Breath-taking scenery, amazing animals, karaoke on a bus, dancing with Zulus, riding elephants, tales of birthing horror stories and a little bit too much wine, where does this all happen, why on a trip to South Africa with 19 Midwives from the UK and Australia! When I said I was going to South Africa for work, but to accompany a midwifery and childcare tour, everyone who knew me reacted in the same way, but you don’t like children. Of course that is true and having heard many a horror story about the pains and complications of childbirth from my travel companions, it’s not something I will be rushing towards. However, even though I am not a medical professional, experiencing South Africa by going into some of its hospitals and meeting local midwives it has given me such a unique perspective on the country, and hearing the views from my travel companions on their experiences of midwifery and childcare in South Africa furthered that perspective. These are the tales of one travel professional who spent 12 days travelling around South Africa on an eye opening, and eye popping trip with a group of midwives.
We started our adventure in Johannesburg and the first port of call was the Apartheid Museum. This was a great way to start the trip as you cannot travel through South Africa without knowing its history and struggles. South Africa is a country in a cross roads of change. It is twenty years since Apartheid ended and this year’s recent elections were the first where the so called ‘free generation’ could vote. It is a country that has a long way to go so that everyone has the same advantages, and travelling through Soweto highlighted this. We visited Baragwanath Hospital, the third biggest hospital in the world with 3000 beds. As the first professional visit of the tour it definitely brought home the reality of life for a midwife in South Africa and having Busi Kunene the president of SOMSA there further educated us all. As we drove through Soweto heading for Mandela House, the former home of Nelson and Winnie Mandela, we got to see the different faces of a modern day South African township. As the country builds itself providing houses, schools and park space, they cannot build quick enough as there are still millions living in ‘informal’ or ‘shanty’ housing. It’s difficult to see but as you progress through Soweto you see what they are aiming for and it will be fascinating to go back and see what they have achieved in a few more years.
After an educational time in Johannesburg we set off to the Kruger National Park. The drive from Johannesburg takes you through savannah lands into the Drakensberg Mountains and back down onto the grasslands of the National Park. The ever changing scenery of South Africa is something that kept amazing all of us. Arriving at the lovely and welcoming Timbavati Safari Lodge, our home for the next 3 nights we quickly settled into our traditionally painted rondawels. The lodge located within its own private game reserve on the edge of Kruger is home to many different animals. It was a common occurrence to see wildebeest, warthogs and impala around the edge of the lodge grounds making you feel totally immersed in nature. Waking up to find wildebeest outside my window is one memory I won’t be forgetting for a while.
The next morning we were up before the sun and settled into our open sided safari vehicles, with our breakfast packs by our sides. With the group split between three vehicles, the competition was on for which one could get the Big Five first! I wasn’t sure what to expect from Kruger, but lionesses and a leopard within the first ten minutes did not disappoint. From then on our little vehicle full of safari midwives kept ticking off animals and birds, including four of the Big Five, all we were missing were elephants. Our poor guide was feeling the pressure to find our missing elephants, but as he said we had been incredibly lucky with how much we had seen. Leaving the National Park after an exciting day we were tired but happy with our safari spots, and then just before we got to the gate who was waiting for us, but elephants! As if by magic! That was our Big Five ticked off and we returned to the lodge very happy.
The next morning our animal adventures continued and we went on a bush walk, the usual suspects from the lodge grounds were around and our local guide told us all about the plants and trees and even tracked a young giraffe for us, it was a very serene moment watching this young male giraffe glide through the bushes, to be that close and just observe was a spectacular moment. Later that morning we went on a walk through our bush guides village, met the wonderful villages who were so welcoming and it became one of those experiences I will never forget. Our wonderful day continued with an optional night safari drive. This took us into one of the private game reserves where we went off road, watched the sun set and enjoyed sun downers in the middle of the park (hoping nature didn’t decide to walk through while we were drinking our wine!). As darkness set in we got back in the vehicle and set off to look for all those nocturnal creatures.
Having to leave Timbavati Lodge behind we set off for our next stop which was Hazyview, our base for exploring Mpumalanga and its hospitals as well as the Panoramic Route. Visiting rural midwives in Mpumalanga gave the group a chance to compare and contrast how their lives and environment differ to urban midwives like those we met in Johannesburg, and later to meet in Cape Town. For me as an outsider it was interesting to see the stark differences in facilities compared to both the public and private hospitals we had seen previously through the trip. That evening we had a wonderful talk by Kruger National Park Vet Dr Peter Buss who gave great insight into life inside Kruger and the challenges they face.
After a day of visits and learning the group had a day to relax and enjoy the view as we set off on the Panoramic Route, a drive through Mpumalanga that is filled with breath taking vistas around every mountain corner, waterfalls plunging down sheer rock faces, and memories of the gold rush. Luck was on our side, because even though it was pouring with rain, every time we got out of the bus it stopped raining, the clouds cleared and we were given a little bit of blue sky. Our first stop was Blyde River Canyon, the third biggest canyon in the world, was just spectacular! The views were breath taking, the river snaking through the red sandstone canyon. From here we ventured to Bourke’s Luck Potholes and Pilgrims Rest. It was hard to think we would be leaving this breath taking scenery behind, but leave we must as Cape Town was waiting for us.
Lucky for us going to Cape Town just meant trading one stunning setting for another. The dominating Table Mountain that is ever present during your stay is the first thing you see as you land and it is offers some of the most stunning views of the Cape when you get on top of it. However, nature had to wait as our first day in Cape Town was jam packed with professional visits and township visits. Our first stop was the Mowbury Maternity Hospital, who welcomed us with open arms and I think for most people it was a favourite visit. After touring the maternity unit we were joined by a lecturer from the Western Cape School of Nursing who took us to the Saartjie Baartman Centre for women and children. The centre offers shelter and help for women and their children escaping violence and abuse. They house the women and offer them skill training so that they can create a future for themselves and it was a much appreciated opportunity for us all to learn about the problems facing women in South African townships, the ghosts of Apartheid, and to see what situations some women face after childbirth.
From the centre we went to visit the Langa Township, which like those we saw in Soweto are under development trying tobring the same advantages to everyone. Walking around Langa and meeting some of the people was an incredibly eye opening, seeing the shipping crate shops that are springing up, people wanting to own their businesses and making a future for themselves was insightful. The next day was one of my favourites, we set off for a tour of the Cape Peninsula, today was all about natural beauty. As we drove out of Cape Town we were inundated with winding roads around the coast, spectacular bays appearing out of nowhere – everyone quickly wondering whether they could move out there! Leaving places like Houts Bay behind we carried on south towards Simons Town and a visit to the very cute cape penguins that live there. Heading towards the end of Africa we reached the Cape of Good Hope, the rugged coast line was beautiful and we all of course posed by the sign to prove that we had been there. Our last stop of a lovely day was Cape Point, for those of us who had climbed Table Mountain that morning were starting to get a bit stiff legged, but pushed on and climbed all the steps to the lighthouse at the top of Cape Point. Looking back you could see the whole Peninsular, its rugged shape cutting through the Atlantic and Indian Oceans, this was truly a wonderful way to spend your last day in South Africa.