March 1970. We had completed our 2 years of employment in London. The trunk packed with our possessions had been picked up to be transported to the cargo hold of some ship destined for Montreal. We boarded the train to take us to Southampton and the Chandris ocean liner, which was going to take us to South Africa. We had everything we needed for the next few months in our kit bags and our sleeping bags and air mattresses in our duffel bags. We were on our way.
Ocean liners in those days had similarities to the cruise ships of today, but they also had many differences. The Chandris Lines was largely in the business of taking immigrants from Europe to Australia, with a few stops in between Of course, we didn’t know this when we made our reservations; we were attracted by the great deal. For £66 for me (in a 3 double bunk cabin with 5 other young women) and £88 for my husband (in a 2 double bunk cabin with 3 other men) we could spend 14 days at sea, eat terrific food, meet lots of new people, be entertained, and end up in Cape Town. Hard to beat. Of course, we were in the bowels of the ship, had no windows, weren’t together, and our bathrooms were down the hall, but still … what a deal! Mind you, the average yearly wage in Britain at the time was around £1600, so there was a lot that was different.
The majority of the people on our ship were young couples from the north of England with young kids, who had made the decision to leave everything they knew and start a new life in Australia, passage paid by the government. It was interesting to watch the dynamics of the couples; the men seemed preoccupied about the unknown future to which they had committed themselves, while the women relaxed and enjoyed having other people prepare their food and watch their kids in well-run nurseries, possibly for the only time in their lives. It turned out that this was the tail end of Australia’s post-war European migration policy, but no one was to know that at the time. We also met many South Africans returning from visiting Britain and Europe from whom we learned about the tension-fraught political environment we were about to enter. It was somewhat unnerving to watch the returnees’ exterior demeanor change as they neared South Africa.
A stop in the Canary Islands, the crossing of the equator, lots of carefree time of the type that a ship is so good at providing, chances to admire albatrosses gliding alongside the ship, and before we knew it we were docking at Cape Town, under the watchful eye of Table Mountain. Spotting our good friend Dave waving to us from dockside was terrifically exciting. Our long-anticipated South African adventure was about to begin.
Cape Town and environs
We were in Cape Town for three days before heading off on our camping adventure. What a stunning setting. We stayed with the parents of our Cape Town friends; this couple had lived above us in the same block of flats the first year we were in London – their only year. He was a young surgeon who was working in the same hospital as Dr. Christiaan Barnard, where Dr. Barnard and his team had performed the world’s first heart transplant a little more than 2 years earlier. We spent time talking about the politics: the current longstanding reality, how difficult it was to fight back, and how careful you had to be. The abhorrent apartheid policies of the Vorster government were hard at work taking land away from anyone who wasn’t white and moving them to race-specific areas, usually worse than the places they were driven from. Africans, coloureds (other races and mixed), and Indians (who had been in South Africa running successful enterprises and serving as responsible workers and citizens for a long time, including Gandhi) were all being “resettled”. Many people of all races were leaving the country, a sad state of affairs which continues today for different reasons.
On a more positive note, we found an abundance of beauty and history in the region surrounding Cape Town. There is the vibrant city of Cape Town itself. There are the vineyards of the Constantia Valley and Stellenbosch, with their iconic old Dutch estate houses. There are magnificent beaches both to the east and the west, and of course there is Cape Point, at the southern point of Africa, just east of the Cape of Good Hope.
What South Africa has to offer – everything
Writing about the diversity of landscapes we saw in South Africa is not dissimilar to trying to write about a trip across the U.S. Except for snow and ice, South Africa has it all. We crossed mountains, deserts, savannah land, and high veldt (like the high grassy plains of Wyoming, except baboons cross the road). We drove past endless miles of pristine beaches and enjoyed swimming at several of them. We saw ostrich farms, gold mines, grazing cattle, fields of maize, and vineyards. We visited big metropolitan areas (like Cape Town, Johannesburg, Pretoria, Durban, and Port Elizabeth), enjoyed small towns (like Oudtshoorn and Parys), admired clusters of rondavals and marveled at outposts (like Vanrhynsdorp and Virginia). We experienced our first earthquake (minor) sitting on the veranda of an inn at George, a town on the Garden Route that has grown by leaps and bounds since we were there. The variety is endless.
Kruger Park and game viewing
Needless to say, you could come to South Africa just for the wildlife. We were first-timers and, oh my, the thrill of spotting animals in their own space is something that stays with you. The truth is that it is no less exciting the second and third time; in fact, it’s pretty darn exciting even when you spot an animal from a safari truck on the safari ride in Disney’s Animal Kingdom. We camped in Kruger Park, which is a large national park that takes up the northeast corner of the country, and spent a few days slowly navigating the Park tracks in the Volks Beetle on the lookout for animals. We weren’t disappointed! And, unlike when we were stuck the sand in lion country in Botswana many years later, our campground was well staffed and well fenced from wildlife, except for the occasional sneaky warthog.
