Tag Archives: South Africa

In the end, it was nothing special

I saw a lion today. In eight months in Africa, I’d yet to see a single lion. Now I can go home.

I’m writing my final “Around Africa” column from inside a tent in Kenya’s Masai Mara Game Reserve, where I’m on a three-day safari, the sole purpose of which, from my point of view, is to see lions in the wild. I’d resolved not to leave Africa until I’d done so, and today it happened: a rather skinny lioness, mouth agape, lazily stalking a mother buffalo and her calf until she decided it was too much bother and she’d rather lie down and enjoy the sunset. Frankly, she looked a lot like they do on the Discovery Channel.

Reflecting on the past eight months, I come back to a quotation from Shunryo Suzuki, a Japanese Zen master: “As a Chinese poem says, ‘I went and I returned. It was nothing special. Rozan famous for its misty mountains; Sekko for its water.’ People think it must be wonderful to see the famous range of mountains covered by mists, and the water said to cover all the earth. But if you go there you will just see water and mountains. Nothing special.”

Make no mistake. Africa is full of wonder and amazement. Suzuki uses “nothing special” as a metaphor for a state of mind said to be achieved by daily practice of a certain type of zazen meditation, but it applies quite literally to the traveler seeking extraordinary experiences. Before you achieve it, you think it must be something amazing, but once you have it, you see that it’s nothing more than what was right in front of you the entire time.

The unnamed Chinese poet isn’t let down by what he sees, no more than I was by Africa. The mountains and lakes are as beautiful as he’s heard. But if he came seeking an inner transformation, something that changes the way he perceives and interprets the world, the poet realizes he’s been scratching at the wrong itch.

SOMETHING BIG. When I set out to travel around Africa overland in October 2010, I wanted to push myself to do something big. The overland route down the west coast of Africa isn’t a well-trod path like Cairo to Cape Town or Istanbul to Kathmandu. I’d taken long overland trips before, but never such a distance: tens of thousands of kilometers through 21 countries, traveling almost entirely by bus, train, taxi and boat, never going anywhere near an airport check-in desk from Madrid down to Cape Town and up again to Dar es Salaam. In sections of this route, the logistics of public transport are undocumented by any guidebook. Yes, I admit it: I felt special doing it.

Traveling overland yields a view of the landscape, both cultural and geographic, that I would have missed flying city to city. From Morocco, a land whose tiled courtyards, fountains and riads seem to have stepped out of a Taschen coffee-table book, the route crosses the Atlas Mountains and the Sahara, hitting the noise and color of sub-Saharan Africa at the Senegal River. The red dust of the Sahel then gives way to rainforest overgrowth in central Ghana, and from there southward, around the great bend in the African coast, the jungle grows in great patches interspersed with savannah and grasslands. The track becomes rough, and with tourists few and far between, the conversations become warmer and less geared towards trying to sell you something.

At the Congo River, the geographic progression reverses itself: baobabs make their reappearance midway through Angola, the land becoming drier, culminating in the twisting red lines of the Namib desert dunes, until finally, in the Cape’s monied winelands, you’re back again in style-book territory.

AFRICA ON THE MOVE. But if the journey itself was extraordinary, most of what I found along the way was more striking for being so commonplace. You already know the visual clichés: cackling child soldiers, baring white teeth and waving AK47s, shaking you down for bribes; the Congo described as a “river of blood,” a wound that never stops bleeding. Some people come looking for the opposite, like a dimpled orphan that opens their eyes to the precious beauty of all humanity. But in the end, it’s just you. Plain old you again, the same nervous ticks you had before, the same songs stuck in your head.

Granted, there were a lot of cute children. None of them had guns. No blood, save for a few scrapes of my own. Almost no bribes. I did, however, find a continent on the move. Most Africans hardly think twice about sitting 10 hours crammed into a bush taxi to visit relatives. I rode countless vehicles packed with housewives carrying sacks of onions and bundles of plantains from town to town, small-scale merchants commuting to sell electronic goods, and some who spend a entire day getting to a nearby village only to attend a work colleague’s mother’s funeral. Through a sustained experience of the unglamorous, it’s easier to go beneath the surface strangeness, to see that even in the most seemingly alien parts of the world, people have the same basic needs, loves and foibles as anywhere.

