Monthly Archives: February 2007

South Africa Travel Journal- Joberg

South Africa Travel Journal-Chapter 1-Joberg-Draft 1
Cycling In South AfricaByRobert and Mira PierceWinter 2006IJobergAfter a Parisian honeymoon, which included lots of fine food and delightful hospitality, we set our aims on Johannesburg, South Africa. This would be the starting point of an 1,800 mile adventure by bicycle through the very southern part of that mysterious continent. We knew that we wanted to ride our bikes for 30-40 days, ending it all in Cape Town; but this was the full extent of our plan. Other than packing up our bicycle touring essentials and paying the airfares, we didn’t make much preparation. There was not very much information about cycle touring in South Africa to be had in books or on the Internet, but we were optimistic that we’d figure out the details once we got on the ground.Our flight from Paris to Johannesburg prepared for arrival into the city’s international airport, which, only two weeks earlier, had been re-named after O.R. Tambo: law partner of Nelson Mandela, one-time president of the African National Congress and one of the new South Africa’s founding fathers. From the airplane window we spotted the glistening skyscrapers that sit in the center of this 30 square mile metropolis, and saw shaded suburbs in hills on its perimeter. In another part of the city we located square block full of small metal-roofed houses and guessed that these modest homes comprised some of the famous black townships that became the violent centers of change here in the late 20th century. We know about these townships and that native Africans finally won the right to vote here in the late eighties, but that is about all we know of South African history and society. It would take time to learn about and appreciate this unique and controversial country. The many governmental changes here, and the economic, political and cultural forces still at play, make South Africa a living history lesson for every visitor.Once on the ground, we boarded a taxi and made our way through the city, which, because of its climate and its sprawling urban design plan, reminded us of Los Angeles on a hot early-summer morning. We arrived at the Backpackers Ritz hostel in the Dunkled suburb and were given a reasonably clean double room. More importantly, we got access to a swimming pool in a manicured garden including blooming jacaranda trees. Cries of South African birds came from above. After 10 days in a damp and chilly France, the sunshine after a swim felt great.Dunkled is an affluent neighborhood. The size and appointments of the homes here make that immediately apparent. The emphasis on security is also instantly felt. Gates and security guards sit at most entrances, and razor wire topped walls enclose homes inside large compounds. The stories we’d heard about crime in Johannesburg, or, Joberg, as it is called, feel more real after we get here. The foreign visitor hears constant warnings, but our innkeepers today tell us that strolling around this area should be safe, even after dark. So that evening we walked down the street for an Italian dinner at a local cafe set in a mini-mall.At the cafe we befriended and dined with another guest of our inn, a Canadian nurse on leave from her assignment with Doctors Without Borders in the Congo Republic. She told us of the long wait she had before finally being accepted by that organization and assigned to a role. She loves her native African and foreign colleagues working with her in a remote village camp. Everyone as dedicated, despite the remoteness and instability of the Congo society. All of this left us glad to know that there are good and dedicated people in the world. It also made us happy to have chosen South Africa, and not a less developed country, for our adventure. We wanted the riding to be rough, but didn’t want to struggle with accommodations and unsuitable infrastructure.That night, back at our lodgings, we were treated to the natural entertainment of a summer thunderstorm. We watched brilliant lightning illuminate the Joberg skyline, turning the soft clouds shades of pink and blue. We see few such storms in California, and none with this rapidity and intensity. This storm display, thought Mira, marked our entry into the African continent.By the end of our second day, during which we sat in a bookstore and skimmed a ton of books on South Africa, we had decided two things. First, from Johannesburg we would head to Kruger National Park, where Mira wanted to tour a game reserve and see Africa’s biggest and wildest animals. Second, because of traffic and the much discussed risk of crime, we would begin our bicycle journey outside of Joberg. So, we would take a two hour bus ride to the east, to the city of Nelspruit. From there we would make our way, by bus or bike, to the southern gate of the national park.Early the next morning we were on a very comfortable bus headed for Nelspruit, watching hilly farmland and occasional craggy cliffs. Like the Sierra foothills at home, this is gold rush country, mined extensively from the very late 19th century to the end of the 20th. The main draws to this land now are agriculture, logging and tourism, specifically, fly fishing. We sat for 2.5 hours with a trio of Portuguese speaking South Africans, a woman and two men, headed to Maputo, the capital of Mozambique, which