A waterfall begins with only one drop of water...
Heading from the Delta towards Zimbabwe is Baobab Planet, in Botswana. As the name implies, the camp is a field of Baobab trees. The baobab is nicknamed 'the upside-down tree' - it looks like it’s been picked out of the ground and stuffed back in upside down.
A legend is the baobab tree was envious of other trees and complained all the time, asking to be taller or to have nice flowers. The Gods became angry at the tree's constant moaning, so to shut it up they pulled it up by its roots and replanted it upside down. African lore states that after creation, all the animals were given a tree to plant, and the stupid hyena planted the baobab upside down.
There is also a scientific reason why the baobab looks like it does. In the wet months, up to 100,000 litres of water is stored in its thick, fire-resistant trunk for the dry months ahead. The baobab can grow up to 25 metres tall and live for several thousand years.
The tree not only looks great, but it’s also useful. The bark is used for cloth and rope; the leaves - which grow in the wet season - for condiments and medicines, also to be eaten; the fruit, called monkey bread and rich in Vitamin C, is also eaten - and can be made into a refreshing drink. In dense regions, some people live inside the huge trunks - providing them with a safe, fire-resistant shelter. The trees are also said to be inhabited by spirits, and whoever cuts one down will be haunted.
We spent the night camping beside the second largest baobab in southern Africa, at least 1,000 years old. It took 15 of us to surround its trunk, linked by our fingertips.
Next stop was Victoria Falls.
To put the scene at Victoria Falls into words is difficult. It’s such an extraordinary setting, it seems mythical.
The thunder of the Falls can be heard from inside the town itself. You can see the misty spray like a blanket over the distant land.
The town is only a few minutes walk from the falls and is a tourist hub, filled with many craft and African art shops, ranging from top class to cheap souvenirs. The people are friendly, but their poverty is noticeable from the moment of arrival. We were there on a Thursday, and already cars were lined up along the street waiting for petrol which would arrive on the following Monday.
Things are cheap because of the diminishing Zimbabwean economy, with a two course meal for as little as AUD$2. At the markets, you can buy brilliant masks and statues for just a few dollars. The only expenses are tourist-attractions, charged in American dollars.
I settled for an afternoon cruise along the Zambezi River, sipping cocktails as the sun set over the River’s edge and watching a family of hippos soak in the water beside me.
The wet season had finished and, like the Delta, the Zambezi River was flooded. The waters from the river poured over the cliff faces with tremendous force. We were told we’d be lucky to see anything once in the Falls National Park itself, but we had no qualms paying the US$20 to find out.
The falls themselves are 1708 metres wide, making it the largest curtain of water in the world. It drops around 100m into the Zambezi Gorge at an average rate of 550,000 cubic metres of water every minute.
I became enchanted with Victoria Falls the first time I watched The Power of One, a movie about Apartheid in the 1940s, based on the novel by Australian author Bryce Courtenay. The Victoria Falls scene in the movie is not only powerful because the falls are there, but also because of the story that lies behind the scene.
The main character, PeeKay goes there to reflect on his life and what step to take next - whether to defy the laws of Apartheid and help the black communities learn English (however because he is only one man, how far will his teaching go?), or whether to go to live and study in London, and ignore the changing world and the degradation suffered by an entire race of people – many of them his friends.
The falls is the place where PeeKay goes to reflect upon his life and his future. In the end, even though he is alone in his endeavour, he decides to help the community become one, and states: "A waterfall begins with only one drop of water. Look what comes from that".
I know the scene well and it inspired me to seek out my own future at the falls.
As I walked down a pathway leading to a lookout in the national park, the first thing I saw through the trees was a rainbow of colours stretching across the vast array of falling droplets. The rainbow at Victoria Falls is almost a symbol of the falls itself. It’s rare to see a double rainbow, yet on the day I was there, the heavens opened up for me.
Without realising it, tears were streaming down my cheeks and standing at the edge of the falls seeing it for the first, and probably last, time I took the time to reflect momentarily on my young life to that point.
I thought about how much I had achieved and the dreams I’d made come true, that so many people only talk about. I thought about the four places in Africa I'd always dreamed of seeing - a game park, Table Mountain, the Okavango Delta and Victoria Falls. The tears were streaming and I was exceedingly happy.
