Bursting the South African Stereotype

Those who have never been to any part of Africa, probably have some fairly stereotypical ideas of what it’s like. I know I did.

Baboon, surveying his domain. Kruger National Park, South Africa

Shaped by media, I foolishly expected that the entire continent was a vast savanna sprinkled with exotic wildlife. Where there was civilization, it was in the form of decrepit villages. All roads were dirt roads and communication was done by hand-cranked radios. Food and water were all but nonexistent.

Not only were every one of these ideas ignorant, they were also dead wrong. Every single one of them.

The African continent is vast. Few appreciate just how large it is. To pull a statistic from Peter Diamandis’ book, Abundance, you can fit the entirety of 18 countries inside of Africa with room to spare. These include the whole United States, China, India, Mexico, nearly all of western Europe, Japan, New Zealand, Nepal, Bangladesh, Vatican City… and still have room left over for a couple of small islands or a large city.

Part of the importance of that is, when you look at Africa and African countries on a map or globe, it’s hard to appreciate just how large they are. South Africa looks medium-sized; perhaps about the same size as Germany. In reality, Germany is smaller than Montana while South Africa is bigger than California and Texas combined.

All that is to say that I have only seen a tiny sliver of the African continent and it already has changed all my perceptions regarding what it is like.

Both Cape Town and Johannesburg are large, cosmopolitan cities. In between are many lovely towns.

Yes I did see absolute squalor; shanty “towns” made from slapped together sheet metal and bed sheets. These were not the rule but they did exist. I saw maybe a dozen of them, all essentially little subdivisions of shanty homes tucked right in between real subdivisions of homes that would not be out of place in any city in America. I also saw mansions. So the range between the richest and poorest strata was much wider than in other countries I’ve been to but the vast majority were still decidedly middle-class.

Roads in South Africa are paved and generally of very good quality. The national highway system is better than in the US. Much better. It was my 5th day of driving (and way out in a very rural area) when I saw my first pothole.

One thing South Africa lacks is a gas station on every corner and at every highway exit. When afforded the opportunity to fill up, do so.

As for the topography, the only place I saw the kind of savanna I was expecting was inside Kruger National Park. (Which, by the way, is bigger than the entire state of New Jersey.) Elsewhere I saw mountains, beaches, farmlands, grasslands, rolling hills… a wide range of topographies.

Bourke’s Luck Potholes, South Africa

Evergreen forest near Sabie, South Africa

River and Meadow, South Africa

Sponge on the beach. Near Gansbaai, South Africa.

Everyone says that Africa has a way of changing a person. It certainly changed me. And I can’t wait to go back and shed even more of my ignorance.

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