South Africa Diary

For people who are interested, this is a classic “What I did on my summer vacation” post. If you are interested, click below to read more. If not, go on to your next RSS feed…

Note that many more pictures, in higher resolution, are available on our SmugMug site at

This trip came as a bit of surprise. Georgia Tech and the University of Pretoria have had a lot of interactions in the last couple of years; both my boss and one of my employees have visited there. But I hadn’t thought about going myself until I was invited to represent GT’s commercialization activities in a set of meetings scheduled for the end of June.

I figured that, if I were going to fly that far, I wanted to take some time to play tourist. So Cecilia and I both arranged to take vacation time… but we only had a couple of weeks notice. Normally, I’d research a destination thoroughly before visiting. This time, I basically just re-read James Michener’s “The Covenant” and figured that everything else would sort itself out.

Cissa and I met Andy Smith and Steve McLaughlin at Hartsfield on Tuesday afternoon. It was not a painless departure… our aircraft was down-checked for maintenance, and for a couple of hours, it seemed the flight would be cancelled. But Delta found a spare plane (and how do you find a spare 767-ER???), and we were off.

Cissa was travelling on a Delta “buddy pass”, so we weren’t guaranteed that she would get a seat… and certainly weren’t guaranteed that we’d get to sit together! But they found her a seat, and we traded around a little bit after the plane pushed off, and we were happily ensconced together in coach.

Eight hours later, we were landing in Dakar. Bizarre security ritual. We were not allowed to leave the plane, but a dozen or more security troops came on to roust out the sleeping passengers, rip up every seat cushion, and identify each carry-on bag. It would have been far more efficient to have us deplane, keep us in a holding area, then reboard after the search. I still haven’t figured out what they were looking for! Certainly made it impossible to have a restful refueling stop.

Got brief glimpses of Senegal on takeoff. No pictures.


Eight more hours and we were landing in Johannesburg. It was after dark, so we didn’t see any of the city on landing. Quick immigration formalities… although South Africa has an unusual requirement that you must have two blank facing pages in your passport before entering their country. I think I’ll have to get a passport addendum before I can go again!

We were met by the supremely efficient Alta Scheepers and her husband of the University of Pretoria, in a “combi” (what they call a van). The Joburg airport parking deck has the same neat feature as decks in Santiago… red and green lights over each space, so that it’s easy to find an empty one. Why hasn’t the U.S. figured this out?

We were four hours late arriving, so our dinner with the Chancellor was cancelled. We drove straight to the hotel in Pretoria and had a quick room service dinner. We were able to get a glimpse of the Southern Cross… yes, we’re far away from home!

Thursday, I joined Andy, Steve, Aris Georgakakos (Georgia Tech CE), and Laurie Olivier for campus events. Laurie is a university of Pretoria graduate now living in Atlanta. As part of his venture capital work, he has been putting in special efforts to connect the two universities.

One of the issues which both communities share is “brain drain”… at Georgia Tech, the concern is our smart graduates moving to California. At U.P., the concern is smart graduates leaving the country entirely! Emigration among the talented and ambitious is a real problem for South Africa. Providing top-notch degree programs and the infrastructure to encourage entrepreneurship isn’t a silver bullet, but it’s an important way the universities can help. (I believe the same goes for Atlanta, as any regular reader of this blog will know.)

While we were working, Cissa got a tour of Pretoria. She visited the Voortrekker Monument (kind of a military cathedral) and Oom Paul Kruger’s house and a few other sites around town.

She joined us in the afternoon for a tour of a couple of museums on the University of Pretoria campus… one from Mapungubwe (a civilization predating that of Great Zimbabwe) and one amazing collection of Chinese porcelain donated to the university by J.A. van Tilburg.

At the end of the day, Andy and Robin Crewe (U.P.) announced the new Joint Water Resource Management Degree Program, which you can read about here.

Friday morning, the spouses left early for the game park, while Andy, Steve, and I joined the University of Pretoria folks for some facilities tours.

After a lunch meeting where I compared notes on commercialization strategies, we all headed to the airport to fly to the Ngala Lodge (where our spouses had already arrived).

Ngala Lodge/Kruger Park

Little bitty prop plane… a Cessna Caravan. We squeezed in and headed north. Gorgeous views of the Drakensberg Mountains in the northeast of the country:

We landed about 4:30. Our spouses had landed three hours earlier, so they got an extra game drive… which means they wound up seeing a leopard and her cub napping in a tree! Almi Olivier took this great photograph. (An advantage of digital: I collected photos from Laurie, Almi, and Steve McLaughlin; they’re identified on the main photo site.)

