South Africa M7.26.39

December 31, 2002
(written in California and North Carolina)

Dear Friends and Family,

This email is about my last month of traveling in Africa, around South Africa plus bits of Lesotho and Swaziland. It happened last July and August, 2002, but only now, after my first semester at Duke in the statistics Ph.D. program, am I sitting down to write it. Very soon this email will be on my website with photos. My email address is My website is I have lots of daily and weekly emails too, if you want more of the story.

1st month: Flew to Spain, ferried to Morocco, hitchhiked/got-lifts across the Sahara to Senegal.
2nd month: I think I was bitten by a mosquito in Mali, then had the malaria in Burkina Faso and Ghana.
3rd month: The most unusual country I've ever been to--Ethiopia.
4th month: Lots of animals on safari and a big mountain, in East Africa.
5th month: More animals on unexpected safaris and other stuff in Zambia, Zimbabwe, Botswana, Namibia.
6th month: South Africa, Lesotho, Swaziland.

The Cape:
Cape Town is a great city. There's lots of water, history old and new, modern city stuff, and the looming flat-topped Table Mountain dominating the scene. I climbed the mountain once, then was on top a second time during a freak snow flurry.

One night I went out with a group from my hostel to a bar, led there by Ishmael, a bartender at the hostel bar. It was karaoke night, though nobody was singing, only dancing. Besides us tourists, the place only had young "coloreds". It was a hang-out spot for a South African community separate from the other separated communities (white, black, Indian). Coloreds aren't "colored" because their mother was white and father black. It's more likely that their great-great-great grandfather slept with his black slave creating a separate ethnicity, shunned by whites and blacks for centuries.

From Cape Town I went on a tour of some Cape vineyards and wine-tasting venues. Then for a day I went diving with great white sharks.

Swimming with Jaws

The plan was to go near a seal island in the Indian Ocean, chum the waters to attract the great whites, then jump into a cage underwater while the sharks swam in a frenzied search for the injured pup seal or other prey. I wanted to get a shark photo, one with me underwater next to a hungry great white. I even traveled through Africa with a waterproof camera case so I could do it. But not even when I flailed my arms outside the metal bars in my best baby seal impression did any sharks come near my cage.

On the road:
In Cape Town I wanted to meet someone with a car, or willing to rent one, who wanted to do everything in South Africa I wanted to do. It took several days, but I did meet other like-minded travelers, Wilfred and Marieka, a mid-20s couple from the Netherlands, in South Africa for 3-4 weeks; and we rented a car together. Anderson, a Brazilian guy, came with us for a week until he had to leave us to use his already-bought bus pass (sucker!).

On the
On the road with Wilfred, Marieka, and Anderson

With a car we had complete freedom to go wherever we wanted, as long as we all agreed on where that was and how quickly. Fortunately, we ended up doing almost everything I wanted to do. And the compromises I agreed to (Kruger NP to see more animals; Swaziland; or hiking, canoeing, abseiling, and quad biking in Knysna) turned out to be great things too.

The highlight of the first week was the ostrich farm in Oudtshoorn where Anderson got to ride an ostrich and I got to kiss one. Every part of the ostrich is used (leather, feathers, meat, eggs). The meat is good (tastes like cow), and so are the eggs (tastes like chicken). I bought one and cooked it, the equivalent of 24 chicken eggs.

Did I mention I got to kiss an ostrich? That was for sure the best part. Linda is the only publicly kissing ostrich in the world. Most ostriches are skittish around people, but Linda likes them, and especially likes when they put corn between their lips. In Africa I was kissed by an ostrich and a warthog and I think that's it.

Kissing Linda
Kissing Linda

One day Anderson and I drove from coastal town to coastal town through the Transkei, one of the former black "Homelands". Under Apartheid, each black person (not colored) was assigned a homeland according to his tribe. They were obligated to live in their Homeland unless they were given permission otherwise. A black worker in a city was acceptable, but once he or she lost the job they were forced to some remote area which they'd probably never been before, their Homeland.

What I saw of these former Homelands was everything I'd seen throughout the rest of Africa. People, huts, farms, farm animals. The only difference was the good road.

Q: What would you get if you built a highway across Africa?
A: Lots of dead sheep, goats, cows, and donkeys, and lots of smashed up cars and people.

