A paradise that's not for everyone
By Professors David and Sue Hall
Published: 9:11AM GMT 11 Nov 2009
We live on a farm in South Africa, at the foot of the Langeberg mountains. Our house is called Xairu, a Bushman word meaning paradise. It’s as close as we will get.
We look out across a lake where, most days, we hear the haunting call of the fish-eagles. Malachite sunbirds, iridescent green, splash in the fountain and feed from the aloes and hibiscus. The two-hour drive to our home in Montagu from Cape Town airport is a decided improvement on the M25 to Heathrow; the road goes through the Valley of Wine and Roses, where the mountains tower above the vineyards and the blue sky is the perfect backdrop to the white Cape Dutch houses.
A spectacular gorge through the Langeberg leads into Montagu. This mountain range forms a climate barrier between the wine valley and the Klein Karoo, where the hotter drier climate is well suited to dessert wines. Route 62 continues from Montagu to a series of little towns, magnificent mountain passes and remote guest farms and joins the Garden Route on the south coast; together these make a superb circular tour from Cape Town.
The sunshine, the vivid colours of the plants and birds, the beauty of the sunrise and sunset over the mountains, these are a daily source of delight to refugees from Northern Europe. The Milky Way is more spectacular than in the northern hemisphere and on warm summer nights the crickets and frogs provide a musical backdrop.
The South African Astronomical Observatory, a favourite tourist destination, was built in Sutherland 6,000 feet up in the Great Karoo, where there is virtually no light pollution. We drove there recently, covering 100 miles on gravel roads, meeting four cars and one motor cycle en route. Perhaps this is the greatest attraction for those who have fled the overcrowded South East of England - the sheer size of South Africa and the vast areas of hills and open bush where the peaks you see on the horizon can be an hour’s fast drive away.
Our fascination with this country dates back to our school days. When we met at a London medical school, we discovered that we had each read Alan Paton’s Cry The Beloved Country, written in the dark days of South Africa’s apartheid regime.
As junior doctors we worked at the Baragwanath Hospital in Soweto, the sprawling black township south-west of Johannesburg. They say that if you stay three years in Africa you will always come back. And we did, five years ago.
We have always worked in cities and so life in a small country town has been a new and different experience. Archers devotees will understand when we say that Montagu is rather like Ambridge. There are no secrets here. When we try to settle our bills we are often told – don’t worry, I’ll see to it later. They often add: "We know where you live!"
Apart from sport, and particularly rugby, television plays a much smaller part in the life of our town than is the case in England. Within weeks of arriving in Montagu, newcomers are drawn quite subtly into a wide range of activities – there are so many clubs, societies and action groups that there are never enough chairpeople, fundraisers and secretaries to go round.
In the last few weeks, we have sold oysters at the wine festival in aid of our rotary club, heard the Dvorak mass sung by a local choir, and done a mountain nature reserve walk with the Eco-Club – in addition to providing research support to colleagues in Cape Town.
Thanks to the miracle of Skype and internet telephony we can talk to and see our family in England whenever we like, and admire the grandchildren’s progress. Beautiful Cape Town – the jewel in South Africa’s crown – is on our doorstep. We can have afternoon tea in Montagu and breakfast in London.
In contrast to Australia or the Caribbean there is no jet lag. We do not have a significant terrorist threat. So why do we have fewer expats than more famous sunshine spots?
The fear of crime is probably the main reason. We feel safer in Montagu than we do in London, but crime is a worry in parts of Johannesburg and Durban, where thousands of poor families still live in shabby dusty townships on the fringes of prosperous suburbs and magnificent shopping malls. Government plans to address poverty and bad housing have been slow to take effect due to skills shortages, incompetent and sometimes corrupt project management and also to a massive influx of immigrants from less fortunate countries – but, as citizens of the UK know all too well, these are not uniquely African problems.
It is easy to deal with all this simply by turning a blind eye and enjoying the good things of life. As we enjoy our sundowner with friends, a common jest is “another hard day in Africa”. But many people, while passionate about this country and revelling in its glories, are well aware of both the evil and the danger of the huge gap in lifestyle between the prosperous minority and the rest of the nation.
In Montagu, volunteers from a wide variety of backgrounds have created jobs, supported families with HIV/Aids, assisted palliative care services, built a bird hide and developed food security gardens. One scheme encourages and enables disadvantaged young people to go to University. We met four black young people who had just graduated and returned full of enthusiasm to work in their rural home town and they all said the same: “No-one in our family ever thought it was possible to go to College."
South Africa is a wonderful holiday destination. As a place to live, work or retire – well, it’s not for everyone. But for those who are willing to try and understand its complex history, adapt to its lifestyle and contribute to their community, it is by turns beautiful, frustrating, infuriating, and endlessly fascinating. For us, it’s home.
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