August 14-15 – The Journey Home and Some Post-Trip Reflections

I left Bateleurs Rontree at 10:30AM today to hop on a bus for Cape Town airport. Bateleurs was a lovely place to stay and I thoroughly enjoyed my last breakfast there. Because of the required check out time, I got to the airport several hours early and had to pass a few before I could even check in. Eventually I was on my flight to Johannesburg, then 4 hours in Joburg before flying the 8 hours to Dubai, then a very quick connection before flying the 14 hours to Seattle, then an extra long layover in Seattle (of course my last flight was delayed) before the hop to Vancouver in a little Q400. I arrived home after 41 hours of travel and was very excited to see Laura waiting for me at the airport!


South Africa is an incredible country. It provided me numerous opportunities for reflection and new perspectives on politics, poverty, necessities, amenities, human nature, culture, and natural beauty. I’d like to share a few of the things I learned, without purporting to be particularly knowledgeable about them. Still, having experienced many different places and cultures in South Africa (and asking rather a lot of questions about it), hopefully I can provide some information and perspective of the sort I would have been interested to learn before my trip.


Some thoughts on South African culture

South African people are incredibly kind and have a great sense of humour. I mean it; across the board.

Okay, maybe their sense of humour needs some work… © James Palmer

I really enjoyed traveling the country. I tried a lot of new foods including: Impala, Springbok, Zebra, Greater Kudu, Wildebeest, and some different fish too (plus I’d had Ostrich before). One nice thing about eating these meats is that they’re not farmed like they are in North America. The animals live on “farms,” sure, but these are huge tracts of land where the animals feed, roam, and reproduce freely. In other words, much of the meat in South Africa is “happy meat,” as responsibly raised animals are often called in North America.

Some fenced-in Common Ostrich © James Palmer
A distant shepherd tends his flock on horseback in Lesotho © James Palmer
Shepherds walking on a hillside in Lesotho © James Palmer
A farmer and his sick sheep outside Wakkerstroom © James Palmer
A fishing trawler near Cape Town © James Palmer

I also became enamoured with Zulu culture during our brief encounter in the southeast province of KwaZulu-Natal. These people were perhaps the friendliest and I enjoyed the smiles we got after offering “Sawubona ekuseni” (sow-bohn-ehk-say-ni), or “Good morning” to locals. These included women walking past with traditional red face paint and unbelievably large numbers of items balanced on their heads! We later learned from our guide that, when greeting someone in Zulu culture, if one party is stationary and the other approaches, the approaching party always speaks first. Oops. Evidently, by trying to be polite, I may have been rude. Hopefully, the sentiment still carries!

The rural communities we visited all over the country were fascinating. Again, people are incredibly friendly, but often incredibly poor. In Lesotho, the poverty is extreme, but in South Africa it was still evident throughout.

These are actually large-ish homes in Lesotho © James Palmer
A typical 2x2m farm home in Lesotho © James Palmer
More homes on the Lesotho plateau © James Palmer
A 2x2m farming home tucked into a valley in Lesotho © James Palmer

Even in somewhat wealthier areas there is virtually no central heating. And, by the way, it was definitely below zero some nights we spent there. There are of course many other means of warming up and, at several of our hotels, we got into the habit of switching on the wall heating plate, portable heater, electric blanket, and/or lighting a fire.

Heading to bed with fire lit © James Palmer

Obviously, this is perfectly sufficient, but it struck me that we saw a lot of fires burning in and around cities too. This seemed strange to me since I had assumed there would be central heating in cities, but there often was not. Overall, the average upper-middle class home might have central heating, but as evidenced by its absence in our hotels, this amenity seemed to be reserved for the wealthy (read: Cape Town).

Approaching the wealthy town of Rooi-Els, east of Cape Town © James Palmer
Camps Bay, a wealthy area in Cape Town © James Palmer

Strangely, many of the small homes found elsewhere–with dirt or concrete floors and aluminum sheets stuck together to form walls and ceiling/roof–had a car in front. Of course, a car is a necessity for some people certainly, but a VW Golf GTI? What!? We passed numerous homes that looked like they could fall over at any minute, be kicked over on a whim, or blown over by a rogue wolf, yet many of these also had a rather expensive car in front, a satellite jabbed into the wall, and an owner with a cell phone standing outside…

A community outside Wakkerstroom; the standing rectangles are outhouses and refrigerators © James Palmer

It reminded me that priorities vary hugely around the world and, when I asked our guide, he explained that TV and cars are incredibly important to South Africans. Evidently, they are status symbols, but, if you thought your North American or European friend who just bought a nice car was living “outside his means” just to look cool, the average South African would really make you think twice! Still, I think it’s important to note that, aside for this odd-seeming spending choice, poverty also takes many forms and this was definitely still one of them.

Howick Falls/Laundromat © James Palmer

Another good reason to have a car is in case of emergencies. Police and ambulance services are not like they are in North America and many people–especially in rural areas–may have to fend for themselves. A common joke recounts a man having his store robbed by several people. The man exclaims, “I’m calling the police!……Just hang on. I have to go pick them up.”

