Overview

This overview of our Namibia/South Africa trip provides an opportunity to add details of some small segments of our trip to the larger ones having separate pages. It is also a place to try to make sense of sometimes conflicting general impressions, but to keep these deeper ramblings separate from...

...the lighter, more factual and detailed account of our travels provided in the following separate web pages:

The Plan

The original plan was to find a suitable 60th birthday celebration for me (John) and we settled on South Africa as a destination. In spite of my past history in Africa, I'd never seen plains animals and so it seemed about time to pay a visit to somewhere like Kruger National Park. However, there probably didn't seem to be much hiking around there—it being flat and filled with hungry animals—so we added a hiking trip to the Drakensburg Mountains with Ramblers to round off our vacation...

...but then Lyn was approached to teach a workshop in Namibia. Thanks to some flexibility from our hosts we managed to combine these arrangements into one trip, starting off with a working week for Lyn and volunteer week for me in Swakopmund. We were told of the Etosha Reserve in Northern Namibia, and since a trip there had easier logistics than flying to Kruger we switched our plans to spend a few days at Etosha; then we would meet up with our hiking group in Johannesburg.

So on January 25th 2006, off we went.

Final Itinerary

Here are the details of what we did and where. It was a heck of a trip, and even though we were away for longer than usual, we weren’t ready to come back even at the end.

DayMonthDateActivityWhere
WedJAN25Leave VancouverTravel 
Thur26Arrive/Leave London
Fri27->Jo'burg->Windhoek->Swakopmund
Sat28See Dunes/Walk Around SwakopmundSwakopmund Namibia
Sun29Boat trip/more walking
Mon-FriJan 30-Feb 04TEACHING
FEB
Sat4Leave for Etosha/stay OtjiwarongoEtosha
Sun5Arrive Okaukuejo
Mon6Okaukuejo
Tues7Drive to Namutomi
Wed8Drive to WindhoekTravel
Thur9Fly to Jo’burg South Africa
Fri10Meet Ramblers/Bus to Giant’s CastleGiant’s Castle
Sat11Hike: Worldview)
Sun12Hike: Meander Valley
Mon13Hike: Giant's Ridge
Tue14Hike: Langalilabele Ridge
Wed15Hike: Oribi Ridge
Thu16Hike: Bushman Cave/Barbecue
Fri17Bus to Caven BergCavern Berg
Sat18Hike: Camel Humb/Birdwatching
Sun19Hike: Tugela Gorge
Mon20Hike: Sugarloaf Hill
Tue21Hike: Surprise Ridge
Wed22Hike: Alpine Heath
Thu23Hike: Holele Ridge
Thu23Hike: Holele Ridge
Fri24Bus to Jo'BurgTravel
Sat25Soweto Tour
Sun26Lion Farm
Mon27Return flight/Oxford

All the parts of our trip were different. In Namibia, we had the unusual benefit of getting to work and talk with local people—both white and black—and to find out more about local life. In contrast, we spent our stay in South Africa largely cloistered in private resorts and had only fleeting contact with local people. But we did manage to add a few conversations with knowledgeable people at the end of our trip, who gave us a better insight into aspects of the South African scene that we were curious about.

Countryside

NamibiaSA:off the highway

We drove about one thousand miles through Central to Northern Namibia and a great deal of what we saw was either mountainous desert, thorn/bushveld flat, or bushveld rolling hills.  In fact, if you have a look at Namibia on Google Maps (Swakopmund at about the mid-point of the coastline; Etosha Pan clearly visible in the North), you can see the extent of the desert and dunes. Great scenery but only a few larger towns. Highways very good: mostly two laners forever.

We drove only about 1000km in South Africa, mostly along four lane highway bordered largely by fenced ranchland; as we pulled off and headed up smaller roads into the hills, there were smaller farm plots. Rivers coming down out of these mountains can rise three feet in heavy rain.

Birds, Animals and flowers

There aren’t many highways in the world that have road signs every couple of kilometres warning of either springbok or wart-hogs crossing the road—this for 100 kilometres. Seeing animals in the wilderness was high on my list of reasons for visiting South Africa and Namibia and it was well satisfied.


Ah, birds. Dave Johnson, the bird expert we met in South Africa, took great glee in letting the Brits in our party know that, for example, where there were “only” 17 different finches in Great Britain, there were 150 (or some such numbers) in South Africa. Those us who could only count 6 finches in our part of North America kept quiet.

