After his father’s passing, Brad Auerbach travels to Cape Town with his mother and siblings and along the way, discovers ties to a loved one in unexpected places.
When my Dad died two years ago, my Mom discovered the proceeds of an otherwise unknown life insurance policy. She decided to celebrate his life by taking their three kids to South Africa. We live in four different states, and although we see each other annually, this was the first time in years that we traveled new turf together. Although our banter was familiar, we soon began to coalesce around the remarkable experience of not having our Dad physically with us, but having his spirit and influence so close. My Dad was an educator, and he had instilled in each of us a sense of discovery. Because of his influence, we were able to bring a special appreciation to two fantastic experiences.
South Africa has undergone some dramatic changes since the apartheid regime ended in 1994. The wrenching struggle of bringing equality to all of the country’s citizens has been universally praised. From our perspective, the integration seemed so nearly ubiquitous that it became unremarkable by the end of our trip.
Eleven languages are recognized in the constitution, and the Dutch influence is pervasive especially in the cities. The Afrikaaner language sounds more Dutch than German to my ears, and the older buildings reminded me of similar buildings in Holland. In South Africa, like in the Netherlands, we found many curry dishes on menus, an import from Dutch traders working in Southeast Asia.
We started our visit in Cape Town, a gorgeous blend of San Francisco and Sydney. All three cities revel in their geographic seaside beauty, with dramatic terrain on the outskirts. Each has a memorable wine region nearby as well. While our South African adventure ran over 10 days and was filled with sightings of the Big 5 during safari visits to Kruger National Park and Zimbabwe, there were two specific experiences where I felt the presence of my father the most.
Our first stop was Cheetah Outreach, located about 25 minutes from Cape Town. In January 1997, founder Annie Beckhelling launched the project with two cheetahs and a small parcel of donated land. Annie gave us a guided tour of the expanding space she now oversees, while explaining the goal of her non-profit organization–to promote the survival of the free ranging, Southern African cheetah through environmental education and delivering conservation initiatives.
It took four million years of evolution for the cheetah to become the exceptional animal it is today, but only 100 years for man to place it on the endangered list. “Now the fastest land animal in the world is losing its most important race: the race for survival,” was a recurring theme proclaimed by the staff over and over again.
Annie soon led us to the pinnacle of our visit, an encounter with a cheetah. Volunteers and staff handlers, who work for years with Cheetah Outreach, controlled the cheetahs as we moved quietly, slowly and somewhat confidently into their large fenced areas. The cheetahs were lying down, but we knew that with their 24-foot stride and flexible pretzel-like spine the cheetahs could move faster than anything not man made. We were told we could pet these magnificent cats softly, as long as we knelt down only on one knee.
Although the cheetah was in a relaxed position reminiscent of the position our house cat often assumes, I knew that the crucial differences of these cats were massive. I opted not to give the cheetah the brisk petting treatment favored by our pet Chunky. With almost breathless movement, I partially knelt and stroked the gorgeous tan coat which sported about 2,000 small round black spots; the fur coarse and short. Fortunately, I saw no evidence of its semi-retractable claws. Black “tear marks,” which ran from the corner of its eyes down the sides of the nose to its mouth, keep the sun out of the cheetah’s eyes and aid in hunting. Looking into those eyes at close range was primal. I knew that my Dad would have been equally astounded at the experience; we had learned so much by coming so close to these beautiful animals. We grew up with house cats, and each of we three siblings have cats to this day. Seeing these distant and more impressive feline cousins had us exchanging stories about the cat we had growing up. Dad seemed ambivalent about Sugar, but he would have his eyebrows raised very high seeing these cheetahs up close.
Cheetah Outreach has a solid curriculum of teaching kids in three languages about the cheetah and the organization’s efforts to halt the animal’s eradication. When I commented on how amazing it was to see her involvement with such huge beautiful animals, Annie noted that it is often the case that women are drawn to the big animals and men are drawn to birds. We learned that cheetahs are not good swimmers, which we probably could have guessed when we experimented as kids with Sugar in our swimming pool. We recalled our Dad having a chuckle over this, but remembered how he made us get Sugar out of the water pretty quickly. My sister was always the lover of cats when we were growing up, and now she is avidly looking for a way to return to Africa and work with endangered species.
