Our trip to Southern Africa (January 20 – March 29) both started and ended in the gateway city of Johannesburg. We never had the intent to spend very long in this large, sprawling town, notorious for crime, but ended up spending our first 5 days in South Africa, cooped up in our Johannesburg guesthouse, trying to recover from a nasty flu. Gabriel was the only one who escaped the virus unscathed. Instead, he had to suffer a severe case of cabin fever, as Stella, Dan and I slept away the hours, sweating through our fevers and hacking through our colds.
We were staying in the nice neighborhood of Melville, within walking distance of a popular street of restaurants, bars, hipster boutiques, bookstores and a handy pharmacy! Whenever Dan or I could muster the strength, we were able to go on food and errand runs and get a glimpse of the happenings in Jo’burg. Despite feeling safe in our environment, we were warned to not walk around at night, flaunt jewelry, cameras or cash, or carry anything of value. The upper middle class homes were all heavily gated with high walls, barbwire and electrical alarms – an unavoidable sign of danger, threat and fear.
Eventually, we gained enough energy (and good medicine!) to leave our beds and take a tour to the Apartheid Museum and Soweto township. This had been my singular goal in Johannesburg – to get a better grasp of South African history and culture, and a deeper understanding of Apartheid and township living. Although I am sure that much of the detailed information on the historical events and protests, that eventually led to civil unrest and the overturning of the segregation laws, was well above Stella and Gabriel’s heads, I know that they felt outrage at stories of abuse and inequality. I can only hope that they will take some underlying memories from both the museums and the experience of visiting some of the poorer sections of the township with them, as themes of racism, brutality and inescapable poverty are revisited in life and higher education. I found both hope and sadness in our tour, a recurrent theme through the coming months, as we “outsiders” viewed the differences between the lives of blacks and whites in South Africa. I don’t claim to understand a nation of people, or judge them, and recognize that South Africa is still a very young country making sincere steps in the right direction. I only hope to increase my understanding through experience, reading books, and continued discussion.
Besides our explorations of our neighborhood and the tour we took, we used our downtime to organize a car rental for the coming month of road travel, and loosely plan our route. Our next major stop was going to be Kruger Park for 5 days of safari (my next blog entry!). On the way to this National Park, we broke up the journey with some time in Blyde River Canyon to hike and appreciate the dramatic landscapes of the Drakensberg Escarpment, including the Pinnacle and Bourke’s Luck Potholes.
On our final return to Johannesburg, before departing South Africa, Southern Africa, and the African continent, we made a special visit to the World Heritage Site, “Cradle of Humankind”. Here, they have important hominid fossil fields, where many ancient skeletal remains of extinct species of hominid have been found, including the 2.3-million-year old skull (Mrs. Ples) in the Sterkfontein Caves. They also have a dedicated museum, Maropeng, which explains the evolution of earth and the human race.
During our long drives, on the way back to Johannesburg, I read “Cry, The Beloved Country” by Alan Paton, out loud to Dan. It was the perfect book to end our trip in South Africa by. Set in the 1940’s, it deepened our understanding of the plight of black Africans during segregation and pre-Apartheid, explained the growth of Johannesburg under the successes of the mining industry, and clarified many of our impressions and ignorances. It was one of the most moving, meaningful, deep, and poetic reads I have had in years. I highly recommend it, regardless of any interest in South Africa, or lack thereof.