Turning 40. If you’re past that milestone, you may think it’s trivial, but when it looms ahead of you, it seems like a turning point worth taking seriously.
So, at 39, when the inevitable was around the corner, I asked a well-traveled friend where she thought I should spend my 40th birthday. She suggested South Africa, and that turned out to be an excellent suggestion.
I admit that I was nervous. Everyone warned me not to walk around alone, especially at night, or during any part of the day. I was told to walk fast, know where you’re going, don’t look like a tourist and, by all means, leave the Lonely Planet guidebook at the hotel. Yikes. And, I’m not going to lie, all that is unequivocally true. But I guess that’s part of the adventure.
So, I found guides ... for the scary parts. In Johannesburg, my first guide, Maatla, took me on a bike ride around Soweto. Formerly known as the South West Townships, Soweto in the 1970s and ’80s was the scene of numerous anti-apartheid demonstrations, many of which had tragic endings. Today, 3 million people inhabit this eclectic part of Johannesburg; they are proud of their culture, their diversity and what has become of Soweto in the post-apartheid era.
But when I think of Africa, I think of animals, so I found a group with whom to go on safari. Seven Australians, a German, myself and our two South African guides, Tshepo and Moses. This was the beginning of a string of early mornings, long car rides and sudden stops to watch the animals. Kruger National Park is the home of the “Big Five”: elephants, buffalo, rhinos, leopards and lions. I saw four of the five but also a number of impala, baboons, hippos, crocodiles and many birds that I’ll never be able to name. We visited the less known, but just as spectacular, Hlane Royal National Park in Swaziland and the St. Lucia estuary, then slowly made our way to Mozambique for a beach camp.
It was in Mozambique where I started hearing the phrase “T.I.A.,” meaning “This Is Africa,” as the all-encompassing reason for any breakdown, delay or unexpected change of plans. In other words, the reason for shrugging your shoulders, maintaining your sense of humor and formulating plans B and C. T.I.A. had many useful applications in Mozambique, land of the sand roads, and it continued to be useful as we made our way through Zulu country, back in South Africa.
We had a few truck breakdowns, flat tires, drivers who got lost on their way to our rescue and malfunctioning ATMs that never seemed to have money. But T.I.A. stuck with me because it reminds me of the value of patience. Eventually that lost driver arrives with a truck that will run several more miles, and he will nonchalantly point you to the ATM that has money — at least for the moment.
I’ve been told that the coast between Durban and Cape Town is stunning, and I am very sad to have had to skip it. As soon as the group dissipated in Durban, I flew to Cape Town for the last few days of my South African visit. I had seen pictures and movies, but nothing can prepare you for the impressive sight of Table Mountain as the backdrop to this beautiful city by the beach. I did all the things that tourists do: visit Robben Island, hike up Table Mountain, go on an excursion to the Cape of Good Hope, visit the nearby wineries and sip cocktails in the fancy restaurants along the beach. It is easy to forget while you visit Cape Town that you are in Africa at all.
But that’s the thing about South Africa. It’s a study in extremes, which is what makes it so interesting. Despite its brutal past, its extremes of wealth and poverty, its ever-present social issues, South Africa is beautiful, deep in character and thriving.
In some ways, it’s what any 40-year-old aspires to be.
Lina Maria Lesmes is a planner for the town of Silverthorne.