South Africa’s crime rates and xenophobia tend to ring loud to an outsider’s ears, but the two times I have visited this beautiful country, I have left unscathed and with only beautiful memories.
I was in South Africa last month for the famous Indaba, Africa’s largest travel trade show. From visiting revered nationalist Nelson Mandela’s house in Soweto to taking a tour around Johannesburg and the lifetime experience of an abseiling and canopy tour in Limpopo province bordering Botswana, South Africa once again left me in awe.
The Indaba show attracts people from across the globe. I went with two other journalists from Uganda and after landing at Oliver Tambo international airport, we were welcomed by Fathimah Adam, the manager Marketing and Communications, South Africa Tourism. We spent our night at Southern Sun hotel near the airport.
The following morning, we started our tour with Limpopo province, visiting the interesting Balobedu of Modjadji kingdom. We had an abseiling and canopy tour, which almost all the journalists in attendance could not stop raving about afterwards.
Abseiling involves using ropes to descend mountain surfaces or rocks, backwards. It is an exciting adventure sport popular with thrill seekers. I decided to try it out and the best trick is to avoid looking down as you make your descent.
Since it was my first time to abseil, I was very nervous standing at the top of the rock at about 30m, although with all the ropes and harnesses, I managed to control my movements and descend steadily onto the floating platform at Magaliesberg Adventure. It is an unforgettable experience, but definitely only for the brave, considering that one is abseiling from a rock top with a waterfall beneath.
No wonder when my nine-year-old daughter Princess Nimrah saw my WhatsApp video of my abseiling achievement, she wept and told my sister Madinah how unfair I was being, abseiling over waterfalls; “What if she’d died?!”
Elvis Ntale of Radio One, who was also on this trip refused to abseil after googling it and finding it rather challenging.
“I can’t risk my life with abseiling; it’s so scary at least I have done canopy,” he said. Well, he will never know now.
After landing, we sailed a few meters on Letaba River and later climbed to the other side of the mountain using a very tall ladder to return to the top, where we had left our belongings before abseiling.
Then came Canopy
It was a day of many firsts for me, for as I was catching my breath from the abseiling, I was introduced to Canopy tour or zip lining. On arrival at Magaliesberg canopy tour, we were given a thorough safety briefing by the guides, before being fitted with safety helmets and into harnesses. We toured 10 zip lines running over trees, stopping on wooden platforms to change to the next one.
I flew over the beautiful, green forest, but it was mind-blowing in a scary way too, seeing as we were hanging and zooming above roaring waterfalls. If you are scared of heights, this is a fun way to conquer your phobia. The guides are incredibly helpful and safety conscious.
The tour lasted two hours for the group of 10, moving between platforms built high within the upper level of natural forests and between ancient mountain cliffs.
Now I know why people travel thousands of miles and pay their distance’s equivalent in dollars, just to experience some of these things. Fellow journalist Edgar Batte’s heart could not stomach the canopy tour after being intimidated by the waterfalls below the zip lines we were swinging from.
I had to travel to South Africa first and learn from a Ugandan based there, Rashidah Kagimu, that canopy tours and abseiling actually exist in Uganda; abseiling happens at Sipi falls in Kapchorwa , while canopy tours are available in Mabira forest.
If you go to South Africa and don’t visit former president and freedom fighter Nelson Mandela’s house in Soweto, you will have missed a great opportunity to get insight into the man himself. It is a big center of attraction, preservation, research and heritage for the Mandela family and people of South Africa.
The tiny house is very popular to tourists and hundreds flock to the place daily to recall Madiba’s life during the oppressive years of apartheid. The former South African president, who was incarcerated for 27 years on Robben Island, referred to his house as “the centre point of my world”.
Mandela’s house 8115, Orlando West, Vilakazi street in Soweto is located in the Johannesburg township that once was the hub of the anti-apartheid struggle. The South African government is trying to rebuild the ‘matchbox houses’ that characterise the township, to improve standards of living.
Sphelo, the guide at Mandela’s house says in 1946 Mandela, his first wife Evelyn Ntoko Mase and their four children moved into this house from Eastern Cape where Mandela was born.
The house is mainly a museum today and features quotes from Mandela and his children. From the mid-1990s ownership of the house was transferred to Soweto Heritage Trust, who were entrusted with preserving the house and its history, as a national asset and it was renamed the Mandela Family Museum.
Sphelo says Mandela was the first in his family to go to school and his teacher gave him the name Nelson because those days they were given English names; his original name was Rolihlahla.
South Africa is the continent’s most developed country, but their cultural side is just as fascinating. As we entered the palace at Balobedu of Modjadji kingdom, we were all ordered to remove our shoes according to cultural norms as the royal dancers welcomed us with songs.
We were taken on a tour of the Thokola ya Masopha shrine in Polokwane, Limpopo province. The cultural tour guide took us through the palace for about two hours, sharing with us the origin of this kingdom and some of the rituals they do annually such as praying for rain since their province is always dry.
In Durban we visited uShaka Marine World, a 16-hectare theme park. It comprises five sections that include uShaka Sea World, uShaka Wet and Wild, uShaka Beach, uShaka Village Walk and, uShaka Kids World.
This tour includes an unforgettable dolphin show, audio-visual presentation at Natal Sharks Board and a visit to uShaka Marine World - the largest marine aquarium on the African continent and the fifth largest in the world.
The unique design of marine aquarium offers the visitor an underwater exploration as one traverses through lower tunnels. For a Ugandan whose country is landlocked and thus does not boast the salt-water creatures countries such as South Africa have in abundance, it was a memorable experience.
Minister of Tourism Prof Ephraim Kamuntu, who was also in South Africa for Indaba, must have been taking notes the entire time. He said government ought to invest more in tourism as other countries including South Africa do.
Stephen Asiimwe, the Uganda Tourism Board chief executive officer said their marketing and publicity are going to improve and that since South African president Jacob Zuma recently praised Uganda’s beauty, tourists booking to see that beauty have increased.