Hey, Check Out the Line on the Map!

Trip Start Jan 31, 2005
Trip End Mar 30, 2006

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Flag of South Africa  ,
Monday, July 4, 2005

We began our journey with very little planning other than buying a plane ticket to Ecuador and booking a couple of nights accomodation in Quito. When people asked us what we planned to do and where we planned to go, we usually said that we wanted to circle the globe. But we never had more than our word to show for it. When we arrived in Argentina we started to make plans to move across an ocean, finally. After numerous visits to various travel agents - real life and online - we found a hard to pass up price on a flight from Buenos Aires to Cape Town, South Africa. So, June 22 we found ourselves at the Buenos Aires airport feeling like we'd reached a pretty important moment in our travels.

When we bought the tickets, we were pretty happy about the itinerary because we left Buenos Aires at 8 pm and arrived in Cape Town at 9 am. We envisioned a decent night's sleep and a full day to explore Cape Town when we arrived. We forgot, however, that there is a 5 hour time difference between Buenos Aires and Cape Town, meaning we actually arrived at 4 am Buenos Aires time. To compound this, we were served dinner over an hour into the flight, watched a movie and then were woken up for breakfast an hour before we landed. We basically closed our eyes for an hour and arrived in Cape Town as zombies. To make it worse, we also had stayed up late the night before and gotten up early that morning, figuring if we were tired on the flight, we would sleep better... But, aside from the red-eye schedule, it was a great flight. If anyone out there gets an opportunity to fly Malaysia Airlines, do not pass it up. They shame US airlines.

Cape Town is supposed to be one of the most beautifully situated cities in the world, and we got a good overview flying in. It was a sunny but misty morning and we were sort of in awe of the mountains in the background and ocean in front, with the city itself in between. We got off the plane and were immediately struck by all of the English signage. And then by passing through immigration in English. The woman who stamped our passport made a joke we could understand - it was all sort of weird after 4.5 months of Spanish.

The little South African planning we had done before leaving showed we were going to be in for some sticker shock. Throughout South America, we almost always had our own room and our own bathroom for the equivalent of $12-15 per night. We realized that in Cape Town (and most of South Africa) we were going to have a hard time getting two dorm beds for less than $20 per night. We picked out a place that was supposed to be good, though, and were picked up by their airport shuttle. We arrived at reception around 11am, exhausted, only to find that the place had a 1 pm check-in time. We were sent to the TV lounge to wait where we sort of took naps on bean bags. Around 12:30pm, we asked if our dorm beds were ready and found that the front desk wasn't really sure. Some people who were supposed to have checked out by 10 am hadn't been seen yet. They sent us up to the room to check if anybody was there. When we opened the door we saw clothes everywhere, a guy passed out on one bed and the room smelled a little funky. We wondered how we were going to do with dorm life... We went back downstairs and told reception it looked like the group in the dorm was staying. In the end, they gave us a private room for the same price as the dorm, so we came out ahead on that one. We brought our stuff to our room and crashed. We knew we really shouldn't have, but were too exhausted to listen to standard jet lag wisdom.

We forced ourselves up at 4 pm or so and decided it was time to find some food and a guidebook for South Africa (impossible to find one in Buenos Aires...). The latter was surprisingly easy because the front desk had an unclaimed, up-to-date book in the lost and found that they gave us for free. To us, that is like winning the lottery. We were also directed to a nearby Thai noodle bar... Suddenly, we realized we hadn't yet answered some key travel questions. Can you drink the water? Can you flush the toilet paper? How do you cross the street without getting hit when traffic coming from the "wrong" direction? The waiter at the noodle bar answered the first question with some amusement (hopefully it wasn't offence...) and we eventually got the other two worked out as well.

We returned to our hostel (incidentally, called a "Backpackers" in South Africa, as in "Ashanti Backpackers") and did our best to stay up until 8 pm. We rationalized going to sleep early saying that we would surely also wake up early and then be right on our new schedule. We woke up at 11:30 the next morning - so much for that plan. Julie and Pat, we'll make sure you do better than we did when you come see us in Namibia...