I cried because I was finally at Victoria Falls – a place I never thought I’d see. I cried for its beauty - unhurt by mankind. I cried for the people of Africa - not only for their hardship, but also because of the beautiful country they have and the pride they have taken in it and themselves. I cried because finally my dream had come true. And I cried because it was the final dream of my childhood and, at that point, I had no dreams left to work towards.
To have imagined a place for so many years and to be there standing at its side, watching as it portrayed its unique beauty and rose above my expectations, was one of the most emotional times I will ever have in my life.
After this initial introduction to Victoria Falls, it was time to take in every aspect of its natural charm. I walked around the paths, sometimes standing right on the edge of the falls, drenched with the spray of water. At times I could see nothing but mist, which felt more like torrential rain as it poured over me; and at other times the mist would clear and I could see right over to the other side of the falls. On that day, Victoria Falls seemed to do everything perfectly.
Victoria Falls was my last stop in Africa, and the moment I left, I began to feel empty. Even though I’d seen and done everything I’d ever wanted – and so much more – I really wasn’t ready to leave this beautiful land.
In Africa, I saw all my childhood dreams come true. Now I needed to set myself new goals for the future - particularly to, one day, return. Until then, Africa would remain in my heart.
On the road again, Rundu was next stop. Rundu is at the very North of Namibia, on the border to Angola. Around the border, there are more than 200 refugee camps, established to protect Angolan citizens from 27 years of civil war between the Angolan Armed Forces (AAF) and the National Union for Total Independence of Angola (UNITA). The AAF and UNITA signed a memorandum of understanding to cease fighting in April 2003 – the same time as we were there - and peace was formally declared in August the same year.
At Rundu I joined in traditional dances and slept peacefully in my tent, knowing I was out of harms’ way. The Okavango Delta would be the next stop and there I would be camping in the wild. We drove on to Ngepi camp, which lies on the Kavango River, on the Namibian side of the Okavango Delta.
An oasis in the Kalahari, the campsite is nestled between the Mahango Game Park and Bwabwata National Parks, along the only river that feeds the Delta. At sunset I was treated to a song by playful hippos. I could hear their splashes and grunts, but was unable to see them.
Our guides had told us the Delta was going to be truly “roughing it”. In the middle of Botswana wetlands, we would be camping with no facilities at all and little comfort.
The morning arrived of the venture into the Delta itself, but first we had to cross the border from Namibia into Botswana. Not a problem, but the luck didn’t last long. A few kilometres over the border, we experienced a tyre blow-out. It was so loud people came rushing from their homes (some of which were hundreds of metres away), to see what the commotion was all about. Half an hour later we had a new tyre and continued along towards the Delta.
Within seconds, we heard another blow. The new tyre had blown. As it was changed to the only spare left, we were all left standing once again in the African heat by the side of the road. This time, locals - mothers, children and the elderly - surrounded us as though we were a side show. I guess to them, we were.
We finally made it to the pick-up point at Etsha 6, on the central-eastern side of the Delta. As we moved in through the reeds, waters and mud in another truck better equipped to handle the terrain, the first thing I noticed was the mosquitos. They were everywhere.
The risk of getting malaria was really the only thing that scared me about Africa. I thought they would only come out after dark, but there were millions of them. I was taking my malaria medication, but I was lucky and didn’t get bitten at all.
The truck drove us as far as possible before we moved onto speed boats and weaved our way through the mangroves and weeds, ducking at every turn for fear of copping a huge tree in our faces. We arrived at the first major island – our hotel for the night, with our mokoro guides to arrive the next morning to take us further.
The afternoon was spent relaxing, and by 6pm I’d already eaten dinner and was in my tent to escape the mosquitoes. During the night, it was hard to sleep, listening to the sounds of the bush - the call of hippos in the distance, monkeys climbing through the trees and the thunderous sound of a herd of elephants walking in waters nearby.
The mokoro ride to the next camp was only an hour. Because we'd arrived after the rainy season, the waters were too high to go further as the mokoros could not be commissioned if the guides couldn’t touch the ground with their sticks.
After setting up camp we walked through the bush, learning about the local plants, watching monkeys and antelope at play, and a mokoro ride through the islands nearby.
The toilet was a hole in the ground in plain view of everyone, something I found impossible to use and ended up in extreme pain for days later because of it. I’d also been drinking water from the Delta after not taking enough supply myself. I thought the water itself would make me sick, but aside from major constipation, I survived the entire experience quite well.