is only about 100 kilometers further east than our destination. They laughed and laughed at their own stories and jokes, occasionally stopping to assure us that if we spoke Portuguese we would be laughing too. Once we did spark up a conversation in English about our planned adventure, they were great sources of encouragement and information. Each of the three assured us that we would undoubtedly see many beautiful things. The valleys of Swaziland, the snow capped Drakensberg mountains, and the wild surf on the west coast would amaze us. There was a tone of respect and admiration in the men’s voices when we explained our goal– a ride all the way across their homeland. To see so many things that they themselves had not made time for.The bus left us on a sidewalk in the center of Nelspruit, with no shade to protect us from the moist heat. The decision was made at that moment that we would abandon the packaging of our bikes and begin riding. Robert was tired of sitting in planes, trains, and buses, and all distances thereafter would be covered by our own pedal power. So he spent two hours assembling the machines right there on the sidewalk. These were ordinary bikes, but souped up a bit to handle the occasional dirt roads that we expected to cover. We would carry all of our clothing, camping gear, tools, spare parts and essentials, such as maps and pipe tobacco, with us on pannier bags bolted to the sides of our trusty steeds. We carried no revolvers or other weapons on this ride.Mira ducked into a bar across the street while Robert struggled with the bikes. She searched for a place to change into her riding clothes. [Mira to insert].The national highway 12 runs through Nelspruit, east to the Mozambique border. We started our ride on the road at about 5 pm. Highway 12 is a busy two-lane road with a generous shoulder divided from traffic by a yellow line. Drivers generally respect this lane that is used by only very slow traffic, pedestrians and cyclists, so we felt reasonably safe, even as the sun began to set over the panorama of Mpumalanga province. On stretches of highway like this, with no cross traffic, Robert follows Mira at about 50 meters distance.We found the sandy access road leading off the main highway, and about 1 kilometer down that road we found the gates to the guesthouse we had contacted earlier in the day. The security features that struck us in Joberg are also employed outside the city. The gates, with adjacent 8 foot walls topped with electrified wire, protect a large compound. We thought again about the almost prison-like appearance. We also felt those queer emotions that such protections produce. But all comparisons to institutionalized living dissolved when we were met by our fit sixty-something year old host Rhonda and saw the lush green lawns, flowery African shrubbery and well appointed African style roundhouse that would be ours for the evening. Again, there was an inviting swimming pool.”Oh! You’re on bicycles,” said Rhonda. “We’ve see a lot here, but never that.””Yes. We just started today, but will be getting up early tomorrow to get into Malelane. We want to get into Kruger from there,” said Mira.”You need to be careful out there, our blacks can be dangerous on the road,” Rhonda responded matter-of-factly.Our blacks can be dangerous on the road. A lot can be said about this statement, but all that Robert notes here is that we were speaking to a native South African whose first language is the linguistic conglomeration called Afrikaans. As a result, Rhonda pronounced the word “blacks” in a slippery low toned way that chillingly takes Robert right back to the US news reports on South Africa in the late 70s and early 80s. Those that invariably displayed an angry white South African commenting on the changes in the making. But the spoken word can only be approximated in writing. When Rhonda says the word, it sounds something like “bleeacks.” The thing is, Rhonda is not making a big point with her comment, and is not intentionally rude, harsh or controversial. The statement is made only as a well meaning caution. This can’t seem true, but here, in a country that for so long officially categorized everyone by their race, it feels natural for the older generations to continue using these labels.”Uh, we’re staying on the main road during the day,” Robert offers, in a mild attempt to deflect to a better subject.”That should be fine, the traffic only gets heavy during the morning and evening rushes,” says Rhonda as she walks us across the thick damp lawn to our bedhouse. “Our blacks all get into work and back home in their taxis.””Yep,” says Robert, not knowing what else to say and desperately wanting to keep Mira out of the conversation.”You can make yourselves at home here. We think we have everything you need, but give us a yell if you want anything,” Rhonda adds kindly. “Where are you two from?””The US. . . California . . . San Francisco, ” responds Mira.”Ah. All the way from the states!” We love the US. We were there in 1988 and then again in 1989. We took our kids and our grandchildren to Disneyland, in Florida. We spent some time in Atlanta too. All except the driving. You have your blacks too.””Can’t we get off this subject?” thinks Robert.”The main house is up on the hill there. I’m there with my husband. Go ahead and make yourselves comfortable. Take a skinny dip in the pool if you