Wednesday, February 12, 2014


I promised earlier that I would write a blog post about my experience at Robben Island, where Nelson Mandela (Mandiba) was held prisoner until 1990. A canceled flight, an unexpected overnight stay in Johannesburg, and a day available for sightseeing led me to a more complete understanding (although still very limited) of the man. I was able to look at that day as a gift, and it enabled me to tour his home in the Soweto district of Johannesburg, see his neighborhood, and understand a little more about the racial struggles in South Africa.

When I posted on my Facebook page about the delayed flight, a friend commented that she wondered what new adventures I would have, and what interesting people I would meet. So, Marion and Laura, here is the rest of that story.

Robben Island is about 6 miles off the coast of South Africa; it is visible from Capetown as a low rise on the horizon. To get there, you have to take a ferry -- and you have to get your ticket pretty far in advance. When I arrived in Capetown on Monday afternoon, I expected that I would be able to get on one of the three tours on Tuesday, but they were all booked. My only alternative was Thursday morning, and hope that I would get back in time to make our flight at 2:30 PM. (We made it, but just by the skin of our teeth!)

It is a 45 minute ferry ride to the island, the water is a little rough, and you watch that little bump on the horizon getting bigger and bigger. Finally you start to see houses, and at last the pier comes into view. We disembarked and walked to busses but in the near distance was a gate that reminded me of the one over the entrance at Auchwitz in Germany. It didn't say Werk Macht Frei, instead it said We Serve With Pride.
I think it was talking about the tour industry, not the prison!  I tried to imagine how it would have felt to arrive on that island, knowing that freedom was visible, but so unattainable.  From everywhere on the island, you could see Table Mountain several miles away. It was a beautiful sight for those of us who were touring, but so depressing and frustrating for those imprisoned there. If you tried to escape (and several did) you could be beaten on the rocks by incoming waves; if you managed to evade the rocks and actually swim that distance (one person did), they would be able to see you coming from the shore and rearrest you the moment you touched land.
Glen, our interpreter
The most powerful part of the tour was meeting the guide who would take us through the prison barracks. He had been a prisoner himself on Robben Island for 16 years. He was arrested as a student agitator in 1975 and sentenced to 25 years, but was released in 1991. After several years working at various jobs on the mainland, he was invited to come back to Robben Island as an interpreter. Most of the interpreters in the prison barracks are former prisoners, and their testimony is riveting. He described the living conditions (thin mats on the floor for sleeping, buckets in the cells for toilets), the food (meager portions of almost inedible food), and the work (backbreaking labor in the quarry digging rock for walls, buildings, and walkways).

They worked six days per week, and on the seventh they were confined to their cells for all but one hour when they were allowed in the courtyard between barracks buildings for exercise. What struck me was the bleakness of the surroundings. Tall wire fences, guard towers, unrelenting heat...

 The cells were small and spare, and I wondered to myself how Mandela managed to do all the writing he did while in prison. Where did he get the paper, pencils, and how was he able to hide what he wrote from the guards. He buried what he wrote in the courtyard of his barracks according to the interpreter, but somehow others made copies of what he wrote and smuggled them out. This was fortunate, because at one point when construction was being done in the courtyard his buried stash was discovered and destroyed.

 Our flight to the US was canceled because a snow and ice storm had closed JFK airport in New York. The airline put us up in a hotel for the night (thank you South African Airlines!!) and said we'd try again the next night, and that there were seats for all of us on the next night's plane.  What to do with a whole day in Johannesburg? The concierge at the hotel suggested a tour of Jo'burg, and that sounded good to me! I expected a bus, or at least a van with a group of people, but I was wrong. At the appointed time, Lindy and her husband showed up in their car, and proceeded to take me on a private tour of Johannesburg. This was the opportunity of a lifetime -- to have four hours to talk with a native about what it's like to live there. She was very knowledgeable about local history, and we had quite a good conversation.

Street corner in Soweto
As we drove to our first stop, Lindy described the beginnings of Johannesburg, which was built around gold mining. You could still see the hills of tailings from the mines. Although the hills are bare right now, they are being bought up and built on, mostly by foreign corporations who are settling in Jo'burg. We drove through Soweto, the district where much of the black population lives.The living conditions, and the poverty visible, were mind-boggling. I really had my eyes opened on this tour.