My stomach was aching and bloated and I felt so sick I could barely move from my tent. I never imagined I’d be pleased to leave the Delta, but my stomach was making sure I didn’t want to stay. A mokoro ride and speed boat later, we were at the last camp we would stay at the Delta – fully equipped with showers, a bar, and THANK GOD … toilets! I’d never been so happy to see a bathroom.
Life in the Delta - a 6,000 square mile labyrinth of lagoons, channels and islands - is unique. To a stranger, it is incomprehensive.
Our guide, Kila, was 18 years old and had lived in the Delta all his life.
He knew each turn as though it were a street he had to cross every day. I guess to him, it was.
The only way to see this unique landscape is by mokoro... and for that you must have a trained guide. All guides are born and raised among the reeds and islands.
In Kila's village, there are 200 people, all of whom are experts in steering mokoros - something they are taught from an early age and something only the locals are allowed to do.
In total, there are around 100,000 people who call the Delta home. There are five ethnic groups among them - Bugakwe and Dxeriku (both also live in northern Namibia and southern Angola), Hambukushu (also in northern Namibia, southern Angola and south-western Zambia), Wayeyi and Xanekwe (both also in northern Namibia). Each group has its own history, language and distinctiveness.
Bugakwe and Xanekwe are both San tribes, the first inhabitants of southern Africa, known for their hunting-gathering skills.
Dxeriku, Hambukushu and Wayeyi are Bantu - more recent inhabitants of the area who are believed to have migrated from central Africa several hundred years ago. They are known for fishing, hunting, collecting wild plant foods, and cattle and goat herding.
Hambukushu are the predominant tribe within the Delta - a land where crocodiles and cattle live side-by-side.
Although our guides were dressed poorly, an outsider told us they were actually quite rich because Botswana operates on US Dollars. We were told to only tip with clothes, and not money.
In three days, I learnt so much about the people and their lives. About their ability to find a use for anything and everything that grows naturally in the region, their openness and friendliness with strangers, and their connection with the wildlife.
I watched a guide track the path of a herd of elephants by examining their faeces. He knew when they had been here and what they’d eaten. He tracked them to the waters’ edge and beyond to an island close-by. Tracking a lion was as simple.
He also talked about the various plant species and their natural uses. One had a minty scent, with thick bristles in the broken stem - a natural toothbrush. Another was used for glue with its sticky sap. Reeds used as soap. There was also an abundance of fruit in the Marula trees – also a source of alcohol. He showed us evidence of a drunken elephant that had eaten too many marula fruits and broken tree branches where it had stumbled.
In my few days spent there, I was taught many things. A particular less I learned myself was that even the simplest things can be beneficial – you have to look beyond what you see initially. Astounding that in a region like the Delta - where each small island is surrounded by disease infested waters - so much can grow and flourish, and have such a great purpose.
The Delta was an incredible place. The way the mokoros glided through the reeds, the sun gleaming on the water as the sun set behind one of the many islands. The wild calls at night and the smell of clean air, free from the pollutants of city life; the feeling of being completely in the wild, surrounded by water, with no escape if something did go wrong.
The first time I saw a giraffe, my heart began racing and my eyes welled with tears. I still couldn’t really believe I was living my dream in Africa and seeing a giraffe for the first time proved to me I was.
Etosha National Park, in North-Eastern Namibia, is one of the largest national parks in Africa, covering a total area of more than 22,000 square kilometres. Its primary feature is a 4,500km2 saltpan. In the wet season, many of the seasonal rivers flow into the pan. In the dry season, it looks like a white desert - a vast and empty space. Surrounding the pan, you will find a vast array of wildlife. We arrived at Okaukuejo camp, located almost in the centre of the park, at sundown.
Following the giraffe sighting on the outskirts of the national park, we ventured further in and almost immediately saw an African elephant. Although it was far away, its beauty was obvious from the first moment. I didn't get to stop for long, but things only got better as night settled. I set up camp and headed straight for the waterhole for sunset.
At the waterhole, an elephant stood just metres from me. It was the most superb creature I had ever come into contact with. I stood just a few metres away watching it stride heavily, yet so gracefully, around the waterhole. Its tusks bore through the air like a sword, and its trunk swayed like leaves on the wind. It was the ideal representation of Africa - the elephant, its body a perfectly mirrored reflection on the water, with the golden-red, flaming sunset in the background.
