Southern Africa: A Land of Contrasts

Story & Photos by Veronica Sliva

We began our tour in Johannesburg, Africa’s largest city and the financial capital of South Africa. Thanks to its location on the Witwatersrand range of hills, Johannesburg has a large-scale gold and diamond trade. However, all that glitters is not gold. We learned that South Africa’s unemployment rate is nearly 28 per cent with 50 per cent of the city’s youth unemployed. While visiting other major cities in the world, tour buses typically stop from time to time giving visitors a chance to walk about and “experience” the place. This didn’t happen in Johannesburg. “Too dangerous; very high crime rate”, said the driver, as we drove out of the city towards Soweto.

Soweto is a suburb of Johannesburg and the most populous black urban residential area in South Africa. In 2011 its recorded population was 1.3 million. It is a melting pot of South African cultures and a place of immediate contrasts with rows of tin shanties tucked among more affluent homes. From the road you can see heaps of garbage with kids picking through it. In the background the green fields look almost pastoral with idyllic streams running through them.

Unemployment is very high here too, but somehow it feels more hopeful than Johannesburg...and safer. “People actually settle and live here”, our guide explained, “In Johannesburg, the population is transient with those coming into the city looking for work that doesn’t exist for them.”   

In Soweto, a definite entrepreneurial vibe is evident. Though rough around the edges, commerce thrives in Soweto. There were many businesses the residential areas, as well as hawkers on the side of road peddling all sorts of goods. We stopped for lunch at Robby’s Place, a family owned eatery where Robby himself welcomed us. He led us to a series of small rooms where we enjoyed a delicious buffet of typical African home cooking. Our short visit to the big city was enough for me though. I was looking forward to getting out into the wild for some up close views of Africa’s big game.

Chobe — a world away
Chobe National Park in Botswana, considered one of the greatest wildlife destinations in Africa, was next on the itinerary. The Park encompasses nearly 11,000 sq km of wilderness and is home to the largest herds of elephants on Earth.

We took a short flight to the gateway town of Kasana, arriving just in time to check in to our lodge and then depart for a “sunset” cruise on the Chobe River, a magnet for the big game animals. Initially I was surprised by the number of boats on the river. There were dozens of them, all filled with camera-toting tourists just like us. At times drivers jostled which each other for the prime viewing spots. It felt like a traffic jam. But, within 5 minutes we spotted our first elephant. The driver eased the boat up to the shore, sliding expertly between two other boats. The elephant was so close the little hairs on its trunk glittered in the softening light. At least a dozen more elephants came into view. Some were ambling up to the water’s edge and others were in the water swimming across   the river. What a sight! I felt like I was dropped into a National Geographic documentary. These massive creatures were oblivious to us, going about their business and not noticing the many photographers hanging over the sides of the boats.

Our attention was directed to a ripple in the water a few metres behind the boat. What a thrill when a pair of baby hippos erupted out of the water, their cavernous mouths locked together as they engaged in some playful roughhousing. Looking back to the shore, a zebra browsed for greenery. It is early spring here and though the landscape is greening up, the fresh grass is still short and hidden among last year’s brown blades. The zebra is working hard at grazing. That was lucky for us – we were able to watch him for at least 10 minutes before he moved on.

Glancing back to the river, my eyes scanned the water’s edge just in time to catch a glimpse of what I thought must be the biggest, meanest looking crocodile ever. We were told they mainly eat catfish, but they are known to ambush and eat big game too. It’s no surprise they can also be a danger to humans. Thankfully, this one didn’t seem very hungry.

Soon after several Cape buffalo arrived to drink at the river. They sport distinctive curved horns fused base on the top of their head. These animals are widely regarded as the most dangerous of all the game. And no wonder, they gore and kill over 200 people every year. Other than humans, who shoot them for trophies, African Cape buffaloes have few predators.

Besides being known as one of the top places to view large game, Chobe is considered a prime birding destination with more than 450 species recorded within its borders. Collectively, our group spotted and identified 62 species. Like the animals, the birds were not spooked by the boats and we often got very close them. Some were incredibly beautiful like the Lilac Breasted Roller and the Little Bee Eater. Others like the Yellow-Billed Stork were rather homely. Fish eagles are very common here. A distinctive high pitched scream announces their presence. Though common, one of them treated us to a most uncommon sighting. Out of nowhere a fish eagle dove at lightning speed right in front of the boat and seconds later came up with a Tiger Fish in his claws. Talk about drama! He flew to a nearby tree with the dangling fish firmly in his grip and posed proudly for us to admire his accomplishment.

Daylight gave way to the fiery glow of the African sunset as we headed back to shore. We were scheduled to return to the same place a few more times before leaving Botswana and I wondered if we’d see anything different. “In Africa you cannot predict what you will see”, our guide reflected, “Every single day is different because nature is in charge and we are merely observers”. I trusted this was so and looked forward to the rest of our incredible African adventure where every tomorrow brought a new adventure.