Tuesday, January 02, 2007

Stunning beauty!

We spent the first three weeks in December in South Africa. Danny's daughter Kathleen married Riaan on 17 December in a stunning location in The Free State--Caledon Gardens--which is near Clarens. It's on the border of Lesotho which is a small country inside the borders of South Africa.

The landscapes we saw varied tremendously depending on the area. The area of The Free State where Riaan's family lives is flat and is the area where goldmines are located. We spent several days there visiting his family.

Photo above is the pond at Caledon Gardens. The mountains in the background are in Lesotho. Photo at right is one of many shanty towns. This one is near Welkom in The Free State.

Danny and I enjoyed the Clarens area so much we stayed two extra days after the wedding. Prior to the wedding the four of us spent 4 days in Ramsgate, a coastal community in Kwa Zulu Natal on the Indian Ocean.

Photo is our accommodation at the beach.

After the beaches we went inland a fairly short drive to Oribi Gorge where we spent 3 nights at the hotel. We all went horseback riding. Three of us (I chickened out) did the gorge swing, and the men did the whitewater rafting.

Photo is Danny coming back up from his dive into the gorge.

After the wedding the bride and groom went off on their own. Danny and I stayed near Clarens and on one of the days we visited the nearby Golden Gate Highlands National Park which was incredible. The landscape reminded us of the Isle of Skye in Scotland and parts of the southwest USA.
Photo is in the park.

As much as we enjoyed our holiday and the wedding, we saw the problems of a struggling country. We were cautioned about car-jackings in certain areas. Many of the people we met discussed the high crime and the causes of it....crushing poverty. We were also told by South Africans that there is a lot of corruption in the government and the police. In the beach areas we visited we saw the bars on windows, the electronic gates, the razor wire/barbed wire/electric wires on fences. Loads of private armed security cars were in obvious view in every town and police were visibly absent, although traffic police were a fairly common sight. In spite of the problems we liked the country enough to plan to return for at least a visit and possibly for the World Cup in 2010. We're cautiously researching the possibility of living there. The positive side of which would be the standard of living due to such a favourable exchange rate with the pound, the climate, and a landscape that in many areas is comparable to Scotland's. Stay tuned.

More impressions:
  • Afrikaans is the first or second language in much of South Africa. Often we were spoken to by clerks/service persons in Afrikaans first. We'd have to ask them to speak English. It was noticed by us that when a black clerk would speak to us in Afrikaans that politeness would become obvious friendliness upon our making it known we only spoke English (thus meaning we were not Afrikaners). Not sure if this is an accurate impression though.
  • We found a surprisingly good place for lunches... Wimpy. Although it's a 'fast food' chain it has scrumptious food and offers table service.
  • Using the currency in SA took some getting used to. The Rand at the time we visited was approximately R13.8 per £1. When we bought a good lunch for R35 it was actually £2.50. No wonder I went crazy with shopping! Six of us went to dinner at a steak restaurant. It wasn't posh with candles and champagne, but nice enough and the food was very good. Most of us had starters and at least 2 alcoholic drinks. The total bill with the tip we included for 6 people? R700. In pounds that is £50 (or $100 US)!!
  • While in Virginia where Riaan's family lives I first saw shops which had security gates on the doors, and you had to ask for entry. And this wasn't expensive jewelry stores, it was a nail salon, a florist, shops which would just have some cash although likely not in huge amounts.
  • In many places when you parked your car 'parking guards' would ask if you wanted them to watch your car (to see it wasn't stolen or vandalized). I was informed by a local that if refused some of the guards would damage your car, but others have dismissed this. I suppose it depends on the area. A tip was expected on your return and R2 - R5 was the typical amount expected.
  • At convenience stops on the motorway where there is a petrol station, shop and restaurant there would often be children hanging about hoping for spare change. We obliged and the kids were thrilled and very grateful.
  • There is no self-service at petrol station. When one pulls into a station the attendants would compete to get you to come to their pump. They wash your windows and a tip is expected. Excellent service (very clean windows all the way round) earned extra large tips from us.
  • Our favourite area was Clarens. The town was charming, great cafes, fantastic shopping for arts and crafts, clothing, jewelry, etc. The surrounding area includes Golden Gate Highlands National Park. We felt safe there and didn't worry about the car. This is the only area where I saw police (other than traffic police) regularly. Any security on homes and businesses were not glaringly and hideously obvious like those at the beach areas. If we were to move to SA, it would be to this area.

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