South Africa – Fear in the Rotunda

It is a rather strange fact that you build up an impression of a place from a map that can be totally erroneous.  Kirsty told me to get a bus from Joburg’s Rotunda Bus Station to Pietermaritzburg.  The thought terrified me, but I kept reassuring myself that I would be all right.   I would buy my ticket from a travel agents in Verwoerdburg.  I would be dropped off outside the station, I would get on the bus and leave Jo’burg.  But looking at the map, I saw that the bus station appeared enormous, and I worried that it was not only the regional bus but a local bus station, and who knows what unsavoury types might come through there.  Everyone was a demon in Jo’burg.  Scenarios played in my mind – what if the bus station was darkly lit and I would be taken off into a dark corner and robbed again?  What happened if I got on the wrong bus?  What if my bus didn’t run – how would I contact Kirsty?  How would I get back to the relative calm of Irene?

 There was no going back.  I had already arranged to be picked up at Pietermaritzburg Bus Station by a work colleague of mine; Denis Rugege, who had been at NRI a few months beforehand.  I was also to stay with one of Kirsty’s friends, although Kirsty had not told them exactly when I was arriving.  So I was to set off into the unknown.  I arranged that I was going to do a one way hire, and pickup a car in Pietermartizburg and drop it off in Harrismith in the Orange Free State the following Saturday.  I hoped to meet Kirsty there so we could go trekking in the Drakensberg.

 So one morning when Kirsty was on her way in to work, I did one of the most frightening journeys of my life.  The previous time I had gone to Jo’burg I had been wary, but not frightened.  Now I had been mugged, I drew closer to the city centre with full fear.  I tried not to show it but it was too obvious.  Kirsty did her best to distract me, telling me how wonderful Kwa-Zulu Natal was.  We came off the motorway and went through some half decent city streets on the north side of the city centre.  I made sure Kirsty dropped me off as close to the Rotunda as possible, and I quickly said goodbye, clung my bag next to me and went into the waiting area.

 Although the waiting area was a large airy and, yes, round room, it was no where near the giant I had expected.  I had two hours to wait for my bus, but since Kirsty had been the only lift I could guarantee, I had taken it.  I don’t think I wanted to chance local public transport for a while.  So I had to sit there, completely suspicious of everybody I saw, black or white, young or old.  I wrapped my bag strap firmly around my leg so no-one could snatch it, and tried to read for a while.

 I was aware that I couldn’t understand a word of any announcements, not because they were half Afrikaans, but also because the PA system was awful.  So I watched what was going on.  There was little activity.  There were two main bus companies running out of the station; Greyhound and Translux.  I was going Translux, but while I was there a Greyhound bus left for Durban via Pietermaritzburg.  Then I realised that there were two Translux buses heading for Durban.  One was a fast bus calling at Pietermaritzburg and Durban only.  Mine was the slow bus, leaving earlier but taking longer and calling at Veereniging, Warden, Harrismith, Ladysmith, Estcourt, Pietermaritzburg, Mpumulanga and Durban.  It would take about six hours, but I had nothing else to do and I think I preferred to see some of the back routes.  Veereniging was a mystery to me.  I had looked at the map and traced the road south east towards Jo’burg and I could not remember seeing such a place.

 After what seemed like an eternity, my bus was called.  I leapt up hastily and headed for the correct gate.  My fears were so large that I hid within the group of people queuing for the bus.  They were the usual bunch of long distance bus travellers, a few young students, women with too much baggage or too many kids, a few middle aged single people, a couple of older types including the usual collection of old ladies, dressed more for Afternoon Tea at the Ritz than a three hundred mile bus journey.

 Our tickets were slowly checked.  I felt so vulnerable out there on the street, people passing us by on the way.  All I wanted to do was getup on the bus and get away from this hell hole.  The driver nonchalantly laid all the bags on the street (how foolish, I thought, anyone could snatch them) and put labels around them all.  Then he left them there while he checked all the tickets.  I was on board and my bag was not packed.  I was so relieved when everything was on board and the driver sat himself down in front.

South Africa – Into Pretoria

This conflict was strong in Gauteng.  As the commercial heart of South Africa, Jo’burg and Pretoria had a large British derived population.  They were not there by choice.  Their stories of the beauty of the Cape and Natal made them long for their homes, but the gold and commerce of the main stock cities had driven them up the escarpment to Transvaal.   They hated it, it had too many people, too many traffic jams, the scenery was dull, the weather cold and dreary and the crime rates horrendous.

 To the Boers the Transvaal was their adopted homeland.  However, Gauteng was often left out of the equation; Jo’burg particularly but Pretoria also were abominations to all people; they had grown like topsy into gross cauldrons of activity; no Boer really liked them but had been left with them.  When I was to travel to the Orange Free State and Eastern Transvaal, I was to see the true home of the Boers, the expansive farming plains with little towns, neat white Lutheran churches and picket fences, and the hardy curtness of Boer population had a real context.

