In March 2010, I traveled to South Africa for three weeks. My main reason was to attend the Communicating Astronomy with the Public conference in Cape Town. After the conference, my friend Jackie joined me from New York and she and I traveled around the country for two weeks, from the southwestern city of Cape Town to the north east coast, and parts in between.
This will be my second visit to Africa. My first visit was to Morocco in 2004, the northern, Arab-flavored state sandwiched between the Sahara and the Mediterranean, but now I'm heading to the opposite extreme—the southern, European-flavored part of Africa.
I am not without concern. First, I have never driven a car on the opposite side of the road. Nor have I driven from the opposite side of the car. And, South Africa has one of the highest rates of automobile accidents in the world.
Crime is a national obsession, will I encounter any problems? As in any foreign land, I am always willing to give people the benefit of the doubt, after all, people (or most people, at least) just want a peaceful, comfortable life. And, New York City is certainly good for sharpening my awareness skills. But, the economic disparity in South Africa is stark, and this makes a tourist ultra-conspicuous.
All of these weigh heavily on my mind, and I asked everyone I knew in the country how much stock I should put in these concerns. They were always reassuring.
My visit to South Africa confirmed my suspicions that the country has many similarities with America. It is culturally diverse and is a destination for Africa's immigrants and Europe's ex-pats. It is ecologically diverse, with tropical forests, arid deserts, and green pastures. It has a history, albeit more recent, of racially based turmoil and strife, with a dispossessed populace. While the culture of South Africa is unlike that of the U.S., I see many parallels between the two countries.
Many say Cape Town is the most beautiful city in South Africa. Those from the city claim that it is the best on the continent, but Africa is so diverse, I wonder how can that be. Wherever the truth lies, I am happy to begin my journey through South Africa's "mother city."
The flight to South Africa is brutally long. I left JFK around 10:30 in the morning on an overcast, foggy morning. We flew into darkness, through the entire night, and greeted the following morning over Namibia. The total flight time was fifteen hours to Johannesburg. Then, I had a three-hour layover, giving me enough time to get through passport control, baggage, customs, and on to the domestic terminal for the two-hour flight to Cape Town. Door-to-door it was a little over 24 hours of travel—by far the longest flight I'd experienced.
I didn't end up sleeping on the plane too much. I never do. But, I was having a good time with my neighbor, Dina. She was from Long Island and was heading over to see the country and its wildlife. She and I were both a little nervous about our visit, so it was nice to talk to someone who shares that. She arrived at her destination in Johannesburg while I continued on to Cape Town, but we agreed to contact one another once she returned to Cape Town later in the week. My companion from Jo'burg to Cape Town was a Bavarian on business. We discussed social safety nets, taxes, and our respective leaders while he guzzled a couple beers.
By the time I arrived in Cape Town it was about 3 pm local time. I jumped in a taxi, the first contact point for a new land. My driver's name was Gladstone, and he was very talkative. As we sped through the townships that surround the airport I was a bit taken aback at the township scene. Yes, there are shanty towns, but I must have seen ten people indiscreetly peeing along the side of the road within the first five minutes of the taxi ride. And, I saw a few children squatting with toilet paper in hand in the middle of a grassy field, no bushes to hide behind.
I arrived at my hotel, the Cape Manor, where I finally relaxed in a horizontal position. By late afternoon, I was eager to venture out. I wanted to survey the area while it was still light out, just to get a feel for where I am. It was a bright, sunny day, the first of many to come this week—good light for photography.
I walked over to the conference hotel so that I know where to walk early Monday morning. Along the way, I stumbled upon a narrow, steep street lined by small houses.
I headed for the beach to take in the Atlantic from the opposite side of the world. Cape Town is at 34° South, the same latitude as Los Angeles, but in the southern hemisphere. Like Southern California, the climate on the west coast of South Africa is warm and dry and the sky is deep blue and mostly cloudless. Also, like the west coast of North America, the water along the coast here is cold. And, the beach here is particularly rocky.
From this spot, I gazed back toward the Sea Point neighborhood.
I returned to the hotel to get a local map and ask about walking around the area after dark. The receptionist seems overly eager to please and seems to have a crush on me. He has this twinkle in his eye whenever he sees me, and this twinkle could be the result of a genuine, good-natured eagerness, or it could hint at some disreputable thoughts on his part. Let's see how the rest of the week pans out.
Looking south toward Cape Town. My hotel is in Sea Point on the coast with Signal Hill separating me from downtown Cape Town.
With night falling, I headed out to explore downtown Cape Town. I walked the Main Road around Signal Hill, which took me by the waterfront, and eventually into the city center. It was a long walk, and by the time I reached downtown, it was dark. I walked over to Long Street, known for its nightlife, and it was pretty dead. I walked the strip, and there were several bars open, but everyone was glued to the television. There are three national obsessions: football, rugby, and cricket. Tonight, it's the rugby match between South Africa and New Zealand, and the city has come to a halt. I'm told Long Street will be jammed with people later, after the game, but for now it's pretty empty.
I decided to head back to the Sea Point area, but this time I'll take a taxi. I picked one up on Long Street and so began a taxi relationship for my time in Cape Town. My driver's name was Fish. He was originally from Ethiopia and was very helpful. I took his card and I will call on him again.
