Sunday, March 30, 2008

Adventure/Travel Log - South Africa- March 08

Let me first preface this entry by saying that the intention of this road trip was to not only experience and learn about this amazingly diverse country for ourselves, but mainly to meet with numerous leaders and organizations within the Lutheran Church as well as NGO's (Non-governmental organizations) and other organizations throughout South Africa. By doing so, we are in the midst of investigating potential site placements for our program volunteers who will be serving in many differing aspects of communities around the country. We had the opportunity to meet and speak with many leaders of churches and organizations, and saw so much potential for each site in which our volunteers will have the opportunity to walk alongside, serve and learn. The following is what we were able to experience in terms of an adventure and travel log and not the in-depth log of our ELCA Young Adult in Global Missions program. That will be in subsequent emails in the future. So get out your maps and let the adventure begin....!!!

With a beautiful morning ahead of us we started the trip out though the narrow, winding, shoulder-less roads of the KwaZulu Natal Province up, down and around hills and mountains with sights for the passengers eyes mostly (driver must keep their eyes on the road!). It was a busy Friday and as we passed through towns, the streets and markets were filled with pay day excitement and an end of the work week buzz in the air. After a long and concentrated drive that snaked up, over and around the hills of KZN province, we arrived in the East Coast province in the town of Port Elizabeth (PE).

PE is a very industrial town as motor companies, mining and the like are prevalent. We had the joy of staying with a host family from one of the churches we were visiting for our entire stay which gave us the joy of really seeing and experiencing life in a South African family. The unique thing about the area we were staying is that (like our family) it is a 'so called' coloured (mixed race) area and there is very little mixing, in terms of living, in this area. So to see a few white people running, walking and staying here was a bit different for the neighborhood. But slowly we got a few waves and hellos and were part of the life of the Lucas family. During the visit we also had the joy of hiking in an area reserve and had an amazing day in the Addo Elephant Park. The reserve covers a vast amount of hectares and as we traveled the area we saw black rhino, ostrich, warthogs, kudo, eland, monkeys, and of course, HUGE African elephants both near and far. It was something I never thought we'd be so close to in the wild. The experience was kind of scary, as the animals stand the height of a one story home. We came around a corner and with tusks shining and ears flapped out we were confronted by a large male and six others just grazing and eating as they passed. From feet away we simply did not move and were in awe as we watched them feed and carry on across the reserve.

From Port Elizabeth we continued on our journey down what is known as the “Garden Route” heading south. It is beautiful and green paralleling the coastline through forested areas, with coastal dunes to our left and mountains and ridge lines to our right. We stayed in a log cabin overlooking the Indian Ocean in a great town called Knysna and were treated to sunsets overlooking the blue green ocean with the sounds and sites of waves lapping the seven kilometer beach from Brenton to Buffalo Bay.

We then continued on towards Cape Town and settled into a fishing village called Kalk Bay on the coastal road of the cape peninsula overlooking the expanse of False Bay (allegedly the third largest in the world). As we traveled in we saw the first of the many baboons that are in the rocky highlands surrounding Cape Town. Many of these villages have such history with old buildings and roads of years past along with rich African heritage. As we walked to the marina we were greeted by the seals that are all vying for the scraps of the fishmongers cutting up and selling the days catch.

The following morning we headed to the guest house in the town of Fish Hoek where we would stay for the remainder of our visit to the greater Cape Town area. On the same blustery day with the southeasterly winds gusting off the coast we made our way down to the Cape of Good Hope (Africa's most southwesterly point) and Cape Point.

To look out on the expanse where the Atlantic meets the Indian Ocean is so humbling. To think of all the early explorers coming to this point wondering if indeed they had reached the bottom of the continent and all those whose ships could not make the turn in the treacherous high seas, with only Antarctica further to the south, is daunting to try to put your mind around. We also visited one of the African penguin colonies at Boulders where you can swim with or just simply observe these comical creatures that are almost human in their interactions.

Looming large in this eye catching city of natural beauty is the flat topped Table Mountain. One side looks down to the city center and port on the Atlantic Ocean at its foot whereas the Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens as well as vineyards, neighborhoods, distant mountains and a view of False Bay opening to the Indian Ocean on the other. The Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens cover over 500 hectares of the back side of Table Mountain and is known as one of the most beautiful gardens in the world. The gardens were established by Jan van Riebeek in 1657 where now about 9000 of Southern Africa's 22,000 plant species are found. It also provided us the lead route as we hiked up to the top of Table Mountain on a route straight up called Skeleton's Gorge. There is no doubt why it is named as it is with its steep inclines (even some fixed ladders to climb). This route requires you to scramble up rocks, tree roots and watch your step with each placement of your foot up this challenging hike. The beauty of it was that as you go up one side you can see the picturesque views on one side of the mountain and then as you reach the top and hike over the plateau to the other side you look onto a different ocean and down onto the city center. We were so blessed with the views this experience offered, although our feet and legs were trembling by the time we had made it up and down over the course of many hours. And yes you can officially call us crazy as it was merely one day removed from running the Two Oceans half marathon! Also notable is that when a cloud is over the mountain, it looks like a blanket covering as if a dry ice witches brew is spilling over.

