South Africa 2004

We’ve been planning this three month trip to Africa for a long time. One of the guidebooks we own is over ten years old and we have to replace it with a more current edition. Finally, December 1, 2004 is chosen as a departure date. Craig & I both arrange to be away from work for 3 months. We buy an outbound flight to Cape Town, at the southern tip of Africa, and a home bound flight from Cairo, in the north. We read Paul Theroux’s “Dark Star Safari”, in which he chronicles a reverse route, from Cairo to Capetown, and wonder what we are getting ourselves into?!

Flying over the entire African continent before actually landing and setting foot on it is an interesting way to start. The views out the plane window are tantalizing. Serving as an appetizer or amuse bouche, the flight makes us antsy for the main course, to actually be in Africa.

By the time we land in Cape Town, completely exhausted, it is mid-day. The b&b Craig thinks he has booked, Launic House, is not booked. Not a great start, but they put us in a coachhouse in the back garden and it is lovely. We are in a leafy neighbourhood, up a hill from Greenpoint Park and an hour’s walk to downtown.

But we can’t walk. We are made to be afraid to walk anywhere. Taxis are called to the door. They wait while we have dinner or go shopping. One night we defiantly head out walking to downtown. The streets are eerily deserted. When we do encounter a few small groups of black men, we are afraid, but nothing untoward happens. We find an Indian restaurant, Bukhara’s, downtown and taxi home.

Brunch with a Big Brothers contact, named Lana, is fascinating. She turns out to be from Carlysle in southern Saskatchewan. She lives in Cape Town now. Sitting beside me at the restaurant, she opens her stylish clutch bag to get out a business card and I gasp at what I see. A small hand gun. She laughs. She’s been car jacked and shot at. She knows people who’ve been killed. She talks about fear and reverse apartheid.

We visit Robben Island, where apartheid political prisoners, mostly black men, were held, including Nelson Mandela. Although the realities of South Africa pre-1994 are not new to me, I feel shocked by what I learn about the injustice and inhumanity of white against black. Feeling more conscious of my whiteness, I think I would want to kill me, if I was black. It makes me feel even more nervous, because now I understand a bit of the black hatred of the white.

We rent a car and drive around the coast to the Cape of Good Hope, the southern tip of the cape peninsula. It is not, however, the most southern tip of the continent. That would be Cape Agulhas. We see our first wildlife: ostrich, baboons & some kind of “bok”. An antelope of which there are many different species: reebok, bushbok, springbok, bontebok, to name a few.

Driving the rental car east, along the southern cape coast, on the “Garden Route”, we are struck by how European it all looks and feels. It is beautiful, clean, organized. It quickly becomes apparent that here are two worlds. One white. One black. The black work in the the white world, but the majority of whites do not venture into the black world.

It feels particularly uncomfortable in Stellenbosch and Franschoek, two gorgeous towns in the winelands. Both strongly conservative, pro-white, populated by mostly Dutch Boer descendants who speak Africaans and reminisce about the “good old days”. I write in my journal “here more than anywhere the economic gap b/w black and white is distressingly evident. It’s not that the blacks here are necessarily poorer than in the other parts of the country, its that the whites are proportionally so much wealthier”.

We eat at an Italian place called Decameron and at a second-story trendy bistro called the Wijnhuis. Craig has bush meat for the first time: ostrich medallions. They’re a bit dry and flavourless.

At Wilderness we stay at Jean & Jaques Bed & Breakfast. Craig & I are arguing about something, both still exhausted, and always a bit tense, waiting to get mugged or carjacked. Shot at. Stabbed. It never happens, but we are wracked by hyper-vigilance and paranoia. I am for sure. Craig less so, but probably more than he lets on.

At Bosman’s River, we stay with Craig’s colleague Chris’ sister Jarri. We use Jean & Jaques phone to call her the day before we arrive. This is 2004. Not much internet and no cells phones.

Jarri has a “holiday apartment” attached to her large home overlooking the river, where we unpack and stay a few days. She tours us around in her car. Her daughters all come by to meet us and have a look at the Canadians.

A day trip to Sibuya Game Preserve is our first safari. Bushbuck, bontebok, zebra, impala, giraffe, wildebeest, hartebeest, nyala, vervet monkeys and ostrich make an appearance.


The route east takes us inland through black settlements called “homelands”, set up during apartheid for the Xhosa tribe. It is the old province of Transkei. We pass through the capital city, Umtata, one day at noon, hungry, thirsty and in need of gas and bathrooms, but are too afraid to stop. The streets burgeon with black people only. We pass through seemingly unnoticed, completely unharmed.

