When you think about “travel” there is a specific image that pops into your head. Maybe a memory of the last trip you took; perhaps the one you’re planning now, even if it’s still just a dream. For me somehow it’s sunshine and lots of walking. Something that probably doesn’t crop up is the tragic side of history: the parts of exploration that expose the traveler to stories of individual heartache or mass grief. From the rolling head of unlucky monarchs to the ghostly echoes of a thousand footsteps over an ancient battlefield – these places attract attention as well as tourists just as surely as the romance of Paris or the symbol of hope of New York’s Statue of Liberty.
In fact, in the same city of Lady Liberty you’ll scratch the surface of what “Dark Tourism” is. Those who take a silent moment at Ground Zero are not only those who lost a loved one there, people from all over the world go there to commemorate and commiserate. For the same reason Auschwitz and Tienanmen Square are popular; in visiting and keeping these places and events in our collective memory, we may ward off the potential of it ever happening again. “We do not forget, so it doesn’t happen again” – as in the words of the group “No More Torture” (Tortura Nunca Mais) who protested during the fall of the Brazilian dictatorship. We are stewarding our human narrative and guarding our actions and hopefully the actions of our leaders from going so far astray again.
However, that’s only the tip of the iceberg of what dark tourism means. Digging deeper, we find the popularity of haunted houses and abandoned theme parks with all of their accompanying stories of horror (whether real or fabricated). Ok… chalk these up to thrills and adrenaline; file these in the same category as roller coasters and bungee jumping. People have an illogical love of the extreme and inexplicable, because (ironically) it makes us feel alive. Even I peek into the dark windows of an empty, abandoned hospital on my way back from work every day.
Let’s examine this closer under the magnifying glass one more time and look at these places that truly carry the word “dark”. There are hundreds of Youtube videos about the “creepiest” places to visit as well as articles telling the sordid, bloody histories of anomalies of nature – serial killers. Far from leaving people only with the willies or a cold chill up the nape of your neck, there are hordes of travelers who pursue these places where the worst things have happened. Tourists enjoy Japan’s Aokigahara forest not only for it’s beautiful, verdant forestiness… this is where hundreds of people come each year to commit suicide in privacy and solitude (in 2003, official stats put the number at 105, according to the Aokigahara Forest website). Nothing altruistic is served by going to these places, in fact the Japanese have stopped releasing official numbers for how many people die in the forest for fear of encouraging others (according to the VICE special from 2012). I am not saying it’s not good visiting these places, or that people shouldn’t! If I had the chance, I would be there too… maybe not taking smiling selfies, but to check out a place with such a reputation? Sure. Other similar sites include the Czech Republic’s Sedlec Ossuary which is a World Heritage Site, and for what? The chapel is built out of 40 000 – 70 000 people’s skeletons and receives about 200 000 visitors annually. Then there’s the pre-Colombian city of Chichen Itza with its bloody history, built by the Mayans and where human sacrifice took place regularly at the Sacred Cenote, together with offerings of gold, just like in Disney’s Road to El Dorado (Chichen Itza receives 1.2 million visitors a year).
Traveling is a joy in and of itself and needs no justification, but I would think that people would choose to visit sunny beaches and high, green mountains over musty catacombs and dry, chalky chapels, but too each his own. It is interesting for me to see what other people find fascinating and it’s striking how people are riveted to the weird, the macabre and what’s on the periphery of disturbing sometimes.
South Africa, the southern tip of the dark continent; dark not only because of how little people know about it (“that’s where they manufacture dictators, right?”), but by how often people cast their shadow on our roofs when they fly over the continent on their way to “somewhere nicer”. When I tell people I am from South Africa responses run the gamut, from ‘I really want to visit Cape Town’ (you should!), to ‘I hear the crime rate is bad’ (isn’t it anywhere?) and even surprisingly often a bewildered expression at my not being black. Ahem. Well, allow me to introduce you to our beautiful rainbow nation and give you a couple of compelling reasons why you should put it at the top of your travel list!
First things first… there are spots in South Africa that I would recommend you don’t go, but every country and every major city is the same. Keep an eye out, don’t flash around your smartphone and stick to populated areas. That said, it’s not a country with stellar public transportation, so if you go out at night, use your own (or rental) car; I hear Uber is now up and running out here, so that is an option too.
