Well today has been a real lifetime highlight for me. A 6am rise this morning in order to be ready to go to the Knysna township, with an 8am departure from the hotel. Our guide, Mwandi picks us up at the hotel. I'm not sure why, but I expect him to be older than he is. As it happens he is the same age of myself, 37, and has a warm and friendly demeanour. The Group climbs up into the 12 seater bus, and we make our way to the township.
Initial impressions of Mwandi are very positive. He is an enthusiastic entrepreneur from Knysna township, and he desperately wants to make the township, and of course his own life and that of his family, better. His efforts in respect of township tourism have not gone unnoticed, and recently took him on his first ever flight overseas to Amsterdam to promote his work. Mwandi amuses the group immensely when he recounts how, on being told that the flight was 11 hours, he went to KFC and "filled his belly full", not appreciating he would be fed on the plane!
We are to stop in four different places in the township tour and, as we reach the first one, I can sense the silent sharp intakes of breath from around the coach. The conditions really are incredibly difficult to describe. We have reached what is known as an informal settlement, where shacks are built on muddy and uneven terrain. These shacks look like a poorer version of what we would have as our garden sheds; they are run-down and built of wood, corrugated metal, cardboard etc - whatever can be found.
Around the shacks, pre-school children play in bare feet and dogs, goats and chickens wander. The township screams with poverty and desperation. Yet, from the minute we step off the bus, we have young children bounce towards us to meet us............
and some of the older residents wave their welcome with a smile.......
Mwandi encourages us to take as many photos as we can, presumably because it only serves to promote the township, and the life of the people therein. And what I have already come to appreciate is that Africans absolutely LOVE having their photo taken! They will scramble to be in front of a camera, even very young children who have mastered their 'poses', and they are full of smiles when you show the photo back to them on the camera screen. So I pull out my camera and get clicking! Below is a township gentleman who crafts boats etc from wood, and sells them on to local shops. Mwandi watches on as the man shows us his trade.
We are invited into the shack of a woman who has clearly been prepped by Mwandi that we will be coming along, and of course I am sure she will get a small slice of Mwandi's takings for the day. The inside takes my breath away. As soon as we enter, the stench of paraffin fumes is apparent. The roof is corrugated metal, held up by random planks of wood and cardboard. The 'wallpaper' comprises of sheets of newspaper, and the floor random pieces of linoleum.
This young woman has tried her best to make it into a family home, the inside meticulously tidy with hanging curtains. But it is simply impossible to escape the desperation.
The 'man of the shack' isn't present; he is a volunteer in the police force, and has been for two years, trying to find an in-road to the force to make a better life for him and his family. His wife proudly displays his police shirts, handing on the bedroom wall. It is a sobering shack to visit, and one of many hundreds in this township alone.
The situation becomes even more poignant as we leave the shack and Mwandi takes us to what he calls 'Million Dollar View" - the most stunning view from the hilltop township, out towards the Eastern / Western Cape Peninsula meeting points and rich upper class housing.
Extreme poverty looking out onto extreme affluence. A daily reminder of a world of two halves to the township people.
Next stop is the primary school, a relatively new school, built in the township in 2004, and I am surprised that the facilities seem to be very good. We are told by Mwandi that the children love going to school and, for a lot of them, this is because it is the one place that they are guaranteed to get a good meal.
As we move into a classroom the children are beyond excited to see us. They are all dressed in school uniform and immaculately presented. We move around, saying hello and giving the children high fives!
Whenever one of our Group goes to take a photo, the children scramble to get into the frame, before getting excited about seeing the photo back on the camera.
But this is a harsh and unforgiving environment that the children are growing up in, and the occasional sad face poignantly reminds us of that, in amongst all the babble and excitement.
The teacher writes her contact details up on the blackboard, and then talks to us in front of the class as guests of the school. She is so extremely grateful for having us take the time to visit. She talks about the education the school is trying to give to the children, which is all taught in English, and the various donations that have been given by visitors that helps them succeed.
The contact details on the blackboard are in case we want to help further, and I already know I will add to the jotters, pencils and rulers I took along with me today.
After thanking us for visiting, the teacher asks the children to stand up and sing us a song of appreciation. They give us three!
The song that really stands out for me is "When You're Happy and You Know It". Our group joins in, clapping their hands, stamping their feet, nodding their heads etc. It is just wonderful to be part of.
The thing that strikes me most about these children is how genuinely happy most of them seem to be, despite their impoverished living conditions. They are such smiley children, with the biggest and most beautiful smiles I have seen in a while.
These children have nothing - they don't know of things like x-boxes, PS3's, iPhones etc, and yet they appear to be more sociable and contented as a result. If anything it highlights just how much we have in the UK, and how much we take for granted. I'm not convinced it makes us better people as a result.
