From Cape Town to Port Elizabeth, South Africa


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I started this journal entry/email to friends on Feb. 20 and finally completed it today, Feb. 28, 2016. I thought folks here might like to see it too. Enjoy!
Today (2/20) was supposed to be our final day in Cape Town, but we decided to stay an extra day before leaving tomorrow to drive a portion of the famous Garden Route. The drive from Cape Town to Port Elizabeth is about 6-7 hours, if you do it without making stops. We will do it over a few days, after a detour to the wine lands, but we have yet to decide exactly where we'll stop (although we have gotten lots of advice from various friends and acquaintances, since it is a very popular drive for tourists to make in one direction or the other).

We have been in Cape Town for the last eight days and have had a really wonderful time here. Once again we took advantage of the HOHO - the hop on, hop off bus - to get a sense of the geography and to get to many of the major sites. We went to Table Mountain, Kirschenbosch Botanical Gardens, 3 townships, and the waterfront (which is a busy port, an upscale mall, and an area of hotels, restaurants and outdoor entertainment). We visited the Parade Grounds where Nelson Mandela addressed the country immediately upon his release from prison on Feb. 11, 1990 and the South African Jewish Museum which tells not just the story of the Jews in SA but much of the history of the early years of SA. We were impressed with the entire museum but spent the most time in the exhibit on Helen Suzman, the Jewish member of Parliament who for many years was the only member to voice any opposition to the policies of the apartheid regime, and who spoke up repeatedly and unceasingly for those in prison, those living in squalor in the townships, and to attempt to improve the conditions of the migrant workers and their families, who were usually left behind.

We did both a walking tour of what is left of District Six, and a visit to the District 6 Museum, which is devoted to the tragic story of how the residents of this flourishing multicultural neighborhood were expelled and the entire area, with the exception of a few churches, was totally leveled. This fate was not exclusive to District 6. While many forms of segregation existed from the early years of SA's history, there were some places where people of different groups mixed, mingled, and lived together harmoniously. Frightened of the implications and eager to create a totally segregated society, those in power after 1948 approved apartheid policies to make such neighborhoods illegal, at the same time earmarking these areas to be new neighborhoods for whites only. Many, many residents of neighborhoods all over the country, some of whom were legal property owners, and/or had lived there for two generations or more, where evicted and resettled in inhospitable areas that were far from their previous homes and jobs, and offered neither employment nor the ability to farm.

I took a half day tour to Cape Point, the southern most tip of Western Africa, a tour that included a stop in Simon's Town to see the penguins that live on the coast there. We both did the tour of Robben Island, which I am sad to say was somewhat disappointing; we thought the docent and displays in the prison and courthouse on Constitution Hill in JoBurg did a much better job of handling this very sensitive part of the country's history. We had some lovely meals, sampled various wines, got together with friends and I found a pinotage - which is a red wine particular to SA - that I really liked. We will try to bring a few bottles home.

Feb. 24

While I had high hopes of finishing the above before we left Cape Town, being on vacation seems to get in the way of journaling! I am now in Port Elizabeth, after some time in the wine country and then driving the Garden Route. We just finished a delicious Indian meal and are getting ready to fly back to JoBurg in the morning.

Our first stop after Cape Town was Stellenbosch. It is only about 45 minutes away from Cape Town, and after picking up our rental car we drove directly there. (As an aside, we were able to rent an automatic vehicle from Hertz. When we checked various sites online both from Portland and then again while here, no automatics were ever available, but Bob's quick call to a local Hertz office in Cape Town got us one at a very reasonable rate. We found a number of times when trying to reserve things like cars or entry/tour tickets that by calling we could find availability that did not appear online, but that's another story for perhaps a later write up of hotels, tours, cars, etc.) Bob, who had to drive on the "wrong" side of the road, was very, very glad to get the automatic and it made for a much easier and less stressful journey.

Most visitors go to Stellenbosch for the wine and that was a draw for us, but we were also quite curious to see a town that was originally settled by Afrikaaners, with a university where the main language of instruction remains Afrikaans. Under apartheid it was white and Afrikaans only, and it remained so even after democracy, but lately as the U tries to expand the number of foreign students, more English is being used. The language of instruction has long been a flashpoint; the requirement that all instruction be in Afrikaans in schools prompted the student riots in 1976 that were a major step towards the eventual dismantling of apartheid, after the country basically became ungovernable as more and more protests happened in the following years.

