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Johannesburg: white lions, racial tension, open wounds and… unexpected romance

Written by DanielaZavala. Posted in Blog

Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Published on June 21, 2011 with 9 Comments

“Hi!” said a 6’4” tall and fit man with broad shoulders. He was blond with green eyes. He was sunburn tan. Although he seemed under 40, the sun had been merciless to the skin around his eyes. He had a thick accent.

He sat was next to me in the flight from Zurich to Johannesburg.

“My name is Ramon. ”

“That doesn’t very South African,” I said.

His parents moved from Italy to Johannesburg in the 40s. He was an atlete and a South African navite. He was coming home after a rowing competition in Germany. He was with his team. All of them were white South Africans.

He raised his eyesbrowns when I told him I was staying in Soweto, a famous and historical township of Johannerburg. With over 4 millions inhabitants, this urban community used to be a racially segregated area and the home of the Black Consciousness Movement that lead to the fall of the Apartheid regime, a system of legal segregation enforced by the goverment of South Africa between 1948 and 1994.

Nowadays this township is the home of some of the most historical sites in modern South Africa, but it is also a “rough” neighboorhood of Joburg- as Johannesburg is also known.

Ramon was 37-years-old. I explained to him that I decided to stay in Soweto because of its rich history and significance. He seemed unconvinced. I told him then that I was a journalist and was doing a story about it.

He nodded.

“Ramon, you were 20 when the Apartheid fell. Do you remember those years of the regime?” I asked. After chit chatting about all sort of things, I felt comfortable enough to ask him such personal question.

“Not really. I knew something was different or going on in the 90s. That’s when I started noticing, but we lived separated from all that,” he said.

While today in South Africa there is equal rights and it is not longer illegal interracial marriages, for Ramon, it seems normal that you end up marrying and hanging out with “your people”.

In theory with all the reforms, there should not be prejudices between white, blacks, indian and coloured people in South Africa nowadays, but in my few hours in the city and listening to locals talked, I realized that 17 years is not that long to forget the past, not even among those who are relative young.

The lights of the airplane were turned off. I fell asleep right away, so did Ramon.

Ten hours later our plane landed in Johannesburg. It was a modern and big airport. It didn’t resemble the small terminals of other african countries I have visited, where I could see the reddish land contrasting with the greenery of the vegetation as the plane descended.

Despite all the hours of sleep, I was exhausted and walked like a zombie. It was 9:43am, and at 3pm I had an interview to go to. I had to put myself together and get energies from where I didn’t have.

“Welcome. My name is Isac,” said a black bald man with beer belly. He had a wide smile.
“You are going to a reserve later, right? I wait for you,” he added.

We left the terminal and started seeing the face of Johannesburg. It is winter time in this part of the hemisphere. It was dried and cold outside. Huge and well paved highways were coming and going everywhere. There were many factories, yet not so many people on the streets.

Joburg isn’t what it could be described as a “charming city”, at least not visually.

Isac was going to be my companion for the entire day. He asked me about my life and I asked about his. Today was Isac’s 52 birthday. He celebrated it the day before, so he had to work today. He had three children and already three grandchildren. The girls were over 20 and married. The boy, the youngest, was 12 years old and he still needed to provide for him.

“You see Danielle. We are getting into Soweto. In this side is where the colored lived, this other area is where the black live,” he explained.

Isac clearly remembers the days of racial discrimination. He loves Mandela. It is his hero.

“Today (the political situation) is OK. There was some buas, that’s how we called the racist. There are some Afrikaners who don’t accept the changes. They cannot accept equality. Most white are ok with us being equal, but there is a minority that hates us,” Isac said. “When we go to the reserve, we pass through some Afrikaners’ neighboorhood. Many of them now live in the city of Pretoria as well.”

Ramon was actually heading there at his arrival in Joburg. I wondered if he was a ‘bua”.

We finally arrived in the hostel. I met Maria, a sweet sweedish girl who now called Soweto her home. I also met Lerrato, a nice 25-year-old Soweto Native. Soweto backpackers feels like a home, rather than a hostel.

