Having just returned from a fabulous fortnight’s cycling holiday in South Africa with Exodus and Mask Expeditions, my first ever visit there, unusually for me I’m struggling to put into words my impressions of the trip and the country. Ironic therefore that I was recently told that I talk far too much and mainly nonsense. The rest of you are free to decide for yourselves if my writings are utter nonsense.
So what about South Africa? It’s a country I’ve longed to visit for years. I have some lovely South African friends living in the UK who still talk very passionately about their country, despite its flaws, and all my friends who’ve been to visit have raved about how wonderful it was. I had planned to go there last Christmas but ended up in Namibia instead, since I had booked too late to find a suitable trip. I wrote several posts about that trip, but the one that perhaps stands out is the post about Decompression. There I talked about many things, but what summed up Namibia for me was “the smell of sun-baked earth, of sweat and soil, of salty dusty skin, of wild animals, wood smoke, and hard-fought battles….the smell of honest labour; of people who struggle for every ounce of sustenance from their land of recycled blood and sweat which feeds the earth from which it was produced; the smell of tradition and the smell of hope.” I realise that I only visited a very small part of South Africa (the region around Cape Town) but I was quite surprised at how different it felt to Namibia and the other parts of Africa I’ve visited. Of course, most of Namibia is desert, but having once been part of South Africa, I had expected some similarities. Even the language was not the same, as I’d been expecting to hear a lot more Afrikaans, whereas in South Africa English seemed ubiquitous. Don’t get me wrong, I absolutely loved South Africa and can’t wait to go back, but it was somehow different from what I’d expected. I didn’t find nearly so much of the earthiness of Namibia or East Africa, that “raw ripped-edge of skin” feeling. It’s perhaps a little unfair to make such a comparison, because on this trip, we weren’t camping in the desert and cooking all our own meals over a campfire; instead, we were cycling on well-maintained roads rather than rocky trails and staying in beautiful guest houses with posh bathrooms. It was wonderful and I have no complaints, but I’d like to see the earthy side too which I am quite sure exists. Even the dramatic scenery was somehow a little less rugged, perhaps simply because we were never far from civilisation and tarmac roads.
On the other hand, South Africa seems to be a land of wild contrasts. Compare its incredible natural environment, the idyllic beaches and harsh mountain passes, with the immense poverty and crime rate in the cities. I’ve seen slums and shanty towns all over the world, from East Africa to Brazil to China, but the townships in Cape Town are still flabbergasting in their expanse and nature. Perhaps the biggest contrast though is the beautiful houses with their ornate gardens and sun-baked swimming pools, hidden behind their terrifying security systems. It’s hard for a Westerner to get their head around this juxtaposition. I don’t know if it’s the prevalence of English as a language and of the European influence which still remains, but of all the African countries I’ve visited (admittedly not that many: Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda in the East, Morocco and Algeria in the North, and Namibia in the South), South Africa seems by far the most Westernised, though it’s still far from the soft-feathered sanitisation of a first-world country. On the one hand lies the idyllic countryside, the fabulous sunshine, the friendliness and openness of the people, the elegant wines and the high-quality food; and on the other hand the raw violence, crime and corruption; the chequered past and the vicious and bloody battles for independence and equality; the struggling education and health systems. I still don’t know quite what to make of it, but what I do know is that I definitely want to go back and find out more. Two weeks in a very small part of this amazing country was definitely not enough.