A Travellerspoint blog

South Africa

4. Cape Town to the Orange River

Jewish history, tent assembly and springbok

We sat around the table over Sunday breakfast sizing each other up. So these were to be my companions for the next eight weeks.

“Driving will be quite different from what you are used to at home,” Eddie said. “You can’t afford to let you attention wander at any stage; nothing can ruin a trip more quickly than an accident.” We nodded in solemn agreement, determining to do our best to avoid mishaps. “Many of the bus and truck drivers are a law to themselves. If they indicate to you that the road is clear to pass them, don’t take their word. Only pass when you can see for yourselves that it’s clear.”

“Some of the roads are seriously pot holed once you get further north,” Jan said. “In some areas, the EU or China has donated funds for new roading, but in other places, there hasn’t been much upkeep since the British left. And you’ll have to watch out for the police, even in the small villages. They will be standing on the side of the road with their hair driers.”

“Their what?” I asked.

“Speed cameras. The Danish government,” Eddie laughed as he eyed my Danish husband, “donated a whole container load of them.”

“Oh dear,” I thought, struggling to keep my mind on the new subject of conversation, for we had moved on to the typical daily routine and the need to equip ourselves with snacks and drinks for the hours behind the wheel.

After the ‘team talk’, Martin and I agreed to accompany the Thomases to a local church service, suggesting afterwards we visit the South African Jewish Museum and the adjoining Cape Town Holocaust Centre. We had called there the day before, only to find it was closed; of course, we should have known, for it was Saturday, their Sabbath. We were glad of a second chance, for we had read the Lonely Planet’s comment: ‘although small, the centre packs a lot in with a considerable emotional punch’. They were right.

I have visited other Nazi historical sites – the holocaust museum in Jerusalem, the new museum in Nuremberg, Krakow locations and Auschwitz itself, but the story never fails to impact, to send home with force the horror of it all. There was some sympathy for Nazi Germany and a degree of anti-Semitism in South Africa, so it was good to see the Jewish story told so poignantly and clearly. The centre included the old synagogue with display items and the newer working synagogue where a volunteer gave us some background to his faith and practice. The museums told the story of Jewish settlement in South Africa and the contributions of famous Jewish citizens to the development of the nation. They also documented Nazi activities in Europe including the concentration camps, and the stories of the few who escaped to South Africa. The smiling face of Anne Frank brought the fate of the six million Jews down to an individual and personal level, comprehensible to us all.

On our last day based in Cape Town, larger-than-life, vociferous Ferdinand guided the six of us around the Stellenbosch area, visiting centres for wines, cheeses and beers. It was an opportunity for the team for the next eight weeks to get to know each other. The best part was sitting at a large table on a pleasant lawn against a backdrop of hills and farmland at one of the wineries, engaging in much laughter and talk. One of the stories concerned an overland trip with two supposed vegan travellers who declared there was no way they could eat meat. The guides bent over backwards to accommodate their eating preferences, only to discover them eating some delicious steaks later in the tour. When the guides exploded in irate protest, the couple confessed they had decided to assume the vegan role because they feared the dangers of meat eating in Africa. I think, from memory, their eviction from the tour group followed.

On a more serious note, we discovered the inequalities of education in South Africa. When we observed a rural school from the mini-bus, we wanted to know more. Was that really a school? Was it a government school? Why did it look so poor? Why were the buildings so shabby and the playground so inadequate?

“Oh,” said Ferdinand, “that’s a farm school; that’s normal for South Africa. But I will take you to my old school. I will show you a really good school.” He detoured through the town of Paarl and into the grounds of his own former high school, with its fine buildings and well established grounds, a facility indeed to be proud of. There was quality schooling in his country, but other children also attended schools at the other end of the spectrum.

The next day we drove north from Cape Town towards the border with Namibia on the Orange River. The road was excellent, except for the frequent road works. The town of Clanwilliam introduced us to supermarket shopping for the trip, the number of unemployed aimlessly hanging around the town and the need to keep an eye on the vehicles while we lunched. By way of change away from the paved highway, we took a side track up the Olifants River along a mud road, great for 4 wheel driving.

