The flight to Johannesburg is eleven hours. As far as flights go, that’s pretty long. As far as anything goes that’s pretty long. The good news is that, on top of that flight taking me to South Africa (!), I actually, for the most part, enjoy lengthy flights. 

Being on a plane for that length of time, even accounting for the indignities of coach class, is like the WALL-E version of the future (in a good way); a plane ride basically consists of you sitting in a reasonably comfortable reclining chair with a display screen full of entertainment in front of you, while people in uniform patrol the aisle beside your seat, bringing you food and drinks.

You can even fall asleep onto your half-finished dinner, and when you awake your leftover food has been cleared away and you are beginning your descent into a new city.

In this case also a different country and a different continent. Pretty sweet.

Plus I watched Muppets Most Wanted, Invictus (both excellent for very different reasons), an episode of Louie, and the first half of Goodfellas. So yeah, it was pretty great. And at the end of it all, I was in Africa!

Making it work
For a long time Chiara and I discussed whether we should take this trip or not. Well, she didn’t really have a choice, because she had to go to Pretoria for work, but the question was whether I should come or not. And if I did join her, what we should do.

We realized that it would be foolish for us not to take advantage of this opportunity, so we decided that I would join her at the end of her work thing, and we would spend a few nights at a game lodge outside of Joburg (as I will refer to Johannesburg from now on), then take an epic 27 hour train ride to Cape Town, spend some nights there, and then mooch around the Cape of Good Hope for a couple of days.

Despite oversleeping a couple of hours on the first morning (guess who didn’t set his alarm properly? Me. The answer is me; I didn’t.), we rented a car and off we went in good spirits.

Our unfamiliar GPS took us on the township route north. And as we drove along the highway, avoiding goats, cows, chickens and the many people walking up and down and across the highway, the cultural differences were pretty stark. It was like no highway we’d driven before.

Safari time

Our safari lodging was great  secluded, verdant and not short on amenities. But we didn’t spend too much time sitting around in the lodge: we were there for some game viewing.

Which meant sitting around in a covered retrofit Range Rover and driving through the Welgevonden Game Reserve, seeking out animals going about their daily business close enough to the roads that we could see them.

We woke up at 5am a couple of days in a row, and were rewarded with the sight of a whole host of exotic African animals just doing their usual, in their natural habitat: fish eagles, rhinoceros, zebras, warthogs, impala, red hartebeest, baboons, kudu, a close encounter with a buffalo, and more.

But no lions or leopards. No giraffes, even.

And just one single lousy majestic elephant off in the distance, thanks to the keen eyes and determination of my wife, who scoured the mountainside from our lodge while we were between drives, and spotted this mighty and distant beast snacking on some trees.

As we left the game lodge we stopped at another conservation area to give one last try to encounter lions, or elephants, or even a stupid giraffe.

And as we headed out that afternoon, on our fourth and final attempt, we had a tracker sitting right up front of the vehicle, and a guide who all but assured us that we’d see some of these animals, all of which had been spotted the day before. We were quite confident.

When it started pouring rain half an hour later and our drive was abruptly called off, we almost laughed about it. Almost.

So, despite all of the African natural splendour, and the delightful and surprising individual little moments we enjoyed, we were left with this feeling of disappointment.

Because we were unlucky not to see more animals. As if the panoply of exotic animals wandering the reserve, and visible from the cozy confines of our lodge, somehow weren’t enough.

But the reality is: are you kidding me!?!?: a trip to Africa with my wife, semi-adventuring through all that wildlife and nature, then (spoiler alert!) catching up with old friends in Cape Town, having great meals and fun times, in city, on train, at the blazing seaside (and thankfully not being the victim of any unpleasant ‘informal wealth redistribution’ scenario that can affect tourists. (Except for paying obscenely over the odds for some cookie-cutter “African art”.)) How can I feel anything but extremely fortunate?

Which puts the whole trip into perspective. But there’s still a stupid footnote that finds its way into the conversation when I talk about the safari leg of the trip. 

Rail for Africa
After the game lodge we headed back to Joburg and caught the Shosholoza Meyl train to Cape Town, a 27-hour journey through the heart of the South African savannah.

We had packed the iPad full of entertainment, in case we got bored of looking out the window. But we didn’t. The shifting socio-cultural landscapes, as we went from city to township to mining outpost to huge, lengthy stretches of grasslands. And then when the sun set and the stars came out the reached down to the horizon and we sat up and gazed out the window of our compartment for what seemed like hours.

Then we watched Lars and the Real Girl and went to sleep.

The Cape portion of the trip was full of food, friends, frigid oceans and whipping winds. We took some scenic drives and walks, and experienced some cosmopolitan Cape Town restaurants, as well as taking a trip to Robben Island, which was harrowing, because of the profound premeditated and sustained systemic injustices that it represents, and the return boat ride that drenched fully half the passengers with freezing Atlantic waters.

But mostly for the apartheid stuff.

It’s hard for me to fathom how recent that history is  the 1994 election marked the end of apartheid. That’s just twenty years ago. I then realized that every adult I saw had lived through apartheid. Everyone over the age of say, thirty, black, white or coloured, had a very personal experience of living like that. Mind-blowing.

So it was with some thoughtfulness, and whatever the opposite of nostalgia is, that we set out the next day for a journey around the Cape of Good Hope, also known as The Cape of Storms, for the extensive list of shipwrecks there.

I love shipwrecks, lighthouses, and nautical ghost stories (it’s the wreck site of the Flying Dutchman!) so this was an incredible place to be. Plus we got to spend an afternoon on Boulders Beach, which is full of African Penguins, formerly known as Jackass Penguins.

They’re goofy and adorable and walk like they’ve spent time at the Ministry of Silly Walks, but jackasses? I should say not.

The last day
We went up Cape Town’s fabled Table Mountain at the end of our last day, which also happened to be Chiara’s birthday. On the tail end of a spectacular sunset off the Cape horizon, we rode a full cable car back down. As soon as the doors shut, some American college kids started playing some music out of a tinny mobile phone speaker, which generally annoys me to no end, and was also true in this case.

When the cable car driver started talking to the ringleader I thought “Ha! Great, he’s going to have to turn it off!” But instead, the guy got the cable car driver to hold the mobile phone up to the internal speaker so everyone could hear the song better. It was Shakira’s “This Time for Africa”.

Maybe a bit on the nose, as a selection, but it worked. It’s a catchy tune, and in this case, as the twilight darkened and we made our group descent, it seemed to acquire some personal resonance, and broader significance, as an agent of cable car stranger-bonding.

Everyone in the car seemed to be at least bobbing their head. Those few minutes were a fitting coda of our experience, and a good example of what we experienced: expect one thing, receive something different. It might not be what you were hoping for, it may not be what you wanted, but it may turn out to be beautiful and appropriate.

We all applauded as our pod gently bumped into the landing hutch at the base of the mountain, I think because we were all a little moved by the whole experience. It might’ve been just me, but I don’t think so.

Thanks Africa.