Plein Air magazine thought sending painters on a tour to South Africa would be a capital idea. Plein Air magazine was right.
We’re Fran and David and we thought it would be a capital idea to write about it.
We fly non-stop, praise the Lord, on a daily South Africa Airlines flight from New York’s JFK to Johannesburg.
Fran flies business class, in hopes that after a 15-hour flight, it won’t be Day Five before she can walk upright again.
David flies coach and in contrast to certain other airlines – we won’t mention United by name — this one doesn’t place your knees at eye level. The food is satisfactory and there are several dozen free movies, TV shows, games and albums for entertainment.
The cabin slips into about eight hours of quiet darkness at night. If you’re sitting by a window, unobtrusively slide the shutter up and check out the stars. High over Africa, they’re amazing.
We land at Johannesburg around 6:30 a.m., pretty much on schedule and six time zones ahead.
We rendezvous with our group and our guide, Angela Morgan from New Zealand, at the Sunglass Hut. How comforting to fly halfway around the world and immediately recognize all the stores you saw while you were killing time back at JFK.
Our group numbers 15, which is delightfully small. It includes Bill and Madeline, who have lived in London the past 29 years, and 13 resident Americans: Melissa, from the Jersey Shore; Lida, from Maryland; Mary, from Texas; Michele, from New Hampshire; Winnie, Gerald, Frances, Karen and Marilyn from California; and Johanne and Richard, who own a farm in Connecticut. Twelve of us are painters and the other three are tag-along spouses whose role is to say, “That’s the best hippopotamus you ever painted, Dear.” Fran is in the former group, David in the latter.
We march across Johannesburg Airport, which feels like walking to Uganda, and board our connecting flight to Hoedspruit Airport, which is smaller than Johannesburg Airport. It’s almost smaller than the Sunglass Hut.
We shuttle by bus to Kapama Lodge, pausing along the way for novel attractions like the world’s largest potted plant and some impressive parkland, the Blyde River Canyon in Mpumalanga.
Kapama Lodge, carved into a dense bush area, is spacious and airy, though not too airy. We are gently advised to keep the windows closed because otherwise baboons like to hop in and rummage around for food.
Since baboons are hanging out on the balcony, this clearly isn’t something the guides just say to make the experience more exotic for tourists.
Food is delicious and copious. Of note: a whole-grain bread that seems to contain half the seeds in Africa. Also of note: Several species of small deer and antelope browse below the elevated walkways that connect the buildings. They are less interested in us than we are in them, an attitude we will note in much of the wildlife we will be seeing.
It’s cool at 7:30 a.m., but as our group climbs into two open safari vehicles, we are assured correctly that the rising sun will soon warm everything, including us.
Each vehicle has three tiered rows of three seats, plus a driver and a spotter. Our driver is Freedom – hmmm, born in the 1980s, his parents named him Freedom, think there’s a story there? – and our spotter is Noel. Noel carries a rifle in case we run into something that’s in a bad mood. But unlike with the baboons, that’s not a very urgent concern. In more than a dozen years on the job, Noel says, he’s never had to fire a shot.
Our mission: Find the Big Five.
In the U.S., the Big Five would be a small college basketball conference. Here, it’s the elephant, rhinoceros, leopard, African buffalo and lion.
As we set out, we are admonished in a non-negotiable way not to stand up or even think about leaving the vehicle. When seated, we are told, we are furniture, masked by gasoline fumes. Not everyone in the group completely buys the olfactory science here, but we all do climb on board with the bottom line: If we suddenly appear threatening or tempting, we could become lunch. “Stay seated” seems prudent.
The Kapama Game Preserve, one of many private and public preserves in Africa, covers about 32,000 acres. It supports wildlife nicely, and safely, but at this time of year, the end of the dry season, it definitely isn’t a jungle. It’s bush country, brown and yellow.
For that reason, Freedom tells us, this is the best time to visit. Once the rains come and the forest leafs up, visitors see more flora than fauna.
A safari lasts about three hours, and wildlife spottings, unsurprisingly, come in random bunches. It’s not on a schedule like “rhinos at 8:45.”
We see antelope first. We will see lots of antelope. Then Noel spots our first elephants and Freedom pulls off the trail, stopping maybe 10 yards into the bush.
Soon some 15 elephants surround us, ambling about and quite indifferent to the low click of smartphone cameras. This is a typical herd, with a matriarch in charge and an assortment of males, females, teenagers, kids, cousins and the occasional adoptee.
A six-ton elephant must eat 400-500 pounds of food a day to remain a healthy six-ton elephant, Freedom notes. So they eat pretty much everything they find, including a whole bunch of stuff like large dry limbs that have no food value at all. Sixty percent of what they eat passes through, leaving no nutrients behind. Do not expect the Elephant Diet to replace Keto or Mediterranean.
In any case, an enchanting encounter for us is another day at the buffet for the elephants. Some of the babies, who of course are still bigger than any of us people, brush up against our vehicle. The grownups occasionally flap their ears, which cools them off, and they make a variety of sounds. Freedom can’t give us a precise elephant-to-English translation, but it involves commands to the other elephants. Sometimes the babies and teenagers have to be told two or three times before they respond.
When the elephants move on, so do we, and soon we start seeing giraffes. They’re mostly on their own, except for mothers with babies. Babies who are eight feet tall. Memo to self when traveling in Africa: Recalibrate sense of proportion.
Shortly thereafter we see a small cluster of zebras, at least one of whom looks pregnant. Freedom says actually, no. Turns out the zebra diet contains a bacteria that blows up their stomachs.
Perhaps that’s why zebras mix vertical with horizontal stripes, so Ms. Zebra doesn’t have to constantly turn to Mr. Zebra and say, “Does this coat make me look fat?”
Next we spot two black rhinos. They’re females, says Freedom, and females often browse together. By the way, one way to tell black rhinos from white rhinos is that black rhinos browse and white rhinos graze.
Rhinos are the first animals we see with oxpeckers on their backs – birds who feed on the insects that gather on mammal hides. It’s synergy that’s a win for everyone except the insects.
