South Africa: fast forward Africa

In the last days of our African odyssey, traveling through the pretty countryside of the Free State, getting lost in a hostile downtown Johannesburg , visiting the capital Pretoria and finally a large diamond mine, I am struck by how South Africa encapsulates all that is working – and all that is wrong in Africa. And how it  (and the continent) is at a crossroads in its economic and social development.

South Africa’s modern infrastructure is a great enabler to the smooth functioning of its economy. Chinese investment throughout the rest of the continent is in the process of turning potholed gravel roads into a similar network of good roads. But in South Africa, it has also crystalized the segregation between the wealthy (mostly white) who commute to and from leafy suburbs and the poor (mostly black) who live in the run-down city centers where crime is rife.

Pretoria is an attractive city, full of parks, grand old colonial buildings and statues of Boer heroes – all of which create a sense of shared history and pride for the white and especially Afrikaner (descendants of Dutch and Huguenot settlers) population of the country. The black majority (90% of the country) cannot identify with these symbols. And apart from the giant statue of Mandela at the Union Buildings, there is little to create that sense of shared history and pride for the majority of the population.

downtown Pretoria
Paul Kruger, not everyone’s idea of a hero
view of Pretoria from the Union Buildings

In other African countries too, the government (often heir to the anti-colonial liberation movement) sits in beautiful ex-colonial government buildings designed in imperial neoclassical style. But the national museums which could do much to convey a sense of national pride are crumbling old buildings with infantile exhibits.

The Cullinan mine, outside of Pretoria, produces a quarter of all the exceptional diamonds (400ct and above) in the world. It is a model of social responsibility, investing in safety, in its employees and in the communities around it. Yet, a few years before, it operated (and indirectly supported) the apartheid regime. In neighboring Zimbabwe, like in many African countries, mineral wealth has allowed the kleptocratic dictatorship of president Mugabe to remain in power well beyond its due date.

the Cullinan mine

With Africa’s natural resources now generating more wealth than ever and infrastructure (roads, mobile networks, banking) rapidly expanding this is a unique moment in time for the continent to break out of its poverty trap and create a large, affluent middle class.

This will not happen if African countries can’t create a sense of shared history, values and national pride to overcome tribal politics and rivalries. It will not happen if the majority  of the population does not have a stake in that wealth – which requires better education systems and less corrupt governments.

South Africa, 20 years after the end of apartheid, despite all its wealth, is still at the crossroads. Inequality is high (with 42% unemployment), crime continues to rise and the government, now without the moral stewardship of Mandela, is increasingly corrupt. There is a lot the rest of Africa could learn from the SA case study to help it, hopefully, take the right turns on the road to development and prosperity.

the only one they all relate to

South Africa: welcome to the Village

We return to South Africa, our decompression chamber before heading back to Asia. And what better place to clear our system of the excess hydrogen accumulated during our deep dive in the Dark Continent than the small town of Clarens, in the Eastern Free State.

Clarens seems to live in an enchanted bubble, far from the crime-ridden cities of South Africa, hidden in a small valley surrounded by the strange rock formations of the Maluti mountains. It has an old fashioned town square and small streets full of quaint cafes and art galleries. The smell of freshly baked pastries hangs over the village in the mornings and people greet each other courteously in the shops and streets.

In the evenings, we sit around the fireplace in cosy inns to keep the winter chill at bay. The AK 47 toting tribes of South Omo, the voodoo rituals in the middle of the night, the otherworldly landscapes of the Namib – all seem so far away, as if we’d woken up from a long dream.

After a week here, we don’t want to leave. Prisoners of our own making in that almost too perfect village. All that is missing is “No.2″  ambling down the street, swinging his umbrella and saying “be seeing you..” 

the aptly named Kalm guesthouse
Clarens village common
it’s another beautiful day in the Village
hiking in the Maluti mountains

South Africa: purple elephants

Something remarkable happened today, on our way to Springbok, a small farming town 550km north of Cape Town where we planned to stop for the night on our way to Namibia. As we  put some miles between us and Cape Town on our long drive north along the N7, the vehicles on the road were getting scarcer, the size of the farms along the road larger and the landscape more desolate.

Soon, we were alone on that long straight road which rolled up and down the Northern Cape’s many hills like a giant, endless roller coaster, headed for the even more desolate emptiness of Namibia.