Finally, we can get to the fun, the magic and the enchantment of South Africa. I myself haven’t been back there in a couple of years, so my nostalgia wishlist includes three places that I would recommend to anyone and everyone; in fact I’m planning on dragging friends and family there with me at the first possible opportunity…
- Kruger National Park
One of many places you can do breathtaking safaris, look out over the golden veld and admire both fauna and flora from the mother continent. Elephants slowly but surely crossing kilometres as they graze and let out their “inner calf” when they roll and spray in the watering hole; hyenas giggling and cackling as the sun sinks pink and purple into the horizon… A very peaceful image and really that is the best place to disappear for a week or more, forget about cellphone coverage, status updates and just let go. The Kruger National Park itself is really big and covers almost the entire SA-Mozambique border.
The park is unquestionably popular among foreign and domestic tourists, especially during the dry months, when there is no rain or long grass to obscure your view. So, if you don’t want to drive around yourself and squint into the middle distance looking for a flicking ear or a swatting tail (it can be hard to spot animals in the bush…) there are rangers that can take you out for guided safaris. Besides being familiar with the regular habitats of certain groups, they also sometimes keep tabs on some bigger game. Since all animals in the park are wild, rest camps, lodges and camp sites are fenced and it’s totally prohibited to get out of your car when driving around the reserve.
The Kruger National Park tradition: Get up at 5:30am (yep, you read that right), breathe in that first smell of creamy coffee and get out there in the bush to catch nocturnal animals slinking back to their lairs after a night of veld festivities!
Just south of South Africa’s border with Mozambique, on our “north coast” you’ll find the urban-beach sprawl of Durban welcoming you with open arms. The sparkling, white sandy beaches stretch from way north of Durban (Umhlanga being one of the most popular) to Margate in the south, including beaches perfect for surfing, scuba diving and watching the incredible annual sardine run, where billions of sardines spawn from May to July just off the coast. Not only is this in itself breathtaking to see, but it also attracts other oceanic wildlife that is usually a rare sight, including dolphins, many varieties of sharks and other game fish.
Although there are a million things to do in Durban (skydiving, bungee jumping, shopping, hiking, etc), I am used to Durban being my relaxing beach holiday destination. Stretch a towel out on the soft sand and bury my nose in a book… and often dip my toes in the deliciously warm water of the Indian Ocean. There are endless gig guides on live music, cultural events and general mingling opportunities in Durban; however, if I am looking forward to a night on the town, Cape Town is where almost everything happens.
The Durban tradition: No trip to Durban is complete without the signature, home-grown dish of “bunny chow”, with its unique touch of Durban Indian cuisine. I have even encountered this specific gastronomic delight in other countries, though usually it’s made by South Africans, for nostalgic expats hungering for a little taste of home. In principle it’s a loaf of bread, cut in half and hollowed out with warm, spicy Indian curry filling the fluffy inside, but that is only the basic idea, to which everyone adds their own touch and their own particular flavour.
3. Cape Town
That brings me to the metropolis – the Mother City – home to hipsters, retros and trend-seekers; haven to art lovers, free thinkers and the perpetually entertained. Cape Town is an incredibly diverse city, from foreigners just passing through and filling the streets with their musical accents, to Cape Townian locals wishing their city would stay untouched by the masses of curious “African adventure” seekers. Many people who were not born in Cape Town feel just as “foreign” in this cradle of our modern rainbow nation concoction, so that even us who have SA running through our veins are only “approved” as Cape Townians after years (and years) of living in the city and breathing the sweet, mountain air. That hasn’t stopped anyone settling and making their dream home in the Mother City, though. People keep streaming in from the land, air and sea to sample food, fashion and fine wine in this iconic city. These days it is not even strange to brush shoulders with celebrities and famous personalities at farmers’ markets, world-class restaurants and even boutique chocolate shops that line streets in the city centre. However, the Cape Town basin, nestled in the shadow of our own Table Mountain is only one part of Cape Town magic; so much of the region’s charm and what people fall in love with lie on the periphery – the lush, green peninsular nature parks and Boulder beach (where you share the beach with penguins sunning themselves) on the one hand and little beach towns each with its own spirit that smiles its way into your heart. Simon’s Town, Fishhoek and Hout Bay are only the ones I lovingly carry in my heart and in my memories, but there are dozens more to explore. This is a part of the country where the best thing you can do is rent a car and get lost in the mountain passes and what we call the “Garden Route”.
The Cape Town tradition: Oh my gosh there are so many, but perhaps the thing that makes me feel most at home is when I have a bottle of rich, local wine and I drive out to Chapman’s Peak Drive: a 9km road that looks like it was literally carved into the rock, with thrilling drops right into the ocean and the most magnificent view you can ever have of the sun setting on turquoise, aquamarine water. Park anywhere where you find a little inlet or rest stop (there are many) and just drink in the extraordinary reality of where you are and who you’re with, even if it’s just you and your own alter ego.