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Aug/Sep 1998 Travel

Africa by Land

by Fu'ad Rahman


I left South Africa in 1989 as a result of the former South African apartheid government's severe clampdown on foreign reporters, and I travelled throughout Africa. I returned almost four years later when apartheid was ousted by the Nelson Mandela-government.

While apartheid had still been in effect, I had worked as a foreign correspondent for several worldwide newspapers and was incarcerated and tortured because I had exposed to the world what was really going on in that country. In 1989, after being released from almost a year of solitary confinement in a Pretoria jail, I left for Namibia, formerly the German colony of South West Africa, where independence from South Africa was at hand. I worked for a newspaper in the capital, Windhoek. After almost two years I continued travelling throughout the continent by landóby bus, taxi, car, truck, train and hitch-hiking. My sojourn started in Cape Town.

Cape Town must be one of the prettiest sights in the world. When Sir Francis Drake circumnavigated the Cape of Storms as it was known then, he noted: "The fairest Cape." And indeed a beautiful place it is. Cape Town enjoys a similar climate to most parts of California and the Mediterranean. It is here that two oceans meet: the cold Atlantic and the warm Indian Oceans. At the southernmost tip of Africa, tourists can view magnificent vistas while large baboons play and snatch their lunches. The seas here aren't too violent, but neither are they complacent. The undertow is slow and gradual, yet at certain spots we have excellent surfing conditions due to the high winds trafficking along the coastal lines.

I lived on the east side of the peninsula, and so enjoyed the warm water beaches. I usually walked to the beach and swam regularly. Even when it rained, I prefered to swim nude, letting the soft rain fall on my naked body as I enjoyed the vast ocean facing me.

Although there is a nudist beach known as Sandy Bay on the west side of the Cape peninsula, most people prefer to swim nude at isolated spots along the vast untamed stretch of coastline there.

The southern coastline of Africa is unfortunately polluted due to the oil spills of hundreds of ships passing through. Also toxic wastes are being dumped into the oceans and industrial wastes run in pipes into the sea. Marine life is endangered. At times, especially on the eastern side where the less affluent people live, one sees a red tide washing all over the coastline. Most sporting events, like the annual Cape-to-Rio yacht race, take place on the west coast.

The first week of December, 1989, a friend gave me a lift to Windhoek, Namibia, which is 1,800 kilometers west of Cape Town. South West Africa was a God-forsaken land, barren and bare, yet the German had settled there anyway. They had come during the great scramble for Africa by European powers. Germany colonized what is now the western region of South Africa, but after they lost World War I, their holdings were placed under the dominion of their Dutch and English neighbors by mandate of the League of Nations. Later, this region gained independence and became Namibia.

It seldom rains in Namibia, so the presence of readily available underground water contributed to the establishment of Windhoek. The Germans who were diamond prospecting found solace in the middle of the desert, about three hours' drive from the coast, which they named Swakopmund. Walvis Bay, the coastal industrial dockyard was still under South African rule for a few more years after Namibia's independence.

The Germans names Namibia's capital Windhoek due to the incessant winds. It was here that they received protection from the tribe governing the area who were acutely interested in what the German traders had to offer.

Today tribal women adorn heavy and colourful clothing, remnants of colonial days. They have imitated their colonial masters, and the colourful, wide and long garments the women are wearing are remnants of days gone by. The Herroro women are specially noted for adorning colonial attire.

I managed to get a job at the Times of Namibia. When I received my first salary, I rented a house. I had been sleeping on the streets, starving for two-and-a-half weeks. I made several friends and Namibia was a ball.

Particularly of interest was the Skeleton Coast. This area is still under guard as diamonds and precious stones are freely lying about. All of Namibia's diamonds originate from the Big Hole in Kimberley. It's the biggest manmade hole in the world. More than 70% of the world's diamonds come from this single hole.

Diamonds found on the Skeleton Coast are rounded pebbles as they're washed down the Orange River for more than 800 kilometers.

When I drove down to the Skeleton Coast on Christmas day 1990 with Wilfred, a Namibian German friend, his aunt refused me to live on her premises for the week as my skin colour was not white, but tan-brown. I'm of Malaysian origin on my mother's side. Malaysians were brought to Cape Town as forced slaves when the Dutch colonised South Africa in the 17th century. I hitch-hiked back to Windhoek. No one gives a free lift north of South Africa. Hitch-hikers have to pay for a lift.