 I went up on top of the monument to get some geographical bearings.  I looked to the south; the vast brown plain stretched to my left.  The town of Verwoerdburg was to my right, sprawling and expanding.  Then on the other side I could see how the monument stood on the top of a rocky incised ridge, and the N1 and the motorway from Jan Smuts Airport dropped steeply into Pretoria, curving underneath the equivalent of South Africa’s Open University. This was a huge miserable looking concrete block, more like a centre for MI5 than one of learning.  Below the skyscrapers of the city dominated the valley, but beyond I could see the grand sandstone State Buildings.  I decided I should look at these.

Down to Pretoria

Down to Pretoria

 When I drove into town, I found my way winding up a series of cobbled streets.  I parked under the terraced gardens and walked up.  I realised that apart from a couple of gardeners watering the roses, I was the only person rising up the hill.  My nerves at being in a large city on my own were on high edge.  I heard some other people laughing in the distance, and my skin crept up my back.  But I took deep breaths and wandered up to the stone buildings.

 There was a lot of building work going on, they were putting together new apartments for Nelson Mandela here.  Of course, although Pretoria is the executive capital of South Africa, the Parliament and Legal capital is still Cape Town, and the prominence of Johannesburg as a commercial centre often makes it seem like the effective capital,  despite its crime record.

 The state buildings vastly disappointed me.  Despite the grandness of the architecture and the scale and symbolic importance of the buildings, they did not show anything of the new South Africa.  The strongly multicultural nature of the new Rainbow State was not being expressed here. Instead it was still the old school.  It was a symbol of oppression (whether of the Boer or the Blacks I could not yet determine).  I drove back to Kirsty’s.  Despite the anticlimax of seeing the buildings, I felt like a couple more pieces of the jigsaw had been filled in.

 A couple of days later, I put in another piece as a plan to visit Natal fell into place.  Unfortunately, something blocked my way.  I had to go back into the centre of Johannesburg.

South Africa – Voortrekkers

Who were the Voortrekkers?  The history of South African Colonisation began when in 1652, Dutch settled in the Cape, mainly to serve as a staging port on the long run from Europe to its eastern colonies.  Many people were unhappy with the governance of this province and began to move eastwards, only to be subsumed by the Cape when the government shifted the border.  By the 19th Century , the British overran the Cape and the pioneer farmers on the eastern fringes continued to be ignored and were dissatisfied.  They were also under increasing pressure from the Xhosas who lived to the east.

 The descendants of these farmers were linked by a common forming language; Afrikaans, and they decided to move away from the Cape to set up their own government.  They moved eastwards in pioneering treks, and were called the Voortrekkers.  The monument describes their movement and plight, and it now stands as a shrine to the Afrikaner spirit, based on their resilience and strength against the British Oppressor.  Or it could be pigheadedness and unwillingness to co-operate, but here history is debatable.

 What grabbed me as I read the mural on the wall and looked at the clean cut lines of the memorial was the striking similarities between these trekkers and the great pioneers of the United States of America.  Starting from the older settlements of the west, a growing disenchantment, for whatever reason, drove them east.  Even the land was similar; vast open plains and savannahs, difficult terrain; rivers, some mountains, and unforeseen conflicts with other people in the region.  What surprised me enormously were the distances some Voortrekkers managed to cover, some reaching in to East Africa.  My view that the Afrikaans were isolated in the south soon changed.  Their influence on the rest of Africa was much greater.

 The Voortrekker monument is an almost square block over 40 metres high, on a high hillside on the south side of Pretoria city.  Built from 1937 through to 1949 it has a simple structure with a number of symbolic features.  .  Around the outside a series of 64 wagons show the wagon trails and protect the monument.  Four of the key Voortrekkers; Piet Retief, Andries Pretorius, Hendrik Potgeiter and the Unknown Voortrekker leader give a guard of honour.

 Through the roof is a small hole; an opening through which the sun shines.  It is angled so that at noon on 16th December  the ray of sunlight falls on the inscription “Ons vir jou Suid-Afrika” (We for thee, South Africa).

 The squareness of the exterior masks the dome shape inside.  The whole feeling of the tower is one of airiness, of respect for the Voortrekkers and the idea of pilgrimage for all modern day Afrikaners.

 The mural tells the story of the Voortrekkers departure from the Cape Province and their movement towards Natal and Transvaal.  The trekkers were subjected to various meetings with other colonists, such as at Lourenco Marques, their conflicts with the Matabele and Zulus, and assistance from the Baralong.  It shows beyond the murder of Piet Retief, the arrival of a new leader, Andies Pretorius (who gave his name to Pretoria) , right up to the Independence of Transvaal in 1852.

 The Voortrekkers still felt alienated by the British; their attempts to establish Natal as an Independent state failed when Britain annexed Natal in 1843.  The subsequent independence of Transvaal lasted only 25 years.  War between the Boers and Britain occurred in the First War of Independence and then in Anglo-Boer War of 1899-1902.  Transvaal and the Orange Free State were brought under the British mantle and the Union of South Africa was continued.

