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.