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Home > Libre expression > Carnets de voyage > Afrique du sud - Été-automne 2015 > South Africa travel diary, season 2, chapter 1 : “Lemons and (...)

South Africa travel diary, season 2, chapter 1 : “Lemons and oranges”

All the versions of this article: [English] [français]

Wednesday 2nd of September

YES!!!! Departure for South Africa has finally arrived! Bye bye Gers for 5 weeks +. This time round we have decided to experience South Africa in the Spring in order not to miss the flower explosion which takes place every year round about this time of year in the Western Cape and Northern Cape provinces in the driest and most arid part of the country.

This year’s programme is rather vague but may take us from the atlantic coast from the Cape towards the border with Namibia, then South-Eastwards, through maybe Lesotho towards the Indian Ocean and the Wild Coast in the province of Eastern Cape. Finally we would return to Cape Town, fly back to Johannesburg for a few days in the Gauteng, the smallest province but also the most inhabited with Joburgh (short for Johannesburg) and Pretoria.

As we go further along our journey, we will come back on the South African geography and history. But let us have already a quick word regarding the provinces which make up South Africa. As apartheid was abolished in 1994, the ten Bantustans (so called « autonomous » regions given away to Black people as well the four large provinces of South Africa were all replaced by 9 provinces.
From an administrative point of view, these vaguely correspond to our French regions, but their sizes vary enormously, between the Northern Cape province and its 373 000 km2 (more than half of the of the surface of France) and the Gauteng and its 18 000 km2 (just 1.5 the size of Île de France). If we now look at population these two regions correspond to extreme figures again but the other way round with Gauteng being the most heavily populated with its 12 millions inhabitants whereas Northern Cape is the least populated with just over one million people.
The Cape region is divided into three regions: Northern, Eastern and Western which includes Cape Town and the Cape of Good Hope; this covers 671 000 km2, more than half of the surface of South Africa. In other words, one can well be in the Cape region and yet be very very far from Cape Town (1 500 km).

As last time, we’ve had to sort as best as we can the farm we leave behind, with the help of friends and family so that our vegetables do not go to waste and instructions have been given for watering and above all picking all is available either for eating or preserving as the cropping season seems to show itself this year very generous.

But is it the fact that we’ve done this before? We seem to have been able to organise everything for our trip and for the people we left behind, in a much more relaxed way than in 2014. And knowing the country already and what to expect we decided for instance not to fuss about booking accommodation in advance or do too much planning about where to go or what to see. We now know by experience that cheap and comfortable accommodation is plentiful everywhere apart from the Christmas period.

South Africa doesn’t seem to have a very strict codification of the type of holiday accommodation on offer as there is no equivalent there of the dreaded and stultified Gites de France. And it is not easy some time to distinguish differences between Bed and Breakfast, Lodge, Backpackers Hostel, Self-catering accommodation, Camps, Hotels, Chalets as they can often combine the same services! Prices start at about 30 € a night for an en-suite double room, the price we would pay here for a Formule 1 in France but even at this price we have more often than not been able to enjoy a large room with a wonderful view.

Prêts à embarquer dans l’A380 d’air France

So, here we go at Toulouse airport, now owned by the Chinese since our government has decided to give it away for a clearance sale, loaded with all our bags ready for travelling for the night. Ever since I was a kid I’ve always found travelling by night more exciting, as there are less people about, less hustle generally, a sense of mysterious privilege. Having transferred at Roissy airport we settled back on our seats on a A380 for the night for our long flight to Johannesburg after a disgusting meal provided by Air France. The idea of a night flight though is that one does not « loose » any holiday time.

(More pics here)

Thursday 3rd of September

We cannot really say we have slept that much, but the flight was reasonably comfortable having splashed on a little supplement to have seats by the emergency exit so we could extend our legs without disturbing neighbours. Johannesburg is a big airport and we have plenty of time before our next plane to Cape Town. But our luggage is not transferred automatically so we’ve got to pick our bags up and register them again for the final flight to Cape Town. The good thing is that we go through the customs now and won’t have to do it again in Cape Town. O.R. Tambo International Airport [1] has also the reputation of being an airport where it is very advisable to watch your luggage as immediately off the plane, porters and rogue porters alike vow to help you with help and advice.

