Friday, October 28, 2011

South Africa: Part 2

Apartheid Museum
Sani Pass
Pilanesberg Game Park

The port city of Durban lies on the southeastern Indian coast of South Africa. Once there, I explored the town with Emily, a grad student from Santa Barbara. We managed to figure out the confusing and intimidating shared taxi system. The city was abuzz with white Toyota minivans going every which way, none marked with a name or route specified. The locals in the taxis were always surprised to see us get in and offered good advice about their hometown once we broke the ice by asking questions. Later we got some take out at a hole in the wall Indian storefront. My favorite was the stuffed roti, or a pizza size piece of naan rolled around a curry stew of your choice, sort of like a big Indian burrito. The other local favorite was Bunny Chow, a ¼ or ½ loaf of white bread hollowed out and filled with beans or a curry stew. Either one was a filling choice for two people and at just over a buck.

The next day I explored some of the city on my own and wandered around downtown until I got lost among the Indian spice markets and other small businesses. The scene was vibrant and the people watching was on hyper drive. “Why do you not come into my store?” I heard from behind me. “Excuse me?” “Why do you not stop in my store?” A small elderly Indian woman was standing in front of a kitchen supply shop. “Well, I don’t cook very much.” “How do you eat?” “I spend too much money in restaurants.” You need a wife, why do you have no wife? You marry me and I cook for you.” “Okay, what time are you off?... alright, I will pick you up at 5:00 and we will go and get married.” Based on the rolling eyes of the man in the background, presumably the owner, he had seen this sales pitch before.

After many hours, my feet were getting tired. As I looked for a taxi going back to my side of town I was aware that I had not seen many white people. No more than a few at best. On my way home, I jumped out at the new shopping mall along the way to look for a Lonely Planet guidebook on Southern Africa. Upon entering the mall, “Ah, this is where all the white people go.” The place was packed for a weekday during work hours. I would later read “malls” referred to as “white habitats”.

The toll road, N3 from Durban to Johannesburg cost me nearly $40 US. Where in many countries motorcycles get a free pass or at least a reduced rate, here they are charged they same as cars. Approaching Jo’burg, or Jozi as they call it, I became more and more anxious - no place has come with so many warnings of violent crime.

I arrived during rush hour traffic and did not find my backpackers until after dark. The place was perfect for shooting a movie about a scary turn of the century mental asylum. It had been converted from an old mansion and the large rooms were now filled with metal beds and nothing else. It was stark and clinical in a third-world early 1900’s kind of way. I feared of a forced lobotomy in the middle of the night and quickly checked out first thing in the morning. My new place was in a converted house with lots of charm and was only a few blocks away from the shops and cafes on 7th Street in the Melrose district near the University. Much better.

During my transition from Cape Town to Jo’burg, Achmat had turned “my care” over to his buddy Rashaad. Rashaad was also making his way up the continent on his own journey and had just returned from a trip to Tanzania, where his KLR 650 is there waiting for the next leg of his journey. Rashaad was immensely helpful and we shared several dinners together. He also took me to buy a new camera when mine failed and to shop for a mosquito net. At the time of this writing, Rashaad had taken advantage of an impromptu family trip to India and is now riding a rented Ensfield around the Himalayas. He also took me to a presentation hosted by Cytech, a local motorcycle touring company. The presentation was about their recent Cape to Cairo trip.

I received a lot of information there and met a lot of like-minded people eager to travel Africa on big dual-purpose bikes. I met a couple there and mentioned that I would soon be relocating from Jo’burg to the capital Pretoria so that I could be near the embassies - I wanted to try and sort out some visa issues, specifically Ethiopia and Sudan. “You should stay with us, we live there” (words that would later come back to haunt them).

I continued my stay in Jo’burg and had warmed up to the place. I felt plenty safe walking to my favorite coffee shop for morning coffee and free internet (most of South Africa hotels are still charging for internet time.) Every morning I walked by all the houses hidden behind a high cement security walls topped with electric fences and/or razor wire. It was a city of walls. The home security firm ADT roamed the neighborhoods with its own patrol cars manned by agents armed like they were in Afghanistan. I also noticed that not many people walked, jogged, or took their dogs or kids for a stroll. People were pretty much dependent on their cars, like in the States, but maybe more so. Everywhere I went or the places where Rashaad took me, I felt fine and any sense of danger soon vanished. Listening to the news you would hear of bad things happening, but not as much as you would of thought, based on the amount of visible security measures.

After a visit to the Apartheid Museum south of town I decided to take the bike out to the famous township of Soweto (South Western Township). After the gold strike of the 1880’s, Johannesburg suffered a housing crisis. The white Afrikaans in charge decided to segregate the population based on race and developed housing areas where the blacks and coloured people would be forced to live – however not too far away because their cheap labor was still needed to work the mines. As history goes, this kind of segregation continued until it went into full effect in 1948 when the then ruling National Party legislated racism under the name of Apartheid.

Racial classification was the foundation of all apartheid laws. It placed individuals in one of four groups: African, described as ‘Bantu’ in apartheid laws, ‘colured’, ‘Asian’ or ‘white’. -from a museum placard

South Africa was soon cut off from the rest of the world through sanctions and embargoes, and public demonstrations in the townships reached a boiling point in the 1970’s. The most famous of these uprisings occurred in Soweto in 1976, after a sudden change in government policy called for all schools to begin teaching classes in the Afrikaans language rather than English. Many of the black students had just learned English, or were in the process, and to introduce a new language (not to mention that of their oppressors’) overnight was too much. Many of the teachers did not even know the language. The student uprising became violent and many people were killed. One of the first to be killed by police was 12-year old Hector Pieterson. Now there is an impressive museum in Soweto commemorating the uprisings and casualties named after Hector.