By now Freedom is also pointing out birds. That includes a Wahlberg’s Eagle, one of 17 African eagles and no relation to Mark Wahlberg. We also see a plethora of hornbills, best known, at least outside Africa, for their starring role in The Lion King.
We return to the lodge for lunch, after which some members of the group ride to a watering hole where they can set up easels and paint some of the visitors. Today that includes a giraffe. Driving back, their road turns into an elephant crossing at which elephants just keep coming, and coming, and coming. Madeline captures it on video (here).
Other group members follow Freedom on a Bush Walk, where he mostly talks about the vegetation. We encounter numerous large anthills and a considerable amount of dung – which Freedom explains is a valuable commodity. Elephant dung, for instance, can be mixed into water to purify the water. That same mixture also cures headaches and treats people suffering from heatstroke. That, friends, is holistic.
We reboard the vehicles late in the afternoon for a second safari, and this time encounter a small herd of African Buffalo. Unlike the elephants or giraffes, they seem to return our gaze. Very patiently. If it turns into a blinking contest, bet on the African Buffalo to win. Freedom says that while they aren’t aggressive, they can be the “nastiest” of the animals we encounter.
We next drive to a small man-made lake where a cluster of smooth grey rocks turns out to be the backs of large hippopotami. They don’t swim, but they like the water, so they stand on the bottom in shallow areas. The moment when they pop up for air and open their mouths helps you understand why the hippo has the highest human kill count among African animals. You can only imagine the kind of numbers they’d rack up if they weren’t vegetarians.
We return to the lodge for an outdoor dinner, accompanied by a performance from local musicians in traditional costumes. The music is heavy on rhythm, particularly drums, and vocal harmonies. We will encounter another half-dozen such ensembles, many just set up by the side of the road with a basket for tips – and often a CD for sale. The CDs tend to include at least one familiar Western pop or gospel song, arranged for drums and vocal harmonies.
We arise, overeat at breakfast and start our last safari by spotting a large vulture’s nest.
Presumably the bush puts on a nice spread of carrion, given the inevitable mortality rate among herds of large animals. Two winters ago, when the drought became severe, the rangers put out bales of hay and other supplemental food to help tide everyone over.
When we see our first lioness, she’s stretched out like roadkill. Turns out she’s taking a cat nap. After a while she rolls over and stretches, exactly like Fluffy at home except 20 times bigger. One of her paws almost equals the whole Fluffy.
She and a second lioness are taking it easy. But not as easy as the guys.
Two male lions are prone under some shrubs, totally sacked out, and the message is clear: “Okay, you check me off your Big Five list now. But don’t expect showtime. I’m taking a nap.”
Their black manes – black manes? who knew? – barely even ripple as they open their eyes. And close them again. And lift their heads. And put them down again.
What we’re seeing, Freedom tells us, is the dirty little secret of the lion. Yes, National Geographic videographers may catch lions and lionesses sprinting across the veldt to run down a wildebeest. But the far more typical moment, Freedom says, is the nap.
“The lion is the laziest animal there is,” he says. “They sleep 16 to 20 hours a day. They get up when they’re hungry, find food and go back to sleep.”
When we stop for a break of our own, Noel asks who would like to spit some impala dung.
Impala dung comes in small hard pellets, about the size of buttons. The pellets have no smell – or taste, according to Fran, one of several who take Noel up on his offer. You pop it in your mouth and see how far you can spit it – a kind of genteel outdoor parlor game. The best in our group, for the record, is Angela. The prize is the satisfaction of a challenge well met.
As our last trip winds down, we accept that unlike our comrades in the other vehicle, we will not spot a leopard.
We do see a giraffe fight – and no, we can’t imagine any animal, except maybe the koala bear, less likely to conduct a public throwdown.
It’s over a woman, Freedom says. Of course it’s over a woman. A female giraffe bats those big giraffe eyes and those big giraffe eyelashes and Mr. Giraffe is a goner.
Giraffes fight like this: They stand next to each other, hip to hip, and start bumping. They position their hind legs between the other guy’s hind legs and try to trip him so they can kick him. Kicking is really the giraffe’s only weapon, but it isn’t a bad one. A giraffe kick can take out a lion.
One giraffe also will periodically swing his head around to slam the underside of the other giraffe’s neck. The other giraffe responds with a head butt that lands with an audible crack.
Picture a CGI brontosaurus fight. With giraffes. Then they straighten up and start the hip-bumping all over. Fran notes that it looks far less like a fight than an elaborate ballet. Check out one round on video here.
If neither one gets knocked down, Freedom says, the fight ends when one gets tired or bored and walks away. And doesn’t get the girl.
We can’t stay ‘til the end, alas, because we’re booked on a 2½-hour flight to Cape Town and the measurably chillier southern tip of Africa.
We’re staying at the Radisson Red in the high-end section of Cape Town, near the Victoria & Albert waterfront. That means we’re a short walk from fancy restaurants, upscale shops and the good life you’ll find in similar section of towns from San Francisco to Stockholm.
The hotel is clean, comfortable and millennial-friendly. The food is visitor-friendly and good. There is no front desk. For information, guests are invited to download an app.
One small warning: The tables in the rooms have splayed legs, meaning guests are pretty much guaranteed to smash their toes at some point. We pile pillows around them to soften the inevitable impact. Whoever designed these tables should never be allowed to design anything more complex than a toothpick.
The group convenes for dinner at Belthazar, an elegant restaurant that boasts about having the world’s largest selection of wines by the glass.
South Africa takes great pride, rightly so, in its wines. Fran orders a glass of pinotage, one of the country’s signature grapes since it was hybridized here – a cross between cinsaut and pinot noir – in 1925. Fran loves this one. Sadly, it’s about as likely to show up in New Jersey as a black rhino.
On the food side, the starters include some of the names we saw gliding through the bush 24 hours earlier. Springbok carpaccio, anyone?
The strangest thing is happening in Cape Town. It’s raining, in a city so dry it was, honest, about to run out of water. Fountains are shut off. Tourists are asked to keep showers to 90 seconds. And today it’s raining. You’re welcome, Cape Town. Fifteen human divining rods have come to your rescue.
Outdoor painting is hard in the rain. So our Cape Town guide, Talita Swarts, steers the painters to Twelve Apostles, a spot named for its 12 mountain peaks.
