Monday, November 30, 2009

Out Of Africa

Arriving in Johannesburg from Maputo we were relieved to find it was not the big, bad Jo’burg of traveller myth. In fact it is quite a pleasant city, at least during the day. Everything is very spread out and there are many parks, gardens and woodlands, in fact it is said that there are more trees than people in Johannesburg, although I am not sure how true that is. The downtown area is obviously less verdant but looked a lively place, not deserted as I imagined, it resembled any other African city.

As we were guests of my relations, Ken and Marie, we enjoyed a relaxing stay, indulged in some nice meals (Col’ Cacchio being possible the best pizzeria in Africa!) and were able to get an insiders look at Johanensburg. Apart from the obligatory trip to the Apartheid museum, which was moving and depressing but extremely well presented and informative we also managed to sneak a look at the new stadium that will host next years World Cup final, visited the brilliant Bryanston market, several of the northern suburbs glitzy malls and casinos and of course managed to attend the Twenty20 International between England and South Africa, escorted by Lauren (Ken and Marie’s daughter) and her boyfriend Sean. Luckily England won, if only by 1 run on Duckworth and Lewis! On the same day South Africa also played rugby against France, a game which caused national uproar, not because of the result but because of the presentation of the South African national anthem, sung by the (tone-deaf) Ras Dumasani. I am not sure how much coverage this received in the international media so if you want a laugh, watch this:

We left Jo’burg still laughing at Ras Dumasani as he had an even more hysterical interview on the radio that morning!

Our next stop was Bloemfontein, in the heart of the Free State. The Free State is generally considered to be almost an apartheid stronghold, where the clocks stopped several years ago. I must say however that we saw no evidence of this belief, at least no more so than other South African cities, and can only comment on the warm and friendly nature of all the local people. Bloemfontein is another clean and spacious city with wide streets and tree-lined avenues. We camped at Naval Hill Backpackers, just below the Naval Hill nature reserve; it is a place worth mentioning as it is housed in an old water pump-house.

I should add that South Africans can be the most friendly and welcoming people. During this trip whenever we have met South Africans, in whichever country, they have always welcomed us with open arms, thrusting beers at us and inviting us to stay at their place in South Africa, or at least to come for a home cooked dinner. This kind of hospitality is at odds with the reputation of South Africans, regardless of their race, colour or creed.

The Kingdom of Lesotho is a country in the unusual position of being totally contained within another countries borders, the only other country I can think of in the same situation is San Marino. However once across the border it feels worlds apart from South Africa. In a similar way to Swaziland it is a very rural country, although our first impression was of the chaotic and bustling Maseru market, although to be honest the whole of Maseru seemed to be one big market, traders selling all manner of goods, a lot of Chinese plastic crap and an incredible variety of cheap and tasty street food. An horrific bus journey, one of the worst on our whole trip, took us right into the heart of the mountains, to a tiny village called Semonkong, which means “place of smoke”. From here were amazing views over the mountain range, eerily reminiscent of Tibet or Mongolia, even down to the manner in which the people are dressed. A further comparison with Mongolia can be made in the country’s main tourism niche – horse riding. There is also good trekking but when it rains constantly, and even snows a bit (at the start of their summer) there is not much else to do than appreciate the warmth inside Semonkong Lodge. Admitting defeat we retreated back over the snowy passes to Maseru and down to Malealea, another tiny village but this time in the foothills of the mountains. The views across to the start of the range from here are amazing, simply stunning. There is also pony trekking or hiking offered and this time the weather held, of only for a long morning walk!

After a second brief stopover in Bloemfontein, the highlight of which (apart from staying at Naval Hill) was visiting the Oliewenhus art gallery, we took a long overnight bus back to Cape Town, the “mother city”. As we did not do so much sight-seeing last time it left us with a busy schedule for our last week in Africa. Our first outing was to the District 6 museum, charting the history of the pass laws and the cynical manner in which areas were cleared of blacks and coloureds to make way for white settlements. Although the subject matter made arresting reading the museum itself was a slight disappointment, not as well planned as neither the Red Location in Port Elizabeth nor the Apartheid museum, both of which portray similar subject matter in a far more coherent fashion. It did serve as a taster for the trip to Robben island, the offshore prison where many anti-apartheid political activists were incarcerated, including Nelson Mandela who spent 18 of his 27 years on the island. It was interesting to see the island and in particular the prison (where Mandela’s former cell is the highlight for most visitors) but for me the highlight was our guide, a former inmate, Ngotse, who was also a fantastic orator. He was sentenced to 25 years imprisonment for treason in 1984, a sentence he was relieved to receive as he was facing the death penalty, if he would have served his whole sentence he would have been released just 4 days before we visited Robben island, a fact which sent chills down every visitors spine.

We had a much more pleasant experience as we set out on our self-guided tour of the Winelands although we only actually visited two vineyards. The first was Fairview, a relaxed and welcoming place close to Paarl with beautiful views from their immaculate garden, they offered a delicious range of cheeses to taste in addition to the wines. The second place we visited was Tokara which had an exquisite modern design and more stunning views. The staff here were rather snooty however so we only tested a few wines and did not stay even long enough to taste their olives and chocolates. The principal towns in the Winelands are Paarl, Franschhoek and Stellenbosch and we found time to visit all of them as well. Both Franschhoek and Stellenbosch are quaint little towns, many buildings whitewashed and shining in the valleys. When we first arrived in Cape Town back in September we heard an interview and performance on the radio from the Jo’burg singer Laurie Levine, who just happened to be playing in Stellenbosch the evening we were there (Actually we planned it that way). It was a strange concert however, rather than standing up everyone was seated at tables and in addition to the cover charge all visitors were obliged to eat as well. Unaware of this we had already been for dinner, Monika ordering a 500gr sirloin steak, so it was with trepidation that we were forced to order desserts whilst watching the concert. Luckily it was a great show and distracted us from the complaints our bulging stomachs were making!

Enjoying a great run of beautiful weather we were relieved to wake to another sunny day on Friday and made our way across town to Newlands for the ODI between South Africa and England. Surely one of the most beautiful cricket grounds in the world I was pleased to see the research I made on the seating had paid off as we sat down to a perfect view of the pitch with Table mountain proving the perfect backdrop. It was a great afternoons cricket, the sun was shining, everyone was having a good time and then disaster struck, and I am not talking about England’s batting collapse... they ran out of beer! Now, there is a Castle brewery just opposite the ground and many people were suggesting a pipe should be connected direct from the brewery. Some people reverted to hot chocolate as the sun had already disappeared behind the mountain but we waited and luckily, avoiding a sure riot, new barrels arrived!

The last activity on our list was to climb Table Mountain. Going against the weather forecast the sun shone again on Saturday as we set out. We started directly from our lodge in Gardens, a tough walk up to the base of the mountain, we were already wilting in the heat before we started the gruelling 2 hours climb to the top. Many people were lying exhausted in the precious few scraps of shade on the way up. Once on top however it was worth all the exertion. The panoramic views of the cape peninsular proved to be a perfect finish to our long journey through Africa. It was our final fantastic experience, unless you count the turning on of the Cape Town Christmas lights last night, but as we missed the actually turning on its not really worth mentioning!

In just a few hours we will be flying out of Africa. All that remains for us is a week in Dubai before returning to England. A week in an Islamic country which might be a welcome rehab after the last few months of sundowners in Africa.

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