So, what can I say so far…. Johannesburg is an interesting city to drive around. Let’s just say there are road signs saying ‘this is a smash and grab area.’ You can imagine what that means. My brother told me no one stops at red lights after dark as it’s just not safe. At road junctions and traffic lights there are beggars, sellers and even kids doing gymnastics! The grinding poverty is here at every juncture.
On either side of the highway are sprawling townships: many of them would be no go areas to whites. Nelson Mandela used to live in one of them. The race divide tears at the seams here, it is so deep. My sister-in-law works in one of these townships, Diepsloot. It is a place many native white South Africans would not go. I am interested to hear more of her stories as the week unfolds. How does she cross this divide, I wonder.
They (my brother, sister-in-law and two gorgeous children) live in a place called Cedar Lakes. You need finger print recognition to get in and it is totally fenced. Yes, really. It’s absolutely beautiful with a pools, parks, a club house. Elara, my niece, is going to show me around and I can’t wait to see it through her four year old eyes. It’s where the ‘wealthy’ South Africans live. You can see the contrast. But I have to confess, I breathed a sigh of relief to be here
It’s Spring here and the Jacaranda has blossomed. Apparently, it makes the South African kids nervous as it means it’s nearly exam time for them!! But to me, it’s absolutely beautiful – like lavender colouring the landscape, even the greyness of the townships, and I look at it and wonder whether it will it somehow symbolise what I experience here: colour in a fractured world.
We are off on safari today to Pilansberg National Park, so we will see another side to this fascinating country. I can’t wait to see how BIG the African sun is and may or may not have to sing random songs from the Lion King! Until then, year 9.
To be honest, I wasn’t really sure what ‘going on safari’ meant. I remember my friend telling me she stayed in a house on stilts and lions roamed underneath; my brother once went on a ‘walking safari’ which sounded vaguely mental. But it turned out, ‘going on safari’ means taking your car (or going on a safari truck – more on that later) and driving around a very large park in which many different animals live (including, in this case the ‘big 5’) and trying to spot them.
So, that’s what we did on day 1: we drove into the park, past a big gate (which strangely seemed to be left open the majority of the time and left me wondering whether the lions might just take a stroll through them?!) And off we went. Within two minutes, we rounded a corner and slowed to the most magnificent sight: a herd of elephants filled the road. Mums, Dads and babies hung out, ate, rested. It was truly awesome. It probably set my expectations too high as I waited to see lions on the next corner (and was sadly disappointed.)
Over the next two days, we drove in and out of the park spotting leopards (this made my brother particularly exited as after 15 days safari to date, he still had never seen one), giraffes, hippos, wilder beast (otherwise known as lion dinner), zebras, baboons and even a jackal (he was a nasty looking thing) but no lions. At one point I thought I heard Elara, my niece, shout ‘Sinba!’ But alas, only on the screen.
So, we decided to go on a safari truck in search of the lions and it was cool: being in a safari park at dusk is truly a magical experience as the fading light lends itself to grazing giraffes, drinking elephants and resting rhinos. We were lucky enough to even see a lion in what my brother named the ‘liony grass’ eyeing up a zebra for dinner that night. Watching her patience and intent was mesmerising and to be honest, I was more than happy with that: I had seen my lion. But the night had not yet ended, as a message came through on our guide’s audio which resulted in a ‘the bathroom stop will have to wait’ and a high speed descent in said safari truck. What we saw was well worth the wait: no other than a whole pride of lions – babies included – travelling in single file through the grass and crossing the road in front of the truck. It was at that moment I realised I was in an open truck and they can jump, right?! But slight nerves aside, I watched them in awe. ‘Going on safari’ is actually an incredible window into the natural world and I, for one, feel extremely privileged.
I wonder what kind of landscape you picture when you picture Africa. Wild plains, parched landscapes maybe? But this set of mountains between Joberg and Durban resemble something you might expect to see in Arizona, with a bit of alpine greenery thrown in for good measure. But yet, it was historically Zulu land; the ancient rock art is a reminder even today of its rich history.
