Guest Column: Observations of Southern Africa by Elizabeth Szekeres*

Recently, I spent three weeks travelling in southern Africa, taking in the sights, sounds, foods, flora and the iconic animals from this region of the world. We visited Cape Town, the Cape of Good Hope, Hermanus, Thornybush Game Reserve (contiguous to Kruger National Park,) Johannesburg, Soweto, and Pretoria, spent four days on board Rovos Rail’s historic train, (true to the days of luxe British railways in South Africa), visited Hwange National Park in Zimbabwe, hiked Victoria Falls, and then travelled into Botswana for a Chobe National Park safari and finally a riverboat ramble on the Chobe River bordering Zambia, Botswana and Namibia. It was truly a journey of a lifetime.

As a gardener, I was particularly struck by the fynbos ecosystem of the southern tip of South Africa. Native plants, shrubs and small trees built for moisture retention are a feature of this ecology. Fleshy and spiny leaves and stunning flowers such as the long-lasting proteas found in the flower shops everywhere are characteristic of this unique and diverse ecosystem. Quite notable is the fact that the fynbos ecosystem is part of the smallest, yet most varied of the world’s floral kingdoms. A billion years of evolution are simply not wrong in this area of eroding mountains, poor soil and challenging climate, and the fact that some two thousand distinct species exist on the top and sides of Table Mountain is testament to that stunning fact.

Before I left on the trip to southern Africa, a biking pal told me a friend of his had cycled from Cairo to Cape Town, the classic Tour d’Afrique, and had seen not one of the charismatic African animals during that months long expedition; not one elephant, giraffe, rhino, lion, African buffalo, leopard or hyena. The quick and dirty explanation is that in those areas, all the animals have been either killed to satiate the Asian appetites for ivory and so-called “aphrodisiacs,” or for food in a land where hunger is an epidemic.

On our trip, everywhere we went to see animals, we were inside guarded wildlife reserves, some private, some national parks. Boundaries were defined by high electric fences, the entrances guarded securely by uniformed sentries with big long guns. It brought home dramatically, the plight of the amazing creatures that somehow have evolved to take advantage of every ecological niche within the southern African veldt, the dry, tortured bush lands that stretch for thousands of miles.

The fact that you can now only see the iconic animals in Africa inside wildlife reserves is indeed sad, however, safari tourism is creating jobs for the local people and giving them an incentive to care for the animals, keeping them alive and safe. And education is happening. Local people are learning about the animals; learning to value them and care for them, for without them, many young people will have no viable future.

We saw dozens of lions, three leopards, hundreds of elephants with many, many youngsters, hundreds of impala, nyala, kudu, and buffalo. There were hippos, vervet monkeys, wildebeest, tortoises, water bucks, baboons, jackals, African dogs, warthogs, hyena, zebra, and towers of giraffe. And that list doesn’t begin to include the birds, avian species of every fabulous colour you can imagine, and more. Take a look at the woodland kingfisher, with its stunning turquoise blue plumage, or the carmine bee eaters that flock in a scarlet shower over the red earth. Without exception, all of the animals we encountered were healthy, fine specimens in prime condition, many with healthy young. It was so exciting to see.

 All those species inhabit a rusty dirt land that is dry most of the year, with thorny bushes and trees. You’d not imagine that kind of landscape could support such an amazing variety of species, but somehow it does. The abundance is gob-smackingly amazing. This diversity of life in a fairly inhospitable place is a result of a billion years of evolution. It’s about that long since all the continents split from Pangaea, or its predecessors, earth’s supercontinents. Africa is one of the few land masses on earth that never was subjected to ice ages or significant climate change, and so everything that lives there has been superbly adapted for millennia.

We began our expedition in Cape Town and you couldn’t help but notice the barbed razor wire atop every fence or wall. No front lawns here had winding paths to the door of the house. Every building had security, and we were told that you cannot get insurance for your property without a wall around your garden, a gated entrance and security video cameras watching 24/7. Such is the legacy of the ruinous apartheid era. When the white 10% ruled the black 90%, it created a system of such inequality that crime became rampant, and still is, despite the new nation with entrenched civil rights being created 25 years ago.

We visited the infamous Robben Island, where Nelson Mandela and other notable political prisoners were held captive for decades. We walked through the cells, viewing where Mandela slept on the floor for years with only a rough blanket. We toured the island, with its tantalizing views of Table Mountain and Cape Town just a mile or two across the water. And we toured the quarry where political prisoners like Mandela hewed dusty white stone day after day for years, under the hot African sun, without hats or eye protection. But in the quarry wall was a cave, a place of some sanctuary where these courageous men sat to eat lunch in the shade and discuss the future. It was where the constitution of the new South Africa would be debated and written on scraps of paper, to be instituted when the cruel and racist apartheid era was finally over. This place is what courage looks like in real life.