Marc et un énorme muffin au chocolat

Dying for a proper coffee we are dragged by eager waiters into a café where without shame, I (Marc!) stuff myself with an enormous american muffin, making the point that « yes, I am on holiday and I can do whatever I like ». But sign that I have not yet integrated the fact that I am in South Africa yet, while going to check in for Cape Town, I get dragged by the arm in the direction of… a shoe shiner, when I thought he was an official wanting to check my papers!

Bienvenue au Cap aux “jeunes” mariés

We arrived in Cape Town early in the afternoon. Our friends Zalia and Graham had insisted on coming to airport to welcome us although they were at work. We had explained to them it was not necessary this time as we knew our way around and we would go straight to their house. Both waiving welcome signs to Mr and Mr Favre-Ducassé, alluding to our recent change in matrimony we understood why they had come and had a good laugh!

We then head off for the car rental where everything seems to go smoothly, Graham and Zalia watching we don’t get swindled. Last year we had taken a little city car and it had not been so easy on South African roads, more often than not without tarmac or full of pot-holes save the few main roads. Moreover, we experienced some difficult time on dirt roads while it rained and many natural parks only accept 4X4 vehicles. We would have preferred a robust pick-up but due to prohibitive cost we had to finally settle for an urban 4X4, however more adapted than the little Toyota we had last year.

Arriving at their home in their Observatory district was strange, like coming home and we could not resist immediately take a walk into the high street, with its groovy cafés, bars and restaurants and relax. Back to the house, Zalia cooked for us a delicious « Banting [2] » meal watered down by a few South African bottles.

(More pics here)

Friday 4th of September

Last night we invited Zalia and Graham to come with us for a long week-end to track the flowers up north as to our surprise they have not been round to see them yet! On reflection it is perhaps not so surprising as often enough one does not take advantage of what is on offer when it is readily available.

While our friends went to their office to sort a few things, we rush to the Waterfront to buy a South African SIM card, as Free may be cheap in France but costs an arm and a leg abroad! We also decide to change some money as cash is often requested and paying with a credit card is not always possible. This year the exchange rate is in our favor as the devaluation of the chinese Renminbi has drawn in its trail the devaluation of the South African Rands and avoid just, getting swindled by a well known high street bank advertising a rate outside only to apply a different one while inside!

Always on a look out for yet a better pair of walking shoes Marc can’t resist going to the same shoe shop as last year and makes a sensation trying one or two pairs with his orthopedic soles.
Finally, as we proceed to go for a light lunch, my heart starts pounding and my blood pressure rise fast as François tells me he has lost his wallet. Within a second I see a horror film of us getting blocked in Cape Town spending hours and days trying to phone banks, cancelling cards etc etc. Fortunately the wallet miraculously reappears in one of François’s multiple pockets and we can smile at our trendy lunch plates.

Back to Observatory to get ready for departure to a « luxury lodge » for the 4 of us at Lebanon Citrus Holiday Farm, near Clanwilliam. We leave Cape Town on the N1, pass Zalia’s mother to leave some errands for her and finally reach the N7 , the road that goes up north all the way to Namibia. Note that in South Africa, road classification is not very helpful as the N7 is a type of motorway just outside Cape Town, then becomes a dual carriage way a little later, to finally ressemble one of our départementales with just a double lane and it is still the N7. Limitations are also rather erratic and 120 km/hour can be the limit through the length of the N7 regardless of its size. Sometimes dirt roads are limited to 80 when you can’t reasonably go faster than 40. Fortunately South African usually drive very carefully and are very polite on the road.

For François, driving there is a real pleasure as there is little traffic on the road and people are so polite. Think what it would be like in Toulouse. Numerous intersections have a Stop sign for all the roads reaching that intersection and all depart in turns one after another according to when they arrived at the intersection. And on national roads, slower vehicles deport themselves on the emergency stop strip, the faster vehicle overtakes and puts on the warnings to thank the slow vehicle for a few seconds. The vehicle being overtaken flashes his lights to acknowledge he has seen your acknowledgements. Very civilized!

And as we now need to think about food, we stop on the way at a supermarket in Malmesbury in order to buy a few things for a barbecue in the evening. On the road, the contrast with the road near the Cape is noticeable. we are now in a very rural area and large farms, dominated by huge grain silos from Sarko which has a near complete monopole of the wheat market in South Africa.

