Hoe Gaan Dit Van Suid Africa

Trip Start Apr 30, 2008
Trip End Apr 17, 2009

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Flag of South Africa  ,
Friday, September 5, 2008

South Africa was probably the country highest on Candy's want list for our trip. After landing in the Johannesburg airport we took a shuttle to the nearby city of Pretoria, which has the reputation as being much safer than Joburg. Nevertheless, it was clear that people in South Africa were very concerned about crime. Both places we stayed had electric fences and significant security (even a panic button in one our rooms).

Our interactions with people in Pretoria were very interesting. Our second hostel was filled with Peace Corp volunteers. These were the first Americans we had seen in a while. We finally understood what people meant when they say Americans are loud (one nice English guy put it more nicely--"you're just exhuberant. It's rather refreshing actually.") We had dinner in a pub/restaurant near the local rugby stadium. For the first time in a very long time, Ray was the smallest guy in the room.

We spent most of our time in Pretoria researching and booking our trip to Kruger National Park. We weren't certain which game park we would visit based on our research and conversations with other travellers. That said, we consider ourselves very fortunate that we booked the tour we did to Kruger. Our guide, Sam, picked us up very early in the morning for our drive to Kruger. Along the way we stopped at several scenic valleys and mountain tops. In the evening we stopped at our accomodation in a replica of a traditional African village (Shangaraga tribe). When we arrived, the women greeted us with singing (we later learned that the singing meant we were guests and shouldn't be killed in earlier times).

We were two of three people staying in the village.  The huts were made up of four foot high round adobe walls with a thatch roof (these are called rondavels). We ended up staying in what would have been the chief's first wife's hut. Our new friend Kaz, from Japan, stayed in the honored guest hut near the entrance to the village. We later learned that this would be the first hut visited by any attackers so that the villagers would have time to arm themselves! We learned a lot about village life and had a traditional dinner around the fire followed by singing and dancing. After the young boys in the village performed they asked if we want to perform anything. We all struggled to come up with something and then Ray asked Kaz if he knew "take me out to the ball game" and we had something to sing at last!

The next morning we started our safari in Kruger. We had noticed on the itinerary that each morning would start out with "rusks". These turned out to be these amazing twice-baked bisuits (like big biscotti) that the South African pioneers would eat in their covered wagons. This was a wonderful way to start the morning (and we continued to eat rusks throughout South Africa). The morning continued to get even better. Within a mile or so, Ray saw gigantic elephant ears peaking from behind a tree about 20 feet to the side of our jeep. He called for our guide to stop in an increasingly amazed and agitated voice--"Sam, Sam, Sam, Sam, Sam, Sam." Most of the other people on the jeep had been on safari for a few days, so they weren't that impressed that this huge elephant was right beside the truck!  They soon became excited because of us, they say!

Over the next few days we had amazing luck viewing animals. We saw all of the big five (lion, elephant, buffalo, and the harder to find black rhino and leopard). We also got to see hippos, velvet monkeys, baboons, several deer/antelope species, and lots of giraffes. Even though giraffes were common we never got tired of watching their unique running style.  This was all very surreal to us...our heartrate was definitely elevated and our eyes were WIDE open!     

It was cool during our visit with occasional light rain. When driving in an open sided jeep, it got a bit cold. At night we were plenty warm in our permanent canvas tents within the park. The tents were protected from the wildlife (there was a large cage around us), which was fortunate as a HUGE hyena hung around the camp site in hopes of scraps. We enjoyed the safari and the company so much that we thought of staying a few extra days, but needed to move on to Mozambique.

We've already written about our wonderful time in Mozambique. On our way back to South Africa we travelled briefly through Swaziland on our way to Durban. We both noticed a significant improvement in living standards as we crossed into Swaziland. That Swaziland is mentioned (appropriately) as a poorer nation, it says a lot about Mozambique's economic situation.

Our stop in Durban was a mandatory rest stop on our trip around the world. On our first morning there, we made reservations and transportation arrangements to see the Drakensburg mountains. Then we realized that neither of us really wanted to go there (Candy thought Ray wanted to go and Ray thought Candy wanted to go, so we booked the trip). Once we resolved the confusion, we updated our trip plans to go down the coast to a highly recommended stop called Coffee Bay.

Coffee Bay is located in an area called the Transkei. During Apartheid, the South African government set up rural areas for blacks to live. These areas typically didn't have enough resources to be self sufficient (although the land seemed better than most of the reservations established for Native Americans in the U.S.). Because the areas were not able to be self sufficient, many residents would go to work in the cities or the mines. The trip through the Transkei was very interesting. We saw thousands of rondavels like we stayed in near Kruger. Theses rondavels were typically painted in bright colors (pink and lime green were typical). On top of the thatch roof was often an old tire filled with sharp objects. (We later found out the tire is filled with hard dirt to stop the rain from coming inside via the peak of the roof and that sharp objects were oyster or mussel shells to make the roof uncomfortable for evil spirits that might want to visit the home.) Ray thought the tire on the roof was an idea that he should bring back to Minnesota--particulary as our neighbors really encouraged us to travel in South Africa. Candy hasn't quite come around yet.

