While the Sharpeville massacres took place in 1960 and a major revolt in the form of the Soweto riots took place in 1976, the system really began to crumble in the 1980s and didn’t end until Mandala’s release from prison in 1990.

On our own, we bought a tour to Robben Island, where Mandala, was imprisoned for eighteen years, and learned about resistance to Apartheid and the consequences. Our guides had been prisoners there and were proud to have been part of the resistance movement. The half-day trip cost us about $12 each rather than the usual $25 because we took the 9:00 am ferry; this option is not advertised—you need to ask—but it is available in their late fall and winter when tourism is down. This important and moving site should have been included in the Smartours itinerary because it gives travelers a strong sense of South Africa’s history and might well have given our tour group the gravitas or seriousness that it lacked.

On a full day day’s bus drive—generally I do not like ten or more hours on a tourist bus--we enjoyed spectacular scenery on the Cape Peninsula, including the historic Cape of Good Hope, the Southwestern-most tip of Africa, around which the Portuguese sailed when they discovered a route to India via circumnavigating Africa. The Cape area includes a nature preserve with wild ostriches and baboons; we also saw African penguins at the seaside restaurant where we lunched.

Our Cape Town highlights included astounding views from Table Mountain, named for its resemblance to a flat table and the most prominent of the granite mountains that define the landscape of Cape Town. We took a cable car up the mountain, although hiking on paths is a possibility.

Most of the Cape Town cultural sites are located in an area called Company’s Gardens, the attractive and delightful botanic garden that dates back to the 17th century. My wife Marcia and I rarely miss Jewish sites and in Cape Town we visited the Jewish museum, the Holocaust Center and the large and flourishing Great Synagogue, all of which testify to the strong Jewish presence in South Africa, although the Jewish population has been declining for decades under the weight of Apartheid and the uncertainty of the political situation. We saw some strong exhibits in the South African National Gallery which featured an exhibit of photographs of Mandela as well as an exhibit of South African art entitled “A Decade of Democracy”--art created since 1994 when the black majority took over political leadership. We also visited the Kirstenbosch National Botanical Garden, although in the Southern Hemisphere May is late fall and the gardens were not in full bloom.

We next flew to Durban, the center of Indian culture in South Africa, and experienced the hustle-bustle of the colorful Indian market and visited the Durban Botanical Gardens, before going to our hotel, the Protea Edward Hotel. The hotel overlooking the sea but is in an area too dangerous to walk at night. We had our best meal of the trip at Saagries, a recommended Indian restaurant independently owned, but located in the Holiday Inn next to our hotel (address: 167 Marine Parade).

After watching a remarkable sunrise over the ocean, we walked along the pristinely clean beach in the morning before embarking on the bus to Zululand in the province of KwaZulu-Natal. There we visited a touristy Zulu village, complete with topless young women, and watched a dance performance after seeing demonstrations of Zulu crafts and customs.

At the end of our day with the Zulus, we entered Swaziland. After a night at the Hluhluwe Inn adjacent to Hluhluwe Park, a wildlife preserve featuring white rhinos, we departed in open vehicles at 6:00 am, supposedly the ideal time to begin sighting big game. Here we saw our first rhinos, zebras, giraffes, warthogs, and elephants, and it was incredibly exciting. We had seen elephants in India, but these African six-ton and up bull elephants stepping out from the bush a few feet in front of our vehicles are a sight I’ll never forget. Game sighting requires binoculars and keen vision as well as observant guides and fellow travelers. At one point our Hluhluwe guide saw the ear of an elephant fifty yards away, and assured us the huge elephant would come our way; to our delight it did.

After almost four hours of game drive, we had breakfast and departed for Kruger Park, where we stayed at the Kruger Gate Protea Hotel for two nights and spent the days looking for wildlife in the African bush. Our trip offered only a half-day in open vehicles and the rest of the two days in the motor coach, but because the open vehicles can go down dirt roads and get close to the animals, we paid $110 each extra for a day and half more in open vehicles. While I am not sure I am a candidate for a 14 day safari, it is a terrific thrill to see elephants, rhinos, hippos, giraffes, zebras, crocodiles, mongoose, otters, warthogs, Cape buffalo, monkeys, baboons, and a variety of antelopes to say nothing of eagles and other exotic birds up close. While some in our group riding in a different vehicle saw a leopard, we were content to see four lions. Because Kruger is larger than Hluhluwe more time is spent driving around looking for sightings, but the drivers are connected to one another by radio so they share their sightings.

The notion of tipping the guide is somewhat redundant since they are really entrepreneurs making a profit for themselves on every transaction, including whatever you buy at the seemingly countless shopping stops. When the guide on these trips arranges options—particularly ones in which they make arrangements in which they handle cash—one can be sure he is making a profit for himself. The guides expect an ample tip –the tour recommends $5 a day per person which I think is exorbitant, particularly since if you forego optional excursions and launch out on your own, there are days when you never see the guide. It is a little like tipping the person from whom you bought a car.