There’s your Chinese poet’s epiphany. Somewhere along the way the strange became approachable. In Africa, as anywhere, bread gets moldy and milk goes bad, mothers die and babies giggle and hearts are shattered into a million pieces and, yes, some wounds heal and some don’t, and it’s wonderful, it’s horrible — but most of all, it’s nothing special.

This is the 31st and final installment of “Around Africa,” a weekly column in The National of Abu Dhabi.


<– PREVIOUS IN THE SERIES: Across the mighty Zambezi from Zimbabwe to Zambia




A fleeting song of Soweto

“Do you have Mace?” That’s one of the last things my South African host said as he dropped me off at the train station in Cape Town to catch the 26-hour train to Johannesburg. For many South Africans, taking the train is akin to signing your own death warrant. Truth be told, it’s more like riding the Amtrak in the US.

My next overnight stop is Soweto, the Jo’burg township where I plan to sleep for a night before moving on to Bulawayo, Zimbabwe’s second largest city, en route overland to Victoria Falls and, eventually, Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. It’s a long journey over 10 days – an extra leg of travel, an epilogue of sorts, since my destination was supposed to be Cape Town. But an easy epilogue of paved roads and well-trafficked bus routes compared to the efforts of west and central Africa.

TOWNSHIP MELODY. The name Soweto puts a certain music in my head. An acronym for South-west Township, Soweto was the epicentre of South Africa’s apartheid struggle. For me, it has echoes of the first things I ever knew about South Africa as an American high school student at the end of the 1980s. Like today, the world then jerked and twitched with the promise of democratic revolution. I think of The Indestructible Beat of Soweto and other records I read about but never owned; I think of Bono’s Rattle and Hum speeches and “Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes” and strident teenage do-gooders writing letters for Amnesty International. If I’m going to pass though Jo’burg, I’d like to at least say I stuck an ear to Soweto’s ground.

A city-within-a-city of 1.3 million or higher, today’s Soweto is no uniform shanty-town sprawl. The part I’m heading to, Orlando West, is a middle-class neighborhood with playgrounds, fences and solid single-story homes. It’s also home to Lebo’s Soweto Backpackers, a Fair Trade accredited hostel that offers bicycle tours of the township and community-based projects that are supposed to make you feel good about being a tourist.

I phone Lebo’s from the train to make sure there’s space. “What’s the best way to get there from the station?” I ask through a muddled connection. The receptionist offers a pick-up for 100 rand ($15), which I turn down.

“Is it safe to get there by a mini-bus taxi?”

A garbled voice replies: “Go to Bree taxi rank and ask for a mini-bus taxi to either Meadowlands or Phefeni via BOS. Get off at BOS and call us from there. Somebody will come to get you.” She has to repeat and spell the proper names several times, and even then I only get a portion. “Just go to Bree taxi rank and call us from there.”

“YOU’LL GET LOST.” The train pulls into the station three hours late. Welcome to Jo’burg, hub of southern Africa, the continent’s third-largest city after Cairo and Lagos, teeming with immigrants and home to every African nationality. Guide-book descriptions of the multi-culti hub of southern Africa are tempered by warnings of violent crime, with areas of the city center described as no-gos. As for the taxi ranks near the station, they say these should be approached with caution, if at all.

At the station’s information desk, they shake their head with disbelief when I try to clarify the directions. “You need to know which zone of Meadowlands,” the woman scolds. “Otherwise you’ll get lost.” Plus, they direct me to a different taxi rank.

Better luck is had at the Greyhound desk, where I’m to buy an onward ticket to Zimbabwe. The man at the counter doesn’t know the areas named, but a woman in the back office overhears, emerges and says: “I know exactly where you want to go.”

“You know Soweto Backpackers?” I ask.

“I know exactly where you want to go,” she repeats. “You get off at BOS, and everybody knows where that place is. You go buy your ticket, and then this man” – she points to a man on my side of the counter whose front teeth are missing – “will take you to the taxi rank and put you on the right mini-bus.”