As it is often the case here, maps can be deceptive and the last 20 km at night seem to take ages. It is rather late when we arrive and it is dark. The dirt track to get there is sinuous, and rather bumpy but we guess on the horizon as the sun gets down, hills and a promising view over the lake. As we arrive, although we see light and can hear people nobody answers at the farmhouse until we finally use our mobile to be heard and are being given the keys against immediate payment and instruction on how to get there by ourselves.

Vue de Lebanon Citrus Holiday Farm sur une montagne du Cederberg

Settled at the lodge, we proceed to start the barbecue (a national institution in South Africa called « brai »)and dine in style on the terrasse with the meal watered down (it’s getting to be a habit) by some nice south african bottles. It is very dark outside but we can just about distinguish one or two lights opposite and see water from the lake glistening. The area is very isolated and particularly in this season we can enjoy a royal silence.

Due to our special status as « just married », Zalia and Graham have given us the en-suite double bed-room, while they settle for the twin-bedroom.

Saturday 5th of September

Vue de Lebanon Citrus Holiday Farm sur le lac du barrage de Clanwilliam

Up at about 8 am with gorgeous rays of sun peeping through the curtains, we are greeted on the terrasse by Graham special English breakfast (eggs, bacon, sausages, tomatoes, the lot!) and a wonderful view over the lake, the mountains and a lemon tree with branches plowing with fruit ready to be picked. The view over the Clanwilliam dam is absolutely magnificent. It is a dam built for irrigation purposes, filled up by the water coming from the river Rondegat et Olifants but the Cedeberg mountains in the background renders the view of the lake perfectly natural. Lovely to see swallows nesting under the roof of the house, a very rare sight in France now, as our houses have been sanitized with chemicals.

Couple d’hirondelles

(More pics here)

After breakfast we head off for Clanwilliam where we stop briefly at the tourist office to hear the latest about flowers and where to see them at their best on that day. We are told to go to Nieuwoudtville which is about 2 hour’s drive away.

Les montagnes du Cederberg au nord
Here we have to digress and explain that the flower season is a real tourist activity mobilizing all the tourist offices in the Western and Northern Capes with a special line national service « the flower line ». Flowers blossom early August to late September, depending on rain falls. Usually the show starts in the north and finishes near Cape Town. We’d rung the number before leaving Cape Town and we’d been told the Clan William region was the place to go. What they actually meant was flowers were to be seen in a 150 km radius around Clanwilliam. We will realise how important the flower show is for South Africans when we later met people asking anxiously if we had seen the flowers. Apparently this year was not as good as last year but we suspect they say the same every year although of course there might be some slight variations from one year to the next and all regions are not blessed every year.
Vue sur la plaine de la Varsrivier avant d’arriver à Nieuwoudtville

Back to the car we resume on the road for our flower safari. The road is winding up and up stiff hills until we reach a view point over a vast plane and we can notice already signs that flowers have started blossoming in the area. We take advantage of that pause for eating some of the fresh oranges from the lodge picked directly from the tree. It is neither cold or hot but the sun is becoming fierce and it is necessary to cream ourselves and wear sunglasses.

Des fleurs bleues à perte de vue

(More pics here)

We finally reach Nieuwoudtville park, and although lunch is approaching, we decide to skip it as flowers only stay open until 3 or 4 pm. The road is a dirt road and we stop at various intervals to have a look and take pictures, sometimes in turns as other safari flowers hunters have also a look.

et des fleurs jaunes pâles…
Des “marguerites” jaunes

Note how our photographers are taking things very seriously and how Zalia seem to be so overwhelmed by the sheer profusion of blossoms that she starts posing like a star of the show business.

Zalia s’abandonne dans les fleurs
Graham et François prennent très au sérieux leur rôle de photographes officiels

Finally satisfied with the flower show and beginning feeling peckish we decide to stop at a farm stall run by Afrikaners with a very strong accent, making conversation in English very difficult, for some refreshing Roiboos tea and springbok pie. Fortunately Zalia speaks Afrikaans to help us out with questions and answers on the menu and the region. The « coloured [3] » employees look different here with finer traits, high cheekbones and relatively light colored skin and without doubt very poor, though the white farmers here don’t seem to be very rich either. We did not stop too long as always in South Africa distances to cover are huge and Clanwilliam where we intend to eat our evening meal is quite far; but Graham could not resist talking to the kids playing outside while their mums were doing the washing up outside.