A few minutes later, the elephant became agitated, ears out, watching the horizon. Slowly and cautiously making its way to the waterhole was a rhinoceros. I sat silently as the elephant paced around the waterhole, as though warning the rhino not to come any closer, or at least checking to make sure the rhino was not going to cause him trouble. I sat silently because I had no words. Besides, any words spoken would have ruined the moment.
I returned to the scene again after dinner and saw the rhinoceros again, but this time it had returned with a baby. Unfortunately the lights weren’t working at the waterhole, so I could only see the shadows created by a torch on the far side of the fence. But just knowing what was happening in the shadows was still enough to make me smile.
Shortly after I retired to my camp bed, I heard someone running through camp excitedly yelling about an elephant at the waterhole. As much as I wanted to sleep, I knew I had to look for myself. For someone to be that excited, it must have been something special. And it was.
Right in front of us was a herd of more than 30 elephants. There were mothers with babies, juveniles and one single bull - the king of his clan. The juveniles played together, splashing water, knocking each other around, and running like children in a park. The mothers and babies stayed close together, oblivious to us watching them. And the bull paraded himself around, showing off his strength and beauty. Cows watched him from all angles of the watering hole. Some stayed far back; others came forward to try to tempt him with their beauty. The juveniles teased him, but he used his trunk to knock them playfully out of his way.
I sat and watched the parade of elephants for more than half an hour before they began to move out - searching for a place to rest for the night. It was a memory I will hold deep within my heart forever. It was my moment in Africa... and everything I hoped it would be.
The drive through Etosha continued the next day to the Namutoni campsite on the far edge of the park. As the morning was scorching, animals were scarce. While many people in the truck with me took the opportunity to catch up on some sleep, I couldn’t bear to close my eyes for fear of missing something.
Later in the day I was treated to giraffe just metres from the roadside. I also saw them at waterholes - their long necks reaching far down into the water; beside the road with heads high, they ate leaves from the top branches of the tallest trees - their golden colouring shining through the browns and greens of the bushland; and a lone giraffe walking carelessly across an open plain - making the long walk to a forest of trees that must have looked more lush than the ones it had left behind.
I was also thrilled to see springbok, kudu, hartebeest, wilder-beast and ostriches, together in a world so different from my own.
At one point, ahead of us a number of vehicles had stopped. Moving closer I encountered my first lion. Although they were far away, you could clearly distinguish the Lion, three lioness and four cubs. It was a beautiful image, even at such a distance.
The pride was metres away from a large herd of Springbok. This was something in itself, for the Springbok showed no signs of fear. Perhaps it was because they were upwind and knew the lions would not be able to smell them, or perhaps because they knew the lionesses were not in hunting mode. Whatever they were thinking, it was heart stirring to see such a fearsome predator so close to its fearless prey.
Heading out of the park, a herd of elephants stood on the side of the road, as if ready to wave us on our way. The bull among them was enormous and stood larger than the truck.
It was mating season. And during the mating season, bull elephants produce large amounts of a hormone known as musth, which makes them more aggressive, as well as sexually active. With a few metres between the bull and us, we could see musth secretions on its temporal glands. We were in the bull’s territory and his reaction was unpredictable.
We sat silently, watching as the he wandered onto the road right in front of us. We stared in awe as this phenomenal creature slowly crept away from the truck... and most of us jumped in fear as it turned around and mock-charged us! We hightailed it out of there quick smart.
Never, ever piss off a horny elephant.
As I caught my breath I smiled. There I was, sitting in the middle of a game park in Africa, with my eyes pinned on the most magical animal in its kingdom. I couldn't help but feel very alive.
Cape Town, South Africa –
Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe
Our first overnight stop was Clanwilliam Dam, in the Cederberg region. Oranges and lemons grow in the valleys of the Cederberg Mountains and Clanwilliam Dam was built at the lower end of Oliphants River, with the dam water led to the fields through a wide web of canals. The town of Clanwilliam itself is one of the oldest towns in South Africa.
Next stop, Orange River. South Africa’s major river, it rises in Lesotho (Eastern South Africa) and flows 2200km westward where it eventually spreads into the Atlantic Ocean. We were staying at the west end, where the river acts as a border between South Africa and Namibia, separating the massive sand dunes of the lower Namib Desert from the swept-rock moonscape of north-western Namaqualand.