In and around Cape Town the legacy of apartheid remains. In aerial photos, and when landing at the airport, you can clearly see the difference between the black and the white neighbourhoods, even though for years now it has been legal for anyone to live anywhere they want.

Everywhere, there is razor wire, even in the shantytowns. Criminals are indiscriminate. They will steal from anyone and everyone, even their own neighbours. And, wherever there is land that seems unsupervised, there are people sleeping rough, eking out an existence wherever and however they can. It seems shocking to my Canadian eyes.

‘Informal settlements,’ is the euphemistic term for the shantytowns, homes to hundreds of thousands of people. These are urban and suburban slums built by people who are essentially squatters on the land. Around Cape Town, you notice these communities first by the corrugated steel roofs and the wires. Complex spiders of electrical wire lead to and from tall wooden poles stretching above the shacks. The wires are clearly of paramount importance.

We were told that the Cape Town area was the first place to enable formal electrical supply to the informal settlements. Meters were installed that enable households to pay in advance for electricity before it is used. “South Africans have an abhorrence to paying bills after the fact,” said our guide. And so it is that the overhead wires are one of the first things you see, that mark these shantytowns around Cape Town.

But in other shantytowns in South Africa, such as one we visited in Soweto near Johannesburg, electricity is stolen via bare wires from streetlights on adjacent roads. “Don’t touch any wires, for any reason,” said our guide in Kliptown, as we walked through the shanties to visit a youth centre.

Shantytown houses are built of whatever is available, from the ubiquitous corrugated steel to waste wood and plastic sheeting. There is no plumbing and no running water save for community taps in central locations. You frequently see women queuing up with buckets. Sanitation is very basic. Rows of permanent portable toilets are cleaned out weekly by sewer trucks, some families locking the toilet they call their own with a padlock. Some of the individual portable toilets are used by dozens of people. We wondered about disease transmission…

Cooking in the shanties is often done outside in the hard-packed dirt yards that resemble rural village enclosures. We were told that many of the residents of the informal settlements have migrated into the cities from rural villages, (sometimes illegally from neighbouring countries,) and so continue to live as they did before, in quite a primitive way.

Men seeking work congregate on certain street corners where they are picked up by vans and taken to job sites. Sometimes the job is selling trinkets to people in cars while they are stopped at traffic lights. The lucky ones may work on construction sites or in mines. Mineral extraction, including gold, diamonds and other precious metals is a huge industry around Johannesburg and Kimberley. In the regions near Cape Town, agriculture, including wineries and orchards, is a huge part of the economy.

In Soweto, our guides took us to see the amazing work being carried out by the Kliptown Youth Program. (www.kliptownyouthprogram.org.za ) In a slum community of some 44,000 residents, some 80% are unemployed, 25% are affected by HIV/Aids, there is widespread food insecurity, little government support and poor schooling. Children walk long distances to school and classes have one teacher to 40-50 students. The cycle of poverty seems endless.

Across Africa, and certainly in Kliptown, we saw evidence that single mothers are the norm in a culture where most men do not contribute to child rearing or household maintenance.  The women simply do all of the work, while many of the men hang out with their similarly unemployed friends. There is a huge division between what is seen as “women’s” work, and what men consider acceptable occupations.

The Kliptown Youth Program is a beacon of light in this urban slum community. Children are fed breakfast and dinner, receive help with their homework (most parents are illiterate,) and participate in after school programs such as in the arts: dance and music, or sports. The children are recognized for their excellence in school and other achievements, and an atmosphere of encouragement surrounds them. Private and corporate donations are actively sought for the youth program as there is no funding provided by governments.

It seems to us that with a program like this in the community, the cycle of poverty could well be eliminated in Kliptown within a few generations. The organization’s motto, “From Poverty to Opportunity” really does seem to be a realistic goal for so many of the children they serve. Giving children options to keep them from following others into a life of crime and drug taking really does seem to be working there, and the founders of the program deserve every bit of credit for their initiative.

There is a mutual distrust and fear of the other shared by many black and white people in South Africa. We were told that most white people would fear for their lives in a place like Kliptown, but when we visited, we knew we had nothing to be afraid of. Through interactions with people like us, children there see that white people are not to be feared, and thus receive a different understanding of the hope and opportunity that is actually out there for them.