On a much different note we had the opportunity to worship and celebrate Easter Sunday attending St.George's Cathedral. This is the same church that Archbishop Desmond Tutu preached at during his term leading the Anglican Church. We were so blessed as this service was enriched by the festival sung Eucharist including the cathedral choirs, professional soloists and orchestra music of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. The vaulted ceilings danced and carried the sounds beautifully down and around its stained glass and stone walls with their centuries old history and design.

With our finale of experiences in and around Cape Town we arrived at the famed Robben Island where we saw glimpses of the old lepers' church and graveyard, PAC leader Robert Sobukwe's house where he was imprisoned due to opposition of the pass laws, WWII fortifications and the lime quarry worked by political prisoners (which has ruined many of their eyes and it was told that to this day Nelson Mandela's tear ducts are permanently damaged and cannot cry tears). The 'highlight' is the prison itself where many political prisoners spent years of incarceration fighting for freedom, democracy, and other human rights issues. It is here that the world famous Nelson Mandela spent 18 of his 27 years of imprisonment, and we were able to walk right to and see his tiny cell, the courtyard and other areas now in the history books of a recent and turbulent past. It was so moving and troubling to fully grasp the gravity of Robben Island and what Nelson Mandela and the many others had in the struggle for an equal and democratic South Africa. As we rode the boat over rough waters back to the mainland with the sun setting across the water, I found myself lost in thought about what it means to sacrifice, suffer and fight for the rights and equality of a nation for an entire lifetime. What Nelson Mandela and other stand for and what they represent is something so powerful that it permeates down to the soul of a nation.

Leaving Cape Town we traveled through one of the largest townships (shantytowns) in the country for meetings before heading to the northeast. It never ceases to amaze me the discrepancy between the rich and poor in such a short distance.

As we traveled up and out of the mountains sprinkled with a plethora of vineyard estates the environment became more and more arid, dry and flat. We stopped first to break the travel in a small town called Beaufort West. It is mostly an in transit town, but there was a bit of old charm to this oldest and largest town in the Karoo region, established in the year 1818, which is the gateway to the Karoo National Park. From here we continued northeast through to the epicenter of the region into the old diamond town of Kimberly whose past is certainly quite a checkered one. This is the city where De Beers Consolidated Mines began; where Cecil John Rhodes and Ernest Oppenheimer (mining magnate and mayor of Kimberly) made their fortunes. What is now left is the largest manually dug hole in the world at 800m deep. Diamond mining stopped here in 1914, but not before 14.5 million carats of diamonds were carted away. Leaving, you just have to ask yourself the question regarding the wealth 'A profit for who and at whose expense?'. Unfortunately, that is not hard to answer.

We continued on through Bloemfontein and Bethlehem in the Eastern Highlands which are bumped up against the wild and rugged mountains that guard Lesotho's border. Known as the jewel of the Free State, we stopped in the quaint little town of Clarens set to a backdrop of craggy limestone rocks, hunter green hills, spun gold fields and the magnificent Maluti Mountains just a few miles from the northern border of Lesotho. It has a very trendy and artsy feel with 18 galleries focusing on quality works by well-known South African artists. Funny enough it is also known as a place visited by the likes of Brad Pitt, Prince Harry and Jane Seymour, to name a few. Just a few kilometers away we visited Golden Gate Highlands National Park. The namesake is due to what happens right before the darkness erases the remaining flecks from the sky. The jagged sandstone outcroppings fronting the wild maroon-hued Maluti Mountains glow golden in the dying light as the sky explodes in a fiery collision of purple and red. It was the perfect ending to a day in which we climbed Wodehouse Peak at over 7000 feet high where we were rewarded with spectacular views into the endless mountains of Lesotho.

With the morning sun shining brightly we made our way along the border with Lesotho with the Maluti and Drakensburg Mountains filling the landscape as we headed back to our home in Pietermaritzburg. As we came over the last hills and saw down into the city center bowl, we just simply looked at one another and said we made it! What a gift to be able to experience this beautifully diverse country on a road trip of almost 5000km.We were truly blessed to see what these eyes have seen!

With peace and love,