We joined them a few hours later, but it was already getting dark (remember, it’s winter in South Africa in June!), and we saw the leopard, but couldn’t get any pictures worth reproducing. It was a gorgeous sunset, though!

Back to the lodge for a fabulous al-fresco dinner… and more talk about technology commercialization.

Ngala Lodge (“lion” in the local Shangaan language) is a luxurious place, adjacent to the Kruger National Park. There are no fences of any sort… the animals have an area the size of Belgium to roam in. And, if you want, you can just drive through Kruger in your own car. Good luck. But the advantage of a place like Ngala is that they have dozens of trackers out every day, reporting in by radio, so the guides can pretty much drive you directly to great views of the animals.

Up at oh-dark-thirty on Saturday morning for the next game drive:

Although you can’t see it in this picture, there were baboons cavorting on the roof of the lodge building… and the sunrise we were watching was the summer solstice. The sun stays to the north in the Southern Hemisphere. Intellectually, I understand that. Reflexively, it’s easy to get confused…

Note to self: Next time we go to South Africa in their winter, take gloves! And a scarf. And a warm jacket. I had none of the above. (Cissa had a scarf and a warm coat, but bitterly missed having gloves.) It was 3°C on Saturday morning… that’s 37°F. Then you start driving about in an open Land Rover… no roof, no windows, no windshield. It’s cold.

I’m not going to reproduce all the photos here… but a brief list of the animals our group saw over the next two days: Lion, leopard, rhino, elephant, and Cape buffalo (the “Big Five”). Giraffes, zebras, hippos, wildebeest, warthogs, kudu, and a semi-infinite number of impala. Plus lots of different kinds of birds.

On Saturday morning, about the time we finally warmed up, the Land Rover pulled into a clearing where the Ngala folks had set up a sumptuous breakfast buffet in the middle of nowhere! Nothing like a pitcher of mimosas to prepare you for a mid-day nap…

After more game drives on Saturday afternoon and Sunday morning, we finally flew out on Sunday mid-day. Andy, Steve, and Aris headed back to Atlanta. Cissa and I had arranged for a week of vacation time, so we spent the night back in Pretoria at the Whistletree Lodge… the perfect place to relive a bit of British colonialism.

(As an unreconstructed Confederate, I tend to sympathize with the Boers…)

The Blue Train

Early Monday morning, we boarded the legendary Blue Train and headed south. More pictures here, but this gives you a sample:

This isn’t Amtrak! It’s a throwback to a completely different era, before air travel, when luxurious trains were the preferred way to cross continents. Europe has the Orient Express; Africa has the Blue Train.

The overnight trip to Cape Town is 1600 kilometers (1000 miles). This is when we first started getting a conception of how big — and empty! — South Africa is. From news reports, you could be forgiven for thinking it’s all shantytowns and violence. You could probably get the same perception of the United States if you just saw pictures of the Mexican border and the South Side of Chicago.

South Africa covers 1.2 million square kilometers… about a sixth the size of the continental United States, and comparable in size to our familiar Southeastern U.S. But most of it is too dry. Only 12% of SA’s land is arable, and only 1% irrigated. The overwhelming impression crossing by train, or from the air, is that “This place needs some more rain!”

In general, the topography is a mix of the Western U.S… you have some bits that remind me of California, some bits that remind me of Colorado, and desolate bits that look like Nevada. The settlement pattern is much like the U.S…. individual houses widely scattered in farming territories, with suburban areas surrounding the cities and towns. It has a much more American feel than European… something I didn’t expect.

The mountains are incredible. Multiple mountain ranges, all looking like something you’d see in the Grand Tetons or Yosemite… with farms and homesteads in the valleys between. If you like scenery that goes up and down, you’re going to love South Africa.

Then you get to Cape Town.

Cape Town

Oh, my. This is possibly the most beautiful city in the world. (And I’ve been to Rio de Janeiro, and Sydney, and Vancouver, and Venice, and San Francisco, and etcetera.)

Like everyplace in South Africa, it has a history with tragic elements. It’s the place where entire neighborhoods were bulldozed in the mad pursuit of complete apartheid. But Cape Town City Hall is also the place where Mandela addressed the nation after being released from prison.