The Skeleton Coast makes a unique tourist destination. There is no wind and nothing can survive for long there. Footprints made centuries ago are still impeccably in place on the sand. Unlike the Sahara desert in north Africa, which is yellow, the Namib desert is blood-red. And the red sand meanders right into the ocean. The Skeleton Coast is considered the dustbin of the world. It is here that all the filth in the ocean washes ashore.

While living in Namibia, I became acquainted with the wide variety of animal life that lives there: massive red scorpions, Kudu bucks crossing over the road and causing relentless accidents, millions of fireflies smudging against your windscreen at night-time, all types of wild bird species; and further north at the Etosha Pan near Rundu, elephants, lions and other wild animals roaming freely. I was bitten by the tiniest Button spider, which had two "eyes" on its back. When I received the anti-venom injection, the medical doctor told me I would have had twenty hours to live.

Many people die from insect and reptile bites in remote areas of Africa. Lightning is also dangerous during December, and has killed countless animals and human beings. All over Namibia one would see trees blown in half by the low lightning.

I remember one afternoon I was swimming in the pool at home when two grey water scorpions swam alongside me.

When you leave your windows open at nights, millions of strange insects will make their way into your house. All over my garden there were those giant-sized antsónot walking about, but jumping around. The varieties of insects and wildlife there, which are not found anywhere else in the world, are just too numerous to mention.

I lived in Windhoek for more than a year, and moved on. I visited Namibia again last December, and found that after eight years not much has changed. It's still a colonial, racist God-forsaken desert-country. But it's an amazing place to visit.

In January of 1991 I got a lift from Windhoek to Livingstone, Zambia. David Livingstone's statue still stands near the gigantic Victoria Falls. He named the falls after Queen Victoria of England who sent him to look for the land of Monomotapa, where according to legend King Solomon procured his gold. Livingstone found a gold-rich region near the Matopo Hills, in what became known as Rhodesia (after Cecil John Rhodes), but is now Zambia and Zimbabwe.

On the Namibian side of town I was booked in at the Guinea Fowl, a makeshift motel on the banks of the Zambezi river.

Here I noticed the borders of Angola, Zimbabwe, Botswana, Namibia and South Africa. It was a wonderful sight.

That afternoon I sat with my feet in the river, noticing zillions of tiny fish swimming upstream against the pull of the falls. I noticed some logs drifting nearer towards me. Suddenly a Swahili girl pulled me out of the water. She had apparently saved my life. The "logs" were crocodiles in disguise!

Later I booked in at the Northwestern hotel in Zambia. One afternoon I was relaxing under a tree which branches were hanging onto the grass. I was drinking a coke when I suddenly noticed a colossal spider web. It flashed through my mind if the web was so large how massive would the spider be? I slowly looked up and saw a blood-red spider as large as my face. I flew out of there, my feet not touching the ground.

I had all kinds of vaccinations: for cholera, malaria and yellow fever. This is a necessity as people die from these diseases.

After two weeks I took a bus to Lusaka, capital of Zimbabwe, where I stayed for free at the Salvation Army church for a few days. I boarded a 3 500km train ride through the jungles of Tanzania towards the harbour town of Dar-es-salaam, an Arab name meaning harbour of peace. This train ride is a must for tourists. It's cheap, about $30 for the entire trip. Lions, giraffes, elephants, hawks, eagles—all kinds of wild are roaming about in the jungles of huge shrubs and trees amid beautiful green-green grass. Everything was dark green. Dar-es-Salaam is still dominated by Arab-Muslim culture, and people are not only friendly, they are helpful, and offer free food and lodging. I made my way to the border of Kenya. I got a job at The Kenyan Times and lived at Iqbal Hotel in Nairobi.

In Kenya, herds of giraffes roamed about freely, side-by-side with tall, red-clad tribesmen sporting large holes in their earlobes.

The day before I decided to fly back to Cape Town, I was offered a teaching post on Lake Kusimu, on the great Victoria lake bordering Uganda and Sudan.

But it was my intention to press ahead.

 

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