Travelling in South Africa
An Interview with Ingrid Marson
Hi Ingrid! Tell us about your new book, The Rules of Backpacking. What's it about?
It is a guide to the culture and reality of backpacking. It covers some of the topics that guidebooks miss out, such as the pros and cons of travelling alone, whether to go on a tour and how much to plan before you arrive.
Now, we're mostly here to ask you about South Africa. When did you visit the country and how long for?
I visited South Africa in 2002 for about three months. I went back in 2003 for a couple of weeks.
What parts of South Africa did you visit?
I briefly visited Johannesburg, and apart from that spent the majority of my time in Cape Town and the Western Cape Province. I travelled up the west coast of the cape as far as Saldanha, and travelled to the east as far as Knysna. I also visited the winelands, mountains and parts of the Klein Karoo, such as Oudtshoorn.
Tell us some of the highlights of your trip...
The most unforgettable experience for me was whale-watching in Hermanus. I was in Hermanus at the time of the whale festival and was amazed to see around 30 southern right whales swimming around the main bay. One whale swum less than 10 metres away from the shoreline, with his eye above the water and observed the crowd that had gathered. Other whales breached the water, or flashed their tail. It was amazing.
Seeing baboons in the wild was also amazing. One car park in a mountain pass was full of them, including a cheeky one that climbed into someone's car and ate their sandwiches.
Another highlight was visiting the winelands around Stellenbosch and Franschoek. A South African friend drove me around and I was amazed at the scenery - stunning mountains, with Cape Dutch buildings nestled in the valleys.
Other highlights included a township tour and shopping, but more about that later.
Tell us a bit more about the whale watching - where should people go to do this? How should they organise a trip?
South Africa is one of the few places where you can frequently spot whales from the shoreline. This means you don't need to go on a boat tour, which makes it much cheaper.
When it's the whale season (July to December, although it peaks in September), you can spot whales in various bays around Cape Town as the whales mate and calve in sheltered areas of water. If you're relying on public transport or backpacker buses, it might be worth spending a couple of nights in Hermanus as this is one of the bays where they are commonly spotted.
If you have transport, it's worth driving slowly along the coast road from Cape Town to Hermanus as it's surprising how many whales you can spot from the side of the road. Keep your eyes peeled for the dark back of the whale gliding over the surface of the water. It can be difficult to tell whether it's a whale or rock initially, but if you keep watching then you'll be able to see if it's moving or if it sprays water out of its spout.
Often other cars will have stopped at a place where there's a whale visible, so if you see a car haphazardly parked on the side of the road and its occupants peering at the ocean, it's worth stopping to see what they're looking at.
You worked as a waitress in Cape Town - what was this experience like? Must have been a good way of meeting people?
It was an interesting experience, but badly paid. I was living with a boyfriend so he helped me out with money, but if this hadn't been the case it would have been hard to survive on the money. Despite working in a cafe in a well-off area, I was paid the equivalent of 25p an hour, although I could earn a little extra in tips. When I went shopping in the local supermarket, two hours' work only paid for a loaf of bread.
I enjoyed chatting to the customers although there wasn't much time to get to know them properly. When the cafe was quiet it could get lonely as the two kitchen staff only spoke Afrikaans and Xhosa - their native African language. It was a shame as I would have loved to get to know them. I felt sorry for them as they had children, but had to work 10-hour shifts in the cafe to survive and then travelled an hour back to the township where they lived.
If backpackers want to work in SA, how should they go about finding a job? What are the rules, as far as visas etc are concerned?
It's very hard to get a legal job in South Africa. They don't have a Working Holiday Visa scheme like they do in Australia, so the only options are to do work illegally or to apply for a visa.
Trying to get a South African work visa is very difficult as there is a high unemployment rate, so the government makes it hard for companies to take on non-locals. You can't apply for a work visa until you have a job offer, but companies often won't consider your application unless you have a work visa, which makes it hard to find a job.
Finding ad-hoc work can be difficult as there are a lot of poor people in the country, who are desperately looking for work and willing to work for little money. The best bet is to try shopping centres in wealthy suburbs outside the town centre, as there are likely to be less people looking for work there.
[Editor's note: gapyear.com doesn't recommend working illegally. African prisons are not very nice places.]
You name shopping in Cape Town as one of the highlights of your trip. Where are the best places to shop in the city? What cool stuff can you buy there?
There are quite a few shopping centres in the centre of Cape Town and in the suburbs close by, such as Tableview (Bloubergstrand) - the place where you also get the best view of Table Mountain. The shopping centre in the Cape Town harbour - the Victoria and Alfred Waterfront - is lovely to wander around, but tends to be quite expensive with a lot of designer shops.
One of my favourite clothes shops in South Africa was Woolworths - South Africa's equivalent of Marks and Spencer. It does good quality clothes, but is much cheaper than MandS due to the favourable exchange rate.
To get groceries, go to Checkers, Pick and Pay or Spar - the main South African supermarket chains. As for souvenirs, I recommend avoiding the glossy souvenir shops in the centre of Cape Town and instead buying souvenirs from a fair-trade craft shop, such as the ones they have in townships. The souvenirs you can buy are the ones you find across Africa and aren't necessarily made in South Africa - wooden and stone carvings, woven goods etc.
You did a township tour - what was this like? Some say it feels exploitative and uncomfortable, other say it gives you a glimpse of 'the real South Africa'. What do you reckon?
It depends what tour you do, but the one I went on - Thuthuka Tours - was a positive experience. It was run by a woman who had grown up in one of the townships and her parents still lived there. She was therefore very aware of what it was like to live there and was in no way looking down on anyone.
