South Africa: Cities, Coastline, Safaris, and Soweto

It is hard to capture several weeks in South Africa in three minutes. We traversed several wildlife parks including Thula Thula, the park established by Lawrence Anthony the author of The Elephant Whisperer. In Pilanesberg (a self-driving park) armed with water, snacks, and our camera we spent the day maneuvering our compact rental car up dirt tracks and down dry river beds periodically passing signs that read, “Do not get out of your vehicle. Dangerous animals.” Within feet of elephants, lions, rhinos, water buffalo, warthogs and other animals we sat quietly in awe.

While in an open jeep tracking two young lionesses we realized that we had inserted ourselves between them and the prey they were stalking. The wild elephant matriarch and her herd at Thula Thula are described in detail in Anthony’s book. We were lucky enough to encounter her and her family on two different days. To meet her and look into the eyes of a 30-year-old elephant whose story we had read, as she considers you across a few feet of open space was incredible.

We spent two days and a night in Soweto with a family whose elders were forcibly moved to Soweto when the Apartheid government demolished Sophiatown, a thriving mixed race area in Johannesburg, in 1955. We toured Soweto with a woman who had been a student in the Soweto student uprisings of 1976 as a young girl. The youngest of the students marched in the front of the protest in hopes that police would not fire on them. Between 200 and 700 students were killed that day. Our guide was shot and subsequently arrested and interrogated.

And, we spent some time in a shantytown with a young man and his brother. They live in one of the hundreds of shacks; no plumbing, no heating, and one electric light run off of a hotwire that is tapped into a nearby electric pole. The government places portable toilets around the periphery of the town that are emptied twice a week. Drinking and cleaning water is drawn from communal taps.

In contrast to our time in Soweto, we spent two nights in an airbnb with an Afrikaner host, a semi-retired financial and political journalist who spent 30 years writing for an Afrikaans language daily paper, in one of the most affluent section of Johannesburg. He shared a direct and articulate critique of today’s ANC and its current leaders. A critique that aligned with what we heard in Soweto and elsewhere.
There is a sense that the ANC is living off of its legacy. One black activist we spent time with in Soweto argued that the racial apartheid of the past has morphed into an economic apartheid that benefits current corrupt political leaders, regardless of race.

Our adventures and experiences in South Africa rival anywhere else we have been.

New Zealand and “Stan the Van”

After months of youth hostels and cheap hotels we stepped up the quality of our lodging with a move into an RV in New Zealand. We arrived in Auckland late in the evening from Melbourne and spent the night in the equivalent of a Motel 6 motor lodge near the airport before an early morning taxi to the RV rental facility.

The boys settled in to read and “guard” the luggage while Aleix and I signed a stack of forms. We decided against “blown over” insurance. Insurance to cover the cost of damage when high winds blow you off the road and the vehicle onto its side. I questioned the wisdom of our decision a week later when we were hit with howling cross winds on the South Island.  The RV handled like a sailing dingy on the Monterey Bay under a wind advisory.

An impressively efficient operation Maui RV processes hundreds of folks each morning who arrive, usually direct from the airport via a Maui shuttle, and within about an hour go forth onto the roads of New Zealand in vehicles bigger than anything they have driven, most of them “on the wrong side of the road.”

If you have driven on the “other side” you recognize the highest risk and most confusing moments occur when making a turn, whether in a congested city or a rural intersection with no traffic, and no signage. On past trips in the UK we established the “Hodges turn safety system” which consists of Bryce and Colin repeating the mantra, “left side, left side, left side” through the turn, much like the ding of a turn indicator. It sounds ridiculous, I admit, but it saved us on several occasions. Once confident I am headed to the correct lane, I say, “got it.” The boys stop and await the next opportunity to protect us from head on collisions.

The checkout procedure on the RV entails a 10-minute tour of its quirks by an 18-year-old college student employed by Maui for the summer. He demonstrated how to add water, empty the waste, operate the stove, and start the heater. He also emphasized that the handbrake is THE parking brake. Without the brake engaged the RV would roll…until something stopped it. Apparently a common problem. I took the opportunity to ask, “What is the wildest story you have about renters and their failures?”

His response: “I would not believe it if I hadn’t seen it myself. We had a couple from China rent a fairly large RV. As they drove away a colleague looking out of the plate glass window at the front of our building let out a shout. I turned in time to see the RV jump the curb on the access road and roll into the field until it came to a stop. The couple got out; the supervisor and a couple of the other guys walked out to see what had happened. With much hand waving, pointing, and nodding, the renter got across that the cruise control hadn’t worked. He engaged it then got out of the driver’s seat and stepped into the back to help his wife make tea. Shortly thereafter the RV jumped the curb.”

Wishing to not add to future stories collected by the Maui rental staff, we loaded the van, which the boys christened “Stan the van,” and headed to a nearby grocery store for supplies.

Over the subsequent two weeks, Stan would carry us over thousands of kilometers around the South Island, along the coast, via ferry to the North Island, and finally into Auckland.

With long summer days we drove into sunsets that seemed to last hours, explored beaches free of people, experienced the solitude of the open road and a refreshing sense of isolation late at night under the stars far from cell phone coverage and the sounds of mankind.