Print this page
Friday, 01 January 2021

South Africa's Artists, Craftspeople, History and Unique Culture

Written by Russ and Emily Firlik
Rate this item
(33 votes)


We arrived at O.R.Tambo International Airport in Johannesburg and taxied to our hotel in the northern suburbs. Our quest was to observe, learn, and reflect on South African’s history, culture and unique arts and crafts, especially businesses owned and operated by women. Our slow travel adventure was not intended to take a safari tour; perhaps at another time. We arranged to have a guide for our entire Johannesburg stay. During the next few days, our guide happily took us to visit some of the best art galleries and markets of contemporary and tribal arts, crafts and artifacts from across the African continent. We observed, lingered and were inspired during these exploratory visits.


Our guide, Enzokuhle, meaning ‘Do Good’ in Zulu, introduced us to Joburg, (or Jodz) as it’s known, and acquainted us with this economic hub of southern Africa. Enzokulhe mentioned that the city has over 6 million trees! We experienced the quiet and leafy suburbs with interesting shopping malls. We visited the famous metropolis of Soweto, an acronym for South Western Township, including a reflective and inspiring visit to the former home of Nelson Mandela. Next to the revitalized Newtown Cultural Precinct and Constitutional Hill, home to the Constitutional Court – in a landmark building that was anything but a stereotypical courthouse. The building materials used to construct the building were timber, steel, glass and black slate. The interior was airy, and punctuated with slanted columns. We were told that the columns were a metaphor for trees under which African villagers traditionally resolved their legal disputes. The brightly colored artworks by many well-known South African artists were an integral part of the building. Nothing but spectacular!

2   27 

We spent a few days of leisure in the vibrant multicultural city of Johannesburg. We absorbed ourselves in observing the many cutting-edge contemporary art galleries, the art studios and the inspiring Apartheid Museum. The “city of gold” is the financial and industrial hub of South Africa, and South Africa’s largest city.

2   7 

Ensokuhle drove us for a couple of hours to the Winterveld region, just outside of Pretoria to meet the women from the highly successful Mapula embroidery project and we were impressed by their vibrant and colorful clothes. This project is completely run by women, no men involved. We continued to the Ndebele cultural village in Mpumalanga and observed the striking, geometric wall-paintings and beadwork of the Ndebele women, which they are famous for. We learned from Bethanie, about these unique art forms handed down from mother to daughter and gained an insight into Ndebele life and art. Bethanie spent two hours with us and was so gracious and kind in providing us with new information and a greater appreciation for the women’s crafts and business model.

2   12 

Our guide was back with us as we left the urban landscape behind us and traveled through the countryside to the Cradle of Humankind, a World Heritage Site. Here, a specialist guide introduced us to the fascinating ancient evidence of evolution and past cultures. We carefully observed the archaeological excavations and dolomite caves containing fossils dating back millions of years. Overwhelmed with history and culture, we were all hungry. Ensokuhle insisted on a drive through the Rhino and Lion Reserve, then to enjoy a lunch with panoramic views of the savannah bushveld. In the afternoon we returned back to Johannesburg and visited a number of workshops that were making and selling their age-old tradition of basket weaving.


We departed Johannesburg with our guide for the province of Kwa-Zulu Natal towards the foothills of the scenic Champagne Valley, and the world-renowned Ardmore Ceramic Studio. Here we met with the artists and observed and admired their intricately detailed and exuberant work. This studio was founded by Fee-Halsted, with whom we met later on. This thriving artist community creates some of the most unique ceramics in the world. In addition to ceramics, they produce fabric designs, handbags featuring the flora and fauna of Africa. Our accommodations were in a thatched chalet at Didima, a mountain retreat themed around the art of the San people.

2   24 

We spent the entire morning on a guided walk to see San rock art paintings. We learned more about the San people, who lived in these mountains as hunter-gatherers for more than 4000 years. The rock paintings illustrate a fascinating diary of their way of life and their spiritual beliefs. In the afternoon, a leisurely slow travel visit to a few attractive and interesting craft venues along the Midlands Meander.


The next three days were spent in the tranquil area of Didima, which is located in the Cathedral Peak valley of the uKhahlamba Park. We enjoyed the crisp fresh air of the mountains, and especially time spent at the Didima Rock Art Centre. Here we learned more about the Khoi Dan, the indigenous people that inhabited South Africa’s deserts, plains and mountains. There were many activities for us to ponder and reflect, e.g., leisurely strolling, admiring the exquisite flora, and birding. Em took many photos, and did some sketching while I did some serious relaxation.