Soweto is a huge sprawl of cement block Monopoly game piece type houses. Mountains of the tailings from the nearby goldmines border the township, and on one edge, the new soccer stadium constructed for the recent World Cup competition. A few blocks from the Hector Pieterson Museum is Nelson Mandela’s first house. Down the street from that is Desmond Tu Tu’s old house. It is the only street in the world that housed two Nobel Peace Prize winners.

Both museums offer a sobering and emotional look into the scarred history of this troubled country and it is hard not to form a “rebound” prejudice against the way things are here, but in reality, there has not been a country yet that I have visited that is innocent of committing crimes against it’s people. The thing about South Africa’s secret was that it was always a public secret. It was out in the open. Not that this makes it any more digestible or any easier to understand mind you.

During my time in the country I have listened to how locals old enough to have lived during that era talk about this period, many times it sounds something like “Because of the situation here at the time….” or "due to what was going on here ....". I do not want to speculate on what is said behind closed doors from many, racism still exist everywhere, but all the people I met seemed genuine and eager for even better race relations. It is clearly going to take some time.

The last thing on my Jo’burg “to do” list was to get my rear shock looked at. Yes, the one that was just rebuilt in Buenos Aires. One day in the Transkei, the shock just went “soft”. I found Rob of RD Racing and he rebuilt the shock again, this time to Ohlins’ official specifications. He was nice enough to not to charge me. From his shop in Jo’burg I left for the capital Pretoria to stay with Claire and Euan, the couple from the presentation.

My plan was to take my file of photocopies and collected documents to the embassies in town to try and procure my visas for some of the more difficult countries. Claire dropped me off at the Ethiopian embassy and I quickly learned how fruitless this idea was going to be and soon dropped the whole idea. I will deal with it all later.

Over the weekend, Claire and Euan took me to the nearby game park of Pilanesberg northwest of town. Waking at 4:00-am assured us of some good viewing time while the animals were active in the cool morning air. During the drive I was surprised at how many (platinum) mines we passed to get to the park. This was to be my first real chance to see some African wildlife, and we were fortunate to see plenty; white rhinos, giraffes, elephants, jackals, hippos, and a variety of the local antelope species. From a distance we saw a lioness with her cub and male lion, but it was pretty far away. By about 10:00, the animals started finding shade and soon were no longer visible from the car’s windows (understandably, it is not allowed to get out of your car) and rightfully so because it was getting damn hot, over a 100 for sure.

Claire was raised in South Africa and Euan was Scottish working on the construction of a massive new coal burning power plant nearby. They were married in the UK when Claire was there working. They were gracious hosts and willingly shared their beautiful home with me. As I planned to depart, Euan and I decided to take the bikes up Sani Pass to the kingdom country of Lesotho. It met a trip down back towards Durban, but on roads more interesting than the toll road. Sani Pass is quite famous among overland travelers and it is something to be able to say, "I did it”. The last half-mile of the pass was as technical as anything I had ridden in quite some time. The switchbacks were steep and the rocky ground incredibly loose. When stopping the bike near the top, the front brake could not hold the bike and the bike would slide backwards on the loose dirt. Euan has made up to the top before, but on this trip his clutch burnws out near the top. I made it up, but had a nice surprise when I got back down to the bottom.

(Rather than traveling through Lesotho Euan had to take car (thankfully Claire had followed us up the pass in the Land Rover) down to town and bring back a trailer to get his bike off the mountain. This meant that we were going back to Ken's house for the night, Claire's uncle. I did not mind a bit. We spent the previous night at Ken's and it was an incredible experience for me to stay in one of the typical farmhouses that I had admired from the road. Ken moved his young family to this farmland over 40-years ago. First they lived under an umbrella, and then upgraded into a tent while Ken built the earthen-walled farmhouse from scratch. It has not always been easy, mostly quite hard in fact, but Ken has lived his life according to Ken and I really admire that. Hemingway once wrote of a man knowing "the truth of things", and I thought of this when I met Ken.)

While Euan was making arrangements for his bike. I noticed that my front shock had blown its seal and was now leaking oil. YES, that other shock that was rebuilt in Buenos Aires - $550 completely wasted! YES, I was pissed! This time, Rob was unable to do the job due to some national races going on, so I found a contact from the local BMW dealer. This meant even more time at Claire and Euan’s. I really started to feel bad about being there so long, but I did not know what else to do. It had already been over a week. They were true saviors for me and I owe them an immense amount of thanks. The night before I left Claire put together a nice final supper on the patio with some bubbly.

Finally, the bike was ready with fresh oil and stocked with plenty of water and Biltong -South Africa's version of beef jerky. I would spend 16-hours over the next two-days crossing the hot scrubby Kalahari Desert in southern Botswana on my way to, Namibia.

I enjoyed South Africa very much and feel like I have some new friends there. The cities seemed very much like prosperous areas of the United States and life there is very similar ours. Life in many of the rural areas seem more like life in a developing country but seemingly getting better. Few countries have the beauty and resources that South Africa has and is a wonderful place to visit. Two thumbs up for the modern day South Africa!

Video of images for South Africa 2
Video of the Sani Pass trip.
My route through South Africa, Map of route.

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