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Published: March 16th 2018
A green shark flag means no sharks sighted, a red flag means there are great whites so get out of the water, and a black flag means visibility is poor so we have no idea. However, this shouldn't and doesn't stop anyone going in.
I found myself in South Africa again for the third time in about 18-months. Once again it was PhD related but this time there would be no fieldwork up in Limpopo province, rather the time would be spent working from an office in Stellenbosch for a couple of weeks and a couple of days from an office in Pretoria.
It was a great few weeks. I got loads of work done; producing two papers through the day and editing thesis chapters in the evening. This sounds like hard work but it didn’t feel like it. The daily routine involved getting woken early by birdsong then sitting outside in my pants by 7am (it was already hot at that time) for a papaya, mango and sticky bun breakfast, walk around the corner to the office arriving about 7:45, work till about 5pm then stroll back to sit outside in the sun for an hour or so with a book and a cup of rooibos. As it started cooling down after 6, I generally headed for a walk or run up one of Stellenbosch’s mountains. Returned an hour or two later, grabbing some dinner on the way, shower (with a
bucket – see later note on the drought) then thesis writing for a couple of hours before bed.
Having an apartment rather than being in a guesthouse helped. I find hotel/guesthouse rooms start to feel a bit like a prison after a few days but an apartment with my own outside space and kitchen was lovely.
Stellenbosch is probably my favourite town in South Africa. The old Dutch buildings are very pretty along the tree-lined avenues. The white-washed houses, churches and picket fences stand out in the always glorious sunshine against the vivid blue sky and old oak trees that provide much appreciated shade. It is famously a university town and is built in and around the university buildings, kind of like Oxford; the university is the town rather than being just in the town. And behind all the buildings and at the end of every street is a view of steep rocky mountains. The setting amongst vineyards climbing up steep quartzite peaks within sight of the sea (if you climb a bit) is hard to beat. Best of all, considering you are in South Africa, it’s safe.
At least it feels safe. You can wander around, even at night, and nobody warns you not to. When I visit WITS University in Johannesburg, the professor who I go and see always picks me up from the Gautrain station even in the middle of the day as he claims the ten-minute walk is too dangerous. Similarly, in Pretoria, my guesthouse hosts recommend I take a taxi for the 2 km trip to the Botanical Gardens at 7:30am on Saturday mornings for parkrun (I never get one – I just run there). Stellenbosch still has electric razor wire and signs everywhere warning of “private security armed response” but it isn’t as overwhelming and saddening as elsewhere.
Stellenbosch also has possibly my two favourite parkruns in the world. If you don’t know about this life-changing global phenomenon, look it up, maybe there is one near you: www.parkrun.com. The first, Root 44, is a trail run through a vineyard finishing at a farmer’s market – obviously that’s hard to beat. The second, Kayamandi, is at the township beside Stellenbosch. It’s another trail run with a brutal 100 m climb in the first 1 km, though more importantly, it’s
a nice way of getting some integration between the informal settlement of Kayamandi and South Africa’s clearly wealthy and second oldest European settlement, i.e. Stellenbosch.
I ought to mention the drought. If you haven’t caught this on the news, the Western Cape, and Cape Town especially, is suffering its worst drought since records began 123 years ago. Already water pressure has been reduced and limits are applied to households (50 litre per person per day) with those who exceed their allowance being named and shamed online. Flying from Cape Town to Johannesburg illustrated the scale of the problem as the reservoirs we overflew looked more like patches of sandy desert rather than oases within the barren agricultural land. What this means on the ground is that you shower while standing in a baby’s plastic bath, turn on the water to dowse yourself, turn off the water, wash, use that same water with a bucket to rinse, then keep the water for toilet flushing, which only occurs after number twos. Even restaurants warn not to flush after number ones and most taps in public places are switched off with hand sanitiser offered instead. Pots are washed sparingly and
Assegaaiboskloof from Bergrivier Nek
Panorama Trail, Jonkershoek Nature Reserve
the water is saved to put on plants still clinging on to existence. “Day Zero” when the taps will be switched off in Cape Town will occur on 15th
April unless rain falls in the meantime. When I mentioned I’m a hydrogeologist I was made most welcome as people thought I was there to help. Unfortunately, the semi-governmental and non-profit research council who I work with (CSIR), despite having all the knowledge and monitoring data of aquifers in the region, were not consulted about alternative water sources. All the contracts went to private companies who have done precisely nothing about the problem. I’m not going to say there’s corruption occurring, actually I am, it’s completely corrupt.
I was offered a job again. In fact, more than one. The best being a two year contract based at the University of Cape Town, with a few month-long fieldtrips up to Limpopo, a few months in Pretoria, and a couple of months in Copenhagen (the Danish government are funding the project). I was tempted because the project sounds really interesting and worthwhile, and isn’t dissimilar to my PhD research about finding alternative water resources for water scarce and food insecure
The hilliest parkrun I've ever done with a total ascent of 157 m.
areas. However, I just don’t think I could live here. At least not for two years. The crime is off-putting to say the least: a current news story from near Durban is of a professional triathlete who was knocked off his bike, dragged into bushes where there was an attempt to saw off his legs with a chainsaw, only stopping because the blade was too blunt to cut bone (www.bbc.co.uk/sport/triathlon/43313998). Then there’s the inequality. Of the many ways of measuring it, South Africa is usually ranked number 1 in the world for inequality (www.theguardian.com/inequality/datablog/2017/apr/26/inequality-index-where-are-the-worlds-most-unequal-countries). There is a lot of poverty in South Africa, and they are mostly of one colour. Then there is a lot of wealth in South Africa, they are mostly of one colour too. It’s all such a shame because it’s a stunning country with so much to see and do, with great people and it’s so rich in culture, wildlife and landscapes. I said two years was too much but, offer me a six-month position in Stellenbosch with fieldwork in South Africa’s vast, beautiful and sparsely populated countryside with opportunities to go diving or climb mountains at weekends then pay me in biltong and I’m yours.
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