What shall I do tomorrow? The conference starts on Monday, and I have tomorrow to adjust to the time difference and see more sights in Cape Town.
On Sunday, I decided to go to the top of Signal Hill, one of the peaks that surrounds Cape Town. Today, one of the largest sporting events in Africa has its finale in Cape Town, the Cape Argus Cycle Race. With over 30,000 participants, the race is a major event in Cape Town today. The cyclists ride a 70-mile loop with winning times coming in around three hours. I woke up late this morning as the race was passing by my hotel, so I got dressed and went down to see what all the hubbub was about.
I decided to do a little hiking today. I walked up Glengariff Road looking for the trail up the mountain. It looks like the road to the trail—I hope I was correct, because it's getting awfully steep. It's like the "Streets of San Francisco" here. Thankfully, the trailhead was here and I proceeded up. There is a ring of trees at the bottom of the hill and, once through them, it's up the gradual trail to the top. The trail reaches the top at a point between the Lion's Head and Signal Hill. So, I had to walk the road back to Signal Hill, but the view was nice.
Looking toward the east is Cape Town, inside the bowl and surrounded by Table Mountain, the Lion's Head, and Signal Mountain.
Robben Island lies off the shore of Cape Town and is a constant reminder of South Africa's sordid past. Many of the country's political prisoners were incarcerated there, including its most famous resident, future president Nelson Mandela. The island is now one of South Africa's top tourist destinations, but, like a scar, serves to remind all who visit that bad things once happened in this idyllic setting.
After sitting at the top for about an hour, I decided to go down the mountain on the opposite side so I could land in Cape Town proper and maybe hit Long Street again to meet some of the locals. When I asked the information officer where the trail was, he seemed hesitant to show me the way. To get to downtown Cape Town from here, one must pass through the Bo-Kaap neighborhood, which is a poorer neighborhood that many tourists pass on.
From the trail, I was able to see the Bo-Kaap before I descended into it. The area was a township that was integrated into the city. Parts of the area are very poor, and I had more than a few kids ask me for money on the streets. Breaks my heart to see kids so young without ambition, not because of their own laziness, but because they do not have the luxury to think about such things.
Cities in South Africa are a lot like the U.S.—there are nice areas and unsafe areas. All of this segregation boils down to economic disparity, and that is most evident here. A few blocks through the hills above the Bo-Kaap and suddenly there are art galleries and electrified-barbed-wire-topped walls that surround houses and apartment blocks. It is a country of walls.
I reached Long Street and, this time, it was busy. I stopped in some of the bars and met some of the locals. Got a lesson on the game of cricket, talked vintage cameras with a French ex-pat, and hopped along to a few other bars before the evening was out.
Can't stay out too late, though. Tomorrow morning the conference begins.
The conference ran Monday through Friday, with evenings out and Thursday afternoon off. Not much sight-seeing during the day, but I did take these from a room on the fourteenth floor of the conference hotel. Some shots of Sea Point.
On Thursday, after my noon talk at the conference, we had the afternoon off. I planned to hook up with Dina, the woman I met on the plane to Jo'burg. She was staying at a hotel on the waterfront. I lugged my computer back to the hotel, changed, and gave her a call. I was a bit late in getting over there, so walking was not going to be an option. I looked for a taxi on the Main Road in Sea Point, but there were none around. So, I decided to take a minibus taxi.
Minibus taxis pick up people along the way into Cape Town and can hold about a dozen people. The fare is five rand and you hand the money to the guy sitting behind the driver. If you're sitting by the door, you have to open the door for everyone and let them in. You also have to collect the fares and make change. Luckily, I was put in the front seat, the last available seat.
I hopped out at Portswood Road and walked down to the Commodore Hotel where Dina was staying. I told Fish, my taxi man, to meet us there around 2:30. We'd agreed to pay him R1000 to take us down to the Cape of Good Hope and back.
After getting a falafel to go, we headed to the cape. We drove through Cape Town, and took the M4 south along the Indian Ocean side. I was taking photos out the car window.
Where is the boundary between two oceans? Don't they just gradually merge with one another? Or, do currents define these boundaries? People here insist that the Cape of Good Hope, this tiny spit of land on Africa's southwest corner, is the defining boundary between Indian and Atlantic. Seems improbable to me, but people do refer to the west side of the cape as the Atlantic side, and the east side as the Indian side. The water on the Indian side is warmer than the Atlantic side, and the towns on the Indian side are more industrial than the scenic Atlantic side.
Once we arrived at the cape, part of Table Mountain National Park, it's a long, treeless road to the cape itself. There are almost two capes—the land forks—and they are equally south. On one side of the fork, the road descends down the seaside cliffs to the beach. On the other fork, one proceeds up the trails to a mountain peak. Of course, baboons make themselves at home wherever they like.
From the top of the mountain, the view is spectacular. Around the small lighthouse, there is a sign with distances to various cities. New York is over 12,000 kilometers away, about 7,800 miles from here—the farthest I've traveled from home.
The hills on the cape are covered in fynbos, the dominant plant in the Cape Floral Kingdom. One of six floral kingdoms worldwide, the Cape Floral Kingdom contains more plant species than the Amazon, and fynbos account for 80% of the plant varieties and cover half the area of the kingdom.
