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South Africa: My emotive stay in the Rainbow Nation

by Matt Thomas

My opening thoughts on South Africa on arrival at Tambo International airport, Johannesburg were somewhat contradictory. On the one hand, I was greeted by a local taxi driver who noticed that I looked slightly taken aback, as I could not see my driver and helped me work out where I needed to go, and all for no recompense. Similarly, the toilet attendant greeted me with a huge smile and “welcome to my office.” However, these feelings of welcome were swiftly balanced by the plastic bag wrap stalls as (“things occasionally get pilfered”) and the firearm check also hardened the relaxed nature of my outlook at this stage. So basically I was very welcome, but I might get shot and have my stuff stolen.

My first stop was Port Elizabeth where I had the luxury of staying with old friends. As with most people I had heard South Africa is a dangerous and violent country, but my thinking was, read the guidebooks, don’t take any unnecessary risks and you’ll be fine. One of the first things I noticed was the barbed wire around my friends garden and the fact that everyone pays £30-40/ $45-60 a month to private security firms whose armed response units arrive within twenty minutes. Any preconceptions I had were not allayed when at my friend’s daughter’s baptism, a man came into the church and stole of one the lady’s handbags, two men from the congregation gave chase and confronted the man who pulled a knife so they thought the better of it. This was day two, an interesting start!

Port Elizabeth or P.E, is in Eastern Province on the south coast, its’ main attractions being the animals in the surrounding game parks. You definitely need a car for Kragga Kamma, about 45 minutes from the town centre, as there was no evidence of organised tours. For the shear volume of animals over a relatively small area it is well worth a visit especially with entry for 40 ZAR ( about £4/$5). We saw rhinos, giraffes, zebras, bush pig, impala, ostrich and numerous different types of bucks. They also have tame cheetahs in an enclosure, (which I found a little sad and cruel to be honest) that you can hold. A tip: eat inside at the café or be prepared for monkeys swooping up behind you and literally grabbing the tasty sandwich off your plate and eating it right in front of you! And all this before demolishing the table condiments and trashing the customer toilets!

Travel and Talk Monekys destroying table at Kragga Kamma Photograph

Later on it’s definitely worth taking a scenic drive down to the coast and marvelling at the enormous beaches and impressive sand dunes.

About two hours to the north is the Addo Elephant National Park (north on the N2). An enormous game park that requires at least four hours to get round. Needless to say, we saw numerous elephants of all shapes and sizes as well as zebras, buffalo, ostrich, hartebeast, ducker, warthog and some tortoise flirting! (the male won in the end). Patience is required here as you can go an hour without seeing anything, especially with the high tree lines, and with it being inland it does get very hot in the middle of the day so aircon is a must, and bring plenty of drinks. Again, this was fantastic value at just 50 ZAR (£5 / $6-7) entry per person. The shop was good value and various and the bar/restaurant served tasty breakfasts, lunches and dinners.

Elephants and Baby Elephant Addo Elephant National Park Photograph

I jetted into Cape Town on a Sunday evening in late October and asked the cab driver as to how safe it was to which, he replied, “ it’s a safe city, but be careful, don’t draw attention to yourself, stay in the main areas and you’ll be fine.” He also told me about the influx of Nigerians over the last five years which has increased drug trafficking, prostitution and of course, violence. The legacy of the World Cup is clear for all to see, the airports are excellent and bright. Similarly, there is a huge choice of hostels with good facilities. I chose the St John’s Waterfront, about a twenty minute walk to the east of the city centre.

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A good place to start learning the history of black South Africa is the Cape Town Slave Lodge which gives a harrowing insight into the treatment of slaves imprisoned from Mozambique, Angola, China and the Philippines amongst others by the Dutch around the turn of the century. After the Boer War the British took over and in an increasingly familiar story of British colonialism conditions did not really improve.

I then walked the long walk down to the Waterfront to get the Robben Island ferry to the island where Nelson Mandela and numerous other political prisoners were held under Apartheid. This is an absolute must and requires advance booking up to a week in advance to get the time you want. After disembarking from the ferry there is a bus tour round the island which was informative and and our Robben Island guide had a real sense of purpose when he spoke and it seemed that he felt that what he was doing was important as educating tourists was pivotal for the future of South Africa. Like all South Africans he seemed on a journey to a better way after a violent and bloody recent history. The prison itself had, disappointingly, been painted and spruced up, nonetheless our guide, a former prisoner, gave a fascinating insight and spoke with authority and a sense of history. At the end of the tour, as you are ushered out, take a right towards A block where you will find the cells as they were left and inside are brilliant pen pics, and the odd piece of memorabilia of the prisoners. This is not part of the official tour but it is not closed (although I did feel a little naughty as I was the only person poking around in there).

On day two in Cape Town, my sole plan was to get the Table Mountain cable car. The mountain looks spectacularly over the city and is one of the most iconic vistas of South Africa. It’s worth noting that it does close in high winds and bad weather, ( a frequent occurrence apparently) and during peak season (about October to April) does get very busy so booking on-line can save a little time queueing at the desk on arrival. The top is actually very wide and you can easily spend an hour walking the trails. Maybe it was me, but I found the maps marking the trails down very difficult to fathom and I ended up over the back and did not see another soul for about two hours. I thought I was on the way out but having found a map I reasoned I actually needed to basically go back on myself and back to the cable car. That said, the views from the back are breathtaking and well worth the unplanned detour, all the better if you are a fan of silence and solitude. Any climber will tell you going down is much harder than going up, so the descent on foot does call for a reasonable level of fitness and not too many people attempted it. However, it is well marked and perfectly safe, do bring water with you though.

