When you think of a country’s icons, what comes to mind? Is it the red phone boxes and double decker buses that throng London’s city streets? The Empire State Building that towers above New York City? The labyrinthine markets of Morocco?
Of course, an icon isn’t just a physical landmark: the iconic part of a country could be experiences or activities, too. Bungee jumping in Australia, maybe, or diving between two tectonic plates in Iceland’s freezing waters.
So if I asked you about the icons of South Africa, what would you say?
A few months ago, I would have only been able to answer vaguely. Seeing lions and leopards on safari, most likely. Climbing up Table Mountain. And I’d want to learn a lot more about Nelson Mandela before venturing to that part of the world. Africa is one of the least explored continents that I’ve already visited; and though I’d always wanted to go to South Africa, it wasn’t planned any time soon.
But sometimes travel opportunities happen when you least expect it.
Fancy seven days in South Africa with a group of strangers?
One afternoon in mid February, while I was buried in my flat, up to my ears in writing my book, an email landed in my inbox from a woman named Claire. She was organising a week-long press trip to South Africa and wanted to invite me to join the group.
Now, for those of you who aren’t familiar with the press trip concept, here’s a quick rundown. It’s a trip organised by travel industry representatives (often a tourist board or a PR agency) to host a group of writers and/or photographers in a particular location and show them the sights. The itinerary is decided ahead of time, with maximum effort made to promote a specific angle or slant of that place. In the case of this trip, it was to experience the icons that South Africa is most famous for.
I looked through the sample itinerary Claire had sent and could barely believe it. A safari lodge in the Kruger Park; reaching the heady heights of Table Mountain; riding the infamous luxury Blue Train all the way from Johannesburg to Cape Town; and staying in beautiful hotels and dining at sumptuous restaurants all along the way. This trip looked absolutely too good to be true.
Over the last few years I’ve been on a handful of press trips, but usually I choose to travel on my own so there are no restrictions on what I can do, or what itinerary I have to follow. A week in South Africa was too tempting though… And as you can tell from this article, obviously I said yes.
But here’s the caveat. Because this trip to South Africa was organised entirely by other people, I had no influence over where we went or what we did. Every aspect was incredible (I actually can’t say enough positive things about it!) but the trip wasn’t in my usual travel style.
I was being shown a side of South Africa that various tourism representatives wanted me to see – and I don’t actually see the harm in that. These guys work to promote the tourism that their country has to offer, and it was very enlightening to see how that process works.
Particularly when it involved sipping pink champagne on the Mayor of Pretoria’s garden lawn, less than 24 hours after taking off from London’s grey skies…
An unexpected (and slightly tipsy) welcome to Pretoria
“Now, ladies! You should be marinating your salmon steaks right about now!”
The ruddy-cheeked chef at the front of the marquee was bellowing to make himself heard across a succession of long tables filled with tanned, long haired, elegantly dressed women in white aprons. Behind him, three young bearded men sidestepped over thick coils of snaking black wire, heavy cameras perched on their shoulders. We weren’t being filmed for any specific reason, one of the men told me; just for closed circuit footage, beamed straight up onto the LCD monitors that stood around the marquee’s interior. If I twisted my neck quickly enough I could see my confused cooking attempts at three different angles.
The first activity on our South Africa agenda had been a rush to reach: zipping almost immediately from Johannesburg airport to a cooking demonstration in Pretoria, courtesy of couple of beautiful hire cars that had come straight out of the 1970s.
Or from Cuba.
Although we’d had a spare half hour to shower and change at the Sheraton Pretoria beforehand, I wasn’t fully ‘with it’ yet.
I’d barely slept during the eleven hour red eye flight from London to Johannesburg and had spent the drive from the airport to the hotel staring fixedly at the South African landscape: the clouds of red dust thrown up by lorries; the men watering grass verges with long hoses; the sudden bursts of birds exploding into the sky. I was searching for something – a fuller sense of this sudden unexpected foray into a totally new continent.
Verification that I Was Really There. In South Africa.
Of course, sipping on champagne at a cooking demonstration wasn’t exactly the kind of authentic South African experience my unconscious mind was searching for. The women surrounding me were English, American, Australian, South African; collectively, the wives and girlfriends of various international golfers who were spending the week competing in the Tshwane Open PGA Tour.
