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Is Stellenbosch The New Boulder?

  • By Courtenay Brown
  • Published Jul 17, 2012
Photo: Greg Beadle

Systemic Factors

Other factors to consider before you head out to Stellenbosch are systemic ones, as opposed to geographical or functional. South Africa’s networking infrastructure is behind that of the Western world, so Internet is slower and much less widely available. For example, there is currently only one coffee shop that offers free Wi-Fi, which has a time and capacity limit. This can be a source of either liberation or frustration, depending on your perspective and those of the folks you didn’t bring along to Africa.

Safety and security are also fairly pressing concerns. Houses and apartment buildings are surrounded by high fences, security gates and even barbed or electrified wire in a style that’s usually reserved for prisons in the U.S.

Implications of this security culture for training in Stellenbosch range from the trivial (“Why aren’t there towels or shampoo or pull buoys here?” I asked. “People would steal them.”) to the more worrisome. I was chased and nipped by dogs three times while running during my five-week stay, triple the number of times I’ve been chased by a dog in Boulder, where I have lived for almost two years; South Africa’s culture of security means that watch-dog behavior and aggression are not only tolerated but encouraged.

Another implication is road safety: Drivers are not reliable. This problem increases when the university is in session from late February until late December. Unreliability combined with the paucity of bike lanes—which themselves are so narrow that the painted bike silhouette often spills over the edge of the lane—mean that cycling with headphones is ill-advised. On the other hand, the routes are so varied and often so breathtaking that you won’t want the distraction of headphones, anyway, and road quality in the Western Cape is generally very good.

As far as personal security is concerned, Stellenbosch is definitely safe for tourists. The types of crime that spark media frenzies happen mostly in Johannesburg, or Joburg, as the locals call it, and in nearby areas, and are not common in Stellenbosch. You don’t need to run with an armored vest. Or even a shirt—running with a sports bra as your top is not taboo. Yet the same prudence and sensibility you’d use in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park are appropriate here.

In that vein, what you don’t want to do is venture into any South African townships unaccompanied by a local guide.

South African Society

Security concerns can be traced to South Africa’s income inequality, which is the highest in the world, and understanding this and the country’s unique history will help potential triathlon tourists decide whether or not they want to visit.

Townships are vestiges of the apartheid era. Apartheid means “separate development” and resulted in physical and economic separation of whites (who comprise 10 percent of the country’s population) and non-whites (the remaining 90 percent). The Western Cape is home to descendants of the Cape Malay tribes (who are referred to as “colored” but still considered “non-white” in official censuses) who were also separated from whites under apartheid. Blacks and coloreds were required by law to live in townships, in homes that were owned by the government.

When apartheid ended in 1994, ownership of these homes was transferred to their residents, yet racial composition of the townships remains essentially the same. For example, Cape Town’s Guguletu township has about 300,000 residents, exactly three of whom are white. Economic variation within the townships is much greater than it used to be, reflective of post-apartheid economic and education incentives, and most townships also have informal settlements, with squatters who live in shacks that aren’t serviced by the government.

Stellenbosch’s primary township is called Kayamandi. Its population is somewhere around 30,000, although conditions make accurate census figures a challenge. Approximately 65 percent of its residents live informally, in shacks without plumbing. Unemployment is estimated at 40 percent. Many residents are migrants, coming from other provinces in South Africa or from Malawi, Zimbabwe and even as far away as Nigeria in search of work.

Poverty and Triathlon

What does South Africa’s inequality and poverty mean to triathletes on a training trip in Stellenbosch? On a day-to-day basis, you’ll be aware of it when you see the laborers who start heading into the central business district from the townships early in the morning, around the time you’ll be heading out to ride or run. Street cleaners, maintenance and construction workers, store clerks and produce weighers walk in to town or take “black taxis,” mini-buses infamous for aggressive driving tactics.

You’ll also see a non-white traffic attendant on virtually every city block, in a fluorescent vest, who will direct you in and out of parking spaces in the hope of receiving coins. These coins are for protection of your car, which isn’t always a necessity, and theoretically will be paid to parking police if they come to check the meter. It’s a custom that arose after apartheid—technically these attendants are not formally employed by municipalities—and paying them to help you park is not mandatory. Some people view it as job creation; others view it as perpetuating indigence. To me it was mostly just confusing and resulted in loads of extra kilometers on the odometer as I drove back and forth through town in search of a nice anonymous parking spot. (Never in my life did I think I’d actually wish for a shopping mall parking lot.)

Despite its inequalities, South Africa exudes hope and opportunity. There’s a sense of positivity and excitement about the future that you won’t find in more jaded Western societies. In Stellenbosch, one beautiful encapsulation of this promise is Songo.info. This organization teaches interested Kayamandi kids to ride and race bikes, and through this platform kids find a safe haven that’s a marked contrast to the vortex of unemployment, drugs and gang violence that plagues the township. The program was founded in 2008 and started with BMX training. Since then it’s grown to include mountain biking and road biking for more than 100 kids. The race program has offered children travel opportunities they’d never have otherwise. It also teaches practical skills—kids learn to maintain the communal bikes, and one member of the program was just hired as a full-time mechanic at a local bike shop—and promotes education; the kids have to finish their homework before riding each afternoon. And a clubhouse with computers equipped with language and learning software is set to be completed by year’s end.

What’s amazing for visiting athletes is that the kids love to have guests on their rides. You can coordinate with the Songo.info office, a quick 3K ride from central Stellenbosch, and see what hardships these kids are facing along with the talent that is going to make them succeed. You’ll want to give them everything you have, and the stuff that seemed like trash to you before your ride—last year’s helmet, the shoes with the Velcro that’s gotten loose, the glove with the grease stain—will seem like Gucci products compared to the hodgepodge gear the kid who beats you up the hill is wearing. (In fact, if you need to make room for wine and rooibos-buchu tea in your checked luggage, you can donate your gear at the end of your trip.)

The New Boulder?

Stellenbosch’s offerings—its beautiful setting, its training facilities and recovery resources, its culture—make it a worthy international travel destination for triathletes. Like Boulder and other training hot spots in the U.S., it will continue to attract professionals from triathlon and other sports—and for good reason.

But if you aren’t willing to be flexible and independent with your training, Stellenbosch may not be the place for you.

“The poverty rate here is high,” Swallow said. “That, not us, has to be their focus. As long as things are open, we can sort things out for ourselves. I’m not going to make a fuss if the pool isn’t clean or the flags go missing. I’m from England, where you can’t even swim without getting trampled by a granny!”

Those who don’t share Swallow’s perspective might be better off staying in the U.S. Those who do, however, will find Stellenbosch the perfect location for the training camp—and vacation—of a lifetime.

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