September 25, 2006

South AfricaWe flew across Southeast Asia and over the Indian Ocean, but it was night so we couldn’t tell land from sea, except when we flew over the Seychelles and could see lights. We tried to sleep, but by 2 am South Africa time we were awake. They served us breakfast and we taxied up to the ramp at Johannesburg International Airport just before 7 am.

By this time we had been travelling for over 30 hours with no quality sleep. But the customs and immigration lines at the airport went very quickly and we were soon waiting for our baggage. It didn’t take long for it to appear and then we were on our way. We stopped by the airport ATM to get more cash, then went out to get a taxi. We had been told by the tour organizers to expect to pay about R65 for a trip to Edenvale, but both drivers we asked quoted us R120. So we walked over to the domestic terminal, to see if local travellers got better rates, but it was firmly R120 there as well.

The ride itself didn’t take very long and before we knew it we were at the Cozy Den B+B, which was to have been the meeting point for the tour group. We were met by the owner, John Hepburn, and introduced to the tour’s two leaders, Craig and Charl. But it turned out that we would not be staying at the Cozy Den after all, but instead at a new-looking place called Shanguni Lodge. John and Charl drove us over there and dropped us off, then went off to the airport to meet the flight from London. Our room was #1 with two single beds, and was very clean and nicely decorated.

After some time John came back again, and we asked if there was an Internet connection available. He said that the Shanguni Lodge didn’t have one, but we could use the Cozy Den’s connection. So Rosemary went over there and after four attempts was able to send a brief message to everyone, just saying that we had arrived safely. This would probably be our last chance to use the Internet for several days, so it was good that we could at least send a short message.

After a while the rest of the group started to show up. Except for one American woman, the rest of them are from Britain, and the average age seems to be in the mid-40’s. Once everyone was settled we had a group meeting, where forms were filled out and the “local payments” were made. Craig outlined the tour and what we could expect. We would be staying communally in the Basotho huts; we would also be carrying our rain gear in day packs but the majority of our baggage would be carried by horses. Tomorrow would be a long drive to Malealea in Lesotho, and it would be made even longer because one member of the group had missed her flight and wouldn’t even be arriving until 8:30 am tomorrow.

For lunch we walked across the road to the Pick ’n Pay supermarket and bought fruit, cookies, two Chelsea buns and some Simba peri-peri flavour chips. We headed back to the Lodge to eat it, because the Soweto tour was due to start at 1:30 pm.

In Soweto we had a local guide named Laxsen who took us around and showed us the different areas of the city. Originally, he said, it had been segregated by ethnic group but now it was integrated into a single unit. But Soweto was not really what we had expected. We did see some squatters’ shacks with stones holding down the tin roofs, but on the whole it didn’t look like a place of deadening poverty.

After driving down one of the main roads we went by Winnie Mandela’s house, which is in an upscale neighbourhood labelled “Beverly Hills” by the locals. On all four corners of the wall around the house were surveillance cameras! Anyway, it didn’t look like she was at home. Next we stopped at the Nelson Mandela museum, which was quite interesting. It was his old four-room house from the 1960’s, which originally had outdoor plumbing, furnished in the 1960’s style but also filled with Mandela memorabilia.

Finally on our tour we spent about an hour in the Hector Pietersen museum, which chronicled the Soweto riots of June, 1976 and was named for one of the schoolchildren who were killed then. It was quite well-attended and at least half of the visitors were black. All in all it was an interesting tour but we thought it was a bit overpriced at R350 each. Still, we are not likely to return to Johannesburg again.

We had dinner back at the Shanguni and it was very good: baked rice, roasted potatoes, chicken, mutton stew, vegetables and then malva cake with custard sauce, or fruit salad with ice-cream. We were back in our rooms by 7:45 pm to write our journals, and it was very nice to sleep in a bed with no roaring engines to listen to.

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