We stayed in a little cottage (African style) with a view of the amphitheatre (google it, it’s awesome – surely one of the best views in the world) right inside the National Park. Both brothers wanted to climb the ‘ladder’, which is basically an exposed series of natural outcrops at 3000 meters. Needless to say, we did a scaled down version of that but we still climbed to 2200 meters (in context, twice as high as Snowdon.) It involved scrambling, jumping rocks, ascending ladders (one of which was closed because it was broken!) built into the rock and, for me, a fair bit of mind over matter positive thinking! But wow, what a place.
On the way back down, we rewarded ourselves with a dip in a natural pool. It looked idyllic and I had been dreaming about it during those tougher climbing moments, thinking it would be just like a tropical Thai pool maybe. A totally naive thought, as it turned out. I kid you not, it was the coldest body of water I have ever been in in my life. Like ice. It literally took my breath away. But the experience of being in a natural pool, by a mountain waterfall, with the amphitheater behind me is something I will never forget.
Over the next couple of days, there were mountain sunsets, sunrises, more ascents and descents and the odd bit of just drinking it all in. Baboons came to visit, trying to pinch food as they went. And I sat and wondered what life must have been like for the native Zulus who lived here, and after whom this land is still named; conscious again of the deep and painful history here which juxtaposes and even jars with this beautiful country I am privileged to experience.
Diepsloot: one of the most dangerous townships in Joberg. Known for car jackings, violence and mob rule. One of the poorest places you could come across; this is where my sister-in-law works. I said earlier, I wondered how she crosses the divide and, after some time there with her, I am not sure she entirely does. The women she teaches yoga to trust her – sort of. And that in itself is credit to her and to them. But the world she comes from is still so very, very different.
When I arrived with her this morning, we were greeted with this by one of the women she works with:
‘Anna, I have been waiting for you. We need to go to the police station. There’s a broken sewage pipe and people are not supposed to use it. But they are and there’s sewage all over the road. It’s dangerous and I don’t want cholera so I want the police to arrest them.’
And with that, we set off through Diepsloot – a white no-go zone, where my brother was car jacked – to head to the police station. My head was full: what if we were carjacked? I have my passport in my bag, how would I get home? What does she expect of us? And simply how awful is it that cholera is even something to contemplate today. And at the same time, trying to notice and process what I was seeing. 200,000 people (approximately – no one really knows for sure) live here in squalor. Tin shacks accommodate whole families, thousands upon thousands of them, jagged edge meeting jagged edge. Inside a bed, table, maybe a sofa. Often no toilet. Pavements and roads are often dirt, ramshackle affairs one sliding straight into the other with people cross-crossing both. Many streets don’t even have electricity – this area is known as the dark side. You can imagine why. Rubbish is everywhere, in the roads and also grouped together on pavements next to market stall as if to be sold. How can people make a living this way, I wondered. Chaos fills the air and fills the roads: cars everywhere on both sides of the road, across the road, blocking the road; women with babies wrapped around their backs in towels, others carrying produce on their heads; gangs of young men kicking around, some loitering near us. And we are eyed with caution and suspicion, as you might expect. Two white girls in Diepsloot.
Thankfully, our journey around Diepsloot passed without incident but the whole experience really did open my eyes. What does it mean to be human when such inequality exists? What can be done about it? I don’t know the answers to these questions but I do know seeing it (not just knowing about it) is a powerful thing and perhaps asking the questions is an important beginning.
That afternoon, we visited the Cradle of Humankind – it’s likely to be the birth place of humanity as we know it. As you go in, you are greeted with a sign that reads:
‘Human populations appear to be different in terms of colour, body size, limb proportions, hair texture and other physical attributes. Beneath the surface, we are virtually identical. There is no genetic boundary for race. We are one species.’
In a nation as divided as this one, where such inequality reigns, this is a powerful message. Apartheid is over but vast inequality still exists and the disparity between rich and poor is certainly greater than anything I have seen before. I leave this amazing country where I began but yet not back at the same place: race (and with it poverty) tears at the seams here in this divided nation. I don’t know what the future holds for South Africa but, for me, I feel privileged to have seen a glimpse, experienced so much, and take home so many memories which sit, not entirely comfortably, alongside a whole bunch of challenges.