We had two nights camping in South Africa, and on the first, we learnt to erect our Oz tent and to set up the stretcher beds. Very straight forward – remove the tent from the metal container on top of the land rover and from its bag, lay it out on the ground with the side arms pulled out, unzip the front door, hoist up the front portal and enter within, push the two aluminium frames down in place on either side – and hey presto, you have yourself a habitable tent.

According to the Oz web advertisement, you can do it in 30 seconds. Well, it’s not quite that quick, but it is pretty easy. All that remained was to hammer in the pegs around the tent and rope up the porch flap. Then you could settle down to relax with your travelling companions over a glass of wine or fruit juice and some tasty Fairview cheese purchased on the wine tour. The next day I bought two cheap red china mugs for the better enjoyment of our coffee and two wine glasses. You can’t enjoy a decent coffee or a pleasant cold drink from a plastic cup. Both mugs and glasses survived unbroken for the whole of the trip.

That night I had my first view of the gorgeous springbok, albeit in captivity. Most New Zealanders do know it is an antelope but they associate the name with the South African rugby team. It’s an Afrikaans term, ‘spring’ meaning ‘jump’ and ‘bok’ meaning ‘goat’. It must be among the most delicate and graceful of the African gazelles. Slender, medium-sized, with brown and white tonings, it is extremely fast, reaching speeds of 100 km/h, and heights of four metres. Springbok inhabit the dry inland areas of south and southwestern Africa as far as Botswana and are the most plentiful of the antelope family. We were therefore to become quite familiar with their elegant and flowing forms, though we never tired of watching them or aiming the camera to them. Springbok were just the first of many African animals we were privileged to see.

Note to the reader: from here on, for the flow and ease of the story, I have decided to write in the present tense.

Posted by rhinospin 02:34 Archived in South Africa Comments (0)

3. Land Rover, perfect vehicle for 10,500 African kms

The eccentricities of our vehicle

“Legendary. For work, for adventure. 65 years on and still going strong. Welcome; you haven't just procured a vehicle of comfort and capability; you've joined a select group of drivers with a spirit of adventure.”

So read excerpts from the landrover.co.nz web site, written for the new owners of today’s land rovers. The words might well have been penned to apply to us, about to set out on a journey of 10,500 kilometres in a land rover from Cape Town to Nairobi.

A little bit of potted history before we begin. Land Rover is the second oldest four-wheel-drive car brand in the world after Jeep. Since 1948 over two million worldwide have been produced. They originated in Britain in 1947 when Maurice Wilks drew a picture of his plans in the sand on a beach in Wales where he was on holiday. He wanted a vehicle that would be suitable for the farmer but also for the general public, a do-anything automobile for the beach, the farm and even the army, whom he later interested in his project. With a strong box chassis and permanent 4 wheel drive, they were very stable and able to drive through the roughest terrain. Early models were coloured khaki green using World War 2 army surplus paint.

In 2008 the then owners, Ford, sold the company to the Indian multinational Tata, who, in 2013, announced that production would end in December 2015, after a continuous run of 67 years. All land rover lovers should rise to their feet for a minute of silence to mourn their demise.

We stood looking at our 1998 Defender Land Rover in the courtyard of the Breakwater Lodge in Cape Town, an iconic image of the colonial safari way of life. ‘Landie’ sat alongside two other land rovers, one our guides' vehicle, and the other our travel companions’. A square cream box on high wheels, topped with a large metal roof rack carrying spare tyres, extra diesel fuel, emergency water and the oblong case for the Oz tent. Owners of Africa Expedition Support, Debs and Timo, had shipped her from England to Mombasa, and then driven her to Nairobi to join their fleet of other land rovers. They changed out an assortment of parts, adding new shocks, a new radiator, larger tyres and more comfortable bucket seats from the Discovery range.

