(July is the middle of South African winter).
I stay in the town of Middelburg. This is a small town about 150km to the East from Johannesburg. I live in a very small hotel. Actually it is not a hotel, but just a kind of guesthouse for 10 rooms and 2 restrooms, so guests share these facilities and have to make a line every morning to wash and to wee-wee. The room is about $20 per day (full English breakfast included).
The town is inhabited mostly with miners, farmers and power plant workers.
The central part of the town reminds me small American standard town (but NOT downtown of historical towns like Frederick or Annapolis). In the center part one can see only American-styled McDonalds, restaurants, gas stations, banks, stores, shops and cinemas. Nobody lives in the center.
Private houses are located on the outskirts of the town. These houses are made from stone. They are low, mostly have only 1 floor, but at the same time some of them are pretty big. This part of the town doesnít remind America. Sometimes it reminds me Russian dachas because of orthogonal streets and a lot of very different houses placed close one to other and surrounded with high solid fences from the each side (including from the street). Some fences have the barbed wire.
Some stores remind me American supermarkets, but some other ones are so poor and ugly that they remind me Soviet stores in the time of communism collapse.
Gas stations are American-styled. However, you have to talk to the cashier through a thick firm glass (this is like in Russia, because cashiers are afraid to be robbed).
McDonalds are American-styled, but the rule is the vendor will stay and wait until you talk to him, and never talk to you first.
So, this town looks like a very strange mix of America and post-communism Russia.
Probably, in the big cities the situation differs. I have no way to know.
The water in the water supply is a bit salted and soft. So, it takes time to wash out the soap from the body.
My credit card works fine, but there are a very few places where I can use it. As a rule, one needs to use ATM and then pay cash.
There are no white people on the streets. All white people are in cars, stores and restaurants. Black people (they are majority: about 80%) are on streets and in public buses. Some black women really carry bags on their heads. Hands are free. This is amazing. I was told that the streets are unsafe for white people (especially in the dark time) and I was advised NOT to walk.
White people speak Afrikaans. Black people speak indigenous languages (mostly Zulu). But everybody speaks English. It is interesting that in South Africa I understand English better than in America. They speak more clearly than Americans do.
They use "robot" instead of "traffic light".
They use "petrol" instead of "benzin", "gas" or "fuel".
By the way, the word "good" in Afrikaans sounds like very coarse Russian swearing. So, I start each my day with the swearing (because I have to say "Good Morning").
All stores, shops, banks and cinemas are closed in 6pm at weekdays, 3pm on Saturday, and 1pm on Sunday. This is extremely inconvenient because I have to leave for my office at 7am and come back to the hotel at 8-9pm. Nothing is working in the town in that time. Restaurants only. How do people survive here?
Unfortunately, there are no souvenir shops here (because of there are no tourists in this area).
When you leave your car near a store or restaurant, a black guy comes and says: "I can keep an eye on your car!" When you come back to your car, this guy comes again and you have to give him some change. If you donít, he may get upset (but, possibly, he'll just rob your car next time himself?).
The power plant we are working for is located in about 40 minutes driving from the town. I work in the building where main turbines are located, so every evening I am very tired because of noise from these turbines.
The plant has 6 turbine units (this is a standard for South Africa). Each unit generates up to 350MW. The plant consumes coal mined just in a couple of kilometers and brought to the plant by conveyer.
The electricity in South Africa is 220V/50Hz (like in Russia), but the plugs differ both from America and from Russia and from Europe.
I have a lunch at the plant and I have a dinner in the town in one of restaurants. The good dinner in restaurant is about $15.
The vicinity of Middelburg represents a very flat landscape with tall dead grass and small groups of trees. It reminds me Russian steppe. Some areas of that steppe are agricultural. No wild animals (no zebras, no lions, no rhinoceroses, no crocodiles, no giraffes, no elephants, no baboons): cows only. There are some birds, but not a lot. This steppe is crossed with highways and electricity transmission lines. When you drive through that steppe, you continuously see highways, poles, wire, power plants (there are a lot of them here), mines, cows, dead grass and small groups of trees. Nothing more.
The roads in South Africa are wide and straight.
The system of traffic signs is almost the same as in Russia or in Europe (and differs from America). The speed limit on highways is 120km/h. The traffic is left-sided.
The drivers are good and gentle (they are mostly white people), but the traffic sometimes is very bad.
The weather is sunny, dry and cool. There are almost no clouds. In the day time it is about 10-15C, but as soon as the Sun sets, the temperature very quickly drops to 0C and then below 0C, and in the morning sometimes I have to remove the thin ice layers from my car. Mornings are misty and I have to drive through the fog. I was told that the reason of such a cold climate is the altitude of Middelburg that is located in 1500m above the sea level. Some trees have no leaves, other trees are yellow, but some trees are still green and even in the full blossom. It looks strange. The Sun rises about 7am and sets about 5pm. The days are short.
I learnt how to find South using the constellations of Southern Cross and Centaurus (for the case I lose my way in this steppe).
Sometimes at the nights the farmers use to fire the dead grass in the steppe, and one can see a moving red glow around the dark horizon. I was told that they are doing that because they are afraid of accidental fire. If the wind blows towards the houses at this time, they can get fire. This is the reason why the farmers fire the grass intentionally when the wind has the proper direction. Another reason is that the burnt grass improves the soil.
Actually, the most difficult thing is that I have no way to walk (streets are unsafe and vicinity are deserted). I always am in my room, in the car, in the office, in the shop and in restaurant. I guess that after such a trip I will have my legs atrophied.
One day-off I visited Kruger National Park. This is a huge nature park that stretches along Mozambique border from the border with Zimbabwe at the North to the border with Swaziland at the South.
On the way, I drove through mountains. They are pretty big: some mountain passes are more than 2500m above the sea level. But the park is located at the lowland, so I had a very-very long serpentine descent from the more than 2km altitude to the sea level.
Like vicinity of Middelburg, the Park represents a flat landscape. However, this landscape is not deserted, but is full of low trees and bush (so, as a rule, you canít easily watch through). This territory is crossed with paved roads and one can drive and see wild animals. They are not afraid of cars and can be seen in the bush at the roadsides. Sometimes they cross the road and even come close to the car.
The only condition is that the visitors are not allowed to leave cars because animals may be aggressive (cars never hurt them, but people did).
I myself saw (from the distance of a few meters) wild zebras, giraffes, buffaloes, elephants, hippopotamuses, baboons, hyenas and a lot of exotic birds.
Baboons came close to me to be fed, but I didnít try to feed them because I was afraid to be bitten by baboon.
Also, I tried to see rhinoceroses and asked where I can find them. I was told about a place where they must be. I rushed there, but instead of rhinoceroses there were police in the bush and they fined me for $60 for speeding. It was enough for me from Kruger Park and I turned home. That is how I failed to see rhinoceroses...