South Africa is a country of contrasts. It's amazing if rather tubulant history and exotic smells and sights. Yet in so many ways it is just like home the cloudy dull days of this summer (although 20 degrees) the names we passed such as Grasmere and a place called Nigel, the childrens games during playtime at school in Lesotho and even driving on the left well supposedly! Much of this may be a remenant of the British empire building days. English is the main language for learning and signage however it hasn't really been much of an advantage in talking to people. There have been so many questions I would have liked to have asked and chats I would have liked to have had but they haven't happened as I realised there is a terrific language barrier and I must admit I didn't even master the very basics in Zulu. There also seems to be a certain aloofness which is a real shame.
This really is a whistlestop tour but in less than a week we have already experienced so much. I wouln't be so bold to say that I now know South Africa but it certainly feels more familiar now. On arrival we drove out of Johannesberg nervously waiting to be pounced on or hassled having heard so many stories about taking the wrong turn and carjaking, like nervous mice we locked our doors and didn't linger at junction.But apart from a couple of people approaching us for money or 'favours' we didn't get hassled at all. On the last day though we did hear a couple of stories which reinforced the stereotype one of a man who was hit head on by an overtaking car. Then he was put in prison instead of the other driver being accused of drinking. Apparently the tests for alcohol in his blood would take 6 months to come back. After hearing this we felt that perhaps some of our concerns were well founded.
On the way out of Johannesberg we did drove e by a large area of what can only be described as as shanty town, a mixture of buildings made from whatever was lying around abut this quickly turned into 2 room boxes with corrugated roofs which seem to be everywhere and I think are the governments answer to council houses. (I'm not sure which government). There is so much to know about this place. Particularly the politics.
From Johannsberg we drove and drove and drove to the Drakensberg mountains. This was mostly uneventful stopping only for a brief play in a playpark the kids that is not us (the joys of travelling with children). After a vast plain of quite green but also dusty flatness the odd flat topped hill started to pop out on the horizon, we were entering the Drakensberg mountains.
We stayed in a fantastic backpackers an oasis more like a homestay than a backpackers (Karma). It was an ecclectic mix of bright coloured fabrics, mosaics everywhere you looked and piles of homemade jam set amongst the most verdant abundant garden I have seen in a long time. We were welcomed with a cup of tea and big smiles. Thankyou Vera Ann please can I adopt you as my kindly Aunty? In the evenings we had long chats putting the world to rights and discussing what South Africa was like as a place to live and go to school.
The opinions of the 'whites' that we talked to seemed to agree that futures were hard here and many ended up abroad in England, Canada, America ,Holland and Germany. Education and employement from an outsiders point of view seems to be the solution to many of the problems that still exist here. Although schools should now be racially mixed the reality is that there is still division, the devision is often caused by economic divisions but often as not also cultural expectations and how education is valued. Sorry I sound like I am writing an essay but you can't come to South Africa without being hit between the eyes by it's past and present politics and it is the subject of most of the conversations we have had.
The Drakensberg were beautiful we spent a lovely day following a trail which contoured the mountains, I thought I would be chomping at the bit to go off an do some 'proper' climbing but it was a beautiful experience as the children were delighted skipping along the trail looking at shongolos (sure I have spelt that wrong) Vera please correct me). These wonderful creatures otherwise known as giant centipedes occupied the children's attention for most of the day. What captured me was that the hillside was covered in what I think were yellow irises and amazing patterns were made in the grass as the wind rippled through it. OO that's a bit waxing lyrical isn't it?
My adventure that day was not climbing the mountains however but going shopping. Just before the Drakensberg is a town called QwaQwa. Which seems to run into another town with a ridiculously long name I can't even attempt to write. Qwa Qwa seems to consist of rows upon rows upon rows of little boxes with the red earth around. These are the two roomed houses I was talking about earlier. The supermarket which Vera said was like Asda, was indeed a big supermarket. The adventure was that I was the only white person in the vicinity, many heads turned and as it was my first day in South Africa with all the warnings fresh in my mind I felt instantly ill at ease, I have been the only white person before but I think due to the history my instant feeling was guilt. Entering the supermarket it didn't help that there was a massive line snaking out into the carpark up to a desk that said money. When I tried to go past it I was stopped by a grumpy security guard. He tried to make me go in the queue ,so I asked what it was for? For money he said, but I have money I replied... still no luck, what's in your bag he said, just money I repeated again, now I felt even more paranoid especially as the whole queue was listening, eventually I pursuaded him that if he didn't let me in I would just give up and go as there was no way I was queuing for an hour when I didn't need to. In retrospect ,I realised I must of made a very odd sight. A small white woman with pigtails dressed in mens clothing (The children and my clothes failed to follow us from England and were lost somewhere in the vast bowels of heathrow airport). I'm not surprised I was stared at!
