Seven Days in South Africa

Early November 2000

It was a good time of year to visit South Africa.  The weather was cool in the mornings and evenings and warm and sunny during the day, but not overly hot.  Also, school was still in session, which meant fewer local tourists.  Since South Africa is below the equator, November is springtime, so everything was in full bloom.  Prior to our arrival, they had been getting a lot of rain.

Pretoria, the venue for the conference, is much smaller and safer than Johannesburg, which is located about 30 miles south of Pretoria.  We stayed in a nice hotel in Hatfield located along the east edge of Pretoria, within walking distance to shops and restaurants.  After being cooped up in planes for more than 20 hours, Diane and I walked a few miles and got a close-up look at the Hatfield and Pretoria area soon after we arrived.  We were told that it was safe, although the tall security fences that surrounded most properties made us wonder how safe it really was.  Some even used electric wires to discourage burglaries and theft.  We were told that organized crime was a problem, especially in Johannesburg.  We walked past the Embassy of Iraq and we could tell that it had taken security to an extreme.  The friendly and helpful people that we met on the streets and in public buildings helped to counter the uncertainty created by all of the security measures.  Much of the city was blanketed with beautiful Jacaranda trees with purple blossoms in full bloom.  It was quite a sight.

Conference.  The conference was well organized and those who attended were genuinely interested in wanting to play a role in improving methods of product development and manufacturing in South Africa.  It was mostly a national conference, although people from Botswana (neighboring country to the north), Holland, Germany, and the U.S. also attended.  Our hosts, Deon de Beer of Technikon Free State (Bloemfontein) and Willie du Preez of CSIR, formerly known as the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (Pretoria), made everyone feel welcome and comfortable and they really looked after their guests from abroad.  Thank you again Deon and Willie!

The first official meeting of the Rapid Product Development Association of South Africa (RAPDASA) was held on the first afternoon of the conference.  More than 30 attended, many from academia.  American author and consultant Preston Smith and I not only witnessed South African democracy in action, we were a part of it.  When it came time to elect the association chairman, I was asked to organize and run the election process.  I invited Preston to assist me.  The first attempt ended in a two-way tie, so we had little choice but to do a second secret ballot.  I believe it went much smoother than the presidential election in the state of Florida.

The 2001 conference and annual meeting of the RAPDASA will be held in Cape Town, South Africa, during the first half of November.  I’ve heard nothing but good things about Cape Town, so it sounds like an excellent location for the event.  Stay tuned.

Soweto.  On our second day in Pretoria, Diane joined Preston Smith on a guided tour of Soweto.  I gave two one-hour lectures that day, so I was unable to join them.  Soweto is a black township that has grown past Johannesburg to become the largest community in South Africa.  Located about 12 miles southwest of Johannesburg, Soweto is home to millions of people, many of which are living in one-room corrugated sheet metal and cardboard buildings called shanties.  Diane, Preston, others in the tour group, and a guide visited the inside of two shanties. 

Many of the locals brew their own beer.  Diane and Preston said it was pinkish milk in color and they were offered a taste.  Preston accepted; Diane declined.  We heard from more than one source that the makers of the brew often put batteries in the brew, apparently to accelerate the brewing process.  Speaking of batteries, many of the residents use car batteries to power their radio and television, if they own them.  We later joked that many of the cars in the area are probably without batteries.  Candles and kerosene lamps serve as lights.

The People.  The people in South Africa are among the most friendly I have encountered anywhere around the world.  Whether it was a convenience store clerk or someone in a restaurant, people greeted you with kind words and a genuine smile.  With South Africa's turbulent history, I didn't expect this at all.  With apartheid disappearing as recently as 1992, and the first truly democratic election in 1994 (when the first black president, Nelson Mandela, was elected), I was interested in seeing how people would treat one another, including foreign visitors.  It was a pleasant surprise to see such upbeat attitudes and consideration among those we encountered during our short stay. 

Afrikaans is the first language for about 15% of the population.  We were a little surprised to find that nearly all whites that we met spoke it as their first language.  In other parts of South Africa, English is more popular among whites.  Nationwide, it is the number two language, spoken by about 9% of the population, and is the preferred language for business and government.  The conference and RAPDASA meeting, for example, were conducted entirely in English.  Nine other languages are spoken in the country, with Zulu being the most popular due to the large Zulu population.  All eleven are considered official languages of the country.

Prices.  Nearly everything was inexpensive, especially meals, liquor, and hand-crafted items.  You could buy a meal at a restaurant for less than half the price in the U.S.  A fine red wine—some of the best we’ve tasted—was only $4 a bottle.  Really cool hand carved wall hangings sold for 100 Rand, which is about $13.  Friends have estimated that they would sell for more than $200 in the U.S.  Unfortunately, we bought only one.

Safari.  Diane and I spent the better part of four days at Kruger National Park, the largest game refuge in the country.  Kruger is roughly the size of Israel, although we probably saw about 1% of it.  Each morning, the guide woke us at 4:30 a.m.  He returned at 5:00 to pick us up in an open four-wheel drive safari vehicle, which could hold up to 10 passengers.  We never had more than six in our group. 