We were to learn her eccentricities, both agreeable and less so. She was manual, not automatic like most modern cars we drive, and so required more user interaction in the driving process. Martin found that the clutch was stiff and third gear occasionally needed his full force to move it. I will leave you to imagine the muttering that accompanied such efforts. Modern air conditioning and ventilation was non-existent, with an open window the only source of fresh air. Land rover designers, in their wisdom, had placed the window winder handle low down on the front door, somewhere in the vicinity of the accelerator for the driver. You had to grope in the depths to find the handle before frantically winding up the window to prevent the dust from an oncoming vehicle pouring in. Martin’s request that the handle be shifted was not met with any enthusiasm by our guides. There was an upside. Without any electronic mechanisms to get clogged up with dust, the manual windows always obediently opened to the turn of the handle.

When it rained, our land rover leaked; for example, in the front passenger area, in the corner of the door and the front wind screen. With heavy rain, a puddle soon developed at my feet. The old window vents in the ceiling could no longer be opened because of the roof rack on the outside, but they leaked in wet weather. Another issue was storage. Our model had no glove box, dashboard shelf or cubby hole in the front door, so there was a shortage of storage space in the front seat for all those small items that tended to float around – sun cream, barley sugars, camera batteries, tooth brush charger, tissues, water bottle, lip gloss, snack logs, rubber bands and so on.

But it wasn’t all negative. Don’t imagine we resented our Landie and her limitations. We became very attached to her, feeling quite possessive towards her. She was ours, even if only for eight weeks. There were numerous good features. The suspension was excellent, a bonus on the rough bumpy roads of Africa, and the seats were as a comfortable as any modern sedan car, another bonus for the many hours of driving that we experienced. The big wheels positioned the land rover well off the ground and you could travel over many an irregular surface with deep, muddy ruts without flooring out. Of course, the height of the vehicle necessitated grabbing hold of the inside handle above the door and hoisting oneself energetically from the ground into the seat in order to make an entrance. But at least I had some daily exercise in the otherwise sedentary occupation of riding in the front.

Between the two seats was an old frig box converted into a cupboard. It provided some storage space for the car manual, the route folder and our camera equipment. The bags of potato chips, the boiled lollies and the sun cream did tend to get lost in its depths, but it was very useful. Between the box and the back bench seat was stowed the new little frig, very effective for cooling drinks and lunches, as long as the motor was running.

There were several other very handy pieces of equipment. We were linked to our ‘mother’ vehicle and to each other by radio, allowing the exchange of information whenever we wished. Like “Graham , I think you have gone the wrong way” or “look over there, it’s not a stone, it’s a rhino” or “watch out, vicious speed bumps ahead”. Our radio played up from time to time, underlining its importance when we had to manage without it. We also had an inverter to charge our batteries – cameras, toothbrush, laptop, notebook. It might have been deepest darkest Africa, but we still had our mod cons with us. The inverter, with its annoying wires and cords in all directions, was really important, especially if we were not able to recharge batteries at the camp sites.

We were a small group, just three vehicles. Judy and Graham, our travelling companions, were given a green land rover with a rather interesting number plate. The numbers were preceded by a blue panel containing the round circle of the 12 stars of the European Union and the letters RO. What did it mean, we all wanted to know? Debs and Timo had purchased it from a Romanian traveller on his way around Africa. Part way on his intended journey, he decided to end his travels and return home and so he sold it to Africa Expedition Support. We dubbed Judy and Graham ‘the Romanians’. Aussies from Adelaide, they were of a similar age to ourselves and proved to be agreeable and convivial fellow travellers.

In the third land rover were our ‘minders’, Eddie, our chief guide and cook, and Jan, 25 years his junior, his driver and the mechanic for the vehicles. They were both of South African extraction, Eddie probably with more English heritage and Jan from Afrikaans stock. Both had lots of experience in the African overland tourist trade and could regale us with hilarious or fanciful tales of their days as overland leaders up and down the highways of Africa. Eddie had also served as a conservation ranger in South Africa for some years and had a wealth of knowledge about the flora and fauna we met on the trip. Whatever we wanted to know, Eddie seemed to know, from the ancient Welwitschia of the Namibian desert to the differentiations of the four types of giraffe through Africa. Along with the lifestyle went certain unconventionalities of character, like Eddie’s love of bare feet whether it was on hot desert sands or dirty village footpaths. The only concession was to life in the city, when shoes would appear. Both did their best to keep us out of trouble and make our trip stimulating and enjoyable.