Having soaked in the view from the cape, we drove north to the penguin colony in Boulders. This is one of two mainland colonies in South Africa. Most of the colonies are on offshore islands, but two, on opposite sides of False Bay, thrive after years of protection. Boulders is surrounded by towns, so there is not a lot of room for these penguins to roam, but I guess they do most of their roaming in the ocean.
Our driver, Fish, was very patient as we gawked at our first wild penguin sightings. Both Dina and I were snapping photos and watching in awe. Fish was very nice and ferried us around for the afternoon. And, we called on him a couple more times before departing Cape Town.
As we drove through these seaside towns, I kept wondering how people who build houses on the side of these mountains don't end up with boulders rolling through their living rooms. Boulders litter the slopes, surrounding these new houses. I, for one, would be a little nervous living here.
For the drive back to Cape Town, we took the scenic Atlantic road, which traverses Chapman's Peak. Adding to the natural beauty of the landscape was the late afternoon sun, which blanketed everything in vivid, orange light.
On the way down Chapman's Peak, the last overlook is toward Hout Bay. A southern suburb of Cape Town, it lies on the opposite side of Table Mountain. We stopped to take in the view, but the wind was fierce. I could barely get the car door open.
As we drove down the mountain, the Sun began to set over the mountains surrounding Hout Bay. It was an incredible sight to see. I only wished we weren't speeding along in a taxi.
As we continued on, we found the coast and passed into sunlight once again. We drove through Camps Bay, a seaside town south of Sea Point known for dining on the sea as the sun sets over the Atlantic. I can see the attraction.
As the sun set a few minutes later, we stopped and watched from the side of the road.
We finally made it back to Cape Town and Fish agreed to drop us at Dina's hotel, then come back for us to take us downtown for an evening out. We decided to dine at Addis in Cape, an Ethiopian restaurant recommended by my Lonely Planet book, and trusted by our Ethiopian taxi driver. The food was delicious, and the wine was nice too. Dina and I talked for awhile over a slow dinner. I had a really nice time.
After, we stopped in the small club called Joburg. I'd visited the other night with friends from the conference and we had a fun time drinking and dancing. We did not stay, but Dina used the restroom while I took a photo of a rather excited Bart Simpson on their wall.
We did decide to grab a drink at a bar called Neighbors. A nice, relaxed joint which was quiet enough to carry on a conversation with someone.
While taking us home, our taxi driver was hopelessly lost in the waterfront area, where Dina was staying. (I wish we had Fish driving us!) At one point he pulled over to ask a bunch of taxi drivers chatting on the roadside and they asked him to fork over some cash for the information. We eventually found the place, but it was pretty frustrating. He was from Zimbabwe and talked about how "Uncle Robert," referring to their current leader, should be executed for what he's done to the country. Interesting conversation
Friday was the final day of the conference. It was a full day, and I had another talk to deliver at the end of the day. We ended at about 4:30, and I had a few errands to do before meeting up with Dina again. I wanted to get a road atlas for the two-week road trip that will begin tomorrow morning, and I wanted to get a pre-paid cell phone so that we can call places along the way if we need to. This cost R400 for the phone, and another R52 for airtime. All told, about $65 USD. In case I'm back there one day, my number in South Africa is +27 082 202 3084.
I also needed to get some clothes cleaned. I dropped the laundry in a nearby wash-and-fold where they charge R45 for 4 kilograms of clothes, which is exactly what I had. Unfortunately, I was not able to get to the place in time this afternoon to pick them up, so I'll have to get my clothes tomorrow morning before I head to the airport to pick up Jackie and our car.
Dina was not in when I called, so I decided to walk back to downtown Cape Town. I walked along the water once again to take in my last Cape Town sunset.
I headed to the Waterkant area and stopped into the Manhattan Cafe, how could I not? It is the bar-restaurant I visited earlier in the week, so the bartenders knew me when walked in. I'm guessing not too many people from Manhattan visit the Manhattan Cafe.
While I was there eating, Dina called me so she came to meet me. She ate and we had another drink nearby before returning home. I have to get up early to meet Jackie and I still had a lot to do before I leave for the airport. But, I'm excited to begin my two-week journey to discover South Africa outside the cape.
I'm excited and nervous all at once this morning. I need to get cleaned up, packed, pick up the laundry, check out of the hotel, and get transport to the airport to meet Jackie, whose flight is landing at 8:50am. I woke up at 7:15 and the mad rush began. I showered and packed, but I had to wait till 8 am to pick up my laundry in the wash-and-fold up the street.
I called Fish for a taxi, but the timing was not going to work for him. Last night I had a lengthy discussion with the hotel staff about reserving a cab this morning, but I turned down the offer, so I had to arrange a taxi. I went to get the laundry, and on the way out I asked the front desk about a taxi. They said there was one waiting for me—I guess the guy did arrange it last night, so now I was really rushed. I ran up to get the laundry, packed it in my crammed suitcase, grabbed a couple of pieces of bread from the restaurant, and hopped in the taxi.