See our bird list here

 There’s probably the same variety of plant life but this was less evident. We were in tropical countries so flowers were abundant, but we didn’t notice the extraordinary bounty that we saw in either animals or birds.

Music

Expected: Africa, the source of all the music that I love most; I was really looking forward to hearing the stuff blaring out of shops and doorways, maybe picking up some CDs...

Experienced: hardly anything other than tired old Brit/American 60's stuff—even US country and western. The black music we did hear had been pressed through some kind of Lawrence Welk filter: pallid, institutionalized syrup. Laetitia, who so patiently ushered us through Etosha and drove us over one thousand miles...only listened to Abba! Don't mean to offend anyone else's taste but for me that equates to twenty hours of listening to someone running their fingernails down a blackboard.

Only bright spot: the staff choir at Cavern Berg, who put on about half an hour of Zulu singing and dancing.

Otherwise, bummer.

Namibia compared with South Africa

The history of the region is so convoluted that even an ex-Brit with past connections with Africa (me) didn’t really grasp the details. It is better explained here (CIA Worldbook) or here (Wikipedia) if you want good summaries.

Namibia was interesting at least for its contrast with South Africa. You might think the two countries would be similar: both were colonized by European powers around the same time—South Africa by the Dutch and then the English and Namibia originally by Germany—and Namibia had been a de facto province of South Africa for many years.

Yet Namibia retains a strong German flavour, with most people still speaking Afrikaans in spite of the fact that English is now the official language. People spoke Afrikaans in stores and restaurants and in business conversations. English is actually a struggle for white people, who prefer Afrikaans and the third language for black people whose tribal language is first.

South Africa is only about 50% bigger than Namibia in area yet has over 20 times as many people and a GDP that is 30 times bigger, which accounts for some of the differences in countryside above. Namibia’s population of just over two million is less than the city of Johannesburg’s three plus million. Still, Namibia has the second highest GDP per capita in Africa. This, according to the CIA factbook website, and if you don't believe these figures, you can actually check in people's wallets at the site!

One very encouraging fact for us tree-huggers is that Namibia has protected vast areas of land as National Park. Its whole Northern coastline is protected, as is the vast Etosha National Park.

AIDS

AIDS affects as much as 25% of the black populations of both Namibia and South Africa. The common perception is that the root cause is male promiscuity, but we were told that this is a simplistic picture sometimes promoted by Christian organizations. It fails to acknowledge that African people have their own different culture and different approaches to relationships and marriage in particular. Western-style monogamous marriage is an imposed idea that has been adapted rather than wholly adopted by people here—both men and women. There is also the major problem of work: people must routinely move to and live where work is—often in remote mines or in different towns from where their families are.

It’s possible that this has a male-driven slant, but whatever the explanation, the combination of factors compounded by a pattern of official denial is leading to a major social problem.  

Tours

We were stuck in Johannesburg for a couple of extra days because we couldn’t get earlier flights out, so decided to take in a couple of guided tours: one through Johannesburg and Soweto, and the other to a lion farm.

Johannesburg and Soweto

We were picked up at our hotel by a small tour bus, joining a group of half a dozen people from Central and South America here for a Christian conference of some sort. The (black) tour driver took us through rich, poor, famous and infamous areas of Johannesburg before taking us out to the South-western Townships (Soweto), where shanty towns adjoin an area where the extremely rich live in a gated community. The gated community is policed by a private security company; it is quietly understood that there is very little crime here because suspects rarely survive the initial 'interview'. We saw Winnie Mandela’s house here.

We were given a walking tour of one of the shanty towns with a different guide, who lived in the shanty town, in exchange for a donation that would be redistributed to the community by that guide. The shanty towns (we learned) are provided free water (a public pump on every “street”) and sewage services by the city, but the rest is up to them. There are almost no jobs. People grow a few vegetables, steal electricity to charge car batteries from the mains up by the rich district and use it to run their TV’s for the week, and get by. Hard life.


We visited a museum commemorating the children’s marches that led, by degrees, to the riots and to the international intervention that brought an end to apartheid. Our tour guide had apparently been one of those kids, and provided, with some encouragement, his very frank views on South Africa’s problems.


