Proud to be an American: A South Africa Travel Story

We are just back from a weekend out of town.


Steve’s been working every weekend since April; expect for a few days while we were home and I, in self defense, started working on a book – a business related book, not of interest to most of you. Still, I will let you know when it is published sometime next year.

The good news is, Steve’s push to “go live” ended last week and he was rewarded with one day off.  With a three day weekend ahead, we pack our bags, loaded the ice chest with food and set out for a slightly-better-than-camping trip to a popular South African tourist destination – God’s Window in the rugged northern Drakensburg Mountains.

As an experiment, and because I was granted last minute reservations with just one phone call, we stayed in a backpackers lodge.  Not the dorms, we are not that eager to relive our youth, but a private rondoval with a small kitchen and our own bath.

Our rondoval on a sunny day

The accommodations were basic but clean and probably would have been fine if the weather had not taken an unexpected turn from sunny and warm to cold and raining.  Since we had traveled high into the mountains, we had the privilege of actually being inside the cold, damp rain clouds all weekend.

Hiking in the fog and mist was out of the question. Still we stuck it out.  In the evening we hung out under the covers to keep warm. We spent the day driving through dense but patchy fog to see the sites.

By following our GPS, which turned out to be completely wrong, we made a brief visit to the museum town of Pilgrims’ Rest.  This heritage mountain town is the first gold mining town in South Africa. It is now a popular tourist site with serious political problems.

We did not know about the problems when we stopped there to use the restroom.  We were not surprised when, as is usual here, a young man waved us into a parking place and promised to look after our car.  We agreed, knowing the service would result in a R5 tip when we returned, and walked into the store to find the facilities.

When we came out, the young man was washing our car – in the rain.

“You didn’t tell us you were going to wash the car.” I objected with a scowl.

“There is no other work here.” he responded looking sheepish and subservient.

“We didn’t want the car washed. It is raining.”  I said, still scowling as I stated the obvious.

“There is no other work here.” he whined.

“You should have told us.”

“I give you for R40.”  He mumbled.

I see now there is a small, hand lettered, cardboard sign loosely staked in the ground advertising car washes for R60.  The sign was not visible when we parked. It is even now turning into the wind where, from the parking strip it cannot be read.  I see that this ploy is business as usual.

R40 is about $4, certainly not worth fighting about, but enough to acquire a very bad taste for the tourist town of Pilgrim’s Rest.

We leave our scam artist friend to finish his fruitless task and walk up the authentic street of the town in into the tourist information center where the big boned Afrikaner women who works there proceeds to ignore us.

The tourist agent

After wandering about for a while looking at rocks once rich with gold, I go and stand in front of the counter and wait. Eventually she looks up.

“We are looking for information about hiking.” I say.

She points to a sign on the wall offering guided hikes on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.  Today is Saturday.

“Don’t you have a map?”

Now I have her attention. She stands up from her desk and walks toward us. “You have to register for a guided hike.  You can’t hike in these mountains.”

Our guide book has mentioned several trails and nothing about needing to hire a guide. I open my mouth to clarify. She interrupts.

“These mountains are treacherous.”  Her voice is rising.  “I can’t tell you how many times I have had to send out rescue parties for people like you.”

I open my mouth again.  I don’t get a chance to speak.

“Where are you from?” she asks, moderating her tone a bit.

“America, Virginia, near Washington DC.” I respond thinking we have had a moment of connection.

“Well, this is nothing like Virginia.”  She snaps.  “I don’t mean to be rude but I can’t in good conscious let you go into these mountains by yourself.  You will get hurt.  And, if you go out without a permit, you will get arrested; we have a lot of trouble with illegal mining and people poaching trees.”

Now at this point I am getting curious. For one, I wonder how well this Afrikaner woman knows the landscape of Virginia. How can she be so sure her land is so different from ours?  Her mountains are rugged to be sure but the land is also covered in meticulously managed forests.  The trees are all the same type, tall thin pines: uniform in height, evenly spaced and growing from a clean carpet of pine needles.   There is no poison ivy or mountain sumac, no deer, no bear, no wild flowers.  How can her land be so much more dangerous than mine?

I am also wondering how likely it is that Steve and I would be mistaken for illegal miners or tree poachers but Michele, the mean spirited tour guide, is not done talking.

Seeing I am not yet convinced, Michele begins to scan the tourist literature spread around her historically accurate mining museum. She is obviously looking for a good distraction to keep me from opening my mouth and to thoroughly dissuade us from our foolish desire to actually walk in these hills.  Quick, before we have time to ask a question, (Like: Oh? When were you in Virginia?)  She whips out one of those tourist magazines that are full of ads for restaurants, bungee jumping, and gift shops and says,

“We keep this special for people like you.”

She opens it to the map in the middle and tells us we should get back in our car and start driving.  About 100 kilometers away, past endless panorama views that are completely socked in by fog, is a cave tour. There we can hire a cave guide and he will take us walking for either 12 minutes or two-hours depending on how rigorous an adventure we are up for and what we want to pay for.

The Modern Day Story of Pilgrim’s Rest

Later we learned that this town, being an historic site, is owned by the Mpumalanga Department of Public Works. Business owners in Pilgrims Rest lease their historically renovated buildings from the government.

In July of 2012, the government announced, after indiscreetly mentioning at a town meeting that “There were too many white faces in town.” that all business owners must re-bid for the lease on their premises.