I snapped some photos from the back of the cab on the way to the airport. It was a gray morning, the first I've experienced in Cape Town. I wanted to get some shots of the imposing cooling towers by the side of the N2 highway. These towers are part of the Athlone Power Station, which was operational from 1962 until 2003. Last month, the metal rings collapsed on one of the towers, prompting the immediate demolition of the towers. This will happen in May 2010.
Beside the airport is the Langa suburb of Cape Town. One of the oldest townships in Cape Town, it was designated a living area for blacks in the 1920s—the practice of apartheid was in place before the policy became official in 1948.
We made it to the airport and I waited in the international terminal for some time. It's a small airport, so there was no chance of missing Jackie. I just hoped she made the flight. She flew British Airways from New York to London, then London to Cape Town. But, a British Airways strike was looming, so I wasn't sure of her flight was canceled or if she made her connection. At long last, she did appear through the doors from customs—tired but excited.
We picked up the car, walked the long labyrinth of paths out to the lot (there is still a lot of construction at this airport in preparation for the World Cup in June), and inspected the car. We will drive a white, Chevy Cruze, a four-door sedan.
First, I wanted to spin around the parking lot for a bit to try this right-hand driving routine. Driving on the right side of the car and driving on the right side of the road had me a little worried. Shifting with the opposite arm, looking in the opposite direction, I'm hoping I can do it. Thankfully, the gear box is configured the same way, and the gas, brake, and clutch are in the same order too.
After spinning around the lot for a minute or two, much to the wonderment of the construction workers, we took to the airport loop road. First task: find our way out of the airport. We drove around for awhile and were warned that there are no signs yet (construction). We got lost a bit and ended up at a military base entrance, then another car rental place, where we found ourselves in need of the reverse gear. Embarrassingly, we could not figure out how to put it in reverse! There's no button, lifting or pressing the stick down did not work... Eventually, someone from the nearby rental office came out to help us with our reverse problem, and got us out of the airport too.
Soon, we were heading east on the N2. I was doing it—driving on the wrong side of the road. After trying to visualize doing this for the past few days, I finally came up with a system: like the States, always keep the centerline on the driver's side of the car.
Jackie and I drove out the N2 highway to Strand, where we turned south on R44 along the coast. Overberg means "over the mountain" and is the breadbasket of the cape. Strand was a rather colorless, mundane seaside town with inappropriately high towers. We were looking for lunch, but there was nothing that piqued our interest here. We continued on to Gordon's Bay, where we stopped at a seaside restaurant. I had calamari grilled in garlic which was pretty good. While we were here, we called ahead and booked a place in Hermanus for this evening.
Past Gordon's Bay, we stopped off at an overlook, where the beach below was host to a flock of surfers. The mountain was covered in fynbos, the low-lying shrub that covers this part of the country. Although clouds covered the mountaintops, the view was still beautiful.
Near Betty's Bay, we saw a sign for a penguin colony and decided to bite. Neither of us knew there was a colony here, and it was a nice surprise. I'd seen penguins near the Cape of Good Hope a few days ago, but I wasn't sure if Jackie had seen them before. Turns out she has, in South America, but we'll stop in anyway to see some more.
The Stony Point penguin colony is much larger than the Boulders colony on the opposite side of the bay. We spent an hour gawking at the penguins, cormorants, and a lone seal. The beach does not look good for swimming, it is very rocky and filled with seaweed.
Perhaps because of their exotic nature to us northerners, penguins seem endlessly entertaining. I can't tell you how many photos Jackie and I took of these bird-seal hybrids.
These two must be related, they seem to be in tune with one another.
After watching these strange birds for awhile, you begin to project human emotions to them. These three shots struck me for their emotional quality:
This place is not called Stony Point for nothing. It is very rocky, but it is the gradient of color from the deep brown near the water to the bright white at the tips which makes it so beautiful. Then there's the yellow lichens growing on the tips, too.
Penguins nest on the bare ground, where they gather a few sticks to make something that resembles a nest.
We took a lot of penguin photos, but they are fun to watch and certainly exotic to see.
We caught these two getting intimate with one another.
Finally, our penchant for penguins was exhausted, and we took a few more shots of them, and the other wildlife that largely goes unnoticed, and pressed on to Hermanus. We did not have a long drive today, so we had time to sight-see.
We arrived in Hermanus around 5 pm, tracked down our room for the evening in the Hermanus Esplanade. We stayed in a self-catering apartment for R300, or about $45 USD. Of course, the place was not four-star, or two-star for that matter, but it did the trick.
Most notable were the stairs, which were treacherous, at best. Also, there was no shower, only a large bath. But, the beds were comfortable and clean.
After we settled in, we strolled around town scoping out dinner options. There is a small harbor with fishing boats and fish-cleaning tables by the water. The town is situated above the coast, making this more of a seaside town rather than a beach destination.
The primary activity here is whale watching. And, one need not get in a boat to do it. This town claims to be the best land-based whale watching town in the world, where you can sit on the high bluffs and see whales breach from the comfort of land. Unfortunately, this mainly happens between June and December, so no whale sightings for us on this visit.
The town has recently undergone a renovation of sorts, I looked at images in Google Maps and the entire waterfront area has changed. Now there is a nice park overlooking the ocean, and a former parking lot is now an outdoor eating area for surrounding restaurants. Fountains were built and streets realigned.
