Saturday, August 31, 2013

Africa Lite?

People often ask me about the favorite place that I've been. It's a tough question to answer. I've enjoyed nearly all of our trips, and usually end up liking the places we visit, though for varying reasons. Even many places that have bad reputations for being dirty, chaotic, or crime-ridden have redeeming qualities that overshadow the less savory aspects - otherwise, why would I be going there in the first place? Meanwhile, the downsides aren't always visible to those just traveling through. That's how I assumed South Africa would be. I knew about the crime, the poverty, the racial tension. Given South Africa's popularity as a tourist destination, and its reputation among veteran travelers as "Africa Lite," I assumed the negatives were overstated and would not be apparent to casual tourists like Dawn and I.

I was wrong, very wrong. South Africa wears its ills openly for all to see. Newsstands and cafe TVs blare tales of horrific murders and brutal gang warfare. Gas station attendants tote Uzi submachine guns. Everyone you meet dispenses security advice with their pleasantries. City streets are deserted at night even in fashionable districts. Every city, every town, every cute little forest village has a shadow settlement immediately adjacent, acres of cobbled together shacks devoid of running water or sewers and penned in by tall fences, containing the black workers who serve the nearby white-owned businesses and villas. A surprising number of whites still treat the black majority with open contempt. Many blacks reciprocate in kind. At times it seems far from Mandela's Rainbow Nation, and more like apartheid never ended. I guess in a way it never totally did; the political repression is gone, but much of the infrastructure of apartheid remains, maintaining the old economic order that was the entire point of the whole sorry mess to begin with.

None of this is to say that we didn't like South Africa. To the contrary - we loved it! Our trip there (and Botswana and Zimbabwe) was one of the most ambitious, adventurous, and fun trips of our lives. The fact that we enjoyed ourselves so thoroughly despite ever-present evidence of the country's troubles is greater evidence of its many charms. It's gorgeous from end to end. There's far more to do and see than one can fit into a mere month or two. Good, cheap food and wine abounds. Rugged adventure beckons over every dirt-tracked foothill. Every South African we met, of every race, was friendly and gracious to us, especially once they discovered we were foreigners. Although the crime climate is an unavoidable fact of life and precautions must be taken, I never felt personally threatened. I suspect I was in more danger driving our rented Chevy Cruze like a Porsche around the coast's incredibly scenic, curvy roads.

We started our trip by flying KLM from Amsterdam to Johannesburg, having failed to reach Atlanta for a WidgetCo connection to South Africa. The next day we flew to Cape Town on a South African Airways A340 (seems like overkill, but it was full; this is one of the 10 most heavily traveled air routes in the world). After two days of exploring Cape Town, sailing its harbour, and venturing out to  Robben Island, we picked up the rental car and spent the day driving and hiking the Cape. We slept in quaint, oak-lined Stellenbosch that night, and the following night as well, taking an all day winery tour of the surrounding countryside in the meantime. From there we set out eastward along the Indian Ocean coastline, pausing to whale-watch in Hermanus the first day before stopping for the night in beautiful, rugged Wilderness.

 The next short day we traversed the famous Garden Route to surfer mecca Jeffreys Bay. Along the way we stopped at a small monkey sanctuary and the attached Birds of Eden aviary, the largest of its kind in the world. It was quite good, especially for bird-loving Dawn, so we lingered for several hours, and ran out of time to stop at Tsitsikamma National Park. No matter; we backtracked the 60 miles from J-Bay the next day to hike the beautiful Storm River's Mouth. It was July 20, our tenth anniversary. We had a fantastic anniversary dinner that night at Kitchen Windows. Cost of all-out splurging meal, good bottle of pinotage and tip included? $35. South Africa might not be Thailand cheap, but one can live very well for not a lot of money, as long as they don't earn their meager rand in South Africa.

The next morning we were up very early for the long drive to Bulungula Lodge. My good friend Sylvia had stayed there a few years ago while doing a medical internship in Port Elizabeth, and recommended it. Bulungula is located on the so-called Wild Coast, which is actually quite populated, but is two and a half very bumpy hours from the nearest paved highway. The lodge is next to a traditional Xhosa village that occupies a lovely spot on a peninsula defined by the sea and two river mouths. The area is fairly impoverished - 98% of the local families live on less than $160/mo - but the poverty is much less striking than other areas as people live in scattered, sturdy thatched rondavels rather than crowded shantytowns. Employment, however, is scarce if one doesn't farm (cows and sheep, mostly). Many men move away from their families to seek work. The Lodge was established with the idea that tourists could provide employment to local entrepreneurs. We went horseback riding, canoeing up a local river, on a village tour, and hiked to a nearby crepe restaurant started by two young girls. It was a really nice, relaxing time.

After three nights at Bulungula, it was time for one more long drive in the Chevy, this time to Durban. We blew a tire on the rutted, rocky drive out to the highway, but made it the rest of the way on the spare. We pulled into Durban at 4:30pm, dropped off the Chevy at the local Avis branch, and took a taxi to the train station for our overnight train to Johannesburg. Eleven days in, we were about to begin the next stage of our adventure.


Merlin said...

A fascinating journey. Keep posting!

Anonymous said...


You seem like a straight shooter. Is there any chance of a 50 year old making it to the regionals? I have 725 hours, instrument rating, commercial SEL certificate, my own airplane to build hours in, and enough cash to buy gas to get to 1500 hours. Getting a multi engine certificate would not be a big deal. Also have college degree.

Sam said...

Anonymous 7:01: You have an excellent chance of making it to the regionals. They're short on pilots already, and will likely get shorter. I'm not sure why you'd want to go...FO pay is still horrible, upgrade is generally long... but if you need to experience the airline life for yourself and cost isn't an object, I don't think you'd have trouble getting hired at 1500 hours. Your age shouldn't be a big deal, if anything they'll be relieved that you can't stay beyond 15 years. My guess is that you won't stay that long once you see how regionals treat their employees, but who knows - you could hit one at an opportune time, build seniority quickly, and enjoy a decent quality of life. Just don't count on it. Feel free to email me for more info/answers.

Anonymous said...

Thanks. I might take you up on your email offer.

It is just a dream, something I would like to experience for myself I guess. I believe I might be content as a career FO. I already have had plenty of responsibility in my lifetime (ex military).

Anonymous said...

Hi Sam, it seems like your articifial horizon as gone AWOL!


Regards from Amsterdam

pilot student said...

What a lovely pics. i feel happy to see your blog.

Tom B. said...

Hey Sam,
really enjoyed your latest article in Flying. The last time we talked, it was about regional flying and living in China, 3-4 years ago (and before that I think it was advice on where to camp at Acadia NP?); was really cool to read about your time at your current regional in the first Flying article and then about Ameriflight in this latest article. Very well written - reminds me of Dave at FL390 before he shut down. I could also relate as I am originally from that area and I have some fond memories of Mt Whitney, the Bishop High School homecoming football game and Mono Lake from my teenage years. I really hope you write more with Flying, and good job!