 The oppression of the Boers under the British was something I was not very aware of in my time in Gauteng so far.  It looked to me like the Boer were a very proud race who still found a place in the new South Africa.  Yes, there were those who undoubtedly had suspicions of the good intentions of the new ANC government, who were worried about the huge discrepancies in wealth and opportunity.  Despite that, there was still a feeling that South Africa was bigger than the Apartheid era, and that the opportunities to be Southern Africa’s commercial and cultural capital, as well as a model democracy much needed on the continent.

 But here was undoubted bitterness towards the South Africans of British descent.  And this was different from my readings on the country.  Away from here, the friction was purely between white and black.  But once in amongst it, there was also conflict between the British and the Boer.  I was reminded of a colleague of mine who attended a party at Phalaborwa in Eastern Transvaal.  She was introduced socially to some Boer as coming from England, who, without hesitation said “And which side did your grandfather fight for in the Boer War?”  She countered quickly with “My grandfather was being oppressed down the mines of the Black Country by the same people who were oppressing you”.  She became firm friends with the guy, but it was a close shave.

South Africa – working it out

The following week in the area started quietly.  I decided to relax in the garden one day.  The next door neighbours were astounded at me sun bathing as winter drew on, but the 25 degrees of heat was more than I was usually used to in Britain in the height of summer.

 The next day, Kirsty gave me the car, and I decided to explore Pretoria.  My experience of South African cities so far had not been good, but I had liked the look of Pretoria from a night out in the city a few days beforehand.  One feature I really wanted to see was the Voortrekker monument.  I realised in my wilfully poor history knowledge, I didn’t understand who the Boers were, what were Afrikaans, and my division of white South Africa was purely that Cape and Natal were where the English based populations lived, Orange and Transvaal were where the Afrikaners lived.  I realised that if I was to understand the settlers here I would have to visit them all.

 This simplistic division into Afrikaner and English ignored the black majority population and their divisions or the Indians, but was an understandable starting point for my investigations, since I was staying with a white south African and mixing generally with other whites.  If I started to understand these, then perhaps I could start looking elsewhere as the weeks progressed.

 Where was I so far.  I had begun to understand something that had always puzzled me.  How are people kept so far apart when they are all living so close together.  It is always one of the most fundamental geographical questions.  We all live on the same earth, but we manage to divide so easily into the haves and have-nots in every country.  The rich live on the hills, the poor live in the valleys, rich are upwind, poor downwind.  It was all classic school text.  Here in South Africa there was still the lingering inertia of the split caused by the colour of skin.  I had become to understand that now.  Areas of the Witwatersrand had suburbs that were almost like prison camps and the stark contrast between these areas and the high-class suburbs of Sandton and Pretoria were startlingly obvious.  I’d also seen how these lines were becoming fuzzier.  In some was this was a good thing – more affordable middle class houses were appearing, particularly in MidRand, town houses instead of huge houses in estates.  But in other ways they were less appealing – the rise in the number of squatter settlements, often on the edges of the old established townships such as Tembisa and Alexandria, but encroaching faster on the other suburbs as well.

 The problem with Gauteng is that it still was the most attractive location for work and opportunity in most of South Africa, and the friction between those established with money and those without was tangible.

To get a grasp on how this had occurred, I had to look at filling in the details in my sketchy history, and one of the most visible signs of this was the Voortrekker monument.  When I had visited Jan Smuts cairn in Irene, the huge block of the monument was very visible and almost anywhere round Pretoria, it dominated the skyline.

Voortrekker Monument

Voortrekker Monument

South Africa – Gambling in the bush

We eventually dragged ourselves away when they began to calm down and drove through the narrow valley and out of the park.  Within a couple of miles we were back on the plain of Bophutsatswana.  We had a few hours to spare before travelling to Irene so we decided to pop into Sun City, the gambling and leisure Mecca set up in the volcano.

 Although I had reservations about Pilansberg’s artificial nature, at least it was preserving natural environments and wildlife.  Everything about Sun City stank of artificiality.  And yet it was curiously absorbing.  A massive car park lies at the bottom of the valley, and you pay ten rand or so for a day pass.  You board the monorail that glides up the valley side, beginning to give you glimpses of this world you are about to enter.  There are beautifully laid roads and manicured gardens.  The river is landscaped and contains far more water than it should.  Then the monorail sweeps around a corner and the whole Lost City appears; the massive towers of the hotels, the huge casino and hall complex, the golf course and the pleasure pools.

 We got out and started to wander around gaping as we went.  First were row upon row of gambling machines, in every corner of the huge foyer leading to the Jungle Casino.  A central atrium contained luxurious shops for jewellery, electric goods and perfumes; I began to wonder where we could catch our flight.  Gaudy restaurants everywhere selling overpriced curries and steaks. Then up some stairs we skirted the massive amphitheatre, a covered circle for all manner of shows.  We came out at the top of these buildings to be confronted by a massive stone bridge linking the casino and the hotels.  Guarding our path on either side were huge fibre glass elephants with tusks the size of which you never see in real life any more.  Strange Aztec stroke South African stroke global symbology claptrap lined every wall.  As we stepped out onto this bridge and looked back, a massive panther or lion or something carved into the mock stone sat above a temple containing an eternal flame.  Every so often a blast of fire would expel from the dark innards and drum beats and tribal music would start.