And then, just as we reached the top of another hill, we saw the most incredible sight. Coming from the opposite direction, on the N7, a long column of purple elephants were slowly making their way up the hill, neatly lined up and keeping to their lane. I slammed the brakes and we stood still in the car, windows wound up, doors locked, watching in disbelief as the huge creatures walked slowly and silently past our car. There must have been a hundred or more of the beasts, and it took them a few minutes to march past the car. After the last elephant finally lumbered past, we all looked back and watched that long purple line slither down the hill like some giant supernatural serpent, never straying from the left lane of the N7.

By the time the serpent had become a small purple dot on the horizon, I started the car and we resumed our journey.

Stranger things have happened in Africa, and after a few minutes, we had forgotten all about the column of purple elephants and started to look for a place to spend the night in Springbok.

Tomorrow, we go to Namibia where purple elephants roam the Namib desert in great numbers and, it is said, have significant influence on several southern African governments  as well as global warming and the Crimean crisis. But that story will be for another time.

South Africa: once upon a time, a village in the Karoo

Prince Albert is a typical small village in the Karoo, the vast semi-arid wilderness which covers one third of South Africa. First settled in 1762 by Dutch “voortrekkers”, it is a small green oasis in an isolated valley surrounded by a harsh semi-desertic landscape and accessed by a hair raising mountain road, the Swartberg Pass.

The neat rows of white Cape Dutch and Victorian houses with their well tended gardens and pretty flower beds could not contrast more with the barren landscape all around it. Today, Prince Albert remains much the same as it was in 1825, when Queen Victoria’s husband, Prince Albert von Saxe-Coburg visited South Africa and the town was renamed after him: a small service town for the tough Afrikaner farmers who carry on their 250 year old battle to tame the unwelcoming land around them. And a South African small town utopia for a few eccentrics who have settled here to escape mainstream life in a big African or European city – as witnessed by the excellent cheese fondue we ate at a restaurant recently opened by two Swiss fugitives. Or by the avant-garde art galleries.

Prince Albert has the otherworldly feel of a community which sits on the edge of sanity, not quite sure where it belongs.

crossing the Swartberg pass
our charming B&B in Prince Albert
Prince Albert main street
quite houses…
…and manicured gardens
a green oasis dotted with whitewashed houses and surrounded by the desert

South Africa: exclusively for classic car nuts

About 10km out of Franschhoek, in the heart of a large wine estate, l’Ormelins, lies Africa’s best kept secret: with an almost anonymous entrance, almost deserted, Johann Rupert’s priceless collection of classic cars is exhibited in four large Dutch-style buildings among the vineyards, surrounded by mountains which look so crisps and clear in the deep blue sky that they could be mistaken for a giant movie stage.

Much as Mr Rupert’s ownership of companies such as Cartier, Van Cleef & Arpels, Shanghai Tang, Dunhill and many others can hardly be construed as adding much to the sum total of human welfare, the fact that he allocates (at least some of…) his dividends to the purchase and exhibition of beautiful classic cars clearly justifies the existence of the Richemont conglomerate.

From early (late 19th century) cars to more recent F1 cars, the Rupert collection is the most impressive, best curated classic car collection I have seen. The cars are in immaculate but used (and usable) condition, some of them with oil still dripping from their engines. 1920s and 30s Bugattis vie with “WO” Bentleys (4.5L), Silver Ghost Rolls Royces and a 540K Mercedes.

1950s and 60s Aston Martins, Jaguars (C and D-type, XK120) are nonchalantly lined up in a huge hangar. Even a humble Big Healy 100/4 and an MG TD have found their way in the collection.

Short of attending Goodwood, L’Ormelins (now called the Franschhoek Motor Museum) is easily Medina to Goodwood’s Mecca.

each of the hangars contains priceless classics
1920s WO Bentley
1930s Mercedes 540K
1930s AC
1937 Cord
1959 Aston DBR1 (?)
1955 D-type jaguar
1938 BMW 328
1926 Bugatti T 35
Aston Martin DB5

South Africa: Bacchus in Africa

With its dramatic mountains as backdrop, winding country lanes and quaint Dutch villages, the Western Cape province’s “wine country” has not changed much since the first Dutch and Huguenot settlers discovered it in the mid 1600’s.

Stellenbosch, the second oldest European city in South Africa was founded in 1679. While it is a major town today, its wide avenues lined by patrician Dutch and Victorian mansions give it a strange museum-like quality, making it feel grand and beautiful but quite lifeless. A town-sized mausoleum.