Being from an island country, I'd always wondered what it would be like at a border crossing between two countries and here I was, sitting in South Africa looking across the Orange River into Namibia. Border control here seems very strict in general. The men carry guns and do not smile ... yet just a few hundred metres up the river you can swim across to Namibia. It seems so simple and some of the people in the tour I was made the crossing themselves. I imagine behind the trees and cows though there are at least fences, if not more men with guns watching our every step intently. Surely, it can’t be that simple in Africa to cross from one country to the other. Being from Australia, I'd never imagined another country can be so close, yet seem so far away.
Fish River Canyon was the next stop and another place I’d often stared at in pictures on my wall. Like Africa in general, I couldn't believe I was actually there, standing at the top of the canyon looking down to the bottom. It’s the second largest canyon in the world after the Grand Canyon in the USA and it’s about 160km long, 27km wide and 550 metres deep. Forces of water, wind, gravity and earth movements began forming the canyon’s contours around 650 million years ago; eventually creating the massive ravine that exists today.
The Fish River is the longest interior river in Namibia. Its current flow is nothing compared to the immense amount of water that poured down its length in the past though. While thousands of years ago, animals would never go thirsty and flora thrived, today it is dry rock, sparsely covered with drought resistant plants. Even after the floodwaters subside there are just a few small pools of water left.
After watching the sun set over the Canyon, we drove on into the depths of the Namibian desert to Solitaire. Solitaire is appropriately named since one man solely runs the village and it exists only to service those heading to the dunes or canyon.
It was driving through the deserts of Namibia that I saw my first real African animal – the zebra. It looked different to the ones I’d seen in photos and drawings and was striped brown, not black and white. A Burchell’s Zebra, it had broad vertical stripes on the sides, which bent to become horizontal stripes across the rump. The stripes extended down the legs to meet under the stomach. There are two other species of zebra in Africa – Grevy’s Zebra, which is found in Kenya, Ethiopia and Somalia; and the Mountain Zebra, also in Namibia and western South Africa.
The dust in Namibia is so unsettled. Within seconds of being outside, your glasses fog up with dirt and you can’t see your hand in front of you. It was a bit annoying, but it was also just another part of Africa to get used to. To look around at the vast emptiness of the desert, and to the mountains in the distance, I realised it wasn’t the prefect green grass and clean air I’d always dreamed about seeing - it's the dirt and grit of Africa that has fascinated me. And here, I got to experience it all first-hand.
Namibia is an alluring country, with a magical oasis in its heart. With some of the world’s highest sand dunes, Sossusvlei, in the Namib-Naukluft National Park, is a picture of beauty and elegance - its golden-red sands shining down upon the barren earth below.
The highest dune is Big Daddy, measuring more than 350 metres high, rising on a 45-degree angle. But the desert’s most popular feature, also the most accessible, is Dune 45. This dune reaches more than 170 metres and is unromantically named after the distance it sits, in kilometres, from Sesriem Canyon.
It was at Dune 45 that I would see heaven and earth collide with the rising sun.
We arrived at 5am to start our climb. The aim was to reach the top before sunrise. Looking at its height and curves from ground level, this seemed an almost impossible feat.
To walk up the dune you have to walk along the edge - one wrong step and you could slide with the sand. The path is about a foot wide and your feet sink into the ground, making it so much harder to continue. It’s an even bigger problem when you meet with traffic – people on their way back down to the ground or those with more energy passing you by. Half the time it feels like you’re stepping in the same spot over and over again. This is probably why it takes so long to walk it.
At 6am, I was still about 50 metres from the top but couldn’t push myself any further. My breathing was rapid, my heart felt as though it was trying to break through my chest, and the muscles in my legs were aching, almost to the point of collapse. Though it was freezing cold, I was covered in sweat. I stopped and sat on cold sand to wait half an hour for the sun to rise.
My breathing slowed and my heart ached to slow down to standing rate. The cold dried the sweat, leaving me shaking with no jumper. But it wasn’t for long.
The sun began to rise over the golden-red sands and this time, my breath was completely taken away.
When I’d reached this point of Dune 45, the view of the desert had been filled with shadows and the sun was just beginning to light up the sky in a faint orange tinge. Now, I could see the sun fully rising over the horizon. The dark shadows disappeared and I was faced with a fire-like beauty as the sun shone on the red sands.
