Greetings from Upington South Africa.
DANGER! DANGER! "Don't ever walk the streets at night." I kid you not; EVERYONE in southern Africa gives that advice about all of South Africa, especially in the cities - including sleepy little Upington in the northwest corner of the country where I found myself this first night. During my last visit to the country 14 years earlier in 1987, just before the fall of apartheid, I recall fewer urgent cautions about street crime against whites. At that time the government sanctioned local press strangely reported little about "crime" at all. Voices raised in opposition to the apartheid regime both within the country and internationally focused on atrocities being committed against black people by the white government backed "law enforcement" agencies and the violence of blacks on blacks which prevailed in the crowded black townships like Soweto.
The train from Keetmanshoop Namibia got into the station about an hour after sundown; three dim streetlights illuminated the platform and surrounding area. Our lone passenger car arrived sandwiched among a dozen or so freight cars. Dropping off our car at the nearly deserted "station" took a half hour of coupling and uncoupling.
Finally out on the almost empty dock I looked around for anything that looked like transportation into the city. At this hour and for so few passengers (only one passenger got out of the first class compartment: me) no taxis had bothered to come to the station for fares. For the first time in memory I actually wanted a cab for the short 2 km trek into the center of town.
Asking among the few dispersing people I approached a guy who turned out to be an off duty private security officer. He interrupted his conversation with a friend who seemed to be finishing up some railroad related paperwork to answer my questions. "Yes. The town center is over that way, but I don't think there is any transportation at this hour. All the taxis left long ago." I indicated that I guessed I'd walk and wondered aloud about all the talk of street crime in South Africa. Without my actually asking, he answered "I'm be going back into town now and would be glad to give you a lift, if you like." His husky physique and rough appearance did not inspire confidence, but his white skin boosted my courage and I hopped in his pickup truck, only then learning he worked as private policeman. On our short trip he confirmed once again all the rumors I'd been hearing about dark street muggings... and worse. He dropped me in front of the best hotel in town, the Protea. I thanked him warmly and dashed into the hotel.
The Upington Protea Hotel is actually a pair of lodges: one contains a casino, popular bar and rents rooms by the hour as best I could determine. Looking over all the activity in that building I assumed it must be the main lobby for the hotel and went in. The other, right across a private mall offered newer architecture featuring a pyramidal interior atrium not unlike the San Francisco Meridian Hotel on a smaller scale. The desk clerk assured me I would be more "comfortable" in their other building and hustled me out without much ceremony. I found the "real hotel" quite elegant... and almost deserted and offering a weekend rate of 200 Rand or about $25/night. Located a block above the main street of town and a hundred meters from the Intercape bus terminal, I expected to see more people on the streets. Saturday evening it is nearly deserted except for a few security people hovering in the shadows.
The next day, Sunday I prowled the downtown area not more than 4 by 6 blocks in size. I found no open Internet cafe and few people walking the streets before noon. Inside one of the few open establishments, Barry (a white guy), the Intercape bus station attendant seemed glad to talk with me, as there were no other customers. To my questions he replied: "My wife wants to leave South Africa... go to maybe Australia. She's worried about our little four year old. I think we will probably stay, though. I'd like to help build a new South Africa. The blacks are so terribly inept when it comes to planning and managing, so there is plenty of opportunity for anyone with abilities along those lines." I probed his attitudes about race relations and he added: "We don't really have any black friends and we wouldn't want our kid playing with them. Of course, I know and work with lots of black South Africans here in the company, but we don't have all that much in common." Barry's brother is a detective on the Upington Police Force and has told him there are as many as fifty murders per month in the largest cities of the country (Now back at home I read that L.A. or N.Y. has at least as many violent crimes). Little Upington gets perhaps two or three a month, he says. "South Africa is a dangerous place," he adds pensively.
Monday morning I boarded the 07:00 bus headed for Pretoria planning to break the 12-hour trip into two segments. No one sat next to me so I had plenty of room to wiggle around and decided to stay on all the way to Pretoria. A young woman sitting in the seat ahead of mine seemed to be paying a lot of attention to me and toward the end of the trip introduced herself as Lizette, a 19-year-old high school student.
