A City Built on GoldOctober 8-12
Before we came to South Africa, we really didn't think we would find much reason to linger in Johannesburg. After all, it does have a bad international reputation for crime, and it's just another big city. But after spending two weeks in the northern Botswanan bush, we were actually excited about the prospect of spending a few days in Jo'burg. We retired to the northern suburb of Sandton, where the crime of dangerous downtown is far away. In Sandton, we learned that, like any big city, Jo'burg has its good and bad parts. Not all of Johannesburg is a crime zone. In fact, Jo'burg reminds us a lot of Los Angeles -- there is a rundown, unsafe area (around downtown), and there are many peaceful, tree-filled suburbs which bear little resemblance to the concrete mess of the city center. Sandton is the center of the "new" Jo'burg -- it's where many of the businesses which fled the crime-ridden downtown area have moved to. Sandton's backstreets are filled with fenced-in mansions and BMWs and Mercedeses cruise the squeeky-clean streets. It's also, unfortunately, very white. We saw a fair number of the new black "elite" eating in the restaurants and sitting in the cafes here, but for the most part, Sandton (and most of northern Jo'burg) doesn't represent the cross-cultural reality of South Africa very well. But for us, having a bunch of nice shopping malls and restaurants within walking distance of our hotel provided just the convenience factor we needed after two weeks of camping in Botswana. We admit it, we wanted something like home for a few days, and we found it in Northern Johannesburg! We shopped for new clothes, we ate at good restaurants, we even got to catch up on several newly-released movies from back home. It was a nice break.
Masks at a market in Sandton
Jo'burg is a rich city. By far, Africa's richest, and the continent's business capital. Indeed, Johannesburg is responsible for 25% of the entire continent's gross economic output. Built only 100 years ago on the gold-bearing "reefs" which surround the city, Jo'burg still very much marches to the beat of money. And there's a lot of it here, although most if it is in the hands of the comparatively few.
After hanging out in the land of the wealthy whites, it's good to get a little perspective on the reality of South Africa's majority population. A good way to do this is to take an organized tour of Soweto, South Africa's biggest black "township." A township is a black residential district, created originally by the Aparthied regime as a means of keeping the "inferior races" away from the white peoples' cities and suburbs. Soweto, an abbreviation of "Southwestern Township", is a city unto itself, with an estimated population of 1 million plus. It lies some 20km away from Johannesburg proper. Little did the white regime which created Soweto realize that eventually the townships would become the places where the organized black resistance would blossom, eventually leading to the downfall of Apartheid. Nelson Mandela lived in Soweto prior to his arrest in 1964. On our tour, we visited his house, now a museum containing memorabilia from the great man's life. In Soweto, there are vast shanty-towns full of makeshift, broken-down corrugated metal-roofed buildings where entire families live crammed into one or two tiny rooms. But there are also other less-fortunate people (some of them quite rich) who live here. Most of Soweto is poor, but there are also rich suburbs and an emerging urban elite. We were really glad that we took the Soweto tour. It allowed us to see how "the other two-thirds" live in South Africa. We would recommend to all visitors to this country to do the same; it's really an enlightening experience.
Visiting one of Soweto's shanty-towns
Tiny, Land-locked KingdomOctober 12-13
After a few days of rest in Sandton, we drove southeast into Swaziland, a unique country which lies sandwiched between South Africa and Mozambique. Entirely landlocked, Swaziland is surprisingly different from South Africa. One of the world's only remaining total monarchies, Swaziland exists in something of a time warp. While South Africa pursued its policy of Apartheid and racial discrimination last century, Swaziland remained an independent nation. Traveling there after some time in South Africa is a breath of fresh air -- there is no racial tension and people pretty much seem to get along.
Typical Swazi huts, Swaziland
For such a small country (one of the world's smallest, in fact), Swaziland has surprising geographic variety. From the mountains in the northwest to the rolling lowveld of the southeast, it's a beautiful, pleasant country to visit. It's also so small that you can see most of the sights in just two or three days. We spent a single night in the Royal Valley of Ezulwini, a verdant area full of blossoming jacaranda trees surrounded by green mountains. From there we moved on to...
Beautiful Wetlands on the Northeast CoastOctober 13-15
Back in South Africa after our very brief stay in Swaziland, we drove down the N2 highway to the St. Lucia Wetlands area, on the coast very near the border with Mozambique. St. Lucia is in a lush, subtropical region best known for Lake St. Lucia, a huge estuary which lies just inland from the Indian Ocean. The estuary is a UNESCO World Heritage site and is home to a large number of aquatic species, including hippo and crocodile.
The big town warthog
We rented a cottage for three nights right in St. Lucia town. Our back porch opened up to a grassy area which led down to the estuary. A sign posted on the grass reminded us of where we were: "Do Not Leave Your Porch After Dark -- Hippos Come Out Onto Grass at Night!" We may have been in a resort area, but St. Lucia is still a very wild place! Needless to say, we enjoyed many barbecues out on our porch in the evenings, but we heeded the signage. We made it through Botswana, the last thing we wanted to do was end up getting trampled by hippos in the middle of a well-known resort town. Since the town sits right in the middle of a wilderness area, there are other regular "visitors" to the town's open yards and parking areas. One time while walking down the main street, we saw the local old warthog, who likes to come in to town every afternoon to scarf up the over-ripe fruit that is discarded by the fruit vendors at the local market. It was the biggest, fattest warthog we had ever seen. Obviously, he was doing just fine living off free human scraps. And as if the hippos aren't enough to be concerned about, there are also a lot of crocodiles in the area. Best not to swim in the estuary -- stick to the swimming pools.
Another great sign (at a crocodile park)!
Just outside of town, there is a beautiful, long stretch of sandy beach. Unfortunately, it was way too windy for sunbathing or swimming, even though the water was very warm and inviting. While visiting the beach one day, we were treated to an interesting and unexpected sight. Down at the water's edge, a Zionist Church baptism ceremony was underway. Led by a couple of priests (at least that's what we think they were), a small group of locals danced and changed while a woman clad in white linen was marched out into the water for her baptism. The Zionist church is an offshoot of Christianity which is very popular throughout the Christian parts of Africa. Watching the ceremony gave us an interesting glimpse into local life that we couldn't have gotten on any organized tour.
The ocean baptism (sorry about the fat guy in the Speedo)
Ever wondered what a hippo skeleton looks like?
No visit to St. Lucia would be complete without taking a sunset boat cruise on the estuary. We boarded a boat at around 4pm and took off for a two-hour cruise around the wetlands. We saw a big, fat croc lazing in the mangroves, lots of birds (including beautiful golden weavers, which made their nests right at the water's edge), and, of course, several groups of hippo. It was the closest we ever got to hippos in the wild. A few times, they didn't like the fact that we were approaching in the boat and they displayed, pushing themselves up out of the water, mouth agape to show off those huge canines. A thoroughly successful intimidation ploy. Good thing we weren't in a smaller boat.
Hippo displaying for us
From St. Lucia, we headed inland to the amazing dual parks of Umfolozi and Hlulhuwe...
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