 We walked across the bridge, glancing down at the South African elite; mainly white but occasionally black, frolicking with beach balls among palm trees and coral blue waters .  Palm trees and beaches for God’s sake.  Beyond a massive statue and fountain, the bridge continued, and more mock temple ruins emerged from among the jungle deep that would make Romantic paintings seem like engineer’s drawings.

 Kirsty and I still couldn’t quite believe it.  Looking beyond the parkland, we could just make out the dry scrawny bush in the distance.  The real world was still out there, but in here we wondered what was really going on.  Just what was the point of Sun City?  It was built in the Apartheid era as a place where city dwellers could go to and relax and live up the western ideals, when other options were not open to them.  The choice of location was also not purely commercial.  Lying in Bophutaswana, one of the self styled free homelands for blacks, it was intended to show that these scraps of the worst land in South Africa handed over by the white central government could develop economies of there own.  Free of the usual licensing laws, many activities could go on in here that would have been frowned upon by the strict Lutherans living around.  Sun City thrived and both the leaders of Bophutaswana and South Africa proper were delighted.  Businessmen from Jo’burg and Pretoria could relax in whatever way they wanted to.  Opponents of the place labelled it Sin City, because almost any kind of wickedness could be obtained here.

 With the opening up of South Africa after the downfall of Apartheid, the notoriety of Sun City became a big selling point, and people travelled from far and wide to see the gaudiest theme park in the Southern Hemisphere.  To a certain extent it cleaned up its act, and the whiff of political stitching up, or the use of the puppet Bophutaswana government to help justify the Apartheid era, have been cleared away.  But it remains a rather curious feature of the landscape.  It is fortunate in a way that it is hidden in a valley, but the problem there is that visitors who stay in this overpackaged holiday home are unlikely to see much else of the real South Africa.  Not wishing on them to see what I had already experienced within a few days of arriving, but they should at  least become more exposed to the rest of the country.

 We left after only an hour or so, I think it tarnished our safari a little, but at least I had seen it.  We drove back across the wide plains, past the mineral heaps and the ridges around Pretoria to Irene.

South Africa – Safari in the crater

The Sunday morning was the most perfect start to the day.  The sun rose quickly and dispersed the wisps of dew.  We drove out of the camp and headed down one of the lesser known tracks, Tilodi, keeping away from the jams on the main tar road.  We saw plenty of giraffe and antelope.  A line of wildebeest trudged along a hillside to the north of us.  As the sun rose there appeared to be less chance of seeing game, then a pair of golden jackal trotted out of the bush on to the track in front of us.  They appeared not to notice the Bucky  on the road and we followed at a crawl until they wandered as nonchalantly off into the bush on the other side of the road.

 Further on a family of warthog were rootling around in a well-grazed area of grassland.  A few bushes broke up the scenery, but three or four of them busied themselves by rubbing their snouts in the mud, occasionally digging for roots but often just scratching themselves against the ground, perhaps to relieve themselves of annoying tics, or just to ease an annoying itch.

 We saw a group of vehicles stopped up ahead, regrettably the surest sign of activity.  Crunching through the bush was a troop of elephants, at least ten, strung out and moving quickly.  Kirsty told me that there was a reputation for this kind of activity amongst many elephants.  They could cover large tracks of land, pushing purposefully forward, and woe betide anyone who got in their way.

 The sun was now high in the sky and we decided to pause at the Fish Eagle picnic spot and cook breakfast.  I rustled up some scrambled eggs while Kirsty prepared the rest, the steaming kettle the only noise in a perfect calm.  The heat was beginning to kick in now but the fresh crisp dry air was wonderful.  The picnic spot was high above the central valley of the volcano, not far from the main lake.  The parched savannah stretched in either direction.  There was not much game to see, a few giraffe nibbling the high acacia tips, a few antelope finishing their early morning feeds.  A number of vervet monkeys chattered away in the trees above us.  Some hyrax played around above us in a series of rocky outcrops.

Breakfast View

Breakfast View

 Eating those eggs up on the viewpoint was one of the highlights of the holiday for me, the openness and the freedom made me intake huge lungfuls of fresh air.  The slight numbing in my neck reminded me of all the badness back their in Gauteng that we had temporarily left behind, but the throat was now relaxing and I began to enjoy myself again.

 We continued to travel round most of the day, knowing that there would be little to see.  We watched a few hippos in the central lake, we saw more elephant and a brown hyena, which trotted from the grass in front of us.