We settled on a place called Fusion Cafe. Jackie got a salad, which was presented as a tower, and I got a curry. We sat, talked, enjoyed a nice pinotage, and took some photos.
We walked around town a little after dinner. I wanted to find a phone card, and we both took some photos of town. We headed back around 10:30 pm and fell asleep soon after that.
The next day we decided to visit Cape Agulhas, the southernmost point in Africa. Not that this would be a super-special place, but it was a way to see the Overberg and another part of the coast. The land flattens out as one heads south to the cape. It is also hotter and drier here too. We spotted some ostrich farms along the way. We were also pulled over a few times, random police checks. Are they looking for a criminal on the loose?
The landscape at the cape is beautiful. Green ocean, with brown and gray rocks. Quite lovely. After passing through the nearby town, there is a kilometer-long gravel road to the southernmost point. We're here, right? May as well see it.
We hiked around the rocks and I came across a large tidal pool which occupied me for some time.
Soon we drove to the lighthouse at the edge of town. The lighthouse was built in 1848 and is now a museum. We walked around for 10 minutes, then continued on our way.
We left a little after two o'clock and we had some ground to cover yet. We booked a place in the town of Knysna (pronounced "nize-na"), one of the big towns along the Garden Route. We drove back north, were stopped by the police again, and hit a grocery store in Swellendam.
Swellendam is one of the oldest towns in South Africa. Its population is around 30,000, but you wouldn't know that if you visited on a Sunday. The main street was deserted, and everything was closed except the grocery store. We picked up some car food: bread, apples, and nuts, and continued on our way.
The drive to Knysna was long, but nice. Mossel Bay marks the western side of the Garden Route, and a massive oil refinery marks the outskirts of Mossel Bay. Knysna, on the other hand, is located deep within the Garden Route. Over the next couple days, we will visit the forests of the Garden Route.
The Garden Route is among the top tourist destinations in South Africa. Sandwiched between ocean and mountains, the lush, forested coast stretches from Mossel Bay to Plettenberg Bay and is known for its beaches, lagoons, and the handful of remaining elephants that roam the old-growth forests.
Travels through South Africa's Garden Route. This map shows the mountains to the north, which trap the moisture and produce the lush greenery. Over the mountains lie arid pastures.
We spent our morning at the southernmost point in Africa and drove through the Overberg to reach our destination for the evening: Knysna. (It's pronounced "nyze-na.") We arrived in the small town around 6:30, and darkness was not too far away. The Inyathi Guest Lodge, a miniature village of wooden cottages, will be our home for the night.
Run by a young, well-traveled couple, the place has a decidedly informal feel, and once you're behind the gate, it's another world. We chatted with the owners for some time, then we set out for some food. We walked down to the waterfront area a few blocks south of town and ate at a restaurant called 34 South, named for Knysna's latitude.
The waterfront is quaint, but a bit too urban for this setting if you ask me. Think of a scaled-down version of Baltimore's Inner Harbor: a marina; a variety of restaurants; and a two-story, upscale mall with an overly modern feel for this quaint town.
Our chalet was certainly exotic by hotel standards. The only drawback was the lack of privacy in the bathroom, which was separated from the bedroom by a three-foot-long curtain in the doorway. Otherwise, the place was great.
The next morning we stopped off at the Heads, the narrow passage between the ocean and the lagoon. From up here, there is a view of Knysna and the islands in the lagoon. It's a cloudy day, but the Garden Route would not be the Garden Route without cloudy skies and frequent rain.
After the Heads, we decided to visit a nearby forest, after all, we can't visit the Garden Route without seeing some of its forests. We have some time today since our drive is not very long. We stopped off at the Garden of Eden, a small park outside town. On the way, of course, we passed by the townships outside town. The townships here are unique in that the houses within them are built from timber instead of brick or corrugated metal.
The trail takes one by old stinkwood and yellowwood trees, and a plenitude of forest tree ferns.
After the Garden of Eden, we continued on the N2 road along the coast. Coming out of the Garden Route, we passed by Plettenberg Bay, and decided to have lunch in Jeffrey's Bay. Along the way, we were stopped at a security checkpoint again, and crossed the border into the Eastern Cape province.
We arrived at Jeffrey's Bay, known as one of the best surfing spots in the world. The town is on the southern coast of Africa, but its coast looks east, which I imagine leads to enhanced waves. We walked down Da Gama Road, the main street through town, in search of a late lunch, but we settled on the Sunflower Cafe, which was conveniently located across the street from the car.
In South Africa it is typical to have a
parking attendant. Some of these are official and wear government-issued IDs, but many others get themselves a fluorescent vest and take matters into their own hands. When you get back to your car, you're expected to give them a few rand for watching your car. They're kind of like human parking meters, except the money goes directly to them, not to the government. And, given that a few rand is less than fifty cents, I see no problem with the practice. I can't be worried about fifty cents, particularly when it means so much more to those doing this job.
In Jeffrey's Bay, our parking attendant was a boy whose intentions seemed diabolical. He was hanging out with a bunch of kids who were waiting around for trouble to find them.
