That Time I Had to go to South Africa For Work
I never imagined I’d visit South Africa. It just never crossed my mind. Visiting South Africa felt surreal before I got there and pretty much the entire time I was there. I’m not sure why I couldn’t quite grasp that my life and career has taken me to so many amazing places in such a short time. I had no expectations of what South Africa would be like.
I did very minimal research prior to arriving in South Africa because I was going to be attending conference most of the week. However, colleague agreed to show us around on our free weekend. Besides a one-day stop-over in Johannesburg, the majority of the time was at a conference. But despite a rigorous week of work, we found time to see some amazing things.
Two things struck me about South Africa. First, nature is everywhere. In the U.S. I think we only think of nature outside of the bounds of our urban environments, but in South Africa, nature seemed to permeate those boundaries better than in the U.S. The second thing that struck me was the overt racism and sexism I witnessed and experienced. I was not expecting it and I wasn’t prepared for it.
What I saw in South Africa was beautiful and also sad. On one hand, I was in awe of the natural world and on the other, I saw severe inequality spurred by racism. I can honestly say this is the first place where I experienced true culture shock. It was eye-opening and humbling, but I wouldn’t change the experience for anything. I was hit in the face with the bleak living conditions of many Black people in the country and it reminded me just how far we have to go to create a just society.
Beyond the negative, there was still so much good and beauty I got to experience. I was lucky enough to visit Johannesburg, Durban, Sodwana Bay, and Richard’s Bay, along with a few small townships. I didn’t have time to hit up Cape Town like I had hoped, but that’s a good reason to go back there some day. Here are at least 8 things you should do in South Africa.
1. You Really Need to Visit Soweto
When I arrived at my hotel, I asked the front desk staff to help arrange transportation to the Apartheid museum. They offered me a few different package options, one of which included a trip to Soweto. Prior to arriving in Jo’burg (as South Africans call it), I hadn’t heard of Soweto. However, I’m so glad I chose this tour because getting to see Nelson Mandela’s home and touring Soweto was really eye-opening.
My guide told me all about the Apartheid and all of the racial and socio-economic struggles in South Africa, which was obvious when I got to Soweto. It was also really special to get a tour of the house Nelson Mandela lived in for many years. It was tiny, made of brick and concrete. The place was filled with his family memories and moving quotes from him and his family. There was also a monument erected in his honor.
2. Drive through a Game Reserve
You go to Africa, so of course, you go on safari, right? What I didn’t realize was that South African game reserves are much tamer than the safaris I’ve seen in the movies. The game reserves have many paved roads and you can drive through in your regular car. They warned us to keep our windows rolled up, especially when baboons are nearby. I was pretty shocked at how easy it was to just drive through the game park. No off-roading vehicles required. Within a matter of minutes of entering the reserve, we saw elephants, water buffalo, zebras, antelopes, and rhinos. We saw several rhinos very close to our vehicle which was pretty stunning. The group behind us saw a lioness, but unfortunately, we missed her. We did see baboons and a few other deer-like creatures. It was stunning to see these animals so close up and in their natural environment. I enjoyed my time, but I have to say that it felt a little odd driving through their home as tourists.
3. Watch Out for Monkeys
I had no idea that monkeys were so prevalent in South Africa. Nearly everywhere we went, we would see monkeys running about, and scavenging for food. Monkeys are basically America’s version of squirrels. They are everywhere and can even be pests. There is a major issue in South Africa right now that too many people feed the monkeys and they are no longer scared of humans. Many will even enter your home if you leave your windows open.
4. Be Sure to Check Out Sodwana Beach and Dunes
One of the most beautiful things I saw in South Africa were the giant sand dunes at Sodwana Bay. Much of the eastern coast of South Africa where we were traveling is built on ancient sand dunes. I’ve seen many dunes in my life, but never ones this massive. They were quite beautiful. You can see just how tiny I am in this picture taken from the top of the dune. I felt like a kid as I ran down the massive dune to the gorgeous Indian Ocean below. I even picked a few sea shells and had a blast running back up the dune when we left.
5. Book a Turtle Tour
Prior to coming to South Africa, our host had invited us to partake in a turtle tour to see leatherback and loggerhead turtles lay their eggs. They only lay them a few months a year and it only happens at low tide. I had grand visions of seeing a beach full of turtles as they laid their eggs, as the website detailed. However, after a few hours of driving on the beach in the dark, we only ended up seeing one turtle laying and burying her eggs. Even though we only saw one, it was still quite amazing to see such a massive turtle laying and burying her eggs. The anticipation of finding the turtle and riding in the big sand buggy was a lot of fun. There was also a rain storm that night, so the mixture of rain, darkness and the whole randomness of being on the beach at night searching for an elusive turtle was just a ton of fun.
Probably the highlight of the journey was on the ride home. We had just seen the turtle and as we were riding home we saw something struggling in the waves on the shore. Our driver shined a light on it, and we all assumed it was another turtle coming in or leaving. To our shock, it was a beached dolphin. Several of the people in our truck jumped out and immediately sprinted to the ocean. Two of the guys grabbed the dolphin’s tail and carried it back into the ocean. After a bit of a struggle to control the dolphin, they were able to get it back safely in the water. As my wet comrades returned to the truck soaked, they had tears in their eyes. It was a very powerful moment, to save the struggling dolphin. The next day, we talked to a few locals about the beached dolphin and they assured us it was very rare. In fact, they had never heard of a stranded dolphin. The uniqueness of the situation made it even all the more special. If you ever have the chance to take a turtle tour, I highly suggest it.
6. Eat Sea Food Often As You Can
I ate more seafood in the last week and a half than I’ve probably eaten all year. The calamari and the prawns were absolutely delicious. I especially love the way they cook their prawns. They leave the head and tail on, only butterflying the middle section and cooking it in butter and garlic. I do admit they are a bit messy to peal, but the taste is out of this world. The calamari is also really tasty. It’s not at all rubbery like I’ve had in the U.S. I also ate hake several times, which is basically a mild white fish. Nearly everything came with chips (fries), but sometimes they also come with butternut squash and creamed spinach, which was a nice change.
7. Visit a Township
You can’t really see South Africa if you don’t visit places like Soweto, a township or a rural village. South Africa is a developing country, and you see that best by getting outside of the touristy areas. I had the opportunity to visit a few townships while I was there and it was very eye-opening to witness the extreme poverty and the lack of resources many people have there. I was shocked by the deteriorating schools and community centers I visited. But what was most powerful was the positivity and good energy I felt from the community members themselves. Despite what I viewed as difficult circumstances, people are still working, living and many are thriving. I was reminded that the human spirit is a powerful thing.
8. Get Some Pineapple at a Road Stand
Probably the best thing I ate in South Africa was the pineapple. I can’t even describe how much better their pineapple tastes than ours in the U.S. On the last day of our trip, we stopped at one a roadside stand to buy fresh pineapples. Unlike in the states, South African pineapples are a bright golden color. They just taste so far superior to anything I’ve had in the U.S. I only wish we could get such delicious pineapple back home.
In closing, getting the chance to visit South Africa was an awesome and surreal experience. I still can’t quite wrap my head around all I did and saw in less than two weeks. Hopefully, the rest of my family will get to go one day.