I dropped my backpack in my room, took a shower and a nap. Within an hour, Isac and I were leaving out of town for a story I was eager to do for the newspaper and the website. Wildlife is my weakness and this was an opportunity to bring awareness to issues that matter to me as well as to make a dream come true.

It felt as if I had just closed my eyes a second ago, but an hour had already past when the alarm rang. I got my equipment ready and went outside to meet Isac.

In front of the hostel, there is a large park owed by Soweto Backpackers. Some children played and men hanged out. A foreigner stood in the crowd and smiled. We walked towards each other and smiled.

“Hi, I am Helgel,” he was from Germany.

We hardly had a chance to talk much. Isac waved at me, ready to go.

“Sorry. I have to go. Are you going to be around tonight?” I asked.

“Yes, I see you later,” he smiled.

It was a 45 minutes ride to the Rhino and Lion Reserve. I had read about the reserve’s breeding program as well as about Ed Hern, his owner, who seemed a passionate conservationist. I was excited about meeting him and learning about his breeding efforts to protect endangered species.

We passed the entrance gate of the reserve and came across with buffalos, ostricts and zebras. I wondered if we would encounter the endangered black rhino and of course my beloved white lions, but we saw none.

This reserve has fancy installations to accommodate local and international visitors and offers safari rides.

“Hi, I am looking for Mr. Hern. I am interviewing him,” I said.

“He will be here in a second. Wait here,” said a young man at the Kiosk, where Isac and I were sent to at the gate.

A very tall white man in his late sixties came out.

“Are you Danielle?” He asked.

‘Yes. Thank you for taking the time to talk to me. Should I call you Mr.Ed or Ed?” I asked.

“You can drop the Mr.” he smiled.

We walked outside the Kiok for a more quite spot. There were dozens of school kids running and screaming around.

As I shut the questions, Ed gave me the perfect 15 seconds sound bites any TV reporter dreams of, but it felt passionless. Maybe it was the accent. Maybe I had way too high expectations…

Our conversation focused on the endangered black rhinos and the rare white lions.

South Africa has more than 90% of the world’s white rhinos and more than 30% of the black rhinos, an endangered species that keep on decreasing by the day.

In 2010, the poaching of rhinos for their horn reached an all time high (about 2 to 3 a week in very sophisticated operations), remaining under threat.

“Despite the governmental efforts, the situation is even worse than last year,” he explained.

The poaching is driven by asian beliefs that the rhino horn is an aphrodisiac.

“Some studies have proved that it has no effects. but now some people believe it can cure cancer and other diseases, but there is not scientific proof of that,” he said.

Ed made headlines last year when in a desperate call for action to stop the killing of rhinos, he said publicly that he would inject poison on his rhinos’ horns so people who consume it would get killed.

“It was an idea, but my legal advisor said that if many people who consumed it got killed, it could go as a case to the Hague as a crime against humanity,” he explained.

The irony is that a rhino is more valuable death than alive. A rhino costs about US$6,000 while its horns is bought in the black market for hundreds of thousands.

“We have a 2-year-old rhino. He is an orphan. I will show it to you,” he said.

The Rhino and Lion reserve is also the home of the rare white lion, which is endemic to a region in South Africa called Timbavati.

The breeding program of white lions has given as a result 20 healthy white lions for the reserve.

Although some organizations are fighting to give the white lion an “endangered” status, Ed assures it is not an endangered specie.

“There are over 1000 white lions around the world. In America, in Middle East, in Europe, in circusses, zoo, everywhere!”

My little kittens!

What is for sure white lions has been extinct from nature for over two decades and just in 2006 reintroduced in its natural habitat in Timbavati.

 

In 1970, Operation White Lion took the lions out of Timbavati to iniciate a breeding program and protect the rare specie from disapparing due to throphy hunt. If it wasn’t for this, they may have disappeared back then. Nowadays, the efforts are being oriented to put them back into the wild.

Ed said the white lions have no chance of survival.

“They don’t have the camouflage. They will die in the wild.”

But other advocates assure that the white lion can survive in his “home land” as their white fur is a good camouflage for the white sandy riverbeds that are characteristic of Timbavati, which is the only place where the genetic rarity of pantera leo has only occurred.

