Pretoria (Home?)

Trip Start May 25, 2005
Trip End Ongoing

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Flag of South Africa  ,
Thursday, May 26, 2005

The drive from Jo-burg airport to Pretoria only takes about 30 minutes. The highway was flowing well as I had missed the rush hour crawl. Apparently it is so bad that people who commute between the two cities often travel before 6am or face a long, long, long, slow, hot journey.

The landscape was ecologically barren and built-up. You can't really tell that you are so high above sea-level as there are no mountains. The horizon is flat and shows the parched brown land that signifies we are very 'inland' in Gauteng.

It's hard to tell where Johannesburg ends and Pretoria begins. Over the past 20 years the intervening towns have sprawled along the highway, giving space to suburbanites and even more space to industry. One clue that the city is getting closer is the emergence of the informal settlements and townships that border economic areas. There is a lot of commerce in the city, and therefore immigration is high. People move from the rural communities to find work in the metropol, living on whatever land they can find.

I don't know what the daily standard of life is like in these areas. Some people have mentioned they are ruled by gangs, but without direct experience I hesitate to beleive everything that I hear. Some settlements have been established for over 30 years, and have schools, hospitals, buses - infrastructure that signifies a developed lifestyle.

Anyway, after looking down at Pretoria from a rise on the edge of the city I realised what a huge place it is. Once the stronghold of Afrikaans government, and social and racial segregation, the buildings go one for miles. Entering the city is like entering the past, driving past statues and fountains of the hierarchical days. The dominating outline of UNISA looks like a huge block emerging from the earth. It was the only open communication university in southern Africa, and the only university to allow political prisoners held on Robben island to study for a degree - which some did, Mandella for one. The streets are lined with Jacaranda trees that will bloom in the summer, but for now their leaves and seed pods litter the streets. May is wintertime in Pretoria, although the sun shines high and warm at 25 degrees C.

We make it to my hostel - Pretoria Backpackers - which is set in a quiet residential area next to the University, but bordering the dodgy (formally chic) area known as Sunnyside. Oh, don't mention Sunnyside. You are met by horrified eyes and quick interrogation, "Have you been there? Don't go there. Not even in the daytime" In reality this side of Sunnyside is now known as Clydesdale, such is the difference in pace and crime.

The local residents have lovely houses surrounded by high fences with razor wire - an invitation to see what is being guarded if ever I saw one. That is why car patrols drive along the streets making sure everyone is safe, their adverts pinned to every brick wall, alerting the criminal to beware. Combined with individual security guards, electronic entry keypads and lots of very barky dogs, you feel perfectly safe.

The hostel is lovely, as are the owners and staff. I get to sleep in the house at the back; a luxury old villa with wooden floors and decorated plaster panels. It feels like I have stepped into someone's home, but one I am told to keep locked at all times. It's well above what I am used to, but the regular dorms are nice too. A peace garden with fish and birds, nicely lit at night with the option of a braai (barbeque) give a serene and tranquil place to sit and digest what has happened in the last 24 hours.

Inside is a roaring log fire, which is needed as the nights are very cold. It is next to the tele and was a welcome spot in the morning as I tucked into my free breakfast. It is like an oasis of calm after such a long journey and highly recommended for anyone needing a restful spot. They also arrange airport collections and tailor-made trips to Kruger, Soweto, Ndebele villages, you name it. The owners have been in the game long enough to suss out what a weary traveller needs.

In truth it is hard to imagine staying anywhere else. Other hostels in Hatfield (the now hip area the other side of the Uni) have closed down since the last guide book reviewers were in town. Some were offered large cheques for the now prime developing land, others became so scrappy they faded away. Let's hope PB is here to stay otherwise Pretoria will become a day-trip from Jo'burg for travellers on their way through. What a fall from grace.
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