Sleeping in Soweto

Here’s an idea! I have to stop overnight in Johannesburg, South Africa between flights – yes, the city with a scary violence reputation. So what do I do? Bypass Johannesburg and stay for two nights in Soweto of course. That’s right, in the infamous “townships”.
Soweto

Stay in a Soweto B&B.


Soweto
Now this might seem counter-intuitive, but Soweto has a well established network of B&B’s, especially in Orlando West, and they are, well, as safe as houses! And not surrounded by barbed wire fences and security guards. In a place where I can walk down the street to the local pub and wander back again later that night, and feel perfectly safe. And my B&B booking also happily arranges my transfers to/from the airport, only 40 minutes away. Now this definitely doesn’t apply to all parts of the townships, but in this area of Orlando West, the community has been determined to create a safe environment for themselves and for visitors, and they have succeeded.

Orlando West appears to be one of the “up & coming” neighbourhoods in Soweto. The houses are nearly all original “matchbox” houses, so called because they were, literally, a small box. But many have also been renovated, extended, or even replaced. And some have built a row of B&B rooms on the spare land at the back of their section, and created a thriving business. I am staying at Linle’s B&B, and I am accommodated in a near new, very comfortable room with a good ensuite. And they feed me a breakfast of fruit, yoghurt, cereals, juice and a huge fry-up that would rival any of the best B&B’s in the UK. The family are so welcoming and friendly, I can’t recommend them highly enough.

Soweto, Vilakazi St.

Linle’s is just around the corner from Vilakazi Street, the “tourist street” of Soweto, as this is the only street in the world which has housed two Nobel Peace Prize winners.
Soweto
Bishop Desmond Tutu still has a house there, and the Mandela House is now a museum. This is the house Mandela lived in before the final incarceration and immediately after his release. Vilakazi St also has the well known restaurant & bar, Sakhumzi’s, a very pleasant place to wind down on a Sunday evening, under the umbrellas with a cold beer. Given it’s location I expect it might be full of white tourists and therefore lacking any local atmosphere, but I am pleasantly surprised – there are plenty of tourists, but on this evening I am the only white one. Most are South African tourists from other cities, or visitors from other African nations. And there is a fair smattering of locals too. I am befriended by a group of three friends visiting from CapeTown for the weekend, and two locals who have grown up in Soweto but now live in other suburbs, and we drink too much super dry cider.

Soweto Tours and Attractions.


Soweto
]During the day I take a tour of Soweto in the morning and then spend the afternoon in the new Apartheid Museum which sits between Soweto and Johannesburg. The tour covers a lot of ground, including a few World Cup football stadiums, and the Twin Towers, the stacks next to an old decommisioned power station, painted in beautifully colourful murals. It also covers a fair range of emotional ground, particularly for those of us old enough to have been aware of or involved in the anti-apartheid movement from far away in our own countries.

I start to get an idea of how diverse Soweto has become. Here is a suburb nicknamed” Hollywood” where there is no sign of the original matchbox houses, and the architecturally designed mansions would not look out of place in any major city around the the world. Just across the stream from here is a much poorer area, where the government is currently rehousing the residents into new, better, bigger homes. But as people move into their new homes, the old shacks, earmarked to be demolished, are immediately filling up, illegally, by new immigrants from other parts of Africa. Its an ongoing problem as the influx of people from rural areas as well as from other countries has increased dramatically in recent years.

Soweto Neighbourhoods.


Soweto
We stop at a local market (fruit and veges, electronics, clothes, even a “witch doctor” table of herbs and medicines), and also visit a local resident in an original and well maintained “matchbox” house – it’s humbling to realise his ‘two room with outdoor toilet’ is smaller than my bedroom and he has raised an entire extended family in here. It does however now have clean running water, (legal) power supply and a flushing loo, so can be considered “middle class” for the area. Then the owner points out that the walls and ceiling are asbestos, which is why all the householders keep them heavily painted, to seal them and try to prevent any asbestos escaping into the air! (at this point I have to confess I stop breathing and try to hold my breath until we leave – I fail!)

It is a very different story as we go into Kliptown, one of the oldest and most deprived areas of the townships. It’s an area which seems to have gotten no benefit from the end of apartheid, a true slum, a place easy to put into the “too hard” basket. See here for the separate post I have done on Kliptown (coming soon).

Soweto – History of Apartheid.