We stayed in Cape Town for over a week, largely because we had so much to figure out before we moved on. South Africa does not have the extensive, cheap bus network of South America and we figured out pretty fast that it would be worthwhile to "hire" a car, which, in their Britishness, they like to say here. Then we had to figure out for how long, where we would be going, etc. and search for a good rate. In the meantime, though, we did manage to do two hikes in the mountains that surround the city - Lion's Head and Table Mountain. We'll attach some photos of the views - pretty incredible.

After two nights in the first backpackers, we decided to move to a different one. The place we had chosen ended up being a huge party hostel and seemed to cater to big groups of not very friendly people. We figured we could do better and ended up in a place we liked much better called Cat and Moose Backpackers - Moose being the name of both the cat and dog that live there. This spot began a new stage for us traveling. After being comparitively antisocial through South America, largely because of our ability to get our own room, and the fact that travelers stay in just the same places as locals and are therefore not concentrated into European-style hostels, we suddenly felt connected to other travelers, and a great group of them at that. We have been lucky to meet more and more great people at almost all of the other backpacker places we have stayed since then, of all ages and backgrounds, including peace corps volunteers, college kids, retired couples, a mom and a daugher, and several families traveling with young children. So, never think that it is too late or the wrong time in life to do this......

We finally were ready to pick up our car a Saturday morning nine days after we arrived. Jeff was elected sole driver and had readied himself for driving on the left side of the road by doing mental drives through Cape Town as we walked through the city. We were a bit nervous, though, starting out, especially because it involved driving through the city and then onto the main highway, while shifting gears with his left hand. It took a few days to quit turning on the windshield wipers when we needed to turn, not automatically reach to the right when needing to shift and not automatically look to the left for the rearview mirror. It actually seemed to be easier to change driving styles than to change the way we crossed the street walking, though. How many of you automatically look left and then right before crossing the street? It is hard to change.

Our first destination was an area of South Africa called the Garden Route. It is basically the central southern coast of the country and a popular holiday destination due to it is beautiful forests and beaches. The drive from Cape Town to the Garden Route was very nice, as well as educational. It is much more apparent how racially segregated the country still is, over 10 years after the end of Apartheid, when viewed from the highway rather than from the city. A shockingly large proportion of the country's black citizens still live in terrible-looking settlements (called townships) outside of almost every city/town of any size. The houses are made of everything from concrete blocks to sheet metal to scrap wood, most of which don't have a direct water supply, and, in some spots, electricity. Things are improving in the country, but not for everyone and not very fast.

Our first stop in the Garden Route was a little town called Wilderness where we stayed at a pretty old farm property not far from the beach. When we decided to rent a car, we realized that we could help justify the cost by getting some camping gear. Most of the attractions in South Africa are of the nature sort and lots of backpackers are located in the countryside and have camping space available. It's a pretty easy way to do it - set up your tent outside and then have bathrooms, a kitchen, sitting areas, fires, etc., to use during your stay. Wilderness was the trial run for our new (and somewhat worryingly inexpensive) sleeping bags and tent and we were happy that it looked like camping should be a success.

After three nights in Wilderness, during which time we got our first up-close view of the Indian Ocean and went canoeing through a national forest, we drove further on to the upscale resort town of Plettenberg Bay. We unfortunately timed our travels at the same time as winter public school holidays and even the backpackers' spots in Plettenberg Bay were largely full when we arrived. We ended up an unusual spot outside of the town on an island in a river. We spent a few days there, the highlight being a hike on a nature reserve on a peninsula jutting into the ocean. The ocean is a beautiful turquoise there and we saw hundreds of fur seals jumping in the waves around the peninsula. The seals' habitat extends all the way along the coast of South Africa and then up the western side into Namibia. They were once threatened due to competition with fisherman as well as the hunting of the seals themselves, but have rebounded in the last 15 years.

We liked the Garden Route, but found it pretty touristy, and awfully white for a country that is over 75% non-white. We found ourselves wondering a lot if we really were in Africa... Stay tuned to find out whether or not we found it...
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