Alas, the fog there is thick enough so, as Fran puts it, you can’t even see one Apostle. Some painters set up outdoors anyhow. Fran paints the uniformed bartender behind the indoor bar.
David stays behind in Cape Town and visits two museums in the Victoria & Albert district.
First is the Chavonnes Battery Museum, which has nothing to do with AAAs. It’s an underground excavation of the original shoreline defenses put up by the Dutch in the early 18th century and used by the British in the 19th.
Because Cape Town was a critical strategic stop between Europe and the Far East, and Far Eastern trade was the means by which merchants like the Dutch East India Company intended to become rich, it was critical that any pirates or rivals entering Cape Town be met with heavy unfriendly fire.
Chavonnes was used until the Brits pushed the whole city several hundred yards out to sea, creating what became the Victoria & Albert waterfront. In the process, landfill was simply deposited on top of the old Battery.
The Museum, with its partial excavation, evokes and recounts the city’s history, including fun facts like this: The locals never liked the Dutch, but when the Dutch hired French mercenaries, the locals liked the new guys even less. Something about their unseemly eye for local women.
On a more somber note, the small Robben Island Museum keeps alive the history of the small island on which Nelson Mandela, among many others, was held prisoner by the country’s former apartheid regime.
The Museum is minimalist, housed in what looks like a bay of an old garage. The first floor has a booth with no visible person and a large chart with timelines divided into three columns: Robben Island, the Robben Island landing port and the broader rise and fall of apartheid. Collectively, they weave the history of repression into the story of this one place.
It’s a good introductory summation, economical and somber.
The second floor has two rooms.
The first has a single exhibit: a glass box that is mounted on the wall and holds a set of shackles. The floor is covered with maybe 20 thin straw mats on which prisoners slept. That’s it.
The walls of the second room are covered with laminated letters, mostly from family members seeking permission to visit prisoners in the 1960s. Families had to apply months in advance for limited visits, often only one or two a year. The letters have a remarkably polite tone, as if the writers know they must seem almost grateful if they’re to have a shot at success.
And that’s the museum. It feels personal, like a fading black-and-white snapshot that captures apartheid as a story of individuals, not just institutions.
Late in the afternoon, Fran and David visit the waterfront’s food market, where vendors sell sandwiches, ice cream, coffee and takeaway tins of local fare like Impala Pate.
We have dinner at Societi Bistro, another good restaurant. When we leave the restaurant to board our bus back to the hotel, three young South African children dart toward us and ask for money. One puts a cup on the road, takes out a horn and begins to play “When the Saints Go Marching In.”
It’s chilly and overcast again as we head off to the Boschendal Winelands, in a region outside Cape Town that’s lovely even when it’s chilly and overcast.
Like many local wineries, Boschendal has a large old Colonial-style house out front. Behind the house, vineyards sweep up toward a stone-faced mountain range. It’s an impressive vista, and several painters brave the chill to set up easels outdoors. Others stick with the warmer inside.
David walks to the base of the mountain and can confirm the vista is just as impressive from the top.
At mid-day, the wine drinkers peel off for a wine tasting.
We return to Cape Town late in the afternoon and eat at the Harbour House, again by the waterfront. The waterfront also lends itself to strolling, with roadways and few cars. It’s a short walk to the seaside, where a long boardwalk is popular both with walkers and runners and the waves crash hard enough over large rocks to preclude water sports.
Our last day of rain precludes us from visiting the famous Chapman’s Peak, which is not entirely unwelcome news for some of us.
At issue: a note on our daily planning sheet that “Chapman’s Peak is surrounded by a public national park with sheer cliff drops and baboons can appear.”
“I’m not going any place,” says Lida, “where baboons could push me off a cliff.”
So we head for Fish Hoek, a charming small coastal community where we visit an art/gift gallery. Lida, having ascertained there are no baboons in sight, sets up an easel outdoors in the mist and paints a line of small colorful boats in the harbor.
We also see our first Cape Town Metrorail train. It’s a vast system that Talita tells us does not have the world’s best reputation for punctuality. It does have some impressive graffiti.
We motor from there to the Good Hope Nursery, a garden center where we lunch in a rustic barn-like building that in warmer weather would be a lovely place to tarry. We do not tarry, because we have a date at Foxy Beach, which is part of Boulders Beach, to see the penguins.
Who can resist penguins? They’re like basset hounds. They make you smile. The ones we’re visiting are African penguins, who were originally called Jackass Penguins — for their call, not any behavior issues — and are probably quite happy to have been rebranded. Africa’s only penguin species, they live in multiple colonies on the Southern shore.
Several thousand live along Foxy Beach, and humans have built a long boardwalk about five feet off the ground so the two species don’t bump into each other. The penguins seem unbothered by this proximity, though warning signs caution the humans not to try to reach over and pet the adorable creatures, because they have razor-sharp bills and they bite.
The whole economy of Foxy Beach, starting with Café Penguino, is built on penguins. It’s a mild surprise that the harmony group by the roadside is not singing “Earth Angel,” the 1954 classic by the Penguins.
Many pictures later, we reluctantly leave Foxy Beach and head for the Cape of Good Hope, where the Atlantic Ocean meets the Indian Ocean. And not gently. When two oceans bang into each other, things get turbulent.
That’s why, when Portugese explorer Bartholomew Dias became the first known European to sail around the tip of Africa in 1488, he called it The Cape of Storms. Cooler marketing heads eventually prevailed, giving it today’s much more tourism-friendly name.
The water is half the spectacular part of the Cape of Good Hope. The other half is its craggy mountain, whose top is accessible by cable car and which offers an amazing view of the ocean(s) pounding onto the rocks and sand.
We decide not to circle back to Chapman’s Peak – perhaps disappointing the baboons, perhaps not – and instead head back to the hotel with a stop by the Norval Foundation to see an exhibition of South African art.
Dinner is at the Butcher Shop & Grill, whose name confirms its specialty is not vegan. The selections include kudu and ostrich. As an aside, supermarkets in South Africa promote their meat departments as the “Butchery.” In a country so receptive to rebranding — the African Penguin, the African Buffalo, the Cape of Good Hope — you wonder if someone in the euphemism department isn’t working on this case.
