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Two Weeks in South Africa, 1999

Shakaland to Durban

The lady of the house where I had spent the night before suggested I stop off at Shakaland, which I knew from LP to be the site of a movie set that had been created to make a film about the old Zulu warriors. It was the kind of place I would normally have avoided, except that the lady had really thought it was worth a stop. I arrived in the late morning, and found a group of blacks in Zulu costume crowded around what appeared to be a group of tourists just off a bus. The Zulus were dancing and beating drums and acting intimidating and warlike much to the amusement of the tourists. I locked my car and easily blended in with the crowd who moved into the compound. One thing that distinguished these particular tourists was the professionalism of their camera equipment and the way in which their leader barked orders for shooting the action. I took the opportunity to take a few photos myself and even got as far as the reception desk to Shakaland where the newcomers were being greeted by the manager of the Protea Hotel side of the operation when I, bringing up the rear, was invited to introduce myself. As I'd gathered by then, I'd wandered in with a film crew who was getting a special tour of the place and I was politely but pointedly informed that if I wanted continue my relationship with Shakaland I could come back at 12:30 and see the show over lunch. I accepted the booking offered me but figured I'd pretty much seen the show, so I headed on south from there.

South of there was Durban. The N2 highway got me there pretty quickly, but without much of a view of the beach. I felt as if I were driving through California on one of its excellent highways, passing any number of places worth stopping just off road along the way, many of which even a resident of California would never see. Except that here, on the onramps and on the freeways themselves, there would be hitchhikers, always black, standing in improbably remote places in, it seemed, small hope of speeding traffic slowing down for them. As I neared Durban, I had other matters on my mind. I had to find my way through a welter of traffic signs into the center of town. Driving alone had the big disadvantage of not allowing navigation unless I stopped somewhere, and not many places appeared safe to stop.

I disgorged in Durban by the bus stations, where the streets were full of poor black people. Not knowing where I was or how safe it was to be here, I wanted to keep my car moving. On the radio, I'd been hearing about the killings associated with taxi wars taking place right here in Durban, most likely centering on this very bus depot area. I emerged in the town on West street, and got my bearings caught in traffic between red lights while all around me people jaywalked among the cars. It didn't feel particularly threatening, just crowded. West road eventually ran into the beaches, and I parked my car at that end, where LP mentioned that there was a bank with a change office open on Sundays. As soon as I'd parked someone, a white person this time, came out and offered to wash my car. I refused the offer and he didn't persist. Just up the block, a black woman on the street was whining as if she were crazy or in pain, and people were walking by her in embarrassed self-preservation. A white woman carrying a child came up to me and begged money. I noticed that there were a lot of striptease joints in that part of town. I found the bank and changed my money. A commission of 42 rand applied only because it was the weekend. I pocketed the proceeds and made a hasty retreat back to my car and the road.

I turned north along the beach and thought briefly how nice it would be to stop for the night in one of the nice hotels just there. But on the other hand, what would I do there besides drink beer by myself? I did have a goal, and that was to go diving at Aliwal Shoals just south of the city the next day. I decided to visit a dive shop in Durban to see if I could find out how to do that. LP listed one in Morningside, which was also supposed to be a safe, upper class enclave in town. I drove out that way and felt better to be in a more relaxed-looking neighborhood. I even found the location of the dive shop, but also found that it had moved. Some patrons in an Indonesian restaurant, the only people about on that fine Sunday, seemed to think the shop had moved to a nearby shopping mall, so I drove there.

