Illuminating South Africa

‘The Rainbow Nation’, a term first used to describe post-apartheid South Africa, symbolised the different races unified in a newly democratic nation. Two decades on it is hard to believe that black Africans didn’t gain the right to vote until the elections of 1994, which granted Nelson Mandela the Presidency. With Apartheid long gone, South Africa is becoming very popular with international tourists and travellers. For some, the main attraction is the chance to come within swiping distance of a lion or catch sight of rhinos trotting up the road, but there is much more to sample and, with the advantage of a decent infrastructure and some spectacular routes on tarmac and gravel, it is one of the most accessible countries on the continent.

South Africa’s troubled history of colonial invasion, European settlers, mass migration of African tribal groups and racial segregation is fascinating. The chance to see a country still in a period of transition is sobering at times and at others uplifting. Lush highlands, desert, cloud forest, swampy lowlands, beaches, rocky escarpments and world-class hiking trails make a wonderfully diverse backdrop to the story of a nation still grappling with its past.

Big animals and bigger vistas are something South Africa provides in abundance. The Kalahari basin to the north west, bordering Namibia and Botswana, and the lowlands or ‘lowveld’ east of the Drakensberg cliffs towards Mozambique, are where most big animals can be found, enjoying the vast Kruger and Kalahari Gemsbok national parks. These lowland areas were traditionally inhospitable to settlers and farmers because they consist of hot semi-desert plains or swampy flatlands home to malaria and the Tsetse fly, carrier of the killer bilharzias. These lands remained wild areas where large native animals retained a habitat large enough to live and hunt in numbers.

The Afrikaans president Paul Kruger created the Kruger National Park in 1898 and, as conservation is an active concern in South Africa, there are still relatively large numbers of animals compared to the rest of the continent. You would be unlucky to visit a National Park without seeing at least some of the following: elephant, rhinoceros, hippopotamus, cheetah, leopard, lion, or buffalo. Of course, you will not be spotting them from your bike. Some of these animals instinctively attack humans and for obvious reasons you can’t ride a motorcycle in the National Parks. Most of the tour companies use open-top jeeps though, so you can still get that uninterrupted view.

Those heading for the Kruger area often base themselves up on the cooler malaria-free Transvaal bluff within the rain forest, which is stunning in its own right. On occasions when the mist clears, you realise you are perched 1,000 metres up and afforded fantastic views over the lowveld below. Basic accommodation within the National Parks is a legacy of the apartheid boycott years, when these camps served mainly domestic tourists. Many were Afrikaners, wealthy enough to go on holiday, but whose independent pioneer spirit was in tune with campfire cooking and the outdoor life.

As international tourism develops, facilities are becoming less basic but sometimes with quirky results. One camp describes itself as ‘self-catering’ but forbids guests from entering the camp kitchen. Instead a cook takes charge of your provisions and then delivers your cooked meal to your hut.

Many private reserves are more suited to touring by bike as you can access accommodation and tours without driving into the park itself. It is worth doing your research beforehand.

Big game aside, touring the more rural parts of the country you are likely to see other, hopefully less dangerous wildlife, from the saddle or whilst trekking on the excellent trails. You’ll spot baboons and eagles from the road and giraffes and zebras abound. South Africa has 900 species of bird including the ostrich (the largest bird in the world), the Kori Bustard (the largest flying bird in the world) and the extraordinarily colourful sunbirds.

Oudtshoorn, in the Cape Province, is the self-proclaimed Ostrich Capital of the world and is surrounded by some stunning riding roads. Settled in the nineteenth century and with the ideal climate for rearing the birds, farms sprang up supplying highly fashionable ostrich feathers for hats in Victorian and Edwardian times. The ‘feather barons’ used their vast wealth to build ostentatious sandstone mansions and although many of these palaces fell into disrepair as fashions changed, you will see ostrich farms everywhere. The meat is popular in the form of steak. It’s a delicious low-cholesterol red meat, so you can even feel virtuous while you enjoy it, alongside other game favourites such as zebra and antelope.

Although BBQs are two-a-penny, other South African food has deliciously sophisticated flavours. Often called ‘rainbow cuisine’ it is a mixture of indigenous African dishes, the cooking of Dutch and English settlers and the well-spiced foods of Malays, Indians and Indonesians who were brought as slaves and servants in the 19th and early 20th centuries. A convenient staple is Boerewors, a basic farmer’s sausage bought in huge untwisted rope-like coils. Twist and cut off a length depending on your appetite – it’s perfect to stuff in a pannier.

And there’s nothing to wash it down quite like a glass of local fermented grape juice. The vineyards of the Southern Cape provide a Cab-Sav with a very distinctive nose and body apparently, as a result of a near Mediterranean climate but with the crisp cool winter air of the crashing southern Oceans, who meet at Cape Agulhas. Jan van Reibeeck’s first wine, in 1659, was produced only seven years after the Dutch colony was founded and pioneered what was in no small part the economic basis of the whole settlement.

If you’re a beer connoisseur you won’t fair quite as well in South Africa, but some of local beers brewed with maize or sorghum really should be tried, you may even eventually acquire the taste.

Where there’s beer, there’s sport and as important as it remains to all South Africans, it was the cricket and rugby boycotts of the 1980’s which kept the anti-apartheid struggle in focus for most of the western world, while economic sanctions strangled what had been a vibrant primary producer. The Dutch settlers had become a farming community (boers) but it was the mining of the region’s rich natural resources and particularly diamonds, which sealed the region’s fate and of course invited the violence of the Boer War as the British staked their claim too.

Unfortunately mining can still be responsible for sporadic violence as the recent miner strikes and subsequent police over-reaction demonstrated.

Today, South Africa even has its own motorbike manufacturer – Puzey – and the cities of the country exude urban sophistication to match any ‘western’ metropolis. But the modern concrete and glass is at odds with the surrounding townships like Soweto, established during apartheid as blacks were forcibly removed from Johannesburg’s Sophiatown area, which was subsequently destroyed.

Images of these townships were first thrust into our homes as the political struggle for equality reached its violent zenith in the late 1980s, when factional infighting, incited by the government, provided the unrest necessary to declare a State of Emergency and the cover required for further political arrests and police repression.

These vast shanties have continued to grow in many areas, beyond their apartheid-era size, as the economy struggles to more equitably re-distribute the nation’s wealth and recover from the damage caused by apartheid and subsequent economic sanctions, first introduced in 1986. While political manoeuvrings continue, accusations abound of the now ruling ANC exacerbating the problem by moving the black population into areas where their support is weak, with the aim of altering the political dynamic.

Thankfully though, Robben Island, that infamous symbol of political incarceration does not now house those from the ongoing but marginalised white supremacist Afrikaans movement, but is instead one of the Cape area’s biggest tourist attractions. Staffed by former inmates it really is a must see, as a representation of the brutality an ideology based on fear and hate can reap, no matter your politics.

But perhaps the most poignant symbol of the rebirth of this country and efforts to demonstrate inclusivity, was witnessed during the Rugby World Cup in 1995. Having been excluded from the previous competitions, South Africa hosted the event and beat New Zealand in the final, in J’Burg. Nelson Mandela added to the elation by wearing a Springbok shirt, the name given the all white team so central to the international sports boycott.

It may not be quite the utopia that great thinkers like Steve Beko envisaged, or those political activists Oliver Tambo, Nelson Mandela and others spent their lives struggling to achieve, but hosting that other great sporting event, the Football World Cup in 2010 exemplifies the tremendous strides this Rainbow Nation continues to take.


Article by Megan Ciotti