Sunday, August 26, 2012

Visit to the Rainbow Nation-1

I have always been fascinated by South Africa as a country. It is one of the BRICS nation and it leads Africa in all economic and social parameters. It has huge mineral wealth and , but unlike any other African country, it has put that wealth into developing nation, rather than just filling coffers of ruling class. It is country with eventful history. Right from Cape Colony to Boer Wars to Apartheid to post-Apartheid Rainbow Nation! 

So when I got opportunity to visit South Africa for business trip, I was very excited as I would not only get chance to visit one scenic place, but also would get chance to interact with people over there and understand the history/ culture of the country. So I am planning to divide my blog into 2 parts. First will be more about my visit, kind of travelogue and other would be more about my thoughts about the country. Of course it's very difficult to narrate a travelogue without comments, so there would be comments and my views in travelogue, but they would be restricted to comments on situations.

Almost everyone in my office has visited SA at least once. So when my plan for the trip was finalised, advices started pouring in. Suggestion ranged from nice food (fresh fish and exotic game meat), places to visit to being careful because of  Johannesburg 's high crime rate. So based on these advices and some googling, we decided to visit Cape Town during the weekend and roam around Johannesburg on other weekends or weekdays (it was 2 week trip, so effectively one complete weekend n 2 part weekends). Apart from the scenic beauty of the place, I was also interested in historical places.

So the day finally arrived and I flew by South African Airways to Jo'burg (typing Johannesburg again and again is painful). SAA was not great. Being sarkari airline, neither food not air hostesses were good. We landed in Jo'burg on chilly Sunday morning. It was apparently the coldest day of the year so far, with temperatures below freezing. Complete contrast to the sunny and hot Mumbai. Luckily we didn't have to brave the cold often during the stay as most of the time was spent in Office, Hotel or cars. Drive to the hotel was really good, with smooth highways like any developed nation. But part of the drive was through Alexandra Township, a slum a la India with tin houses. But since these are highways where you can drive @ 120 km/hr, you don't get slightest inconvenience of the slum. Very unlike India, where when you drive through Dharavi or for that matter any slum (even on east-west flyover at Goregaon), you literally drive next to slums and encounter the chaos right next to your vehicles. It was like two worlds are distinctly apart. The place where we stayed was really comfortable with all the amenities and good breakfast.
Place where I stayed. It was more like a resort

For lunch we decided to meet our office colleagues at nearby mall, which has great restaurants. Though the mall was only 1-2 km away, we were circumspect about walking to the place having heard of the crime rate n all. But frankly on Sunday morning, walking into Sandton (wealthy suburb of Jo'burg in the north, where we stayed) was not at all scary experience. Rather enjoyed walk on empty footpaths. It was good to see vehicles stopping for pedestrians. Pedestrians do get respect out of India it seems. Fish was really fresh and I loved it. Kalamari and Kingklip! 

Afternoon was visit to local flea market. Bought few African show-pieces. Having a Marwari colleague helps in bargaining :). Market has large number of shops selling local artefacts, food. And it consisted of shops from all the communities in SA. Of course there were many shops of blacks, but many other communities were also present. I had nice burger at Serbian stall. And things close very early in SA (like any other Western country. Makes me wonder why Indians start late and end late, but that's another blog topic). By 4 all shops were closed. So we headed back to the hotel. 

As the sun set, Jo'burg was eerily quiet, which I liked. Much better than the constant chaos n noise in India. But when we entered casino for dinner/ entertainment at night, it was different world altogether. Many people were having fun at the gaming machines. Not being particularly adept at cards, I refrained myself from playing blackjack n all. 

Downtown Sandton
Week was very busy with meetings scheduled throughout the day. Sandton downtown is like any other modern country. Nicely paved streets, organised traffic. You don't realise that you are technically in a developing country. It was really nice interacting with people in the organisation, especially since it has nice mix of people from all the communities in SA. Helps one to understand cultural aspects better. Especially dinners/ drinks with local people is really good experience.

Days started early and finished by 5-6 pm. So this gave us a chance to visit restaurants, watering holes around. Had my first springbock and steak. Loved the steak fillet, tried it many more times during the visit. And it goes best with wine. Oh, the wine in SA was so good n inexpensive, hardly any dinner went without wine. Wonder why wine in India is so expensive and part of menu only in high end restaurants. Maybe it has to do with Indian psyche of drinking for getting 'kick' and not as enjoyment.