On the first day, the group consisted of a couple from Norway (he was an arbitrator and she was an elementary school teacher), a brother and sister from Belgium (he was a nurse and she was a Ph.D in biology specializing in geckos), and the two of us.  The Norwegians left before Noon the second day and the brother and sister from Belgium departed before Noon the third day, so Diane and I had the vehicle and guide to ourselves for the last day and half.  Having total influence on the schedule was good, but having fewer eyes to spot game was not good.  The brother and sister were excellent at spotting animals.

During our early morning, mid-day, and late afternoon drives, we got very close to lots of large and small game.  We were lucky because many of the animals had recently given birth, so we saw many newborns and very young animals.  The recent rains made everything very green and lush, although the tall grass and leaves (from the rains) made seeing some of the animals a little difficult. 

Among some of the most exciting sightings:  Many male and female lions, rhinos, elephants, baboons, monkeys, cape buffalo, zebras, and a hyena.  We got very close (3-10 meters) to all of them.  In fact, a bull elephant nearly charged us.  Standing about 10 meters away, he turned toward us and started walking and that's when we backed off.  He wanted his space.  What an experience!

For at least 20 minutes, we sat 2-3 meters from two two-year old male lions.  The one had locked his eyes onto our guide, watching his every move.  When he tensed up (both lion and guide), this made us a little nervous.  Then, he positioned himself in a jumping position (the lion, not the guide).  He didn't jump, but he stood up and circled our vehicle.  That's when Diane started saying rather loudly, "Let's go, let's go!"

Two-year old male lion sited on Saturday morning, along with his twin brother

That afternoon, two fully-grown rhinos were walking toward us and Diane started to get overly excited again.  They walked around us, so that helped calm her nerves, but she was still off her seat.

Baboons—we saw lots of baboons.  The first evening, we watched at least 25 of them—babies, moms, dads, brothers, and sisters—on some large rocks near the road.  One of the largest males kidnapped one of the baby baboons and this made several of them angry.  They were running around, fighting, screaming, and carrying on.  What a sight!

We also got very close to many kudus, waterbuck, steenbok (a very small deer), and hundreds of impalas.  And we got reasonably close to poisonous snakes, turtles, mongoose, a badger, hawks, eagles, and several exotic birds.  We watched a venomous snake drag a frog across the road and then swallow it.  We saw black and white sable antelope (a rare sighting, with only 75 in the park), wildebeest, tsessebe antelope (also rare), and a jackal, but they were 25-40 meters away.  We watched several hippos and crocodiles, but we didn't get closer than about 50-60 meters from them, and we saw giraffe, but they were even further away.  We didn't see any cheetahs, leopards, warthogs, or wild dogs (rare).  We'll need to return to see them. 

Two white rhinos cited on Saturday morning

Deon hooked us up with the right safari company (Spurwing Tours & Adventure Safaris).  The people at Spurwing were great and Diane and I recommend them highly.  They were very friendly, personable, and knowledgeable.  Over the course of four days with three guides (Jannie, Joe, and Kobus), we were especially fond of Jannie.  He was always smiling and going out of his way to make us happy.  The company prides itself on custom safaris and tours and we could tell. 

Spurwing operates most of its Kruger safaris out of Pretoriuskop Camp, located in the southern part of Kruger.  The camp is capable of sleeping an estimated 250 if you include the bungalows, campers, and tents.  When we were there, it was running at about half to two-thirds capacity.  We stayed in a thatched roof bungalow with a bathroom and a good hot shower.  It was not a Hyatt or Hilton, but it included the basics and we found it sufficient.  The quality of sleep was good, but the quantity was not.

Breakfast and dinner were prepared and served by a resident Spurwing employee named Vicki, a woman probably in her 50s.  Her cooking was good and she was a delight to have around.  Breakfast was complete with ham, bacon, or beef (ground or steak), eggs, a tomato-like sauce, toast, coffee, tea, and juice.  Dinners were usually an excellent mix of meats, vegetables, salads, and bread.  We never went away hungry.  It wasn't gourmet cooking, but I would consider it very good home cooking.  All meals were served outdoors inside a bamboo fence.  Dinners were around a campfire, with the fire, lighted torches, and the moon serving as our light.

Return to Johannesburg.  Spurwing guide Kobus, the senior guide of the three and master storyteller, gave us a scenic return to Johannesburg as part of the original plan.  The day started with a 5:00 a.m. game ride, followed by breakfast at 8:00 a.m.  We exited the park at around 9:30 and headed to the mountains toward Blyde River Canyon.  Our first stop was God’s Window, which gave us a breath taking view of the mountains and valley.  We were lucky because it was a clear day, which is not always the case. 

Less than an hour later, we were at Bourke’s Luck Potholes, a display of incredible 100-foot potholes sculpted by hundreds of years of tempestuous water.  It was referred to as one of the natural wonders of the world.  Several hours later, we arrived at the Johannesburg airport with ample time to do a little airport shopping and board our 10-hour flight to Frankfurt.  It was then 9 hours to Chicago, 2 hours to Denver, and 1.5 hours to Fort Collins.  And then it was a solid 10 hours of sleep.  

—Terry Wohlers

Copyright 2000 by Terry T. Wohlers