We’ve had small hints about the floral diversity of South Africa. Like gardens planted with clivia, which in New Jersey are house plants.
Today we move into the full floral experience: Kirstenbosch National Botanical Gardens, a 1,300-acre preserve set on gently rolling hills at the base of, what else, ancient mountains.
Kirstenbosch, one of nine national botanical gardens, formally opened in 1913. Some of its plantings go back to 1660 when the Dutch put in brambles as a protective barrier against marauders. Call it an organic version of The Wall.
With 1,300 acres, Kirstenbosch does not aim for “compact.” There’s a lot of walking here, much of it up hills.
One of the first gardens is the least exotic: a large sweep of familiar annuals. Not far away there’s a garden with birds of paradise – and not just the familiar orange, but an unusual yellow variety. Two of our painters see no reason to go further. Melissa and Angie set up in front of the birds.
A bit further into the hills are fynbos (FINE-bos), the signature plant of South Africa. Or make that plants, since there are more than 8,000 known species, in a rainbow of shapes, sizes and colors.
Since many bloom in the spring, we’re here at the right time. To African eyes some species of fynbos may be as common as dandelions, but to Western eyes they’re pretty striking.
Fran finds a bench that overlooks a sweep of Cape Town and underlooks a mountain. She paints there, visited occasionally by a striking species of guinea fowl with blue heads. David wanders through themed sections like medicinal plants and the Garden of Extinction.
The Garden of Extinction turns out to be part conservation plea and part plant cemetery. Some markers have no plants, just a eulogy. Pyramid Heath, gone. Last seen in 1933. Wolseley Conebush, gone. Bulbous Club-rush, gone.
The message: We need to pay attention or someday a bunch of the lovely plants everywhere could be just a name and a sign.
After lunch, most painters find new spots. Fran finds another bench to do some sketching, which attracts considerable interest from a family of picnicking children. David finds the Boomslang Walkway, a suspension bridge that overlooks everything, and adds a few dozen more fynbos to his life list.
The garden also has information plaques on Kirstenbosch’s past. For much of the 19th century it was overrun by feral pigs until Cecil Rhodes – who was apparently involved in 85% of everything that ever happened in Africa – gave it to the government in 1902.
In 1913 it opened as a botanical garden overseen by Harold Pearson. Pearson worked for no pay, living in a shack on the property and in just three years he gave the place the structure and direction that led to today.
Alas, Pearson died in 1916, from pneumonia. No heat in the shack, perhaps. And though the shack is gone, Pearson remains. He’s buried at Kirstenbosch and his tombstone reads, “If ye seek his monument, look around.”
We return for dinner in the Granary at the Silo, which happily isn’t a real silo. Or granary. David orders a pasta dish called Rotolo, because the late Suze Rotolo was the woman on the cover of Bob Dylan’s Freewheelin’ album. Regret to report the pasta dish isn’t very good. The rest of the crowd says the steak and fish are.
Whenever you look up here, odds are good you’ll see Table Mountain. It’s a signature of Cape Town the way cheese is a signature of pizza.
Table Mountain is about 500 million years old and it looks like at some point during those half-billion years, someone took a saw and lopped off the top. What remains is a little more than 3,000 feet high, a couple of miles long and eerily flat.
Today the top is invisible, shrouded in fog. We are going anyway, confident the top is still there.
Well, most of us are going. Fran is not going. There are only two ways to ascend Table Mountain – climbing, which is out of the question for all of us because it takes about two hours, and riding a cable car, which takes about five minutes. Fran doesn’t do cable cars. She stays at the Radisson Red, trying not to smash her toes on those ill-advised table legs.
Fog does turn out to be an issue at the top because all you can see is, well, fog — from both the bottom and the top. Check out the cable car on its descent here. Our group commandeers a room in the main building and most of the artists set up in front of small windows that would offer a terrific view except for, well, fog.
The non-painters venture outdoors, if only to see the dassies. Dassies are small mammals, weighing maybe 7-8 pounds. They resemble prairie dogs, which makes it amusing that physiologically they are closely related to the elephant.
Probably because the place is not very accessible, Table Mountain’s fauna are mostly birds. Eagles are scarce and prized. There is also an assortment of snakes, lizards, mongeese and other critters, including the endangered Table Mountain Ghost Frog.
Flora are abundant, including many found nowhere else.
When the fog lifts late in the morning, the view becomes spectacular. But the most fascinating part of Table Mountain, both when it’s shrouded in fog and when it’s drenched in sunlight, is the terrain. There are a few small dales and ascents, but mostly it’s a gentle undulation of rock paths, leading to the mountaintop’s far end.
Mainly, the top of this mountain feels old. Really old. It’s almost tangible. Large rocks are sculpted with deep indentations that have become pools of water, and you know this wasn’t some guy with a chisel. This was drips of water infused with some mineral, hitting the same spot one drip at a time for millions of years.
Walking across these rocks feels like meeting something that was here so far before recorded time that you can’t imagine it. It’s like looking up at the night sky and contemplating the reach of the universe.
It’s also cool just as a walk, with amazing sights on all sides and a United Nations of languages from the people you pass.
Walking the top also reminds you that walking the trail up from the bottom would doubtless add another dimension to the experience. Then there are those who take most direct route, climbing to the top on the face of the rocks. We see some of these Type Ts upon their arrival.
We also see a memorial at the top to some of those who attempted the climb up the rocks and didn’t make it. The human spirit: timeless as the mountain.
After we descend, the group splits up. Some attend the gallery opening of a sculpture exhibition by Dylan Lewis, a friend of Talita’s. Some return to the hotel to relax. David takes a cab to the District 6 Museum.
The history of District 6 is a complicated tragedy. Welcome to apartheid in South Africa.
The short version is this. District 6 was originally settled by the Dutch. In 1834, the Brits started bringing slaves there. By the end of the 19th century, it had morphed into an “affordable” part of the city, inhabited by a mix of ex-slaves, immigrants, tradespeople and the working class in general.
