Snow in Africa and other adventures

Trip Start Jan 03, 2004
Trip End Dec 2004

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Flag of South Africa  ,
Wednesday, October 6, 2004

If we´d clicked our ruby slippers and wished to be somewhere ¨like home,¨ South Africa would be pretty close. After our overland expedition in East Africa, our two week stay in South Africa was just what we needed to unwind, recuperate and rejuvenate.

One of the main reasons South Africa made it onto our itinerary was because we had some friends from DC who were living and working in the country. We were most fortunate that they happened to be in Pretoria, the capital city, so we decided to visit them before exploring other parts of South Africa.

For the first few days, we led a decadent life staying at our friend John´s home in the posh Menlo Park neighborhood. By day, we did laundry, caught up on email and lounged outside by John´s pool. We also spent an afternoon in the second-largest shopping mall in the southern hemisphere. South Africans take particular pride in their shopping malls. At night, we ate out at nice restaurants enjoying a few South African specialities (kudu and kingklip) and some other food (sushi) we miss from back home. Jill even made a Mexican dinner one night despite having to stomach the $6 price tag for a small packet of tortillas.

We also met up with our friends Terri and Ric, neighbors from DC who are serving as Peace Corps volunteers in the rural hinterland. They´re working as capacity builders in schools with very limited resources. While it was easy for us as tourists to enjoy the country´s modern comforts and conveniences, their stories illustrated for us how out of reach good food, shelter, education and jobs are for the many South Africans who still live in hardship. They shared some of their many experiences and we learned a great deal about the country´s recent history and the scars that still fester from the apartheid system.

Our stay in Pretoria also coincided with Jill´s birthday. Jill probably never imagined spending her 30th birthday in South Africa but Andy did his best to make it a memorable one. Jill´s birthday started with a morning tour of the DeWildt Cheetah and Wildlife Reserve, about an hour´s drive from Pretoria. Other than the cheetahs, Jill thought it was a strange collection of ugly animals -- wild dogs, hyenas, vultures, ostriches and honey badgers. The tour was informative, and we got to see the cheetahs up close. In the afternoon we drove with John and some other friends into Johannesburg to see the Apartheid Museum, an excellent museum that deals with a difficult subject candidly, honestly and clearly. The museum begins with a film that traces the history of apartheid back to prehistory, so you can tell they went through great pains to tell the entire story. After cramming so much sightseeing into one day, Jill was wondering if she would get to overeat, a birthday tradition. We ended the day by gorging ourselves at a trendy pan-Asian restaurant in Johannesburg.

With some reluctance, we left the comforts of John´s home and caught a bus south. South Africa doesn´t cater too much to the independent budget traveler but we eventually made it to the Sani Pass Lodge, which is nestled amongst the picturesque Drakensberg mountain range. We went for a magnficient day hike and also took a 4-wheel drive tour over a stunning pass into the mountain kingdom of Lesotho. Our guide pointed out that there were exactly 28 hairpin turns to the top of the pass, which is about 10,000 feet above sea level. Lesotho is completely surrounded by South Africa but retains an independent culture, language and government. We visited one of the small, round huts inhabited by the shepherds during the warmer months. Our guide, a Drakensberg enthusiast, told us the geohistory of the land and how volcanic activity created some of the jagged, rocky cliffs. We ate lunch with a view of a barren but beautiful landscape which still had some patches of snow from a storm three weeks prior.

Our next stop was Durban, a large city on the eastern coast which is a melting pot of Indian and African culture. Durban is South Africa´s entertainment capital but we spent just one day shopping and watching some surfers from the beach. The staff at our hostel, Hippo Hide Lodge, helped us rent a car and reserve lodging in St. Lucia, almost 3 hours drive from Durban. Perhaps Andy´s greatest adventure of the trip was driving on the ¨other¨ side of the road.

St. Lucia is a UNESCO World Heritage Site because of its diverse ecosystem. The area contains coastal land as well as seawater and freshwater lakes. There are birds and animals that exist only in the St. Lucia sanctuary. Unfortunately, the weather decided we didn´t need to see much wildlife as it was windy most of our stay. We signed up for a snorkeling tour but were only able to snorkel in rock ponds because the waves were too high and rough in the ocean.

In retrospect, we didn´t give ourselves nearly enough time to visit South Africa. However, seeing friends from home has revitalized us for the last stage of our journey. John was the most generous of hosts (Thanks, John!) and Terri and Ric were kind enough to share some hard-to-find American treats (Jelly Bellys, good coffee, handiwipes, magazines...). And we can say that we survived South Africa without ever being mugged, robbed or pickpocketed. (We certainly won´t miss all the barbed wire and security guards that blanket the cities.)
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