like. There’s nobody else here, nobody to bother you.””Thank you so much, Rhonda,” says Mira. You have such a beautiful home. Thank you so much for having us. Your lodge was just the perfect distance from town for us.””Pleasure,” responds Rhonda crisply over her shoulder after she had begun walking up the small hill.Once alone, we get unpacked and head for the pool. The lapping water, crickets and croaking frogs are the only sounds we hear as we slip into the cool water and swim under the full moonlight.We get an early start the next morning, but the temperature rises quickly. By nine-thirty that morning we were stopping every few kilometers for a drink of water and a moment in the shade. With our loaded bikes, even the rolling hills of north-eastern South Africa are sapping our confidence. But the road continues to be of a good quality, making us more at ease in the traffic. These stops are sometimes not strictly necessary, but then give us an excuse to make contact with people we find along the way.At the side of the road Mira speaks with a Swazi high school boy who smiled sweetly, telling her that he wants to be a journalist too. At a tollhouse she shared a drink with Timothy, an older Swazi boy walking with his mother, Emmaline, who inexplicably wore a dark knit cap on this 40 degree day. He would have talked all day.Although we could not speak with them in English, we shared the shade under a roadside tree with two women who were on break from their work in the nearby sugar cane fields. They had also stopped for a snack, so Mira gave them some of our nectarines. They each took these with open palms and a prayer of thanks. All of these people were open and precious, and Mira glows with everything she is learning and feeling.We are very glad to make it into Malelane in the early afternoon because the heat would continue to rise. Robert, feeling a bit dizzy, lay on a shaded sidewalk while Mira ventured into a nearby row of shops for some food. Here we are seeing our first sight of organized native African culture. In the center of Malelane, an agricultural village, the streets are packed with black faces. People made their way among supermarkets, “China shops,” furniture and appliance stores, tractor and car dealerships, and seed stores. Mira navigated all of this in search of something refreshing and delicious to sooth her husband’s case of fatigue. At least that’s what Robert foolishly hoped for. Mira returned with, of course, a dish of creamed corn (pap) and broiled chicken neck in a piping hot gravy. Not exactly what Lance Armstrong throws back first thing after a training ride, but Robert has not earned the right to complain . . . yet.Our lodging in Malelane, once we found it, is the River Lodge. Aptly named, for it sits on the banks of the Crocodile River. Opening the door was one of its keepers, the very German accented Johan, who we would soon dub “Johan the Taller” in order to distinguish him from his business, and presumed romantic, partner Johan the Shorter. The River Lodge was out of our budget, but when Mira saw Johan standing at the door, in full flowing garb, ringed fingers and ear, she knew that behind him lie the promise of fresh linen, scented candles and velvet overstuffed furniture. The lure was too great for a woman who had spent the day cycling in shorts that hade come to feel of hot rubber, so we checked in.The River Lodge’s primary feature, not counting the antics of the Johans, is a 10 square meter hardwood deck canopied against the sun and virtually overhanging the river. After our daily swim, we settled in to hammocks on the deck, sipping cocktails and enjoyed the cooling air. Very soothing. Mira then heard a snort and a snuffle, and became very excited after seeing the family of hypotenuses that lives in the river just below the deck. Just like on television, only their backs and tops of their heads break the water surface. They are prone to sun burns, just like us. These dino-cows occasionally lift their heads out of the water to make a wide yawn, and just after sundown they leave the water, marching to the riverbanks to feed.The next morning we took a group tour of the game reserve at the national park about three kilometers out of town. Joining us were Augustin and Victoria, a Spanish couple on leave from their diplomatic post in Maputo, Mozambique. Our guide filled us with gruesome stories about how the dangerous animals of the park kill other animals, including humans. During the tour we spotted elephants, giraffes, zebras, rhinoceros, snakes, buffalo and hogs, among many other creatures. The highlight of the day is watching a standoff between a leopard and a hyena after the hyena had stolen the cat’s kill. The camouflaging of the leopard is amazing, making it almost invisible in the African brush.Back at the River Lodge, we dined in the main dining room, again with Augustine and Victoria. Mira and Augustine spoke of Spanish and South African politics while we were all waited on by Swazi female staff, formally dressed in black maid’s uniforms. After dinner, we retired to the viewing platform above the river for coffee with the fly fishing group who sat at another table during dinner. Their guide swept the river with a power spotlight so that Mira could see tiny red dots reflecting in pairs along the banks. These were the protruding eyes of crocodiles, who went unseen all day long.