I presume their land rover had been specially modified for the purpose of a leader vehicle, equipped with breakdown gear, tool kits and spare parts, should we get into a spot of bother. There were no windows in the back or behind, securely hiding all their gear, which included dried and fresh food. A large refrigeration cupboard provided storage for the meat, milk, cheese and yogurt which they regularly purchased along the way.

We were well looked after. When I saw the overland trucks disgorging their occupants, I had to acknowledge how fortunate we were. Four travellers, with a vehicle to each couple and two guides as our escorts and chaperons – we were privileged nomads for the next eight weeks.

Posted by rhinospin 17:24 Archived in South Africa Comments (0)

2. Red Bussing around Cape Town

Blunders, Beauties and District Six

For two experienced travellers, our trip began unpromisingly with several blunders. Blame the excitement and stress of going away. On the way to the airport in the shuttle bus, Martin exchanged the two sim cards in our cell phones and somehow the mobiles never found their way back into his pocket. It wasn’t until our son emailed us several days later to ask if Martin had lost his phone, having been contacted by the shuttle company, that we were even aware of our loss. It took several more days to realise that my phone was missing – I can be excused as one who infrequently makes use of it. The shuttle company had another fossick under their seats and discovered the second phone. So we were able to stop worrying about some stranger running up big bills at our expense, but, of course, we were without mobiles for the whole trip.

The second blunder caused greater panic. Africa Expedition Support had emailed a dossier of trip details, including the address of our accommodation in Cape Town. I slotted the wad of pages in my clear file and brought it with us. But I left off the vital back sheet – somewhere at home. Jet lagged in the airport, I rummaged through my day pack, then my hand bag, searching in vain for the forgotten address. We knew the hotel was on the waterfront and we knew it had once been a prison, but the name would not come to mind. We remembered that Gareth Morgan and his motor biking companions had first stayed there, before shifting out, with complaints that the rooms were not large enough. We had nearly changed our bookings after reading that.

Such information was of little use as we stood in the airport overwhelmed with our predicament, myself disintegrating into pieces, and Martin looking around for a solution. He made enquiries of several people. A taxi driver, much to our relief, pulled the name out of his memory bank of hotels with the two clues we gave – Breakwater Lodge in Portswood Road in the Victoria & Alfred Waterfront, he said. Yes, yes, we nodded, remembering the name as soon as we heard it. What a relief to arrive there and to find the hotel was all we could wish for.

Cape Town is a beautiful city and our location on the waterfront was ideal. Here’s a little resume of our activities there before the 4 wheel drive safari commenced. Skip it, if you want to get onto the serious 4 wheel drive story. We opted for ease of travel, taking a red double decker bus tour from the nearby depot, around the sights of the inner city. This included St Georges Mall and the cathedral, the Castle of Good Hope, a star shaped fort built between 1666 and 1679, and the Koopmans-De Wet House, dating from 1701. We were impressed with the history pertaining to Cape Town, but Table Mountain was something uniquely special.

The bus dropped us at the base of the cable way and we scaled the massive wall of grey rock in one of the blue cable cars to the top of the tableland. The day was superb, blue cloudless sky and warm autumn sun upon the rocky terrain and undersized vegetation. We were so fortunate, for so often the ‘table cloth’ of cloud wrapped itself over the mountain, veiling the prominent landmark and the magnificent view. The city stretched out below us to the spectacular coast with Devil’s Peak to the west of us and Lion’s Head to the east. Away from the cable way, there were few tourists and it was such a pleasure to spend several hours following the tracks and enjoying the views and the native vegetation. We lingered, reluctant to leave the exhilarating heights and descend below.

Back on the red bus, our trip followed the coastline through busy Camps Bay and along the impressive Twelve Apostles range, an extension of Table Mountain. We arrived back minutes before 5.00pm, with just enough time to make a snap decision on the discount purchase of the second red bus tour on the morrow. That took us first out to Kirstenbosch National Botanical Garden with its fabulous setting under the bush covered mountains. Seen at their best in spring, we were disappointed at the few ericas, proteas and strelitzia (bird of paradise plants) in flower, but it was to be expected in March. Nevertheless it was a pleasure to stroll along the manicured paths and beside the expanses of well-maintained lawns against the backdrop of the mountains. And there were a few flowers out in bloom.

