As Chris and I looked at flights out of Mauritius and into Comoros, we found that most flights made use of the Johannesburg airport. Since we have friends in South Africa, whom we have not seen since we left Khartoum in 2011, we decided to stopover for a week and visit the area.
We arrived in Johannesburg, connected to Durban, and were picked up by our friends Paula and George. It was great seeing them and reminiscing about our days of the Khartoum Hash House Harriers and the crazy adventures we used to get up to in Sudan. We stayed with them for four relaxing days, and explored the area near Durban.
There are many historical sites near Durban. We visited the Albert Luthuli museum, dedicated to the first African Nobel Peace Prize winner. Luthuli was the president of the African National Congress, and his non-violent approach to ending apartheid won him the prize in 1960, although after taking 15 months to investigate him, the committee did not actually award him the prize until 1961. Under house arrest at the time, Luthuli was reluctantly given a ten-day pass to fly to London and then Oslo to accept the award and give a speech.
Very close to the Luthuli museum is the memorial and gravesite of Shaka Zulu, probably the most famous of the Zulus, although- surprisingly- he didn’t actually live that long. He united the Zulu clans, pushed out their enemies, and expanded the Zulu territory. After the death of his mother Shaka killed several hundred members of the clan in a “cleansing” spree, and enforced a one-year mourning period during which not even crops could be planted or harvested. Fearful of starvation and being overtaken by enemies, Shaka’s half-brothers killed him when he was only 41.
With sandy beaches to the north and south, Durban has a beautiful skyline that is dominated by a huge stadium, which you can take a “skywalk” up- Chris climbed to the top to get this great view. Make sure you have sneakers on that day- you’re not allowed do it in sandals. Later that day we had lunch on Florida Road, the posh area for finding Durban delights such as “bunny chow”, a must-eat while in the area, featuring curry poured over bread, which was made popular by Indian workers who came to South Africa for work and needed a portable lunch for their workdays.
A very interesting place to visit near Durban is the Nelson Mandela Capture Site. Wanted for “treason”, Mandela was arrested here, sent to trial- and spent the next 27 years in prison. A large modern museum is under construction, but for now you can see the beautiful sculpture there and visit a small building with informational displays.
On our last day with our friends, we headed into the “1000 Hills” area- what beautiful views!- and visited the Shongweni Farmers and Craft Market. We all tried a different delicous breakfast option, and walked around looking at the foods and the crafts. Later, after a drive through the nearby villages, we ended up having lunch at a chef school, where all the waiters are chef students in their first year of culinary training. Delicious and educational!
Sad to leave our friends, we got a rental car to make the drive to Johannesburg and explore a little along the way. We spent the first night at Berg Backpackers, with amazing views of the Drakensburg Mountains, completely surrounded by corn fields and sky. At $27 a night, it was a great value and I wish we could have stayed there longer.
We drove in to the Drakensburg Mountains (“the barrier of up-pointed spears” is what the Zulus called the range), which make up the border between South Africa and the mountain kingdom of Lesotho, and visited the Royal Natal National Park. Here you can find some of the oldest bushman paintings in the world, the 2nd highest waterfall (Thugela Falls), and stunning mountain features such as The Amphitheater and Giant’s Castle. There are many hikes through this area; unfortunately we only had a short afternoon, so we just hiked in for about an hour, found a nice swimming spot in a river, and sat in the cool water for a bit looking at the majestic skyline around us.
That night we stayed near Parys at the Smilin Thru Resort, a kind of farm/eco-park that features many animals and a lovely setting along the Vaal River. Guests can choose between a hotel with swimming pool, several rondevals, cabins, chalets, or campground. I think we might have been the only people staying there the night we were there, but it was at least peaceful!
On our last day in South Africa, we made two historical/cultural stops. The first was at Vredefort Crater, the site of the largest meteor impact on earth, which happened two billion years ago. The meteor, roughly the size of Table Mountain, slammed into the earth at a velocity of 20km per second, creating an energy release of 100 million megatons and a crater 300 km wide. Wow! That probably really shook things up for a bit here on earth.
Closer to Johannesburg, we stopped in at the Cradle of Humankind museum. A very cool museum, it features an exhibit on the “Rising Star” cave, which in 2013 yielded a huge crop of human bones that provide a link between Austrolopithecus and Homo erectus. Inside the museum, you can also take a boat ride which takes you from the filling of the earth’s oceans, through an ice age, and to the time of the volcanos. Very fun! And then there is a huge museum dedicated to our path of humankind, from the very beginning to the present, and a look at the problems we face in the future.
With our time running short, we were able to (just barely!) squeeze in a quick dinner with Louis and Brenda, two of our other friends who live near Johannesburg. We met at the Emperor’s Palace casino and resort complex, and enjoyed a seriously delicious Portuguese/South Africa/Mozambiquan dinner that consisted of all kinds of meats. And beer. It was great catching up and I’m glad we were able to see so many of our friends on this leg of the trip. It’s one of the things that makes traveling so much fun- the chance to see friends that live far away from us.
Stay tuned for our next update- from the Comoros Islands!