Fast-forward to February 1966. The white leaders of South Africa, in the name of apartheid, declare District 6 a “white” area, part of a general plan to cleanse Cape Town of non-white residents. Some 60,000 people are removed, mostly to “townships” outside the city.
The walls of the Museum focus on the stories of those who lost not just their homes, but everything. Evicted residents were allowed to take one suitcase.
By the 1980s, the government had bulldozed much of what remained of District 6. A few buildings were saved, including a church where remaining community members formed a human chain to stop the machines. Most of District 6 became empty lots.
The Museum doesn’t paint District 6 as Shangri-La. There was poverty, there was crime. At the same time there were also neighborhoods, with friends, families and roots.
Much of the Museum recalls everyday District 6 life. A double-decker bus makes its way down the street. A salvaged sign says “Public Wash House.” A small side exhibit recreates “Nomvuyo’s Room,” described as a typical District 6 dwelling. It’s neat and clean, the walls painted in 1930s colors. It has a table with four chairs, a small kitchen, two beds and a cabinet for dishes.
Sepia pictures show jazz bands and musical ensembles that played in the District 6 nightclubs until the government banned mixed-race dancing, mixed-race dining and mixed-race bands.
And yes, District 6 was a petri dish for political activism. Newspaper articles from 1935 talk about the National Liberation League, younger activists who felt the old guard was not aggressive enough in challenging repressive racial policies. Articles from 1960 recount the Sharpeville Massacre, in which 69 black protesters were killed by police.
The District 6 Museum explains what the District once was, what happened to it and why. Most of it today remains empty ground.
The Museum is located in the old downtown section of Cape Town, a mix of historic buildings, banks, restaurants, apartments, fast food chains like McDonald’s and KFC, and a fair amount of retail – including, to the amusement of U.S. visitors, multiple Woolworths stores.
While there’s no outward sign the Museum area is dodgy, David’s cab driver waits outside for an hour to take him back. The ride is inexpensive – about $10 total, plus tip, for 20-25 minutes each way.
Dinner is at ZenZero, upscale and once again quite good. It sits next door to the Cape Town Hard Rock Café.
So far we’ve spent our trip at a well-groomed safari lodge and a hotel that maintains a table of fresh fruit and caramel corn in the lobby.
Today we go to a different part of South Africa.
We’re taking a Juma Tour of Khayelitsha, a township 19 miles outside Cape Town. Like Soweto outside Johannesburg, Khayelitsha is where great numbers of “coloured” people, like the ones from District 6, were pushed under South Africa’s apartheid rulers.
Those rulers first tried to control non-whites inside Cape Town, with tactics that included curfew, laws against race-mixing and a passbook system designed to keep non-whites in their place, i.e. out of white areas. Then the rulers decided it would be easier just to kick all non-whites out of town. Their real preference would have been to kick them out of the country, but alas, there weren’t enough white people to sustain the economy on their own.
In any case, Khayelitsha became a bit more than a “township.” Today it’s larger than many of the world’s major cities, with more than 3 million residents. Its houses stretch for miles alongside major roadways, hard against one another and continuing for hundreds of rows back toward the mountains. Khayelitsha has grown to cover some 23 square kilometers, the equivalent of 5,683 acres or about 18 times the size of the National Mall in Washington, D.C.
Juma Mkwela, who grew up in Zimbabwe and moved to South Africa in 2006, conducts tours through Khayelitsha. Some, like ours, are fairly brief walkthroughs. Others focus on specific elements of Khayelitsha life. Some extend for several days.
His goal is to help visitors understand more than just what they see, because what they see – what we see – requires some time to absorb.
Take housing. There are two types of housing in Khayelitsha, and with three million people, lots of both.
The first is formal housing: cinder block structures with two bedrooms, electricity, running water, a working bath or shower and paved streets. Their owners frequently paint the houses in bright colors.
The majority of the homes are “informal housing,” which is one way to put it.
Informal houses, in most cases, have one room, perhaps 12 by 15-20 feet. The walls and roof are corrugated metal or scrap wood. A door is cut out and often a window or two.
Many have electricity, delivered by a series of poles from which wires fan out like the ribs of a circus tent. They do not have running water or bathrooms. Residents use communal port-a-johns that are pumped out several times a week.
Families who have informal housing and work can apply for a formal house. If they are approved, the government will build it for them, at no cost. Waiting time between approval for a formal house and occupation of that house averages 12-15 years.
The streets are unpaved and houses in the informal sections have no numbers. Their signature is colors and artwork – murals of wildlife, gods, heroes.
Because Khayelitsha is so far from Cape Town, with few means of getting there, unemployment hovers around 50%. Many residents try to make a living instead by opening their own local business.
Signs for “Cash Store” are as ubiquitous here as Starbucks signs in Seattle. Other shops offer anything for which there might be demand: produce markets, hair styling, card reading. There is multitasking: a furniture store and car wash.
We are invited into a house where a woman (at left) is preparing baked goods for sale. She has a kitchen area and an L-shaped sofa in front of a television set. Wiring snakes everywhere. The baking smells good.
Juma starts our visit at Velokhaya, a multi-purpose community center featuring a BMX bicycle course.
Young boys come here to ride bikes, some in competition. There are also study centers, a computer room for homework and activity programs. While its size is modest, Juma says several thousand students rotate through the facility weekly.
We visit Sikis Kofe Kafe, operated by Sikela DiBela, a South African who became interested in the barista biz when he worked in London and saw an opportunity back home.
Sikis is located in his garage, or more accurately in his mother’s garage. She’s a dentist and he opens when she leaves for work. He closes when she gets back and needs the garage again.
It’s a clean, bright shop. The coffee drinkers in our party declare the coffee excellent, and Siki talks to us about his hopes for the future. One goal: buying a truck so he can take his coffee out to locations. It’s a challenge, he says, but he is hopeful. He has a local clientele and welcomes outside visitors.
One wall of the shop has bookshelves. They’re part of the free “borrow a book a week” program, says Siki. A one-time ninth grade dropout, he would like to promote education by any means possible.
From Sikis we take a short ride to the informal houses, which in luckier parts of the world might be called sheds.
For visitors who come from places of relative plenty, and will soon return to places of relative plenty, there’s some awkward discomfort here. No one wants to look or feel like a poverty tourist.
