My South Africa is more than stunning sunsets, craggy coastlines and majestic mountains. It’s a country where I said goodbye to my sister, Katy, my baby nephew, Sven, and my dad, never to see them again. It’s the place where my friend, Garth, was killed beside me in a car accident on the night of his 21st birthday. It’s also the country where I began my career as a reporter, working in Johannesburg for the largest national newspaper at the age of 22, launching me into the wonderful world of journalism.
So, when I came back to South Africa last month with Skip for a high school reunion and a return to countless fragments of my past, I wasn’t sure what would await me.
It didn’t start well.
On our first day in Johannesburg, we were approached at an intersection by a drunk African man who wanted to clean our windscreen, then proceeded to grab his crotch and spit at the car. Next we got lost, our phone GPS didn’t work and, when we finally found our guesthouse, the cleaner didn’t want to let us in.
It got better when we spent time with loved ones and friends – my wonderful nephew, Otto, and his lovely girlfriend, Shannon, my old schoolmate, Heather, and a dear friend, Ronell. But everything was tinged with warning and caution –– “Don’t drive with your window down”. “Don’t leave anything in your vehicle”. “Don’t drive at night”. “Don’t walk alone”. Everyone had horror stories of what happened to their neighbour, their colleague, themselves.
Homes are protected by high walls and alarms. Every window has bars across it. Barbed wire and security systems are everywhere. Poor Africans sleep on the streets and live in township homes constructed from corrugated iron, nails and plywood.
It felt unsafe, stressful and tense.
We drove the six hours from Jo’burg to the Durban area, near where I used to live, and stayed with our dear friends, Patrick and Jonathan, in their luxury home in a gated community where we visited friends from my past.
Durban is a different city to the one I left behind. I used to walk to the shops, go out at night and live in a nice house in a nice neighbourhood. Today nobody walks anywhere. Everyone lives behind a fence and a security alarm. So, when we got lost in a dodgy area in the back streets of Durban one day, we were distressed, fearful and keen to leave.
But then, things started to change.
We went to Imfolozi, one of Natal’s premier game parks, and moved into a tent. It was a comfy, upscale tent with beds, bathroom and kitchen but there were no walls. No barbed wire and no security alarm. The only warning was to be back in the camp by dark because of roaming animals. We were greeted by an elephant as soon as we drove through the gates and, for the next three days, spent time in the company of rhino, giraffe, elephants, buck, monkeys, hyenas and lions. It was so hot we resorted to driving around the park in an air-conditioned car rather than sit in a sweltering tent. We loved every sweaty minute of it.
Then came my school reunion.
Over the past 39 years, I’ve only kept in touch with one of my school friends, Heather, but, thanks to the long fingers of the internet, have connected with others online. Back in the 70s, our all-girl class was divided into the cool girls, the sporting girls and the studious girls. I was one of the shy ones who arrived from Bahrain and finished my schooling here. I wasn’t cool at all.
Coming back, I was unsure of what I’d experience. Here’s what I found: A group of resilient, dynamic women who’d survived their share of pain and loss and come through it even stronger. We swapped memories, laughed, gossiped and looked at photos. Gone were all the teenage cliques. Today we were women sharing stories, connected by a common bond.
I left Durban feeling I’d connected some of the dots that had long been disconnected. That if the rest of the trip brought nothing more, it was already a success beyond what I’d anticipated. Many of my school acquaintances from yesteryear had now become friends and those awkward memories from the past could now go to a place where they belong: In the past.
And so we headed west, toward the Cape and along the Garden Route which I’d always wanted to see.
Here, the beauty unfolded more and more every day.
In Port St John’s and Jeffrey’s Bay, we found deserted sweeping white sand beaches that went on as far as the eye could see. Huge waves crashed on the shore and chilly Spring winds blew away the clouds.
On the drive through the former Transkei (where, we’d been warned, we’d run into potholes and animals on the roads, making it a treacherous drive), we saw miles of farmland, dozens of goats, acres of sandy land and a couple of rough and not very pleasant towns (Umtata being one of them). The warnings proved unfounded and the only threats we encountered were from local taxis whose appalling drivers swerved and sped around corners, keeping us on edge for much of the drive.
Along the start of the Garden Route, we saw the world’s highest bungee bridge in the Tsitsikamma Forest and visited the fabulous Tenikwa Wildlife Awareness Centre where we walked through enclosures containing caracals, servals and cheetah.
In Knysna, we walked along the edge of the cliffs overlooking the tempestuous Indian Ocean and ate world famous Knysna oysters (one of my long time missions accomplished).
We ventured inland and stayed in a tented camp in Oudtshoorn, the ostrich capital of the world, where Skip indulged in an ostrich steak and we both arose at the crack of dawn for one of the strangest excursions of our trip: the meerkat safari, where we sat and shivered with a group of other tourists in a Landrover, waiting for the little creatures to awaken with the sun. (As my mum later remarked: “What has happened to the meerkats? We used to see them along the road at all times of the day”).
Back to the coast, we discovered Boggoms Bay, a desolate stretch of beach outside Mossel Bay without a single shop or restaurant in sight. We rented a cottage, wrote, cooked and walked and agreed this was one of our favourite spots of the trip.
We visited with the penguins in Betty’s Bay along the route to Cape Town, spotted whales in the Atlantic off the coast of the beautiful oceanfront town of Hermanus and tasted wines in Stellenbosch, one of the world’s finest wine regions (and another of our favourites). We drove along Route 62 in the Karoo, crisscrossing some of the most staggering mountain ranges we’ve seen anywhere. We spent time with my half-brother, Brian, and our friend, Philip, in Cape Town and discovered the exclusive enclave of Camp’s Bay.
Long forgotten were the high walls and barbed wire fences. In their place were beaches, wildlife and stunning vistas. And while this country has more than its fair share of political problems and situations that are challenging and stressful, it also has some of the most beautiful spots we’ve ever seen in the world.
As we spent our last day in Stellenbosch, preparing for our next adventure to Namibia, a Facebook friend posted a link to a website. On it was this message:
“No dark fate determines the future – we do. Each day and each moment, we are able to create and recreate our lives and the very quality of human life on our planet.”(Dalai Lama and Desmond Tutu)
I think not.