 At one point, approaching the main Mankwe Dam, we noticed fresh elephant dung on the ground and signs of wholesale ripping of tree branches along the road side.  Sure enough, we saw the culprit along the road, a large cow elephant in the act of ripping another large branch off a tree.  She munched the smaller twigs, dropped the remaining shreds on the floor and methodically ripped another branch off.  We stopped at a safe distance and proceeded to watch.  With the engine turned off, we could hear the breaking branches and the ripping, rasping noise as she crunched them in her huge jaws.  Then we heard some more tramping to our right, and a second female came along to join her.  Kirsty was a little alarmed that this one had emerged from the bush so close beside, but she ignored us completely.  Kirsty was about to start the engine again, feeling that we were now just a little bit too close for comfort, when a third elephant emerged, right behind us.  Again she took no notice of us but proceeded to shred a tree about thirty yards from the vehicle.  This was not safe, but we were trapped, and had to sit quietly, partly in awe of these magnificent creatures, partly terrified by the prospect of being crushed if they decided to test themselves out on us.

 When they drifted back into the bush, we progressed on to a hill brow overlooking a long sweep of tall grass.  A few trees marked the course of a stream in a valley bottom  and another large field of grass rose on the other side.  Here about six rhino grazed.  Through Kirsty’s binoculars they were properly identifiable, but were just grey blobs with the naked eye.

 Soon afterwards we started to head southwards out of the park. The Pilansberg is really just a playground for rich South Africans; a sham in amongst the mountains.  All the animals are imported, all the roads carefully maintained, all the facilities well laid out.  I was to discover this was true in several other parks in the country, but it never felt quite so artificial as this.  To cap it all, at the southern entrance of the park, there was the massive Bakubung game lodge on the mountainside, a series of luxury rondavels overlooking the valley marked clearly by huge lightning conductors that pierced the blue sky.

 We stopped briefly at the Lengua Dam near this lodge and watched two elephants playing in the water.  The two of them would take it in turns to mount each other and roll one another over into the water, making a huge splash.  You would hear gurgling trumpet calls come up the hillside, almost laughter but definitely pure enjoyment.  They would toss and turn, and wrestle, they would pull back and launch themselves together again.  They would spray water over each other, then mount once more.  The sight was one of pure pleasure.  As we watched on our side of the lake, we noticed a whole queue of vehicles had stopped on the main road opposite, but still the elephants played.  There was so much ear flapping and trunk curling, head tossing and body shaking, it was like a ritual being played out.  We were not close enough to determine the sex, but they were clearly adolescents, either play fighting or play mating in the water, much to their own and everyone else’s delight.

Elephants playing in the dam

Elephants playing in the dam

South Africa – Moving On

I spent another very long hour in there, my bruises swelling, the pain in my throat enhancing and my guilt and shame quadrupling.  Eventually Kirsty came out, still fuming with her boss, and we stormed out of the Anglo building and around to the car park compound.

 I found it difficult to explain what had happened and even harder to say why I hadn’t found the police.  She agreed it was probably fruitless.  We drove out to the huge exhibition centre to the south west of the city, not far from the main motorway, the N1 and the famous South West Township, or Soweto.  A huge computer fair was there.  We ate a greasy hot dog and then looked around the stalls, but neither of our hearts was in it.  We headed for home, stopping off at a shopping centre in the north of the town to buy me a new camera.  Kirsty talked of her plans for me the next day, to visit the Pilansberg Park for the weekend.  I really wanted to give South Africa another chance, so was happy to go with her.  She retired early as she had want to do.  I watched TV till late.  La Cage aux Folles was on, and I watched and tried to laugh at it till the very end, but I had to lie carefully on the couch; my neck getting sorer every hour.

 The next morning, we packed early and went to her local police station.  The lack of interest in my case was self evident, so I just ensured that I had something official looking to give to my insurers when I got back to the UK.  We drove down and headed towards Pretoria.  Heading west out of the city we set off along a new stretch of motorway, heading towards Mafeking, and then when it ended headed through one of the many ridges that divided up the Wittwatersrand; the Magdalen Hills.  We entered Hartebeestpoort and through the gap where the dam lies.  Out on to the plain beyond, we passed through a Lutheran landscape of white steepled churches, picket fences and wide open plains.  We passed many of the platinum mines that give the wealth to this area, and then on to a wide featureless plain for mile after mile.



 Eventually we approached what used to be Bophutotswana, and small self built shacks replaced the affluent farmland.  At the end of an extensive settlement, the great park entrance loomed.  We paid our money and entered, and almost immediately, left the conflict behind, and entered something closer to the Africa I knew.  Not quite, though, Pilansberg is very much a man made creation.  A vast volcanic crater with curious microclimates populated with imported animals.  All the big five are present and many others, but most have been brought in from other places.

 It was already quite late when we entered the park, but we saw an elephant and several antelope at a hide, and giraffe looked up from many of the thorn bushes as we passed.  But it was not till late in the day that we really saw much.  Kirsty was disappointed on my behalf, but I was just happy to be with one who knew how to safari properly, and that I was away from that dangerous city.  Wildlife I could deal with.  They were predictable.  It was humans that I had most problem with at the time.

