The Milestones Tour Diary

5 February

After a long 10 hour changeover in Frankfurt, but a much longer year of preparations, we’re happy to be flying over African skies. Somewhere over Zimbabwe we drop below the clouds and we begin to discern the shapes of cities below us. The sheer size of Johannesburg draws a gasp from the tour party as we drop down onto the 30+ tarmac.

The first impression of South Africa is its friendliness – ‘Sawubona!’ we are welcomed into the airport building, where everyone seems to be going about business as usual while we buzz with excitement through passport control. Currencies are exchanged and we are set to go. Even though we’ve just come from sub-zero temperatures, we are glad to slip back into the air-conditioned tour bus, variously (and inexplicably) dubbed ‘Bruce’ and ‘Die Ossewa’.

First things first: we stop off for some biltong and meat for the first braai (barbecue) of many to follow. At the Union Buildings, seat of the South African government, we take in a panoramic view of the capital, Pretoria.

Accommodation is provided by lecturer Karen Kuhn’s father, whose B&B is far beyond our limited budget – a swimming pool allows us to prepare European skins for the inevitable sunburn. In the evening we welcome an unexpected visitor: former colleague Fanie Olivier travelled a solid 700km to see us!


6 February

A decent night’s sleep makes up for the long flight, and a big South African breakfast prepares us for the busy day ahead.

Professor Willie Burger welcomes us at the University of Pretoria, where we visit the campus and meet staff and students of the department. 

Then it’s off to the Voortrekker Monument on the hills overlooking Pretoria. In 1938, the 100-year centenary of the Great Trek, an important symbolic event in the history of the Afrikaner, this monument was completed and hosted a massive gathering of hundreds of thousands of Afrikaners celebrating their nationhood. Seasoned travellers will spot the resemblance to Leipzig’s Völkerschlacht- denkmal. Interestingly, the monument was germanised after complaints that it drew to strongly on Egyptian influences – architect Gerhard Moerdijk was especially inspired by the Karnak Temple Complex in Thebes, and also by the famous ruins of Great Zimbabwe. While some see the Voortrekker Monument as symbol of conservativism, it is therefore actually a testament to the multiculturalism inherent to this part of the world.


7 February

Opposite the Voortrekker Monument stands Freedom Park, where those who died in the many struggles for freedom in South Africa are commemorated. A 651-meter long wall carries the names of individuals from various backgrounds who died deaths that were political in one way or another. From early casualties in the Dutch-Khoi war to internationally known names like Steve Biko are remembered here. A special cleansing site allows visitors to complete their individual rituals of respect and absolution.

Just before lunch we drive the 50 or so kilometers to Johannesburg, where a full day awaits us. First up is the Mai Mai Muti Market, which is without comparison in Europe. Muti is traditional medicine, usually derived from parts of animals or plants prepared by a sangoma (traditional healer). After our usual snapshots, we are informed that one is not allowed to take pictures here. Unless, of course, one is prepared to pay a small fee. (Which we do.)

Although Mai Mai is marketed as a tourist destination, it’s not unlikely that the reputation of Johannesburg’s city centre scares off many visitors. We are greeted heartily: ‘ama-Tourists!’ and ‘Thula, mlungu’ (relax, white man) are some of the calls announcing our arrival.

After Mai Mai we make our way to the famous Soweto (South Western Townships) and specifically Vilakazi Street, the only street in the world to house two Nobel prize winners: Archbishop Desmond Tutu and Nelson Mandela. The modest Mandela House leaves an indelible impression on the visitor – one walks over the footsteps of South Africa’s liberation leaders, touches the bullet holes left by night-time police attacks.

A few metres down the road we enjoy a traditional African meal at Sakhumzi restaurant, before leaving for the Market Theatre in the CBD. Mies Julie is an internationally acclaimed production touching on many of the issues which dominate the South African socio-economic and cultural landscape (e.g. land ownership, collective guilt, interracial relationships). After the ovation, a tired group of travellers proceed to their respective host parents.


8 February

70 km south of Johannesburg lies the Vanderbijlpark campus of Northwest University. Recently, a memorandum of understanding was signed between our universities, allowing our students to do part of their MA’s here, and vice versa. It is not often that one finds a national park on a campus, but here students pass between springbok and wildebees on their way to class.

For a few hours, we discuss possibilities for co-operation between our universities, after which we are treated to a traditional lunch of bobotie on the banks of the Vaal river.

On the way back to Johannesburg, we stop by the Apartheid Museum, where the full picture of this oppressive system is brought home and leaves us in a less than festive mood. However, another braai with professors and students from the University of Johannesburg waits, and while lecturer Tertius Kapp looks after the culinary side of things, we watch the sun set on the Johannesburg skyline.


9 February

After a quick meeting with upcoming young artist Fuzzy Slipperz (and promises to attend his next Berlin exhibition), we make our way to Bloemfontein. A four-hour drive through typical Highveld thunderstorms as the gold reefs gradually make way for agriculture and the relaxed tempo of rural South Africa. In the city itself we check in to Naval Hill Backpackers (voted #1 in the country) before the customary braai, this time with students of the University of the Free State.