Our server was very talkative and had strong opinions about where South Africa is going. We ran into fear-driven rhetoric a lot on this trip, but he offered the most direct opinions on the subject. He declared Mandela nothing but a terrorist and feared the inevitable war that will happen in the future. He declared that "we," meaning the Western world, will not step in to stop a hostile takeover of the government. Of course, every white person here fears a repeat of the instability in Zimbabwe, and some believe that as soon as Mandela dies, the Xhosa and the Zulu will fight one another for power. Either way, the white population, which comprises 9% of the country, fears, ironically, that they will be completely disenfranchised.
After that fascinating lunch conversation, it was about 4 pm and we checked out the beach at Jeffrey's Bay to see if there was any surfing action, then we continued on our way toward Addo, where we hoped to see our first big game.
What drew us to Addo was the Addo Elephant National Park, 600-square-miles (1,600 square km) of bushveld in the Sundays River Valley. The park was designated in 1931 to protect the 11 remaining elephants in the area. Today, there are 450 elephants in this park, and we were hoping to see a few of them.
We continued on the N2 from the Garden Route and took the R335 to Addo, a tiny town north of Port Elizabeth. The R335 was paved, but not in the greatest shape. And, there was loads of construction along the way too. But, we finally made it to Addo and Valentine Road, which will take us to the Homestead Bed & Breakfast, our home for the night.
We buzzed the gate—everything is gated in South Africa—and it mysteriously opened. This place has an
estate feel; within its walls are well-kept gardens and immaculate grounds, but outside everything is wild and overgrown. The woman who runs the place is very nice and she checked us in and showed us to our cottage.
It was about time for the sun to set, so we threw our stuff onto our bed and walked over to the
sundowner deck beside our room, a small deck that looks over a small pond and the bush to the west. We took a lot of photos of the sunset, here are a few.
We spent about twenty minutes watching the sunset, then headed off to eat. There are few options in this remote area, but one that seems to rise above the rest is the Lenmore. We arrived just before 7 o'clock and were seated outside on a patio beside a large tree—a very nice setting to watch the stars come out tonight.
After some food, wine, and good conversation, we left the restaurant around quarter past ten. We drove back through the dark streets to our walled estate and took in the southern sky. We stargazed for about an hour before hitting the sack.
We woke up this morning refreshed and ready to see some elephants. We were not planning to drive too far today, so we could spend a lot of time in the park. We grabbed breakfast, all by ourselves in this grand estate dining room, then took some photos of the grounds in the daylight, before heading to the park.
After breakfast, we drove into Addo to get some gas and a phone card, then headed to the park. The Addo Elephant National Park is a large, spread out reserve, but we will see the top portion, where the bulk of the elephants live. The game reserves in South Africa are fenced in and once you enter, you're not allowed out of your car. Given that, they do feel wild and the animals have enough space to live naturally.
On our way to the Rooidam waterhole, we first stumbled upon a few ostriches and some warthogs.
We had no idea how many elephants we'd see here and hoped to see at least a few. Once we got to our first waterhole, there was, in fact, one lone elephant, who we watched for about ten minutes before he ambled away.
Once he left the waterhole, we figured we'd try our luck elsewhere in the park, but just as we were getting ready to go, a huge herd of elephants came in from the opposite direction. Clearly, the departure of the lone elephant was motivated by this incoming parade.
It took some time for the entire group to arrive, and once they did, they drank, played with one another, bathed a bit, and ate a little. It was amazing to watch, and we had a front-row seat for the entire spectacle. We watched for about an hour and a half as dozens of elephants frolicked by the water. Here's what we saw:
A group of elephants joins the herd at the waterhole.
Elephants play and flirt with one another with their trunks, and we saw many kids, teens, and adults touching one another with their trunks.
Elephants stay cool by flapping their humongous ears. This acts to cool the skin nearby, and the blood that flows through the ear is cooled by as much as ten degrees, keeping their temperature down. Coating themselves in dust also helps to insulate their skin from the sun.
The little ones are pretty nimble on their feet, but getting up can be a struggle.
After they were finished drinking and romping around the waterhole, they decided it was time to move on. The problem was that we were all in their way. The herd took to forming a wall, with the larger members up front. Then, they stared at us for what seemed like an eternity as they slowly inched their way toward us, getting closer and closer.
Suddenly, one elephant charged another, and the one under attack was backing up toward our car at a furious pace. I imagined an elephant's ass crushing the front of the car and I quickly jammed the key in the ignition and moved us away from the elephants. Other cars followed suit, and the elephants were happy once again.
The huge herd crossed the road where we were parked in order to snack on the bush. After a brief nosh, they were off to roam the bush until their next encounter with another waterhole later in the day.
Once the elephants left, we also left to explore other parts of the park. There are other animals here besides elephants. One, the kudu, is a large antelope with corkscrewed antlers and a few white strips on its side. We saw many of these all over the country.
The other, more endangered, species is the flightless dung beetle. Not only are you forbidden to run them over, but running over dung, where they lay their eggs, is also forbidden. I wondered how I would see a beetle crossing the road, but once I saw one, it was unmistakeable. First, they are large, very large. They move slowly and stand out on the road, so it's hard to miss them. Rare to have an insect on an endangered species list.
