Missed It By That Much…

4 09 2008

Robben Island, ‘home’ to Nelson Mandela for 13 years – from Table Mountain, Cape Town.

They say that timing is everything, which is probably why I have trouble keeping a beat and generally fall over when dancing…and why I missed seeing Nelson Mandela in person by just a single day.


I arrived in Entebbe, Uganda to find South African flags hanging from the lights, workers busily sweeping the streets, and posters and banners welcoming the legendary South African president to Uganda. Sadly, his arrival was just one day after I was due to be driving west for an appointment in Zaire with a family of mountain gorillas. Alas, my trekking permit was already set and there was no way for me to hang around long enough to catch a glimpse of one of the greatest leaders of the 20th century.


Nelson Mandela’s name had been well known to me for as long as I could remember, although for much of my life the only photos I had seen of him had been small, grainy, old black & white pictures taken before his imprisonment. It was only when I watched live on television as he walked free from Victor Verster Prison in 1990 that he sprang from the newspapers and became a real flesh & blood person. As he progressed from being an almost mythical figurehead for the anti-Apartheid movement to a remarkable and articulate leader renowned not only for his efforts to end injustice and restore the most basic of rights but also for his compassion, forgiveness and desire for reconciliation, so he progressed for me into a genuine hero – a mantle he has maintained ever since.


I was fortunate enough to visit South Africa while he was still president. Although I unfortunately did not see him during my stay, I feel privileged to have been in his country at such an important time in its history. Likewise, I am still very grateful that I visited Russia shortly after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the dissolution of the Soviet Union at a time when the country was still trying to find its feet and its new identity. And that I travelled through Malawi just weeks after its first ever democratic election when everyone was still celebrating their global suffrage.


Equally, I shall always be glad that I visited Cuba when Fidel Castro was still president. I will never forget flicking on the television one evening to find live coverage of one of Castro’s legendary speeches. Although I couldn’t speak Spanish, I watched it for a few minutes before changing the channel to find something else…and failing, as he was on every channel. Several hours later, I tried again, but he was still on and still going strong.


Every country has a leader, but the names and deeds of only a relative few survive the test of time and carve their places in history. Although my travels don’t revolve around revolutions or stake out state visits, I do pay attention to current events when travelling and take an interest in the political and social situations wherever I go. It not only allows those that I meet to know that I have a genuine interest in their country but it also adds an extra dimension to my own experiences.


Although I will always regret missing Mandela by a day – and missing the homecoming of the King of Buganda a few days later in the western Ugandan city of Fort Portal! – I do seek comfort in the knowledge that I did at least miss Chris de Burgh’s visit to Swakopmund, Namibia!


Photo and post by: Simon Vaughan




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