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Published: 02 December 2017

By Andy Ross

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A trip to South Africa

After a month's rest, we are back from a holiday in South Africa where we saw some amazing things. 

The African continent is home for me, growing up as I did in Zimbabwe. So any trip across the world to visit family is a celebration and homecoming. There is always so much to see and do that the time flies by and all too soon it is time to return. Here is some of what we experienced on our hols.

The Cape Peninsula, the most southerly part of the country and the continent, has been home to people for millennia. In fact, archaeological remains and DNA analysis points to modern humans probably coming from this part of the world. (For those who would like to find more, have a look at this UNESCO link.) The abundance of marine life suitable for gathering and preparing for food may have led to bigger brains in humans when coupled with the other items in the diet, and the evidence for this diet lies in  middens of discarded bones, shells and tools. We visited one, courtesy of my family, and explored the area, seeing how much food could potentially be gathered from rock pools and the edges of the sea as well as on the land. What a dynamic and rich variety of life!

In some of the middens archaeologists have found small beads made out of shell from sea creatures such as limpets 

(see picture opposite which comes courtesy of Chenshilwood at English Wikipedia, CC BY 2.5, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=9704425), or from ostrich eggs. These beads are evidence that people were creating art and, coupled with paintings and etchings on rock, it is likely that art has played a significant role for modern humans from the earliest times. 

Given that fact it is hardly surprising that there is a lot of art to be seen in South Africa! Almost everywhere we went people were producing craft such as pottery and ceramics, or visual art. Cape Town even has a new gallery, the Zeitz-Mocaa Gallery where contemporary art from Africa is on display to the public. Carved out of enormous concrete grain silos on the docks in the Mother City, this Thomas Hetherwick creation is bold and innovative and a great place to see some of the exciting art from the continent. One of our favourite artists here is Nanipha Mntambo who uses shaped and draped cow hides to comment on women in society and history. We especially like the series of photographs of herself as a matador which you can see here. There is lots to see at the Gallery, not least the building.

The rest of our holiday was spent in an area called the Klein Karoo, a narrow strip of land which runs between the semi-arid Karoo and the mountains which separate the interior of South Africa from the oceans. This beautiful, stark and dramatic region will be familiar to anyone who enjoys gardening because a lot of the succulents and aloes which we grow originate here. Our morning explorations took in old farmhouses where we found broken remnants of china, probably treasured memories from England and Scotland where many of these people emigrated from, and hundreds of flowers and plants, insects, birds and animals. The Klein Karoo is known for its hospitality and, having some fantastic vineyards, the wine  and food is excellent. 

Even in this sparsely inhabited area of the Western Cape surprises abound. A heavy downpour one night eased the dust and caused millions of millipedes to erupt from the earth. Waterfalls poured off the muntains replenishing the water in dams and aquifers which are very low because of a severe drought, and the smell of rain on hot earth has to be experienced to be believed. It was in this rainstorm that we met a tailor who lives in the hills, surrounded by nature, with swallows flying in and out of the gallery she runs with her photographer partner, and yet who works internationally and had recently been in London making cotume for the West End stage! Yes, the Karoo is full of surprises. 

One of our favourite stops was the town of Oudtshoorn, the world's centre for ostrich production, feathers and meat. Following two ostrich booms, in the late 19th and early 20th Century, the town became firmly established and now ostriches, vegetables and fruit form the backbone of the economy. The museum in Oudtshoorn is a gem. Old style cases with amazing dioramas or people, animals and yes, you guessed it, ostriches, are much in evidence and posters and clothes from fashion shows from across the world by famous couturiers such as Gucci and Paco Rabanne. It was a great surprise to learn about the Carnival of Binche in Belgium which features ostrich feathers, as shown in the picture on the left!