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Trip 5 - Southern Africa

Message 4: Victoria Falls to Johannesburg

From: seth@sethweinstein.com (Seth Weinstein) 
Date: 9 Dec 2001 19:51:00 -0000 
Subject: Africa update #4: Victoria Falls to Johannesburg (the final episode) 

When I told other travelers I was heading through Namibia, they all told me it was beautiful - that is an understatement. It's absolutely gorgeous: I spent three days on a tour of the Sossusvlei dunes, perfectly creased sand masses towering over 200 meters high. We climbed one of them at sunrise, and it took just a couple of hours for the wind to blow the dunes back into shape, leaving no trace of our footprints. Now a desert, the Sossusvlei region once contained a river, and the dried trunks of dead 800-year-old trees are still there.

I also spent a day in Swakopmund, an attractive seaside town a (really slow) overnight train ride from Windhoek. At the dunes near Swakopmund - considerably smaller than those at Sossusvlei - I tried my luck with quad-biking, which essentially involves driving a miniature four-wheeled tractor up and down the dunes. It's rather like controlling your own roller coaster. Once I realized that I could actually drive the thing, and once I got past the fact that "quad-bike" is an oxymoron, it was quite a lot of fun and provided a mild adrenaline rush for the day.

Cape Town, reached by an extremely comfortable 20-hour Intercape bus ride from Windhoek (take a hint, Greyhound!), provided a few noteworthy attractions: the attractive restaurant-and-shop-laden waterfront; the tour of the Alcatraz-like Robben Island prison, where former political prisoners describe the unenviable conditions; and the hundreds of clumsy African penguins at Boulders Beach, which share the ocean with you as you swim. (It's rather amusing to watch them try to waddle ashore and see them fall down when the tide comes in. It's also bizarre to see them molt - they lose their waterproof protection and feathers each year, and this is the peak molting season, so there are dozens of half-molten penguins just sitting there digesting the food they've eaten to carry them through the molting season.) I also spent a day in nearby Stellenbosch, where some of South Africa's best wines are made - my five-hour wine-tasting tour took in five vineyards and 30 wines! Fortunately a hearty lunch was included.

Inspired largely by repeatedly watching the first-class-dining scenes in the production of _Titanic_ that I conducted in May, and aiming to find a contemporary alternative that was more affordable and more likely to reach its destination, I booked a space on the Blue Train for the 27-hour journey from Cape Town to Pretoria. The Blue Train is essentially a five-star hotel on rails: attractive en-suite rooms for each person or couple; elegant four-course meals served on fine crystal (I puzzled over the 10 items of silverware in front of me until the effects of the wine convinced me that it didn't matter); club, lounge, and observatory cars (the observatory car is the last car of the train and affords wide-open views in three directions); impeccable, friendly service - and the best shower I've had in all of Africa.

Many people on the Blue Train offered their perspectives on how I should get from safe Pretoria to crime-ridden Johannesburg. The commuter train was ruled out because of the risk of mugging; the bus was ruled out because once I got to Jo'burg I'd have to figure out how to get to the safe suburb of Melville where I'd be staying, and hesitating with luggage at Park Station in Jo'burg is not a good idea. A steady increase in the exchange rate over the past six months (it's gone from about eight rand per dollar up to almost 11) made one suggestion more plausible than I would have imagined: car rental. At US$35 for the whole weekend, it made sense, and having a car has made it a whole lot easier to take in many of Jo'burg's attractions, such as the Botanical Gardens, the Randburg Waterfront (they've created an artificial lake to make it look like Cape Town's waterfront), and lunch at Jo'burg's Carnivore restaurant (which looks almost exactly like Nairobi's).

Last night I saw one of the best productions I've seen in years: _A Handful of Keys_, featuring two comic pianists dueling it out for two and a half hours. Near the beginning of the show they performed variations on the Beatles' "Yesterday" the way composers from Bach to Liszt would have written the song, and the second act featured "The History of the Musical: 83 Years in 10 Minutes" - a medley with excerpts from 114 musicals written since 1911.

Sadly, as they pointed out, the South African government's lack of support for the arts means that none of the 114 shows will be performed here - though I suppose it's better that the funds are being diverted toward fighting crime. I didn't drive into the city center for the show due to the risk of car-jacking. Indeed, during my 15-minute walk from the Museum Africa to the Civic Theatre, one (possibly inebriated and probably unarmed) person did approach me with the intent to mug, but he was warded off by two people who ran the nearby Internet cafe. Jo'burg is a city of extreme contrasts: In the north are lush, wealthy suburbs with mansions protected by electric fences; and the city center and the eastern suburbs are crime-ridden, dirty, and for the most part deserted by those who can afford to live elsewhere, except when they drive in briefly for, say, a concert at the Civic Theatre.

Tomorrow I will tour Soweto, the enormous township to which many black South Africans were forcefully and unwillingly relocated when bulldozers razed the slums they had lived in several decades back. Then it's back to NYC.