2   19 

Our guide drove along the country roads to visit Fee Halsted-Berning in her home, studio and gallery. She was the inspired creator of the Ardmore Ceramic Studio and still continues to guide its development. She explained to us that they now have over 60 Zulu and Zimbabwean artists working in collaboration at Ardmore under her guidance and direction. After lunch we drove to the city of Durban on the Indian Ocean coastline. Our guide gave us a fascinating and detailed orientation in and around Durban. We were informed of and observed the African, Asian and European cultures that shaped this vibrant city. Our three nights accommodations were in a restored Victorian building.


Next we explored the bustling Victoria Street Market in downtown with its Indian spices, textiles and handicrafts. Another highlight was time spent at the Killie Campbell Museum. The knowledgeable and enthusiastic docent discussed and demonstrated the superb collections of colonial and regional African art and traditional cultural items. The extensive collection of contemporary African art focuses upon artists with links to KwaZulu-Natal, and their university. In addition, the African Art Center started with an exceptional collection of Zulu Artifacts and fine arts. Today, housed in the same building as the Phansi Museum, there were many fine collections of art, local traditional woven baskets, textiles, beadwork, wood-carving and art-prints. The docent at the Campbell museum indicated that if we went about twenty-five kilometers drive from central Durban we would find a little museum that carried important history linked to Durban’s large Indian population. The museum was located in a settlement where Mahatma Gandhi lived for more than twenty years, as he pushed the movement against apartheid. What a rich learning experience and unexpected delight.


After an early departure from Durban we proceeded north along the subtropical Zululand coast. With our guide, we stopped at the town of Eshowe to explore the unique Vukani Museum, a beautifully designed building housing a historical collection of Zulu baskets.

2   16

2   1 1 

Our destination was the rural village of Hlabisa, named after the Hlabisa tribe of Zulus, to visit the Zulu basket makers who live and work there. We were very attentive as we observed their unique skills and techniques and use of the raw materials to make the beautiful woven baskets that are admired around the world. We learned that the baskets could be made out of IIala palm, sisal leaves, boiling roots, bark or other organic materials of the indigenous flora. They obtain certain colors by dying natural materials. The main technique used by the weavers was to dry the strips of bark to obtain a waxy texture and layer them for a smoother feeling and easier weaving. The beautiful baskets are enjoyed around the world because of their unique designs and Zulu symbols such as a series of diamond shapes, triangle patterns, checkerboards and zig-zag, all representing a deep and important meaning in their culture. Absolutely one of the highlights of our learning quest.

2   21 


Our guide told us that a trip to Africa would not be complete if we did not partake in a drive in the game reserve. Not high on our list of discoveries, nevertheless, we took his advice and drove through the reserve. He explained the ‘Big Five’ animals that tourists want to see (elephant, rhino, lion, leopard, buffalo). However, we did not see a lion, leopard, or buffalo, but did spot several elephants, with their calves, a couple of giraffes and zebras. We were delighted to observe the many species of birds and other smaller animals. We did enjoy this “must see” diversion, and appreciated our guide’s insistence to view these remarkable animals and birds.

2   3 

Our destination was to the town of St. Lucia and the iSimangaliso Wetland Park along the Indian Ocean coastline. ISimangaliso is the Zulu name, which means ‘marvel,’ and is recognized as an UNESCO World Heritage Site. The incredible diversity of animal and plant species, all in their pristine natural environment. Our guide took us up the estuary waters and islands to see the hippos, crocodiles, and the prolific bird life. Along the way we view the large vegetated sand mounds and mangrove swamps. Our specialist guide enhanced our knowledge and appreciation for this beautiful and organic ecosystem.


We continued our quest to learn about the finely woven Zulu baskets, how they were made and to appreciate the efforts of their craft. A full-stop at a rural open air market that displayed all types of local hand crafted goods and tropical fruit. Within this region was where we observed a variety of traditional Zulu homes and cultural dress.

2   25

2   26

2   8 

2   13

2   20

2   7 1


We continued our journey deep into the heart of Zululand to Simunye, a secluded lodge, hung in a valley overlooking the Mfule River. For the next two days our accommodations would be at the Simunye Lodge, where each room was individually crafted by a local Zulu family, and they were our gracious, caring and attentive hosts.


With our guide, we drove back to Durban along the coast passing the Tugela River, where there were massive fields of sugarcane and the idyllic lengthy golden beaches. After a delicious lunch we traveled to the outer west area of Durban as we had arranged an appointment to meet the internationally recognized sculptor, Carl Roberts, at his studio. Carl was born in England, but later on he moved to South Africa to live near his grandparents. We gained first-hand insight and knowledge into his creative process, working methods and specialized techniques that transformed wood, stone, bronze and bone into intriguing and very beautiful sculptures. We were very grateful to Mr. Roberts for the opportunity to meet and watch a great master sculptor.