Juma, who has seen that feeling before, addresses it.
You see that life here is hard, he says. Do not extrapolate that life is bad, or that the people living this life are simply victims.
When it is noted that no one on these dusty streets is carrying a cell phone, Juma laughs. “Don’t be completely fooled,” he says. “These are kids. They go to centers with wi-fi. They find ways.”
He says the same about the satellite dishes that dot the endless field of low roofs. “We love our sports,” he says.
He also says that “people here are happy with what they have,” and while that statement always comes with considerable nuance, he explains that 24 years after the formal end of apartheid, there is cautious hope.
Khayelitsha has community centers, community gardens, youth programs, sports, art classes. There are elections. There are no passbooks or police raids. There is not the white boot on every coloured neck. There remain problems. There also is cause to think things have gotten and will get better.
What may be most striking from a short walk down Khayelitsha streets is how normal it all seems. Teenage girls burst into animated laughter over the drama of a friend. Mothers carry infants and prod adolescents. Young boys stop shoving each other long enough to mug for a camera. Most folks smile at outsiders. A few seem wary.
We pause by a relatively rare sight: a patch of green on open ground.
It’s a home garden, fronted by a patch of bright green spinach and tended by a smiling woman named Irene in a bright blue dress.
The rows are precise. The garden has been carefully weeded and potential pests neutralized.
These are the early-spring crops, Irene says. Spinach in the front, more greens in the middle, onions to the rear. She has beaten the Cape Town drought by sinking two-liter soda bottles into the soil and poking pinholes in the bottom. She fills them with water, which seeps out at the level of the roots.
We talk about the joy of fresh produce for a few moments before we reboard the bus and head to a rather different South African world.
The Cape Town neighborhood of Bo-Kamp, our next stop, has a signature in common with Khayelshita: brightly painted houses. Bo-Kamp also has paved streets, running water, indoor plumbing, universal electricity, well-stocked high-end shops and large floor plans.
Talita directs us to a purple house where we are about to have the best meal of our trip.
Cooking With Love is a combination cooking studio and restaurant run for years by Faldela Tolker. The food style is Cape Malay, a spicy blend of African, Dutch, Indian and a few stray outliers that today will produce, among other things, samosas, rotis and a delectable chicken curry.
Most days the guests help prepare the food they will eat. But 17 cooks would overwhelm the stew, or the samosas, so Faldela’s husband cooks — juggling oils, spices and utensils with acrobatic wizardry — while she explains and entertains. Her mother years ago opened the first Cape Malay restaurant in District 6, so she’s got some history in the local food biz.
She talks about how Muslim traditions shape both menus and community life in Bo-Kamp. Food is a great leveler that reminds people how much they have in common, she says. We the guests get so much food that we regretfully have to leave several enticing desserts almost untouched. .
After lunch we walk down the street to the Asian Spice Market, where we learn there are as many species of curry as there are of fynbos. Also, here as elsewhere in South African, prices are most reasonable to American wallets. What’s tough for the rand, now priced at about 14 to the dollar, is good for tourists.
Next the painters set up their easels, which proves a big challenging despite a plethora of colorful subjects. The parks are small, the sidewalks are narrow and the locals aren’t wild about strangers usurping the space in front of their houses. Talita explains that Bo-Kamp is undergoing that old devil “gentrification” after years as a mostly Muslim enclave.
Lest anyone still be hungry after lunch, we have dinner at the Gold Restaurant in City Bowl – the first restaurant we’ve visited that bills its food as exclusively African.
We share perhaps a dozen dishes, each identified as a signature of a particular African country. The impala stew gets rave reviews.
While most of the group paints, packs or relaxes, David and Angela board the ferry for Robben Island.
Robben Island lies 11.5 kilometers from Cape Town. By ferry, it takes about 45 minutes. Unless you were Nelson Mandela, in whose case it took 18 years.
Robben Island is best known for its now-defunct prison, which was comparable to Alcatraz. It’s far enough out to sea and surrounded by enough cold, fast-moving, shark-infested waters that escape was, for all practical purposes, impossible.
At the same time, it’s close enough so prisoners could see freedom – Table Mountain, all 500 million years of it.
Covering 547 hectares, about 30 times the size of Alcatraz, Robben Island has some 200 inhabited houses as well as open space and scenic waterfronts. There is a grocery store that does not sell alcohol. The island’s 25 children take the ferry to the mainland for school.
The current population includes both ex-political prisoners and former prison guards. “They are not best friends,” says our guide, Sipho Msomi. “But it is a beginning.”
Sipho, like all the guides here, is a former inmate. He spent 1986-1991 on Robben Island for being part of a youth group that was seeking rights for non-whites.
“Apartheid was South Africa’s Holocaust,” he tells us. “We have more graves than living persons on this island. We ask you to respect the site.”
In the mid-17th century, slaves were brought to Robben Island. Around 1840 it became a leper colony. During World War II it was repurposed as a major Allied military base. In 1960 the government decided to exile prisoners here — political and otherwise. This became a small part of the island’s timeline and a big part of its legacy.
We make an early stop at the Robert Sobuwke House, commemorating the college professor who in 1959 founded the Pan Africanist Congress. The PAC’s long-term vision was that as African countries were gradually liberated from colonial rule, they might form a United States of Africa. For promoting this goal, and others, Sobukwe has been called the Malcolm X of South Africa.
The government simply called him dangerous — so dangerous that it passed legislation specifying he remain incarcerated, with or without charges, and forbidden to make contact with other prisoners.
So he lived on Robben Island, where he had his own isolate room. He was also never given a prison uniform, which enabled the government to claim with a straight fact that it was not holding him as a political prisoner.
For Sobukwe’s part, to show that incarceration had not broken his spirit, each day he would iron a fresh shirt and dress as if he were teaching one of his classes.
Sipho also directs us to a row of buildings across from Sobukwe House. Attack dogs were kenneled there, positioned as a warning to all prisoners. Additional warning: In the event of any perceived disruption, guards had orders they should shoot to kill.
We pass Mandela’s cell. It is small and Spartan. Many other prisoners, including Sipho, spent most of their time in a communal area, a large concrete room with no amenities.