We chatted about all the usual stuff and I learned what turned out to be an astounding fact about the South African educational system: the kids are being taught a revised version of the country's history. In fact, according to Liz, history is no longer being studied through the grade twelve! I later read discussions of the arguments for "collective amnesia." The leadership, in its wisdom decided that the only way to a peaceful transition from the old oppressive apartheid period and a new democratic society meant that today's citizens had to forget and forgive their former oppressors. (Marsha, a friend from Santa Barbara once suggested that the military ought to invent an amnesia bomb and drop it on the antagonists in the Middle East. That seems to be what Nelson Mandela did in S.A. Smart.)
That's about all I have to say about this charming, quiet town that served as my 21st century introduction to the new South Africa.
Upington South Africa: Typical street scene showing the central business district on a Sunday.
The village green in central Pretoria South Africa.
Hello from Pretoria, the capital of South Africa;
Since my last postcard I have moved on to Pretoria and a 5-day "vacation" to nearby Sun City, then over to Witbank and Nelspruit with a brief foray into Maputo Mozambique. This is not what I "planned" at all. I intended to run up the east coast of Mozambique heading back to Kenya where I would have caught my previously booked flight from Nairobi to Lagos Nigeria.
Information about transport beyond Beira on the coast of Mozambique suggested rough sailing or busing and my courage waned. Then I learned of a cheap flight from J-Berg to Nairobi and decided on the backtracking strategy. So, here I sit reevaluating my options. My current travel advisor suggests booking a flight to Spain with multiple stops along the way as a better way of seeing West Africa before heading back to Europe. He is looking for cheap flights as I write this.
None of the towns in which I've stopped during the past month have had wonderful cyber cafes, so getting the pictures out of my little PenCam has been problematic - the camera batteries nearly died twice threatening to send all the stored pictures into cyber-hell. Eventually I found a place in charming little Nelspruit that allowed me to get them out of the camera and onto a floppy (50 of them anyway; that's about max). Finally back in Pretoria I found a place where I could process the pictures on the floppy and get them uploaded to ofoto.com (Not as easy as one might think because many cyber cafe operators pour boiling oil over anyone trying to read a strange floppy into their machines!).
The long 11-hour bus ride from Upington to Pretoria turned out to be more comfortable than I had any reason to expect. We got into Pretoria a half hour after sunset... "dangerous" streets darkening fast. The bus staff assured me there were several decent hotels within a block or two of the station... and I soon found the quaint Hotel Victoria directly across the street from where we stopped, but not before I had managed to nervously walk the un-lighted streets for ten minutes in the wrong direction.
Previously restored by the owner of Rovos Rail in 1999, the century old hotel now exhibits most of its colonial glory. The current owners and staff of this family run establishment makes a big effort to recreate an 1895 colonial ambience. With only 12 rooms, each guest is assigned a named room... no numbers here. Mine is called Laioni and comes complete with 2 baths (one modern), a king-size brass poster bed, a TV room (with tiny TV) and a decanter of Sherry each evening. I took the best room they had, as the rate is only 250 Rand or about $31 per night partially due to a strong dollar.
The current owner's father died a year ago and left the hotel and a ranch to him and his brother. They drew lots to decide who would get the hotel; a small slip of paper with HOTEL penciled on it now occupies an honored place in a frame on the wall. Leo confesses he is not sure if he won or lost the draw. It is a lot of work keeping a 106-year-old building in top condition. Their website offers pictures of the building interior.
The dining room is right out of the days of British occupation; spacious, atrium ceilings, wicker chairs, elegant dining by candle light... a bit too romantic for a Buddhist monk like me. During my total of eight days in the hotel at least half of my breakfasts and dinners found me the only guest in a cavernous dining hall featuring polished wood floors and lush interior landscaping plus exquisite cuisine. Security could have been better as the hotel is located near the bus station; certainly this is not the best part of town, but only about eight blocks from city center.
Eventually the casual security prompted me to investigate other hotel options and I switched to the more centrally located and modern Bergers Park Hotel - the one used by Nelson Mandela when he is in town. I imagine Nelson Mandela has the equivalent of Secret Service bodyguards where ever he goes and that the areas around any place he is staying must be regularly cleared of ordinary security threats. However, the first night I heard what sounded like a gunshot just below my window and a couple nights later there were three bangs that seemed to come from the namesake Bergers Park just across the street. When asked, the hotel staff insisted that the city had cleaned up the area to make it safe for foreign visitors in recent months and that there had been no violent crimes reported for some time in the area. In any case, the streets near the hotel seemed safe enough; I could see conspicuous security personnel in front of the building and down the streets nearest the hotel.