Graham parle à des gamins à la ferme de Matjiesfontein
Plonge à l’extérieur pour les femmes à la ferme de Matjiesfontein

(More flower pics here)

We reach Clanwilliam fairly late only to discover that eating out was not going to be easy as restaurants were not very numerous in that season.

Then we drove back to the lodge rather tired and ready to go to bed, only to discover with horror that a scorpion was crossing happily the kitchen floor. Graham peeped through the bedroom door but declined getting involved as he did not know anything about scorpions. François bravely having first taken a pic of it, pushed it out of the house with a broom. We are not too sure whether it was a very nasty one but we do know from last year that scorpions are very plentiful throughout Northern and Western Cape and that some of them are very lethal and poisonous indeed.

Sunday 6th of September

Unlike Gites de France owners would have proceeded, in the morning the farmer came to see if everything was OK and told us to just leave the key to the house on the door when we leave. I find this laid back attitude, prevalent all over South Africa, very refreshing when I think about all the lengthy procedures before arrival and before departure in our country where NORMS are so important and don’t really make life more pleasurable or safer! There, you generally pay before and that is it, nobody comes to bother you, people seem to trust that you have not broken half of the furniture or are not going to steal it.

Nevertheless we notice the absence of electricity this morning. Apparently this cut had been programmed for this Sunday for network maintenance.

In South Africa, power cuts (power shedding as they call them) are frequent as little investment has been organized for the production of electricity in the last 20 years, when demand is constantly on the increase with a growing population connecting to the grid not always legally. With sun and wind plentiful, South Africa is an ideal place for renewable energy and though all the very few projects have all been extremely successful, the government has chosen to invest in obsolete solutions like coal and nuclear plants with decisions taken in a totally opaque fashion. Apparently, the Russians seem to rule the roast.

Having left the house more or less as we found it, we proceeded to collect bags full of lemons and oranges in the orchards as the trees had already been cropped and loads of them had just dropped on the soil and some beginning to rot. We took enough for us to take and eat on our future travels and Zalia to make some jams and marmelade. Marc particularly liked some type of citrus that had a very thick skin but tasted so sweet you could eat them almost as you would an orange.

Citronnier derrière notre gite

Graham and Zalia imperatively had to be back by Sunday night but nevertheless we decided to make the best of the day coming home a different way via Algeria (not the former French colony I reassure you), Algeria in South Africa ,a tiny hole with three log houses and a camping site by the river Uitkik in the middle of the Cederberg Wilderness Area, covering some 83 000 ha of very arid peaks and valleys in succession north to south with rivulets at he bottom between Citrusdal and Vandyrsdorp. Wild peaks culminate at around 2 000 m. The name of Cederberg comes from the name of an endemic tree, the Widdringtonia cedarbergensis (Clanwilliam cypress or Cape Cedar) but it is not really a cedar but belongs to the cypress family. Not to offend anyone, spelling mixes English (cedar) and Afrikaans (seder) [4]. Some of the rock formations are spectacular in very hot ocher-orangey colors and one wonders how these famelic streams have been able to dig up those country shapes over time.

Les montagnes du Cederberg près de la Rondegatrivier

This area is not accessible by public transport and trucks are not always easy without a 4X4 vehicle. Permission is required and limited to 12 people at a time for security reasons.

Une ferme dans la vallée de la Rondegatrivier

It is renowned for its vegetation of mountain fynbos [5], Spring is the best time to admire flowers. Unfortunately we could really stop to see much as we had to press on but an area worth a further visit.

Formations rocheuses dans le Cederberg
Des vaches se prélassent au bord d’un lac irrigation près de la Olifantsrivier

Crossing the N7, we now head for Leipoldtville, a tiny village of 300 inhabitants, looking for either petrol or somewhere to eat and predictably found neither. We therefore continue in the direction of Elands Bay which has retained its wild character, a small windswept fishing village between mountains and the ocean, popular with birds (and birdwatchers) and also a good spot for athletic surfers.