In Coffee Bay, our hostel lined up African dancing and drumming exhibitions each night around the camp fire. Candy said it was like African summer camp for adults. During the day we hiked around the striking hills and cliffs above the sea. On one of our hikes, the wind was so fierce, we had to hunch down to not be blown out to sea. The sea was so rough, that we saw two locals that were visciously cut by sharp rocks or oyster shells while trying to harvest mussels, oysters, or rock lobsters in the high surf.

We then headed down the coast to East London. We had reserved a room on the beach. When we arrived, the locals were all at the oceanside taking pictures. It turns out the winds we observed in Coffee Bay were part of what could be called the storm of the century. Some people said they hadn't seen waves like this since the tsumani that hit southeast asia (and affected the rest of the Indian Ocean) four years ago. The paved road along the beach was filled with sand and reasonably large stones. We had to time our walk to the hostel to avoid the surf. The wind that night made our icehouse-like shelter terribly cold. We eventually got up to put on all of our warm clothes (Ray slept in a wool sweater, down coat, and even wore his balaclava). The roar of the surf was continuous and louder than an airplane. Not surprisingly, we were really ready to leave the next morning. However, we won't forget East London for the weather and our toasted cheese sandwich with an egg and what we would call Canadian bacon. This really good sandwich turned out to be available throughout South Africa.

Our next stop was Plettenburg Bay, or as the locals call it "Plett." (Many South African cities have long names. So Johannesburg is abbreviated as Jo-burg, Port Elizabeth is PE, and Cape Town is CT. Something to think about for our German readers...).

Plett had also been impacted by the storm. A tourist was swept off the rocks, so we saw quite a few aircraft searching for the body. We hiked in a nature reserve called Robberg (Robbe is Dutch/Afrikaans for seal). Many of the boardwalks on the trail had been lifted up by the surf--even those 40 feet above what would have appeared to be the high tide mark! During the hike we able to see (and smell) hundreds of seals. From the cliffs above, we could really appreciate the swimming and hunting prowess of the seals in comparison to snorkelling with sea lions in the Galapagos.

In addition to the seals, we were really close to some southern right whales. You can't believe how close the mothers and calves get to shore in Plettenberg Bay. We also visited an archeological dig tracking the history of the inhabitants of the area. The researchers were able to discover quite a lot about how people lived in many eras by looking at the layers of garbage (the scientists get all technical and call the garbage piles "middens"). You could clearly see the changes in the layers as the seas got higher or warmer by how people's diets changed. So, kids, don't clean your rooms when your parents ask; future scientists need your help in understanding how 21st Century Americans lived.

We had planned to take the night bus from Plett to Cape Town. We typically don't like to travel at night because you don't get to see the country. However, that was the only option. We were quite lucky, however, that our hostel's owner, Graham, was going to Cape Town. So, we were able to chip in for gas money and travel with him and his really well trained German short hair, Patches (she loved to eat egg shells when we made scrambled eggs!).

Graham took us to see the Karoos (the Big and Little Karoos are semi-desert areas within South Africa with wild flowers and ostrich farms). This slight detour is one that most people don't get the chance to see--even South Africans we're told. This, and many other advantages have fallen our way due to travelling in the low season.

We arrived in Cape Town in the late afternoon. The hostel we reserved was in an area of town that reminded us architecturally (and other ways) of New Orleans. The next day we moved down the street to a brand new hostel that had just opened its doors two days earlier. The place and its owners were just lovely. On our first full day with them, Noelline and her son, Clinton, drove us around Cape Point.

The southern most part of Cape Point is the Cape of Good Hope. Along the way we visited a huge colony of African penguins. It is impossible to watch penguins without a smile on your face. As we parked we saw several groups of 5-10 penguins wobbling to the sea. We thought that was it, based on the small number of penguins in the Galapogos. However, when we walked inland, we discovered a huge breeding colony. We were able to get within inches of the penguins. Clinton and Noelline were remarkably patient with the 100s of photos Candy took of the penguins. (At one point, Candy was running along side two penguins to get a shot. It looked like she was racing them. She was really proud that she could catch them until Clinton pointed out that winning a race against an animal without knees isn't terribly impressive.)

On the way back from Cape Point, we visited our first winery in South Africa called Groot Constantia. Groot Constantia is one of South Africa's oldest wineries.  Ship Captains would pick up some wine when they stopped in Cape Town and the winery was quite famous (it's mentioned in Jane Austin's books apparently).

