Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Johannesburg - Rich History and Culture

 After an overdose of Europe we decided to explore Africa, hence we planned a 9 day trip to South Africa which is the 25th largest country in the world. Our first stop was Johannesburg, where we stayed for 3 days. All of the people we knew had discouraged us to stay in Johannesburg; however, I really came to like the city a lot. It has a rich culture, heritage albeit a painful history.

After the 6 hours flight we reached our hotel early in the morning.  We checked into the hotel, had a quick breakfast and went to visit the Constitutional Hill which holds the chilling and dark stories of the struggle that an African man had to face especially in prison. We heard many stories of the revolutionaries who boycotted the racial policies and unjust civil rights to attain equality for the coloured races. It was gruesome just to see the harsh conditions that the prisoners had to face on a daily basis. I can’t begin to fathom how the society didn't act against the barbarians who treated their fellow men with such cruelty. We also saw the jail where Nelson Mandela and Gandhiji were kept. It was an honour to see that the South African government in collaboration with the Indian Government has dedicated an entire room for Gandhiji’s clothing’s, speeches and his beliefs. It makes you believe that one man’s belief can help to change and inspire an entire society.

Constitutional Hill consists of a fort, women’s jail, awaiting trial block and the prison ward infamously known as Number 4 & 5. For decades, thousands of prisoners were brutally punished, beaten, abused and made to do the most humiliating Tauza dance. They were kept in dirty and overcrowded conditions stripping the prisoners of their dignity psychologically and physically. Gandhiji was imprisoned in 1906 and as we all know the history; that’s where the struggle for Satyagraha originally started. The photographs, objects, sounds and voice recording makes you travel back in time but it is almost impossible to try and picture yourself in the unimaginable situation that the prisoners had to go through every single day of their life. In the same vicinity is the Constitutional Court which I was very impressed to see. There is a huge handmade flag of SA from beads made by the local women which is remarkable. The way the SA government has beautifully architected the Court by preserving the partially demolished “awaiting trial block” and merging it into the new building – thereby making the whole place ironical yet prideful. It shows that they have come so far with their determination to change the society and embodied complete freedom in every aspect of life. Usually we would try to forget such horrifying past but to see them preserve the rich and complex history however gruesome it was and to make a progressive new beginning is commendable. The architect has beautifully designed the building in such a way that the building interweaves the past with the future.

After visiting the Constitutional Hill, we headed to the Lion Park. The Lion Park is a place where you can hear the roar of lions amongst the whisper of grasslands.  I was extremely excited to see the rare White Lions. There were individual huge enclosures for Cheetahs and Lions where you could take your car and drive down. In a separate small enclosure were 3 cute little white lion cubs that we could touch and click snaps with. Later we went and fed the giraffes followed by a safari around the property where we saw hyenas, zebras, deers etc in the wild and in their natural habitat.

We were just about to leave when my eyes read something that excited me instantaneously. It was a banner of “Walk with the Cheetahs”. I told Aakaash that I really wanted to do it. I know he wanted to do it too but we didn’t have enough time to do it separately and with 2 small kids we couldn’t have done it together. While we were discussing the possibilities of who goes and who stays behind, one of the organizers kindly volunteered to help us with the kids and offered to stay with them in the car while we were with the Cheetah. We had an experience of our life time with the Cheetah. While we were with the Cheetah, she decided to put her paw gently on my hand and when she lifted her paw, it left a small puncture in my skin and a tiny drop of blood oozed out which was enough to remind me of the power this magnificent animal holds. With the setting sun we bid goodbye to the beautiful Cheetah. Our day had been perfect and we were looking forward to the rest of our holiday.

The next morning we were to go and see the Lipizzaners Show. Not many people know about this Show. Lipizzan are the oldest human bred Stallion horses which are rare and unique. It was amazing to see the Stallions perform in perfect sync with each other and their spectacular leaps and unique maneuvers were worth the applaud they got. I didn’t know that a stallion’s coat is jet black when it’s young and as it matures into adulthood its coat becomes pure white. After the show ended we headed towards the barn where we all enjoyed feeding the horses carrots and later headed to see the Cradle of Humankind.

Another place which is famous in Johannesburg is Maropeng for having some of the oldest archaeological and human fossils in the world. There have been many sites and series of caves from where fossils have been excavated and are still are being discovered. This area has been named as Cradle of Humankind. This place is an hour’s drive from Johannesburg and is a World Heritage Site by Unesco. We first went to Sterkfontein Caves where one of the oldest fossils and stone tools dating back 2 million years old and skeletons dating 3 million years were found. Sterkfontein Caves is a set of limestone caves where excavation work is still going on. This is the only longest and continuous running fossil excavation ground in the world.  There are around a dozen dolomitic limestone caves in that area.  After an exciting trek we were taken to the museum where the fossils and other displays are kept.

The third day we had just kept for shopping and had an amazing time off course. So we took a cab and drove 45 mins to reach the premium outlets and stores. After we got dropped we realized that we were not at the right place so we requested the cab to drop us to the place which was 5 mins away. The driver was nice and kind enough to wait for us. We took 3 hours just in Toys R Us and with so many toys it was impossible for us to go to other stores, so we put all our stuff in the boot of the cab and shopped for another 2 hours. In retrospect I now think that we made such a fool hardy decision. What if the guy had decided to take off, there was nothing that we could have done, but I would just say that we were lucky. The next morning we were excited to board our flight to - Cape Town to continue our adventure.