I ended up spending some time in and around the mall. At first I was looking for the dive shop, but it didn't seem to exist. In a surf shop, the young guys there looked it up in the phone directory for me and explained how I could try and call it. I tried the numbers of all the dive shops listed in the LP, but soon realized that they must not be open on Saturday afternoons. So I wandered to a sidewalk pub where I ordered a double expresso and fell into conversation with a white local by the name of Andy. Andy was the only real racist I would encounter in RSA. We started talking about how I was finding the country, and when I said I was only finding it difficult knowing what parts of town I should avoid, he explained that I had to be careful to avoid the township areas. This got him talking about blacks in general. "The black doesn't have it up here," he said, pointing to his cranial area. "Lord knows where they'd be if we hadn't come along." Probably living in their own societies in their kraals, I thought. Probably minding their cattle, I thought later, when I dropped down to the Xhosa region and found out that the tribe had killed its cattle in a suicidal move meant to be a sacrifice that they believed would drive their white tormenters into the sea, but which resulted in their own starvation instead, and opportunities for the whites to take advantage of the situation. Bad miscalculation, that, but not due at all to any cognitive inferiority, as Andy would have us believe. Racists in my own country had already flogged the genetic inferiority argument to its well-deserved death, to their own discredit. Here in RSA, a white could still confide to another white what he would assume the other would agree to, that the blacks were inferior to whites, and hadn't even invented the wheel before people like Andy came along to show it to them. To Andy, this brilliant insight of his ancestors was somehow credited to him and his compatriots, and the accumulated knowledge of his black counterparts, to him, amounted to nothing. To an American like myself, the worst realization in listening to Andy for the few moments of my time I gave him, was the insight that my direct ancestors had already devastated the accumulated knowledge of the native people of the land they over-ran. I don't think that people born to the land can be blamed for that. They are where they are, with as much right to be there as anyone else born in the same place. But they can at least make themselves of a consciousness that affords equal consideration of others born in the same neighborhood.

One thing I did accomplish at the pub was to find out where there was a cybercafe, and so I went there for a second coffee and a long-overdue email home. I found a message from Bobbi in my hotmail account saying how upset she was that she hadn't heard from me. I rectified that right there in Durban, and from then on, down the coast that was more cosmopolitan than the interior, I happened on cybercafes from time to time and was able to keep in touch with home.

Here's the message I sent:

Hi everyone,

I'm in a cybercafe in Durban, first I've been on the Internet in over a week. What a great vacation it is to escape from the web!

I got to Johannesburg about a week ago and rented a car and I've since been driving around South Africa and Swaziland. There are game parks all over the place here and in the days I've spent in the parks, sometimes camping there or staying in dormitories or cottages, I've seen leopards, lions, elephants, rhinocerous, zebras, giraffe, wildebeeste, hippos, crocodiles, lots of antelope like impala and nyala and kudu, many kinds of birds, like hornbills and weavers and storks and vultures, and snakes such as spitting cobra, black mamba, and python, all in the wild, or more correctly in South Africa, in carefully managed gameparks.

Things have changed a bit since I was first in Africas game parks in 1974. Then there were 100,000 black rhino. Now there are only 2,000. In one country I visited, Swaziland, rhino were wiped out twice, first about the turn of the century, reintroduced in 1970's, and then wiped out again in 1992 by poachers, before being reintroduced now and protected by men armed with AK-47's.

South Africa does not cost a lot of money once you've flown here and rented a car. I just went diving in Sidwana Bay, on the north coast of Natal just south of the Mozambique border. I stayed in a cottage on the dive center premises and went on one dive. There is rough shore break there so getting to the site was exciting, punching through the surf in an inflatable boat loaded with gear and divers gripping the sides, like white-water rafting. Unfortunately the diving was a little disappointing from what I expected so I didn't stay for more diving. But the bill for accommodation, the dive, and rental of all gear was only $40, which is remarkably cheap for that kind of activity. This might give you an idea of the flavor of traveling here and what it costs. I can eat a steak dinner and have a glass of wine or two and be presented a bill for $5 at the end of it.

I was also interested in going to Swaziland because I was offered a job there in 1975. But between the time I applied and the time I was actually offered the job, I got married, and couldn't then take the job, which was for singles only. So I moved to Saudi Arabia instead and have lived in the Arab world rather than in Africa ever since. But it was interesting to see what I missed. I think I would have enjoyed Swaziland. It is the smallest country in the southern hemisphere, but it has mountainous wilderess and kindly and sophisticated people. It would probably have been like Oman.

Take care,


By about 4:00 that afternoon I had accomplished two of my goals in Durban (getting money and sending email) and was in a position to assume that my third goal, figuring out how to dive Aliwal shoals, would be best accomplished if I just went there. So I pointed my car up the highway and was soon back in the rural lands looking for an exit to Umkomaas, the town which was the jumping off point for dive boats to the shoals.

Next episode:
Umkomass and Aliwal Shoals

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Last updated: January 16, 2000