Thursday, June 9, 2011

South Africa Thoughts

Before leaving on this trip our basic itinerary had us in South Africa for about three weeks, but we’ve ended up staying over six.  This is an incredibly beautiful and diverse country, and it’s remarkably easy to get around.  Looking at a road map of Africa, it seems like half the roads in the entire continent are in South Africa.  The southern part of the country is much more developed than the northern. 

There are numerous national parks, game and nature reserves throughout the country, dedicated to a variety of interests – wildlife, hiking and camping, boating, etc.  Once we rented a car these parks become so much more accessible to us, and it’s been fantastic to get to see them.

The availability of goods and services has been astounding.  We packed for the trip with the mindset that everything from hand sanitizer, batteries, and tampons would be difficult to obtain unless in a major city.  So here we are with a massive first aid kit in a country where it’s safe to drink the tap water.  Grocery stores and gas stations are everywhere, as well as restaurants and accommodations, and they have all been easier to reach with a car.  To top it off, most South Africans speak at least a little bit of English, while whites and those in the tourist industry speak very good English.  This has made getting around immensely easier than it would otherwise have been.

One of the prevailing things we’ve experienced is post-apartheid South Africa.  You see it everywhere, and although the worst is hopefully over, the racism you encounter is difficult to stomach.  I think largely because it’s so blatant and the disparity of wealth between blacks and whites is so vast.  It was interesting traveling on the taxis and being the only white people verses now with the car; other than picking up a hitchhiker (females only for safety reasons) every now and then, our interactions with the black population has been very limited.  It will still be a long while before this country heals itself, but hopefully future generations will be more open-minded and fall less into stereotypes.

Crime is a problem in most towns and cities.  I can probably count on one hand the number of times we’ve walked around after dark.  Security is very conspicuous – there are fences with steel spikes surrounding houses and buildings.  On top of the fences are rings of barbed wire for added measure.  Most of the hostels are very good about letting you know where it is safe to walk and where it is not, and if there is a restaurant close by.  Prince Albert (in the Karoo where we stayed with John and Anne) is the only town I recall without these immense security measures.

A few years ago one U.S. dollar used to equal roughly ten South African Rand, but with South Africa’s improving economy and following the 2010 FIFA World Cup, one U.S. dollar now equals just under seven Rand.  We’ve saved a considerable amount of money by camping and cooking our own food.  Aside from the needed (wanted?) splurge, we managed to stay under our budget.  Then we decided to rent the car earlier, and with that and gas, we’ve been spending more than expected.  The freedom of the car and flexibility it affords is well worth it.  What’s the point of coming here and not seeing or doing what we want to?

Our interests have mainly been wildlife, scenery, and hiking so we’ve stayed at quite a few parks and campgrounds, some in the mountains and some in the semi-arid regions.  One thing that has struck me so far is how cold it gets at night, and sometimes in the day.  I’ve already spent way more nights outside here in below freezing temperatures than I did on the Appalachian Trail.  Of all the preconceived notions I had of Africa, one of them was definitely that it was a warm – if not hot – continent.  I guess that’s what we get for traveling in winter!  At least it’s meant that many campgrounds are empty, so this has greatly assisted us in making plans last minute.

One South African characteristic when camping is to go caravan style.  I have never seen the likes of it.  People definitely don’t just go camping, they go caravanning.  Picture the most enormous tent you’ve ever seen in your life and then double it and that’s what it’s like.  Two people will arrive in a truck with it completely packed and they’ll tow a small trailer with more stuff.  There are full kitchens, giant air mattresses, huge overhead lights, and full screen porches.  The few outfitters we’ve been to most definitely cater to this crowd instead of the hiker/backpacker crowd.  When we got the car we totally splurged on pillows and a blanket, and that blanket has been worth its weight in gold considering the subzero temps.  Most other campers have a cooking station bigger than our entire tent, and their tent could serve as a two car garage for our rental car.

The South Africa National Parks systems keeps well maintained camping facilities and have had an impressive array of overnight hiking options available with huts.  It’s kind of nice to not have to carry a tent and sleeping pad and you get the added bonus of knowing an ostrich or baboon won’t steal your food.

South Africans love their KFC.  It’s really funny because in the states you’ll see KFC but they’re no Taco Bell or anything; here, they are in competition with Nando’s, Chicken Lickin’, and Wimpy’s.  Beloved KFC, every time I see one it makes me laugh a little bit. 

South Africans are big meat eaters in general.  You’ll see signs for biltong everywhere, which is basically just jerky but from anything imaginable – beef, ostrich, kudu, klipspringer.  Every single ad for any accommodation will heavily advertise that they have braai facilities.  This is basically a grill, but braaing is such a way of life here, that it’s a necessity.  Our braaing skills started out rather dismal but have improved since we began using large amounts of fire starter. The other night we had a lovely butternut squash that was cooked on the braai.  It was our most proud South African moment.   Well, maybe that’s tied with hiking the Otter Trail, but still, it was quite delicious.

Overall we’ve been incredibly lucky with the people we’ve met along the way.  We’ve had generous offers of hospitality and great conversation.  People have given us their phone numbers if we need a place to stay or get stuck somewhere.  It’s been fantastic.   Many also really look out for our welfare once they realize we’re two women on such a journey.

As wonderful as South Africa has been we both have a strong desire to move on.  In fact, we keep joking that we are ready to go to “Africa” now.   Except for a few anomalies, you could pick any developed country and say we were on a road trip there.  Before this trip began, I had a variety of images in my head of what it would be like, and while I haven’t quite encountered that yet, South Africa gets two big thumbs up.

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