Mozambique and Swaziland
When we left Kruger Park, we headed for Mozambique and its main southern city of Lourenço Marques, now Maputo. It was interesting to visit a neighbouring country with a different history of colonization. Mozambique had been a Portuguese colony for hundreds of years, whereas South Africa had been settled by the Dutch (and others!), and had then been taken over by the British, becoming part of the mighty (for a long time) British Commonwealth. We camped near the sea in town, where monkeys lurked that were very interested in getting into our tent. Monkey tail prints could be found in the sand surrounding everyone’s tent! We found Lourenço Marques to have a relaxed atmosphere, a kind of Mediterranean-African feel. It is a lively port city, with fabulous seafood. There was no apartheid, but the shanty towns were in worse shape than any we had seen in South Africa. Five years after we left, Mozambique declared its independence, Lourenço Marques became Maputo, 250,000 ethnic Portuguese left, Stalinist-style planning policies and Soviet backing stepped in, and economic and political chaos reigned. I believe that this turned around about 20 years ago, and that, in fact, Mozambique is again politically stable and one of Africa’s hopes for the future.
From Mozambique we drove through Swaziland, which is an independent country bordered on 3 sides by South Africa’s and on the east by Mozambique. This is a monarchy with some intriguing marital customs for its monarch that I won’t go into here. Its history is worth a read; you could start with Wikipedia. It’s a pastoral land with a pastoral lifestyle.
After lovely times exploring the east coast along the Indian Ocean south of Swaziland, wending our way along the Garden Route, and then spending a few final days back in Cape Town with our friends there, we headed northwest for what held possibly the most unique of our experiences in South Africa. We were on our way to the closed, company-owned town of Oranjemund, at the western corner of South Africa and what’s now Namibia, where Dave, who I met when we both worked at IBM in London, had become the director of their computing centre. Just getting there was fascinating. We traveled through mile after mile of the Karoo Desert, passing scrubby desert, scrawny wild ostriches, and huts very low to the ground that were the homes of the San, or bushmen. We were told that the huts were that low to the ground to make them less vulnerable to the wind. We spent the night at a small inn in an isolated settlement called Vanrhynsdorp before arriving at our very highly secured destination. This diamond mine and associated support town was impressively secure even by post-9/11 standards. You could only get in by invitation and prior approval. Nobody could take anything out that could possibly hide diamonds. Everyone and everything leaving was X-rayed for hidden diamonds.
One day we toured the mining operation. Unbelievable. Alluvial diamonds had been found in the Orange River that forms the border between South Africa and Namibia (South-West Africa at the time) in the 1930s, and the mining operations started soon afterwards. When we were there, humungously large earth moving equipment was being used to move the desert off the underlying bedrock. They removed everything that’s movable, just like they do to access the oil sands! Most of the workers were from the Ovambo tribe in the north of the country, tall good-looking men who slept in purpose-built residences by night, swept the remaining sand away from the rock with brooms to find stray diamonds by day, and sent home far more money than they could make in other ways, although of course it was pennies compared to what a white man would make. I wish I could find a usable picture of these handsome men standing on enormous outcroppings of exposed rock, sweeping in the most awkward crevices to get at any diamonds that might be there. At night all the fill from the removal process was filtered for diamonds, always yielding some. We were shown good sized nuggets of diamonds in various hues of white-opaque, pale yellow, and rose that had come off the conveyor belt recently. All in all an incredible experience.
South Africa then and now
The memories are coming fast and furiously, but this post is already too long. Sorry about that; you’ll just have to go visit South Africa and see for yourself! As we all know, things have changed. And as many challenges as South Africa continues to face – and they are many – the world rejoiced with them when apartheid was buried, when the inspiring father of the new South Africa, Nelson Mandela, was freed and then became president. We were emotional as we watched the joy with which South Africans of all races embraced their right to vote under the new constitution for the first time, nearly 20 years ago. And we will celebrate every positive step that is taken in this country that holds so much promise.
I would like to dedicate this post to our dear friends, Dave and Stira Morrist, with whom we took this trip. Subsequently, they came to Canada in 1971 and the 4 of us traveled across Canada by train, then drove down the coast from Vancouver to San Francisco. Over the years, we saw them in New York, in Miami, in Vero Beach, at their home in Surrey in England, and then in their home in Provence in France. We’ve run out of trips; we got the very sad word from their son last month that Dave and Stira died within 5 months of each other this past year, in South Africa. Rest in peace, my friends.
Map credit: Nations Online Project