The results of the rebid awarded many of the best businesses in town to one person.  The lease on the golf course was awarded for a bid R33 per month rent. Surprisingly it was not awarded to the current business owner who submitted a bid of R3000 per month. The lease on the caravan park was awarded to the same person for R 48,800 despite a competing bid of R1.2 million.

Of course this is all now in the courts. Meanwhile the current business owners are working month to month not knowing when they will be evicted in favor of a PDI (previously disadvantaged individual) who has no credentials, no retail stock, no liquor or fuel license, no business plan and no experience running a business

The expected result is: the town, a standard stop on bus tours of the area, may close down completely.

Proud, or at Least Happy, to Be American

When one hears stories like this, it is not so hard to believe that Steve and I might well be mistaken for illegal miners and find ourselves housed in a historically renovated jail in a dying tourist town.

But, before you worry too much, we have the protection of being American tourists.  For the dishonest car washers and secretive tour guides of Pilgrims Rest, it is not financially wise to get our government involved in local shenanigans. And, knowing the way things work, Steve and I have learned to make wise choices.

On this occasion, we choose to take our useless tourist magazine, walk back to our car, pay for our useless car wash and move on down the foggy road.

God’s Window

Here is what we went to see.

God’s Window Photo by Cristel Veefkind, Dec 2007

This is what we saw

God’s Window Photo by Dana Dwyer, Oct 2013

Thank you everyone who has requested updates.  I will try to do better but truthfully my day-to-day life is Johannesburg is just not that interesting.


Dana's Signature

Photo by Steve Bottle

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13 Responses to Proud to be an American: A South Africa Travel Story

  1. Larry Heath says:

    Thanks, Dana, for sharing your trip to Pilgrim’s Rest! We miss
    you guys. Your obscured view of God’s Window reminded me of my
    bus trip through the Khyber Pass in 1978. I left Kabul, Afghanistan on a
    bus to Peshawar, Pakistan with great anticipation of seeing the historic
    Khyber Pass, the site of so many historic passages, such as Alexander the Great.
    Our Pakistani bus driver ran over and killed an Afghan on a bicycle near some
    remote village en route. After three or four hours of wrangling over who was at fault and what, if any, punishment should be meted out, we proceeded on. We arrived at
    the pass in the middle of the night. I saw nothing more than some light reflecting
    off the rifle barrels of the Pakistani border guards. The Khyber Pass is still on
    my “bucket list” of places to see……

  2. Holly Bange says:

    Dana, Thanks! I love your blogs, It is a great jolt in the arm for the non-world traveling people! I am really excited about your family coming in and the Nicaragua!
    Looking forward to hearing about it!! Much love to you and Steve!

  3. Jeanette says:

    Wonderful story, as usual, Dana. Thanks so much for sharing this latest adventure. It was great seeing you when you were here, and we hope to be able to do it again this coming year. I also was reminded of a time we had hoped to see something; actually it was to share something with a friend. We were up in Yosemite in the winter time and wanted Ken, our Japanese student who had stayed with us years earlier for 5 weeks when he was in university, and who had come back to visit us again after finishing college and working some, the magnificent view of Yosemite Valley through the Wawona Tunnel. Well, we came out the end of the tunnel to a view similar to yours of God’s Window: fog and clouds. We stopped at a restaurant for lunch on our way back home and showed him on a place mat the scene we had hoped to show him in person: El Capitan on the left and Half Dome on the right. It wasn’t quite the same…..Can’t wait for your next story!

  4. Mark Dunn says:

    God didn’t show up for us either when we went to Mt. Rushmore, decades ago before we even knew the word “sequester”. I like your quarters there, reminding me of the minimal housing fad in the US. Also liked that Steve was granted a reprive of one day, no matter what the weather although that aspect a bummer. The old saying, “Adventures are never comfortable”, seems to apply everywhere including US, South Africa, and Mexico. Love to both of you! Mark

  5. Dana says:

    I love that my story has generated so many memories and stories for others. Keep em coming!

  6. Holly says:

    Great to hear from you. Diane and David and I were at the fall goldcup races last weekend, and we were remarking that we hadn’t read a blog in a while. She is busy planning her trip to see you in January I think. I am jealous…..

    What’s your book about?

    • Dana says:

      The tentative title is


      I hope to come up with a better title soon.

  7. Toni says:

    You are not forgotten! Continue with your adventure and STAY OUT OF jail!

  8. Steve says:

    Well even though the weather was grey and damp we did enjoy the sights we were able to see. Once we got further up the mountain we got out of the fog but still cloudy.

    Each of the way points had a little guard shack and we paid 10 rand ($1) for the privilege of seeing the view. In addition, there were many street vendors at each site. Lots of women sitting wrapped in blankets selling pretty much the same thing. I did appreciate the wood work and the fabrics but we don’t have place to put all the beautiful things we see.

    The food was good there too. There was a small Portuguese restaurant that we ate in each night since the weather wasn’t conducive to cooking the food we brought outside on the Brai (barbecue). The prawns and kale soup were my favorite. Being close to Mozambique there is plenty of fresh seafood.

    We hope to go back on the spur of the moment when we see the weather is nice and I have another day off 🙂

  9. domenick says:

    i can’t believe there’s corruption in the southern hemisphere…any more than illegal gambling going on in Morocco!

  10. Bryan Graham says:

    We enjoy reading about your adventures.

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