They say that Africa, like the Phil Collins song, has the invisible touch: it affects all your senses, gets under your skin and leaves you a changed (wo-)man. Whether it’s the red dirt, the endless horizon, the wildlife that still roams free on land or in the sea, the fantastic waves or the primitive tribes, nowhere will you be touched more by all this than in the furthest South corner of the continent.
In the last year of my internships before graduating as a doctor, I was given the opportunity to work in a public hospital in Cape Town, one of the largest cities in South Africa. A country known for its beauty and its beasts: Nelson Mandela, the Kruger Park, apartheid, fantastic wine, Jeffrey’s Bay and great white sharks. Armed with my surfboard, a stethoscope and a mother Teresa-attitude I took off to explore this ‘forgotten’ continent.
Here I discovered a world of opposites: opposites that coexist, sometimes symbiotically intertwined, sometimes never touching. Everything feels like a rhetorical riddle, or as Shakespeare put it: nothing is either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.
In a country where currently at least 50 % of the population is HIV positive, but anti-retroviral medicine and standard medical resources are scarce, my faith in the medical world was strongly challenged. Add to this that the existence of the virus was denied by numerous influential politicians as well as the local population for a very long time ( at the patient’s bedside you were only allowed to use the term RVD (Retroviral disease), not HIV) and violence, rape and poverty are common life occurrences, you can imagine my general belief in mankind was, well, slightly altered.
Yet outside the hospital, a different world exists: with Table Mountain allowing for breathtaking views across the southern tip of the continent, the city centre booming with the hippest bars and nightclubs, great city beaches with solid surf, endless wine tasting opportunities and even a beach where you can see wild penguins, it’s hard not to fall in love with this city, or this country.
As an intern, every morning I stepped out of my safe bubble of wealth to enter one of inequality, disease and misfortune, symbolized by entering the hospital via a former ‘separate entrance for blacks’. Finding emotional acceptance with this was particularly hard knowing that your efforts, no matter how big, will not change any of this anytime soon. Yet the Black South Africans carry themselves with such pride you sometimes forget how much they suffer. And they have the best remedy for every kind of hardship: music. Even at a busy ER, there is time for a communal gospel song to alleviate someone’s pain, that, as my former boss used to put it, ‘will always bring tears to your eyes’.
After weeks of hard work I took off- solo – on a surf road trip along the Western and Southern part of the country, surfing, camping and braai-ing ( the Afrikaanse word for BBQing) everywhere I went. Was I scared? Lots of times: having a close encounter with a great white shark that I was unaware of, seeing awful examples of road rage ( throwing a shaken Coke- bottle through someone’s window whilst they’re driving?!), accidentally driving through a township and not daring to stop at a traffic light, finding a live snake outside of my tent, they are all experiences that got my heart rate up substantially. But, not surprisingly, I found too much beauty to be affected by it. Seeing the big 5, being surrounded by a Huge pod of dolphins at Jeffrey’s Bay, meeting some of my closest friends and riding some crazy waves are some of the most amazing memories I have collected in this lifetime.
Would I go back? It’s not a matter of if, but when.