On the brief township tour I saw a tantalising glimpse of township life: the hostels where three families were sharing one small room; the dusty, narrow streets where children were playing with a half-deflated football; the dimly-lit witch-doctor's 'pharmacy' where dried plant and animal parts were hanging from the ceilings and scattered on sheets on the floor; the shebeen (an unlicensed tavern) where an elderly woman served drinks in her living room.
I think it's good for people to visit a township as they can see how the majority of people in South Africa actually live. It's shocking seeing the millions of people that live in a tiny corrugated iron shacks and are unlikely to know where there next meal is coming from, but it's also inspirational to see the people who are trying to make things better and help others.
Did you get to meet many local people? What were you overall impressions of South African people and culture?
As I was living with a South African boyfriend throughout my time in the country, I probably met more local people than you would backpacking. But, as he had grown up in the Apartheid years, he had few black friends in the area.
I made some great South African friends while living in Cape Town and loved the outdoors lifestyle. Almost every weekend friends of ours would have a braai (barbecue), which would involve big slabs of meat and free-flowing alcohol.
One thing which shocked me was the casual attitude to drink-driving. I am used to the UK where my generation tends to have a responsible attitude. In South Africa people tend to drive home from nights out, even if they've had too much to drink. This is partly a cultural thing, but partly because public transport stops running early in the evening and taxis don't go to the suburbs.
Tell us a bit about South Africa's history, and the system of apartheid.
People inhabited present-day South Africa for thousands of years. In the mid 1600's the Dutch East India Company established the Cape Colony and over the next decades French Huguenot refugees, Dutch and Germans settled in the Cape, which led to various wars between the Dutch and the native Xhosa people.
The British annexed the Cape Colony in the 1800s, which led the Dutch settlers to leave the colony and move inland to the states that are now called Natal and Free State. In the early 1900's South Africa was run as a self-governing dominion of the British Empire. When it became a parliamentary state in the early 1900s only whites were allowed to vote. Around the end of the second world war, Apartheid - the complete segregation of whites and blacks - became the official policy of the state.
The policy developed over the next few years, and in the early sixties ANC-leader Nelson Mandela and many other anti-apartheid leaders were convicted and imprisoned on charges of treason. The ANC was forced underground and fought Apartheid through guerrilla warfare and sabotage. In the nineties South African president Frederik Willem de Klerk announced the unbanning of the ANC and other anti-apartheid groups, and Mandela was released from prison. In 1994 it held its first elections that allowed all races to vote.
Apartheid only ended around a decade ago. What is the relationship between black and white South Africans like now? As a visitor to South Africa, does it strike you as an integrated country, or is it still quite divided?
I believe the country is still a number of years away from becoming fully integrated. Although I saw black and white school children hanging out together, the older generation tend to keep their distance from each other. Poverty is a big barrier - the townships are almost exclusively inhabited by black people. Crime rate is also a barrier - when Apartheid ended the high rate of violent crime in townships started spreading into the white suburbs, which has lead many white South Africans to fear the townships and those who live there.
Parts of South Africa are notorious for their high crime rates. Were there parts which felt unsafe to you?
Johannesburg felt less safe than Cape Town. Although nothing happened to me, the fact that many people choose to live in high-security complexes patrolled by armed guards was frightening. Even the shops were patrolled by a fierce-looking guard carrying an AK47.
Cape Town felt safer, but you still hear tales of mugging, carjacking, rape and armed burglary. In general, the touristy parts and business district of Cape Town are OK, but avoid the poorer areas.
Do you have any tips to help travellers stay safe in SA?
I would advise spending a bit more money to get accommodation in a safe area. If possible travel long journeys by car, backpacker bus or luxury trains, rather than opting for the cheapest local transport. Shared taxis around Cape Town are OK in the day, but avoid them at night when there are many unlicensed ones around.
If you are driving, keep all the doors locked, particularly when passing through rough areas. I was advised to drive through red lights when on a deserted road at night to avoid being carjacked.
Did you travel alone at all during your trip to SA? Do you think it's an OK place for lasses to travel on their own?
I didn't spend much time travelling on my own, but when I did it was generally OK. The main thing to be aware of is that merely through being white and walking around on your own you will stand out, as many white South African females don't walk around on their own (they tend to drive everywhere). I had a few nasty experiences walking around on my own, although I was never physically attacked.
On one occasion, when I was wandering around Tableview, a nice middle-class suburb in Cape Town, I was shocked to hear a man say to me, "I want to rape you." Although it was daylight and the area was busy, I found this so frightening that afterwards I avoided walking around the area on my own. This wasn't the only time I attracted comments like this, so I'd advise women to be cautious when travelling on their own and to hook up with other backpackers when possible.
What essential items should female travellers take to South Africa? E.g. what clothes should they take? How about toiletries and sanitary protection - can you buy them out there or should you take them with you? Any other essential bits of kit?
You can buy pretty much anything you need in South Africa, so take the minimum. The main issue can be with branded goods, such as toiletries, which can be very expensive if they aren't made locally. Books also tend to be expensive, so buy any essential books before you leave home.
Got any tips to help female travellers get on well with local people? Is the culture there quite similar to the west, or are women expected to dress and act 'modestly' etc?
The culture in South Africa is very similar to the West, although I found it a little chauvinistic. My female South African friends seemed more conscious of acting 'feminine' than my friends in the UK, and some male friends didn't appreciate women disagreeing with them. On the flip side, I found the men a lot more chivalrous - opening car doors, carrying the shopping etc.
Finally, what is your number one favourite memory from your trip to South Africa?
Having a braai with friends. I remember a number of evenings where we sat there in the glorious afternoon sunshine, eating tender pieces of meat, drinking fine South African wine and putting the world to rights.
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