South Africa

I really enjoyed Cape Town.  I had an awesome hostel called Atlantic Point that had a lot of space, baked muffins for breakfast each morning, BBQs, movie nights and amazing tours.

Shark diving was on the agenda.  It’s about what it sounds like, but very safe.  Interestingly, I was surprised that it was not ‘idiot-proof’.  You do sign your life away, literally, but the cage’s dimensions were tight and the bars were spaced widely enough to have feet and hands pass though.

I liked this -- but the major issue is that the great photo makes mine look terrible in comparison

I liked this — but the major issue is that the great photo makes mine look terrible in comparison

Despite limbs that occasionally came out of the cage the sharks seemed much more interested in the big chunks of tuna which were on the menu.  Bony wetsuit-covered foot – not so much.   The major concern was if hands were out they might get broken by a passing shark who brushes the cage while in hot pursuit of tuna.

White Shark Projects, the company that organizes these tours, was very responsible.  They draw on a lot of volunteers to do research and education for protecting great whites, which are endangered.  It’s a balancing act much like with the gorillas in Uganda.  To protect/sustain/improve requires awareness and education, but this is not free.  So, generating revenue in the process is required.  Enter the tourists…

26 a twn footer coming to the cape

This one was about 10′ long


24 the cage

The cage

  25 a 10 foot great white

Many people brought underwater cameras but it had rained torrentially in Cape Town in the previous week.  This meant the ocean was quite silty and that the visibility was poor.  It also meant that we had to press our faces against the bars of the cage underwater to try and see the sharks and then ominously crept by.  It made the process that much more exciting.

The Khayelitsha Township is one of the slums with somewhere in the neighborhood of one to two million people.  Populations are just guessimated by flying a helicopter over top.  There is a tour.  It’s along the lines of the burgeoning and controversial slum tours that are common now in Rio and Mumbai.  I had considered this in both Nairobi and Kampala but passed in both cases because the list of cons looms large. Treating poverty like an attraction seemed dubious.


Yet, the tour was very worthwhile.  The guide lived there and had created the tour as his business.  He showed an interesting mix of good (progress, enterprise, ingenuity) with the bad.  We paid a flat fee ($45 CDN) and then the transportation, coffees, lunch and a beer (at three different places) was all included.  It was a good way to spread the money around.  Other non-businesses (a school, an outreach centre, etc.) got cut into the profit from what I could tell.

The negative elements of day-to-day life were covered.  These went from “here’s where I was first robbed at gunpoint” to driving past a murder scene that was taped off.  There were forensic guys working there with rubber gloves.  Asides for our posse, these two forensics guys were the only two white people I’d seen all day.  There’s no racial segregation of course but there is economic segregation like everywhere else.  At at least the Apartheid days, per this bench outside the courthouse downtown, are long over.  It’s tough to read as it’s so weathered now bu this is the non-Whites bench.

28 Apartied Bench

Then there was a second murder scene.  This was a bad day in the township.  We just saw the road blocked off and the crime scene tape from a distance and detoured around.  These scenes notwithstanding, it was safe for us.  There is a lot of vigilante justice, apparently, for people caught committing crimes.  An interesting development is that people chased by the mob will often run to the police station to turn themselves in.  There is a progression towards state infrastructure in the township now with a handful of police stations and even an army base.  I did not think much of this until I was leaving South Africa.

The Cape Town airport had an awesome bookstore.  I bought Steven Pinker’s book The Better Angels of Our Nature there.  I hadn’t read anything by Pinker before but knew of him from his masterful TED talk about violence.  The book is stellar and Bill Gate’s praise (reproduced on the cover) is spot on.



As a quick digression, Pinker identifies two major drivers that contributed to the rates violence by 100 times in the west over the past handful of centuries.  He measures violence in murders which is a valid proxy.  The decline is so pronounced that he has to use a logarithmic scale (1, 10, 100, 1000).  Murder rates for from 100 to 1, see below.  The two main drivers have been the self-interest of the state in monopolizing violence – taxpayers pay more tax alive than dead.  The second was the rise of “gentle” commerce that allows for people to benefit from their interactions with others. Pinker calls this “opportunities for positive-sum exchange, as opposed to zero-sum plunder. When it’s cheaper to buy something than to steal it.”

62 image pinker

Anyway, to loop that around: it’s good to see much more state infrastructure in the informal settlements like the townships, it’s good that criminals run to the cops because they are perceived as fair (or at least more fair than the mob) and it’s good to see business like this coffee shop doing so well.  The comment about fairer than the mob sounds like a truism when they want to burn you to death in tires.  But in many cases where a mob is just going to issue a regular beating or that the system is clearly unfair this may be a different set of choices.  Someone who got on the wrong side of a mob for something trivial in California is most likely better off with mob justice than a 3rd strike netting them 25 years in jail.  It’s interesting to contemplate.  Regardless, the book is absolutely amazing.  I can’t recommend it highly enough.

Lion’s head and Table Mountain are two fixtures that augment the skyline.  I hiked up Lion’s Head with a group from my hostel which made for a fun afternoon.

I also fit in a paragliding trip.  It was fun to have done but skydiving would have been a better bet.  It just entailed circling in the current and then landing ten minutes later in the same place where we took off from.  “We” is the operative word – I had a vision of intrepidly steering a di Vinci esque flying machine based on my own wits and (imagined) flying process.  Nope.  I’m strapped in with this big gruff dude who looks like one the rugby extras from Invictus.

30 paragliding

Speaking of, I was disappointed not to make it to Robin Island where Nelson Mandela was held for 27 years.  It’s just off the coast.  If you missed Invictus the highlight is where the Damon character visits the cell and Morgan Freeman comes in with a voice over and reads William Ernest Henley poem Invictus.

36 invictus


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