Our final stops are a roll call of the anti-apartheid movement – Vilakazi St with Bishop Tutu and the Mandela House museum, and just a couple of blocks away the Hector Pieterson square, memorial, and museum.
Soweto
These commemorate the 68+ school children – school kids! – shot dead while protesting over a new rule that required them to take their lessons in Afrikans, back in 1976, an event that captured the attention of the world and was instrumental is creating worldwide public awareness of apartheid. I’ll warn you, this is a museum that is going to make you want to cry, as it has extensive tv footage, witness accounts & photographs from the time that bring the events all too well to life, and immerse you in it. This is officially the end of our tour, and most of us get dropped off at the Apartheid museum to browse by ourselves for the afternoon. I am very impressed with the museum, it is a world class, informative, interactive, multimedia museum covering much of history of South Africa, not just the apartheid years. It needs a good two or three hours to do the museum justice and I am glad there is a lovely garden cafe attached for a bit of sustenance.

So go to Soweto and stay in the middle of some incredible recent history, it is an amazing, stimulating, positive experience – I promise you!

Cuba, travel to a most surprising country

It’s a balmy New Years Eve, on the farm surrounded by friends and family. One family friend is drunkenly playing a guitar in the corner, on the other side the teenagers have taken control of the CD player, and I am enveloped in the crisp fatty scent of slowly spinning roast pig on a spit.

NYE spit roast, Cuba
NYE spit roast, Cuba

But this is not my family, I only met the friends a week ago, I’m in Cuba and it is indeed a surprising place. I am travelling with a small group of Aussies, Kiwi’s, Canadians and Americans through www.cubagrouptour.com. I am surprised at how many Americans are visiting Cuba since in theory they are not allowed to, they are sneaking through Mexico or Canada in large numbers every year, and are happy to flout their government’s nonsensical rules.

Cuba: an extended family.

My hosts are the family of our excellent local guide, and they are almost a cross-section of Cuba. There’s Granddad, the charming silver fox, Dad who is a staunch communist who isn’t comfortable with so many foreigners around, Grandma who is happy as long as we refill her little half glass of beer, shy but smiling Mum, a brother in law who is loudly pro-American and wants to discuss politics all night, and the whole extended family. We feel honored to be invited to their party while we are so far from home.

Cuba: music, party, art.

This is the only communist country I have visited that really seems to love a party – I don’t know if there is much financial support but there seems to be great artistic support for the arts and musicians (& movies), and you didn’t have to look very hard to find music and dancing. It has become part of our everyday experience in Cuba. The locals are born to dance with snake-hips that no amount of salsa lessons are going to give me, but after a couple of Cuba Libre’s I give it a try anyway.

I am here during the 50th anniversary of the Revolution , which just amplifies the partying – there are government sponsored street parties at night. And I am amazed at how easy it is to indulge my love of art – paintings everywhere, art galleries, street markets. Camaguey and Baracoa have the best, while there was also a huge range of cheap but good street market stuff in Havana.

I am lucky enough to visit the Camaguey home of Ileana Sanchez & Joel Jover, and fall in love with, buy and take home a Joel Jover painting. I also realize that the value of art is very subjective – the price I pay is equivalent to a talented art student’s first exhibition in Sydney, and at least one tenth of the price for a known artist with 20+ years on international exhibitions, but it was still enough to make the bus driver nearly faint from shock.

art, Joel Jover, Ileana Sanchez, Cuba
art, Joel Jover, Ileana Sanchez, Cuba

There is another memorable party we go to, well, gate-crash really. Travelling on a long trip through the mountains to our next city, we stop at the gate of a house where the driver knows we can usually buy some lunch, as there were no shops or roadside cafes on this route (or on most in Cuba). There’s a bigger crowd than just the family here today and they warmly invite us to join them. It is National Honor Teachers Day, and the teachers and their families have gathered at this particular house to celebrate.

On our arrival they quickly wring the neck of one of their turkeys, and then invite us to join them for lunch, a feast that needs to cook for the next 4 hours or so. We sample their local rum, play some dominoes, dance a bit of salsa, and have deep conversations about the importance of great teachers in our lives – although this was somewhat tempered by our very bad spanglish.

We also wander down the farm to visit the beautiful waterfall and swimming hole. Of all the things I associated with Cuba, waterfalls had not been on the list, but I discover there are many throughout the country.

Cuba: more music, dancing and old cars.