When we arrive, the wind is fiercely cold and we have to cover ourselves up as we park in front of the Wit Mossel Pot, a kind of hippy like place combining bar, restaurant, backpackers accommodation and surf equipment. The place is friendly and authentic, renowned for its mussels (hence its name) and other fish products. People seem to huddle together trying to get warmer around large thick old tables. The place is fairly full in a mixture of young people and a few south african tourists.

But here too there was no electricity, and therefore no telephone or internet. We realise that South African municipalities only have the name in common with ours and are much larger. Elands Bay and Clanwilliam are both part of the Cederberg Municipality which stretched 150 km west to east and covers 8 000 km2. This did not stop us to enjoy plates full of paella like rice and mussels. Fortunately we were able to pay cash as credit cards could not be used.

The next problem for us was to find out where to get to a petrol station as the unique pump in Elands Bay was out of order due to the electrical breakdown. After lengthy discussion with our friends and table neighbours we decided to take a chance and carry on in the direction of Redelinghuys where Graham was contemplating buying a small plot of land in order to build a holiday house in the village. Arrived there, both Graham and Zalia have mixed feelings as the plot is in the village opposite the church with not much of a view. The village itself is very rural, devoid of any shops or amenities. With a population of around 600 people, it is better known as the Potato Capital of the Sandveld, and is also the area where the rooibos tea [6] bushes grow in its natural state.

After taking a few pics of brightly colored mauve bushes, we resume driving with some little stress as petrol level diminishes towards Velddrif where our GPS promises a petrol station. And Yes it is true when we arrive we realise that Veldrdrif is part of a different municipality and here there is electricity and a petrol station.

Entre Redelinghuys et Aurora

We can now head on towards the West Coast National Park without stress. We stop at Langebaan a well known holiday and retirement destination for the middle classes from Cape Town. Out of season it resembles any resorts in the world, as only the holiday industry is capable of creating with shopping malls, trashy plastic restaurants and souvenir shops. Comrades going to the Summer University of the NPA in Port Leucate will know what we are talking about! A very miserable place altogether but as we need to stretch our legs and ease our backs we decide to walk to the beach and watch the ocean for (as the English would say) for an invigorating breezy walk.

Meanwhile, Graham and Zalia lia have selected a café-restaurant where we pause for teas and cakes to keep up with the British tradition. It is here that François discovers what is a Red Cappuccino, a cappuccino where Rooibos tea has replaced coffee while Marc starts on a long comparative journey over the famous Malva Pudding, a Dutch Cape speciality never renowned for being light combining apricot jam, caramel, custard all in various versions depending on where you take it.

Now we head on towards the West Coast National Park which unfortunately we won’t have much time to see other than going through it as sunset is approaching and we don’t want to be stuck inside for the night. Normally we have to pay to get in but the guard has closed the till and prefers to let us go free as it is coming late. Despite the fading light we are able to distinguish a large male Eland (grey coat) which must probably weigh a good 600 kg. We stop looking at it eating grass fascinated and don’t really understand people’s obsession with the « big five » (lion, leopard, elephant, rhinoceros and buffalo) when we personally find all animals wonderful when seen free in their natural habitats.

Un éland au coucher du soleil dans le West Coast National Park

We come out off the park just in time and quickly can see Cape Town in sight, noticing on the way the only South African nuclear plant of Koeberg built by the French. We felt so proud of our French technological savoir-faire…ah ah!

(More pics here)

Monday 7th september

Today is a day of rest after all this driving with some last minute errands and getting ready for an early start as we will not be back to Cape Town for 4 weeks. At the supermarket, queuing for payment, (same queue for all the tills) we can’t help noticing how we have to pass through a 20 meters display of sugary sweets, thinking it must be hell for parents and their kids. Listening to our conversation, a lady approves and says she has the problem with her husband!

Queue pour payer devant les gondoles de bonbons chez Woolworths

(More pics here)

Back to Observatory, we find an old-fashioned hardware shop, the kind where you get some service without walking endless alleyways to find what you want, in this particular instance a South African plug to use on a French multiple socket in order to be able to recharge mobile phone and camera at the same time. A very useful device in this country as most rooms have only got one wall outlet. In and out of the shop in two minutes with exactly what we needed and without useless packaging. Small event but pure bliss!
Today is also the day we met Brian Ashley and Mercia Andrews, two well known activists in Cape Town and generally in South Africa, two names we were advised to contact by comrades in Paris involved in international issues.