It's with a tinge of sadness that we bid farewell to the class and make our way out of the school, passing some lively lads as we do so, striking a pose....
......and some children having their lunch.
I don't think this is an experience I will ever forget in my lifetime, and the intention when I get back to the UK is to make sure I stay in contact with the school and send them periodic supplies, as well as a couple of the photos I have taken so that they can put them on the classroom walls. I am sure the children will like that.
Back onto the bus and the next stop in the township is to a traditional medicine woman / healer. We are invited into her shack which, on the interior, is much the same as the previous shack we visited - dire really, although she has done her best to keep the contents organised and tidy.
There is a little consultation room in the shack and we are all invited in, having to take our shoes off before we enter, and we are not allowed to take any photos inside. We all sit on the floor, opposite a wall lined with huge jars of herbs. Then the healer starts to talk, rather tentatively, about her craft, and the art of voodoo. When she qualified in her profession, a cow was slaughtered, and its tail hangs on the wall as a certificate of her healing abilities. She also has a paper certificate on the wall showing that she is qualified in recognising the signs of tuberculosis, of which there are very high rates of infliction within the township. It is clear that she deals with only minor ailments - anything more serious and she sends people to the hospital. I'm not entirely convinced to her authenticity or effectiveness, but it is none-the-less interesting to hear about.
Last stop in the township is to Mwandi's house itself. As we make our way there, we pass through some 'nicer' parts of the township.
And people are always happy to stop for a photo.
As I mentioned earlier, Mwandi is a very driven young man, who has already been successful in what he has achieved compared to others in the township, but he is clearly looking to expand further. His house reflects that - he has a double storey spacious home on the hill of the township. By township standards it is luxury, although by our standards it is far from it. It is constructed of every type of building material going - wood, brick, concrete, corrugated metal etc - and it is done to a standard that wouldn't be considered habitable in the UK - at least it certainly wouldn't come with a building completion certificate.
Mwandi is extending and expanding it in a piecemeal fashion, as funds allow, and there is a lot of unfinished work evident. Nails jut from the ceiling beams, and the stairs to the upper level have a definite wobble to them! Improvisation seems to be the name of the game, with metal collanders being used as lamp shades, and old oil barrels lined up and joined together to form a headboard for the guest bedroom. Talking of the guest bedroom, this is part and parcel of Mwandi's expansion for his business - to build a restaurant and hotel, giving people the chance to experience part of the 'real' South Africa. I fear he is ploughing his hard earned profits into a venture that simply won't succeed, as I can't imagine many tourists wanting to stay or dine in the township. At the end of the day it is poverty in the extreme and, whilst the inhabitants are so welcoming, it's not a desirable place to stay. Added to which the construction of his home / hotel is to a relatively poor standard. But I have to admire his enthusiasm and determination to succeed and bring the township to people, and I do so hope he succeeds in his efforts.
We have a quick cup of tea in the cosy 'restaurant' - all beautifully served in cups and saucers by Mwandi's wife (each cup and saucer different from the other) before we climb onto the bus and leave the township behind. All in all, an incredible experience.
Mwandi drops us off at the ferry for the Featherbed Nature Reserve - our next stop / trip for the day. I'll say one thing for this trip - you get to see and experience so much, but the pace is relentless and quite exhausting at times. We jump onto the ferry and make our way out over the beautiful turquoise waters of the lagoon to the reserve. It is the most beautiful day, the sun is shining, and I spot jellyfish in the water as we sail across.
We arrive at the reserve and snake through the hillside on the back of a trailer, up through the milkwood trees to a stunning vantage point from where we can see the meeting point of the Eastern and Western Cape peninsulas, with the Indian ocean flowing through. The trailer comes to a halt on the western head, offering us the opportunity to take beautiful pictures out towards the eastern peninsula.
For the more adventurous amongst the group, there is the opportunity to do a very steep 2km walk back down to the bottom of the peninsula. Despite being one of the youngest, my misaligned knee caps scream 'No!', so I climb back onto the trailer and take the easy option back down. I then take a lovely flat walk along the coastal path and watch a seal playing in the water, before heading back to the restaurant to meet the others for lunch.
Before I know it we are heading back to Knysna on the 3pm ferry. When we land I take a quick shopping detour down to the waterfront, where I spot a beautiful beaded cuff bracelet, that I know from experience takes an age to make, although it is being sold incredibly cheaply at only 80 Rand (approx. £6). I can only presume it is somebody in the township who has made them, and supplied them into the shop at such a low price. I happily buy two.
The rest of the day is spent relaxing at the hotel. It has been a wonderful, but exhausting and emotional day, so time is needed to recharge the batteries before tomorrow.
Thank you for reading.