The desert is 32,000sq km in total and because of the red colouring of the sand, it’s believed to be the oldest desert in the world. Slow iron oxidisation and fragments of garnets cause the colour change. The older the dune is, the brighter its colour.
The sunrise turned the shadowed sands into a mirage of orange, red and mauve. More dunes dominate the landscape below, lighting up with the new day. The ground seemed miles away and the beauty unfolding at this height concealed the desolate surface. I could only sit and stare with fascination at the wondrous panorama opening up before me.
I felt as though I could lose myself in this moment, but as the sun continued to rise I was faced with a harsh reality. Within an hour, the sand would be too hot to stand on and windstorms would cause great pain if sand blew into my face and eyes. It was time to leave this magical setting behind and go back to reality.
Coming down from the top of Dune 45 is much easier on the legs, and the lungs. It’s possible to run if you have the energy, to toboggan down the sides if you have a towel or jacket you don’t mind getting dirty, or to leisurely retrace your footsteps along the edge.
The drive to Swakopmund saw an instant change in temperature and an amazing contrast which saw us driving through desert on our right with the Atlantic Ocean close just metres away on our left.
Swakopmund, itself, was nothing like I imagined. After seeing Cape Town, which exceeded my expectations, I imagined Swakopmund to be similar, but instead it reminded me of a sleepy little tourist village. Walking along the beach we were faced with a picture-perfect image - a river and greenery with flamingos dancing among the reeds, the beach on the other side, and kilometres of desert stretching out in front.
Founded by a German explorer in 1892 as the main harbour for South-West Africa, it has population of around 35,000 and is the premier beach resort of Namibia.
Spitzkoppe was the next stop and is home to the San People. Huge boulders - some so huge they could be mistaken for mountains from a distance - surround the area. The San People were the original habitants of southern Africa more than 20,000 years ago. They were moved into Namibia and the Kalahari Desert thousands of years ago and still live in the region today. In fact, the Kalahari Game Reserve was established to protect their livelihood.
In Spitzkoppe, the old tribes were aggressive and often held ritual killings on one of the flat stone mounds. Local tribes condemned the site as a result of these killings. Now, only tourists go there.
Spitzkoppe Mountain itself is known as the Matterhorn of Namibia and is 1784 metres tall. The granite rocks developed more than 100 million years ago from volcanic activities and erosion. We sat on the top of one of these glorious boulders and watched as the sun changed colour from light orange to dark yellow. It was a moment of peacefulness and contemplation.
The one major shock to me in southern Africa was the lack of animals. I always laughed at the generalisations other countries have of us and used to ridicule the perception by others that “all Aussies have pet kangaroos”. And yet I'd always imagined when you were driving in Africa, you’d be dodging elephants, lions and giraffe.
Flying into Johannesburg after a 14-hour flight from Brisbane, I was shocked right away at the lack of security at the airport. No one checked our bags and when our luggage was sent through metal detectors, the security officers were too busy talking and laughing to even watch the screens. I think I could have gone through with drugs, snakes, guns, anything, in my bag, and they wouldn't have noticed.
Johannesburg has quite a history, but unfortunately it’s most known around the world for the crime. The “crime capital” of South Africa, you always hear stories about murders, rapes and hijackings, among other things. My travel agent had advised us to simply pass through there so the extent of our time there involved walking a few hundred metres from International to Domestic. Just a few hours later, we caught our next flight into Cape Town.
In my dreams, I’d envisioned a world where animals walk beside man. When I think about that now, I realise how naive I was as I watched out the plane window as we flew from Johannesburg, looking intently to the ground below for any sign of animal kingdom life.
Cape Town is different to what I imagined. Like most people, I’d heard a lot about Apartheid but I didn’t realise how much had changed since the system was abolished. I still expected the region to be war-torn and divided, but it wasn’t.
Cape Town has five million people living in the district, with three million just within the city itself! That’s bigger than Brisbane - I’d expected to go there and find it was more like a small country city. It’s filled with high-rise buildings and has a huge market place where you can buy just about anything “African” to send back home for family and friends. It’s also the tourism capital of South Africa, particularly famous for its natural harbour as well as its closeness to the Cape of Good Hope.