Though many South Africans would buy a car before many other things, these men from Lesotho have no such funds and must walk up the Sani Pass © James Palmer


Social classes and politics

Perhaps the first thing that struck me about South Africa, and a recurring theme throughout the trip, was the racial optics throughout the country. I knew that predominantly Dutch and British settlers had at a few points largely taken South Africa from its black communities, which had resulted in many terrible things including, most recently and infamously, apartheid. But I also knew that apartheid had ended in 1994, thanks in large part to Mandela. I didn’t know that the ratio of black people to white people in South Africa was actually 10-to-1 (and that’s a country-wide average) and, while this isn’t really surprising since the vast majority of Africa is obviously black, the economic power ratio is very much the opposite.

Outside the Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg © James Palmer

Beginning in Johannesburg, it was apparent that white collar workers were white, almost exclusively, and blue collar workers where predominantly black and took commuter trains into the city from Soweto (short for southwest townships) and other outlying areas. Soweto was one of the places black workers were sent during apartheid to keep them powerless and out of the city, and it is still a very poor area full of families who either never possessed wealth, or had it stripped from them during apartheid. Soweto homes have often dirt floors and no power. There are small one-room homes there where more than 20 people sleep on the dirt floor huddled together each night. The racial optics were largely the same throughout the country: hotels we stayed in were invariably owned by white people who had almost entirely black staff (often Zimbabwean due to the economic crisis up north) and farm fields were harvested by black workers while white managers looked on.

These homes are in a poorer area in Cape Town and are considerably nicer than many  of those in Soweto © James Palmer
Larger homes in a residential area in Durban © James Palmer

This certainly paints a bleak economic and sociocultural picture, but, fortunately there is also much to be positive about. Obviously, saying, “It’s better than it was” doesn’t cut it, but that statement is certainly true and it’s getting better all the time. There are several government-led initiatives to bring black individuals and communities out of poverty. Job training is an important one of course, but also vastly increased access to education in more rural areas. Furthermore, large swathes of farming land have been given over to black communities in many rural areas–some of which we visited and paid to visit to see uncommon birds that lived there.

Typical homes in the grassy hills outside Wakkerstroom © James Palmer
A photo of a farming community outside Wakkerstroom taken from community-owned land © James Palmer

There was also a local election while we were there. In South Africa, local elections are held everywhere around the country on the same day and elections in South Africa are national holidays so that everyone can go vote. We saw many lines of people walking from their rural communities to the nearest voting station, but it also made it very hard to get food that day! There were several parties running and signs everywhere, but only two parties that were really in contention throughout the country: the African National Congress (ANC) and the Democratic Alliance (DA). Many newspapers around the world noted the importance of this election and its very positive result. For the first time, many communities voted against the ANC and the votes were cast along less racial lines. It sounded strange to me at first that voting against the ANC would be a good thing. After all, the ANC was Mandela’s party. But “was” is the crucial word here because it has become increasingly corrupt and negligent toward its peoples’ needs, holding down the lower and middle classes, keeping them separated and often without proper education (among other resources).

Outside the Luthuli House (ANC headquarters) in Johannesburg © James Palmer

Without delving too much deeper into South African politics, I want to try to quickly explain the problem here. In a nutshell, the ANC has historically been regarded as the “black party” and the DA as the “white party,” due largely to their respective origins. However, these parties have changed A LOT since the end of apartheid, with the result that many of their overarching tenets have seemed to shift, if not reverse (much like the American Republicans and Democrats over the 20th century, albeit over different issues). This has meant that many people struggle to vote for the DA, which is doing FAR more for impoverished communities in South Africa than the ANC, because the ANC still calls the DA the “white party.” I have to imagine that if I was black and poor and remembered apartheid, I’d find it awfully difficult to vote for the “white party,” no matter how much its policies seem to have changed: “What if they do what they did before?” To make a long story short, in this election, many of the more metropolitan areas did in fact flip from ANC to the more progressive DA. Of course, I want to see real equality and, though I only glimpsed much of the country, having been to the apartheid museum and seen the truly incredibly changes since the horror of apartheid, I think, if any country can do it, South Africa can.


Some closing thoughts

I became rather nostalgic in my last days in South African, looking at so many incredible birds that I would likely never again see in my life. It might sound silly to some, but that was actually a difficult realization for me. I find birds, animals, plants–in a word: nature–to be a very powerful way to experience the world. I learned on this trip, that I don’t just see birds as “ticks” (check marks on some spreadsheet), as some people do, but as individuals that I got to know. Not necessarily that exact bird right there, but that bird as representative of a species that I’d grown accustomed to. “Species,” it seems, is less a taxonomic label, and more a summary of the characteristics I associate with it: the way that bird’s collar catches the morning sun, the way it feeds its young, the way it perches high on a thorny acacia to sing its liquid song in the middle of the day, the power with which it beats its wings between glides, how it hangs upside down to drink nectar from that blossom, and the angle at which it cocks its head when we look at each other. All this to say, there is a lot more to birding than seeing something you saw in a book and checking it off on a list.

As I looked on the last Helmeted Guineafowl I’d ever see in this area, I remembered what our sarcastic, kind, endlessly patient, and always flip-flop-clad guide Andre had said about them upon our first sighting. He said, “Their meat is really really tough, so the best way to prepare them is in boiling water with a large rock, and lots of herbs and spices. Once they’ve all been boiled and stewed together, you throw out the Guineafowl and eat the rock.”

Helmeted Guineafowl © James Palmer

Farewell South Africa. Thank you for an unforgettable 4 weeks!



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