The Groot Constania Winery was next. Dating back to 1685, the architecture of the buildings was in Cape Dutch style, with its manor house and old cellars now a museum. Because it was a public holiday in honour of Human Rights Day, entry to the museum was free, so we enjoyed a very pleasant hour or two, lunching at the Jonkershuis Restaurant under the shade of the old oak trees and viewing the items in the museum. We then adjourned to the wine tasting room where, in the warmth of the early afternoon, it was more than sufficient to sip five of their fine wines. By the time we had also visited the World of Birds and walked along Mariners Wharf at Hout Bay, we were exhausted, though highly satisfied with our choice of back-to-back red bus tours.

That left one more day before we joined the Africa Expedition Support trip and met our fellow travellers. We chose to visit the Victoria and Alfred Waterfront and District Six Museum. The sunshine had disappeared behind a dull and cloudy sky but the waterfront was still worth while with its Dutch architecture and bright yellow clock tower. We read the information plaques and admired the life size statues of the four South African Nobel Peace Prize winners, Desmond Tutu, Nelson Mandela, F W de Klerk and Albert Luthuli. The area was so pleasant that we returned there several more times before we departed from the city, enjoying the wide range of restaurants and the evening sunshine dousing the harbour and the mountain backdrop in golden light.

The District Six Museum was most thought provoking. I found myself going back to the anti-apartheid protest movement in New Zealand in the 70s and 80s and asking myself what I was doing then. I certainly wasn’t marching on behalf of those receiving the raw end of injustice. The museum was set in up in an old Methodist church on the edge of District Six to record the forced movement of 60,000 inhabitants of various races from the area in the 1960s and 70s under apartheid. How wrong it all was. Even setting aside the iniquitous racial issue, on which grounds it was justified, it was so in defiance of all that civil and property law stood for. The taking by force of people’s land and homes because another group in society decided they should have it.

I sat in the old church kitchen with its 1950s decor with our tea and biscuits thinking about Halt All Racist Tours and the 1981 rugby tour and the prime minster of the day. Yes, if I could go back, I would jump out of my middle class conformity and add my voice to declare it was wrong. At least, I hope that is what I would do. The yellow metal sign in English and Africans summed it up, declaring that “these public premises and the amenities thereof have been reserved for the exclusive use of white persons”. The most poignant display was a single room representing the simply furnished family home of residents of District Six from 1963 before they were required to move - the human face of a family caught up in injustice. At the South Africa Museum we read more about the Land Laws of 1913, and discovered that the roots of apartheid went back much further than the days of Verwoerd, Vorster and Botha.

Like many other nations, South Africa got things badly wrong, but I couldn't help admire the public acknowledgement on Table Mountain with its biblical quotation. The plaque (abbreviated) read: ‘Great are the works of the Lord. Psalm 111. 2. Who is like God - who created the heavens and gave the earth its form, almighty and omnipotent God'. I looked forward to seeing and experiencing the wonderful landscapes of Africa.

Posted by rhinospin 17:19 Archived in South Africa Comments (0)

1. To Spin through Africa

Where he goes, I go

Nine weeks in Africa, 40 days behind the steering wheel of a 1998 land rover, through seven African countries, into eight different national parks, tenting in basic camping grounds in the company of two other land rovers and their occupants. What a brilliant way to go travelling for two Kiwis, closer to their 70s than they liked to admit.

Whether you are an armchair traveller or whether you aspire to roam yourself, I invite you to join us on our spin through southern and east Africa. My first blog telling of our overland journey from Hong Kong to Europe via Central Asia was termed Silkspin and our Canadian blog became Moosespin. We settled on Rhinospin for our expedition through Africa. Two Kiwis in Africa, in a land rover, on a rhinospin.