Thornybush Nature Reserve in northeastern South Africa, next door to Kruger National Park, was our spectacular introduction to the famous African wildlife. We slept in thatched roof cottages on a lodge property inside the Reserve. As it was not fenced, animals could wander at will around the buildings, so after dark, we were accompanied to our cottages by armed guards. While it was unlikely that lions would enter, we certainly saw baboons, vervet monkeys, nyala (a species of antelope), and even some elephants in and around the lodge.

Life at Thornybush was to a different rhythm. We rose at 5 a.m. for a pre-breakfast small group safari aboard customized land rovers with raised stadium-like seating. “Stay seated,” we were told. The animals were used to the sight of the land rovers, and saw them as a single feature in their landscape. They did not see us as either threat or prey as long as we stayed in our seats. Our safari vehicle was staffed with a ranger/driver (Sydonea) and a tracker (Elvis) who sat on a seat cantilevered over the front bumper where he could see the tracks on the dirt roads. We had evening safaris as well – late afternoon, before the late evening open-air lantern-lit dinners. The food was nothing short of spectacular, and often included local game meat from animals such as springbok and ostrich. raised for their meat on ranches.

Between the two of them, over three days, Elvis and Syd located for us all of the Big Five – the most dangerous African animals to hunt: lion, African buffalo, leopard, elephant and rhinoceros. In fact, in a land where rhinoceros are highly endangered, we saw two female white rhinos, each with a calf. It was a stunning sighting. The very misguided Asian demand for very rare rhino horn for aphrodisiac purposes results in these magnificent creatures being slaughtered by poachers. However, using rhino horn is akin to grinding up your own fingernails to ingest in hopes that it will increase male potency; the keratin material is the same.

As well as the Big Five, we saw many other species at Thornybush, including dozens of giraffe, which were nothing short of spectacular; bathing hippos, rare African dogs looking like an impressionist painting, spotted hyenas, warthogs with infant piglets, several prides of lions and two female leopards. There were leopard tortoises and hinged tortoises in the act of mating at the side of the dirt road, and a black mamba snake slithered off into its stony hibernaculum at our approach. At times, our road was blocked by herds of elephants, often with young, walking at a leisurely pace towards us. There were times when our ranger went off road in search of great photo ops for us, but also times he reversed the vehicle so as to stay out of reach of large animals. We saw massive termite mounds and industrious dung beetles rolling elephant feces into balls to roll home for their offspring. What we sadly did not see though, was a cheetah. They are now too rare. Only ten are reported remaining in the whole of the massive Kruger National Park, adjacent to the Thornybush reserve.

After our departure from Thornybush, we left for Pretoria where we boarded one of Rovos Rail’s restored trains that would take us on a three-night journey on the narrow gauge railways that are the legacy of British rule in the last century. We travelled through northern South Africa and into Zimbabwe, finishing up at Victoria Falls. Our train was more than a kilometer long, with sleeping cars, dining cars, lounges and an observation car. All the carriages were fitted with gorgeous wooden panelling, shiny brass fittings, carved mouldings and lovely upholstery. There were stops along the way and encounters with local people in remote rail stations and villages. At some of the planned stops, we disembarked from the train to explore. At one town, we visited an African market. Zimbabwean carvers are some of the best in the world and there were many vendors hawking their wares; hundreds of stone and wood animals of every kind and size, beautifully dyed fabrics, jewellery, carved bowls and statuary.

We also had a safari stop from the train, once we had entered Zimbabwe. In Hwange National Park we were treated to the sight of herds of zebra and giraffe across the plains of the savannah, and then as we were returning to our train, we were stunned to see a lone male lion ambling down the dirt road towards us, seemingly oblivious to our presence. He walked closer and closer, right up to the front of the vehicle, and then turned to walk past us. I could have stretched out my hand to stroke his back as he passed by. We held our collective breath. Our ranger/driver turned around with an incredulous face, stunned at this encounter. “Something always surprises us,” she said. “You never know what you are going to see!”

A tradition of safari drives in Africa seems to be the “sundowner.” Visitors are treated to cocktails and tasty snacks set up on portable tables dressed with white linens. There are camp chairs and ice cubes for the drink of your choice, and service to match as the sun goes down on the African veldt. Very civilized, though we thought it rather incongruous, given the thin children we saw in some villages.

Our train carried on and we arrived in Victoria Falls, where we stayed in the fabulous hotel of the same name, the hallways lined with photos of visiting British royalty on their visits there years ago. The hotel lawn was graced with a sounder of warthogs; sows, hogs and little piglets all doing their best to keep the green grass mowed. Across the lawn, we could see the spray from the falls making a line across the landscape, plus the graceful arch of a railway bridge that was built across the gorge by the British a century ago.