Made a last stop at an earlier house that Nelson Mandela's lived in. Outside in the street a group of young girls were dancing to their own chanting and handclapped rythmns; they were collecting money for it but clearly were too absorbed in what they were doing to pay much attention to onlookers.

Lions (see further down)

Crime and Racism

These two topics aren't necessarily linked, but the question on both counts were questions we had about South Africa, so it's hard not to try to make sense of our impressions.

As noted, we were cloistered for much of our stay in South Africa and if we hadn't stayed in Johannesberg for two days at the end, we would have little to go on. Our four hour tour provided us with a first-hand glimpse, which is why I placed it just ahead of this. But we were indebted to our guide on that tour who, with some encouragement, provide frank answers to our questions. And these were not hasty and ill-formed opinions. He had lived in Soweto and had though—still thought—about his answers.

Many in the Ramblers party were curious about how race relations were in South Africa now and were uncomfortable to find that we were to spend all of our stay here in resorts owned or managed largely by white people and to be waited on largely by black people. To our relief, we saw no sign of racism or “tainted servitude”; in fact whites were friendly with blacks and vice versa. But the continuing imbalance felt awkward.

There was one other further marked difference between Namibia and South Africa. The first is a black people's country, not unexpected in Africa. But in South Africa (or the parts we saw) 'African'—as in the black culture that one would expect to see—seems all but blotted out. On the way down, we drove through 400km of Kent-like farmland, stopping occasionally at Shell gas stations that came from the same rubber-stamp they use for design in the UK (Western music piped to the idling drivers); the restaurants...ditto.

Yes, 'black' peeks through: in menial jobs—the gas station attendants, the waitresses— and as we left the highway and drove up into the hills there were delapidated towns and small farms. But it still felt, incongruously, as though black people were the late addition. Even in the US

This is less criticism and more an expression of surprise; it is too much snap impression to withstand much inspection: cities are the same the world over; if the land was ripe for farming what else would one expect to see? It's hard to tell whether our initial unease slanted our observations or was supported by them.

Many people are desperately poor, a situation affected, but not necessarily caused, by an influx of refugees. What riches there are don’t trickle down—confounding the theory that they do.  Poverty is directly linked to crime. There are something like two million people living in shanty towns.

Crime is common, but it seems to be mostly non-personal crime—as opposed to muggings, murders, and tourist abductions for example. There are major bank-robberies and drug-dealing but most of the crime we heard about was stealing. There are bars on almost every window, barbed wire on almost every property wall; restaurants and shops routinely have guards; hotels and motels are enclosed in gated compounds.  Rural crimes such as cattle-rustling and crop-stealing are epidemic: farmers now grow soy-beans because it is a crop that you have to process (industrially) before it is any good so it is not worth stealing. Big crime, drugs and scams are common: the Nigerians have apparently found yet another place to indulge what is apparently a major export.

Judging by such reports and impressions, one wonders whether it would be safe to step outside in daylight. Yet we went for a long walk through the neighbourhood next to our motel and saw no sign of threat: old people weree having a picnic in a park and there were children playing tennis by themselves…however, there was a gun shop in the mall we visited, prominently displaying automatic weapons.

Racism doesn’t seem to be the issue. There isn’t any visible evidence of the blatant racism of apartheid, either amongst whites who used to practice it, or in any residing anger amongst black people. Black people seem to be universally friendly, and that friendliness extended, apparently without reservation, to us. In fact, there’s less racial tension here on the street than there is in North America. No doubt there are factions who hold a grudge but we didn’t see any sign of it. We did hear of local factions of whites in Namibia still practising the old ways, but they are lost in the hills and isolated. In Namibia, it is a crime for a person to utter a racial slur.

This isn’t to say that there aren’t problems and anger in particular. But what poor black people are finding is that their own chiefs and other people who claw their way into positions of power are as big a source of their (poor people’s) problems as any white man. The corruption and greed is appalling. And it is this siphoning of resources at the top that is a main reason for lack at the bottom.

It seems likely that there will inevitably be more violent signs of unrest.  

This likely isn’t good news for white people but they don’t seem to be aware of the threat. White people originally had the power and the money in South Africa. A lesson learned elsewhere in Africa was that it didn’t work for whites to simply hand over their holdings…or have them taken away by force. Corrupt people more often than not took over and simply ran a job-generating business into the ground while they stole everything for short-term personal gain. The stories are repeated over and over. So the whites still hold on to much of their wealth and power, which includes vast farm holdings accumulated in the days when land was there for the taking. The whites, unfortunately, appear merely complacent in clinging to what they have rather than reading what seems to be clear writing on the wall.

