South Africa Dispatch series

Travel Weekly senior editor David Cogswell departed for South Africa on March 21 to begin an eight-day trip sponsored by South African Tourism. David will be exploring "Africa beyond the safari," particularly South Africa's cultural health and sociopolitical environment 13 years after the end of apartheid. He'll be filing on-site reports to Travel Weekly's Web site on a daily basis (Internet access permitting).

In "Journey to the End of the Night," Louis Ferdinand Celine wrote of travel as "this inexorable glimpse of existence as it is during those few lucid hours, so exceptional in the span of human time, when you are leaving the customs of the last country and the customs of the next one have not yet got their hold on you."

Today those transitions from one world to another often take place in an aluminum tube that spits you out after a number of idle hours into a world vastly different from the one you left.

My South African cultural exploration began with boarding a South African Airways jet at JFK airport and finding my way to a nice broad business class seat that electronically contorts into several variations that range from full upright to a flat-out bed. It was fully equipped with all the entertainment and comfort options that make even a 17-hour trip a delicious prospect -- a time when you can isolate yourself from all your normal routines and responsibilities and immerse yourself in books, magazines, newspapers, videos and music tracks, occasionally interrupted by some cheerful person plying you with food and drink.

It becomes an entertainment marathon, and you scarcely realize time is passing. You will still be jetlagged and dehydrated after a number of hours, but what fun you will have in the meantime!

I burned through a stack of newspapers and magazines, then turned my attention to the films. There were at least a couple I wanted to see, but there was also a menu of music including Brahms, Diana Krall, Keane, Steely Dan, Lionel Richie and a number of African artists. I settled in with Putumayo's "South African Legends" anthology. It seemed an appropriate preparation for my trip.

After seven hours we touched down in Dakar, Senegal, in the middle of the night. Dakar is the westernmost point of Africa, a thumb sticking so far out of the continent that it's only a four-hour time change from New York. It is also only half of the way to Johannesburg, South Africa.

In Dakar, the crew changed, the ground team tidied up and aired out the cabin. I went to the lavatory and found myself near a door to the outside, where I could breathe the fresh sea air of Dakar. I stood there as long as possible, stocking up on fresh air before returning to the enclosed cabin and the second leg of the trip.

When we arrived in Johannesburg, it was 4:00 in the afternoon. Having left New York on the first day of spring, I arrived in South Africa on the second day of autumn. It was pleasantly warm and sunny.

Even at the airport, the flavor of South Africa was already perceptible. A diverse crowd of people stood waiting for arrivals. There was a palpable, crackling energy in the air, the first taste of a society rich with multicultural influences and still fresh from a profound social transformation.

I was met at the airport by Joe Motsogo, a tour director. We had some time to talk as he drove to my hotel, so I asked him about the transition out of apartheid. I learned that he had been a participant in the anti-apartheid movement.

Originally, he said, "Those who were involved called it the struggle against apartheid. Now we call it the transformation and transition. Many feared the blacks would run the whites into the sea. But we all need each other if we're going to make it work."

South African society still has many problems, he told me, with unemployment at 28% and illiteracy at 30%. But the country has moved far beyond its previous irreconcilable differences, he said, and is heading in the right direction. The GDP, no longer dependent on gold mining, now rests on a diverse mix of textiles, steel, mining, farming and, increasingly, tourism.

To contact reporter David Cogswell, send e-mail to [email protected].


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