Victoria Falls is a curious place. A short walking trail to the falls from the hotel was closed recently due to unfortunate encounters between people and elephants. Walking down the street in the town, you pass armed guards in shelters at the entrance to every hotel or tourist destination. And, you also dodge troops of baboons, some with babies, who seem naturally very eager for handouts. Visting a local ATM was a discouraging event. A security guard informed me that no cash machines in Zimbabwe actually dispense cash. They are too easy a target for thieves.

Our group took a five-minute bus ride to the entrance to the falls, and then we were able to walk along the cliff edge and marvel from the lookouts at the multiple cataracts that stretch for more than 1.7 kilometres along the high cliff that forms the border between Zambia and Zimbabwe. It’s classified as the world’s largest sheet of falling water, even though it is not the highest waterfall, nor the widest. Whatever it is, it is certainly an absolutely spectacular sight, especially for a cataract-lover like me who loves to be kissed by the spray. We walked the entire length of the falls, marvelling at its power and beauty.

Our final day involved a trip into Botswana by motor coach. The morning was yet another safari drive, this time through the Chobe National Park. We wondered what we could possibly see that we hadn’t already seen, but we were again totally not disappointed. There were leopards, lions, elephants, and more birds than we had seen at any of the other parks. There were views of the Chobe River and new things to learn about flora and fauna at every turn of the dirt road.

The final afternoon turned out to be more than spectacular. It was a water safari, on the wide Chobe River that forms the border between Botswana, Zambia and Namibia, and edges onto Botswana’s Chobe National Park. It’s a fascinating region where five African countries actually converge within a few miles of each other: Botswana, Namibia, Angola, Zambia and Zimbabwe.

A shade covered pontoon boat took us out on the water after lunch. We saw more fantastic birds – storks, kingfishers, emus, egrets and more. We pulled around a grassy island to find a raft of young single male hippopotamus bathing in a river-side pool. Other hippos munched the abundant green grasses growing on the island, which spends half the year underwater in the rainy season. A hippo cow ambled along the far shore with a calf trotting quickly behind her.  Further along, a crocodile waited in the shallows for likely prey to happen along, and in tall trees on the shore, a convocation of African Fish Eagles with their massive white heads, perched half hidden in the foliage. We also learned that the hippos and elephants now understand that they should not raid or pilfer from the farms across the river in Zambia – they know farmers there will shoot to kill.

Park rangers will shoot to kill as well. In Botswana, there are no more rhino remaining. All of the rhinoceros in Botswana were killed by poachers eager to sell the horns to Asian buyers for massive amounts of money. Elephants were also at risk for their ivory tusks, but now, the governments of both Botswana and Zimbabwe have implemented a shoot to kill policy for poachers. The animals are safe like never before, and the next part of our trip showed us the result.

We floated further down the river, and then we saw them.  On the grassy floodplain were gray humps; lots of them. We drifted closer, then closer, and it was astounding to see. There were possibly as many as five hundred elephants: cows, calves of every size, together with big bull tuskers. Everywhere you looked, there were elephants, more elephants, and still more elephants. Some were eating the grasses, swishing the clumps between their legs to shake off the sandy soil. Some were drinking, curling up their trunks to suck up water then spraying it into their gaping mouths. Some were swimming in the river. They clearly were having fun. Just for the sheer joy of it, they were submerging under the surface of the water and then rising out, trunks waving in the air. Over and over, they joyfully swam and played, oblivious to our boat nearby.

To be that close to such a huge herd of powerful elephants was a stunning end to our southern Africa expedition; a once in a lifetime trip.  It was totally worth the 26 hours or more of flying time each way, to and from to Canada.

We felt so privileged to be able to have a trip like this, but it also brought home to us the vast differences in circumstance. As human beings, we are all the same. There are no political boundaries visible from the air, and yet we saw such stunning divisions in Africa; people whose life circumstance has them eking out a living. We saw animals alive and thriving whose death could mean a complete change in the way of life for a poor person. Such disparities. Such tragedies.

And yet there is hope. We saw education, we saw the value of life at every turn, and we met people whose reason for being is the protection of the rare and the endangered. As tourists, we helped to provide jobs for rangers, trackers, hospitality staff, and railroad staff. We helped artisans make a living by buying local art. We helped by contributing funds to places like the Kliptown Youth Centre. We were tourists, yes, but the funds we spent not only helped the situation in southern Africa but helped many of us to change our view of that part of our planet. We had our lives changed too.

  • International Traveler and writer