“I will take you to see the cubs,” he said after we finished the interview.

We walked to an area where animals were separated. We first saw the “baby” orphan rhino. He was huge. Although he was a white rhino, he was actually dark. The white has nothing to do with color but with the shape of its mouth. A young man came to feed the 2-year-old rhino with 5-liters milk bottle that the baby devoured in a few minutes.

It was time to meet the cubs.

Felines are my weakness, and among the big cats, the snow leopard and the white lions are my fascination. Holding or hugging one of them was a dream of mine.

We walked into an area where white lion and tiger cubs played. The man who was in charge of taking care of the cubs tried to grab one to give it to me, but the little white lion was “moody”. He roared with all the power of his little lungs.

Other cubs laid peacefully on the ground, enjoying the afternoon breeze. I pet them and they seemed not to be bothered at all.

“Here you go,” the young man managed to control the baby white lion and put it in my hand.

“Chucuchuuu mi amor lindo, ven aca bebe” I started talking in Spanish to the tiny possessed lion as if my words could calm him down.

The baby lion was adorable even when he tried to hurt me. He bite me in the neck and used his paws to scratch me. I was enchanted by his wild side. I kept on holding him and giving him kisses. He wasn’t charmed by my sincere love and I put him back into the ground and he started to run in circle as a mad kitten.

I laid on the ground next to two cubs who slept peacefully and put with my head in the soft fur. I was in heaven!!!!

Ed wanted to show me the other animals, and soon I realized that many animals (regardless they were endangered or part of the breeding program) were in cages. I imagined that some of the animals (specially the babies) were going to be in isolated areas for protection, but didn’t think the animals were going to be in cages. I thought most of them were going to be roaming free in the reserve.

I don’t go to zoo because I don’t feel comfortable with wild animals kept out of their habitats (unless it is to protect them and in efforts to breed an endangered species)
I was about to cry when I saw a bengal tiger and six white lions behind an electric fence. One of the white lions seemed so sad… it broke my heart.

Daniela keep the tears in and closed your mouth I repeated myself.

As an animal lover, I would think that other animal lovers would defend the idea of animals in the wild. It is clear that this reserve is as well a business, but… I guess I am just an idealist.

“You will see one of yours. It is from the amazon!” said Ed with pride.

I saw a wild cat, a jaguar from the amazon behind a fence. At that moment, I couldn’t help but imagine the moment this kitten was taken out of his beautiful home in the wilderness of the green amazon and was flown all the way to South Africa to be shown to visitors in this lonely and dried cage.

The joy of having played with the cubs has turned into frustration and sadness to see these beautiful wild animals trapped in cages.

I behaved and said nothing about my feelings about it.

Ed seemed very proud of his properties.

He apologized as he had another meeting.

With Isac, my driver and host

I came to do a story about the protection of wildlife and breeding program to preserve the species, but suddenly felt I had nothing. At least not a story per se. The breeding program was to have the animals within the reserve to be enjoyed by visitors. It wasn’t to take these animals in the wild so their population could crew and survive. Actually, I didn’t have any shots of these animals in the wild. For the first time in 14 years as a journalist, I didn’t have a story. I felt really frustrated.

 

“How was it? Did he treat you well?” asked Isac.

“Yes, he gave me the perfect sound bites Isac, but it wasn’t what I was expecting my friend. I don’t have enough video to put a story together. I can definitely write an article though about my experience in here and about the reserve as a tourist destination, but my reports are not really touristy you know. There is always a learning experience in it. I just made a dream come true, but I don’t have a story per se,” I told him as we walked to the car.

I had to finish the job I had come to do. I decided to focus now on the reserve as a destination. It could work for the newspaper.

We drove to the fancy cabins that are rented in the reserve.

“There is a rhino in the wild. I need to get this,” I told Isac, who stopped right away.

We have turned our little car into a safari car, stopping anytime we could to get more shots. I still believe I didnt have enough material to make a strong video story, but I was better now than before.