Two and a half blocks toward city center I found one of the cyber cafes I used during my stay. Late afternoon sessions sometimes meant returning back to the hotel after dark. One night I decided to walk the additional two blocks on down to city center and the main Steers Restaurant there. As I walked, 6 to 8 police cars and motorcycles raced by and turned onto the mall sirens screaming. Later while munching on my chips and chicken I noticed a private uniformed security guard standing near the entrance to Steers... a shotgun partially hidden by his side. He seemed nervous and agitated.
Back at the counter to order a soft ice cream cone for desert, I asked the owner-manager how safe he considered the streets near the well-lighted restaurant. "Not very." he replied. "Along that street that runs back up to your hotel for example, there have been several muggings in the past month. No place is completely safe in the city, particularly for foreigners walking alone. You had better take a cab back to the hotel as dark as it is."
I checked with one of the cab drivers parked next to the restaurant and learned their "fear rate" for the 5 block drive would be 50 Rand or about $6. I declined the outrageous attempt at extortion and returned to the restaurant and ordered a can of Coco-Cola... plus a big plastic bag. On previous snack shopping trips I had discovered a soft drink can dangling in a plastic bag felt a lot like a weapon, as indeed it could be in an emergency.
Seated again licking my ice cream I thought a lot about human predators and their victims; and about animal predators and theirs. Lions prefer prey that are weak and unprotected. They often target victims preoccupied with other matters like eating and they use stealth to remain unseen as long as possible, then making a spirited dash for the final kill. They avoid targets that might be able to defend themselves. Full grown and alert adult males of even prey species seldom become lion lunch. Human predators are not that different, except for the added element of social disapproval. Most do not want a witness to their devilry and generally don't strike when other people might be watching. And, moving targets are always harder to hit.
Eventually I decided I'd been thinking long enough and picked up my Coca-Cola shillelagh marching out to meet the foe. Now nervous, I made a special effort to remain acutely alert to every potential threat along the way: would be assailants skulking in doorway shadows, gangs of thugs loitering on a street corner in my path. When I did once again reach my hotel unmolested, I realized I had forgotten to put on my cloak of fearlessness before starting the dash back. That more than anything probably increased my vulnerability on a five-block walk in the dark. Everyone has an opinion about personal safety for visitors in South Africa. I stumbled on to one particular site that could scare the devil out of a timid traveler!
The average South African faces dangers far worse than the threat of muggers, however. The other day newspaper headlines announced: "50% OF SA ADULTS DIE OF AIDS." Clearly, unprotected sex is a dramatically bigger health hazard than city street crime, at least for local folks. My guess is that Pretoria is no more dangerous than the streets of downtown Los Angeles or New York City. I met an insurance salesman who told me that few black people buy life insurance. I guess they don't feel threatened... or can't afford such a luxury. White people, on the other hand buy plenty, says he.
Sunday is a day of rest for most storeowners along the modern Church Street Mall; almost nothing is open in the center of the city other than a few cafes. During the week the area enlivens considerably. Throngs of shoppers can expect to be handed flyers along the way touting the virtues of various traditional healers, astrologers, herbalists and psychotherapists. "Doctors" aggressively advertise for new patients. Many have no academic credentials and a few calling themselves doctors seemed to be practicing with Bachelor's degrees in medicine! Of course, there are highly respected medical facilities here as well, but they seem to operate on an equal footing with the "witch doctors."
Beggars in the city are mostly polite or passive. None pressed their pleading beyond my first refusal. Most simply sat or stood displaying a collection container. Several people here have warned that muggings sometimes start with a feigned handout request. Most of the beggars I saw here looked pathetic, incapable of attacking anyone.
The papers and TV news reports are full of stories about black-white conflict. There are murders and home invasions everyday with both black and white victims. Whites fear property seizures or property devaluations because of the strife. Gun control is a contentious issue here as in the U.S.
Pretoria served as my home base for explorations east into Witbank and Nelspruit where I spent time checking out transportation into Mozambique. Witbank didn't impress me as worth exploring. Nelspruit, on the other hand offered charm and possibilities. It is the gateway to Kruger National Park and many safari companies use it in their programs. It is a totally modern town. My hotel sat on the edge of a delightful mall complete with a KFC restaurant. Didn't bother to take any pictures.
A nice site I found for more background information about Pretoria are located here.
That's it for this postcard. Another is in the works. (cont.)