Why did the villagers set their goats to graze on the side of the road, or put their sheep in the median? Why did everybody walk on the highway dressed in black, at night? Why the heck did Anderson and I drive these roads, at night? I guess Africa makes you take risks. If you're hungry and have AIDS, and you've never driven a car, but there's grass for your animals on the roadside, then who knows and who cares? One evening/night drive I counted one dead horse, a dead donkey, one dead sheep, two dead dogs, and one big feathered dead bird, and then one cow which had to be helped off the road with a rib sticking out its side (and a smashed-up car a bit further on).

The Drakensburgs:

The Drakensburgs

We dropped off Anderson in Durban, so the rest of the way in our rental car was just me, Marieka, and Wilfred. One day was hiking in the Drakensburg mountains, incidentally going to the top of Tugela Fall, the second-highest waterfall in the world. Angel Fall in Venezuela, the first-highest in the world, was a big hassel and expense for me to get to in 2001 during my C. and S. America travels. And now I've seen #2, by accident. Tugela Fall just happened to be where I was hiking. Being winter and mountains, the fall was mostly frozen. But I was able to go right up to the edge to get a photo at the very top of the cliff where the world's second-highest water falls off from.

Top of Tugela Fall

Another day we took a day tour into the Mountain kingdom of Lesotho. It's its own country, an island of mountains within the country of South Africa. Looking at a map I could never figure out how such a country could exist. It's because South Africa was always part English and part Afrikaaner, besides being African. The Afrikaners, descended from the Dutch and French emigrants, ventured eastward and north from the Cape in a quest to form a new country. The Afrikaners didn't want to rule all of South Africa. They just wanted their own part, but the English always followed them and defeated them in war and annexed the land. The Afrikaners never took Lesotho (Leh-soo-too), so the British never took it from them. The Basutos (bah-soo-toos) haven't provoked a war, and the British believe in laws and wars, hence Lesotho remains independent.

In recent years under Apartheid, Lesotho was just the kind of place the Afrikaners wanted, a place for blacks to live and mind their own business. A black could come into the white city and work a job if there was one, and live in a dormitory in a township outside the city. If the job was finished, the black should just go back where he came from, not being useful to anybody anymore.

Today Lesotho reminds me of Ethiopia. Mountains with no trees. Too many people working unproductive land. It was cool to see because I was very insulated on the tour, surrounded by friends and driven everywhere by trusted locals who spoke English. We visited a school, some San Bushmen cave paintings (where I became the guide), and a hut to sample local foods. It was comfortable and I learned some things. If I had just gone to the village on my own and walked everywhere and arranged my own food and lodging and transportation and tried to learn some basic Sesotho (seh-soo-too) I might have learned more, but it wouldn't have been as fun. A tour once in a while is a nice break.

The Battlefields:

After the mountains Wilfred, Marieka, and I drove to the battlefields. We saw a museum about the Anglo-Boer war, an Anglo-Zulu battlefield (with a tour from a boring old Boer [Afrikaner]), and the best site, Blood River, where 300 Boers fought off 10,000 Zulus. I'm not sure of the numbers, but in 1832, the band of Voortrekkers (Afrikaner/Boer pioneers in covered wagons, hoping to create their own country free from the English) circled their wagons into a defensive laager and fought the thousands of charging Zulu warriors. It's the essence of legend. At the end of the day there lay dead 3000 Zulus and zero dead Voortrekkers. Only four Boers even suffered a scratch. That affirmed the Boers' belief that they were God's new Chosen People. Later on God told them to keep the races separate, so they did.

Blood River wagons monument


Wilfred, Marieka, and I drove through the nights, seeing stuff during the day. Swaziland was another real country that seemed kind of fake. Tiny, in the western mid-corner of South Africa, ruled by a king who chooses his wives from the annual parade of grass-skirted dancing girls, and soon to be decimated by AIDS.

Hippos on land in Swaziland

We went hiking in a national park (no lions means walking on foot allowed). On the trail I saw a hole covered with a spider web. So like a good guide I caught a mosquito, then with with Wilfred and Marieka looking closely, I threw it into the web. The spider jumped out and wrapped it for the kill. In Africa I wanted to see a cheetah kill a gazelle, or a lion bring down a wildebeest. I did see lions eating a wildebeest and vultures on a carcass and finally a leopard eating a zebra, but no kills besides the spider.