One of the shanty towns in Soweto
The first stop was the Mandela house, where he lived with his first two wives (one at a time!) and where his children were born. It has been turned into a museum now, but you can see how spare the house is. The street outside is a bustling, busy commercial area. There were several restaurants which were doing a booming business, with street-side tables all full.

 Inside are display cases full of memorabilia of Mandela's time in prison, and after his release.

Our next stop was at the Hector Pieterson Memorial and Museum. Hector Pieterson was the 12 year old boy who was killed at the beginning of the uprisings of 1976.  His death helped ignite the fire that became a nationwide -- then a worldwide -- protest of the treatment of black citizens. The oral histories, news accounts, and photographs of that time in South African history were amazing to see, especially when you realize that those protests spread to the US as well.

Lindy (and flat Owen)

The stadium where they played the 2010 World Cup of Soccer.

From the Memorial, we drove to downtown Johannesburg and took an elevator to the top of the tallest building in Jo'burg. From that vantage point, you could see the entire city, which is huge!  You could see the gold mining sector, the newer business district, and all the way to the suburbs.

After a memorable day, Lindy and her husband took me back to the hotel, where I grabbed my luggage, went to the airport, and 39 hours later, was finally home again. What a trip, what an experience, and what an opportunity to see a part of the world I really never expected to see! Would I go back again?  Probably not, especially if I had to endure that flight.  But the memories of this trip will last more than a lifetime. 

Sunday, February 2, 2014

The Big Five plus Two

Anyone who goes to Africa hoping to see big animals learns about the big 5: elephants, lions, rhinos, Cape buffalo, and that most elusive member, the leopard. There are other great animals too, but they are rarely seen; two of these are the spotted wild dogs and the cheetah. Elephants are pretty easy-- most places that do safaris have elephants. Lions aren't that hard either, and rhinos and Cape buffalo only a little more difficult to find.  But few people get to see leopards, wild dogs, and cheetahs.

Guess what!  The Schneider luck was with us this past weekend at the Madikwe Game Preserve in South Africa, and we saw all of the above. Well, Drew and Sara didn't see the cheetahs, but I got to check all those animals off my list. 
Lazarus, our guide for 5 game drives.
Among my hopes for this trip was to see the first four of the big five. I did not expect to see the leopard, and never even thought the cheetah would be possible. But our guide, Lazarus  (an excellent guide and animal behavior interpreter) found all of them.  When we finally saw the leopard, I have to admit I broke down and cried I was so excited. (but then, I've been doing a lot of that this trip it seems, with all the life list achievements, and some of the animals I wanted to see so badly).
Spotted Wild Dog -- part of a pack of 14, right after they killed a kudu. 

Matriarch of the elephant group
White Rhino (not really white -- it's a wide mouth rhino, shortened to white rhino for some reason.
Cape buffalo at night at the watering hole. Mother, baby, father, and in the front, an unrelated male. 

It is a most incredible feeling to be sitting 10 feet away from three fully-grown lions,  or 15 feet from the cheetahs, knowing that at any time they could pounce and do some serious damage to those of us in the jeep. That's a large part of the benefit of the guides -- they understand animal behavior and they don't put their guests in danger. I certainly felt very safe on all the drives, in the presence of all the animals.

Two males (brothers) and one female. 
Even lions get thirsty! Check out the zebras in the background -- zebra is one of the lions' favorite meals!
Madikwe was a photographer's paradise. In the two days we were there, I took more than 500 photos, plus quite a few videos (if I ever figure out how to add them to the blog, I will!) One of the videos was of the leopard coming down out of the tree -- probably my favorite one of the whole trip.
Iconic setting for a leopard -- what a sight it was!
Two of the four cheetah brothers. 

A couple of the photos here show some juxtapositions that you just don't see in every day life -- a photo with lions and an elephant, or lions and zebras not far from each other. You probably have to click on the photo to make it bigger in order to see the juxtapositions, and I hope you will. It is worth it!!

Here is the video of the leopard climbing down from the tree. 

Three days to go until I come home, and I must say, I'm not ready.  It's been such a wonderful trip that I want it to go on.