 I remember coming down to a small waterhole and watching some Waterbuck gently step down for an evening drink.  They calmly walked up to the hole and lapped up the water, glistening in the setting sun. I breathed deeply, taking in the setting and finally unleashing some of the tension that I had within me.

 We set up the tent and cooked a small brai on the campfire.  We chatted as usual.  Kirsty was used to doing this kind of trek.  Her whole childhood had been full of these kinds of things.  They would quickly pack up the back of the Buckie and head off to some deserted area and camp for the weekend, with a brai every night, and sleep under the stars with the sounds of elephants and lions in the distance.  She compared herself to a friend who used to pack everything meticulously into her van.  She would take absolutely everything with her, a full icebox, all the towels and changes of clothes, a whole load of kitchen gadgets, food for a month, and the entire latest camping goods.  Kirsty could never be bothered with that and just flung everything in the back of the van.  I must say I liked her philosophy; I’m never one to plan much for a day trip, just make sure the car is full of petrol and set off.  Having said that I noticed how there were certain items in the van that Kirsty made sure were there; such as water, which you would not have given that much thought to on a day trip in the UK.

 I was knackered so went to bed sharing the tent after inspecting the Milky Way.  I slept deeply, the pain in my neck now lessening slightly, but still very much reminding me of the horror of the day before.  Next morning, I awoke to find the bag next to me empty.  I surfaced and looked around.  Kirsty was still asleep in the back of her wagon.  I asked her what the problem was.

 “Your snoring”.

South Africa – Guilt, Shame and Anger

I reached out for my glasses.  They were scratched but still together.  I raised myself cautiously and looked around.  I was so amazed at being caught out.  I almost praised my thieves for a job well done.  In all the hustle and bustle of the Jo’burg streets, they had found the one small area where there was no-one around.  I knew now that I had been followed for quite a time and that they had chosen their moment almost perfectly.  But I then thought of the pain they had inflicted on me, the shame of having experienced the one thing everyone talks about.  And I was scared now of the future.  How do I get back to the Anglo American Building without another attack, when they might actually retrieve the wallet?  How was I to pay for replacing the stuff I had lost?  I was sure that I would never get them back.  I wondered whether the insurance would shell out.  I wondered what I had to do next.  Kirsty was in a meeting for another hour and a half.  I had barely left her half an hour beforehand.  How was I going to tell her.  “Hi Kirst, I’ve been in your country less than a day and a half and I’ve been robbed.  I’ve had the South African experience”.  Do I go to the police?  What use was that?

 I wandered around the streets and found myself outside the huge municipal library.  I was avoiding everyone, particularly black, and veered my way, half choking on nervous vomit as I went into the building. Once in, dazed and sore, I wondered what to do next.  I wandered around that building for the next forty five minutes, looking at books, records, posters.  Trying to find some standard, some reference by which my life could carry on.  I had just experienced a terrible act, I was a victim, and yet I could not show any emotion for it.  I couldn’t shout from the roof tops, it was too common an incident for anyone to hear. I couldn’t find the way to express it.  I was devastated and dissolved by the action.  The pain didn’t matter.  The loss of goods did not matter.  What mattered was that another human being had violated me unnecessarily.  I suppose with time I could have made a case for the extreme poverty that lives side by side with the richness of downtown Johannesburg.  I suppose with time I could have been persuaded that to take a bag into the streets of Jo’burg was unwise, that to explore Jo’burg alone was unwise, that to travel to Jo’burg was unwise.  But I don’t accept that.  I never accept crime as the victim’s responsibility and it does not matter how many people suck through their teeth at my own lack of concern for my own security, it is wrong to violate another in that way.  Those people were wrong to do that to me.  That they were severely restricted in their life choices I had no doubt, but to make an example of that by picking on me was wrong.  There has to be other ways of fighting the system without finding a third party to take vengeance.  No way should I be held up as a symbol of the societies that were in conflict here.  This was personal.  In amongst all the acts of violence, war and misconduct, there are always personal angles.  I was the victim.

 This then, is the dilemma of South Africa.  I had been exposed to the cutting edge of the problem.  Rich and poor rub against each other in such proximity and stark contrast that there has to be conflict, and I was caught in that conflict as a tourist, as representative of the injustice to other sectors of the population.  The tension in the different parts of the populous was palpable; and often violent; no wonder the locals told me an anagram of Gauteng was Get a Gun.

 These thoughts did not trouble me at the time.  I was at a loss of reason for all that had happened, and sheltered away in that library for a while.  I didn’t know where to look for a police station even if I had thought that would do any good.  Instead I headed back towards the Anglo American building.  Kirsty was not around, so I went into their library and continued to find some comfort in looking at books, still slightly dazed.  Too many busy people noticed any anguish in my face, and to be honest I shied away from attention.  I looked out only for myself but I could not find me there.

