This post is not my usual territory. It’s not so much about food as it is about Cape Town. Not Cape Town’s farmers’ markets or foragers, but the tendency of its inhabitants to think it’s the centre of South Africa, if not the universe. Which is quite something coming from me, a person who not only loves living in Cape Town, but makes a paltry living writing about it. Actually, this post is less about Cape Town than it is about South Africa. Stick with me.
Recently, I made a 10-day ‘Upcountry’ (how I love this term, which sounds so charmingly old-fashioned, as opposed to just ‘North’) road trip with my family. We flew to Johannesburg, rented a car and drove north-east through Mpumalanga with brief weaves in and out of Limpopo, on the way to the Blyde River Canyon (2 nights). Then we drove east and south into The Kruger National Park where we stayed at a game reserve (4 nights). We took a long drive back to Joburg – about 5 hours at least – first, through the Park, and then southwest through the Lowveld, passing towns like White River and Mbombela, the city formerly known as Nelspruit. Then, 3 nights in Johannesburg (Gauteng) and the last night in Sun City (North West).
There you have the boring nuts and bolts of our itinerary. The mind expanding blow your socks off part of this trip was everywhere we went …. And I just have to say: South Africa, You Beauty!!! Big, diverse, wild, and filled with warm people…and not so friendly animals.
The diversity of landscapes may seem obvious to those who’ve grown up in this country – as you may or may not know, I’m not one of them. In Cape Town, there are plenty of peeps who are either Johannesburg transplants, or as kids, made the occasional Upcountry trip to ‘The Kruger’. Capetonians may get up to the Northern parts occasionally – it is, after all, far to travel there as we are at the country’s southernmost tip — but it seems that in their Capetonian Table Mountain and beach bliss, some have forgotten the virtues of the other eight provinces, or maybe never been exposed to them.
“Why would you ever want to live anywhere else other than Cape Town?” is the rhetorical question bandied about in these parts, as if incarceration would be the only possible explanation. Well, I wouldn’t want to live anywhere else, but that doesn’t mean that the rest of the country is crap. Au contraire.
The Blyde River Canyon is a wonder that South Africans rarely talk about, which is why I was so overwhelmed by it. No way, I thought, as I read the blurb on the back of the Mpumulanga map…”It’s the third largest canyon in the world and the largest vegetated one.” Grand, as a canyon should be, with a peaceful fern and tree-shaded river below.
In The Kruger National Park, which is Africa’s second largest park and roughly about the same size as Israel or Wales, I looked out onto savannah as far as my eye could see. We saw both leopard and lion kills, a lone rhino which our tracker specifically would not radio the sighting of for fear of eavesdropping poachers or rangers on the take, and got caught in the middle of a herd of impala, who looked at us with peaceful and identical wide-eyed stares.
It seemed extraordinary that a game ranger would care enough to throw on some damn forceful brakes to avoid hitting a snake, or to point out a chameleon in a tree, from several swimming pool lengths away…at night – this in an overall age of human brutality, aggression and greed. When we entered the bush and left our wifi and cable news networks and our cellular connectivity behind, we’d also left the world’s ugliness behind.
In this day and age, it feels like a miracle that this magnificent wildlife still exists. How sad is that? All you conservationists out there…I finally get why these animals are so precious and why one would devote your life to protecting them.
I learned that it is not advertising hype that Amarula, the South African liqueur, is derived in part from the berries of the marula tree, of which we saw hundreds, and that these trees do actually exist. As do the very mystical and ancient baobab trees. And that it’s possible to be stung by a scorpion even when packing up to leave an upmarket game lodge.
And that Mpumalanga is a beautiful, lush province, of red soil and abundant fruit. Avocados, bananas, citrus, mangos grown on a massive scale.
And that Johannesburg is not just sprawling, energetic and ambitious, but also full of ballsy Cubist architecture. I’m not talking about the Tuscan houses and bland estates rubbing shoulders like soulless jigsaw puzzle pieces that take up much of Gauteng, but the big, new corporate office buildings in Sandton, which seem to want to outdo each other with jaunty angles, volume of glass and unusual cladding.
And that the beginnings of urban renaissance I’d heard about in Johannesburg’s inner city are real.
And the immense role of mining in shaping much of this landscape. And money. On the day we drove past Marikana, where nearly five years ago, 34 miners were massacred by police, we entered Sun City, where only a certifiably insane genius would have considered building the massive resort that is there. The same Sun City I first heard of in a song when I lived on another continent so many years ago: “I Ain’t Gonna Play Sun City.” That unlike another more internationally known gambling resort — Las Vegas — somehow magically fits the wild environment it sits in, artificial wave pool and all. It was a day of extreme contrasts.
I took in the ancient and important role of Africa. I’m talking from where humankind originated and ventured forth into parts east and north. It was deep. A visit to Maropeng at The Cradle of Civilisation brought anthropology to life and connected it to South Africa. It also revealed that it is only in the relative blink of an eye that humankind has developed racial differences. The message was clear: we are all the same.
I saw thriving communities, despite the picture often painted of our stagnant economy. Not everywhere, of course, and I by no means want to diminish the poverty that exists here and the obstacles associated with apartheid to be overcome and how bloody fortunate I was to have the means to go on this trip — but almost everywhere we went, in cities and small towns…houses and office buildings and shopping centres being built – large and small. People building their own houses. People busy making a living. People in the streets. People shopping. People spending money.
I returned to Cape Town happy and infinitely more aware of this country’s richness and uniqueness.
So my dear Cape Town: I love you and your oceans and your mountains and restaurants and wine farms and foodie culture. But there is more to South Africa than you. Just like there is more to the world than South Africa, or the Western World. Thinking that you are superior to another has never served people well, in the long run.
To all of you out there, and especially you Capetonians: The rest of the country ain’t so bad.
And, I hope this hasn’t read too much like a 6th grader’s report entitled My Vacation.