The region does still include lots of small townships though. These were established for the indigenous communities who’d lived peacefully in the city until the turn of the 20th Century, when the government decided they should have no rights because of the colour of their skin.
The Bubonic plague gave the government a good excuse to introduce racial segregation in 1901 and native Africans were forced to flee their homes and seek whatever shelter they could find in the outskirts of town. They moved to land near the docks and on the western flank of Table Mountain. These areas later became known as the townships of Cape Flats and they still exist today.
In the 1940s, Apartheid was introduced, limiting the rights of blacks and coloureds. Coloureds became a separate race 300 years earlier due to racial integration with Dutch and local tribes mixing with each other, and mixing with slaves from Madagascar, India, Ceylon, Malaya and Indonesia.
Entire communities were cast out to Cape Flats. For decades the government tried to eradicate squatter towns and around 70,000 people were driven from their homes, hundreds of whom were killed, in 1986; but the government’s attempts weren’t successful and instead, they eventually upgraded conditions.
After the abolishment of Apartheid, people were allowed to come back to live in the city – but many stayed where they obviously felt safer. I think it’ll take a long time to undo hundreds of years of history.
The city itself is unlike anything I’ve ever seen before. Table Mountain stands, literally, in the residents’ backyard. I’d seen photos of the mountain, but they never hinted it was right in the middle of the city. The colours, textures, rounded stones, cliff edges were glorious.
Table Mountain is around three kilometres wide, with the 1000 metre high Devil’s Peak on the left and Lion’s Head, at 669 metres, on the right. The highest point is 1086 metres. Table Mountain is actually the northern end of a range of mountains, stretching along the Cape Peninsula. Because it’s so high, the top of the mountain is often covered with clouds, which forms the famous “table cloth”.
I caught the Aerial Cableway to the top which allowed me to make the most of the mountain and also to take in the beauty of Cape Town from a magnificent height. To stand at the top of Table Mountain - a mountain I had pictures of on my bedroom walls - was a breathtaking experience. This could also be said literally because the high altitude did actually take my breath away.
Table Mountain was my first taste of the Africa I’d dreamed about. I stood tall, as I imagine millions had done before me, and breathed deep the air of Africa, wondering what else was in store.
I walked around the top of the mountain for about an hour, staring out at the Atlantic Ocean, Table Bay and Robben Island which is famous for its prison where Nelson Mandela spent 27 years in exile after being accused of sabotage and conspiracy. The views from Table Mountain were an amazing introduction to the country.
A local travel company offers city tours, so I spent the rest of the day visiting the Malay Quarter, the Castle of Good Hope and Cape Town Diamond Works. The drive also went to the coastal village of Milnerton. That night, I feasted on barbecue Ostrich. It was the first time I’d ever eat “non-traditional” meat and I was pretty hesitant but it was fantastic. I’ve compared it with venison more than anything else, ever since. I don’t know if I just thought it was THAT good because it was such a thrill being where I was, or if it was actually such great meat though, but either way, I recommend a taste!
On my second day I went on a Cape Highlights Tour to the Cape of Good Hope Nature Reserve, which is the most South-western point of Africa. I can't imagine what the first explorers must have thought, but it took my breath away. It was virtually unspoiled land and the drive to there, along the coast road, was unique. Table Mountain was directly behind us; the Atlantic Ocean on the right, Indian Ocean on the left, and right in front was the Cape. I can’t imagine many places in the world that could match this extraordinary scene.
We’d travelled to the Cape via Camps Bay, Hout Bay and Chapman’s Peak, and afterwards went on brief tours of a penguin colony at Simonstown, Muizenberg, and the town of Stellenbosch. I then spent the afternoon walking through Kirstenbosch National Botanical Gardens – admiring the sculptures and flora.
A full-day Winelands Tour took me to a visit at a Cheetah park and wine tasting at local farms in Paarl, Stellenbosch and Franschoek. It was the perfect way to celebrate my accomplishment at making it this far, as Kelly and I toasted each other and sipped our wines in the South African hinterland.
For the next couple of days I explored Cape Town on foot. The city is different to what I'm used to. I guess I knew underneath the beautiful exterior there had to be some problems, but coming from a First World country, where the worst poverty I’ve seen is a man sleeping on a park bench, I wasn’t ready for what I would face here. I hadn’t thought about how tough times really were outside Australia and I was unprepared.