OK, SO I GOT LOST. His name is Stanley, and he guides me out of the station into the throngs on the street, soon turning down a ramp into what looks like an empty parking garage. Along the way, Stanley issues a set of prepared remarks. “I help people, this is what I do. I have never hurt anybody. You know how I lost these teeth?” he asks. “Because somebody attacked me last week. But I have never hurt anybody. I help people, and in return they give me something.”

I reassure Stanley that his assistance will not go uncompensated.

We turn a corner at the bottom of the ramp. The garage, it turns out, is not empty at all; indeed, it’s the taxi rank itself, teeming with minivans and waiting passengers. “Did the woman at the desk tell you how much I would charge?” Stanley asks.

“Ahh, no, she didn’t,” I reply, forcing a smile

“I charge 50 rands,” he says, or $7 and change for a five-minute walk.

“That’s nice,” I laugh. “I”ll give you ten.” I cut short his grumbling. It’s a fair tip and he knows it.

I board the last seat on the mini-bus, which soon crawls out of the city to the south-west. Unfortunately, I miss the BOS stop – and I never do find out what BOS stands for, by the way – so by the time I reach Lebo’s, there’s only about 30 minutes of daylight left. It’s enough time to snap some pictures of children on the football pitch and the adjacent railway tracks.

MUSIC TO THE EARS. My next ride to Bulawayo leaves at 8am. I’ll have to leave before dawn to reach

the bus station in time. I can say I slept in Soweto. That’s all.

Except one small thing, so consistent with the music in my head that even now, I struggle to believe I wasn’t imagining it. As the sun sets on the football game, a local metro train passes. Sadly, these trains, according to all accounts I’ve read, are genuinely riddled with crime. This one’s as packed as Mumbai’s second-class commuter rail at rush hour, with people hanging out of the open doors and straddling the spaces between the cars.

From a distance, I hear voices coming from the train – voices in unison, a resonant chorus of a cappella melody. The passengers are literally singing their way through Soweto.

This is the 29th installment of “Around Africa,” a weekly column in The National of Abu Dhabi.

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Beads in the wind: a symbolic gesture at Cape Point

The Cape of Good Hope is not Africa’s southernmost point, contrary to widespread belief. I didn’t know this either when I set out, but the distinction belongs to little-known Cape Agulhas, about 200 kilometers by road to the south-east of Cape Town. I keep the latter as a reminder of places I could have visited but didn’t: I never made it up to Bizerte, Tunisia, Africa’s northernmost town, even though it’s a short distance from Tunis; a minor altercation with a Dakar cab driver prevented me from reaching Pointe des Almadies in the far west, and while I could have walked the remaining distance, I had a beer at a beachside bar instead. The eastern extremity, meanwhile, lies within the semi-autonomous Puntland region and, although it’s actually one of the safer parts of Somalia, I shan’t be heading there anytime soon. So forgive me if I don’t cry in my Yoohoo about not reaching Cape Agulhas.

Still, I had some urge to do something – something corny and personal and perhaps even theatrical to mark the end of my Africa journey, or at least what I’d long assumed would be the end. The Cape of Good Hope, along with the nearby but more dramatically situated Cape Point, seemed a good enough place to chuck some beads into the sea.

On the day I finally persuaded a friend to drive me the 90 minutes down Cape Peninsula, the wind was such that it numbed the facial nerves. People stumbled about as though besotted by the scenery, all cliffs and foam and scrub-covered slopes. The sign at the Cape of Good Hope doesn’t do justice to the promontory’s southern edge, where two oceans are said to meet, announcing awkwardly, “The most south-western point of the African continent.”

ROUGH SEAS. Here, or more properly, in the waters between Cape Point and Cape Agulhas, the Indian Ocean’s warm Agulhas current, originating south of Madagascar and moving 80 million cubic meters of water per second in a 160 kilometer wide corridor, crashes into the cold Benguela current, moving 15 million cubic meters of water per second from the south in a path 250 kilometers wide. Hurricane-force turbulence ensues. The waves begin to break far from shore, sweeping in like a herd of galloping white horses, the wind blowing the caps into a misty trail that resembles snow blown from the top of a Himalayan peak, or perhaps some ludicrous vision of Arthur returning from Avalon.

