16 Sept-23 Nov, 2000
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ROUTE and COUNTRY INFO for South Africa
Wait...Weren't We Just in Egypt?September 16-17
We arrived at Johannesburg International Airport at around 10AM, after a restless overnight flight from Cairo. We were tired from a lack of sleep, but also excited to be in sub-Saharan Africa for the first time. Also, being in a civilized place after the chaos of Egypt was so refreshing that we really didn't have a problem staying awake after our arrival. Visiting South Africa has been a life-long dream for Mike, so he was very excited to finally be here. Little did we know at the time how much we would grow to love this amazing country over the coming two months. Indeed, South Africa would quickly become our favorite country of the trip so far. It's an ideal travel location, with something to suit everybody. The Northeast area still has large areas of wilderness and some of Africa's best game reserves, including famous Kruger National Park. The southeast coast around Durban boasts excellent beaches, a sub-tropical climate, and the warm water of the Indian Ocean. Inland from Durban lies Zululand, homeland of the Zulus, a colorful nation of historically fearless warriors. Further west, there are more beautiful stretches of coast, spectacular wine-producing regions, and Cape Town, one of the world's most beautiful cities. There's a great variety of things to see and do here!
Having heard so much about Jo'burg's unsavory reputation as "the world's most dangerous city," we decided to stay elsewhere our first night in the country. So, we picked up our rental car at the airport and immediately drove 45 minutes north, to Pretoria. (Later, we would find out that there are actually many safe, pleasant parts of Jo'burg that are just fine to stay in). Pretoria is South Africa's administrative capital. Much smaller and more sedate than sprawling Johannesburg, it's not a very exciting city. But Pretoria was a great place to stay for a day while we caught up on our sleep and got our bearings in this new country. We were lucky to arrive at the very beginning of spring time. Every year, in late September and early October, the thousands of jacaranda trees planted along the city streets come into full bloom. As we drove around town, we couldn't believe the masses of purple blossoms which lined and shaded the streets. A beautiful sight!
Pretoria's jacaranda-lined streets in full bloom
South Africa is a country full of paradoxes. It has the strange feel of a third-world country dressed in first-world clothing. The country's infrastructure is modern and excellent -- the highway and transportation system is highly developed, medical care is first-rate, there are supermarkets full of all the things we are accustomed to at home in the U.S., and the tap water is even safe to drink anywhere in the country. But the gap between the rich and the poor is now the greatest in the world (edging out even super-inequitable Brazil). Although the country's citizens enjoy tremendous freedoms since the dismantling of Apartheid and the return to majority rule in the early 1990s, a vast majority of them are poor. As might be expected after hundreds of years of white-dominated, oppressive rule, it's still mostly the whites who hold most of the money. The country has a terrible unemployment rate (around 35%) and crime, of course, is a major problem here. Still, talk to most South Africans, and you'll hear of their strong belief in a bright future for their beloved country. The fact that power was passed from the oppressive white minority to the oppressed black majority in the 1994 elections without any bloodshed is a testament to the fact that South Africa is different from other African countries. Nelson Mandela deserves a lot of credit for leading his country peacably through a time when lesser nations might have seen a much more violent transition after so many years of injustice. How many African "revolutionary" presidents have you heard of that come to power, serve their term, and then leave as promised when their time is up? Thanks to Mr. Mandela's calming message of reconciliation and forgiveness, his country, despite its current economic problems, remains a great example of democracy in action. The country is politically stable and enjoys the most enlightened, democratic constitution in the world.
Touring the Escarpment and Kruger National ParkSeptember 17-21
From Pretoria, we drove east along the N4 highway into an area known as the Escarpment, in the Mpumalanga province. The Escarpment is part of the Klein ("little" in Afrikaans) Drakensberg mountain range. It's a region of vast forests and great vistas over big river canyons and gorges. We stayed for a few days in Sabie, a picturesque town surrounded by dense forests with many impressive waterfalls. We had also arrived at the end of the Southern Hemisphere's winter. It was fairly cold and rain fell almost the entire first week we were in the country. Not exactly the stereotypical picture of Africa!
At Lisbon Falls, near Sabie
North of Sabie lies the Blyde River Canyon, a huge canyon which stretches some 30km from end to end. At the confluence of the Blyde and Treur rivers, the Bourke's Luck Potholes are a geologic peculiarity. Stones caught in the river eddys here have, over the eons, carved out strange, swiss cheese-like holes into the rock. The potholes are a weird and interesting sight.
Bourke's Luck Potholes
The eastern side of the Escarpment drops rapidly into the lowveld, where the vast Kruger National Park awaits visitors. Kruger is probably Africa's greatest and best-known national park, a huge reserve established with foresight in 1898 by South African president Paul Kruger. It's considered the best place in Africa to spot the "Big Five" game species (elephant, lion, leopard, buffalo and rhino), as well as many other African beasts like giraffe, zebra, hippo and many species of antelope. What's unique about Kruger is that you can go on a self-drive safari in your own vehicle in the park. And while this might seem like a Disneyland-like, artificial sort of experience, it's not -- the park is positively huge, with more than enough space to get away from other humans. There are places where you can drive for over an hour without seeing another vehicle. There are rules, of course: drive slowly and never get out of your car! Having the freedom of driving your own vehicle through the vast wilderness of Kruger while sighting wild African animals, on your own, is an experience that cannot be described in words.
While in the Sabie area, we were so close to Kruger that one day, we couldn't resist taking a quick drive through a tiny southwestern portion of the park. In just two hours, we spotted two lions with a buffalo kill just off the side of the road, elephants, zebra, impala, kudu, buffalo, and many different kinds of birds. All in our own car, without a guide. What a thrill! This really fired us up for our upcoming Botswana safari. We really didn't have the time to give the huge national park the time it deserves, though. Next time, we visit, we'll allow a few days to see more of Kruger's 300km-long wilderness.
From the Escarpment, we drove back to Johannesburg where we stayed for two nights before heading out on our Zimbabwe and Botswana safari. If you haven't already read about our safari adventure, click on the "Journal" link in the navigation bar to the left and then click on the Zimbabwe link. Otherwise, the following page picks up in South Africa after our return from the safari...
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