Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Africa: The Beginning

My first stop in Africa was Johannesburg. The airport is nice but a madhouse. When I walked into the main terminal, there was the usual large crowd of people waiting. There were also plenty of people offering taxi or tour services. I wasn't sure when the government would get me there, so I didn't even have a hotel room reserved yet. I stopped at the tourist information desk and asked the lady where she recommended. I looked at the list she gave me and chose the $100 a night place over the $300 a night ones. It wasn't especially fancy, but it was very nice and had a great (and free!) breakfast. It was located in a gated community among some very nice houses. So it was a safe place but nothing was within walking distance.

While at the tourist information desk, I also asked about tours. I had hoped to go to Kruger National Park, but I was told it was a 2-day trip and I didn't want to use all my time in Joburg for that. So then I looked at options in and around Joburg. I eventually decided on a driving tour of Joburg and Soweto, a visit to the Apartheid Museum, and a trip out to the area known as the Cradle of Humankind. The tours were a bit pricey (over $300 for 2 days), but I was getting personal service by a trained tour guide driving me around in his car. Desmond (that's him below) was extremely knowledgeable about the area and its history and could speak 10 of the 11 languages commonly used in the area. I learned a lot from him as we drove around the city. I was also glad he was the one driving. I wasn't ready to drive on the left side of the road in a city of over 9 million people.

Day 1 was spent driving around Joburg and Soweto. Joburg is, at best, a mess. Many businesses left the city in the early 90s after apartheid was lifted because of fear the country would descend into anarchy. So the downtown area is a collection of abandoned buildings. People from other African countries are now squatting in them, have set up stalls along the streets, and walk everywhere with no regard for vehicle traffic. There are some areas of downtown that are flourishing because the government has cleaned them up as part of a concerted effort to look good for the 2010 World Cup. Still, most of the businesses are in the northern suburbs now. Soweto, a township of Joburg, is another area the government is cleaning up. Desmond grew up in Soweto, so he knew the area well. First he showed me a 4-room house that was built by the government and is the most common lodging for the locals. Our next stop was what used to be the most common lodging for locals, a shantytown (now euphemistically called an informal settlement). Even here the government is doing what it can to make conditions better by providing electricity and water delivery. After that we went to a Catholic church, the only church that remained open during the Soweto Uprising of 1976, an important step in the fight against apartheid. You can still see bullet holes in the ceiling from when police went into the church to break up peaceful gatherings. Our last stop of the day was the Apartheid Museum. I was amazed how they justified the reasons for their policies and the measures they took to keep them in place. There was a section on Nelson Mandela. He is quite a man to go through what he did and still believe in a non-violent solution. I am inspired by stories like his, Gandhi's, and MLK's. It was a long but very interesting day.

The second day was a drive out into the countryside to visit an excavation site and museum that are part of the Cradle of Humankind. The drive out from Joburg was about an hour and a half through very pretty countryside. Desmond continued educating me on South Africa. We went to Sterkfontein Caves, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and the so-called Cradle of Humankind (I say so-called because Kenya also claims to be the Cradle). Many fossils have been found in the caves, including Mrs. Ples, the earliest human ancestor fossil found. Walking through the caves was a good time. I joined up with a group of accountants on a field trip. The ladies were giggling anytime we had to crawl under or over rocks. I'm surprised some of them made it, it was 200 feet down into the caves and not your basic walk in a park. The next stop was Maropengo, where other fossils have been found and there is a museum about the Cradle of Humankind. The museum has many hands-on displays and would be a great place for kids, but not so great for adults. Another benefit to having someone else drive--I slept on the ride back to Joburg. I took it easy the rest of the day, even going clothes shopping at a mall near my hotel.

All-in-all, Joburg was a good way to ease into my vacation. Two days was plenty of time. The only reason I would go back would be to see Kruger. Next stop: Livingstone, Zambia to see Victoria Falls.