Sunday, June 8, 2014

We Visited South Africa and Zimbabwe 02 to 19 May South Africa - Part 1

Why SA and what is there to see apart from wild animals, were some of the stray thoughts doing rounds when we were planning our 2014 trip. All these doubts were removed once I started researching. As the planning progressed, I became more and more fascinated with the country. Then Kshama, a very close family friend of our daughter’s, came along to reinforce our interest. Having lived in SA for a long time, she had lots of advice on our itinerary. In addition we were briefed by a close friend of ours from the navy – Samir Adwani. He had served as the Indian Defence Adviser to SA in Johannesburg. He briefed us on many aspects of our travel. Armed with all the guidance we started our planning in right earnest.

Our trusted travel partners - Kats and Navin from Gurgaon very willingly decided to join this adventure. The most important ingredient for any travel is the company. Unless the group is cohesive, accommodating and above all share the spirit of travel and adventure – the journey will become a burden and an uphill task. We were blessed in many ways in this regard.

After our Spain and Portugal trip with Trafalgar, I had made up my mind not to go on a conducted tour. At times it does become a bit of a circus – each event unfolding in regular and unfailing sequence.  These tours are undoubtedly smooth and without any hiccups whatsoever. But it lacks the elbow room one desires in any travel. Most of the countries are so well geared for tourism; it’s extremely easy to maneuver. Internet is a big boon and anything and everything is possible on the net. With a fair amount of exploring, we were able to get our act together. Apart from air travel and visa, we did everything else on the net- hotel bookings, car rental, booking game camps, wild life safari, entry fee and the rest. Planning and execution was all fun and excitement. In the end it was extremely satisfying. There were no errors whatsoever and more than anything else it worked out very reasonable cost wise. We left Mumbai airport on 02 May and returned on 19 May.

The visas to SA and Zimbabwe, was a touch and go story. All our attempts in pleading and influencing the staff to grant visas from 23 to 30 Apr met with no success. In shear desperation Kats went to the SA Embassy on the morning of 31 Apr to try his luck. As Kats stood there aimlessly having a smoke, a SA national from the embassy joined him. Conversation picked up and Kats narrated his utmost concern to the gentleman. Call it coincidence or miracle, the man happened to be an Ex army officer and the first secretary in the embassy. Kats, in double quick time, told him about our own military background. The smell of uniform attracts another service officer like nothing else. By an act of God, we got our SA VISA at 1500 hrs on 31 Apr. Next day was ‘May Day’ and the Zimbabwean embassy was closed. Kats cancelled his early departure on 02 May from Delhi to Mumbai and went to the embassy to work on the VISA. Thankfully we got the VISA at 4 PM and Kats took a 1930 flight out of Delhi. A dramatic prologue indeed.

All from my camera

SA is a big country, but India is 2.5 times bigger. However, when it comes to population, it has only 52 million people. By our standards, it is very sparsely populated. There are approximately 43 people per square kilometer in SA as against 393 in India. It has the same population of Andhra Pradesh. About 80% of the South African population is classified as black, about 9% as white, 9% as colored, and 2% as Indian/Asian. One can drive hundreds of kilometers without encountering any human being. The roads appear deserted most of the time. So, problems solely related to over population are absent and hence their natural resources are available to each individual in greater quantity. The country has a bright future indeed.

The aftermath of ‘Apartheid’ looms large even to this day. Cities such as Cape Town still reflect the practice - the whites live separately from the others in well planned towns and cities – colored, Black and Asians live separately. As the economy recovers and purchasing capacity increases more non whites will be able to afford good accommodation. Income distribution, poverty, land ownership, educational achievement, basic health and unemployment are of serious concern. All the low to middle level jobs are with the blacks. Taxi drivers, porters, hotel housekeeping, waiters in restaurants, sales girls, tourism staff and such other jobs are all with the blacks. It is rare to encounter any white in the normal course of day to day interaction. The whites are wary of the emerging demographics, especially their decline in population. It is truly a Damocles sword that hangs over them very precariously.