Blyde River Canyon:

Anderson, Wilfred, Marieka, and me at the Blyde River Canyon

We met Anderson again for a day driving from lookout to lookout at the Blyde River Canyon, world's third largest (* I have no idea how they make their measurements, so all it means is nice, big canyon.) We stopped at ten spots and even had time to hike down to the bottom to the river and back up.

The Blyde River Canyon edge


When I came to South Africa I didn't want to go to Kruger National Park. In Zamibia I went on a booze cruise which turned out to be a sunset boat safari. Then in Zimbabwe I just wanted to go to Victoria Falls and move on, but the Dutch girls I convinced to cross the border with me convinced me to accompany them on safari for two days. Then I thought I was going on an historical tour of rocks and Bushmen cave paintings. It was, but we also tracked giraffe and rhinocerous through the bush. In Botswana I went on safari from a dugout canoe when I thought I'd just see the plants and villages of the Okavango Delta. Then I got a lift with two Hungarians into Namibia and we drove though another national park and saw a leopard cross the road. Then we went to Etosha NP for three days and saw so many animals. Then I got nervous about leaving a sure ride for the unknown hitchhiking road so I went with them for another day to Waterberg Plateau NP and saw all sorts of rare and exotic wild animals. I guess what I learned on all these unplanned safaris was that every one is different, and that I like safaris.

Kruger was the first place I drove around the animals in my own car. We got lucky with accommodation, so we could spend all day driving around seeing the animals, then sleep inside the park in the overnight huts. On our second day we left the camp as early as possible (just before sunrise) and entered the next camp as late as possible (just after sunset). In the meantime we saw, well, I wrote it all down in a notebook, all the first times seeing some bird or animal, but I lost it. I'll never forget, of course, that we saw all of The Big Five: lion, leopard, buffalo, rhino, and elephant, in just one day.

Elephant, 3 lions (at far water's edge), and a crocodile (on island)

The next day we drove around spotting things and flipping through our wildlife books, then went on a night safari. I still never saw a cheetah in the wild, but at the last moment driving back to the park gate in the night safari truck, I spotted a male lion sleeping in the bush. I've seen plenty of male lions, but it was Marieka's first, so an otherwise great safari even ended on a high note.


We dropped off our car in Pretoria (one of South Africa's three capitals). I still had no way of getting back to California in order to pack up to go to North Carolina. But I'm lucky with transport, so I found a reasonable plane ticket home via Hong Kong.

The day of my flight I went on a tour of Soweto, a township of Johannesburg. Apartheid is over, but the townships remain. I was hoping to be shocked, emotionally touched by the down and dirty realities of present-day South Africa. Whatever.

A township is like Tijuana, a world away, but still just a regular community with nice parts and slummy parts. Nelson Mandela has a house in the townships, as do thousands of unemployed peasants looking for city jobs.

We toured through one of these squatter camps. In this temporary tin-roof development we were subjected to the horrors and injustice of the people having to use car batteries to run their TV's, as there was no municipal electricity. And the depravity of the government-provided rent-a-toilet stalls being emptied only three times a week.

The local community council president was our guide. I asked him, "What are some solutions to your problems here? What can be done to solve these problems?"
"Solutions? What is solutions?" he asked.
"What could make people's lives better? What do you think should be done?"
"I don't understand," he said.
"What is the first step? What is one thing that would help the people here?"
"Oh, I see. Even we just need support."
"Support? From whom?" Now I didn't understand.
"From the government. They just need to give us more support. If they make houses and give us jobs, we need the government to give that support."
"So you think the government can solve all your problems."
"Oh yes."

After six months traveling in Africa I'm not so optimistic. I knew coming in that my reality was not an African reality, so I shouldn't become angry or upset when things didn't go the way I thought they should. Oh man, I don't want to go on about corrupt governments, uncontrollable AIDS, wildlife poaching, wars. Any solutions will have to be African solutions, springing from the collective experiences of the people being impacted by the problems. Food aid or money won't help. The only effective Western help, besides discovering a cure for AIDS, would be to go into the villages and develop creative thinkers. Teach logic, teach empowerment, hope for the best.

I'm done with traveling,
Eric Vance

South Africa daily and weekly emails

West Africa I: M email , D&W , Photos
West Africa II: M email , D&W , Photos
Ethiopia: Both M&W emails , Photos
East Africa: M email , D&W , Photos
5th Month: M email , D&W , Photos
South Africa: M email , D&W , Photos

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Last modified December 31, 2002.
Copyright 2002-2003 Eric Vance. All rights reserved.