I remember learning the song We Are Marching To Pretoria back in 3rd grade. Even though I didn’t know where in the world Pretoria was back then, it was still a pretty catchy tune and it was lodged in the back of my head throughout all these years. So now, as our bus drove back across the KwaZulu-Natal and into the Guateng province, I had the song once again playing in my head. There are far worse songs that could have been on continuous replay in my mind, so this one wasn’t too bad.
The Intercape bus arrived in Pretoria about 40 minutes ahead of schedule at 6 AM instead of 6:40. I continue to be pleasantly surprised at the punctuality of South Africa’s transportation systems. Compared to the 1 AM arrival in Pretoria the day before our Rovos Rail trip last week, this time we would have an entire day to hang out in Pretoria and see a little bit of the countries’ executive capital. With that in mind, I decided to find a place close to the city center instead of the backpackers place we stayed at which was well out of the way. As it turned out, there is a rather nice and cheap hotel that is located literally just across from the bus station called the Victoria Hotel. For only R350, we got a rather large room outfitted with ornate Victorian style furniture. The bathroom alone was larger than the entire room at Pretoria Backpackers. I’m really glad they let us check in at 6:30 in the morning instead of waiting till the usual afternoon check in time.
After a few hours of sleeping, I got up and decided to walk down the length of Paul Kruger Street out to Church Square which is the historic center of the city and is surrounded by a number of significant buildings including the Palace of Justice and the Old Capital Theater. In a strange Orwellian fashion, it was in the Palace of Justice, which serves as the headquarters of the Gauteng province Supreme Court, that Nelson Mandela was charged with treason in 1962 and incarcerated for the next 27 years. I guess the Palace of Justice is just like George Orwell’s Ministry of Truth from his dystopian novel 1984.
Walking the length of Paul Kruger Street as well as the side streets took the better part of the morning and into the early afternoon. There are parks, gardens, museums, shopping centers, and other knick knacks in the vicinity to keep one occupied for some time. Although Pretoria is a pleasant enough place, it still cannot compare with Cape Town in pretty much any category, including the weather. Though the one win I will grant Pretoria is the abundance of their lovely jacaranda trees. These lovely purple blossom-bedecked trees line the streets and thoroughfares throughout the city. These are not native trees, but were introduced to the area in the 19th century, but now number well over 50,000. October is the best time to see them here since the trees bloom in the early spring months (remember, we’re in the Southern Hemisphere) and carpet the cityscape with a sea of blues and purples. The biggest problems these trees create is when their flowers begin to fall off and litter the roads. The oils that are secreted do not wash away very easily and cause cars and other vehicles to slip on them — almost like driving on ice in a way.
A couple of blocks to the east of Paul Kruger street and within site of the Transvaal Museum of Natural History is Burgers Park, a large 4 hectare (9.88 acre) botanical park that was established in 1874. It was a pretty nice place with a lot of couples and families enjoying the open air and the lush green grass that the park offers for picnics and outings. According to my Rough Guides guide book, this entire area from Burgers Park over to the National Cultural History Museum a few blocks to the west of Paul Kruger street is modeled after the National Mall in Washington D.C. I have been to the National Mall, and if the guide book hadn’t pointed it out to me, I would have never made the connection. This area is a bit too congested to have the same atmosphere. There are no larger-than-life monuments or statues that anchor any of the ends like the Lincoln or Jefferson Memorial do. Sure, there is the statue of Paul Kruger mounted on a horse in Church Square, but it lacks the visual gravitas and appeal that Washington D.C. has. Nonetheless, the attempt is well appreciated.
After some lunch, we returned to the Victoria Hotel and then I headed out to the Department of Correctional Facilities Museum located to the south west of the train station. Although the museum itself was not all that interesting, what was memorable was getting through the front gates of the prison to reach the museum building. There were a large number of family members crowding around outside to get their few minutes with their respective family members who are being incarcerated, and I had to make my way past that. It was a bit depressing but still an interesting spectacle to watch.
The rest of the afternoon and evening brought in some heavy showers which made it difficult to do much else. I walked back to the hotel in the rain. Next to the Victoria hotel was a cheap internet cafe, so we hung out there for a few hours and then a quick dinner just down the street. Tomorrow, we would have to wake up early again for our long drive to Kruger National Park. So, we repacked our bags again and turned in for the night around 9 PM.
All in all, Pretoria wasn’t too bad. It’s a nice city and I could certainly spend a couple of days here. Having a rental car to get around in would be the most efficient. For museum buffs, there are several of those to check out here as well.