May 3, 2010

South Africa part four: Arriving in Gauteng

Posted in Uncategorized at 12:03 pm by Chris

Yes, I know this one’s been a while coming. If you want faster turnaround on your travel stories, I recommend my friends at the Indie Travel Podcast.

Gauteng province is in many ways the heart of South Africa, and probably the area most people think of when they think of the country. If you haven’t been there you likely don’t realise how high the region is: short-haul planes from the coast don’t really seem to descent into Johannesburg airport, instead they climb to the level of the central plateau and then just move across until they meet the runway. I exaggerate, of course, but at 1200m the area around Johannesburg would be counted as the mountains in many countries. New Zealand included. All this is deceptively invisible as you move around, because it’s a plateau, mostly flat and with normal-looking hills and valleys perched on top. It’s only when you start walking up those hills in the hot tropical sunlight that the reduced oxygen content of the air becomes apparent.

I can’t tell you very much about Johannesburg itself, because our only time there was at the airport: hardly a good way to describe any city, as I’m sure you’ll agree. On the whole, I don’t regret not having gone to hang out in the murder capital of the world. By this stage we were staying with family, none of whom live in Johannesburg itself (although, like so many cities, Joburg is undergoing a spectacular urban sprawl that looks set to engulf most of the smaller towns and farming regions around its edges). From the airport, we were whisked off into the hills at north of the city, past the squatter-camp-turned -permanent-suburb of Diepsloot, past the home of the chicken pie (that’s what the sign says, who am I to call them liars?) and up a long driveway-come-shared access road that would make short work of a normal car if you drove down it every day, to be greeted by the largest Great Dane I’ve ever met and a house that I would love to live in.

This was my first encounter with South African thatched buildings. South Africa has elevated thatching to an art form, with membranes incorporated to keep the wind out. It helps that huge perenial grasses grow there in abundance, of course, and that cheap semi-skilled labour is equally abundant. Their thatched houses are quite wonderful, naturally insulated, beautiful, and inside they smell like a freshly cut meadow. They also burn like tinder and are almost universally ringed around with lightning conductors. Being a high, hot, plateau, Gauteng gets regular and spectacular thunderstorms, in fact most of its rain falls over summer during storms.

We spent Christmas day up on the hill there, with various members of my wife’s extended family, the high African sun and the spectacular view. And the South African hospitality. If you haven’t been initiated into the hospitality of Africa, it goes something like this: have some of this, and some of this, and would you like some of this, and look there’s a bit more left of this and it would be a shame to have any leftovers, and do you want another drink and oh there’s dessert too. Thoroughly enjoyable and probably not very good for your health or waistline. South Africans don’t believe in low-fat anything, either.

We did get some counterbalance to the gustatory marvels of Christmas day on a walk down the hill. And back up again, which is where the reduced oxygen at altitude really came into play… Gauteng is of course an area of fantastic mineral wealth, but I hadn’t realised how complex the geology is: the ground up there is composed of enormously deep and ancient rock strata, the whole thing tipped nearly 90 degrees on its side by the passage of aeons, so that between one valley and another completely different layers are exposed. The hillside we walked down was 2.5 billion years old: I had no idea there were any rocks that old anywhere in Africa. Most excitingly, poking up out of those rocks were fossil stromatolites, which are worthy of a brief digression.

Stromatolites are one of the most ancient forms of life on earth, certainly the most ancient that still exists (living stromatolites still occur at Shark Bay in Western Australia, among a few other places). They’re a growth form created by certain single-celled algae: the algae trap sediments and build up a distinctive layered dome, like a giant rocky onion with a lumpy skin. Those single-celled algae were the Earth’s first great ecological vandals: a byproduct of their photosynthetic metabolism is oxygen. When these things first appeared, there was little or no free oxygen in the atmosphere, and it would have been highly toxic to most organisms. The steady action of uncounted billions of single-celled algae over many millions of years caused a build-up of free oxygen in the atmosphere until it caused mass extinctions, ecological turmoil and eventually, multicellular life. Like us. Given the age of the rocks we were walking on, the timing of these events in geological history and the likely nature of the culprits, those stromatolites were the very ones that caused all the trouble (prior to becoming fossils, anyway). That is, I think you’ll agree, a pretty exciting thing to stumble upon in someone’s lifestyle block.

Also interesting were all the little caves and mineshafts where seams of limestone were dug out of the hillsides in the 19th century. Burnt on site, this limestone provided lime for construction and other activities around the then-infant city of Johannesburg and its mining industry. Oh, and we saw baboons, from a distance (which is where I like my baboons, thank you very much: think naughty schoolboys with teeth like a German Shepherd), zebra from considerably less distance, and sundry spoor. Where spoor = poo.

Moving down from the hills the next day (we were playing a game of musical relatives), we were quick to experience a genuine African thunderstorm: my first, and my wife’s eleventy-millionth. I like me a good thunderstorm, so I do, and Gauteng does them right. The rain came in sideways, the thunder went “crack” rather any any of this nancy-boy rumbling, the lights went out and came back on again (and then again), the wind swung through ninety degrees in ten minutes, and then it was gone.

Next stop, the highway and Zebula.

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