As Isac and I left, we saw more animals in the wild, but not more rhinos or lions. We did come across to a fenced area where supposedly wild lions roam, but we weren’t allowed in, it was past 4pm.

I couldn’t help but think of Uganda and its parks. It was hard to see animals, but they were truly in the wild and that was part of the beauty of the experience.

We drove back home, and Isac showed me the neighborhood where Afrikaners lived. These were definitely wealthier areas.

“It is sad, very sad, these divisions, but they are very few now. They will have to accept the blacks eventually. Don’t know why it is so difficult for them to accept us,” said Isac
“I am a Zulu, and I am proud of it,” he added. Zulu is one of the ten black ethnic groups that live in South Africa.

We finally made it back home. Although it was roughly 6pm, it was already dark.

When I was about to get into my room, I ran into Helgel who was coming with a bottle of fancy wine in his hand.

“Do you want to join me?” he asked with a charming tone.

I was exhausted, but wine could help me to sleep quicker.

We sat in the living room of the hostel to chat and drink.

Helgel looked like a viking. He was just a bit taller than me, but he had a beautiful smile, green eyes, fine features and some grown facial hair that made him all more masculine. He was confident, adventurous, passionate explorer, outdoorsy… and a journalist. We immediately clicked. He has been working as a freelancer for a while, traveling the world covering different stories. He was also a professional and talented photographer. Helgel had just come from Namibia where he took some extraordinary photos of the desert covered with flowers (due to an unexpected rainy season) for a german magazine. After that, he had bought a jeep with other german friends and ventured to one of the wildest (if not the wildest) countries in Africa: the Democratic Republic of Congo.

He had a passion for rivers, and he organized this trip to explore a route of the Congo river (the second largest after the amazon) that has never been attempted before.
His passion was contagious.

Kate, a girl from UK, joined us in the living room. We talked and looked at the stunning photos Helgel has taken around the world. We talked about travel, politics, Africa, and Kilimanjaro, which both of us have climbed.

He told me that my attempt to climb Kilimanjaro in six days through the Lemosho route (the same he did) was “stupid”. That I could have died.

“I know that but the most important is that I made it. I pushed my bounderies and didn’t give up,” I said to him. “I live in America. I have only two weeks vacation at once!”

“That is silly. Look at what you missed,” he showed me a photo of the inside of the crater rim, which I was supposed to visit but decided to give up in order not to risk my life or to suffer some serious complications.

We then looked at each other as if we were partners in crime.

“Don’t look at me like that,” he smiled and touched my hand.

The more we talked, the chemistry grew between us. He was also very warm… actually more than warm. He pushed my chair closer to him. Helgel was a flirt! He would softly touch my face and my hand. He would caressed my waist in a way I couldn’t even say he was crossing the line…

As the hours passed, we felt more and more comfortable with each other.

“Hey guys do you want to join us in the fire outside?” said Chief, a 27-year-old soweto native who works at the hostel.

It was so cold inside the house, we didn’t hesitate to check out the fire.

Outside, there was a group of people. Two young guys from Holland and Germany, Kate from UK, Chief and four south african girls: 23-year-old Vannesa, 25-year-old Esmeralda, and 29-year-old Nina. Plus Helgel and I.

We sat around the fire, chatting and laughing until the conversation turned into the black man’s right to have more than one women (according to Chief) and racial differences. The south africans in there belong to different black ethnic groups, including Zulu, Tswana and Tsonga, while Chief said proudly “I am a coloured” (meaning mixed).

They all looked black south africans to me, so their discussion was actually intriguing. Listening to them talking about the issue was an enlightening way to understand the South Africa of today and its youth 17 years after the fall of the Apartheid.

“We need to forget the pass. We need to move on Chief. There is no point of thinking of what happened. Now we have the same rights,” said Vanessa with conviction to Chief, who assured he would be in danger if he went to a white neighborhood.

“I don’t care. I go what I want. I don’t stop myself from going anywhere,” said Nina, challenging Chief.

“Ok guys, I’ve better leave,” said the young Deutch who was definitely bored by the conversation about politics and race. The young German followed.

Helgel and I stayed, listened carefully. No wonder, we were both journalists…

“Well, let me tell you, as a coloured person. I like more white people than black,” said Chief.