10 February

In the morning we are off again, driving more or less directly south towards the east coast. The Eastern Cape is historically and linguistically significant, both as the meeting point of European settlers and Nguni peoples, and the destination of groups of British and German immigrants during the 19th century, still evident in names such as Somerset East, East London, Berlin, Hamburg and Frankfurt. We overnight on the farm of former colleague Karien Brits’s brother, where we are treated to the real rural lifestyle of the eastern Karoo. The brave take an early morning hike to watch the sun rise over a breath-taking landscape.


11 February

Deciding to stick to gravel roads, we experience a few tense moments when our GPS (fondly named ‘Mpho’, from the Sesotho word for ‘gift’) has to admit that she no longer knows where we are. Between instinct, memory and a hand-out map we navigate to and fro over unknown farmlands. Eventually the smooth tar of the N6 welcomes us again and we make good time to East London, where staff and students at the University of Fort Hare await us. They are stunned by the Poles’ competency in Afrikaans, and multi-cultural, multi-lingual afternoon turns into a very special meeting for all.

The demanding tour schedule calls us on, and after a brief swim in the warm Indian Ocean, we press on to Grahamstown. Tired and hungry travellers fall onto their beds while a take-away pizza expedition turns into a bizarre encounter with a herd of cows walking down Main Street!


12 February

We spend the morning in Grahamstown, in an area that is still known as 'frontier country', an atmosphere which can, to some extent, still be felt. 

The town itself was founded in 1812 as a military outpost of the expanding British Colony, and the British Settlers Monument reminds one of the hardships endured by these settlers, who were mostly lured to the colony under false pretenses, and in fact served as ‘buffer population’ in the mind of colonial authorities, boost the British presence on the eastern border. It was also the site of a famous battle between the Xhosa under the leadership of Makhanda Nxele, and the British forces, who narrowly won thanks to artillery reinforcements.

Not far off is the Addo Elephant National Park, where we get up close to some of these grey giants. They seem to be suffering the heat more than we do, and we are privileged to watch a massive elephant bath party no more than thirty meters from the tour bus. The evening’s entertainment consists of a spectacular display of southern hemisphere stars, far from the light pollution of the city.

13 February

Once again we are off – we interrupt our 300km trip to Nature’s Valley with a visit to the grave of Saartje Baartman. This Khoi woman (willingly) took part in a freak show in Britain in the 19th century. However, in France she was traded between different exhibitors and ended up exploited for sex shows and by scientists who were fascinated by her unique anatomy. In 1815 she died a lonely death as a prostitute in Paris. Almost 200 years later (2007), her body was brought back to South Africa and reburied above the small town of Hankey, where she spent her youth. Saartje still serves as a figurehead of the exploitative relationship between Europe and Africa, and has been the subject of much writing (also by our own professor Koch) as well as a recent film (Venus Noire).

In Nature’s Valley we are once again treated to breath-taking natural panoramas, a few hours on the beach, and in the evening, phosphorus lights up the ocean waves a luminescent green, a special occurrence which can hardly be transmitted in words.

14 February

After meeting with pupils of Plettenberg Bay Secondary School, we make our way up the Keurbooms River to spend the night in the indigenous Tsitsikamma forest. Initial confidence evaporates as we realise that rowing up the river is much harder work than we imagined. Each bend of the river takes the highway and rush of human activity further away, until only the conversations of monkeys and birds over the river that remain. The famous Knysna Loerie’s barking call has us looking for the flash 
of red as it spreads its wings. With only one canoe capsizing, we call the day a success, and settle in around a campfire.

15 February

An easier trip down the river had us on the road by late morning, and heading further east we passed through the picturesque town of Knysna, famous for the unlikely mix of beer, oysters, the coelacanth (a prehistoric fish), indigenous furniture and a Rastafarian community. We met up with a second-generation Polish immigrant, Natasza Millar, at Mitchell’s, one of the few local breweries in South Africa. After tasting a few fresh-picked oysters, we head inland, towards Oudtshoorn. On the other side of the mountain range everything changes once again – from the indigenous forests of Tsitsikamma to the semi-desert of the Klein Karoo. 

This is an especially interesting part of South Africa, famous as the home of many authors (such as CJ Langenhoven or Pauline Smith), and these days the centre of one of the biggest arts festivals in the country, the KKNK (Klein Karoo Nasionale Kunstefees).


16 February

Some other famous inhabitants of Oudtshoorn include the ostriches and crocodiles whicare farmed in the area. Oudtshoorn’s architecture has been strongly influenced by the popularity of ostrich feathers during the 19th and early 20th centuries. The so-called ‘volstruispaleise’ (ostrich palaces) were built during a time of great prosperity in the region – followed by large-scale bankruptcy as they went out of fashion again. After our introduction to these strange birds, student Joanna was even brave enough to ride one!

A must-see in Oudtshoorn is the Cango Caves, a natural cave formation extending several kilometres into the earth. Initially, these caves served as home for the Khoi and San peoples living in the area throughout the Middle and Later Stone Ages, but when farmer Jacobus van Zyl stumbled upon them in 1780, they were abandoned.