If people do take to the streets, it is possible that the target of their anger will be people who have an excess of what is (perceived to be) not rightfully theirs. Anger is less discriminating than sensible rationale.

Our black guide thought that black South Africans were the chief cause of their own problems. Under apartheid, (albeit at great social cost) they had jobs, and free education. The problem is that this set them up to be employees, people who waited for the government or big companies to provide them with work … not entrepreneurs, who create work. The immigrants flooding into South Africa from Zimbabwe tend to immediately find some way to survive, while black South Africans spurn the same lowly work because many have found that they can make more with some form of chicanery.

I'm not sure that I'm any clearer about these issues—or convinced by the new information but at least it gets it off my chest.

Lions

The lion park, the second tour we went to in Johannesburg, seemed to be a loser all the way, until we went. After all, it was a definite the booby prize compared with seeing lions in the wild; and on the day we went it was raining so the first farm was closed (to the immense embarrassment of the tour guide).

We got into the second park and drove around a large grass field, seeing Gemsbok, Zebra and Springbok that we’d seen elsewhere. Yawn. Oops! Drove past the hyena pens, got stuck in the mud and had to call on our cell phone to the main building and have the wardens tow us out (you can’t get out of your car) with a 4WD. Now we’re waking up. Then drove into the lion areas.

Nothing like seeing a family of maneaters five feet away to appreciate a lion farm. And these animals were in beautiful condition, unlike many of their brethren in the wild. The young lions were quite frisky so we kept our windows closed. A lioness absently took interest in a small car driving through, which made the driver nervous and he accelerated, which got several lions interested in the chase. Fortunately, they lost interest when the driver realized the problem and stopped. The guy looked a bit sheepish when he drove past us.

Then went out and walked around a group of cages—but very clean and well done. Each of the animals in turn is given time out of their cages to run in a large area. The farm trains wildlife managers and seems very careful to build and sustain their wilderness animals. Lyn wanted to try petting lion cubs (you can pet them until they’re about 3 months, at which point you begin to smell like food). Lyn tried but found that even a lion no bigger than our cat is a scary animal when it cuffs you playfully.

A good day…and didn’t feel like a booby prize at all.

Oxford

Wondering what to do with our twelve hour stopover at Heathrow, we plumped first for a trip into London but found (from a fellow passenger) that we could get to Oxford quite speedily by bus so opted for that. Turned out to be perfect. We found the bus not far from Terminal 1 (where I scored my first over-60 fare reduction) without any problem and were in Oxford by 7:30am. Had coffee and a spot of breakfast then took a hop-on (and off) bus tour around Oxford—mostly to get out of the freezing cold (9˚C below average temperatures due to Arctic winds). Lyn’s first visit to Oxford. Couldn’t time a visit to any of the colleges because students were in classes but still had a great day. Whizzed past (hence lack of photos and meaningful notes) places where Bill Clinton wrote Alice in Wonderland and Tolkein was thrown out because they found out that he wasn't going to be a Prime Minister, and where they filmed the dining hall scenes in Harry Potter.

Did some shopping; dropped back at Terminal 4 by our return bus, well in time for our flight.

Summary

Highlights

Well, as always the hiking was brilliant. It's a real grind dragging oneself out in pouring rain and cold to get in shape for these trips (any individual day is less than we'd normally do on a weekend, but it's a different ballgame doing it every day for two weeks). At the end of the trip, though, there's never any question that it was worth it. The mix of scenery, wildlife, flowers and local interest (not to mention the occasional beverage in good company at the end of the day) is just not something that is easy to describe.

Lyn was amazing. Having had major surgery only eight weeks before, she was only marginally through her recovery period and had done no exercise at all for eight weeks. Yet she not only didn't miss a day, but was one of the six who did the "challenge hike" at the very end of the trip. The woman's made of stone!

Etosha was great—and in fact our whole Namibia experience, thanks to our hosts, was not far behind.

Birds were outstanding. Have I missed anything?

Only changes, would: avoid having laryngitis in Namibia; get a decent bird book before we left; bring more of those $1 ponchos; have better weather in Oxford; and bring some African CDs from our local store...or at least some ear-plugs!

Lynda does Africa

Lynda does Africa