Southern Africa (1998)

My sister lived in South Africa (Durban), and had done so for eighteen years at the time of this trip. We'd never visited her before because of our aversion to the apartheid system which was in place in South Africa until 1994, but now we were retired and South Africa had changed politically we wanted to travel through the countries of Southern Africa.

We combined this trip, with a duration of four months, with a visit to South America, and had a total of seven months away from home. It didn't start well. I was suffering from a very bad back, making the car trip to Perth flat on my back on the floor of the van, but a miracle-working physiotherapist sorted that out, and we left for South Africa on time. After arriving in Johannesburg we flew down to Durban the same day, and spent two weeks with my sister, just looking around the immediate city and environs. A nice enough place, but nothing special. We had to fly on to Brazil out of Jo'burg, so took the Baz Bus (backpackers' special) via Swaziland, and spent the night at a small game park - our first chance to see some of Africa's game animals. We then had three months in South America, before returning to Southern Africa.

We had origially planned to get as far north as Tanzania, but things didn't work out that way...

The story is written up in five parts:

Africa was more varied than South America, from subtropical Mozambique to the deserts of Namibia. We saw lots of animals; elephants, giraffe, buffalo, most of the kinds of antelope in the region, wart hogs, jackals, zebras, rhinos, hippos, crocodiles, tree and ground squirrels, meer cats, four species of mongooses, foxes, vervet monkeys and baboons but just a couple of lions. The birds were spectacular - we saw flamingos by the hundreds, then thousands and finally hundreds of thousands, lots of rollers, glossy starlings, several types of hornbills, many eagles, fish eagles, secretary birds, vultures and other birds of prey including a "giant eagle owl" (correctly named as it was immense) and lots more. On the other hand insects were a bit thin on the ground, although there were some scarabids and a few good mantids.

The people in Africa are generally very friendly, but it is a more dangerous place than most areas we have visited. Razor wire and electric fences are common on houses in cities and we met several people who had been attacked and robbed in one way or another. Johannesburg is the ultimate for crime (about six times the worst the USA can come up with) and so we never got to see it - the central business district is not safe in the middle of the day in the middle of the week. The suburb we stayed in for two nights was reputed to be one of the few where you could walk around without getting mugged; we walked around a bit but did not feel safe and in retrospect should not have been so adventurous.

There are a few noticable things about travel in southern Africa. One of the main features is the abundance (in most places) of very good backpacker lodges - they are little white enclaves in the midst of black Africa, and they tend to make you feel a tiny bit guilty about availing yourself of the comforts of home when you set out to travel 'rough'. However, the convenience far outweighs the twinge of moral outrage, and a place like Dougal's, in Malawi, can be bloody great to get back to after a few hard days rattling around in local buses.

One of the other noticable things is the way in which you keep bumping into the same people from country to country. It is rather nice meeting up, swapping tales, and catching up on the news, and you feel like part of a wider travelers' family. Somehow, Africa seems to concentrate the travelers more than any other country we have visited.

As a footnote to our trip, we were sitting at home watching Race Around the World on TV some months after our return, months after being in Chitimba (Malawi), where there was Paddy, whose place we stayed in, being interviewed about religion by one of the racers. Some time after that, we were shopping in the local supermarket and passed someone in the isle who said hello. We smiled back and wondered who it was. In the next isle we passed him again. "You don't remember me, do you?" he asked. "I last saw you when we were in a boat together going across Lake Malawi." Even back home you can't get away from those familiar African faces.

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