Christmas Day 2010

I woke shortly before 7am, for an early morning walk when the forest and the birds were just waking up. The mist was clearing from the river and a pair of Verreaux’s eagle owls sat in a baobab tree grunting at the group of tourists admiring them from below.

Finally back to the camp for breakfast, then a lazy morning reading a novel, with the occasional swim in the pool to cool off. In the afternoon the camp owner suggested a fishing trip on the river. Arriving at a suitable spot, we (well, those who knew what they were doing) attached the lures to the fishing rods and we made slow circles around the river, waiting for the fish to bite. They didn’t, but who cared? We enjoyed watching the African harrier hawks hunting over the water, and the red colobus monkeys moving about the trees on the bank.

Finally back to camp for a shower before dinner. The owner had moved the table and chairs out onto the little wooden fishing jetty so that we could dine under the stars, and one of the other four tourists there produced a bottle of champagne for us all to share. It wasn’t exactly a traditional Christmas meal – we had spaghetti bolognese followed by flambed bananas – but it was one of the most enjoyable I have had.

My fellow tourists were contemplating their flights home, hoping that Europe’s snow had begun to clear. I had a long, uncomfortable shared taxi ride back home to Dakar, but with the knowledge that blue skies and warm sunshine would continue for me until the rains come next July.

Oh, where was I? In The Gambia, at the Bird Safari Camp on Jangjangbureh Island, taking a short break. A beautiful place although I’d be giving too one-sided a picture if I didn’t mention the voracious mosquitoes that have left me with dozens of red and itching bites as my souvenir.

South Africa part two

Finally we reached Cape Town. A surprisingly small place, easy to walk around and relatively safe too. We did the usual stuff – Robben Island, cable car up Table Mountain, Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens, and a day trip down around the Cape of Good Hope and Seal Island. It was all very nice, a very pretty part of the world although a little spoilt by the strong winds that can seemingly appear from nowhere at any time.

We had booked onto the Premier Classe train for the journey back to Johannesburg, but were getting a little panicky by the morning before the trip, when the money for the tickets had still not made its way to the travel agent from my UK bank (after three weeks of trying), meaning that our reservation was still not confirmed. However we’d had several near misses with transport and none had ultimately derailed the trip so we kept our fingers crossed. & luck was on our side as the money arrived that afternoon and our tickets were confirmed.

So the next morning we made our way to the Premier Lounge for check-in and a cup of coffee before boarding the train at nine. The welcome meeting was mostly a list of the meals to come (morning coffee, lunch, afternoon tea, dinner…), and was accompanied by champagne and a piece of cake. Then we made our way to our private cabin where I unpacked a dress and hung it up so the creases would fall out before dinner. It was 26 hours of – well, not luxury, as the air conditioning in the restaurant car broke down, and the ride was not smooth enough to allow anyone to get much sleep – but comfort certainly, and a chance to relax and watch the scenery unfold as we trundled along through the semi-desert of the fringes of the Karoo.

The journey passed quite quickly and soon we were in Johannesburg, with just a couple of days of the holiday left. To be honest, these were only scheduled because the train timetable prevented us from arriving the day of our flights home, as Johannesburg doesn’t have the kind of reputation that makes you want to hang around there. But, to our surprise, we really enjoyed our time there, thanks mainly to a very good guide.

It wasn’t as safe as Cape Town, certainly. We stayed in the suburb of Melville which was very genteel, full of trees and flowers, and a “strip” of restaurants and bars, and even there we were warned not to walk after dark, not even the five minutes between the guest house and the closest restaurant. But we took a tour around Soweto, mostly walking, and I was really surprised at how clean, friendly and relatively developed this notorious township actually is. Cleaner than Dakar, certainly, and with the roads and pavements in a much better condition. & with a great system enabling people to move up the ladder economically. Those who can afford it buy/build a house on a plot of land. Those who can’t, rent a small parcel of land in the ‘garden’ area of such a house, and build themselves a shack on it. These shacks vary, from very basic corrugated iron structures housing too many people for their size and sharing bathroom facilities with other shacks, to some with all the facilities you could want – I saw a modern fitted kitchen in one that put my kitchen in Dakar to shame. Some of the houses are in fact very smart large villas, and what was remarkable was that none of these had high walls or electric fences around them, unlike the villas in Melville. Of course there will be unsafe parts (Soweto has a population of some two million, so there are bound to be less salubrious quarters) but it definitely doesn’t deserve the reputation it has.

We took a tour of the main city too, learning all about the history and seeing the remnants of the gold mining industry, also walking around the central business district and going to the top of the Carlton Centre. This is the tallest building in Africa, and from the observation deck on the top (50th) floor you have panoramic views across the city. Most interesting for me was the sight of little shacks and even gardens on top of all the older skyscrapers. These date from the apartheid era when the corporations wished to employ low-paid (ie black) caretakers for their buildings, but this was a white zone where the blacks were not allowed to live. They got around the problem by defining this rule as relating to the land, and accommodating their black workers on the rooftops which were not ‘land’. A pragmatic solution which amazingly still sees people living in these rooftop shacks today.

Finally, on our last morning, we took a trip out to a Lion and Rhino park, where a lot of game roams free but where there are also lions and rhinos in smaller enclosures and visitors are able to pet a lion cub. Of course we couldn’t resist this opportunity! The ‘cub’ we stroked was pretty big, at eleven months old. I asked for how long it was safe to be with them like this, and they told me up to eleven months – apparently this one was to be let out into a bigger enclosure with the pride within a day or two. It was a nice end to our trip.