Friday, February 25, 2011

Jo'burg to Kruger

21 February, Johannesburg

Spent most of the day today at a large complex called The Cradle of Humankind, an extremely well presented attraction centred on the discovery of fossils that may provide the 'missing link' in Darwin's evolutionary theory. The highly interactive museum at Maropeng would easily be the best of this type of museum that we have ever visited, incorporating a boat ride through a simulation of the early geological history of the earth and a trip into the Black Hole. The second part of the complex at Sterkfontein Caves had a smaller, but still well-presented, museum and a tour of the cave system where the original fossils were discovered. While the caves were a little less than spectacular, it was interesting to see where the 'dig' to extract one of the main finds was in progress. Archaeologists have been working in the caves for 14 years to remove the almost complete skeleton of a Hominid called 'Little Foot' - the best evidence, to date, of the so-called 'missing link'.

Picked up our car later in the day in preparation for the start of our 'road trip' through South Africa. Tomorrow we are off on a full day tour of the sprawling township/city of Soweto.

22 February, Soweto

South West Township

Most South African towns and cities have their 'townships', settlements where poor Africans have congregated (or been sent to) for many decades. South West Township, Soweto, is the largest of the townships and, historically, the most significant. Over 2 million people live here today in conditions ranging from abject poverty to almost palatial comfort. The worst conditions are in the squatter settlements, shanty towns within what was once only a shanty town itself.

We were surprised at just how developed much of the city was. Housing at the poorer end of the scale was simply horrible - tin roofs, plastic sheeting walls, open drains and portable communal toilets. One bonus was that there was electricity to most areas and clean water available from taps set at intervals through the squatter camps. Other housing in the city, while better than the shanties, was often very basic. At the top end, there were large homes, surrounded by high walls and the almost obligatory razor wire and electric fences Given the obvious overcrowding all over the city, however, the general state of the streets was excellent.

Nelson Mandela's house would once have been in a street of very simple, three room brick houses. Today, large homes that would not be out of place in the most high class neighbourhoods of western cities, lined the street.

Soweto's place in South African and, indeed, world history, rests on the campaigns of civil disobedience that had their roots here. Often ending in violence and brutal suppression, these protests reached a crescendo in the mid 1970s. In June 1976, school students from Soweto marched out of their schools, protesting against the mandatory use of the Afrikaans language in their schools. What started as relatively peaceful protest, turned violent when a student was killed as police opened fire on the crowd. Within a year, more than 700 people had been killed. For the next 14 years, South Africa experienced almost constant conflict as the apartheid regime fought to retain power in the face of violence at home and condemnation abroad. The break through came in 1990 with the release from prison of Nelson Mandela. After much political wrangling, elections were held in 1994 and the modern Republic of South Africa, the rainbow nation, was born.

The details of this turbulent period in South Africa's history are presented in enormous detail in the Apartheid Museum on the outskirts of Soweto.

23 February, Orpen Camp, Kruger NP

Australia's World Invasion

From the back streets of Athens, right through the Mediterranean, South-Western USA and southern Africa, the Eucalyptus reigns supreme. Mile after mile of our drive today was through forests of gums. While this makes us feel at home, the gum tree is becoming a significant international pest!

Australian pestilence aside, our drive today gave us our first real view of the African landscape. The openness is the first thing to hit you. Rolling hills, distant ranges and, just at the moment, a very green, green land!

Bushbuckridge is a small spot on the map of this rolling country, but its 'suburbs' go on forever. It was about 3:30pm as we wove our way through trucks and 'bakkies' (utes) of the fairly small town centre, then, as we crested the ridge on the edge of town, we saw thousands of small brick houses, scattered over the valley below, stretching as far as the eye could see. School was out and hundreds of well-dressed school children joined the many hundreds of others walking along both sides of the road to Kruger National Park. At first we thought this was an unusual sort of settlement, until it hit us that this was just like western suburbs, but without the road networks and services. Dirt roads and tracks led off the main road to simple but adequate houses with small plots of land, some of which had small vegetable gardens. This walking along the road is a fairly consistent theme in developing countries. Here, mini buses ply the roads, acting as multi-hire taxis, dropping off and picking up wherever demand dictates, Where all these people find work is a mystery, but some are doing fairly well, with new houses going up here and there that are a vast improvement on their fairly humble neighbours.

Here at Orpen Camp, as the thunder of an early evening storm cracks about us, we are settled into a nice little cabin with all the mod-cons including air-conditioning. No animal sightings yet, but we did see some extremely large piles of animal droppings on the way in. Only an elephant could deposit something that big!

Apparently, there is a honey badger roaming the camp at night, so we will be locked up early! These little blighters are about the size of a large cat but some say they have no natural predators in Africa. Even the King of Beasts fears the honey badger. If a lion is courageous enough to take a badger's young, the badger hunts the individual lion down and savagely attacks it - generally in the area of the the unfortunate lion's private parts. That's good enough for us – good night!

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