The South African wine country is a wonderful place to visit after the cosmopolitan nature of Cape Town. Inevitably, one compares the Cape Winelands to Napa Valley. Both are in striking distance to wonderful cities on the water, and both produce stunning wines.
We explored the Solms-Delta Wine Estate, excited to attend one of their summer concerts. Located 15km outside the village of Franschhoek in the heart of the Cape Winelands, Solms-Delta has done an amazing job of addressing the reality of South Africa’s apartheid history by undertaking an ambitious educational initiative for the townsfolk whose elders suffered under the prior political regime. We were intrigued to see firsthand how the estate has been able to surround its philanthropic and educational mission with winemaking.
We arrived at Solms-Delta in the late afternoon, as the shadows grew long, but the air remained warm. The large lawn was arrayed with dinner tables facing the stage, the porch of the main building by day. The Solms-Delta staff is drawn mostly from the townsfolk, who have lived in the region for generations.The summer concert series gives thanks for and celebrates not only the end of the harvest, but also the indigenous music and culture of the region, with its deep heart, soul and history.
Adriaan Brand, who has been at Solms-Delta since 2009, arrived with an amazing pedigree. As a member of Springbok Nude Girls, he attained impressive status as one of South Africa’s top bands, opening for U2 and 104,000 people in Johannesburg and then 80,000 in Cape Town. Adriaan, who is currently working on his Master’s Degree in music therapy and leads the music program at Solms-Delta, wants the local townsfolk to “seize control of their identity.” One way is by assisting them to write new songs in the style of the old songs. For many years, prior to the end of apartheid in 1994 there was an “inward repression of the old songs.” Adriaan described how the traditional gospel songs had the same words across the myriad languages of South Africa, and then he eagerly sang me a few examples.
His fervor was infectious onstage as well, when he led the local woman’s choir through an invigorating set that had folks of all ages and colors on their feet dancing. Offstage after his performance he described to me how the townsfolk need to “own the responsibility” and “use music to fight the impotence” of their situation. He described his theory of “centre out” in juxtaposition to the traditional and often failed efforts of “top down” or “bottom up” approaches to effecting change.
Adriaan’s most compelling story was about his childhood. Raised in a mixed race family, he was acutely aware of the racism around him. In response to the strict racial separation in church services, and in direct response to the oxymoronically-named Christian National political party, Adriaan was part of a Baptist congregation that “went rogue” and hosted multiracial church services. The authorities required separate seating areas for the races, but when the hours-long gatherings turned to the musical portion of the service, all races moved together on their feet, joining in song and praise. The repressive enforcing observers were left flummoxed and impotent.
Solms-Delta offered sterling regional wine, food and music. Our evening there was filled with joy and renewed respect for the power of education and the arts to bridge cultures. When we were growing up my Dad was an elementary school principal. When we began questioning him about racism and poverty he always said that everyone needs to start from the same place: a solid education. My Mom was an art teacher, and she filled our home with an appreciation of all sorts of artistic expression. Although we came to South Africa for the safari, we were very fortunate to partake in a cultural experience that more fully exposed us to the rich history of the region.
At both Cheetah Outreach and Solms-Delta we were able to reflect on the role of education that our father instilled in us, and how travel may well be the premier mode of education. When we were in grade school we took the usual trips to Florida for Spring Break, but soon my Dad looked further. He somehow tightened his educator’s budget and began planning trips to Europe for us during high school. This willingness to stretch beyond comfortable boundaries is something we, as his children, are now trying to pass along to our next generation. I know that had my Dad been with us physically while getting close to the cheetahs or discovering the rejuvenating strategy at Solms-Delta, he would have been right at home.
Photos by Brad Auerbach and South African Tourism