View from the plane
So the four days of the week flew by and on Friday afternoon, we left for Cape Town. We had heard of possibility of bad weather in Cape Town, so were really hoping that rains don't ruin our trip. As aircraft descended Cape Town airport, I was mesmerised by the breathtaking view of the city surrounded by Table Mountain on side and sea on the other. We hired car at the airport and drove to the hotel near Waterfront, looking forward to weekend at the Cape. It was still overcast and view of the mountain peaks eclipsed by clouds was worth savouring. I tried Ostrich at restaurant at restaurant at Victoria & Alfred Waterfront overlooking the sea. It was good though a bit chewy. 

Saturday was day of drive of ~250 km around the Cape. Driving along the coastal roads with mountains on one side and beach on the other on really nice roads in Toyota Corolla was one experience I will cherish. Especially drive along Chapman's peak with a half tunnel, reminded me of NFS roads. Driving is such a pleasure at these places, when you don't have to worry about pedestrians crossing roads randomly, other drivers flouting traffic rules and driving rashly. Weather at the Cape is really quirky with strong winds and rain on one day and bright sunshine on the other. On Saturday, rains lashed our windowpanes at times, but luckily for us it didn't rain when we got down from the car for sightseeing. So we visited nice beaches like Hout Bay (unfortunately with rain there weren't any people, but had breakfast in cafe overlooking beach), ostrich farm, penguin colony. 

But highlight was visit to Cape of Good Hope, the fabled southern point of Africa. Many sailors used this place as an resting place before onward journey towards the Orient. This has given distinct culture to the Cape. There are lot of Dutch settlers (Afrikaans), British (who came later), Malays (Dutch uprooted them from Malaya and moved here), Indians, blacks (original inhabitants) and of course, Cape Coloured. There was so much intermingling among people of different races at Cape, that it gave rise to a distinct community in South Africa, called Cape Coloured, which account for some 8-10% of South African population. Even the food is mixture of all cultures. Bobotie, which I tried was Indonesian-Malaysian dish with Dutch influence. 

So coming back to Cape of Good Hope, on the top of the lighthouse at the end, the wind was gushing around, which made it impossible to stand without support. Rough sea with waves banging the cliff made me wonder how difficult would have been for the sailors of 15th-16th century to navigate around and go onwards to India. Last stop of the day was the Cape vineyards at Stellenbosch, which has some of the best wines in the world. We visited Spier vineyard, as suggested by office colleagues, for wine tasting. And of course bought some really good wine for India. With inclement weather and tickets not available for Robben Island, our spirits were down on Saturday evening as we were expecting lacklustre end to our Cape Town trip.

Listening tales from ex-prisoner himself
But weather gods smiled on us on Sunday morning. It was sunny outside and cable car to the Table Mountain was operating for the first time over the weekend. Before that we tried our luck for visit to Robben Island. This is a place where Nelson Mandela was imprisoned and tickets for the same are full much in advanced. So on Sunday morning we visited the booking counter and thanks to the persistence of my colleagues, the sales lady finally relented the gave us the cancelled tickets. Ferry ride from the port to the island was quite turbulent. Prison at Robben Island is like Andaman, where political prisoners were kept. Our guide for the tour was a political prisoner who had spent few years in that very prison. Quite surreal to listen the stories from him.

View from the top, One can see Newlands ground
After returning from Robben Island we rushed to Cable Car for Table mountain lest the weather changes again. Ascent of the cable car is quite steep. And as expected view from the top is breathtaking. Cape Town has so many places to see and enjoy that it's impossible to do it justice in 2 days. So I would definitely like to go back to Cape Town for at least a week long trip in future. And there is Garden Route along the ocean, which goes to places more beautiful than Cape Town ,like Knysna, George. So already jotted down in to-do list. So with that in mind I flew back to Jo'burg.

Looks like this blog has already become quite long. So better divide this blog in 3 parts, instead of 2 as I had decided earlier. So about my visit of Pilansburg Reserve and Soweto/ Apartheid Museum in my next blog. 


At 3:48 PM, Anonymous Ravindra Deodhar said...

After reading the same it feels like i am also travelling to SAF.
Nice work bro.
And Wish you belated happay birthday too.


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