In the 1960s, prisoners were allowed two visits and two letters a year. Prisoners found with any literature, including books and newspapers, were sent to solitary confinement with reduced food rations.
No lawyers were permitted in prison courts. Until 1979, all prisoners slept on the floor. There was one church service a week. There was no recreation area. Political prisoners, often young idealists with no other record, were thrown in with hard-core criminals, ensuring they were routinely abused, sexually and otherwise.
Despite all this, says Sipho, prisoners banded together to elect section committees who demanded more humane treatment, with some success.
A dirt path runs several hundred yards from the prison exit gate back to the ferry dock. Prisoners called it “Freedom Road.” Angela muses on how often prisoners must have looked back over their shoulders until they were safely on board and en route to the mainland.
Back in Cape Town, we rendezvous for a flight to Johannesburg, where the group will split up. Angela is flying to Hong Kong. Most of the painters are flying home. Frances, Karen, Melissa, Jerry, Winnie, Fran and David bunk into the clean-and-functional City Lodge airport hotel in Johannesburg to spend the night before flying to Victoria Falls.
Angela escorts the Victoria Falls Seven to our terminal at Johannesburg Airport. She has been a first-class guide and now she must push us out of the nest.
After a 90-minute flight to Victoria Falls, we pay the $30 visa fee to get into Zimbabwe. They like U.S. dollars, because Zimbabwe doesn’t have its own currency. It once did, but when the world realized there was nothing to back it up, that quickly became problematic. Souvenir shops sell Zimbabwe money with figures like “One Hundred Trillion Dollars” for one actual U.S. dollar. Next time you worry about inflation devaluing your savings, consider Zimbabwe.
It’s measurably warmer as we walk past a sign that says “KFC Welcomes You.” Thanks, Colonel. Also welcoming us: costumed Zimbabwe musicians with lots of percussion and harmonies.
Our new guide, Lucky, fills us in on some nuts and bolts. Until 1980, under colonial rule, the country was Rhodesia. Named, naturally, for Cecil Rhodes. Today it has 14 million people and 16 official languages. Fertile farming country, it was once the breadbasket of Africa. Now it has 80% unemployment.
Victoria Falls, a town of about 50,000, is fortunate. The falls provides thousands of tourism-related jobs, though it’s still not full employment. Street vendors follow tourists everywhere, offering wood carvings and souvenirs for a couple of dollars.
Our hotel, the Kingdom, is spacious and largely open, with two restaurants – one casual, one upscale – that serve food familiar to Western visitors. The rooms are comfortable. The air conditioning is a bit noisy for light sleepers, but night temperatures drop enough so it’s comfortable without AC.
We start our brief time here with a cruise on the Zambezi River. Our seven and perhaps 20 others board a flat open-air riverboat that has a host and a chef, who throughout our three-hour voyage will prepare a series of hors d’oeuvres – chicken, beef, vegetable and so on – along with salty snacks and a steady flow of drinks.
As we float along the wide and quite peaceful river, we see a crocodile napping on the bank, more grey hippopotamus backs and the setting sun, which looks like a yellow meteor dropping behind an orange horizon. The African sunset mystique isn’t just marketing. It’s worth seeing.
What we don’t see, as an aside, is bugs. You might think sunset on a vegetation-surrounded river in a semi-tropical climate would be Nirvana for stinging insects. We see virtually none.
This may be why the doctor at TravelMD had told us we really didn’t need anti-malaria pills – because this part of Zimbabwe, like South Africa, has pretty much wiped out mosquitoes.
We realize it’s possible this extermination has troubling consequences for the larger ecosystem. In the short term, it makes travel more relaxing.
Anyhow, as the sun is setting, someone spots two elephants standing ankle-deep by the riverbank. We pull within about 25 feet and cut the engine. And then, hey, here come more elephants, taking a last dip after a long day eating trees.
There are adults, teenagers and kids, and this twilight drink soon morphs into an elephant party. They suck up water and spray each other. Teenagers kneel down and roll in the mud. When one of the kids gets too insistent for attention, a grownup swats it away. Enough! I’m busy! Amuse yourself!
A giraffe passes behind them in the woods, probably muttering about those elephants partying again. Check out some video here.
After 15 or 20 minutes, the matriarch gives the high trunk sign and the herd makes its way back into the trees, leaving only footprints.
After a buffet breakfast that could feed the lower half of Africa, we head for The Falls, which have earned their spot among the Seven Wonders of the World.
Since we have arrived at the end of the dry season, the falls are at their lowest point. From one side to the other they stretch approximately a mile, and right now the water forms a series of curtains, with breaks in between. The sheer power and the steady roar are still breathtaking. For a quick sample, check this.
During the height of the rainy season, that mile is a solid curtain of water. It’s hard to imagine more sheer force, but ironically, says our guide Dumi, visitors then see less. All that water crashing several hundred feet into a rocky canyon churns up so much spray you only see a boiling cloud of mist.
There are 11 viewing points, all directly across the canyon. The first is down a steep flight of stairs, the other 10 back at eye level. Each brings you a little closer to the water, until the last couple are maybe 50 feet away. By then visitors can walk right up to the lip of the canyon, and the bold can peek over the edge.
As the vantage points get closer, the roar gets louder and the mist makes it feel as if a steady light rain is falling.
The vegetation is greener here and warthogs and monkeys hang around in it, looking for snacks. We kind of expect them by now. What we don’t expect is the silhouette, over on the falls side, of a man in a bathing suit, seemingly perched at the edge.
He’s standing in Devil’s Pool, a small pond/oasis that nature carved out right there on the brink. In the dry season this fellow, who’s a guide, leads adventurous groups out to sit or stand in it. Over on our side we all assume these people are nuts, but Dumi says a large rock wall at the edge makes it almost impossible to tumble over the falls. To date, it hasn’t happened.
Nor has anyone been attacked by a crocodile or a hippopotamus, though both species frequent those waters.
We return from the falls with an overwhelming craving for a drink of water. Kidding. We have a Caesar salad for lunch at the Kingdom’s café-style restaurant, which makes the incidental point that you probably don’t have to avoid fruits and vegetables at major tourist locations in Zimbabwe. Or South Africa. These places work diligently to ensure they don’t suffer any negative Facebook, Twitter, Instagram or TripAdvisor postings about someone getting sick from the salad.
