By Harriet Hart
What prompted me to choose South Africa as a destination? Perhaps it was those geography quizzes at Carlton School, a one room schoolhouse on the Canadian prairie. Every morning the teacher rolled down a map of the world provided by the Neilson Chocolate bar company, and some lucky student using the teacher’s pointer selected somewhere… anywhere in the world and asked: “What is this called?”
The Cape of Good Hope near the southern tip of the African continent was one of my favorites. That’s where sailors stopped to rest and refurbish their supplies. It was a stormy coastline and many ships were lost. I asked my young self what makes hope good versus bad, and reckoned that good hope is hoping the ship sails safely past the rocks in stormy seas and bad hope is hoping it gets caught in a gale, smashed on the rocks, and sinks.
Over fifty years later my husband and I booked a trip to Johannesburg with the help of a company called Southern Destinations. I took my usual approach to trip planning: I found a total stranger on line, told her roughly where we wanted to go and let her work out all the details. I provided minimal instructions. We wanted to take a train from Johannesburg to Cape town, spend time birding and go on safari. The rest was up to Liesl. We were practicing good hope.
Prior to departure, I had some doubts and so did others.
“Is Southern Destinations a legitimate travel agency?” asked a friend.
“Don’t wander around Johannesburg alone,” cautioned a seasoned traveler. “They’ll kill you for your shoes.” Another friend counseled me not to wear necklaces or thieves would rip them right off my neck.
A big black man holding up a sign with our surname printed on it met us in arrivals. Theo delivered us to The Residence, an unlikely name for the boutique hotel it turned out to be. We were greeted by the uniformed staff that grabbed our bags, offered us a free sherry and fussed over us. There were fresh flowers in our room and chocolates on our pillows. I suspect they want to impress us at the beginning but the standards will slide as the trip progresses, I said to myself.
“What will dinner cost in a place like this?” I asked.
“Who cares?” replied Paul, beaming as he downed a second sherry.
And so they began, the most luxurious 21 days of my life. Every hotel room was well appointed and elegant, every meal a dining experience. A quick trip through my journal reveals phrases like: “the best chicken pie I’ve ever tasted,” and “beet, strawberry, mascarpone cheese salad – to die for” and “wild pig with pear chutney –wonderful.”
Every morning someone wearing a uniform and driving a shiny white van picked us up and took us somewhere. There were the to-be-expected destinations like vineyards and botanical gardens, art museums and galleries and the unexpected ones, too.
They’ve built an Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg. The cover of its glossy brochure reads: “Apartheid is exactly where it belongs – in a museum.” Of course I knew about apartheid but not very much. That afternoon I saw gigantic black and white photographs by a photographer named Kole of naked black men about to be body searched and imprisoned for traveling without an identity card, children in classrooms with no desks, chairs or books, fiery preachers and desperate mothers with starving children; the most telling of all was the image of an elderly man passed out on the street with an open bible covering his eyes. The caption read: “When the Europeans came, they had the Bible and we had the land. Now we have the Bible and they have the land.”
I saw the yellow armored vehicles used to transport families from their homes to the townships, the ropes used to hang enemies of the state and the cells where men were placed for demanding the freedom to work where they chose and marry who they loved. We were taken to Constitution Hill where in Number Four prison thousands of black men were brutalized and Mahatma Gandhi was jailed four times for resisting the race laws. We took the ferry to Robben Island and saw the stone yard where Nelson Mandela ruined his eyes crushing rocks with a hammer for years and years in the blazing sun. It never touched his spirit nor did he give up good hope.
We were driven to District Six in Capetown where prior to Apartheid Christians, Muslims, Jews and Hindus of all colors lived and worked until their homes were bulldozed down and they were forced to relocate to townships miles away, punished for living harmoniously. Our guide was a member of one of those families. Capetown Airport is surrounded by shanty towns where unemployed men sit hopelessly on the street corners. Directly across the highway white men play golf; after 18 holes, their black caddies cross the highway to their squatter city.
On our final evening in Capetown before heading to Shamwari Game Park we dined in a chic Italian restaurant. Next to us was a noisy table filled with young women.
“There must be a fashion show on in town or a convention of models…or something,” gushed my admiring husband. They were black, Caucasian and Asian.
“Where are you ladies visiting from?” I asked.
“We all live here in Cape town,” one replied.
These rainbow women were models and actresses, friends out on the town, having fun. Is this the new face of South Africa? If it is, I have good hope that the ship of state will sail past whatever future storms lie in wait for her.