The crowds climb to the Cape Point lighthouse, far above the sea, but this is no place to be throwing anything into the surf, for the headland extends several hundred meters to the south. I spot a path down below, empty of tourists, making its way out to a platform close to the point itself. I make my way down. The wind here rages with such intensity I fear I may be blown off the cliff and dashed to pieces on the rocks below – or worse, lose my glasses, or a flip-flop, and have to return to the car in ignominy.

But I make it, and I’m glad to be alone for a few moments. I contemplate the dross accumulated during the past 18 months of travel, and facing the wind head on, I imagine I must be experiencing a moment of purification. There’s no special story with these Tibetan prayer beads, by the way: they weren’t a gift from a high lama or anything, just something I happened upon a while back and ended up carrying with me around the world, like a great many less tangible things. When the string finally broke it seemed unbecoming to throw them out with the garbage.

FACING THE SOUTH. Predictably, I have a moment like the ending of “The Big Lebowski,” when Donny’s ashes fly back into the faces of Walter and the Dude. The southerly gusts aren’t sweeping anything away to Antarctica today; quite the opposite. One by one I pick up each of the beads and toss them into the bushes down below, where at least I can’t see them any more. I return to the parking lot, noting on the way out a faded signpost I’d missed before, warning of a “dangerous walk” to the point.

If there’s a coda here, it’s that my journey through Africa isn’t even finished. Circumstances have conspired to send me onward, overland again, northward to Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, over 10 days, via Zimbabwe and Zambia. I began the Africa stretch of a round-the-world journey in Tunis; three-quarters of the way around this continent isn’t bad. And who knows – perhaps the gushing waters of Victoria Falls en route will provide yet another opportunity for a dramatic finish.

This is the 28th installment of “Around Africa,” a weekly column in The National of Abu Dhabi.

<– PREVIOUS IN THE SERIES: Keeping it real in the township — or mere “poorism”?

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Keeping it real in the township — or mere “poorism”?

So-called “slum tours” are big in the travel business these days. An international conference called Destination Slum held in the UK in December discussed “the production and consumption of poverty in travel and tourism,” with presentations carrying an air of academia including “Gangster Tourism: Representations of ‘The Ghetto’ in the Era of Global Security” and “Slum Tourism as a Search for Urban Authenticity.”

The latter uses a troublesome byword in travel promotion: authenticity. It’s a word that needs to be used with quotation marks if it’s not to smack of ham-handed marketing, for as soon as something is described as authentic, it stops being so. I’m reminded of Andrew Potter’s The Authenticity Hoax: How We Get Lost Finding Ourselves, in which the author describes how Westerners, suffering from spurious delusions that their lives are somehow fake or artificial, tie themselves in knots chasing an imagined realness that doesn’t exist. Entire industries have grown up around this urge. For some, it means shopping at Whole Foods, while for others it entails visiting the grottiest parts of the globe if only to brag about it to themselves.

In Cape Town especially, the consumption of poverty, sometimes derided as “poorism,” can be especially discomfiting if only because the city beckons most visitors with a life that, while hardly fake, is certainly easy: languorous days on the beach, sunsets at posh seaside eateries, tours of Cape vineyards, and tame adventures like shark cage diving and kite-surfing. Cape Town presents another face in parts outside the posher center – one that’s more like its bigger and less beautiful sister, Johannesburg – notably in the sprawl of townships in the Cape Flats, a low-lying area to the east of Table Mountain where the apartheid regime relocated non-whites. Tours of these districts are a touchy subject among some travelers.

NO FAVELAS! I can’t remember whether the subject was a South African township tour, a guided visit to Mumbai’s Dharavi slum – which I’ve done, and would recommend – or merely a blanket statement about slum tours, but I recall one traveler tut-tutting that he’d not do any such thing “for the same reason I wouldn’t go on a guided tour of a Rio favela,” as though that by itself were an explanation.