If you have read our Canadian travel blog you may remember some references to Africa. I wrote that while I dreamed of and planned towards the Trans-Canada journey from west to east, Martin explored Africa on the internet and hung on the words of people he met who had self-driven there. Later in the Ontario section, I said “this year the Niagara Falls, perhaps next, the Victoria Falls between Zambia and Zimbabwe”.

It was more that wishful thinking. For by the time we arrived in Vancouver, we had paid the deposit towards our next adventure: driving from Cape Town to Nairobi with Africa Expedition Support. Lynda and Peter, a couple from Auckland, were the ones who got us into it. We met them in the summer on the Kauri Coast 4 wheel drive club safari around Northland.

Martin noticed their unusual vehicle, a large 4 WD Toyota with a purpose-built sleeping canopy on top, and he put them under his characteristic interrogation. “Had they built it themselves; where had they travelled in it; what was it like to drive?” He discovered they had modified the vehicle in NZ and driven it from Singapore to Europe in 2006 completely on their own. They were people after his own heart, for in 2011 we had shipped our Nissan Terrano in a container to Hong Kong and driven it to Europe via China and Central Asia; not on our own, mind you, but with friends Maurice and Anne and their Nissan, who had instigated the trip.

In 2008, Lynda and Peter told him, they had joined Africa Expedition Support and had driven all the way from Jordan to Cape Town over a 16 week period in one of the company’s land rovers. Martin was all ears with interest and anticipation. Here was a chance for another adventure. I was lukewarm. Home was comfortable and we were off to Canada later in the year. Driving in Africa sounded risky and uncertain.

We returned home from the Northland trip, Martin armed with the travel company web site, which he studied with enthusiasm. He decided eight weeks was long enough, both for the pocket and for our travel capacity, and so we would go from Cape Town to Nairobi. Besides, the political situation in both Egypt and the Sudan put them out of our consideration for self-drive travel for the moment. For me, it became a case of “where he goes, I go too”; in time, I embraced the concept enthusiastically.

My image of Africa was no different from that of many other Westerners - exotic wild creatures roaming the endless savannah in protected national parks, but politically unstable countries governed by volatile rulers; continent of the mighty Victoria Falls but also lawless shanty towns and machete wielding terrorists; beautiful, vast landscapes alongside devastating famines and pot-bellied starving children, a mix of drought and human mismanagement. When a friend back home asked me if our guides were armed, I realised we all had misconceptions, based largely on reports from the news media. Elements of truth, skewed by the macabre and the news media headlines.

I have found one way to unravel the strands of truth and also to provide a sense of atmosphere is to arm yourself with reading matter relating to the locality to be visited. For example years ago when we island-hopped through the Greek Islands, I did so in the company of Captain Corelli’s Mandolin, by Louis de Bernières; it added both to my understanding and my enjoyment of the area. Time limited my African reading but it did include the following:

  1. Long Walk to Freedom by Nelson Mandela, an excellent and moving account by the author of his boyhood, his emergence into a freedom fighter and his prison life.
  2. Out of Africa by Karen Blixen, the story of her colonial life in Kenya from 1913 to 1931, with beautifully written portrayals of the land and the peoples.
  3. The Sunbird by Wilbur Smith (by way of contrast), set in Botswana, giving some African context, against a fanciful story of archaeology and Phoenicians in Central Africa.
  4. The No1 Ladies Detective Agency by Alexander McCall Smith, set in Botswana, the first of a series of books about Mma Precious Ramotswe, providing numerous delightful details about life in Africa.
  5. The Sheltering Desert by Henno Martin, the true story of two young German geologists who fled to the Namib Desert to escape interment at the start of World War 2. The descriptions of the expansive desert landscape make for excellent reading.
  6. Under African Skies by Jo and Gareth Morgan, recounting their group’s travel by motor bike from Cape Town to London.
  7. Long Way Down by Ewan McGregor and Charley Boorman, another motorcycle adventure through Africa.

A rather diverse collection. Of course, I hardly scratched the surface of the books available with an African context, but it was a beginning and they helped set the scene for the trip.

Like the Morgans, we began in Cape Town, South Africa.

Posted by rhinospin 02:59 Archived in South Africa Comments (0)

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