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South Africa for Beginners

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I FELT like a bit of a fool standing in front of two armed security guards in my Christmas pyjamas. Their poor English mixed with my poor Zulu made communication a challenging task.

“Alarm? Alarm?” The driver asked.

“Not here, at least I don’t think so.” I said. They drove off, and didn’t come back.

It’s easy to feel anxious in South Africa, the crime rate is incredibly high, poverty is rife, and there are lingering racial tensions from the country’s less than reputable past.

None of this, however, detracts from the fact that South Africa is a land of immense natural beauty, wonderful people, and food so good nothing will ever taste the same again.

“In the UK they drive on the left, in SA we drive on what’s left, TIA [short for This is Africa].” Said our host Glen on a drive into town.

It’s difficult to truly explain this continental acronym. It’s a calm acceptance of the fact that countries in Africa simply don’t have some of the amenities of the western world. Slow/no internet? TIA. Rolling blackouts? TIA. Life threatening driving standards? TIA.

Glen could be described as a man of the world. He spent many years living in the UK with his Swedish wife, Jeanette, but a few years ago he came back to South Africa.

We were staying off the beaten path, at Glen’s house - a wonderfully cared for and tranquil abode on some farmland a few hours inland of Durban.

“It’s so peaceful hey. We live quite a life out here.” Said Pete, Glen’s brother. “No city noise. Don’t you ever get tired of all that noise?” He continued.

“Sometimes.” I said.

“I can’t stand the city,” he quipped, stubbing out his cigarette and tending to the fire.

Pete was a soft spoken, optimistic guy. He was also my Afrikaans sounding board. Apparently, I was quite good for a ‘pom’ (South African slang for a British Person). He made a mean Potjie (pronounced ‘poikey’), a slow cooked stew prepared in a pot over hot coals.

I had been in South Africa for a week, and had been a little on edge for reasons previously mentioned in this article.

But when I first laid eyes on the sleeping peaks and verdant valleys of the Drakensberg Mountains, I began to understand the complexities of this country. For every township and story of violent crime, there were countless natural wonders.

I got the same feeling when, a few weeks later, I found myself face to face with cheetahs, elephants, rhino, springbok, and all manner of beautiful creatures in the wilderness of the Hluhluwe-Imfolozi game reserve. The reserve is situated just outside the town of St. Lucia, a vibrant resort town popular amongst those on safari trips.

The next town over, Mtubatuba, was the polar opposite. The town had seen better days. The desperate, the jobless, and the hungry lined the streets. It was difficult not to feel for these people. The short drive from Mtubatuba to St. Lucia felt like a perfect metaphor for the modern South Africa; lots to offer, but a long way to come.

The impression I came away from South Africa with was worlds apart from the one I had gone with. In truth, I was somewhat scared to go and almost decided against it. Yes, it has its issues, and I wouldn’t want to downplay them - crime is indeed high, poverty is indeed rife, and the country is indeed suffering a hangover from its ugly past. But South Africa is misunderstood, vibrant, beautiful, challenging, and sensational. It is a gentle giant, and the crown jewel of its continent.

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