Noelline's other son, Jayson, took us around town, up to Signal Hill, and gave us a personally guided tour of the District Six musuem. Each day at noon on Signal Hill, a cannon is fired reportedly so Capetonians could set their watches in the olden-days. The views of the city and harbour are amazing. District Six was an area of Cape Town inhabited by those of mixed race during apartheid. At one point, the whites decided they wanted the land and evicted the residents. The museum was a really interesting view into the history of apartheid from the perspective of this community.

We also traveled to Stellenbosch for a day of wine tasting with Clinton and Noelline. Our first stop was a winery called Stellenbosch Hills. Ray selected this winery for its unique tasting--each wine was paired with a different type of biltong--South Africa's version of beef jerky! The winery also offered a pairing of nuts with wines (try Shiraz with pistachios some time). We next stopped at Spier winery where they have a cheetah reserve as well as the wine. We made several other stops as well. Our most remarkable was the tasting of straw wine, where the grapes are dried to concentrate the sugars before pressing. Amazing. At that point, Candy became a bit loopy. At other times, Clinton would press the door locks when we went through rougher neighborhoods. Stellenbosch was very safe. However, Clinton needed to hit the door locks when Candy decided it would be a good idea to try to catch a Guinea Fowl for dinner (like a big pheasant).

While Candy was not able to serve us Guinea Fowl, she did cook several meals for the owners and residents of our hostel at our almost nightly communal meals. Her meatloaf and pancakes were a hit. People were pleasantly surprised by her use of ketchup and syrup (particularly when the syrup mingled with the bacon). We really enjoyed the friendships we made during our stay and these communal meals.

We met several people during our time in South Africa who had come to learn English at local universities. The frequent interactions between South Africa and the rest of the world were a surprise to us. We met many South Africans who had or were working abroad. We also enjoyed the opportunity to see Tropic Thunder at a local movie theatre (and explain the TIVO jokes to our friends).

We toured the South African Parliament, Table Mountain, and Robben Island on our own. Table Mountain dominates the skyline of Cape Town. Within 5 kilometers of the sea, there's this amazing 1 kilometer high mountain. The weather delayed our attempt to go to the top of Table Mountain. Finally on our fourth day, we attempted to reach the summit with our daypack filled with water, rusks, and biltong.

The cable car to the top of Table Mountain was really slick. The inside of the car rotated so everyone could get a view of the city, mountain, and harbor. Once we reached the top, the views were spectactular. We hiked around the top and were surprised by the amazing flora and fauna. There's actually a wetland with frogs croaking away on top of what appears to be a very dry mesa. Our later visit to the lovely Kirstenbosch gardens highlighted the unique plant life of the Cape.

Robben Island is referred to as South Africa's Alcatraz. This island, several kilometers outside of Cape Town in Table Bay, is where Nelson Mandela and other anti-apartheid figures were imprisioned. Our tour of the island by bus was led by a former prisoner (Our tour of the jail cells were led by another former inmate.). This guy was the best tour guide we've ever encounted. He asked where everyone on the bus was from and told stories that tied the history of South Africa and Robben Island to our countries. We were the only Americans on the tour (we don't see too many Americans on our travels) and he seemed pleased to have us based on the stories he told (we were sort of nervous given the less than clear opposition to Apartheid by the U.S. government when it was somewhat reasonably feared that South Africa would become Communist if Apartheid fell). For example, he mentioned how the very few black doctors during apartheid were educated in the United States and how Andrew Young adopted the children of Robert Sobukwe (the founder of the Pan African Congress who encouraged very robust resistance to Apartheid and died very young under house arrest after being moved from Robben Island). It is this spirit of remembering the good that infuses most of the Robben Island tour that we will remember most.

We took another road less travelled to catch our flight out of South Africa from Joburg. We took a bus several hundred miles to Kimberly. When we told people of our plans, they all said, "Ah, you're going to see the Big Hole." The Big Hole is both a hole (now mostly filled with water) and a musuem describing the history of diamond mining that so influenced the nation of South Africa. We particularly enjoyed seeing all the different colors of diamonds in the mining museum.

After Kimberly we continued on to Joburg. On our arrival at the bus station, our bus was searched by drug sniffing dogs (the dog was not terribly motivated by his/her job which made the situation sort of amusing). At one point a guy that wasn't obviously a policeman asked Ray for his name and took an optimal image of his fingerprint (but curiously didn't ask for his passport!). After that brief delay we moved onto our hostel and the next day to our flight to Turkey.

Tune in soon to hear about our trip to Turkey and to see which animal Candy decides to enter a foot race with next.

Candy and Ray
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Where I stayed
Penthouse on Long Street, 112 Long Street, (021) 424 8356
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