Now We Are REALLY In Africa

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

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Flag of South Africa  ,
Sunday, July 17, 2005

Given we weren't huge fans of the schmancy Garden Route, we sped up our journey east to catch the last two days of the highly regarded National Arts Festival in Grahamstown, located slightly inland from the southern coast, just as it starts curving up to the east. We went first to the only backpackers accomodation in town, which intrigued us by having been converted from an old jail, with rooms in cells with original prisoner graffiti. However, given our recent investment in the camping gear, we opted for a spot for our tent in their cement courtyard rather than a cell. Despite the place's historic charm, we didn't really care for it. The "front line" staff who check people in and answer questions were useless, and the "behind the scenes" (i.e., cleaning) people always seemed to be sitting around (despite the fact that the bathrooms were a mess and rarely had toilet paper) or monopolizing the kitchen. The place was trashed and had questionable security - as we were setting up our tent, a guy wandered in off of the street asking for money. Later that afternoon, we were reading at a table in the enclosed courtyard, the only place to hang out, and a guy (possibly a guest, actually) suddenly showed up out of nowhere and announced that he would be beginning the afternoon's entertainment momentarily, which would be primarily his own poetry... and he would be passing a hat at the end. He then disappeared into the bathroom and came out with ink zigzags down his face. Nobody sitting in the courtyard was interested, and the guy started verbally abusing people who tried to keep up their original conversations. He went on for 45 minutes as, one by one, people left. We were almost the last to walk out (we had to be somewhere, actually) and declined to contribute, despite the onslaught of profanities. Add this all up and we decided to move to the municipal campsite for our second night. (Incidentally, we sighted crazy poetry guy on the street near some bars the next night. He was carrying a branch down the street that was about 15 feet long. Hard to know why.)

But that is the bad stuff. The arts festival was unbelievable. Most impressive was the size. For 10 days there are events and shows from 8 am until midnight and at least 10 shows plus lectures and exhibitions going on at any time. Everything from opera to Shakespeare to performance art to films to a mariachi band. We were overwhelmed by our options when we arrived and learned the scope of the festival. Elements of every aspect of South African culture (and more) were represented, but we chose all of the events we attended to learn more about the black culture of the country. The night we arrived we saw a play depicting the brutality of life in the townships (basically, racially segregated settlements that have persisted from the Apartheid era). Nice cheerful stuff like rape, murder, alcoholism and child abuse - well done and thought-provoking, though. The next day we started with a great documentary made by a filmmaker whose recently deceased, somewhat famous father had 11 wives and a total of 52 children (Title: Don't F*** With Me, I Have 51 Brothers and Sisters). The filmmaker goes around the country with a camera reuniting with long lost family members and learning about his father and his own new role in the family. It was a nice counterweight to the play we saw the night before, depicting the happiness as well as the hardship in the townships. After the film, we drove like bandits to our next venue where we saw a dance production featuring traditional dances from the eastern part of the country. Lots of energy, bright costumes, drums and dancers ranging in age from 4 to old. We ended our festival with one of the bigger productions playing - a sort of opera that is comprised of singers recruited from all over the country, which formed a production company that has had a lot of success abroad. The show we saw was called "The Mysteries" (as well as the translation in the African language Xhosa, which is pronounced Kosa). The show was presented in equal parts English and Xhosa and was basically a retelling of bible stories from an African perspective, in the old tradition of how street storytellers kept stories alive. In addition to the shows, we saw some interesting art exhibits ranging from classical-style sculpture to electronics and spent part of our first afternoon walking through a fair in the center of town with lots of food and vendors selling all sorts of things. So, obviously, we had a great time at the festival and particularly appreciated its positive, well-integrated feeling and the town's university energy.

From Grahamstown we drove further inland to the little village of Hogsback, passing through rolling, arid hills to a sudden steep, forested area. Hogsback (named because three hills have rocky tops that resemble the hair on a hogs back) is sort of an up-northesque vacation town and home of one of the best-regarded backpackers in the country. In addition to the place having a name that is fun to say (Away with the Fairies), we loved it for its beautiful views, great living room with a fireplace (and without a TV), and really exceptionally nice staff. Despite it being our coldest camping setting (close to freezing at night), we stayed three nights. The area was supposedly one of the places that inspired Tolkien to write the Lord of the Rings trilogy, and we could appreciate the connection during hikes through beautiful forests with huge trees and pretty waterfalls - some of the only virgin forest left in South Africa. One day we went for a three-hour hike with all five of Away with the Fairies's dogs. They led the way and found all of the monkeys along the way for us, signaled by frantic barking.