The irony was that he looked just as black as Vannesa, Nina or Esmeralda.

Helgel and I looked at each other, and looked at the girls, who were clearly bothered by his comment.

They were friends with him so it wasn’t a fight but definitely a heated discussion.

“Because of people like you Chief is that we still are hold on to the past. We are South Africans. You talked about your culture as a coloured person? I think it is your personal opinion. I don’t think other coloured people think like you,” said Vanessa. “And you know what? Because of man like you, Africa has such a big problem with AIDS and so many women are single mothers.”

Helgel and I challenged Chief and his comments, which each time more and more discriminatory and non-sense. The girls were sharp and articulated. Chief was completely alone in his nonsense.

In the meantime and don’t know how or when, Helgel and I were seated closed to each other and holding hands as a couple that has been together for years. It happened naturally.

It was almost midnight and we decided all to go to bed.

I was going to get some tea, when suddenly Helgel held me against the door of my room and kissed me. I kissed him back. It was so wrong, yet it felt so right.

“Helgel, Chief is coming and Kate just went to the bathroom,” I said.

Kate was in the room next door. Chief was going to sleep in the couch of the living room. If we were going to make out without being caught. Where?

I felt like a teenager trying to hide from my parents. I remembered that night in Cairo with Kevin, where we struggled to find a place to kiss freely!

“Who cares?” Helgel said.

The reality is that we were both grown ups. What the hell!!

“Ok, I am going into my room. I am leaving the door open. However, one thing. We can kiss, fool around, but I am sorry I don’t have one night stands, much less when I travel,” I made clear to him before he joined me.

I have had beautiful romances while traveling, some of them have turned into relationships, but I have always found very risky to sleep with a stranger, especially when traveling solo. Having said that, I am also the kind of person who strongly believes in embracing the moments, and as a mad romantic I would never let a moment with someone special pass not matter the circumstances.

“Totally fine. Not at problem for me,” he smiled.

We went into my room and kissed as if there was no tomorrow. Helgel was so passionate, masculine, strong, in charge, yet so romantic. From all the places I have been, Johannesburg is not one in particular that I would say it is a romantic spot, but at that moment, with Helgel, it felt really crazy and romantic.

He made me feel as if I had nothing to worry about. At times, I just rested in his chest while he played with my hair and kissed me softly. This was a fearless man, and also so carefree one. It was about us, and about the moment. What happened tomorrow didn’t matter.

Men in my recent past have been so concern or fearful about a relationship or just a romance, that coming across with Helgel was refreshing. We didn’t sleep together, yet being held in his arms and the whole foreplay was more intimate than having sex, and it made it all more special.

“Daniela, I am going to leave now, so you have something to look forward to next time,” he kissed me.

At that moment, I thought we were definitely the most auto-controlled people on this planet, but I guess for the two of us, it meant more to wait.

“I will look for you Daniela. Miami, Chile, maybe you should come to Berlin?” he said as he hugged me.

“If you want to be with me Helgel, you will have to come for me,” I warned him.

For very long time, I have been the one leading the relationships, making the efforts to make things work with my partners. At this point of my life, I am ready for a relationship, but I also know what I want: a determined man who takes charge and has no fears.

“And I will,” I kissed me again.

I wished I had the certainty that Helgel would come for me, but I had my doubts. Having said that, I didn’t care if this was the last time I saw Helgel or if it was the beginning of something bigger. I was just happy about that moment because as brief as it was, he made me feel happy, taken care of and protected.

I laid in bed, looking at him. He was a handsome, but what I found even more attractive about Helgel was his confidence, his determination, his free spirit, his passion for what he did and for life in general.

He kissed me softly again and left.

I felt asleep thinking of the moment Helgel and I would meet again…

A few hours later the sun struck my window. It was so cold, I struggled to leave the bed. I forced myself out of it, and ran into Kate and Chief. I felt a bit embarrased as I am sure they had seen Helgel coming into my room, but they said nothing.

I prepared my backpack. Isac was coming for me at 11am to take me to the airport.