We said goodbye to our wonderful guide, Bonginkosi, and took a short flight from Durban Airport to Cape Town. Our destination was to explore Stellenbosch, a town in Western Cape province. The cultured university town had meticulously restored Cape Dutch, Georgian and Victorian architecture. The streets were lined with enchanting shops, many interesting galleries, a large number of oak trees, and delicious multicultural cuisine. We spent the entire day exploring and discovering this unique and interesting town. Although Stellenbosch is called a ‘town,’ the area hosts 117,000 residents; the majority of whom are white.

2   1 

Our guide, Hendrik, a born and bred Stellenboschian, drove us to the beautiful winelands and historic towns of Stellenbosch and Franschhoek and we learned about their French Huguenot, Dutch and Afrikaans heritage. Our much anticipated visit to their famous wine and cheese farms, and their grand homesteads were insightful and extremely interesting. The fertile valleys and gardens were surrounded by the magnificent Jonkershoek mountains. We learned that the Paarl and Franschoek valleys form the Cape Winelands, the main wine growing regions in South Africa. The de rigueur wine tasting, along with a very enjoyable meal, completed our adventurous long day.


We spent the next two days slow-scouting the historic town and university. The Stellenbosch University, with 25,000 students, is one of South Africa’s leading universities. It is renowned for its communications satellite, which was launched in 2000 and orbited the earth for three years.

2   5 1 

The next few days were filled with excitement, exploration and discovery. Our guide drove us on an all day tour of the beautiful Cape Peninsula, including a drive through Hout Bay, along the spectacular Chapmans Peak marine, and finally, through the Cape of Good Hope Nature Reserve to Cape Point. Our guide pointed out the indigenous fynbos, a small belt of natural scrubland vegetation, is only found in this area. Henrik made sure that we visited the colony of African penguins. On our way back to Cape Town, we had a stop at the quaint village of Kalk Bay, to explore the wide array of antique, art and book shops.

2   23 

As previously arranged, we set off to visit a successful township empowerment project, that creates items which are a fusion of traditional craft techniques with contemporary resources. This was a fascinating and insightful visit. Our next stop was to the colorful area of Bo-Kaap, which is closely associated with Cape Town’s Muslim community. We spent the rest of the day just observing the brightly painted 18th century flat-roofed homes, lingering along cobbled lanes and the many shops, and enjoyed an excellent traditional meal.

2   10 

2   14


2   22 

The next day we took a bus to visit Robben Island, which takes its name from the Dutch word for ‘seals.’ Of course, Robben Island was the place Nelson Mandela was jailed for 18 years, but also the home for prisoners from outside of South Africa. Our last stop was to hop on the Table Mountain cable car to view the exquisite panoramic view of the blend of the two oceans, the Atlantic and Indian, and the flat-topped mountain overlooking the city of Cape Town.

2   6


A few slow travel reflections of this trip to intriguing, interesting and inspiring South Africa:


(1). As we experienced lengthy traveling on roads, South African’s infrastructure was excellent. The roads were in great condition;

(2). Our accommodations were sometimes more interesting than others, but overall, we were happy;

(3). The water was safe to drink, but we preferred ‘Evamor’ bottled water, which had an excellent taste;

(4). The multicultural cuisine and service were superb. We never had a meal that wasn't enjoyable and delicious;

(5). We used both US dollars and Euros, depending on what the guides’ preferred, and what were the best exchange rates for us. However, most businesses only accepted the Rand;

(6). ATM machines were readily available, and fortunately, the exchange rates were favorable for U.S. dollars;

(6). We never felt intimidated or really uncomfortable at any point. Having expert and professional guides made sure that we would always remain safe and happy;

(7). One notices that almost every urban home had steel doors and gates as well as cast iron cages over every window. When pointed out this phenomena, we were told “for safety reasons;”

(8). The varied topography, natural beauty, music, dance, arts, crafts, and cultural diversity made this slow travel visit an absolutely captivating adventure;

2   9 1

(8). Overall, we had a valuable and insightful cultural and historical first-hand learning experience. We wanted to visit the arts and crafts studios and galleries of artists’ establishments that were owned and operated by the women of South Africa. We were delighted, thankful, and appreciative of their time in helping us understand their craft and unique business models.

2   4 1 


In conclusion, we remain curious, greedy for knowledge, endeavoring to understand, to explain, and very careful not to generalize or judge.


We would absolutely return to South Africa in a decisecond.

2   18


©Russ and Emily Firlik, Slow Traveling Seniors - “Nothing without Joy!”


2   10 1 


Last modified on Friday, 01 January 2021