Franschhoek (the “French corner” in Afrikaans), was founded by French Huguenots fleeing persecution from the French catholic state and offered a free passage to the Cape by the Dutch East India company (V.O.C.). The first Huguenot families to settle in Franschhoek brought their wine making skills with them and planted the first vineyards. Today Franschhoek is a pretty village at the heart of the wine country and, as befits a village founded by French refugees, the food and wine “capital” of South Africa.

Our spirit of adventure having been somewhat dented by our travails in the less developed parts of Africa, we decide to spend an Epicurean week in Franschhoek doing nothing more exciting than wandering aimlessly from wine estate to wine estate, spending the better part of the day sitting on a terrace enjoying the views, the food and the wine.

Franschhoek, the French corner
our cottage in Franschhoek
Vergelegen, the Cape’s most beautiful wine estate
lunch in the gardens of Boschendal winery
in patrician Stellenbosch

South Africa: the mother city

South Africa’s “mother city”, Cape Town, was originally set up as a supply station by the Dutch East India Company in the 17th century for its ships plying the route from Europe to the East Indies.

After 350 years of constant blending, Cape Town is one of the most fascinating cities in the world. Dutch, British, French, Malay, Portuguese, Black African and Indian influences are found in every aspect of life, from architecture to the arts, and cuisine. But strangely, that cultural puzzle ends up being distilled into a relaxed, sophisticated, almost Californian lifestyle.

We were last in Cape Town in Dec 1994, just as apartheid ended, Nelson Mandela was elected democratic South Africa’s first president and an infectious optimism pervaded the city. 19 years later, little appears to have changed in terms of the segmentation of society. The upmarket suburbs and shopping malls are still almost exclusively white. Dining at a beach front restaurant in the suburb of Camps Bay today, with expensive cars parked along the sunny street, surrounded by affluent, white diners gave us an eerie sense of deja vu – like being transported back in time to 1994. The same place with the same sort of people!

downtown Cape Town
view of Cape Town from Table Mountain
the Victoria & Albert waterfront, with Table Mountain as a backdrop
Camps Bay, unchanged
Cape of Good Hope, where the Indian and Pacific oceans meet
at the Groot Canstantia wine estate
Bo Kaap, the Malay quarter of Cape Town

South Africa: Madikwe

Madikwe is a small (760sqkm) game reserve in Limpopo province, north of the country, on the border with Botswana. From the deck of our lodge we can see the bright lights of Gaborone shining at night. Madikwe is a true Garden of Eden, with every major species represented.

We had forgotten how addictive it is to drive through the bush, surrounded by pristine nature, barely touched by man. The antidote to those African countries crumbling under the weight of their human populations and the trail of pollution and destruction which they leave behind them.

We quickly fall under the spell of the great African outdoors again and become uninvited guests to the drama which plays out in the bush every day. We sneak upon two white rhinos for the first time in our lives and observe them for a long time. The two juggernauts, seemingly oblivious of the extermination of their species which is taking place all around them. In South Africa, the rhino’s last bastion, over 1000 were poached in 2013.

We stumble upon a group of juvenile lions climbing up a tree and fighting over a piece of tree bark like giant kittens playing with a prized toy. We watch mesmerized for over an hour as they come crashing down the tree, or somersault up in the air in mock fights.

Laura’s mum joins us for a safari
big kittens
lonely juggernauts
African magic

South Africa: arrival in Johannesburg

After the weeks spent in some of the world’s most desolate regions, our arrival in Johannesburg might as well be a landing on a different planet. The eight lane highways, leafy suburbs, cool cafes and glitzy shopping malls (full of Louis Vuitton, Gucci, Burberry…) are about as far from the Danakil country as one could get.

The “rainbow nation” defies paradigms. 20 years after the end of apartheid, the different suburbs of Jo’burg are still segmented along colour lines. Yet Soweto, the old black township, has become a mostly middle class neighborhood with pretty cottages lining the neat streets.

The inner city with its impressive skyline has the slightly menacing look of New York city in the eighties, with garbage strewn along the streets, smoke rising from rusty bins and shady characters gathered at street corners sizing up the strangers passing through their neighborhood. Yet the art deco buildings which house the headquarters of the big mining companies sit in their oasis of greenness.

grandeur of the city’s Art deco buildings (HQ of Anglo-American mining company)…
…and leafy suburbs
jazz festival in Soweto
exhibit at the apartheid museum
plaque at the apartheid museum commemorating Madiba, who died two months earlier