Following our two full days in Kruger Park, we spent a long day on the bus. After a splendid morning of sightseeing in the Drakensburg mountains, where we saw the splendors of the Blyde River Canyon and Bourke’s Luck Pot Holes— the holes in rocks caused by river erosion reminded me of the gorges in Tompkins County—and a long lunch stop at Pilgrim’s Rest, we then journeyed by bus to Johannesburg, where we stayed for two nights at the quite nice Protea Hotel Balalaika in the suburb of Sandton.

Contemporary Johannesburg is a disaster. Ugly mountains of mine tailings (waste) surround the city. And the city itself is not safe, which is why we stayed in Sandton. With is boarded up hotels and shops, its hoards of unemployed men mingling aimlessly and its street debris, most of the areas in downtown Johannesburg, look like the worst American city streets in the late 1960s. I kept thinking of a line in Paton’s Cry, the Beloved Country: when someone looking to the future says something about South Africa building more cities like Johannesburg, the narrator comments that one is enough.

We did take a guided tour of Soweto district of Johannesburg which is interesting for not only for its past history—a testimony to the misery of Apartheid and the site where arguably the demise of Apartheid began with the aforementioned 1976 uprisings in Soweto —but a place where one can see both hope in the new dwellings and despair in the poverty of shantytowns.

At this point in Johannesburg, we said goodbye to about two-thirds of our group, and went with the other third who had bought the four-day add-on to Victoria Falls. With its cascading water and spray, its constantly changing and spectacular views, its rainbows, its sheer immensity, Victoria Falls—the world’s largest waterfall--is one of the world’s wonders. The falls makes a thundering noise and sends up dense clouds of mist. To see it all one needs to buy a helicopter ride--$85 for 15 minutes, $165 for a half hour—but buying a day pass to Victoria Park enables one to get terrific views if incomplete views of the falls Perhaps the most spectacular land view is from the bridge from Zimbabwe to Zambia, a bridge we spent time on and walked across.

The Victoria Falls extension was really the splurge part of our trip: we stayed in the quite elegant Victoria Falls Safari Lodge where we had by good fortune a lovely suite. The lodge, and especially our particular rooms, had a wonderful views of bush through which animals roamed. At nighttime the animals come to the lodge’s water hole, in part because the lodge puts out salt to attract them for their paying guests. One evening we saw well over two hundred Cape buffalo streaming toward the big watering hole opposite the lodge. The buffalo drank for a while, then, hearing rustling in the bush, stopped in their tracks and listened as if in prayer. As we saw 15 elephants descend on the watering hole, the buffalo resumed drinking before slowly beginning to disperse. Many of the elephants stayed for several hours, eating and drinking beneath the open-air restaurant.

Our last major event was a full day in Botswana, another expensive add on which included a day in Chobe National Park divided into a morning water safari on the Chobe River and an afternoon in open vehicles. The advantage of a water safari—we did a small one as part of a sunset cruise on the Zambezi river in Zimbabwe--is that the small boats get very close to the shore and you get a good view of animals like hippos and crocodiles living in water or elephants and other animals coming down for a drink. In the afternoon we went on a vehicle safari in Chobe Park. And we saw as many as 300 elephants at once! The Chobe guide said they were hoping to send some to Angola, but the Kruger people say they have not had good luck moving elephants--they are subject to poachers (South Africa and Botswana control the poachers) and they try to return home.

Let me conclude by returning return to my title: problems and wonders.
Due to rampant crime we were continually warned not to walk the streets at night in major cities and even suburbs, to be wary even during the day. Johannesburg has collapsed as a functioning city and its white population has fled to the suburbs. South Africa has experienced a brain drain by whites in South Africa who fear that majority black government won’t work for them. While we were in Victoria Falls Safari Lodge, the dysfunctional Zimbabwe government under Robert Mugabe was bulldozing and burning shantytowns and street businesses in Harare, its capital, and other cities, leaving hundreds of thousands of people homeless and leaving the remnants of the middle class to say that Mugabe was twice as bad as colonialism. On the streets of the town of Victoria Falls, we saw some of the 80 or 90 per cent unemployed either selling junk or begging. We learned that in Botswana--a country the size of France but with a population of 1.5 million--over 30 per cent of the population is HIV positive.

Yet Southern Africa is a region of wonders that left us with a lifetime of memories: hoards of elephants, white rhinos, zebra and giraffes and wildebeests sharing an open field, hippos sunning next to crocodiles, a caravan of two hundred buffalo making their way in single file to a watering hole, stunning mountain scenery and gorges, monumental Victoria Falls, spectacular ocean views in Durban, and mountain views in Cape Town. And, notwithstanding its disgraceful past and current difficulties, the Republic of South Africa shows promise of being an economically viable multiracial society and the hope of the continent.

Suggested Reading: Alan Paton, Cry, the Beloved Country; Chinua Achebe, Things Fall Apart; Paul Therouz, Dark Star Safari, J. M. Coetzee’s Disgrace.