Part 1: 4 movies, 16 hours, 7 time zones & time in Pretoria

Photography and report by Bert Duplessis

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I woke up to the sound of rain yesterday morning. Not the heavy pounding of the rain I have grown accustomed to in Houston, but the light patter of rain on a tin roof, the rain of my childhood. It brought back happy memories of crisp spring mornings, flannel pajamas and sometimes – if we children could prevail on my mother – an afternoon snack of pannekoek, a South African version of crepes served with lots of sugar and cinnamon. A real treat.

Rain in Pretoria on an August morning means only one thing: a strong cold front from the Cape has blown bad weather a good 1,000 miles north into the interior. And so it was. The cold, blustery conditions which we have been experiencing here in South Africa the last few days are the complete opposite of the oppressively hot weather which we left behind in Texas. We’re hoping that it will be considerably warmer in Zambia by the time we arrive there on Tuesday next week. Otherwise those morning game drives are going to be awfully uncomfortable.

Our flight from Atlanta to Johannesburg on one of Delta’s new Boeing 777’s was uneventful and at least for me, less tiring than some previous trips. Sure the non-stop 16-hour flight is a doozy, but I much prefer this ‘bite the bullet’ approach of getting to Africa from the USA, over the 2-day trip via Europe. Of course, if one has the luxury of time to kill a few days in Paris or London or Amsterdam en route, by all means. But for just getting there, the non-stop Delta flight has a lot going for it. Arrival in Johannesburg is around 6:00P in the afternoon which is just in time for an overnight stay before going on to Botswana or wherever.

This was our first transatlantic crossing on Delta and we really have no complaints except perhaps about the catering. The ‘pure vegetarian’ meals (I got the exact same sauteed veggies and rice for dinner and breakfast) were adequate but unimaginative. The meal services in general were poorly executed with seemingly too few attendants serving the full plane of more than 245 people. Otherwise the seat was quite comfortable, the entertainment center had innumerable choices of movies, TV shows, and music and there were no refueling stops at dingy airports in Dakar Senegal or Ilha do Sol in the Cape Verde Islands.

Why is it that long-haul flying seems to be stuck in a time warp? Since the early 1980’s we have seen computers evolve from the baby steps of an Apple IIe to the colossal strides of today’s PC’s and laptops. Upgrade your hard drive for an additional $200 or so and you can practically take the entire Library of Congress with you digitally, on your next weekend trip. Has crossing the Atlantic kept pace with that kind of reality-altering progress? Not exactly. It takes just about as long as it used to, 20 years ago: ‘modern’ aircraft have been traveling at about 500 mph for decades now. The flight attendants are grumpier, there is less legroom, the food is a lot worse and you’d better not hang around the front toilet area unless you are really keen to flush the undercover Federal Marshall on your flight. No pun intended.

A client of mine once remarked that his first ever long distance flight was on a Pan Am Clipper Constellation from the US West Coast to a South American destination. Probably sometime in the early 1960’s. “(Flying) has been all down-hill since then,” he said. If you are a rock star or a diplomat – or have gazillions of frequent flier miles – it might be possible to upgrade to the ‘business elite’ seats in the front of the plane. I think there were 19 of them on our flight. Having flown plain old business class on a transatlantic crossing some years ago, I can attest to the fact that it makes all the difference. These new seats are so much better – unless you are a basketball player you can lie down and almost stretch out. Imagine that, it’s practically like taking a boat or a train. Except for the Federal Marshall of course. And the liquid in tiny bottles, taking off your shoes, your belt, jacket… Still beeping? Come with me, sir.

A couple of days in Pretoria, South Africa

Kathleen and I at Struben Dam in Pretoria. It was cold!

My brother Nick picked us up from ORTI Airport on Thursday evening and we drove to Pretoria along the N-2 freeway, which was under construction with additional lanes in both directions being added, together with several new access roads, bridges and other improvements.

It soon became apparent that many major routes in and around the city – especially those leading the 2010 World Cup of Soccer venues – are all under simultaneous construction. If you’ve lived in Houston over the last 8 to 10 years you will know exactly what I am talking about.

As always, it was great to see the family again. We very much enjoyed a reunion with all four children and my mother together again, the first time since Nov. 2007. None of us have changed over the years; we are just a bit older and hopefully wiser. Seeing close family members sporadically, sometimes after long intervals, can be a bit disconcerting. People whom you see all the time age almost imperceptibly. Not so people whom you see in intervals measured by years. They age visibly, just like you do. None of us are Dorian Gray, the only things about us that do not change are pictures taken years ago.

The following day Nick took us on a drive around the city, past my parents’ erstwhile home on Brooklyn Avenue. The house is now just a shadow of its former elegant past, its stately thatched roof replaced with faux Spanish brick tiles. From there we drove along Charles Street – under construction – through Sunnyside and Arcadia and then took a right turn up Edmond Street straight uphill to the Union Buildings. From the high hill on which this magnificent Herbert Baker-designed sand stone edifice was built, the gardens below it and the city beyond usually make for a superb spectacle. Not so on this Saturday. It was raining quite heavily by the time we parked the vehicle. The city was obscured by clouds and rain squalls, so I passed on taking any photographs.

On Sunday morning weather conditions were considerably better, and we took a pleasant stroll around Struben Dam, close to where Kathleen and I lived in the early 1980’s. I spent many happy hours here developing my fledgling birding skills, a hobby which I had just acquired on a visit to Cape Town in December 1983. Several dozen species on my Southern Africa ‘life-list’ of birds are marked ‘Struben Dam 1984’ – it was certainly the most productive spell ever in my life as a bird-watcher. Unfortunately the dam is now but a degraded and rather threadbare version of its erstwhile vibrant self. Ironically Struben Dam was once a real bird sanctuary before it was designated as one by the Pretoria City Council.

Continue to Part 2

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