The tourist bus is just about worth it at 100 ZAR (about £10 / $15) for a hop on and off day pass, providing you don’t need to be anywhere quickly. Of the other museums in Cape Town the District Six is the most poignant and important. It details the slum clearances of the 60s as black south Africans in Cape Town were evicted from their homes of 30-40 years to make way for white urbanization of the city centre. The black population were moved to townships well out of the city. The personal tales and wonderful collection of memorabilia were the highlights of the museum. Having arrived near closing I was not charged and the staff were pleasantly in no rush to get rid of lingering visitors.

Having flown into Cape Town, I took the Garden Route bus back to Port Elizabeth (270 ZAR/ £30/$45) with Intercape, having been told that spring time was the best time to do it. The scenery was indeed beautiful, ranging from flowers in bloom, lush green farmlands to rugged red landscapes and forests. My curse of making buses breakdown on long journeys (previously Iceland and Nepal) struck again, causing a 30 minute delay but quite impressively, the drivers replaced the fan belt and we were back on schedule. I was constantly asked if I needed drinks by the attendant which did become a little annoying after a while, but that aside, it was a perfectly pleasant 11 hour trip. The main bus station in Port Elizabeth is not a safe place especially after dark so arrange pick up at Greenacres.

In Johannesburg most hostels offer pick up from the airport and the man from Brown Sugar Backpackers in the eastern suburbs was right on time. Lilliesleaf farm in the north of the city was the secret headquarters of the ANC (African National Congress) in the 1960s and charts the story of liberation using visuals and various high tech displays across ten buildings including audio clips, films and other great innovative tools. Again, this was good value at 95 ZAR (£10/$15) and again the staff were very pleasant and friendly. However, it is a long drive out of the centre and a £25 / $40 taxi fare each way from the eastern suburbs.

Expensive taxi fares being a necessary evil in Johannesburg. My taxi driver, Constance, was very friendly and happy to talk about anything. I asked her if the city is as dangerous as you read, to which the answer was basically yes, the centre is not really safe and you should most definitely avoid quiet, dimly lit areas at night. Coming from a local as opposed to the usual scaremongering of western media and guidebooks, I was glad of this advice. The Museum of Military History has a vast collection of planes and tanks from the last century and South African military involvement in World War One and Two. There are also bright and factual displays of the Boer War. A military buff’s heaven I should think and the range of military artefacts is very impressive including cannons, spitfires and German panzas (tanks).

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My hostel, Brown Sugar Backpackers Johannesburg was excellent, it had a pool, comfortable beds and clean bathrooms, a lively bar, balcony and lounge/TV area. However, they had introduced a new key system for the drinks machines which brilliantly meant that for one reason or another the barman couldn’t open any of the three fridges to get me a coke which was admittedly quite funny and a reminder that “this is Africa.”

Travel and Talk Brown Sugar Backpackers Johannesburg Photograph

The Apartheid museum is not to be missed. At the start, depending on your ticket you are split into “whites and non-whites” and must stick to the path. This is a very effective tool as one physically could not get to what the other side could see, a haunting example of what was to come. I found myself welling up at numerous points around the museum at the stories of cruelty, violence and inhumanity under apartheid. The nooses displaying the number of political prisoners killed and the videos from the townships from the late 80s and early 90s depicting the riots and physicality of the struggle were particularly poignant. I picked the Museum of Africa for my last sight. It contains a good variety of historical and cultural displays of gay, lesbian and transsexual history of Johannesburg. The museum is located in the Newtown area and although nothing happened to me, I did feel on my guard and a little wary.

My final thoughts would be that South Africa is by far the friendliest, most welcoming country I have ever visited in many years of travel. The service at hostels, bars, restaurants is wonderful and everyone smiles. In terms of racial equality there is still some way to go. Picking up a couple of newspapers it seems the ruling party are generally perceived among whites as fat cats lining their own pockets who are not really changing anything for the vast majority of black south Africans. The consensus seems to be that for this generation the scars are still fresh, and it will be the next one before things are close to be being truly evened out. However, I sensed a universal determination to move the country in the right direction and would urge anyone to visit this truly great and beautiful country and draw their own conclusions.


Visas: UK, US, Australia or New Zealand passport holders do not require one for stays of up to 90 days.

Hostel: £10 – £15 per night / $15- $25. – Johannesburg. – Cape Town. 

Beer: £1 / $1.50
Flight: Port Elizabeth – Cape Town £90 / $140  – cheaper.

Bus: Cape Town – Port Elizabeth £30 / $45

Flights from UK:  £600-900 Flights from the US $1200 – $1400

Budget: Allow £40 / $60 per day staying in hostels. Transport is expensive but everyday costs such as food are generally reasonable.

Tipping: Tips are expected as wages are still painfully low especially in the service industries

Robben Island:

Kragga Kamma:  Addo Elephant Park:
Table Mountain:

Time to go: October to March