June 7th, 2016
I left my house in Jax Beach for the long journey to Capetown at around 4am. A sore back made the flights from Jax to New York, New York to Dubai, and Dubai to Johannesburg extra fun, but the good service on Emirates helped as did reasonably short layovers. I even managed to squeeze in an hour-long meeting in New York with a Princeton engineer/PI who has been helping us with our UF startup Cryogenic Power during that leg.
June 8th, 2016
The flights ended mercifully with my arrival in Johannesburg at about 4:30pm. With limited time to explore the country, I decided to get the “lay of the land” by driving to Capetown along the coastal route as opposed to simply flying into Capetown cold. I felt like getting a solid feel for the country would help me as far as consulting to the people who live here. And, having read Michener’s The Covenant, and Nelson Mandela’s The Long Walk to Freedom, I had a desire to see some of the places about which I read. So I departed the Jo’burg airport for the town of Dundee in the Kwazulu Natal province. It turned out to be about a five hour drive after battling through rush hour traffic and the darkness. I had to wake up the proprietor of the Chez Nous B&B in order to get into my room.
June 9th, 2016
Today was likely my best opportunity to play tourist. Elizabeth Durham, the owner of the B&B, was also a battlefield tour guide, and I had made plans to tour the Blood River/Ncome monuments/museums this morning. She was a French native with some ancestry in South Africa, which was all the more interesting. It was interesting to get both the Boer and Zulu perspective of the battle, and learn more about the significance of this event in terms of shaping the country’s history. Perhaps even more telling is that the bridge that connects the two sites, the “Bridge of Unification” is closed due to ongoing mistrust between the two sides. After the tour, we drove back and stopped to look at giraffe and eland roaming in some sort of private game preserve along the dirt road from Blood River. The giraffe were quite curious, peering at me and even taking a few steps closer.
I had coffee and rusk (South African biscotti) with Elizabeth, before shoving off for Durban and eventually Port Shepstone. Michener talked extensively about a Boer-British battle at Spioen Kop about 90 minutes from Dundee, so I made the 30 mile round trip dirt road detour to check it out. They have a self-guided tour and you can drive very near the top of the hill. I had the place 100% absolutely to myself, which was incredible, as were the views.
The short winter days means it gets dark at 5, which is a real bummer. I had to skip a stop in Durban, although I greatly enjoyed listening to the Hindi radio station on the way into Durban. In fact, I did nothing but listen to South African radio during the entire trip to Capetown, which was really enlightening, both in terms of the music, and also listening to the talk radio. I heard broadcasts about the education system, venture capital, a live political debate, and of course tons of news. Amazing what you can learn about a country just listening to the radio. As it turns out, this listening would be rather fortuitous.
I drove on into the night to the Umthunzi Resort, just off the beach near Port Shepstone. I checked in and lugged my gear up the stairs the the third floor. I would have my first look at the Indian Ocean, but not until morning. Meanwhile, I had an authentic African dinner of oxtail in the hotel restaurant, along with my first Castle beer.
Today would be the longest drive of the trip, through the Eastern Cape. The N2 took a turn inland past sugar cane and up onto the Transkei in the middle of the country. I hoped to see Qunu, the town where Nelson Mandela grew up and is his final resting place. So as I moved my focus from Michener to Mandela, so too did the tenor of my trip. Perhaps somewhat fittingly, the day I passed through the province, the taxi drivers of the Eastern Cape went on strike over the issuance of permits that they felt they were being denied in favour of bus operators. So I witnessed first hand the types of political activism that Mandela had started some 50-60 years before, albeit a bit more violent. At one bus stop, I saw men wielding knobkerries and sticks chasing after another man, looking to do him harm. In about 20 locations across the province I saw evidence of burning roadblocks where the striking drivers burned tires and other debris to disrupt traffic. In several instances, I passed by the smouldering remains of tires, and in the town of Dutyna, traffic was actually stopped for about 90 minutes and even when it started up again, we had to literally drive across burning debris. But hey, it was a rental, and I had the insurance.
So a long day turned even longer, and as I reached the town of Bhisho, the site of a 1992 massacre in what had been a former Xhosa “homeland” during apartheid, the rain began to fail. I finally meandered through various construction zones (down to one lane with up to 30 minute delays), and into Port Elizabeth. I was to meet a fellow student Ramsakhar, at the Pine Lodge Resort there, and he would ride with me the following day to Capetown. Our plan was to catch a 2 hour tour of the Addo Elephant Park nearby, but the weather and delays scrapped those plans. Instead, we had dinner of the resort’s pub, fish and chips and another Castle for me. A few South Africans had arrived for a weekend break and seemed to be enjoying themselves. We chatted a bit, and bit them good night. It’s funny how the first thing South Africans asked us about when they find out we’re Americans is Hillary v The Donald. I was hoping to escape that rhetoric while away, but I guess there’s no escaping it. Seems to be rather important around the world.
Ram and I got up at 7am in a fairly considerable rain, and decided to skip breakfast for the time being and make tracks for Capetown since we still had a long way to go. A few hours down the road, we stopped for breakfast and gas and ate at Wimpy, a chain attached to SA gas stations. Decent food by and large. We walked across the street to try to find electrical converters and cell phones, without success.
Motoring on, it was clear how different the Eastern Cape and Western Cape were. Really like driving from the Third World, right into a developed country. Way better roads, much of it two lane with smooth pavement. Sweeping bays, hills, and views at pretty much every turn, through the “Garden Route”. At several spots, we spotted groups of small baboons on the side of the road. An aborted side trip for a lunch restaurant led us to a really nice beach. Interesting to note that there were not a lot of gas stations or hotels off any of the exits. Most of them were tucked away in the towns or down by the beaches. I guess they don’t have the same driving culture. So we had to settle for another gas stations stop where I got a local chicken and mushroom pie, which was tasty, as far as gas station meat pies go.
The short days again forced our hand and we pushed on towards Capetown, despite the many interesting sites we passed. Truly one would need several weeks or more to take in all the sights and sounds of South Africa.
We finally pulled in and dropped the car, unscathed but well beaten, with Hertz, only to find that we had no ride to the Uni of the Western Cape. A bit disappointing after a pretty daunting but fulfilling trip, but we managed to catch a overpriced cab ride to the local mall to meet up with our group, and share some wine and pizza, before returning to campus.