The aforesaid luggage was supposed to get to us the following day, we loved it so much at Vera Anns we decided to stay another day and go into Lesotho.
Lesotho is a country I was very curious about. Landlocked by South Africa it has managed to remain seperate partly due to it's Geography protected by the Drakensberg mountains and partly due to being a British Protectorate (must look up what that means). Driving along unmade roads to the border post you could imagine the first white settlers the Vortrekkers dismantling their carts and carring them down the slopes to the flatter land below (and the awaiting Zulus).
We left our car at the border transferring into a more battered vehicle which proceeded slowly along a very rutted track passing heavily laden ponies and flood plain fields planted up with maze. Eventually we arrived at a school. A collection of 4 long stone buildings built by the children for the children. The children sat in classes from age 6. Daniels year group were grappling with a maths problem chalked on the blackboard. Chldren sat at high wooden benches in a collection of uniforms and the odd person with wellies. All the girls shoes were identical. I noticed that although they wore the shoes in the classroom as soon as they got outside most were thown off. When we went to the 6 year old class Finn read the numbers up to 20 which were attached on a scruffy bit of A4 to the otherwise blank crumbling wall. The other children all 6 sitting in a semicircle in tiny plastic garden chairs looked on amazed that a child so small could read numbers. Our kids were horribly shy and clung to our legs but it was good to see that although different to their own experience of school there were great similarities. The children all got a hot meal in the middle of the day of pap (maize) and some sort of vegetable. This was prepared by the dinner ladies who sat in a rondavel up the hill and worked over an open fire and many of the games played during playtime against a beautiful backdrop of mushroom like cliffs and maize fields were recognisable as games played on our playgrounds as well is the inevitable football but with a ball made of rolled up paper. For lunch we visited what appeared to be the most wealthy man , he was wealthy because he had a flour grinder and could rent or barter it out to the rest of the community. He also had a tractor and a pick up truck in his yard and his living room was ramed with wonderfully kitch items. Finn asked very loudly why the sofas were covered in plastic, I guess he could have said worse. Afterwards we visited the local healer, who lived in a settlement with newly dunged Rondavels that looked really smart i'd have liked to have gone in one but we went in a square hut instead.
For those of you with kids who are wondering how the kids were, well the early morning meant that they were grumpy rat bags whining for food tand whacking things with sticks the whole time. Unfortunately Our guide a very tall Zulu called Terrance didn't seem to get hungry and carried the more child friendly food around all day until just before departure after which they cheered up considerably. Typical.
We are now at Hluhwe after another exceedingly long drive through much greener lands eventually hitting wealth, and rather strangly the white man. Driving into the vast conurbation of Durban was rather depressing with it's stark contrasts and even more so as we entered where we were staying with friends, a secure compound a bit Stepford wives if any of you have seen that. It was so secure we couldn't get in.
Hluhwe 3 hours North of Durban is a wildlife park. Quite strange concept if you think about it. Again as naïve brits we expected to see at least some wildlife just wandering around everywhere but other than a few amazing birds we have seen nothing. These parks however have reintroduced animals such as Rhino, Girraffe, Lions, Elephant along with a host of other things. We had an amazing time getting up a dawn (4.30) and driving around in circles. We saw a lion kill within minutes where a vulture flew over the car dropping a leg of something or other just by Daniel's window, we also saw monkeys, elephant in the distance, a wild dog, zebra, buffalo, Rhino and the thing that made my trip right at the end one solitary giraffe. Awesome, it would be great if these animals were still truly in the wild in this part of Africa. Unfortuantely it was in the papers when we got back to Durban that people are poaching Rhino again and that the perpertrators are often the rangers in the park.
Well I realsie I have written for far too long and if you have made it this far, well done I will try to lighten my tone a bit in the next one.
I will end with a list as I do like them so. Daniel did this in his blog so I am going to copy him.
Things I learnt about South Africa
1.It's really really big but not as big as the whole of Africa that is ridiculously big compared to our country.
2.It has really straight roads but on the majority of them you can't actually go in a straight line due to massive pot holes that you could loose half of the continent in.
3. White South Africa seem to operate on a self imposed curfew, i'm sure people must go out but we didn't see any. It felt like they were in perpetual laager (if i've spelt that right) the name for the first Voortrekers who would form a circle of their wagons when attacked.
4. The soil is really red and very hard to get the colour out of the kids pants so they are permanently going to look like they pooed themselves.
5. That Vera Anns garden is the best place to drink a cup of tea listening to the sounds of the countryside and watching the most amazing birds.
6. You can have sunsets with rainbows in them.
7. That homeschooling is fun.
8. That most people walk and there a very few bicycles.
9. It can hail in summer time
10. Much of S. Africa is flat but there are some big bumps.
Next stop New Zealand