From the caves we headed up another mountain range, gingerly creeping over the spectacular but precarious Swartberg pass. On the other side Prince Albert is another gem of the Karoo, now well known as a retreat for city-dwellers. Artist Hennie Boshoff traded Paris for this rustic town, where his garden testifies to an imagination that has travelled further than simple geography.


17 February

From Prince Albert we make our way to Cape Town, with a lunch stopover in Matjiesfontein. This town consists of little more than a hotel, a train station and two streets, only one of which is tarred. But the British flag rippling on the town edge suggests a rich history: this town has been declared a national heritage site, and enters the historical record at various interesting points: it was the site of the first cricket match in South Africa, played an important part during the Anglo-Boer War, and paid host to various famous visitors throughout its history – the most famous among them probably author Olive Schreiner, who did much of her most imporant writing here.

From Matjiesfontein we follow the straight, broad N1 as the semi-desert of the Karoo becomes the mediterranean climate of Cape Town. Vineyards and orange groves appear, and the mountains grow steep before we pause on the Du Toitskloof Pass for our first glimpse of the universally recognisable Table Mountain.

Cape Town is best understood as a harbour city, a meeting point of international trade routes and cultural influences. It therefore makes sense to pay our first visit to the V&A Waterfront, to many the entry point to one of South Africa and the world’s most spectacular cities.


18 February

To some, the Cape Flats are a shadowy reminder of the forced removals that split Cape Town along racial lines. Today, these communities still experience many social problems such as poverty, gang violence and drug abuse. The Stigting vir Bemagtiging deur Afrikaans (Foundation for Empowerment through Afrikaans) is a social upliftment NGO which aims to teach skills and empower people through the Afrikaans language. Our sponsor, Media24, is one of the chief supporters of the SBA. As on the Multiversity Tour of 2011, our meeting with the teachers, students, and this time also the CEO, is nothing less than overwhelming. The women learning business skills and care techniques at this institution, and the families they maintain, are the real agents of change on the Cape Flats.

After such an encounter, Cape Point, the tip of the peninsula, seems somewhat less impressive.

Our visit to the University of Cape Town coincides with a rugby match, and ironically, after a round trip of 100 km, we look back to where we started this day – the Flats.

19 February

An elucidating explanations of how South African society works is presented by mr. Dave Steward of the FW de Klerk Foundation. A former ambassador of South Africa to the UN, mr. Steward’s take on the country explains many of the questions even South Africans have not formulated to themselves, and sketches a future development plan which contradicts pessimists and optimists alike. He also explains the work of the foundation set up by former president De Klerk in safeguarding the progressive constitution on which the New South Africa is built.

On the way to the university town of Stellenbosch, we stop by the Afrikaans Language Monument, which towers over the town of Paarl. After a brief (and wet) visit, we move on to the Spier wine farm, where we taste some of the wines for which this region is renowned across the globe. A campus tour of the university (which happens to be the alma mater of three of our South African colleagues) leaves students somewhat jealous.


20 February

The schedule has taken its toll. To avoid total meltdown, we take a day off, during which everyone experiences Cape Town as they choose – a list which includes the Iziko Museums, the Bo-Kaap neighbourhood (which in a sense can be considered one of the homes of the Afrikaans language as it was born in the mouths of Muslim workers), Clifton Beach, Greenmarket Square, and Long Street. In the evening we braai one last time at lecturer Tertius Kapp’s family home.


21 February

For all practical purposes, the last day of our journey, and a full one at that. We start the day off in Gugulethu, at the famous Mzoli’s butchery. However, very little is happening at Mzoli’s, so we head back to Cape Town and the Nelson Mandela Gateway for a trip to Robben Island. From the 17th century onwards, this island had served consecutively as place of banishment, leper colony, and political prison. Our guide Zim was himself a prisoner here during the 1980s, and can tell us first-hand about the hardships Mandela and his comrades endured during the decades they were kept here – in sight of the mainland, yet far out of reach.

We return to the harbour in time to catch the last cable car to the top of Table Mountain, presenting a view that is etched into memory forever. On one side the sun sets over the Atlantic Ocean, on another the peninsula stretches out into a milky fog, and on yet another the city lights of Cape Town stretch towards the horizon. We say our own goodbyes to South Africa, a country that is overwhelming in its beauty, and captivating in its complexity.


22 February

After several hours on airports and airplanes we are finally in the air, heading for Frankfurt and eventually Poznań. The outcomes of this journey for each of us are not yet identifiable. But they are certain to become clear over the coming months and years.


This trip was made possible by generous sponsorship of Pepco, Media24, the Faculty of English, Adam Mickiewicz University, Solidariteit, and Honorary Consul Czesław Fiedler, all of whom we would like to acknowledge here. Thank you to all who support us!
Uniwersytet im. Adama Mickiewicza w Poznaniu

Wydział Anglistyki

Niderlandy RPA w UAM

Dutch & South African Studies Poznań

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