 The experience in Jo’burg that morning recurred in my mind a dozen times over the next year and a half, and in some places, particularly African cities, I was frightened to go out on my own for many years.  I had a trip to Harare later that year, a place I had loved so well the first time, and yet I was frightened to go down town, I was frightened to go out at night at all.  When we went to a restaurant a block from our hotel, I insisted we took a taxi back; it was free, the driver thought it was ludicrous that I had asked for one and didn’t give a charge.  But I was never to take any chances again.  In Argentina at the end of that year, I was frightened, despite Cordoba being one of the most wonderful cities I had ever been in.  In Accra and Kumasi the following year, I was only really happy to be out and about if there was someone else with me.  I lost some of my sense of inquisitiveness that morning in Jo’burg.

 I read and reread the papers in the library lobby.  Eventually Kirsty found me, at least an hour after she said her meeting should be over.  She launched into a tirade about how her boss was giving her the wrong sorts of shit.  I looked up apologetically throughout, waiting for the inevitable feed line from her “So how was the museum?”

 “ I’ve been mugged”.

Her expression changed immediately.  It looked like she thought “Oh Shit, on top of me having an argument with my boss, this limey has gone and got himself into trouble; the one thing I didn’t want”.  If that was what she thought, I only saw it in her face for one split second.  I couldn’t express what had happened but made miserable resigned looking faces at her.  She said she had to go into the meeting and then we would head off for the afternoon.

South Africa – On the streets of Jo’burg

I wandered towards where I knew was the centre of the city, the massive stone city hall, which still gives Jo’burg the air of civic grandeur of any European, American, Asian or many African cities.  But the US style of grid iron streets, square, solid stone office blocks and neatly laid out street furniture belied that this is the most dangerous city in the world to be alone in.  Or even in groups of three or four.

 I found myself in a run down shopping centre in the heart of the city.  There were so many people there, mostly black, making me stick out dangerously, that I felt the bag I had would be snatched from me at any moment, so I walked around the block and back towards the offices of Anglo in the SW side of the city centre.

 I was already aware of being watched.  I noticed a couple of people looking at me several times, but because there were so many around me, I could not really say whether they were the same people, or just general bystanders curious to know why I was there.  My paranoia, already at unusual states of awareness on arrival in South Africa, and increased when driving into Jo’burg, were now racing ahead of me.  Regrettably, it was to be proved right very soon.

 The crowds lessened as I headed away from the shopping streets and back amongst the offices.  My heart slowed slightly, but without reason.  One man of medium build walked quickly past me, then he turned and smiled.  I said ( I think out loud, my memory clouds even now) “Oh no, this is it”.  Before I had a chance to take this man in any more, I was grabbed around the neck by the elbow of a much larger man, who then started to rip my haversack from my arm, twisting my shoulder out of shape.  My head was forced skywards and the pain on my Adam’s apple was searing and unrelenting.  Despite not being able to see, I could sense I was surrounded on all four sides, and although I never saw a knife, there was a curious sensation that made me know that one was not far away.  My slightness was no match for the burly guy who held me, and I struggled vainly as a hand went into my pocket, that contained my handkerchief, my wallet and money.  Amongst my foolish actions that day, at least I had thought to take out everything except one credit card and a modicum of Rand.  The feeling of another man’s hand in your own pocket was so peculiar that I wriggled towards it, my haversack now loose from my arm, my weight made me topple onto the hand which quickly withdrew.  I fell to the pavement and my glasses fell to the ground and skated across the concrete.  I fell on the pocket with the wallet in it, and made it unreachable.  The hand quickly searched my other pocket, then withdrew quickly.  Instantly, I felt my right arm ache from having the bag torn from it, my left arm felt numb from falling on it, and I felt a tightness in my neck as if the strangle hold continued.  I blearily looked up and watched the four retreating men.  I couldn’t help myself say “Bastards, Bastards, Bastards” at them.  They looked back and I checked my rolling tongue in case they decided to return.  I stared at them for a long time as they walked up the middle of the street, and watched my haversack disappear into the streets of Jo’burg for the last time, with my camera (with film in it of a wedding that I was more loathe to lose than anything), my jumper and a copy of the Lonely Planet Guide to South Africa.  I hope they enjoyed them.

South Africa – “Is everything still all right?”

“Is everything still all right?”  Asked the girl again.  She’d already been out about four times, bringing something each time, salt and pepper, ketchup, a fork, a stray napkin.  And each time she said “Is everything still all right”.  I told her that it was.  I’m never much of a fusser at cafes or restaurants.  When I’m trying something new, what have I got to gauge whether what they are giving me is all right?  What would they do if I said no?  Would they take the stuff back, leave it for a minute and come back again with exactly the same dish hoping that I wouldn’t notice, or heat it up in a microwave for thirty seconds.  Or would they throw the dish away and serve me up a six course banquet for free in recompense for being inconvenienced because the french-fries were shaped slightly oddly?

 Of course they wouldn’t.  So the question was completely superfluous.  Actually the thing that was worrying me most was that my Beef burger, chips and salad (OK it was nothing extraordinary at all) were about to be washed away by a huge thunderstorm which was looming over the next valley.  I suppose I could have commented on this, but then again, why bother – what were they really going to do about that – shoot iron filings up into the sky to neutralise it?  It all seemed so silly.