The same set of problems is in India too in large measure. We have hopes and they have them too. I wish them all success.

We decided to travel inside SA in our own car. Initially there were a lot of uncertainties – new country, fast lanes, strict rules, age of the driver and so on. We hired our cars from Hertz at the airport. The whole process is extremely easy and traveller friendly. A car gives you immense flexibility. Start when you want, go where you want, stop anywhere – all the required ingredients for a leisurely and memorable holiday.  The SA roads are superb and provide a safe and excellent driving experience. Fortunately it is RH driving as in India. The fuel cost is same at about 14 ZAR (80 INR per liter). The average speed is 120 Km and in places it decreases to 80.60,50 and 30 and one needs to be extremely alert at all times. The signage is first-class and a great boon to the driver. We did 13 days of driving. It was an experience to cherish. 

Travelling with both SA and Zimbabwe Airways was a pleasure. Food was good and they are generous with wine and spirits. The announcements are ‘off the cuff’ – very interesting and carries a fair amount of humour. A lot better than the accentuated gibberish one gets to hear on most of our airlines.

SA has a blessed country side. God seems to have gone the extra mile to provide such wonderful landscape. The beauty lies in its expanse, miles and miles of open space where mountains intermingle with plains, shrubs and thick forest. The drive along the ‘Garden Route’ is extremely invigorating. One can spend hours staring at nature’s wonders. Pristine beaches occupy the entire length of the ‘Garden Route’ – each one better than the other.

As a tourist, one gets to interact mostly with the black population. They are very polite and accommodating. They go out of their way to help and assist. They are full of greetings and a subtle sense of humour. They are ever ready to help the tourists with the luggage, show directions and such other routine activities – to make that extra buck – why not? All of them speak English. South Africa has eleven official languages: Afrikaans, English, Ndebele, Northern Sotho, Sotho, Swazi, Tswana, Tsonga, Venda, Xhosa and Zulu.

The main language of the government is English. Apart from the other African languages, Afrikaans is spoken by 13.5% and the English speaking variety constitutes around 9.6%.

Surprisingly there are no health faucets in the hotels – toilet paper occupies place of pride. All their hotels and resorts are in a very good state of maintenance and well organized. The facilities are spic and span. The owners have worked hard to provide excellent interiors – each one is different, reflecting the taste of the proprietor.

As we chose to travel in May, the winter weather was perfect – barely crossing 22* C and never below 8*C. There were a few interruptions due to coastal storms with lashing rain and gale force winds – sometimes lasting up to 4 hours. Extreme weather can be a big irritant during any travel.

It’s interesting to note that you can get ‘filter’ coffee in every restaurant .All mamas and mamis need not worry. Coffee is very popular. All the places provide free WIFI. We generally used Viber and Whatsapp to keep in touch with India. It’s very useful to take an SA SIM card to get the required connectivity within the country – especially for any emergencies.

Another aspect which needs mentioning is food in SA. The quality and quantity of food is very good. The helpings are good and the taste is first-rate. The cost of food is very reasonable. A good wholesome breakfast with eggs, bacon, baked beans, mushrooms, bread, butter, jam and coffee was around 40 to 60 ZAR, a good lunch with Hake fillet, salad, bread costs about 60 ZAR, similarly a good stake is about 90 ZAR. On the whole it was a good eating experience. Jai and Navin being vegetarians had no problem – pasta, veg sandwiches, variety of salads and fruit provided the required nutrition. SA wine is excellent and a bottle costs 50 to 100 ZAR in a shop. Beer and hard alcohol in a store is comparable to duty free rates. After a tiring day we preferred to have a hot bath, change into a comfortable outfit and spend the rest of the night at the hotel. The streets are deserted by 7PM.The country is safe and extremely tourist friendly. There was not a single personal security related issue at all.

On the whole the travel to SA and Zimbabwe was a great experience – exposing us to many facets of the country – warm and helpful people, exotic countryside, unforgettable wildlife, good and disciplined traffic, superb waterfronts and beaches, great food and much more. Would I like to do it again? – Without any hesitation, YES!

More episodes to follow.

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