There are an amazing number of parallels between Cape Town and Rio de Janeiro (and, on a larger scale, between South Africa and Brazil, as well). I’ll let Cecilia write that post one day. But one of the biggest differences: South Africa clearly sees itself as a First World country with some Third World problems. Brazil sees itself as a Third World country with some First World enclaves. The consequences of that shift in mindset are immense.

We were blessed with fabulous weather and a brilliant guide (Melissa Pike; highly recommended! Contact me for her email/phone), which was unusual for the dead of winter. So we got to ride the cablecar to the top of Table Mountain, and to drive out to the Cape of Good Hope, all without a cloud in the sky.

More pictures here… including a side trip to Stellenbosch. How do you describe Stellenbosch? It’s a university town, and also the center of South Africa’s winemaking industry. Imagine mixing Ann Arbor with Napa Valley, then putting it all in the Yosemite National Park. That’s Stellenbosch.

There’s a cheetah-rescue project at Spiers outside of Stellenbosch where you can go inside the enclosure and pet some of the cheetahs. They’re just like huge housecats! Purring, rolling, batting at strings… we want one, but our existing cats would probably get jealous!

Cape Town has a great aquarium. Much smaller than the one in Atlanta, of course, but it wants to educate as well as entertain. There are long textual explanations next to each exhibit, and they’re not dumbed down in the slightest. I was impressed. I wish Bernie Marcus would consider adding something like that.

Charmed life department: One of my favorite musicals is Tim Rice’s “Chess.” I have three different recordings of it at home. Unlike most of Rice’s work, this one is almost never produced on stage. Turns out a South African touring production of it was running in Cape Town while we were there. It was sold out, but Melissa was able to find tickets for us! I snapped some clandestine pictures from the audience, so the quality is lousy:

This was a different production than I had seen before, and was much more “true” to the original concept than some of the post-Cold War adaptations. I hope it get a chance to travel to the U.S.!

Tiny intimate theatre, with most of the pre-curtain chatter in Afrikaans, not English. They encouraged you to bring your wine glass into the theatre… so the ovation at the end looked like a mass toast to the performers! Very different, very pleasant.

False Bay to Hermanus

On Friday, we rented a car, and I got a chance to reacquaint myself with driving on the wrong side of the road. In the rain.


But the weather cleared up a bit as we navigated the southern coast to Hermanus, a beautiful harborside village famed for its whale-watching. Even though we were early in the season, a quick run offshore in a small boat brought us face to face with two humpback whales who clearly had been practicing synchronized swimming!

More whale pictures here.

Garden Route

We drove east all day on Saturday, expecting to spend Sunday night at Port Elizabeth before flying home on Monday. But, as I said before, it’s a big country! I wasn’t looking forward to spending all of Sunday on the road without time for stops. A chance encounter with a friendly clerk at Jukani pointed out that we could fly out of George as well as Port Elizabeth. So we juggled hotel and rental car reservations, rebooked our flights, and spent a much less stressful Sunday driving from Mossel Bay north to Oudtshoom then south again to George, stopping at various places along the way to admire the views. That let us spend about an hour at the Point at Mossel Bay, which is just outrageously photogenic.

Then a beautiful drive through the Robinson Pass, past ostrich farms to the Cango Caves, then down through the Outeniqua Mountains to George for the night.

After an easy flight from George to Johannesburg, we had about a six-hour layover until Delta flew us home. There was a brief bit of concern when it appeared Cissa wouldn’t clear the flight on her buddy pass, but she got aboard at the last minute… with a warning that she might have to leave the plane at Dakar. Panic! But no one asked her to leave, and Delta made a 19-hour flight as painless as possible.



So… two weeks in South Africa, by plane, train, and automobile (and boat!). It’s a beautiful country. Incredible wildlife. Gorgeous scenery. Friendly people. Reasonable prices. You can usually find a Wi-Fi connection. The wines are great, and the water is safe to drink. Everyone speaks English.

The only thing I can’t figure out is: Why hasn’t it been overrun by American tourists?

South Africa is going to host the 2010 World Cup, and they’re working hard to build new arenas, new roads, and all the other infrastructure necessary to handle three million visitors. I predict that a lot of people are going to come for the football (soccer)… and fall in love with the country.


  1. Brandy Nagel says

    So so jealous.
    Thanks for sharing.

  2. Amazing photos and an amazing trip. I think we’re all quite jealous…

  3. Great combination of business and pleasure. Thanks for putting together a great itinerary for a business trip!