Johannesburg to Cape Town by car and back again by trainWe spent Christmas 1995 in South Africa.
The country was undergoing massive change as it left apartheid behind and tried to embrace a new future. Nelson Mandela had only been President for 18 months when we visited.
We flew out to Johannesburg from Gatwick on a DC-10 belonging to Caledonian Airways. Caledonian by then was a subsidiary of British Airways and only a shadow of its former self. We made a refueling stop in Kenya on the way.
Here are some notes that my wife made about the journey (translated from Japanese).
I was vegetarian at the time.
Tuesday, 19th December 1995
We arrived in Mombasa at 7am. They did not let us off the plane but they did allow us to stand on the aircraft steps. The first sky I saw in Africa was cloudless and bright blue. The wind felt very warm.
On the sector to Johannesburg the vegetarian meals hadn’t been loaded so we made do with nothing.
We arrived at Johannesburg later on the same day at 3pm.
We got a couple of seats in a minibus that was heading around the various hotels dropping off people as it went. All the other passengers were heading for the white suburb of Sandton. When we told the middle-aged white driver that we had booked the Carlton Hotel right in the centre he erupted almost in anger. He told us, in no uncertain terms, that the centre of the city was extremely dangerous and that we had been very stupid to have wanted to stay there.
Nevertheless, he did take us into the centre and he actually dropped us off before anyone else. As he left us outside the Carlton he shouted at us “don’t even think about leaving the hotel, get up tomorrow and get the hell out of Jo’burg”.
“Welcome to South Africa” I thought.
The Carlton Hotel was actually quite nice. It was located in the Carlton Centre which was a large 1960s-type shopping mall. We decided to venture into the shopping mall and risk having a look around, although we agreed that we wouldn’t leave the mall itself.
As we walked around we realised that we were the only non-black people in the whole centre. Almost everyone was staring directly at us and it felt as if they had never seen a Japanese person before. We both found it quite intimidating, but looking back it was probably more curiosity than anything else.
We had a buffet meal in the hotel restaurant and got an early night.
Wednesday, 20th December 1995
At 10am the rental car arrived outside.
We drove out of the city and went past Soweto, the large township on the outskirts of Johannesburg. We could already sense the massive poverty gap that existed just by driving around.
At noon we arrived at Kronstadt. This was the first town where we felt comfortable enough to get out and walk around. It was actually like a small US town. The supermarket we walked around reminded us of one about 10 -20 years before in Japan or the UK.
We couldn’t really find any suitable restaurant for lunch, but we eventually found a very small café. We had cheese sandwiches toasted.
We continued on in the afternoon towards Bloemfontein. The road was straight and the scenery a little boring.
Bloemfontein was a nice neatly planned town and our hotel, the City Lodge, was on the edge of the city. We discovered that most of the shops and restaurants in the town centre were closed.
Eventually, after a bit of looking, we found an Italian restaurant for dinner. We guessed that the town was majority white, but the waitress in the Italian restaurant was black. She was really friendly and we had a long chat with her. Dinner was calamari rings – seafood and vegetable pasta.
After dinner we realised that nobody was walking in the town and we wondered if we needed to be careful walking back to the hotel. We didn’t encounter any problem though.
Thursday, 21st December 1995
We left without breakfast.
The scenery was pretty much the same as the previous day. The road was almost totally straight and there were few service stations. The lack of service stations gave us a little bit of a problem; there were no places to eat and there were no toilets either.
Eventually we found a roadside takeaway for breakfast. We had another cheese sandwich toasted. In fact, this item became quite our staple over the next few days.
There were a lot of white-coloured cars on the road. A lot of them were Japanese but there were also German BMW and Mercedes models (both made locally in the country we thought). By looking into the cars going in the opposite direction we estimated that 95% of drivers on the road we were on were white. The roads were in very good condition and it was very easy to drive at 150km /hour or even 160km/h.
We stopped in Craddock for lunch. It was a small town and, though it seemed a bit run down, it had lots of beautiful old Dutch buildings. We ate in a refurbished Dutch house. The food, mushroom and cheese omelette and tuna mayo sandwiches, like most of the food we ate on the trip was perfectly passable but not really outstanding.
The town seemed to be almost all white but there was one black guy outside the restaurant selling crafts. We remarked that he was not in the least bit pushy and there was nothing of the hard sell tactics that you see in India or elsewhere.
As we returned to the car we saw some black guys washing cars. They offered us a price of 4 rand to have our car washed. When we declined they just smiled and were really polite with us.
In the afternoon we went through Zebra National Park. We drove through without maps and got lost. We ignored a no entry sign and went through regardless. We were worried about cars coming in the other direction but nothing ever came. We only saw one Zebra, but the scenery was fantastic. We also saw a springbok jump right in front of us.