Over drinks one night, I questioned my Cape Town house mate, Luke Aldred, about his own reluctance to go on a township tour. He, too, felt it would somehow be too far removed from the elusive real thing – that something more real or organic could be done on our own, just by taking a local train to something that looks like a township and poking our heads around. Needless to say, neither of us had done any such thing after more than a month in Cape Town.

Eventually, however, I did sign up with Nomvuyos Tours (www.nomvuyos-tours.co.za) for a four-hour tour of Khayelitsha, one of the largest townships in South Africa. Luke and two others along came along. I’d arranged the tour over the phone with Jenny Housdon, the owner of the company, and found myself subject to my own authenticity concern (in this case, an unpleasant gut reminder that I’m really just a tourist) when I met Housdon in person for the first time. Here’s a woman charging $49 (Dh180) per person for a group of four to show us around the non-white parts of Cape Town for a few hours, and guess what? Housdon’s white.

A freelance activist for township social issues, Housdon began visiting Khayelitsha – a city unto itself with a reported population of just under 500,000, though she pegs the current figure at closer to two million – in 2003 for the simple reason that all her white friends told her not to. “Even as an adult, whenever I see a sign that says ‘wet paint’, I go right up and touch it,” she says. “I’ve never outgrown that.”

SHAVE AND A HAIRCUT. Today’s tour is really a day in the life of Housdon, who uses the income to finance her advocacy on behalf of scores of Xhosa-speaking friends in the township. I discern no insensitivity on her part or resentment from the locals. She takes us to local shops, into a shebeen (a local pub) to drink home-brewed millet beer, and into people’s homes – some of them corrugated iron shacks, others solid structures – and finally, a barber shop for a shave and a haircut.

Housdon’s bugbear is official indifference, and sometimes outright antagonism, to the needs of township residents. We visit a daycare center whose proprietress is being harassed by the authorities for making basic improvements to the building, for instance. The municipality fails to act on simple complaints like a broken street light until Housdon herself, enlisted by the residents to battle on their behalf, harangues and cajoles and threatens to go to the press until basic services are provided. Even in today’s South Africa, the complaint of a white tends to carry more weight than that of a non-white, she says.

The group agreed the tour was worth the time and money – even Luke, the initial sceptic. “I enjoyed it,” he says. “It’s impressive how connected she is with the local community. In some ways my preconceptions were prejudiced. I admit that.”

There’s nothing wrong with paying for a service well-rendered, in my view. I look forward to the day I can earn extra cash giving tours of my local Wal-Mart to visiting African tourists. In the meantime, most Westerners who travel in places of relative poverty are already engaged in a form of “poorism,” like it or not, and if that really makes you uncomfortable, it’s probably better to stay home. Those who do venture into areas that seem strange or forbidding, even on guided tours, often walk away with the feeling that life here is surprisingly mundane. Not unlike our own, in other words.

This is the 27th installment of “Around Africa,” a weekly column in The National of Abu Dhabi.

<– PREVIOUS IN THE SERIES: Comforts of the New World in southern Africa
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Comforts of the New World in southern Africa

I crossed the Senegal River last October under a darkened sky, the weight of luggage pushing the creaking motorboat so deep into the inky water that the river lapped at the lip of the wooden hull. Something more than skin color was different on the other side. Mauritania marks the final frontier of the Arab world, while across the border in Senegal, African rhythms crackle from unseen speakers even as the hour approaches midnight. You are now sub-Saharan.

That music was infectious at first, the chaos and dirt and noise all sweet like sugary tea. Months have flown by since. The squiggle on the map extends south, and lines become fuzzier along the way. It’s hard to say when, but at some point we cross another divide, and the noise of Africa dissipates into a familiar flatness. Some say the true boundary is the cattle fence that runs across northern Namibia, but it’s not until the end of a 20-hour bus ride from Windhoek to Cape Town, the final stretch of a six-month overland route from Madrid, that I realize how different this world has become.

