It's always romantic and exciting to travel to a continent I've never been to before. Even in the waiting area at the airport in Atlanta, whence Delta runs a direct flight to Johannesburg, there's a sense of already being partway there: overheard conversations in what must be Afrikaans; in some native African language; in English in an accent that's somehow clearly southern-hemisphere, but not Australian. People of all the variety of races or ethnicities that make up South Africa's population. Blond boys and girls with ruddy-cheeked parents, who have clearly been on Caribbean beach vacations. Black men who dress, and carry themselves, with a subtly different style from Americans; black African women whose style seems partly derived from traditional dress. Then, ten or so hours and several movies into a thirteen-and-half hour overnight transatlantic marathon flight, to raise the shade on the aircraft window to find oneself crossing the surf-line of the coast of Namibia far below, a few cottony bits of low cloud or fog clinging to the coastline as the sun beats down on them, demarcating the vivid blue of the Atlantic from the coppery sands of the Namibian desert, which displays under the clear blue sky of morning patterns of what look like darker sands and braided washes draining away, it seems, from the treacherousn and almost completely uninhabited Skeleton Coast. Desert summits that are like dark, stepped ziggurats. Unclear whether the steps are due to sedimentary layering, or basaltic flows. They remind in some ways of the dark volcanic summits west of Albuquerque, and in the Puerco river basin northwest of it, but the forms are distinct. Further ranges in duns and reddish browns, flat expanses of sand. Then an amazing circular formation that must be many miles in diameter, looking like a palisade of slab-like mountains, tilted in toward the center, surrounding a flat central plain. Is it some kind of collapsed salt formation, like Utah's Upheaval Dome?
The landscape gets less dramatic, reddish dirt sparsely and then less sparsely covered with a green scrub, and a few widely spaced roads show up, first dirt, then even a paved road and a few scattered houses and ranches as we pass northwest of Windhoek, probably just out of sight in a valley beyond a reservoir. Greener, hillier, but still scrubby as we pass over the border with Botswana, across Botswana just south of the Kalahari, finally sighting the Notwane river far below and then the capital Gaborone, mainly industrial and transport buildings and yards on our side of the airplane, also the large lake created by Gaborone dam. Not far beyond the river, we cross the border into South Africa.
Descending into Johannesburg, the great township of Soweto just out of sight to the south, or hidden by the scattered clouds, we see mainly nondescript suburbs, a huge football stadium, then as we descend further what could pass for modest suburbs of say, Phoenix, golf courses and parks, fairly comfortable and new-looking neighborhoods, open fields, looking fairly moist and green, traffic on expressways then a wedge of bright African colors, especially blue, that I realize with a jolt is a small collection of painted corrugated iron shacks, here and then gone as the enormous jet touches down, finally, at Oliver Tambo International Airport.