Johannesburg and Victoria Falls

Johannesburg was, unfortunately, a wash. We stayed at a hostel in Rosebank, a suburb of Joburg, that we chose carefully because it was very near to a post office (remember that we were waiting for Daniel’s credit card to come in the mail which his parents had very kindly posted). The tracking number showed it leaving the States and, for nearly a week, nothing. In the meantime, we talked a lot with the white Afrikaaner owners of the hostel about their country, race relations, crime and poverty; they had some very strong opinions that made me pretty uncomfortable, and plenty of rather paranoid advice about us going places in the area (whether this was well-founded advice, we’re not sure; half of all crime in South Africa happens in the Gauteng region where Johannesburg is). It was interesting and confusing to compare racism and race relations in South Africa to those in the US, and to see how apartheid history negatively affected everyone in the country, all races.

We took a guided tour of Johannesburg and Soweto, the township that was the site of a 1976 apartheid resistance uprising and riots. The catalyst was the death of a 13-year-old black student, killed by white police officers while participating in a peaceful march against the institution of a law mandating that all schools teach in Afrikaans. In the afternoon, our Zulu guide stopped on a little bend in the road in the “bad” part of Soweto: not, he explained, an especially dangerous place, just one where there is no electricity or running water. He asked a local lady if we could look inside her shack and I hesitated; to me this seemed like a creepy, voyeuristic intrusion. But we decided to go in after one of the older white ladies who was on the tour stubbornly insisted that she wouldn’t go in because, she said, “it’s just too depressing.” And it made me feel yucky, angry, elitist and racist to complacently agree with her by staying inside the tour van.

So we went in. Her home was one small room made outside of corrugated iron, lined inside with melamine pressboard, covered with bright, colorful ads and soda logos. She had a small dresser, on top of which was a stack of new, clean plastic tupperware; in the other corner was her bed, neatly made with a very plush looking golden duvet. She owned very little, but her home was clean and dignified. We gave her a few Rand for the inconvenience, and I backed out of the small door, nearly stepping on one of her neighbors on the way out, feeling extremely aware of my race and relative wealth, and of the fact that we hardly ever make the bed at home. To be honest, the whole tour was really strange, seeing everything from the confines of a vehicle.

The credit card didn’t make it in time and eventually we just decided to move on, buying a ticket to Zimbabwe. At the first of our many stops at this particular Post Office, the clerk stated she couldn’t tell us anything about the status of the parcel without the South African tracking number, and when we asked how to get that, she shrugged. On the very last day, hours before our flight, another clerk gave us the phone number to call with our US tracking number to get the South Africa tracking number (we were there hoping that maybe it was in the back room despite what the USPS website said). Daniel, defeated, said something like “but we don’t have time,” hoping maybe she could call for us. “Well,” she said blithely, “call when you get time.” Damn it.

This was the day I lost the painting by STEVE from the beach in Cape Town, running through the Johannesburg airport. Our first taxi never showed up to take us to the airport (after yelling at me as if it were my fault when I called). We got a transfer from the hostel we were staying at, leaving an hour late. Our driver seriously made an effort to make up for lost time, though, cutting through traffic, passing people at red lights, cutting over a dirt median, our own personal entrance ramp onto the highway. There were no seatbelts, and the bench seat of the windowless van seemed to not actually be connected to the van itself, vaulting a little each time we stopped. We made it to the airport, though, and with the help of an enterprising porter who saw us running in the wrong direction (clear signage is not the forte of huge OR Tambo International Airport), we made it to the tarmac just on time.

The flight to Zimbabwe was short but turbulent and followed up by a 150 kph taxi ride into Victoria Falls, slowing when we came to areas where wildlife tends to enjoy the warm asphalt. The road was long and slender, lined with dry green thicket and punctuated by paths that seemed to come from nowhere, people coming through the low trees to hail taxis and squat minibuses. Dry, red African soil clung to everything within a certain proximity to the ground.

In town, everything was stunningly quiet, people smiling and waving in that way Minnesotans like us can appreciate. In Johannesburg, people seem to keep their heads down, and we had learned to as well. People outnumber vehicles on the roads, walking softly in bare feet and worn sandals on paved roads and well-loved paths. The people we met were soft spoken and friendly, and even the dogs were mellow and relaxed. Kids leaving school for the day, boys and girls alike with short cropped hair, ran in groups across the streets and odd pickup trucks would slow and honk to shoo them off the road. They would wave at us and look amused or slightly alarmed when we waved back.

The scenery was fairly homogenous but beautiful: red earth, dry but green plants, pretty blue sky holding a hot African sun. Every now and then a tree housed a burst of pink or purple flowers or a hornbill toucan laughing at us from his perch. Toads were everywhere, by our tent, by the hostel’s pool table, in the shower or dried out and leathery by the side of the road. Baboons in little packs climbed cement walls and drank from fountains at restaurants.

We went right away to see Victoria Falls, one of our longstanding travel goals. Known in local language as “the smoke that thunders,” you can see evidence of the falls from far, far away: a cloudy plume rising from above the trees like haze from a wildfire. As we approached the falls park, the greenery became notably more lush.

It was incredible, really. Because of the volume of water constantly careening over the falls into the gorge, the mist is shot high into the air, which is why you can see it so far away. The water in the air catches the sun, and brilliant rainbows are everywhere: over the falls, draped from tree branches, on my sunglasses. I have never seen so many double rainbows in my life. And, naturally, what goes up must come down. As you walk along the full expanse of the falls (5604 feet—that’s more than a mile wide) you get wetter, wetter, wetter, until finally the fine mist falling around you has evolved into what feels like a torrential downpour. You can’t see the sun since you’re essentially standing inside of a cloud, and the rain and wind are whipping at you and pushing you around, daring you to walk up to one of the slippery rock face cliffs without a barrier. As we got closer to the end of the path, the “rain” let up, dripping off the overgrown leaf cover, and we came to the bridge that leads to the Zambian border where we planned to cross in a few days. Pedestrians crossed on foot, soft-topped semi trucks crawled along, and then, down from the bridge’s skeleton fell a bungee jumper, arms outstretched and screaming loudly enough that we could hear her from where we stood, far away. Walking back, we saw women with shower caps on to protect their hairstyles and couples laughing and posing for photos with plastic bags on their heads, puffed up like transparent flat tops.

We were drenched. The ponchos we rented were mostly useless, but just enough to keep the camera dry, and we had smartly enclosed our passports and all of our money into ziplock bags within our moneybelts. Teens in groups had the right idea, walking the path in their bathing suits, a few clutching waterproof disposable cameras. If we went again, I would have worn mine.

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