Time was, I’d be horrified at the thought of spending 20 hours on a bus, but no longer. The engine hums along the pavement at a sleep-inducing frequency. The operators have seen fit, remarkably, to assign no more than one person per seat, and there’s fresh coffee and packaged goodies available at rest stops along the way. Approaching Cape Town, we pass through the suburbs of Paarl and Stellenbosch, the heart of Cape wine country, where sycamores line the streets. For the average tourist, such are the comforts of South Africa that those arriving overland from the north imagine it’s like coming back to Europe.

ARRIVAL IN CAPE TOWN. But on my first visit to South Africa, I look out the window and I see something else. It’s in the street signs, the pavements, the parallel parking, the churches, the squat one- and two-story brick buildings, the dry cleaners and Chinese takeaways. It all resembles suburban New England, where I grew up, more than any Europe I’ve ever known. I even spot a white picket fence.

It makes perfect sense, for this was once, in a manner of speaking, part of the New World. The 17th-century white settlers of Cape Colony saw themselves praying at the altar of progress, in contrast to the natives who still worshiped their ancestors. People don’t see things that way anymore, thankfully – or if they do, they tend not to say it too loudly – but one still gets the sense that those who laid these towns’ first cobblestones weren’t just building roads, but were creating a new society from scratch.

And a different society it still is. In Cape Town, Luke and I crash at a friend’s flat on the north slope of Table Mountain, the rock that dominates the Cape Town skyline, where the doorstep affords a view of a cruise ship in the harbor. Quietly exuberant, we descend to the city center and cross it by foot to Victoria and Alfred Waterfront, a redeveloped tourist area where soft-serve ice cream drips onto the boardwalks.

My first impression of the city – that it’s surprisingly quiet and small – belies the fact that 3.5 million people call Cape Town home. Many still live in townships built by the apartheid government in areas designated for non-whites, far from the center. Some of these districts, though by no means all, are still shanty towns, crowding right up to the highway that runs down the surf-battered coast of Cape Peninsula.

JOURNEY’S END? Our other friends from the road soon catch up. After spending so much time on the move, we decide the comforts of Cape Town are worth a good investment of time, so we rent a two-bedroom apartment in one of the posher new residential developments for one month, splitting the costs five ways – a savings over a hostel. Whoever sleeps on the sofa is still living several notches up from most of the accommodation we’ve had in Africa.

Every day this month, we wake up in that apartment and look up at the face of Table Mountain. We talk about climbing it, then resolve to continue the discussion later after enjoying the pool and Cape Town’s nightlife. Rob, the biker of the bunch, promises that one of these days, provided I find myself a motorcycle helmet, he’ll drive me on the back of his bike down to the Cape of Good Hope, where I intend to toss some special objects into the sea to mark the end of my journey. I’ve yet to take him up on that, and I’m not sure if it’s due to sheer lassitude or the fact that I don’t know where to shop for a helmet. More likely than both, it’s my resistance to drawing the curtain on this journey.

This is the 26th installment of “Around Africa,” a weekly column in The National of Abu Dhabi.

<– PREVIOUS IN THE SERIES: Out of Angola, into Namibia: Tempers, a wallet and a traveling companion lost
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A tale of two African cuisines

Two previously long lost friends from high school sent two separate food-related links that together illustrate the culinary shock of arrival in Cape Town from west and central Africa. One’s about a tomato tart that I (perhaps foolishly) missed; the other’s about a lot of frankly repulsive African food I’d have been better off skipping.

Continue reading A tale of two African cuisines

Top 5 signs that my Africa journey is over

As you can see from this confusing signpost on Cape Town’s main harbor, I’m not sure where to go next. When I started this journey on the Palermo-Tunis ferry – the African portion of the journey, that is – I had vague goals in mind. I wanted to travel all around Africa. I wanted to stop after six months. I wanted to write about it.

Continue reading Top 5 signs that my Africa journey is over

Eight first impressions of Cape Town

In celebration of completing my first African overland mega-journey, I’ve decided to make a list, because it’s a known fact that everybody loves lists. Seriously! Apparently a post titled “Four Things I Have To Say About Bunions” will automatically get more clicks than something actually interesting. Anyway, if you want to know my eight first impressions of Cape Town, you already know where to click.

Continue reading Eight first impressions of Cape Town