We drove for a while longer and finally we reached our goal for the day; Graaf Reinet, the 4th oldest town in South Africa. Although we were already used to seeing the black township on the outskirts of predominantly white towns, the contrast at Graaf Reinet was quite shocking. The township seemed a bit more rundown than the others, whilst the town itself seemed super luxurious with large houses with swimming pools everywhere.
I won’t name the place we stayed at. It was a beautiful lodge and was surrounded by a colourful garden and it had a large swimming pool at the front. The landlady was white and all the people working there were black. She tried to be friendly but it was obvious that she couldn’t hide her racism very well. It got upsetting for us.
Under the apartheid system Japanese had been given the status of “honorary white”, but it was clear that such (ludicrous as that was anyway) sentiment hadn’t quite reached Graaf Reinet.
We decided not to bother with dinner at the hotel and drove around town and found a restaurant instead. We returned to find flowers spread all over the bed. An apology perhaps?
Friday, 22nd December 1995
There was more quasi-racism at breakfast. We were very glad to leave Graaf Reinet. We headed south towards the coast. The route took us through Prince Alfred’s Pass; a narrow road with incredible views of a steep valley. Eventually we reached the coast near Plettenberg Bay.
Immediately it was like being in a different country. For the first time we saw white and black people mixing together. The beaches were full of people of all races enjoying themselves.
It was a hot day and we found a restaurant and had a lovely meal of calamari and vegetable pasta whilst sitting overlooking the beach. It was the best meal so far. The food was actually quite nice, but I think we were also just relieved to be in a place that felt a bit more normal.
In the afternoon we headed on to Knysna. There were townships outside some of the towns and we started to pick up some of the black hitchhikers who were trying to get from the townships into the towns and chat with them. We found everyone we picked up extremely friendly and optimistic about their future under Nelson Mandela.
Knysna was a more substantial resort and it was quite a wealthy place. We found our hotel, the Beauchamp Lodge, and then explored the town. We took a boat ride to the head. Some of the houses we saw walking around were just stunning.
In the evening we went for a meal at an Oyster bar and on the way back we saw a white guy and a Chinese guy having a drink together outside a bar. We joined them and chatted for a while over a beer. The Chinese guy was from Taiwan and ran a takeaway in the town. He had lived in Knysna for 8 years and had encountered no racism.
He didn’t have a bad word to say about the place. He did mention that a major problem was low literacy in the black population (around 40%) and this caused a lot of issues. He also told us that the social security system and the health care provision was terrible compared with Taiwan.
The Beauchamp lodge was run by a friendly German couple. They were really great hosts and we enjoyed our stay a hell of a lot more than the previous night’s lodging.
Saturday, 23nd December 1995
The next day we continued towards Cape Town on what is commonly known as “The Garden Route”. We passed through George and stopped at Mossel Bay; another stylish holiday town with little craft shops and a bright and relaxed feel to it.
We also continued picking up black hitchhikers and chatting to them between town and townships as we made our way west.
We stopped in Swedendamm, another beautiful town, and had tea in a tea garden. Tea gardens seemed to be quite common in South Africa and they were basically little outdoor tea shops set up in the grounds of large houses.
We entered Cape Town via one of its townships. It was said that Cape Town implemented the policy of segregated housing more stringently than any other city. Driving through the township here was yet another eye opener.
Cape Town has one of the most stunning locations of any major city in the world. Table Mountain dominates the whole place. We drove around a little before finding our guest house, “Olaf’s Guest House”, located in the Sea Point area of the city .
Olaf’s was a fantastic find. It was in a lovely old house run by an extremely friendly owner. We were greeted with orange juice and then the honesty bar in the lounge was explained to us. It was by far the best place we stayed at during the whole visit.
For dinner we went down to a Portuguese restaurant recommended by the guest house. We had a wonderful meal of seafood, calamari, clams, sardines and tacos.
We slept well in the comfy bed.
Sunday, 24th December 1995
We had a great breakfast of ham, cheese, mackerel, bread and coffee. It was all lovingly prepared and beautifully served in the attractive little dining room.
We had a walk around the Sea Point area. We were only about 10 minutes from a market and there was also a large stadium close by. Despite it being Christmas Eve and a Sunday about half the shops were open and there was a large craft fair going on too.
It was quite foggy though, so we decided to put off the trip up Table Mountain for a day and drive around a bit more instead.
We drove all along the coast line from Cape Town south through Scarborough, to the Cape of Good Hope national park and eventually to Cape Point itself. We came back through Simon’s Town, Fish Bay and Muizenburg. We stopped off for lunch at a tea garden.
We went to Kirtstenbosch botanical gardens in the afternoon and spent a while looking around some of the unique plants. When the rain started, as it seemed to do every day at 3pm, we drove back into the city.
In the evening we went out to the redeveloped waterfront and browsed in the stylish shops. We found a nice restaurant and had a cracking meal of shark kebabs and calamari chili rice.
At 11pm we went to St Georges Cathedral and watched Archbishop Desmond Tutu conduct the midnight service and make an impressive sermon.