Our waitress, like Dumi and pretty much everyone else we meet in the hospitality game, speaks flawless English. She asks where we’re from and says she would like to visit the U.S. someday. It’s a frequently heard sentiment.
Karen, Melissa and Frances supplement their falls experience with a helicopter ride over the water. They report that it’s impressive from that angle, too.
They also report that the Victoria Falls Hotel, next door, serves High Tea at 4 p.m. We all agree that would be a capital idea.
Fran and David take one detour first. The hotels are adjacent to a railroad station whose tracks were laid as part of a plan by Cecil Rhodes – who else? – to construct a rail line that would run the length of Africa, Cape to Cairo. It never quite got finished, but there’s enough track here for Zambia Rail to run an excursion twice a week.
We see that one of those excursions is being prepped, behind a beautiful old steam engine that dates back to the early 20th century and has been meticulously restored in a rich dark green. It’s straight from the pages of a “golden age of railroading” history book.
As we walk along the platform taking pictures, the engineer waves at the camera and motions for David to come up into the cab.
It’s a good bet he summons every tourist who wanders past, and he doesn’t have to ask twice. You don’t get a chance to climb into an old train cab every day.
What David didn’t realize, because the only steam train he ever engineered said “Lionel” on the side, is how hot it gets in that cab.
It must be 110 degrees, and hotter in front of the furnace. Fireman and engineer hold handkerchiefs to keep the sweat at bay.
They both look like they couldn’t be happier. Maybe it’s just a look for us tourists, but hey, these guys run a steam engine. How great is that?
We walk down the platform and while we can’t take the excursion today, we’re invited inside again for a look at the dining and parlor cars.
The dining car is immaculate, its tables set for the formal five-course meal that will be served during the ride. The parlor car looks luxurious and comfortable. This was the golden age of rail travel for those who could afford it, and at $165 a trip it feels like you almost can’t afford not to take it today.
We take a last admiring look and regret we hadn’t known about Zambia Rail earlier.
High Tea, however, provides worthwhile consolation.
The outdoor patio of the Victoria Falls Hotel, which opened in 1904, three years after Victoria died. It has a classic colonial look, with a sweeping lawn that offers a breathtaking view of the Zambia Bridge over the Zambezi River. Whoever picked this spot had a good eye. Ironically, given the fact it’s a fairly expensive tourist resort today, it was originally constructed to house the workers who built that bridge.
High Tea here shows an appreciation for tradition and style, though the dress code has been relaxed over the last century.
Servers bring several multi-tier dishes tastefully arranged with cucumber sandwiches, chicken salad, smoked salmon with cream cheese and scones with cream and jam. A second dish, delivered after the first has been picked clean, holds petit fours and other sweets, including a chocolate mousse with a coconut crust.
It all feels very civilized and it’s easy to see the appeal for the class born into this stratum. It’s also several galaxies removed from the life most people live in Zimbabwe today.
Fran returns to the room to pack while David, Melissa, Karen and Frances head out on an elephant encounter with guides Dennis and Victor, two young women from Britain and a young couple from Germany.
We’re headed for a spot in the bush where a small herd of about eight elephants passes through every day. This herd has become accustomed enough to humans that they don’t mind us walking up to them and touching the parts we can reach, like legs, ears and tusks.
This, you probably guessed, is the encounter.
The matriarch of this herd is Coco, who is 40 years old. She isn’t quite as large as the oldest male, Jumbo, who is 34. The youngest member of the herd is Tandy, who is 3½ and apparently sometimes acts it.
These elephants are all rescues, Victor tells us, which does not mean that someone got them as for a pet for Christmas and then decided they were too much to handle when they grew up to weigh six tons.
Elephant rescues come from Zimbabwe’s national park, where the population grew so large they were overgrazing the range and running out of food.
That’s an Africa-wide issue. In some areas, poachers have seriously depleted the elephant population. In others, the population has so outpaced food resources that more elephants die of starvation than poaching. The challenge is to get all this back into balance, since moving large numbers of elephants long distances isn’t quite as easy as loading them into a van.
Fortunately, extremely dedicated groups are working on this, and part of the conservation and management work is funded by touristy things like our elephant encounter, for which we pay $75 apiece.
The encounter itself is twofold.
First, we walk over to Jumbo while he’s eating brush. We put a hand on his leg, his tusk, his ear. If we look up into his eye, he seems to be looking back, though he’s clearly more focused on curling that sheaf of brush into his mouth.
Second, Victor and Dennis bring out several large buckets of elephant treats, marble-size pellets of things like corn and wheat.
Now we have the elephants’ attention. We scoop up handfuls of these pellets and either drop them into the end of the elephant’s trunk or toss them into his or her mouth.
It’s something you don’t do every day, unless you have a pet elephant. It’s also not a normal experience for most elephants, presumably, unless they have pet humans.
When the bucket is empty, the elephants scarf up pellets that fell on the ground, slapping aside a couple of risk-taking warthogs who had the same idea. Then Coco leads the elephants back into the bush, away from us, single file.
That’s a good thing, because we don’t want to think elephants were trained or tamed for our encounter. We want them to keep being elephants.
Victor says they do. He also says the lineup of encounter elephants keeps changing. Two weeks ago, four other elephants were dropped from the roster, “weaned from human contact,” and now they’ve stopped coming around.
For Jumbo and Coco and the ones who still do, we’re a snack stop, the equivalent of a mid-morning candy bar.
That seems sort of okay. What’s definitely clear is that unlike some of us, no elephants are taking notes for a blog on their human encounter.
As we drive back to base camp, we encounter a last herd of African buffalo, some standing in the roadway, staring at us. They don’t look especially angry, just curious. We stop and take their pictures.
When we pass a small herd of impala, we do not stop. Impala, ya know? Ya see ‘em every day.
We fly back to Johannesburg Airport to wait out a six-hour layover before our flight back to JFK. Johannesburg Airport is really a shopping mall that happens to have some airline service, so there are ample distractions. We prepare for re-entry to America by having a pizza.