Downward Spiral

Trip Start Aug 28, 2012
Trip End Aug 09, 2013

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Flag of South Africa  , Eastern Cape,
Saturday, June 29, 2013

29-5th July – Port Elizabeth

Our journey to Port Elizabeth just marked the start of a downfall that would last for days...

More or less as soon as were on the BazBus Laura started to feel ill and slowly got worse as the day went on, being sick every time we stopped. There wasn't much else to say for the journey other than it was long, very long, starting at 9 and finishing at 11:30!  The highlight of the journey was teaching 'cat’s cradle’ to a 12 year old local on her way to visit her sisters with her mum; it figures the BazBus is a safe way for locals to travel as well.

We arrived at our hostel, Jikeleza, what seemed like a really nice place but just so majorly quiet!  We quickly settled into the room to even more quickly go to bed and sleep.  The next day I got to know the inside of our room very well as Laura continued to be ill and I couldn’t leave the hostel by myself; I slept as much as possible and we watched a lot of TV on our laptops whilst I struggled to keep my phone connected to the wifi.  The excitement of the day came when we made a 10 minute journey to and from the nearby Spar and I bought Heniz soup for dinner, to have with a toasty; literally the most exciting thing that happened all day.  Sadly, we were meant to be doing a day tour today but had to cancel to rearrange, but was all ok as we were starting our volunteering the next day...or so we thought.

The morning was once again spent doing nothing, other than checking out of our room by 10 to wait around for an email to confirm a more precise time, other than the 12-2 I was originally told, to get picked up for the volunteering.  The alarm bells started ringing when, at 2, we hadn’t received an email, their landline wasn’t working and I rang their first emergency contact and he no longer worked there.  I then rang their second number to be told the pick-up is at the airport picking up people and will be with us soon.  The mini-bus finally arrived at 3, empty?!  Andre, the rather young and subdued driver, told us he hadn’t even been to the airport and when we mentioned the 12-2 original time, he said he didn’t know of any plan about pick-ups and just left when he was told

The worst news came when I asked about the cubs...all 2 of them.  As most will know, the main reason I wanted to come to Africa, and generally travel was to work with big cats, especially cubs.  So to be told they only had 2 cubs, both at the age of 6 months (barely cubs!) the downward spiral continued.  He then informed us that there would be around 24 volunteers at the park whilst we were there, paying 1000 for this "experience".  As soon as he got out at the airport to get the others, Laura and I started talking, or working out how the hell we were going to get out of this with me on the verge of either bursting into tears or punching the chair in front of me!  We must be the luckiest people in the world, or it must be fate, or the whole ‘everything happens for a reason’ because even though we tried numerous times, we could not transfer the money and were told we could just pay on arrival.  We had this to advantage as well as the fact that the info pack they had sent us talked all about a breeding program having 3-4 sets of cubs a year.  The problem was; we had signed a contract...

The weather was shit, and I mean awfully shit with heavy rain and really dark skies (apathetic fallacy or what?) but the drive into the park was really impressive with an amazing view of the sea and tonnes of bush land with giraffe and antelope all around.  However, having where we were staying pointed out to us and then driving up to the main lodge, the buildings were run down and not the standard we were expecting.  To be honest, all our comparisons were going to be made to our volunteering in Thailand, THAILAND – a developing country – that charged half the price, and so far I was extremely disappointed.  We were then taken into the entrance building where about 8 members of staff were sat, some drinking (baring in mind it was 4pm and in the info they said no alcohol allowed) and asked to sign the indemnity forms.  This was our chance to speak up so we asked to speak to the volunteer co-ordinator.  Instead, we ended up talking to Andre and what seemed an even younger lad who just seemed so embarrassed to have these girls complaining at them.

But what they said completely went in our favour; initially they said that for each cub walking time there will be ~4 volunteers and you would get a chance to do it maybe once every 5 days, so in case maybe twice in the time we were there.  They then told us the deal breaker; that the park had recently changed from a breeding program more to an educational program, which broke the contract from their side as they sold the experience as working as part of a breeding program.  As we moaned, nicely, they tried to defend it as much as possible but said they would ring Or, the lady who I’d had all the correspondence with.  We awkwardly went and stood in the corner and had them call us outside to talk to Or.  Or wasn’t there!  The 2 nervous looking boys just said, “we know what Or has said to you in emails” (and at this point I was expecting them to say ‘and she didn’t say it was a breeding program’ but instead) “and she says you can either leave now, or stay for the 2 weeks and not get a discount and pay the full amount”.  It was like a game show or something because Laura and I then asked for a moment to talk to each other, and we decided to get out.  A taxi was ordered and we sat on our bags by the entrance, or exit for us, ready for our pick up.

And then it was as if an unhappy angel was cast upon us; a volunteer that had been there for a week came and talked to us whilst we were waiting.  And the reason this angel was so unhappy; she said that there is just nothing for them to do.  In what is called “cub quality time” a group of them went and watched a film the previous day because there was just too many people in comparison to the animals and with the extra people coming with us, it was just going to get worse.  And the ‘project time’ is just little jobs that don’t even need to be done, like re-doing signs that are perfectly fine.  This was it: we had made the right decision!  But bloody hell did I feel sorry for the people paying 1000 to do pretty much nothing.  She did show us the pictures of the white lion and white tiger cub and they were beautiful and it was a shame we didn’t even get to see them, but it was time to get out.

