Thursday, September 24, 2009

To Africa

In the early 80's there was a very big hit song called "Africa" by a rock group named "Toto." The song featured a memorable combination of plinky-plunky African instruments, grand synthesizer chords, and vocals which cadenced with a recurring and overlong suspension (dissonance of a minor second) on the words, "I miss the rains in "A-a-a-a-a-fri-ca-a-a-a-a-a-a." The song obviously still enjoys local purchase, since the Immigration Office in Botswana on the border with Namibia was playing it loudly when I presented myself there for inspection.

In the early 1990's I had been living in Java, fairly far up in the mountains in a rain forest area, and I thought I'd experienced there the ultimate in torrential tropical downpours, but this was as nothing compared to my first summer rainstorm in Africa, which commenced an hour after I arrived at Joburg Airport from Cairo and had reached my destination in nearby Pretoria. Such robustious crashes of thunder and blinding flashes of lightning and inundations of rainfall I have never known. One hour later it was gone, but it was already completely clear to me that I was really going to enjoy my stay in Africa.
Before I started my travels, I had been considering the possibility of an overland trip from Cairo to Cape Town. Three factors led me to reject the idea: the impending Iraq war, which might have led to problems passing through Egypt and the Sudan; my lack of medical insurance and contingency resources; and the discovery that Paul Theroux, America's best travel writer, had recently published a book called "Dark Star Safari," in which he described exactly what I was thinking about doing, namely traveling overland to Cape Town from Cairo. I read the book in January and realized I didn't need to repeat his adventures, which among others included getting shot at crossing the border from Ethiopia into Somalia.
So I decided to penetrate Africa from the opposite end, and what better place for the non-initiated Western tourist to do so than in South Africa. This country has got it all: high mountains, stunning sea coasts, big game reserves, brilliant sunshine, good beer and wines, a sizable chunk of the Kalihari Desert to the West, good roads, spacious views and panoramic landscapes familiar to me only from the Western U.S., a terrific system of budget-priced backpacker hostels across the country, and the advantages of a first-world economy at 40% discount, due to a recent devaluation of the Rand.
Whatever the tourist wants, South Africa has, and in surfeit. All you have to do is close your mind to the fact that the domestic crime-rate is astronomical, that 25% of the native African population is HIV+ or suffers from Aids (the Africa average), and that most native Africans in S.A. live in tiny tin shacks thrown together on the periphery of white-built cities, or in one-room huts in the countryside, typically without running water or electricity. Aside from that, everything is just great.

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