We visited the campus on a Sunday, not the best day, but we did chat with few students. One first year from Pretoria (another Afrikaans stronghold) liked being able to learn and write her exams in Afrikaans but pointed out with a show-and-tell with her Chem text that their books are in English, and she said that her more advanced classes will be in taught in English. She also said that students have the choice of writing their exams in either language in the lower level courses. A little less than a third of the students at the university are now non-white, but walking around they were not much in evidence.

Speaking of universities, the new term started here in early February, and there have been many protests on the various campuses, some of which have gotten violent. While they initially addressed shortages in accommodations for students, protests are addressing other issues too. Last term, there was a wide and successful protest known as "Fees Must Fall." "Fees Must Fall" followed protests that "Rhodes Must Fall," with "Rhodes" a quick way to express anti-colonial sentiment. At the U in Pretoria, black students rallied to urge that no instruction happen in Afrikaans and the Afrikaans students then held counter demonstrations. Most of the people we've spoken to who are of Afrikaans heritage think that the use of their language in universities should not be abolished.

I may write more at some point about the student demonstrations and Bob no doubt will have much to say since he is here to learn about Higher Ed post apartheid, but I'll spare you more now and get us back to Stellenbosch. A highlight of our visit was a tasting at Die Bergkelder / Fleur du Cap where they also had tastings of specialty salts, a selection of foods made with the salts, and wines paired to particular salts/foods. We enjoyed the wine first alone, and then with food, and could really see how the pairings enhanced the flavors and tastes. I also tried the salts on their own, and marveled at their differences. There was a small wine museum at this winery and also informative displays on the salts. When the manager, who struck up an enthusiastic conversation with us during the hour or so we visited, learned the trip was partly to celebrate our upcoming 40th anniversary, she immediately instructed her helpers to present us with few bottles of wine! We also purchased some pinotage, the wine unique to SA that I've enjoyed at restaurants. We are not very knowledgeable about wine and so were drawn to this vineyard because of the unique inclusion of salt tastings and food pairings, and we were not disappointed. BTW their cellar is built into a mountain, which is also unique for this area.

Leaving Stellenbosch, Bob mastered driving on the right as we drove to and then on the Garden Route. In fact, he was passing trucks in no time and we sped right along. I had had some mixed feelings about doing this drive. It seems that nearly everybody who has room in their itinerary does it, especially if the itinerary includes Cape Town. We've had the pleasure of driving many gorgeous coastlines and frankly I was a bit skeptical that the views would really be worth it and/or that different from what we've seen. But we were quite glad we did. The views were lovely, I was thrilled to see another ocean, and the countryside was very different from what we had already seen in other parts of SA. We quickly noticed similarities to areas west of Portland and to the Oregon Coast: evergreen trees, although much shorter ones; a timber industry with numerous logging trucks on the road; and gorgeous green vistas.

We had made no hotel reservations but easily found lots of availability for very reasonably priced b&b options online. To find a place to stay, we would pull into a town, go right to a Wimpy's or KFC, get a drink and the wifi pw, and we were in business. As Bob would say, KFC, which seems to be everywhere and even serves a few SA specialties, is, at least for wifi, the Starbucks of SA . It only failed us once, causing me to finally use a bit of data on my iPhone. We paid between $52 and $71 a night and the $71 room was very new, enormous and quite upscale. Had we been staying for longer than a night at each, I would have been more choosy, but all the places were perfectly adequate and our strategy gave us the luxury of deciding each day how far we would get.

Our favorite day was spent at Tsitsikamma National Park. Views of the Indian Ocean, quite stunning all along the route, were especially beautiful from the park and we "hiked" to three suspension bridges that span sections of a bay at Storms River. I say "hiked" because the whole trail is a narrow wooden boardwalk, but it was still a bit rigorous, since hundreds of steps lead you up and down as you wend your way to the end. It is a good thing I was unaware of the number of steps before we set out, since it might have given me pause, but I was quite glad I did it and the half hour in and then back out again was a good workout. The hike done, before leaving for our final destination of Port Elizabeth we watched the tide come in, crashing over the rocks. We had a hard time leaving the ocean; I just could not get enough of the turquoise color the water turned when a wave hit the rocks in just the right way, and we kept waiting for "just one more" wave to break.

This is probably a good place for me to break too, but there is so much more I could say about our many, varied impressions: our conversations with the people we've met about how the country has changed post-apartheid; how despite its very cosmopolitan Cape Town, in many ways this is still a third world country; the ways past and present racism impact nearly everything in subtle or blatant ways; and so much more. But for now, thanks for reading!