Trip of a Lifetime Part 2: South Africa days one and two

Sorry for the delay in getting this second installment to you: my computer died just after the last one, and I’ve had to spend a couple of weeks getting things back to where they were (my backup settings have now been fixed……!!)

We had an 11 hour flight from Perth to Johannesburg, South Africa, arriving at 5am.  Happily, the hotel found us our room early so that we could get a nap in before the festivities started at dinner time.  Our first impression of Johannesburg was that of a walled city.  Every house had a high impenetrable wall around it, often with razor wire on top, and security signs about “armed response”. There were lots of black people walking along the highways – and lots of white people driving BMWs and Audis and Mercedes Benzes. We definitely weren’t in Kansas anymore, Toto!

The hotel itself was sumptuous with walled patios and swimming pools. Strange birds strutted around like they owned the place, and attentive staff made sure we were comfortable. Outside, there was lots of construction, street vendors and cafes. We were told not to visit ATMs by ourselves, and not really to wander about much.  Odd, for Canadians.

Our first night was all about introductions and dinner at a local restaurant, where we sampled some African food (including fried worms!!!) and got our faces painted.

Cathy & JCB

We have a group of 24 (all Canadian except for four Americans and including 3 husbands) on this guided tour organized by Valerie Hearder (Nova Scotian now, but originally from Durban) and Odette Tolksdorf.  They are both art quilters, and there is a significant fibre arts component to the trip. Val loves her birth country, and has planned this 21 days to show us as much as she possibly can about why she loves it so much. Our suitcases are bulging with embroidery and sewing supplies, reading glasses, knitting yarns and needles and school supplies to give away as we visit some of the projects.


We meet our driver, Charles and start with a bus ride to the Cradle of Humankind. This is a really important site for human fossils, some as old as 3.5 million years!  It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and we got a private visit with one of the researchers at one of the many limestone caves where they do their digging.  They only dig for a few months each year, and get enough interesting fossils to keep them busy the rest of the year, identifying and cataloging them.

It was the trial by fire for our new bus driver, Charles, who had to drive us on single lane dirt roads in the Rhino and Lion Nature Reserve to get to the site.  It was our first day in South Africa, and we saw all kinds of wonderful animals!

Neck & Deck giraffeWhite rhinos

When we finally got to the site, we were greeted by a table full of hominid skulls to introduce us to our cousins and ancestors.

Drimolen Fossil site - Cradle of Humankind

This is also where we had lunch, under the trees watching the weaver birds flitting into and out of their nests.

The dig site was fascinating – tarps cover things from season to season (they weren’t digging at the time we were there). There are more than 3 dozen of these caves where they are unearthing huge numbers of fossils each year. These caves were found originally in the search for gold.  Instead, they found gold of another sort: history!


A great introduction to Africa!

From there, we drove back into town to visit our first couple of galleries. The Everard Read Gallery is high-end art, and it was a good introduction to the artistic sensibilities of some South African artists. Lots of sculpture, etc.  Across the street was an beautiful new Gallery called Circa. It is a totally amazing building and there were lots of wonderful photo opportunities while we were there.

Jacqui, Ruth, Colleen - Circa GalleryEverard Read Gallery

Our first day in South Africa:  lapwings, oryxes, giraffes, pronking springbok, rhinoceros, warthogs, weaver birds, 70,000 year old fossils.


Today we meet our first group of women to whom we’ll give embroidery supplies. We  picked up our guides at the Pretoria Botanic Gardens. From there, we drove to one of the poorest areas of all of South Africa: Winterveld. As we entered the community, we noticed lots of people on the side of the roads – lots of vendors, lots of people waving at us. I imagine there aren’t a lot of tour buses that make the trek into these parts.

roadside clothing stall - Winterveld

Selling clothes on the side of the road in Winterveld at a “bend over boutique”.

We arrived to an amazing display of colourful embroideries done by the Mapula Embroidery Group!

There were hundreds of pieces, large and small, and some of the ladies who made them were in attendance.  I bought a few pieces, but was only able to meet the maker of my little giraffe bag. This is Jennifer Makamo.

Cathy and purse maker

This project was started by Sister Magella and the Soroptomists in Pretoria in 1991 to help women in the Winterveld – named the “throwaway people” by Sue Miller in the Pretoria News. Started with 14 women participating, now over 140 work on making these pieces. Some live entirely off their embroidery work – they are only paid when their work sells – and each person making money might be feeding up to 10 family members.  We did our best to help pay these women, and we left them with some supplies to keep on making them. Their pieces have been sold worldwide, including to the Obama White House, and 50 to Oprah Winfrey.  It “gives them a reason to be”.

Sister Magellan, Sisters of Mercy, Winterveld

Sister Magella in the middle and Janetje, one of the Soroptimist founders, on the right. I think the woman on the right is Tswane.

Two of our group from Canmore managed to involve the Lions and Rotary clubs to help them bring reading glasses from Canada.  They brought HUNDREDS of glasses!


There are two artists who draw most of these pieces – drawn with crayon on black cotton.  The motifs are outlined, then given to the women to fill in with embroidery stitches.  One of the artists is a man who sometimes draws very political pieces.  This is a new one all about President Zuma and the current state of politics.

anti-Zuma hanging in preparation

The women dressed up for us – they were beautiful in their traditional dresses!

fashion parade

Before we left Pretoria we stopped in at the Union Buildings, the official seat of the South African government and office of the President.  This is where a remarkable 9 metre high statue of Nelson Mandela, erected in 2013, welcomes the world into his embrace.  His “Rainbow Nation” dream is still alive in this country, even though the way seems to have been temporarily lost.

Mandela statue

Day 2 in Africa:  We begin to learn about the wide divisions between the “haves” and the “have-nots” in South Africa. We learn there is hope in the poorest areas. We learn that people here Think Big!

Hamba gashlei – Zulu for “go safely”.

11 Responses to “Trip of a Lifetime Part 2: South Africa days one and two”

  1. quiltlady41 Says:

    Good to hear from you, sounds so interesting. 

    Sent from my Sprint Samsung Galaxy S® 6.

  2. Peggy Says:

    Lovely to your life experiences. Awaiting Part Two.

  3. Mary pyette Says:

    Hi Cathy, it was great to hear from you again. I am doing fine. My daughter is visiting me from Houston, Texas . We are on a road trip number two also. We are in Missoula, mt right now. We are planning to go through glacier park. Thank you for keeping in touch. AS ever, Mary pyette

  4. Ula,Sheather Says:

    Hi Cathy, we are in Butte and heading for Colombia
    Falls tomorrow via Missoula we think. Then only a few more days to
    Victoria. Read about your trip to SA – – wonderful time. See you soon.
    Ula and Ken

  5. Sandra Hamilton Says:

    Thanks for the post Cathy. I am hoping to go to South Africa with Valerie one of these years. I took a class with her in Halifax.

  6. Regina Says:

    The best wishes from Lithuania. Good way for you…

  7. Valerie Hearder Says:

    Wonderful reportage, Cathy! I’m going to share your blog on my website. It was just wonderful to have you and John on tour with us – you gave so much to us all with your positive presence and your songs!

  8. Margaret biffin Says:

    I was on Val’s tour in 2016. Your wonderful account of meeting the women of the mapula group brought the whole experience flooding back. I bought a piece that I am hoping to donate to the national museum of human rights in Winnipeg Manitoba. Your photos are great.

    • singingquilter Says:

      Thank you so much. Was Janine on your tour as well? She was on it for the third time this year! I’d do this trip again in a moment. Watch for further posts – I’m not finished yet!

  9. Margaret biffin Says:

    No Janine, I also hope to go again

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