Monday, October 24, 2011

Animalia, or Have you ever seen a baby elephant dance?

"The most dangerous thing in the bush is a female elephant. Male elephants like this one might mock charge you, but female elephants, when they charge, they don't play around."
- Our survival guide, Paul 

My last post was a bit of a downer, so I thought I'd lighten the mood with a happy topic: animals! I saw tons of animals this summer. I even got to play with some of them.* First, let me just clear up some potential misconceptions about where I was living: Johannesburg is a city. There weren't hippos crossing the roads or elephants wandering around. You'd have a better chance seeing wild animals in Chicago than in Jozy. That said, South Africa has enormous game reserves filled to the brim with animals. One we visited, Kruger National Park, has so many elephants they've had to cull them to keep them from destroying the environment.

Johannesburg Zoo

It might seem strange to go to a zoo in a city where, if you drive for two hours in any direction, you can see the same animals in the wild. However, with little to do on a Sunday morning and the zoo near our hostel, my classmates and I decided to give it a try. It was a pretty good trip. I don’t know whether it's due to lax safety standards or because the people have a better knowledge and respect for animals, but for some reason the enclosures were not particularly... well-enclosed. For instance, a small hedge separated us from the buffalo and we were close enough to feed the giraffes (and feed them we did). I miiiiight have touched both a monkey and a hog. Even more surprising was the fact that we were the only ones to shirk the rules. Kids and adults alike stepped back from the animals, didn’t tap on the glass or call to them, and certainly did not throw things into their habitats (rather unlike South Korea and China). 

The tiny wall that separated us from the giraffe we fed. I mean pet. I mean saw.

The lions had a good time too.

So jealous.

Lion Park

A bit of a tourist attraction, yes, but the lion park is no less awesome because of it. This is exactly as it sounds, a park filled with lions. You can play with the cubbies and pet and feed giraffes too. It's sort of like a petting zoo, except instead of goats and llamas you get to pet animals that can take down a buffalo with one swipe.

Vicious I tell you, vicious.

There were ostriches there too.


I had the opportunity to go on two safaris, one in the Pilanesberg Game Reserve and the other in Kruger National Park. My friends and I just did a drive through Pilanesberg, but we camped out in Kruger for one week. The campsites are surrounded by fences to keep out the most ferocious of the animals, but baboons and vervet monkeys find their way in. 

Night were spectacular - I saw the Milky Way and counted more stars than I'd ever seen before. Since we were in the Southern Hemisphere, I was confronted with a strange set of constellations I did not recognize. Other than the Southern Cross, which can apparently tell you the direction of due South at any time, I didn't really learn any of them.** At night, we could hear hyenas cackling from just outside the campsite.

One of the entrances to Kruger

Two male lions on the hunt

These zebras ran alongside our car for a few minutes.

The glossy starling, my favorite Southern African bird

Bathroom and shower facilities at one of the campsites we stayed at. We slept in tents.

Hyena: our guide told us that lions and hyenas are such vicious rivals that a lion will sometimes break a hyena's spine and then just leave it there to starve to death

Hyena cubs

Lady giraffes

An interestingly-colored bull giraffe


White, or wide-lipped, rhino
There are two rhino species at Kruger, the white or wide-lipped rhino, and the black or hook-lipped rhino. The black rhino is very rare and much coveted for its horn. Unfortunately, while we were there we saw a poached black rhino carcass. Rhino horns are more valuable than gold because they are thought to be good for, er, male virility in some Asian countries.


Monkeys gave us serious trouble on our campsite. Not only did they break into our car,  steal an entire loaf of bread, and attempt to eat my cards, they may have even stolen my classmate's t-shirt.


Old buffalo

When you're in game reserves like Pilanesberg and Kruger, you have to stay inside your car at all times. However, you can sign up for a bushwalk (at a ridiculously early time in the morning, like 5 or something) where you walk around with two guides carrying rifles. Mostly, we examined dung, but we also came across a few cool things.

Dead buffalo, with our two bushwalk guides

Hippos checking us out on the bushwalk; one eventually charged us and we had to run

I think he said his name was Livingstone

Probably the most exciting I saw on the entire safari - an impala carcass freshly abandoned by a leopard



Tiny little baby elephant

All right, here it is: a cute little baby elephant showing off its swing moves:

*Unfortunately, the pictures of me playing with lion cubs belong to someone else. 
** I did make a couple up though. If you're ever in the Southern Hemisphere, look for the "Spitting Cobra."
*** Also the mascot of the college I worked at:

Thursday, October 13, 2011


D, the same coworker who invited me to the poetry reading, also offered to take the interns on a guided tour through Soweto. We had all been very excited to visit the center of the apartheid resistance and gladly took her up on her offer, especially since she had grown up there.

Soweto (South Western Townships) is a township on the outskirts of Johannesburg. During apartheid, Black South Africans were forbidden from living in the city without permits, but their menial labor was vital to the day-to-day function of the city so they were kept in townships nearby.* Because the people living in the townships were poor, disease and crime were very common. Many people lived in government-built RDP houses, which are two-room structures (without bathrooms). RDP houses are still commonly found there, but many residents have added to their residences with additional structures. We had the opportunity to go inside one of them and while it was small, it did not feel so different from the inside of many American homes.

D first took us to see the Regina Mundi church, which was one of the centers of the anti-apartheid movement. Because political meetings were banned, activists used the church as a meeting place. Famed for the bullet holes sustained during the Soweto Uprising, the Reverend Jesse Jackson, the Clintons, and more recently Michelle Obama have given inspired speeches there.

The Soweto Uprising of 1976 began in response to a law declaring Afrikaans the language of instruction in all schools. Afrikaans (a Dutch-related language) was affiliated with the apartheid government, and was thus unpopular amongst the nation's Black population. D's friend from school told us what it was like after this law was passed. He said that one day he was learning chemistry in English, the next, without any Afrikaans instruction, his lesson was in Afrikaans. (Chemistry is hard enough, I thought.) Because it affected schoolchildren, the rally was organized and orchestrated by students. The plan was to march down the main street in Soweto until they arrived at Orlando Stadium. They didn't make it very far. Police soon set dogs on the children, and before long began shooting at them. Hundreds of people died.** The most famous victim was a 12-year old boy named Hector Pieterson, whose lifeless body was photographed and shown around the world.

We visited the Hector Pieterson Museum and Memorial,*** which provided a lot of interesting information about the education system in the townships and how the students were able to organize during that time. We also got a personal account from D, who had been a teenager during the Soweto Uprising, and had participated in it herself. She showed us something pretty special at the museum:

15-year old D participating in the rally.

Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu once lived on the same street in Soweto. That street is now a bit of a tourist attraction.

We ended the night with a trip to Soweto's first restaurant, Wandie's. Now also a major tourist attraction, Wandie's features the closest thing to real South African cuisine we found: samp and beans, an assortment of curries, and rice. Though a little pricey, it was delicious. The walls of the restaurant are covered in currencies from around the world so we added a dollar bill and wrote down our names and places of origin.

*For a (from what I've been told) accurate representation of an apartheid-era township, see the movie District 9, which was filmed in Soweto.
**Both White and Black.
***While I later visited the Apartheid Museum, which gives a much more in-depth perspective of apartheid, the images of this museum remain the most imprinted in my memory.