Monday, 25th December 1995
We got up early on “Christmas morning”. The Table Mountain Cable Car had not been operating for the previous two days because of the wind, so we were keen to get on it as soon as we could in case the wind picked up again.
We waited an hour in the queue to board and then made the quick journey up to the top. It was a little misty at the top but it cleared in places long enough to give us a great view of the city below.
When we arrived back at Olaf’s we found Champagne and delicious French toast waiting for us. There were little gifts and Christmas cards too. We walked around the town afterwards and were surprised to see quite a lot of the shops open on Christmas day.
We got some pita bread, greek salad and seafood for lunch and then bought some fruit and took it to the beach. We spent most of the rest of the afternoon on the beach at Campus Bay.
In the evening we had some of the “Cape Malay” food. It was made popular by the large influx of Malaysian immigrants into South Africa.
Tuesday, 26th December 1995
We woke up to our third sumptuous “Olaf breakfast”. This one was based on English muffins and featured lots of different fruits and juices.
If we were sad to be leaving Cape Town, we were even sadder to be leaving Olaf’s (2017 – it seems to still be there).
We said goodbye, drove to the station and returned the car to the rental car man waiting outside.
We got on the 9:20am train; “the Trans-Karoo Express. The train runs from Cape Town to Johannesburg along the same route as the legendary “Blue Train”.
Unlike the incredibly luxurious Blue Train, the Trans-Karoo is more down to earth and features regular sleeping and seating accommodation. We had reserved a sleeper.
We spent the day looking out of the window and having first lunch and then dinner in the dining car. The views were pretty good and the food was fine, although lunch and dinner were from the same menu. When it got dark we retired to the beds in the compartment, but we found it quite noisy and pretty difficult to sleep.
Wednesday, 27th December 1995
We arrived at Johannesburg station at 10:15am. We had a little bit of a panic as the next rental car was not there waiting for us. It eventually turned up about an hour late. We wasted no time and drove straight out of the city.
We had lunch at Rustenburg Tea Gardens. Yet more toasted cheese sandwiches were on the menu. The vegetarian platter came with bacon.
We drove into the Plianesberg Game Reserve and spent the day trying to spot the big animals. We managed to spot Giraffes, Zebra and Rhino. The reserve borders the massive Sun City gambling complex and we had a peep in there on our way back.
The hotel for the night was a gaming lodge in the park. It was probably the worst quality accommodation we stayed at on the trip, but was quite adequate and the service wasn’t too bad.
Thursday, 28th December 1995
The next day was the hottest we had experienced so far. It was certainly hotter than Cape Town, although it was dry heat. We took our time and drove slowly towards Pretoria. We stopped off at a couple of Ndeble villages on the way.
At one point the fuel was low and we couldn’t find a garage. We asked a black guy standing by the road if there was a garage nearby and he agreed to ride with us and show us. He took us to a garage about 10 minutes away. We offered to pay him for his trouble, but he refused asking only for an orange juice. We dropped him off back where we found him and carried on.
We got to Pretoria by mid-afternoon. Our hotel was in the centre so we just walked around the town for the rest of the afternoon inspecting the monuments to the Afrikaans and Voortrekker movements.
Sadly, the hotel was another one that didn’t seemed to have moved out of the apartheid era and we were met with more raciscm. It was directed both at us, as a mixed race couple, and also pretty obviously at the black staff members, particularly the security guard. Cape Town had given us a better image of the country and now we seemed to have slipped back into the past again. It was a bit of a shock and totally unwelcome.
On our last night in South Africa we dined again at an Italian Restaurant.
Friday, 29th December 1995
We drove south to Johannesburg and, with a bit of time to kill before flight, we went to Gold Reef City. it was a very kitsch attraction but an enjoyable one nonetheless. We did the touristy gold mine tour and watched the Zulu dancing.
We dropped the rental car off on the way back to the airport and the friendly people at the rental car place took us to the terminal.
We flew overnight back to London again via Mombassa. This time we actually got out, stepped on Kenyan soil and had a Tusker beer in the terminal for a rather expensive $4.
Although we enjoyed our time in South Africa, it was impossible to escape the racial politics.
The remnants of Apartheid were still very much apparent everywhere. You could not fail to feel sympathetic to the black population given the terrible injustice of the system that had only just ended. The only consolation was that it had ended, Mandela was President and the future had to be brighter for them.
Yet at the same time you could also understand the uncertainty facing the white population too. In the main they had built up a comfortable life style for themselves and that was being potentially threatened by the new circumstances.
Whilst the white people we met on the Garden Route and in Cape Town were generally nice, the hotel people in Pretoria and Graaf Reinet were quite obviously racist and both of those experiences upset us and marred the whole trip a bit.
The black people we encountered were almost all friendly towards us. I think we would describe them as unspoiled, and in no way were they pushy or aggressive.
In 1995 it was obvious that the country was changing fast and we thought it would probably be unrecognisable after a few more years.