The fact that we were paying to have a car finally compelled us to leave, and we drove back to the coast to do some business in the medium-sized city of East London. Because days like these are not as exciting as crazy bus rides and trips to waterfalls, and we don't often write about them, we may give you all the impression that our travels consist of non-stop action. Not the case. Our 24 hours in East London were typical of the errand days we often have. We now are cooking all of our meals, as we can't afford most South African restaurant prices on our budget and because every backpackers has a kitchen anyway. We hit one of East London's big grocery stores to stock up for the next week and then brought Jeff to the doctor because he messed up his right forearm canoeing the week before and it wasn't getting better (diagnosis: no permanent damage). And we also had decided that we weren't going to last camping for the next couple of months unless we found something more comfortable than cheap foam camping mats to sleep on. We checked around a few stores and ended up investing in an inflatable mattress, which, along with our bag of nearly every cooking condiment imaginable, confirms our place as car campers. We also found a place in East London to do internet that was only moderately expensive, as opposed to prohibitively expensive (in case anybody is wondering why we are doing such a poor job of keeping in touch lately, it is because the days of 30-cent-an-hour internet have been suspended at least until our next continent).

The next day we started our journey up the Wild Coast, a remote area along the Indian Ocean away from major highways and comparitively undeveloped for tourism. Our first stop was the little town of Cintsa, which numerous travellers had told us has the best backpackers in the country. Although it is set in a beautiful location overlooking jungly scenery and the ocean, we didn't find much else about it to like. There are lots of reasons it didn't appeal to us, but the root was probably that it has gotten too popular, meaning each person visiting isn't much more than another body and potential for additional cash. Its gated-community feel also enhanced the uncomfortable feeling that we are traveling through this country in a protected bubble and not seeing anything... real. We were ready to move on fairly quickly.

We left Cintsa and started driving further north and passed into the area known as the Transkei, which contains most of the Wild Coast. The Transkei is one of the most rural, traditional areas of the country. When we got off of the main highway, we drove for miles up and down hilly dirt roads, evading herds of cows, goats and sheep. Kids smiled and waved (or shouted out for "sweeties") from the sides of the road as we passed, and every other woman we passed was balancing a bucket or bag of rice or bundle of firewood on her head. There were mud huts painted bright turquoise with thatched roofs and little pastures all over the hills. One guy we gave a short lift to tried to tell us the names of the surrounding villages, but they were largely Xhosa words, which is one of the African languages with lots of clicks. We couldn't say them quite the way he did.

We spent the first night in the Transkei at a community-oriented backpackers outside of a village on the ocean, though we arrived too late in the day to really appreciate it. We bought a shell bracelet from some shy local girls and then watched the sun go down behind the hills. The next day was our first wedding anniversary, so we drove to another area down the coast and upgraded our accomodation to a little cottage for a few days in its honor. It had great views of the ocean, with dolphins jumping in the waves, and gave us a refreshing break from other travelers. One day we took a walk along a path following the ocean and ended up helping two little girls find snails in tide pools for a little while. The other day we went to see a locally famous rock formation and ended up being coerced into allowing three little kids to show us the way. They entertained us with their rock throwing abilities, competing for who could through stones furthest into the ocean.

Our next destination on the Wild Coast required that we drive back down the country road we came in on to the main highway (about an hour), up the main highway (another couple of hours), and then another hour or so of bouncing past cows, sheep and kids on a different dirt road. If there had been a direct road up the coast it probably would have taken a half hour. We arrived at our destination, another village-benefit backpackers with the most spectacular setting imaginable. Blue ocean with dolphins and white sand in one direction, a jungly river in another direction and rolling hills with mud huts everywhere else. The place we stayed in had no electricity or running water. Candles, lanterns and the full moon provided light at night and rainwater collected during the wet season was used for cooking and drinking. A tank of river water could be heated up for showers. We learned the first night to do any significant cooking for dinner before sundown to avoid eyestrain. One highlight of our stay there was a walk to a waterfall (always waterfalls...) with a local guide. The waterfall was nothing exceptional, but we got to walk through a bunch of villages and pumped our guide for details of village life. He is 19, lives with his mom and siblings, has been doing tours since he was 15, was one of very few students in his high school class to have gotten his matric (passed the test to officially graduate, which few rural kids manage to do) and he wants to move to a city to do drafting. So, yet another place we could have stayed for days, but, as always, we were compelled to move on.

Our last stop on the Wild Coast was the busy town of Port St. Johns, a sort of funky, if not seedy, place that was nice for one night. From there we moved into a more developed part of the coast and towards the big city of Durban, but we'll save that for another entry.
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