I have to admit that most of my pre-conceptions about Cuba are a bit out of date – while I was thinking salsa, the locals are at the nightclub, while I was thinking Buena Vista social club the locals are thinking Latino hip-hop. We quickly learn the various rituals of “clubbing” of any form in Cuba – generally we would start the evening late, and sit through a “show” – it might be cover band of Celine Dion numbers, or Latino boy bands or Buena Vista copy cats, of varying levels of skill. After enduring the show, the dance music comes on and the crowd throw themselves into what they’ve really come for – dancing and partying. We also learn that the best way to order drinks is “a bottle of rum and four cans of cola” and then mix our own for the evening.
I’d heard all about the wonderful old American 50’s cars and they are everywhere, they look amazing, and it is even more amazing how they manage to keep them intact and running for so long without access to spare parts. And it is no surprise to see the old Russian Ladas, although somewhat less attractive. But I am surprised to spot some brand new Audi’s, imported as car rentals for tourists apparently – a sign of change indeed.

old cars, Havana
old cars, Havana

Cuba: change is happening.

Everywhere we go, change is the most common topic of conversation, although probably influenced by our own level of desire to understand it too. Many Cubans are openly talking about how things are changing, whether they think that is a good or bad thing, what they would like to see change or not change. Everyone has different views, and everyone seems to be engaged in a public conversation on this, again more so than I would expect in a communist country.

And it also seems like every visitor has a version of “I wanted to come now before it changes” – me too, even though I know how selfish a view this is. I take heart at the level of public debate on this, hopefully a good sign for the future – I only wish there was this much involvement of the general public in political debate in my country. And I hope that before too long the ridiculous 47 year blockade is finally lifted. What do you think?

What would James Bond think of all this?

James Bond Island in Phang Nga Bay, Thailand

36 years after The Man with the Golden Gun, tourism in Thailand is still making a mint out of the iconic view of Scaramanga’s hideaway. The karst pillar in Phang Nga Bay originally known as Ko Tapu, has been called “James Bond Island” ever since. It seems that every day there are hundreds of long tail and speed boats ferrying tourists out to have a look, and today, I am on one of those long tail boats.

We are dropped on the small karst island next door (Ko Phing Kan), and walk about 30 metres through a ravine completely filled with market stalls of the usual trinkets. We emerge on a tiny 20 metre wide beach, and there it is, straight in front of us, James Bond Island, about 50 metres out in the middle of the bay. This is the viewing spot, from this angle it looks completely stand alone with its huge backdrop of sea and other karst islands in the distance.

The de rigueur smug shot here is to be photographed as though you are holding the island in the palm of your hand. This seems a bit lacking in originality, perhaps a gun stance surrounded by bikini babes would be more appropriate, or perhaps a beach stall selling martini’s ,shaken not stirred, balancing the island on its roof? Or maybe I should just take a photo of the island, no tricks.

Sea canoeing in Thai caves and islands

Our longtail also takes us about 10 minutes away to Ko Talu Nok for some cave canoeing. I am disappointed that I am not allowed to paddle my own canoe. We sit in the front while a local guide paddles at the back. But it’s enjoyable enough as we spend the next half hour lying back and looking up at cave roofs 10 cm above our faces, up sheer cliffs of internal lagoons accessed through caves and covered in rainforest, and at sea worn karsts shaped like skulls, alligators and more.

Like all the karsts in this area, the sea erodes from the base in, so all the karats look narrowest at sea level. At Talu in particular the sea has worn away a lot of caves and tunnels to internal lagoons, with towering cliffs and glimpses of the sky from the middle of the island.

All of this is in Phang Nga bay area, where we originally boarded our long tail boat.  The tour operators insist on everyone wearing lifejackets but as the water is generally about one metre deep and the life jackets are a “one size fits no-one” and rather hot in this weather, most of us ditch the lifejackets as soon as we leave shore.

We also eat well at the floating village on the Ko Panyee, known as the Muslim Village. Lunch is a banquet including chilli fish, deep fried prawns, chicken and cashews, tom yum soup, omelette, spicy chicken legs, stir fried veges and fresh pineapple. And there is an interesting little craft market to explore, with a side of voyeurism into the village life.
As we leave James Bond Island we see a group of people arrive on a speedboat named James Bond, and I realise that I have only scratched the surface of the James Bond experience – next time!

How to enjoy an active volcano.

I cling to our little rubber dinghy as the guide times the waves, and gunning the outboard, noses it straight into the rocks directly below a couple of iron stakes and a ladder bolted into the rocks. “Go, go, go” yells the guide, but the woman at the front doesn’t speak English and takes a few seconds to realize what she is supposed to do. As we all repeat “go, go”, she leaps up for the iron pole on top of the rock, sticks her foot on the bottom rung, swings and up she goes.