 The young girl was obviously very worried that she was giving good service.  I got the feeling that she might have been covering up for something sinister, or that she knew something was wrong and hoped that despite this, I didn’t really mind.  I’d hoped that there was nothing.  It was an attitude I had come to expect from a lot of people on this holiday, and no wonder.  This was South Africa.  Newly reborn in a spirit of reconciliation, the new model of African politics, social welfare and harmony.  Despite this it had the worst crime rate of any country in the world, the gap between rich and poor was more stark, and the air of old tensions and separatism still hung around.  So it was little surprise that everyone was worried and asking the rest of world “Is everything all right”?

Smuts Koppie, Irene

Smuts Koppie, Irene

 I had had first hand experience of the tension.  I’d been mugged in Johannesburg only the week before.

 It was my own fault.  Nonsense.  I didn’t ask to be mugged.  I refuse to be guilty of  doing what I consider normal in other countries.  I was warned; they know what is wrong.  But pity the nation that has common sense which restricts one’s liberties and natural habits so much.  DON’T wear jewellery in Jo’burg streets.  DON’T drive around with your doors unlocked.  DON’T EVER open the house door after sundown unless someone has phoned.  DON’T carry bags on the street.  DON’T live your life the way you want to.

 Gauteng is the worst by a long way.  Gauteng is the province in the centre of the old Transvaal region of South Africa, a Boer Stronghold and honeypot attracting South Africans, Zimbabweans, Mozambicans and Botswanans.  The streets aren’t paved with gold, but it lies under the streets of Jo’burg in heaps.  The population of Gauteng is exploding, not naturally but with migrants.  Some are only there during the week and you have to watch the ones who head back to their families on a Friday evening, clinging on for dear life to the overcrowded minibuses and lorries that hurtle north or east to the borders.  This is about the only time when the rest of Africa imposes on this strange country.  This place looks western but isn’t, it feels African but isn’t.

 And I had the South African experience a mere two days after arriving.

 I was staying in Irene, a beautiful little town a few miles south of Pretoria.  It is set above a pleasant gentle valley on a slight hill with tree-lined avenues, a dairy and the Jan Smut’s House, the home one of the founders of the United Nations.  My friend let me relax on my first day, and the most exertion I had was walking down to the Jan Smut’s House.  I discovered that Irene was the centre of the South African Film industry, as I was passed by a Nissan low loader with a man on a boom holding a camera following a Mercedes Benz at high speed.  I never got to saw the particular film, but if you are ever in a cinema and see a guy in shorts and an orange T Shirt on the screen, that was me.  I spent the afternoon thinking of a joke I would tell when I got back to the UK. “I was shot on the first day in South Africa.”  I never got the chance to say it.

 That was because the next day, Kirsty asked whether I wanted to see Jo’burg.  She had a meeting in work – she was with Anglo American at the time, and then she wanted to see a computer exhibition afterwards at the National Exhibition Centre in the south west side of the city.  I said, “ Well I might as well get mugged on the first day”.

 We set off early that morning, in the typical grey misly fog that hangs over Gauteng at this time of year.  We joined the motorway, the N1 which links Pretoria and Jo’burg, travelling through the sprawling mess of Mid Rand.  Mid Rand is not really a place, but more of a bit in between.  It has posh offices, grand houses as well as vast new estates for the “reasonably well off”.  It has shopping centres.  In fact it is developing around the typical American model of Los Angeles or Houston, where no-one cares about containing the development, because they feel that they have tons of room left. The desecration is dreadful.

 This gives way to the city proper and the last few miles of motorway winds through the prosperous northern suburbs of the city.  The skyscrapers of the old city centre rise up, many of them shells of their former selves as the wise money has moved out from this hostile centre.  Anglo American have a pledge to stay in the centre, to try and stem the flow of the economic apartheid that others protect themselves against.  They have huge offices on the west side of the city centre.  We parked in the Anglo Lot, a couple of blocks from the office.  The streets are lined with Anglo Security guards to stop you from being mugged between your car and the office.  We walk through the law courts, I pass my haversack through an X-ray machine there that checks for bombs as they do in the Airports.  I get it back on the other side.  On we walk.  Into the huge air conditioned offices of Anglo, slightly relieved to have run the gauntlet and won….this time.

 We went up to the seventh floor and I had a quick chance to look over the remote sensing facilities that Kirsty used.  Then she said that she had this god-awful meeting to go to and I had to amuse myself.  There was a geological museum just around the corner.  I couldn’t miss it.

 So off I went.  I found the entrance to the museum easily.  It had closed a few months earlier and was moving to the Library.  I had two hours to kill in Johannesburg and could think of nothing better than to just walk the streets; with my haversack, and my camera in my haversack, and my guide book in my haversack next to my camera.

It was the biggest mistake I have made in all my years of travelling.