We drove south in the park to the Hapoor Dam, another waterhole. To our delight, there were a few more elephants here too.
Also present were the little families of warthogs, nibbling the grass.
Once again, as our attention was diverted to the waterhole, several elephants snuck up on us from the other direction, passing right beside the car. It's remarkable how quiet these massive creatures are. The largest elephants weigh in around 20,000 pounds (9,000 kg), but they are nearly silent when they walk. The groups ended up passing in front of and behind our car on their way to the waterhole. I must say, this left me with a feeling of exhilaration and complete terror all at the same time.
This group did not seem as happy as the last group we saw earlier this morning. Here, there was a mixture of males hanging out together, and some females and young ones. This large male gave himself a bath, then set out for the bush. Along the way, he showed off his manliness for all to see. The elephant's penis can reach six feet and has the ability to grab onto things and move like the elephant's trunk—two facts that make every other mammal envious.
Along the way, we saw many other animals, including more ostriches and dung beetles, a couple of bushbucks, some vervet monkeys, and several leopard tortoises. After the Hapoor Dam, we decided to grab some lunch at the restaurant in the park.
We ate a quick lunch (I had the calamari wrap), and picked up a lemon twist (a drink) for the guy at the gate who asked us to pick one up. We drove to the Gorah Loop, which passed through a few clearings and by a couple waterholes. The entire loop is about 10 km, but it's not paved, so it takes some time, particularly when we're on the lookout for wildlife. We saw more kudu, some eland, and Jackie thought she saw a cobra, but it turns out it was only a stick. Near the end of the loop, I spotted something in the distance, something we needed our telephoto lenses in order to see. Jackie and I could not agree if it was the meerkat or the yellow mongoose. I believe it was the mongoose, Jackie thinks it was the meerkat.
The Addo park brochure had a wildlife checklist, which Jackie embraced wholeheartedly. She faithfully marked the list and referred back to it throughout our trip. Here is the list in all its glory, a brief list of wildlife visible in Addo.
It was a little after 4 o'clock now, so we decided to head to Grahamstown, where we booked a room for the night. It's not too far away, but we want to get in before it's dark.
We headed east out of the park on the R342 and Jackie spotted her first zebra. It was pretty far from the road, so there was no chance for me to see it. I did acknowledge that there was a four-legged creature off in the distance, but I could not look through her 300-mm lens to see the stripes.
After crossing the N10, R342 passed through Paterson and its surrounding townships, where Jackie took some photos. But, a kilometer after passing through the town the pavement ran out. While the road cut a corner, I decided we would make better time on the N10, plus, I was tired of driving on dirt roads all day in the park. So, we turned back and took the N10 to Ncanara, where the road meets the N2.
It was a quick drive to Grahamstown over the green-covered mountains and hills along the N2. Grahamstown is home to Rhodes University, so it's unmistakably a college town. We arranged to stay at a B&B called 137 High Street. We checked in and chatted with the two girls running the place. They advised us about restaurants and the
dodgy parts of town to avoid.
We walked toward the large church at the center of town. By now, the sun was down and twilight was quickly coming to an end. We snapped some photos from Church Square, then we began looking for a place to eat dinner.
We headed to New Street and the famous Rat and Parrot bar and restaurant. They have a spacious, covered balcony on the second floor. There were a few tables occupied when we arrived. The trio at the table beside us were talking about video games the entire time—oh yes, we are in a college town. Within an hour, the balcony filled up with college kids drinking mass quantities of beer and acting like, well, college kids.
Jackie and I felt a little out of place, sharing our beef lasagna and salad while the conversation around us revolved around scoring chicks, and getting drunk. We walked home and fell fast asleep. Tomorrow is a long driving day.
While we designated today a driving day, we will pass through a unique part of the country—the Wild Coast. What makes this area unique among the parts of South Africa we've visited is that it was formerly the Republic of Transkei, one of the homelands, or Bantustans, set up by the apartheid government for the Xhosa people.
These bantustans were areas designated as separate countries with separate governments, but were never recognized internationally. Transkei was one of the largest but had a troubled existence before being abolished (along with the other ten homelands) in 1994 when the apartheid government crumbled.
Today, this part of the country remains underserved and the scars from the homelands era are readily apparent. But, there is a new venture afoot, one that will bring development and preservation to the land. Hopefully, in a decade or two, this land will rise to that of the rest of South Africa.
The driving will be easy: take the N2 as far as we can today. Coming out of Grahamstown this morning, the towns fall off dramatically. Peddie is the next town about 50 km away, and between lies miles of grassy hills with sparsely populated towns.
Another 52 km and we'll be in King William's Town, where I was determined to visit the grave of Steve Biko. Biko was a hero for me in my late teens and twenties and his writings and philosophy, if you will, had a great influence on me. He was just one outspoken cog in the anti-apartheid machine, but he rose above contemporary leaders and was able to inspire people to fight the policy with dignity and respect. In September 1977, he was murdered in police custody at the age of 30. In 1997, five former members of the police admitted killing Biko and applied for amnesty from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. They were not prosecuted.
We drove around King William's Town trying to find the cemetery, and once we did we pulled into the empty field and parked the car. It was hot out, a stark difference from the Garden Route. We were met by a man who offered to show us Biko's grave. I talked with him about some of the history and about his experiences, but I think there was a bit of a language barrier too.