One more follows, then the guide yells “Sit, sit”, and we all stop sliding forward, and I grab the ropes and hold on as another wave breaks and sends our dinghy spinning around into the rocks. “Go, go”, and up we go again, and this time we all make it ashore before the next wave comes through. It crashes over the rocks where are we are standing, sending us scrambling over more rocks and a couple of steel gangways until we reach the island proper. Adrenalin still surging, I look around and realize, I am now standing on NZ’s most active volcano (and this is a country with a lot of volcanos!)

craterfloor
craterfloor

White Island – New Zealand’s most active volcano

I have just arrived at White Island, a one and a half hour comfortable boat ride from Whakatane, NZ. That includes stopping to watch pods of bottle nose dolphins playing, and more unusually, a pod of orcas as well. I look around at one of the most inhospitable landscapes I have ever seen. I am inside the perfectly curved walls of a conical volcano, but one where a whole side of that cone has previously been blasted away.

The volcano’s floor and walls are a swirl of greys and whites and yellows, seemingly consisting of only ash, sulphur and rock. The yellow is very concentrated close to any steam vents, craters or mud pools. The gap in the side of the wall of the volcano makes it easy (after the initial rock landing, there’s no pier or harbour here), to walk right into the core of the volcano.

White Island last erupted ten years ago. The guide explains how NZ has a classification scale for volcanic activity, where 0 is dormant, 1 is “activity”, e.g. the steam vents, and 5 is a catastrophic eruption occurring right now. “Both White Island and Ruapehu are rated a 1 right now” he says, “and they are the highest rated sites, the most active”. “Phew” I think, “that seems nice and safe”. “Just before White Island erupted ten years ago, it was rated a 2, and we had a tour group on the island a few hours beforehand, it’s almost impossible to predict” adds the guide. I suddenly feel a whole lot less safe.

A lolly a day keeps the volcano away

I am equipped with a hard hat (in case of an eruption and/or rock avalanche from the walls) and a gas mask. I have never used a gas mask in my life, and yet somehow it seems familiar – too many movies? As well as the sulphur smell so familiar from Rotorua, there are some seriously acidic vapours here as well.

However I quickly discover that the guide’s tip, to suck on hard candy, was much more effective that the gas masks. The lolly means that I have a constant flow of saliva going down my throat, which stops the acid wind irritating it. But every now and then a wind gust catches our group out and we are all coughing and spluttering for a minute until the wind changes again.

craterlake
craterlake

White Island, Dangerous?

We walk further into the crater, to the main steam vent visible from the sea. It is not only shooting thick plumes of steam some dozens of metres into the air, it is making a huge, loud noise, rumbling and hissing – it sounds so much like a Hollywood soundtrack of an eruption that I cant stop nervously glancing at it over my shoulder as we move on.

Nearby is a large, and very fast growing crater – this one is growing so fast it is undermining the earth surface. It’s the only crater or vent that we are banned from getting even remotely close to, confirming that it is the real deal in terms of possible danger.

And heading towards the towering back wall, we reach the main crater, a huge bright green acidic sulphurous lake, some hundreds of meters in diameter. At the rear is the largest steam vent, shooting steam up to the crater rim and beyond. I am feeling grateful that the breeze is blowing it all away from us at this stage.

hardhat
hardhat

On the walk back to the open end of the crater, with the guide’s blessing, I do a taste test on some of the water streams running through this barren landscape. Like the steam, it is acidic, but won’t kill you, at least in a day! Someone claims it tastes like lemons (I suspect they were still sucking on a lolly), but to me it tasted of bitter minerals and rusty pipes, not pleasant but not undrinkable.

Back at the open end of the crater, we explore the severely decayed remnants of old buildings and machinery left over from mining many decades ago. The boat crew get us off the island again in a bit over a hour, quicker than usual.

Today is forecast to be an extreme low tide event and they want us off before the tide goes out too far, as the jump down from the metal ladder to the rubber dinghies may be too risky. I am feeling so invigorated by the adrenalin bursts so far that I am disappointed that we are going to miss out on that extra excitement.

White island white water bonus ending.

The trip back to shore is in beautiful sunshine, unlike the dark and stormy skies on the way out, and we all sit chattering animatedly about our exciting volcano experience. And then as we are close to land and approaching the river mouth, we hear that there is one more bit of excitement in store for us – a special bonus only once every few years.

The extreme low tide means the boat can’t get into the river mouth and back to dock as it will run aground in the shallow water. So we are going to be shuttled in, in small groups, in our trusty rubber dinghy, through the surf and into the river mouth. So I get my final adrenalin buzz after all– dinghy wave surfing my way home.