Subject: Widdowsons' Trip to South Africa - Part I (Introduction)
This is the first part of a long account my husband wrote of our two and a half month trip to South Africa and Namibia last fall (starting on September 15 and arriving home in Victoria on November 27).

Ann Widdowson Victoria, BC

Trip to Southern Africa

September to November 1999


This was basically a two month trip to South Africa with extras-- two days in transit through Swaziland, three days in Victoria Falls, two weeks in Namibia, and five days visiting friends in So Paulo, Brazil, on the way back. Swaziland and Namibia are part of a customs and monetary union with South Africa. Zimbabwe (ne Southern Rhodesia) is a completely independent country -- the electrical plugs were different from South Africa! -- but Victoria Falls is so touristic that we did not get a feeling for the country itself.

We went to South Africa for its natural beauty -- the wild flowers, the birds, and the animals -- and not for political research. And while one noticed signs of the regrettable past and the uncertain future, these could be ignored if one put one's mind to it. As our daughter Katherine said, the South Africans so far have managed their revolution much better than, say, Russia. The infrastructure is intact and the economy functional, although bruised by the fall in the price of gold. Black and white still seem to a large extent separate. (I hope I am correct in thinking that these are the polite words at the moment; perhaps one of these days the more anxious of us are going to say: 'melanin enhanced' or 'melanin challenged'?) Tourist occasions were totally white, except in the Transvaal Drakensberg (now the Mpumalanga Drakensberg), where there were a fair number of well-to-do blacks, presumably week-ending from Johannesburg. We saw one black/white couple during our entire visit, and never met a black in a social context. The blacks we did see (Xhosa more than Zulu) seemed rather a dour lot, compared to West Africans or West Indians. They did not seem hostile, although one did get the feeling that they thought that one more white face was not what they needed to make the world more beautiful, and small wonder. Most whites we met were very, very careful about what they said, although several times we heard the thought There is no crime HERE. OUR blacks are happy and contented, they have been family to us for generations. The Afrikaaners claim that they are much more sympatico with the blacks than are the English. While there obviously is a self-serving element in this, there may be something in it. After all, they have been in the country a lot longer. Also, modern research has indicated that -- whisper -- there was a good deal of intermarriage in the early days, resulting in a 7% gene flow. However, we met too few English -- and those we met were not talking -- to be able to judge this. Another surprise was how empty much of the country seemed -- the western and northern Cape, the Karoo, and the eastern Transvaal. While Tom grew up with the novels of John Buchan and the idea that South Africa was 'empty' like Canada or Australia, more recently he had got the idea that South Africa was one big township from one end to the other. A final surprise was how dominant Afrikaans was over English among the whites.

We booked virtually every night's accommodation in advance over the Internet. We also had a lot of good advice from Maans in Port Elizabeth. Wherever possible we stayed at bed and breakfasts. These were always spotlessly clean and the hosts congenial. Some of these were former senior administrators who had been let go because of 'affirmative action'. The breakfast was mostly standard and enormous: a choice of cold cereal, fresh pressed orange juice, bacon, sausage, eggs, beans, fried tomato, toast and coffee. B. &B's averaged about US$30 per night but the classier ones were considerably more, up to about US$100. Accommodation at the National Parks was around US$20, in contrast to perhaps US$500 at the private game reserves. These latter, besides a lot of luxury, virtually guarantee views of the 'Big Five' (lion, elephant, buffalo, rhino, and leopard). One suspects that this involves habituated animals and a near-zoo experience. Needless to say, we chose the National Parks. The viewing even in these is somewhat contrived, as the roads are designed to maximize one's chances and there are numerous hides and artificial water holes. It is fair to ask why spend thousands of dollars to see animals in Kruger National Park when you can see them in one of the better zoos? The uncertainly is an attraction, and one sometimes sees the animals in large numbers in an unrestricted environment. You are confined to your car, it is the animals which are free. If it were just the Big Five, perhaps a zoo (or a private reserve) would do, but one needs to look at the little things to get a feeling for the whole picture. One wonders who chose the Big Five as 'must see'? Why are hippo and giraffe excluded? Somewhere I think I heard it is derived from a television show in Britain.

There is very little public transport in South Africa, except for minivans which are crowded and reputed to be dangerous. For all practical purposes, one must hire a car, which is expensive at about US$50 per day. The South Africans drive like the proverbial bats out of hell. The standard speed limit is 120 km/hr and most exceed it. Beside every freeway there are signs reading Last week [37%] were not speeding. Previous record [17%]. South Africans, while fast, are polite. On two-lane highways, it is good form to move over onto the paved shoulder to let people pass, and it is also good form for the passer to thank you by blinking his lights. This was so in the north, west, and south, but in the east, particularly in Swaziland, manners seemed to descend to North American standards. Apart from the vans, blacks seem to get around by walking; we saw very few driving vehicles, and not many on bicycles, or the odd donkey cart. We were told repeatedly, DON'T PICK ANYBODY UP! It made us feel very guilty to leave people walking, miles from anywhere, particularly women with small children, but so .. it was our karma to feel very guilty.

We were glad that we spent two or three nights rather than one, at most places. If we had to do it over, we especially regret spending only one night at Stormsrivier and the Transvaal Drakensberg, and we spent perhaps too much time at St. Lucia (a total of 3 nights at two locations) and Kruger (a total of 5 nights at two locations). On the other hand, we saw a leopard on our next to last night in Kruger.

A big question about the new South Africa is crime and violence. We were a bit on the paranoid side of cautious, and had no problems, and never felt threatened. We avoided Durban and Johannesburg, and explored downtown Capetown, Port Elizabeth, and Pietermaritzburg only briefly in broad daylight. Of course we followed the usual no handbags, no wallets, no conspicuous possessions or wads of money, keep your windows up and doors locked, rules one now follows just about everywhere.