“Hey Daniela, are you ready?” said Isac.

“Yes. Let’s go. I see you guys on July 2nd,” I told the girls who worked at the hostel and who have been very sweet and welcoming to me.

“Great. We will wait for you here,” Lerrato said.

“Ok Daniela, I have to stop at my house for the music. It is close,” said Isac

I had asked him I wanted to listen to south african music but he had none yesterday, so he promised me to have it for the airport ride.

He rushed into his house and brought two CDs.

“This is very very nice. It is mixed!” he said with his thick accent.

He played the DVD. It was a love slow song in English

“Is this African?” I smiled.

“Yes, well this is a mixed CD you know. A good one, you will see,” he assured.

But song after song it was all about love, and not precisely African.

“Dear, you are a romantic or at least you woke up in a romantic mood my friend,” I laughed.

He even sang out loud.

I continued laughing.

“Do you like it?” he was intrigued.

“It is great. I really like it,” I lied. I am not big fan of romantic songs.

“I will make a copy for you when you come back,” he was excited. “I make another with clubbing african music”

“Ah now we are talking. Remember I am latin!”

We made it to the airport just on time. I gave a hug to Isac. He had picked me up 24 hours earlier, but already felt like a friend.

I had just started this adventure and my life back home feels like a remote reality that happened long ago… I feel free, excited, happy… the headaches that have been killing me back home have suddenly disappeared and now I am suddenly recharged with energies. I feel very blessed as I have it all at home… but it is this nomadic life on the road that fulfills my heart.

The journey in Madagascar begins today!

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9 Comments

There are currently 9 Comments on Johannesburg: white lions, racial tension, open wounds and… unexpected romance. Perhaps you would like to add one of your own?

  1. Daniiii! que rico leerte, viví tu experiencia cual novela: reí, me entristecí, se me puso la piel de gallina, etc! jajaja confieso que es la primera vez que paso de ver tu fotos a la lectura, y de verdad que lo disfrute muchisimoooo! (ya coloque tu pagina en “My Favorites” para estar pendiente del resto de tus aventuras!)
    Un abrazo y cuídate muchisimooo… Brave Woman!!! 😀

  2. This is Great Daniela. I’m on for the ride and want to hear more about this adventure! … I also hope Helgel looks for you. It sounds like the beginning of a perfect love story 🙂

    besitos!
    mo

  3. …..WHITE LIONS – MYTHOLOGY HISTORY GENETICS……Mutants are natural variations that occur due to spontaneous genetic.changes or the expression of recessive hidden genes through.inbreeding. Colour mutations that would.disadvantage a wild big cat are now perpetuated in captivity for the.sake of curiosity or aesthetics…I am grateful to Paul McCarthy and Mary Ann Howell for researching .providing and correcting extensive material genealogies historical and.current information about white lions. Animals with strange deformities were born in that region – cattle.with 2 heads white impala and green-eyed white leopards and lions.

  4. It is responsible for protecting the White Lions and developing the related cultural values that hold them sacred. …………Dear Visitor .Thank you for stopping by and taking the time to read this urgent message..Whether you recognize the value of conservation for endangered animals on our planet or are sensitive.to the deep spiritual meaning of the circumstances we are about to share with you we are positive that.you will not remain indifferent to this calling…In a small and remote area called Timbavati located in the northeast region of South Africa next to the.world famous Kruger National Park the most sacred animal on the African continent and perhaps on.the planet has re-emerged after centuries of invisibility. It was only in 1975 that.Chris McBride an animal biologist officially verified their existence through photographic evidence .after his family stumbled across a miraculous occurrence white lions with coats as pure as the whitest.snow..

  5. In 1997 a study by Cruickshank Robinson determined conclusively that White Lions are not albinos. White Lions made a significant contribution to the biodiversity of that region.

  6. Gracias Nadia! Ya manana comienzo a colocar el diario completo. Beso

  7. Time will tell about Helgel and I… but I do hope I can see him again as he is a very interesting guy 🙂 I hope you enjoy the diaries from Madagascar. Thanks for traveling along with me 😀

  8. Wow, so unique. I love everything approximately these. wow gold

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