At every set of lights I saw children and adults, begging for coins or food, or selling a range of items (from tourist pieces, to newspapers and books). Parks are littered with people who live out of shopping trolleys. I saw my first township, which was exactly like the ones I’d seen in movies. I’d assumed they were overdramatised, but they weren’t. The townships are dirty, covered in rubbish, with little, if any, running water and barely enough space to fit a shack.
In town, a young girl walked past me. She would have only been about 12 years old and she was sucking glue fumes from an old orange juice bottle. She was obviously high - her eyes glazed and red and her smile was large. She was still there many hours later - at the same place, with the bottle still attached to her face. I have no idea if she had family, where they would have been, and what they would have thought if they'd seen her that way.
I can still picture the girl's face and hope she has seen sense and is okay. But I doubt it. You read all the time about cases in Australia where children, predominantly those living in aboriginal communities, have been hospitalised or killed from sniffing the fumes of glue, paint or petrol. In some towns around Australia, they’ve even banned the sale of these items in the hope of stopping the problem before it gets out of control. I think they are much too late.
Every night in Brisbane city, as I walked to the train station after work, gangs of Aboriginal children – no more than 16 years old – gather in church grounds, their faces hovering over fumes in bottles, eyes glazed, teeth shining through permanent smiles in the darkness. Police drive past, but choose to ignore them. Perhaps it’s the same in Africa. It’s easier to look away than to offer help.
Looking beyond the poverty though, I saw a rising city - with both races learning to work together, live together and smile together. The people here are so friendly. They always have a smile waiting for you when you wake in the morning, and it's always the last thing you see at night before you head home to bed.
Contrary to all the bad crime stories you hear about South Africa - and I was told some real shockers about hands being cut off for jewellery and torturous murders for cigarettes – I was lucky enough not to experience, or even witness, anything of a violent nature. In Cape Town, I felt safe the entire time.
Maybe I was being naive, but we weren’t subject to any fighting or violence of any kind while in the city. I imagine it’s not so quiet every day of the year, but then again, which city is? In the past few years, the horror stories coming out of Brisbane are similar to many of those I’d heard about Africa - murders and beatings, road rage and rapes.
So many people have told me they’d never go to Africa because it’s far too dangerous, but it seems terrible violence occurs no matter where you are in the world. Of course you need to be on the look out for it, but I don’t think it should ever control how you feel about the city as a whole. I certainly wasn’t going to judge the people of Cape Town on the stories I’d heard.
The people of Africa are very unique. Over the many centuries, it seems as though racism has almost become non-existent -- at least on the surface. I’m quite certain, as with every other country in the world, racism is still prominent in every day living, but to an unprejudiced, non-trained eye, it’s not as evident now as I imagine it was 30 years ago.
Life also seems to be actually LIVED in Africa - with everyone taking their time to do things. We’re told all the time Australians are laid back people, a slow culture, but we’re nothing compared to Africa.
In that first week in Cape Town, I spent so much time getting impatient, wanting to hurry and get things done - but nothing happens when you want it to in a place that refuses to rush. It seems as long as things get done eventually, it doesn't matter how long it takes. I realised you can't change the way people live their life.
One of our day-tour guides said, "Other countries have clocks - Africa has time", and although it’s a different way of life to what I am used to, I found it to be very true and surprisingly comforting.
The songs of Africa pound in my ears. Never did I imagine I would actually be here with Table Mountain in full view - Africa in my palm.
A giant gum stands tall beside me, an icon of my world, a treasure of my homeland. Each branch represents a part of my life, each leaf represents a day. Different shapes and sizes, some tattered and worn, some perfect - each trying desperately to hold onto the branches of my life. A falling leaf represents today, but I hope the many hundreds left will represent my future.
So much of my being is built around this country. I am Australian, my family is Australian. This country is my only home. Yet here I am, about to leave it and make houses of the world.
It’s no longer a question of “Am I ready?” It’s a question of “How will I conquer?”
Waiting at the airport to leave, my heart was pounding. Family and friends surrounded me and I was terrified to be leaving them and everything that was familiar to me. An emotional goodbye was soon followed by excitement as I boarded the plane. I looked out the window to the aircrafts wings – these would fly me into my dreams. As we lifted off the ground, I held tightly to the hand of my friend and travel companion Kelly - holding on to our past.