We got the taxi to take us back to a different hostel, Island Vibe; one recommended to us, that had been booked out.  So we figured we would meet some backpackers if we went there, even if we had to pay a bit extra for a private room.  The whole hostel had been booked out by a school group!  Bloody typical!  Though the hostel was pretty amazing with a lounge area with massive TV, a Jacuzzi and pool, massive kitchen area and a pool and ping-pong table; a hostel that would be amazing in good weather, which annoyingly we didn’t have.  And the kids were rather endearing; a few of them came up to us as soon as they heard we were from England and insisted on shaking our hands and having a quick chat with us; pretty sweet!  As soon as I was in the room I got onto the net, with a lot of help from my mum, and started emailing any volunteering projects that were in the area.  I think I ended up emailing about 7 before falling asleep in the middle of an episode of The Wire – our new TV series obsession at the moment.

I woke up with no replies to the emails so tried ringing the one that seemed really good, Cango Wildlife Ranch and Cheetah Foundation.  They said they were full but to wait for an email from the volunteer co-ordinator.  I also rang BazBus to rearrange our day tour for Port Eliz to be told that we can’t go on it as the company had already charged us for going on it already.  I was on the verge of crying by this point.  I just felt that our last country on our amazing trip was proving to be such a letdown, and not what I was expecting from my dream country, somewhere I have wanted to go to for God knows how long.  I was at a pretty low point at this point.  And the weather typically reflected my mood once again.

But I am not joking, as soon as the rain eased off, I got an email from Cango saying they had space for us from the 8th (6 days time) and BazBus rang to confirm our place on the day trip for the next day.  And to make things even better, the new place where we are now volunteering is more than half the price of the original place, in the same direction as we were travelling with the BazBus and after a stop Laura and I were both wanting to make.  And bloody hell, doing some intensive research in comparison to the quick overview I made the previous night, the place looks as good a standard as our elephant place.  Sadly they also do not have any cubs (which we have made the conclusion will be the case for pretty much all places due to the season in terms of both weather and lack of tourists), but they have sub-adults and a cheetah population that you can have a lot of hands-on contact with.  The lady I was emailing also said she would tell our co-ordinators our special interest in big cats.  Things were looking up :)

With Laura still feeling ill and me feeling emotionally and mentally drained, again our day didn’t consist of much.  We did decide to treat ourselves to lunch though and walked along the boardwalk on the beachfront down to a seafood and sushi restaurant.  And I had just that, seafood – some mussels – and a plate of sushi, all for 6.  I think I deserved it.  Then the rest of the day consisted of The Wire and pizza, failed attempts to download the next series and watching a bit more TV before heading to bed just as Rich appeared and having a chat with him before we all passed out. 

The next day was finally the day of our second day trip; the Port Elizabeth Township tour and I woke up ill; this week just keeps getting better and better :(  Luckily the tour didn’t consist of much other than sitting in a minivan listening to our guide talk about anything and everything to do with PE.  The tour turned out to have additional extras we didn’t know about such as going around the city and hearing about some of its history, which was really cool.  We found out the PE was named after a man’s dead wife Elizabeth who also had a pyramid built for her!  We then drove around all the townships.  In the 1960s the then culturally mixed city was segregated with the north being for the blacks and coloureds and the south for the whites.  Even though this is not how it had to be anymore, this is still the way it is, so we headed north of the city to the Townships where the majority of black people lived. 

When I think townships, I expect more or less a shanty town, but the first housing we saw was nicely built, brightly coloured brick buildings.  They were extremely closely packed together but none-the-less, they had running water, flushing toilets and electricity.  This was the area that people had been recently moved to out of their metal, more or less shanty houses, that still existed just across the road.  But people were still living in these which was just shocking, especially with the amount of rain we’d had, how did they have any shelter?  And how did they decide who moved first, though our driver was saying some didn’t even want to move!

We did stop off in a township area that housed 2000 out of the 500,000 in the area.  We were taken into the little tourist shop, a building that was funded by the Government which was good, but the prices of the gifts in there were quite extortionate.  A simple stretchy bead bracelet that a child could make was more than 3.  It was a shame because if they had have been a better price, we would have got our ‘Africa bracelet’ from here.  We then walked around the muddy township where we saw a massive 5 people, all of whom just stared and one of the kids said hello after the guide told him to!  To finish of the day tour, which turned out to be a 2 hour tour with only a drink and no lunch which we thought we were getting, we went to a bar in the middle of the township.  Here Laura had a chat with the driver whilst I sat there trying not to be sick.  A very educational, eye-opening tour but one that unfortunately wasn’t longer and more involved with the locals, though at the time fortunately wasn’t longer so I could get back and go to bed.

For me, the remainder of the day and the whole of the next either consisted of bed or sofa, making very good use of my duvet and of the lounge area with the big TV!  Laura and Rich, surprisingly, also did more or less exactly the same thing, spending most of their time on the sofas watching TV apart from a little time spent going to the shops treating themselves on the first night to posh pizza and wine; the second having steak.  Jealous much?!  I managed a bite of the steak and a slice of toast!

Come Friday morning it was time for us to finally leave Port Elizabeth; a place that had the potential to be so brilliant with a cool city to look around, volunteering and a really cool hostel, but just had been a disappointment due to illness, lack of info and shit weather.  But at least Laura and I had Rich to keep us sane and to reduce the chances of us getting fed up with each other.  And conveniently he was coming to our next stop!
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