Not your average travel blog
We had just crossed over into Botswana….but these tales are going to jump around, Kris Kross-style, through Southern Africa.
I’ve now spent quite a bit of time between Johannesburg, Cape Town and down to Cape L’Agulhas (the most southern tip of the continent), up the Western Cape to the border with Namibia, and a very short stint on the coast around Durban. Trying to sum up or pass casual comment on the nation’s political or social make up, topical issues, successes, failures, my particular interest of wilderness management, or overall world standing would be an insult to the nation – and frankly, I would look stupid for being brief. As independent multiple subjects, I may comment later. They deserve more than a 500 word soundbite on a whimsical adventure blog.
For some reason, the shifting landscape in South Africa just feels a lot more “real” than anywhere else. It is overwhelming, more vivid, more explicit and overt; as if there is some being constantly stirring the stew of strong bones at the bottom of this continent. Like the reflex pain you get when you bang your elbow, it resonates through your entire body as you clench and clutch and cling onto hope till there’s a break in its intensity. It’s hard to understand why, but it is constant.
The further I go back into the history of South Africa, the deeper I delve into it’s politics, the more people I meet, the more areas I visit, the more I trade and the more I expose myself (to a degree) to South Africa’s tempestuous and yet promising development, the more it is like being back in a mind blowing history lesson – and I loved history lessons! Sadly, not everything is as easy to stomach as when you’re sitting in a classroom.
The more one reflects on the modern issues of South Africa, the more they seem to become infinitely far from being black and white. Unfortunately, nothing appears to have a quick-fix solution, but that is not to say there isn’t a sense of achievement and profound hope. It is a dynamic nation; one drenched in controversy and one that effects not only its developing neighbours (although in many ways, some are more developed than SA itself) but the rest of the world. It is impossible to simplify and sometimes positively clarify the often overwhelming presentations that South Africa exhibits. It is easy to recognise modern lifestyle extremes, and I don’t say that lightly after travels through North and South America, East Asia, and through parts of the intemperately magnified divisions, where east meets west, in and around the Arabian Sea.
To quote one person who travelled with us while we journeyed through just a small part of South Africa, “It is a country where cultures are trying to live together”. As basic as this sounds and as relevant as it is globally, the emphasis of the message was that South Africa doesn’t appear to be attempting to divide its cultures (like some places I have travelled). This is the exact notion that every leadership of every multicultural country on our planet strives for. Sadly, it isn’t what South Africa seems to be best at. Skimming the surface of South African Law and what seeps down into society isn’t much to be proud of and the nation currently is still at the forefront of divisive politics and social standards. While there is no official war-zone, South Africa probably harbours some of the most dangerous neighbourhoods on Earth – at least that is what is easy to comprehend. However, it is trying and succeeding at existing on what I believe is a positive path, albeit while making some undeniably excruciating political decisions, at a very steady pace along the way.
If South Africa had a relationship status, it would be “complicated”. Problematic would be an understatement. Although often extreme in its attempts to function and in its retaliations to operations, there is animated and penetrative positivity in South Africa which seeps through its veins. It is innately striving. A powerful energy seems to pump through all of its extremities, all of its cultures, races, religions, peoples, places and regions. It does so with determined cocksuredness and confident expectation to improve and prosper. Whether what occurs is quality always remains to be seen and it is easy to judge in hindsight. However, with what South Africa’s heritage and new “momentums” have experienced, it continues to make steps towards something better. It is certainly an inspiring and quite overwhelming country to experience.
Not a place I tend to feel most comfortable and not a place where I look forward to visiting on any trip, but with certain criteria “for guests”, some stops are inevitable. Shuffling through the epicentre of what brings many to Cape Town is obviously part of the South African experience and one which should be relished. The Waterfront is one of the commercial areas of the city. Situated between Table Mountain and the Ocean, it is an iconic setting that was heavily developed for the 2010 Fifa Football World Cup and it remains a hub of busy, consumerist activity. Food halls, colourful street performers, shops filled with gumf, depressing multi-story car parks, snack-thieving giant sea gulls, so many people you can’t walk in a straight line in spaces that have nothing in them, and nearly every young individual striving for eccentricity while all the time making fashion statements which are exactly the same as each commercial shop window, as well as their wandering counterparts. It’s like walking into a shed of sheep and the noise is similar too, although with an overlay of tinkling elevator music. Everything epitomises what any central-city-hub craves; essentially, vacuous cavities in which to spend too much money on stuff we don’t need. They’re social centres where nobody ever speaks to a stranger unless it’s to grunt at them while purchasing a non-personalised gift or overpriced coffee. I simply adore them…
I digress and I moan. Grumpy old man in scruffy clothes meets millennial mine-field, and I would just rather not be here. Even in such a reluctant situation, I’m grateful both Bjorn and our guest say they feel exactly the same. Maybe it’s because we’ve enjoyed being in the wilderness so much. It puts things into perspective. It is what it is.
A few hundred meters away is the older part of town. Little coffee outlets, cafés and bars, boutique-esque barbers next to shops selling oddities such as wool and stamps, maps and ornaments, ornate wood carvings, metal work depicting the creatures of the wilderness, tribal and decorative masks – most of which are original and antique. There isn’t much plastic throw-away trumpery in this orifice of town. The streets are regularly lined with market stalls selling genuine souvenir bumf from around the continent and thankfully the back alleys are not lined with expensive-and-tacky flooring, over polished, over-sanitised walls, and fake lighting hung from gigantic, industrially-engineered ceilings that no one takes note of. There are trees against buildings with a little bit of character about them and beyond the tilt of an unlazy face, lies blue skies above every wanderer.
I have only commented on a tiny hang-out area in Cape Town, but like every modern city, it has it all.
My favourite memory of exploring Cape Town’s modern metropolis was when I ventured into one of the very modern, kitsch, nick-nack-selling souvenir shops on the waterfront. It probably shouldn’t be my favourite recollection, but maybe I am a sadist after all. Surrounded by African-themed colourful accessories, my eyes wander around the room of various antelope shaped cushions, beaded candle holders, ornate and polished elephant masks and rustic-looking home wares. In an instant, I hear a massive bang and clatter, smash and skid across the floor behind me. My guest has stacked his entire self over two shelves of crockery and is sitting in a giant, human-sized cauldron of cumin powder. It is instantly magnificent. The shop’s aroma was fantastic, but with a fresh stir and a commotion no passer by could ignore, there’s quickly a small crowd standing over my redolent guest – who now smells like the pungent back-alley at the rear of an indian restaurant. As much as I care to help, I’m overwhelmed with hilarity and thankfully, so is my guest who can’t seem to get unstuck from the sweet smelling cauldron of reluctant bliss. Laughing heartily as I attempt to help him from his spice-covered arse, I misfire my hand grab, and he falls again into the funky tub, in front of dozens of onlookers. It’s possibly the best end to a tiring day.
Incredibly, nothing in the shop or of our guest was broken. More importantly, the car, the BnB and the rest of the trip is filled with the undeniably strong fragrance of clumsiness: an intense reminder that it is still a great idea to take a pensioner anywhere.