Apparently, golfers’ WAGs are often left to their own devices (read: hotel pools, gyms and spa treatments) during a tournament, but their Pretoria PR reps had decided to draw up a program. Today’s activity was a cook-off headed by local chef Fortunato Mazzone, and a well-known ballerina-turned-TV-presenter, Lorna Maseko. As the two celebrities chatted with various wives at their cooking stations, me and my press trip buddies attempted to catch up with cooking the recipe on hand: garlic and lemon marinated salmon, wilted spinach and lentils.
We’d arrived late, and the warmth of the car ride had already made my tiredness kick in again. And then a thin stemmed glass of pink champagne appeared in front of me, carried by a beaming woman all the way to our spot at the back of the shaded gazebo.
I glanced at the women around us, long straightened hair swishing above perfectly manicured nails that chopped onions and marinated salmon steaks, and wondered what their experience of South Africa was going to be; similarly dictated by external influences, but surely with a completely different mindset, and with different expectations.
After we’d cooked our salmon steaks to perfection inside the gazebo, the celebrity chefs invited us to a buffet lunch on the lawn.
There, we discovered we weren’t actually eating what we’d cooked: instead, that food was already being packed up in preparation for delivery to a children’s centre in a nearby township – and the PR rep told me the golfers’ WAGs would be delivering it themselves.
Exploring Pretoria’s city centre
With champagne still warming the inside of my stomach, we found our cars and headed out again into the city.
Our next stop in Pretoria was Church Square, the historic centre of the city where several historical buildings are situated. As we parked our car in the shade, a quiet voice from one of the South Africans in the back seat suggested that I keep a hand on my bag.
“Just to be on the safe side,” our guide said, stepping out of the car into the baking afternoon sunshine.
Walking through the square, she pointed out the Palace of Justice (where Mandela was tried in 1963 and, more recently, Oscar Pistorius in 2014), and stopped in front of a statue in the square’s centre.
A metallic effigy of Paul Kruger, a squat man with a stovepipe hat, stared down at disinterested passers by; the old men sitting in the shade reading newspapers, stallholders selling popcorn and flowers, school children walking barefoot on the concrete.
“We keep his statue here because it’s necessary to remember all of our history,” our driver said suddenly, feeling the need to explain Kruger’s presence. “He was a bad thing for us – he oppressed us, was central in the apartheid – but he’s part of South Africa regardless.”
Although the square seemed calm and relaxed that day, the area is often much more highly charged. In the past few weeks alone, Kruger’s statue has been covered in green paint by black South Africans advocating its removal, and subsequently white South Africans have chained themselves to the statue, proclaiming that it would be a destruction of white African national heritage to remove it.
Meanwhile, the opposite side of the square reaches back to another part of the country’s history: the recent discovery of tram tracks outside the Old Council Chamber buildings which date back over a century. Now Pretoria’s City Council are taking steps to preserve the tracks, and tell another part of the city’s history.
But I only felt like I’d really arrived in South Africa when we reached our final stop for the day.
Standing beneath Nelson Mandela’s open arms
Located on a hill overlooking the city, Pretoria’s Union Buildings are the official seat of the South African government and also house the president’s offices. As such, this complex of red bricked buildings is an emblem of South African political life and has seen a huge amount of change in the country’s history.
I was more interested in what lay in front of the buildings, though; a nine metre high statue of a man with his back to me. His arms outstretched, fingers spread, looking out across the city’s skyline and the smooth rolling hills beyond.
This statue of former president Nelson Mandela was erected in December 2013, only a few days after his body had laid in state in the same spot, with more than 100,000 people filing past his coffin to pay their respects.
After just one day in South Africa, I’d already begun to see a pattern emerging in the way I was going to experience the country. In the midst of a hectic itinerary over which I had no control, I would be seeing a place through someone else’s eyes, for a change. Hearing stories I could never have hunted down on my own, simply because they wouldn’t have occurred to me.
Spending seven days in a new country will never be enough to truthfully know what makes it tick – and my week travelling through South Africa was no different. But it did give me innumerable little tantalising tastes: of glamorous women and barefoot children; of active communities and historical preservation; of knowledge and passion and political awareness.
I’ve got no doubt that once I finish writing about South Africa, I’ll be booking a flight straight back again. But for now, get ready for an onslaught of articles about my time in this bizarre, fascinating and totally unparalleled country…