The journey from Cape Town airport into the main city gives you a sense of what’s in store for the visitor to South Africa – even this short trip is enough to show the breathtaking variety in the country that Nelson Mandela famously described as ‘a rainbow nation at peace with itself and the world.’ The taxi followed a road between the greenery of the iconic Table Mountain and the vivid blue coast as we passed by baboons and were overtaken by BMWs. More discomfiting contrasts also become obvious on this journey: while the city skyline is dominated by hotels and office blocks, and the streets there are lined with bars, restaurants and shops, on the outskirts of the city the Nyanga township stretches for miles along the side of the motorway. Around 23 000 people live in this colorful, crowded, ramshackle settlement and unemployment is close to 50%. The townships, formed under the notorious Group Areas Act, are a potent reminder that South Africa’s troubled history still very much affects people today.
That history is perhaps nowhere so palpable as on Robben Island-the location of the infamous prison which housed political prisoners during the apartheid period, including Nelson Mandela himself. Today the island is a National Heritage Centre and has been preserved as it was then, although it is now populated by guides and tourists rather than prison wardens and their charges. On the ferry journey across from Cape Town Waterfront what strikes you is the island’s proximity to the shore, its hard to imagine how it would have felt to be so effectively isolated though the mainland was so tantalizingly close. The island lies less than 7km out in Table Bay and is only 3km long, yet Mandela spent eighteen years of his 27 year imprisonment here, along with hundreds of other anti-apartheid activists. You can see the cell where he passed the nights for almost two decades, as well as the quarry where political prisoners were forced to spend their days on hard labour.
One of the most fascinating things about a visit to the island is that the tours are given by former political prisoners, hammering home how horribly recent apartheid really was. Our guide spoke and answered questions with both equanimity and ironic humour, making the tour by turns heart-breaking and heart-warming. For me, one of the lasting images of Robben Island was the noticeboard that’s still on the wall, detailing food rations according to prisoner bands: political prisoners were entitled to less than other criminals and ‘black’ comes below ‘colored’ and ‘white’ on the chart. It seemed to show how utterly pervasive institutionalised racism was, even determining access to such basic human rights as food and water.
Sadly, the effects of apartheid are still visible beyond this isolated island; poverty is still a major problem and economic differences tend to fall along similar lines to ethnic ones. Nevertheless, we saw few people begging and the resourcefulness and determination of the people is obvious: there are markets and roadside stalls selling everything from fresh fruit and firewood to paintings and carvings. Buskers and street artists abound in Cape Town and residents from the townships walk for miles every day in search of temporary washing, cleaning and building work. Several entrepreneurial folk have developed a system of watching tourists’ cars for a small fee which operates in the place of pay and display, whilst artists seem to be able to fashion sculptures, jewelry, handbags and decorations from pretty much anything-I came home with a picture frame that was formerly newspaper and an ostrich that started life as a coke can. We also saw very few signs of crime itself, although the signs of its prevention are more prominent than anywhere else I’ve been. Properties are surrounded by eight foot walls with electric gates and plastered with signs advertising the particular armed guard company that covers them. The people I met-almost without exception-were extremely friendly and charming, the street-vendors were particularly persuasive and I left with my suitcase considerably fuller than when I arrived.
Leaving the colour and bustle of Cape Town behind we travelled East down the coast through Hermanus and towards Cape Agulhas, the Southernmost tip of Africa where the Atlantic and Indian Oceans meet and you can swim between the two (although if you’re there in August I’d recommend you stick to paddling.) On this journey South Africa’s amazing variety really came into its own; I challenge you to find another place where you can see vineyards, beaches and forests; spot whales, buffalo and penguins; try surfing, cage diving with sharks and ostrich riding- all in a few days travelling. And yes I did just say Ostrich riding. At Oudtshoorn they breed, house and race ostriches and if any tourists are willing to humiliate themselves they let you have a go. This was simultaneously one of the most terrifying and hilarious things I have ever done, the basic premise being that you sit on its back and operate the neck like a joystick. It has to be seen to be believed.
We also took advantage of the opportunity to go sky diving-the operation consisted of an office that was essentially a shed in a field and a tiny plane without seats, piloted by an excitable Aussie. Before take-off the gleeful Yorkshireman manning the desk informed me that, ‘there’s none of that nanny state nonsense over here’ as he passed me my forms. ‘You can sign your life away if you want to-you couldn’t even sue me!’ Words of comfort indeed. Luckily the tandem dive was incredible and I felt no cause for legal action. Free falling is a feeling like nothing else and we even spotted a couple of whales as we floated down over Plettenberg bay, before coming back to earth for an oh-so-graceful landing.
Another highlight along the route was a trip to an elephant sanctuary offering you the chance to get up close and personal with these gentle giants. At Knysna Elephant Park they take in elephants orphaned or in danger from the poachers that are still are a serious threat on larger game reserves. Part of the trip involves leading them hand-in-trunk in a bizarre sort of conga line on a walk through the forest. Sadly, several of the elephants have had their trunks caught in snare traps so that the tips are cut off, making it hard for them to fend for themselves in the wild. The reserve offers them a safe home and helps them to adapt to life without these very dexterous extremities. On a less sombre note, it also inhibits their ability to control the flow of mucus from what is –essentially – a giant nose. Something my Dad found out first hand as he paired up for a stroll.
At Knysna reserve I also met Mashama, a Zimbabwean man who had crossed the South African border fleeing the political, economic and humanitarian crises in his home country. He found work at the sanctuary but he is one of a very lucky minority amongst the millions of his countrymen who have left home in search of a better life in South Africa. When I met him he had been unable to contact his family for several weeks, and actually visiting them seemed out of the question. Zimbabweans without work permits or even identity papers slip through the official immigration channels in their thousands despite the crocodile-infested Limpopo River and the armed border guards. But though they may escape political persecution or economic hardship at home they remain extremely vulnerable members of society in their neighboring country. Mashama was grateful for his good fortune; he said he wished we could visit his country and that it was very beautiful, but that there was no future there whilst Mugabe was still alive.
Our final days in South Africa were spent on the stunning Amakhala game reserve, where the descendants of colonial settlers have reintroduced African wildlife to lands that they had previously been driven off to make room for sheep farming. The wildlife waits for no man so safari drives start bright and early before the sun comes up. Watching the sunrise with a group of giraffes and a hot chocolate is definitely worth getting out of bed for, and brunch with the buffalo by the watering hole certainly tops off an amazing morning.
On our second day there was a real buzz of excitement at the lodge as the elephants were nowhere to be seen. Losing a herd of elephants seemed both unlikely and worrying to me until the situation was explained. One of them was heavily pregnant and these communal creatures retreat into the bush to protect mother and child when she’s about to give birth. We set off in the evening to try and track them down-how hard could it be? You’d be surprised how well elephants can play hide and seek when they want to. Nevertheless our guide David eventually spotted them amongst some trees in the distance and with a lot of help we managed to make them out through the binoculars. It was pitch black when we finally caught up with the herd; we turned off the jeep, turned on the torches and managed to catch a glimpse of the day old baby girl-alive and kicking and 22 months in the making. I really couldn’t have imagined a better way to spend our last night in Africa.
A two week trip to South Africa seemed pathetically perfunctory in comparison to what the country has to offer; despite all the experiences I had it still felt like we had barely scratched the surface. It’s a country with a painful history and many challenges still to face, but it is also vibrant, exciting, fascinating and diverse. One thing you can say for certain is that there is never a dull moment in the ‘rainbow nation’.