We drive east, past small shacks on small farms. Kidogo shambas, small farms in Swahili. Still in need of gas, food, water. And bathrooms. We stop at a roadside garage, and once Craig works up the nerve to get out of the car, we find out there is no gas. We’re sent farther on down the road. We stop there. I stay in the car. Craig buys gas, drinks, snacks. He uses the washroom. Afraid, I wait until we are back on the road so we can pull over; I dash to the trees and relieve myself. We carry on. Big sighs of relief.

Back on the coast, The Dieu Donnee River Lodge is the only hotel we see after the sun goes down so we stop there, just north of Durban. The owners are uber-religious. Our room is full of Christian iconography. We leave the next morning for the short drive into Durban. Like Umtata, there are black people everywhere. The streets are crowded with shoppers and small sidewalk markets, some as humble as a tarp on the ground with a few veggies set out for sale. On a side-street we luck onto an Indian curry house for lunch.

Carrying on east, we get to St. Lucia, a wetland on an estuary on the coast. The Elephant Walk Guest House is in a leafy suburb. We have a room with a view of the garden with it’s refreshing plunge pool.

We do our second safari to Hluehluewe-Umfalosi National Park. Temba is our guide. First we see an elephant, then giraffe, baboon, nyala, impala, eland, white rhino, wildebeest, warthog, lion, hyena, buffalo, tortoise, zebra, vervet monkey, vultures, ibis. I write in my journal “Amazing trip! Magical!!”.

At St Lucia, in the estuary, we see lots of crocodile. Hippos too. They spend their days in the water because their skin is sensitive to heat and sun, but come out at night. There are signs all over town warning about hippopotamus wandering at night. Next to mosquitoes, they are the most deadly animals in Africa. Getting between a hippo and a water hole is extremely risky!

Driving north through Swaziland we learn the king has 20 teenage wives, several palaces, 4 Rolls Royce vehicles, over a hundred children and does not believe in AIDS. This country, a small speck landlocked within South Africa, has one of the highest per capita rates of AIDS on the planet. Go figure. The pastoral beauty of the countryside is striking.

On Dec 22, winter solstice in the northern hemisphere and summer solstice in the southern, we are on the Tropic of Capricorn at the famed Kruger National Park. The sun is directly overhead and it is high summer. As it is the end of the rainy season, it is humid. Sticky. We rejoice over the air-conditioning in the rental car.

In Kruger our accommodation is a concrete “rondavals”, a replica of the small huts used by black bushmen. Outdoor kitchens. Lousy air conditioning. It is sweltering at night. We spend a few nights at Skukuza and Mopani camps. A traditional Christmas dinner is served in the dining hall at Mopani.

Lots of elephant at Mopani, owing partly to the large number of mopani trees. A delicacy for the elephant.

Drinking sundowners on our patio or on the terrace by the lodge, we hear hippo splashing and grunting in the pools below.

An evening game drive across the Tropic of Capricorn is crowned by a sky full of stars, with the sun setting in the west and the moon rising in the east. A herd of antelope – kudu, zebra, impala and wildebeest – are feeding on a large plain. As we slow to look at them they alert, all looking in the same direction, at a lioness behind a large shrub. We watch her stalk the antelope. As Ada, one of the twins in Barbara Kingsolver’s excellent book “The Poisonwood Bible”, says “eat or be eaten in Africa”.

The drive back west, to Johannesburg, for our flights to Tanzania, takes us through the Drakenberg Range of granite mountains. The radio plays decent music on an Africaans station. We listen to ads and news in that guttural tongue unique to white south african descended from the Boers, the Dutch. Its all harsh consonants, interspersed with words from English like dollar or hamburger. I think I hear the words tsunami and Indonesia. We turn the radio up. Cannot understand anything except tsunami and Indonesia. Then Sri Lanka and Thailand. Then Kenya. All Indian Ocean nations affected by the big wave. Our friends, Donna & Ron, are in Thailand, heading to the coast, to Ko PiPi, a resort that is hard hit by the wave.

This is a communication-with-home free trip. We are not doing any internet or phone calls. It is pre-texting era so we wouldn’t be doing that anyway. We are off the technological communication grid. No way to get news from friends or family. Its stressful not knowing if our friends are ok.

We overnight at the Holiday Inn Garden Court, drop the car at the Johannesburg airport the next morning and fly to Dar Es Salaam. A port town on the east coast, on the Indian Ocean, of Tanzania. We’ll spend a few days there on our way to Zanzibar.

Dar Es Salaam, or just Dar, as the locals call it, quickly makes it on to our top five worst travel destinations ever list. It is vying for first place with El Jadida, Morocco. Poor, broken down, dirty, lacking amenities, lacking culture. Hot and humid. No nice places to sit in the shade. A dreadful museum. A stinky waterfront. But I am getting carried away with what should be in the “Tanzania 2005” blog. I refer you there for a continuation of the Africa 2004/05 odyssey.


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