Brian Ashley

Brian is the editor of the magazine Amandla!. After taking us out for a drink he took us to visit his office (also located in Observatory) and gave us some short explanation of what Amandla! was all about. Taking the risk of being labelled with Bourgeois tendencies we noted with some admiration and a touch of jealousy how these left-wing offices were so well organized and clean in comparison to our NPA offices in Paris.

Amandla! [7] was initiated in 2006 as the crisis in the country was deepening, as neoliberal policies exacerbated the divisions of apartheid and as the crisis in the ANC and its Alliance partners (South African Communist Party and trade union federation COSATU [8]) deepened. It initially drew the active involvement of leftists inside and outside the ANC Alliance, although those of us outside the Alliance led the initiative.

The idea was to establish an open forum on the left and to facilitate a non-sectarian discussion on left strategy given the crises (social and economic) in the country and the popular upsurges that were unfolding in poor communities, in view of the failure of the state to deliver basic and essential services and the failure of worker struggles against job losses and privatisation.

However, the left in the Alliance essentially liquidated itself into one faction of the ANC led by then deputy president of the ANC, Jacob Zuma, who is now President of the country. Having seemingly won the struggle for hegemony in the ANC, the ANC left saw less need to relate to left forces outside the ANC Alliance. Differences within the Amandla! Collective occurred as a result and were sharpened by a growing shift to authoritarianism and intolerance by the Zuma-led ANC.

Key initiators of the Amandla! project were expelled from the SACP [9] for their critique of the view that the Zuma leadership represented a shift to the left. In this context Amandla! shifted perspective towards promoting alternative left strategies and to supporting processes aimed at building independent working-class struggles and initiatives.

Mercia Andrews

Mercia Andrews is also a well known and well respected activist. She works as a land rights activist and is a member of the Democratic Left Front (an anticapitalist movement born in 2011). Herself daughter of farm workers, she has been very active in recent farmworkers’ uprising and has written a number of articles on the question of land.

As it turns out we won’t be able to see Brian again as he was to leave for Brussels and Paris after attending an international conference on trade unionism and environmental issues with South American Trade-Unionists in Johannesburgh. However given the fact that we were both members of the NPA and active in agricultural and environmental issues, we were given some clues about where to go to find information and make other contacts in South Africa. We convened to meet up again with Mercia on our last week in South Africa which proved to be very useful and probably will be the start of a long term relationship and further exchanges.

François Favre
Marc Ducassé


The next chapter is here.


[1O.R. Tambo International Airport. Named after Mandela’s predecessor at the head of the ANC. As often in South Africa, first names tell a great deal about the country’s tormented past. O.R. stand for Oliver Reginald, two very English names, which replaced his original first name Kaizana (in honour of the German Kaizer) !

[2Very popular diet in South Africa, at least among the middle classes. It’s a high fat, low carbs diet. It seems well adapted to the black people who suffer from diabetes but most of them cannot afford that type of diet as any replacement to carbs tend to be pricy…

[3According to the classification that everyone still uses in South Africa, inherited from the Apartheid era, people are still defined and still define themselves as blacks, whites or coloured.

[4Generally tree names are rather disconcerting in South Africa. Very often, names refer to european trees (pear tree, olive tree, etc.) when more often than not they have nothing in common. Most probably colonisers and early settlers used names they were familiar with, in order to remind themselves of home.

[5Fynbos is the term that is used to describe the mediterranean type of vegetation found in parts of South Africa which is referred to as « maquis » or « garrigue » in Corsica and parts of Southern France. despite the fact that these plants are completely different they have adopted a similar process in order to adapt to that particular climate.

[6In botanical terms, rooibos has nothing to do with tea as it is a legume. It’s its fermented leaves that are being used. It is much sweeter than tea and totally free of caffeine.

[7Amandla in Zulu and Xhosa means power. During the apartheid period, it used to be the rallying cry, it is now ironical that it is the same cry used against ANC.

[8COSATU : Congress of South African Trade Unions.

[9SACP : South African Communist Party.

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