Beyond King William's Town we continued east, took the R63 which bypassed East London, and picked up the N2 again. We're now in what was once the Transkei State, and it shows. The road is not in great shape. There are no shoulders, livestock—mostly goats and cattle—are roaming all over the grassy hills along, and occasionally in, the road. Once I had to stop suddenly to avoid hitting someone's goat, and the shepherd was not far away. Mainly, it's small, rural towns atop grassy, treeless hills and mountains.
Butterworth, or as it's known by the Xhosa, Gcuwa, is a large town with over a quarter-million people and is unlike any town we've seen thus far. The entire town is like an open market with people selling their wares all over the streets. In many areas there are no sidewalks, just dirt. And, people are everywhere—the sidewalks are jammed and people cross the street any place they please. We have entered another cultural realm of South Africa. We didn't know this yet, but our experiences in this town will be replayed over and over today as we drive from town to town.
By about 1 pm we began to get hungry, but this area is so underserved that we needed to figure out a new solution for food this afternoon. There are no appealing restaurants, cafes, stores, or markets to speak of, but we needed some food for lunch. We decided to stop in a small town called Dutywa. This town was as hectic as they come: loud music and people everywhere. It's hard to fathom where all these people come from—the streets and sidewalks are chaos. It has the feel of a large city, but it is only a small town with fields of green stretching toward the horizon all around us.
We parked the car along the road and ventured out. The feeling here is not dissimilar from Broadway in Washington Heights, where I live in New York City, only it is amplified here fifty times. We went into a grocery store across the street and the store was hectic too. We picked up some fruit and bread and a few other staples. Part of the store was absolutely rank and I saw roaches in another part, but it was food and most of it was packaged in plastic or peel.
This town, and all the towns along this Wild Coast, are the real Africa. When I think of Africa, this is more along the lines of what I imagine—not the Euroesque towns we've seen thus far. In about an hour and a half, we will arrive in the largest town: Mthatha, the dusty, chaotic, former capital of Transkei with over a half-million people.
Like previous towns we passed through today, the streets and sidewalks are teeming with people. But, in this city the streets are also jammed with cars, and many of the traffic lights were out, which leaves intersections feeling like a free-for-all. We took things slowly here. On the edge of town some school children were getting out for the day and the parade of kids from this school seemed to go on forever. I had about 400 in my graduating class, so I can relate to large schools, but I had trouble imagining how many kids were in this school. We drove for over five minutes and still did not see the school from which these kids emerged.
On a day when we'd hoped to cover some distance, we weren't getting very far. These towns are few and far between, but they are slow going. We did emerge from Mthatha and the next town was Qumbu.
As we progressed east, the sky was turning gray. With all the unknowns in today's drive, we did not need rain to come in and muck things up. One of the last large towns in the Eastern Cape is Mount Frere, perched on the edge of the mountains along the border with KwaZulu-Natal.
As we drove toward the KwaZulu-Natal border, the sky became dark, but the colors were unusual. Rain was around us, but the atmosphere glowed orange-yellow, and we later saw a rainbow as we drove into Kokstad.
We decided, with some hesitation, to stay at the Oribi Gorge Resort. This is, by our standards, a modest hotel on the edge of the gorge, but by South African standards, this is top-notch. We were not happy about the cost, but there is literally nothing else around and this seems like the best option. But, first we need to find it.
It's dark now, and we've turned off the N2 onto the Oribi Gorge Road, a narrow, overgrown road that is still wet and steaming in the late summer heat. It is very dark along this road—no lights and no houses around. The road, it turns out, goes through the gorge and eventually emerges on the opposite side where we soon found our hotel. It wasn't that late, but it felt like it was midnight.
We checked in, and caught the tail end of dinner. I had a rump roast while Jackie had a whole fish. A glass of wine was in order while we looked over the map and pondered our options for tomorrow.
Soon, we grabbed our tripods and looked to the dark night sky. First, we shot from the terrace outside our room, but there was a lot of light there.
Later we ventured onto the grounds of the hotel. We are in the middle of nowhere—there is no town nearby nor are there any other buildings in sight—the hotel lies at the end of a mile-long dirt road and is surrounded by fields.
We felt comfortable with our surroundings and walked down the dirt road a bit, just to escape the flood lights from the hotel. We tried to take some photos of us among the stars, but found it difficult to stand still long enough to remain sharp.
We'd been out on this road for about an hour stargazing and taking photos. It was after midnight now and we were getting a little tired. With our cameras on the ground in the middle of a few-minute exposure, suddenly we heard a low-pitched grumble, something definitely animal in nature. As soon as we heard it, I grabbed my camera and ran, and Jackie followed suit. We stopped about 30 feet away and looked back. Jackie fired her flash to see if anything was in the road, but we saw nothing. Meanwhile, my camera was still exposing, and I got the distant lights as we ran and the ghostlike profile of jackie when her flash fired. We wondered if we will find out tomorrow what the guttural sound might have been.
This morning we had a quick breakfast at the hotel, then struck out to see the gorge. There are overlooks just south of the hotel. It was a blue-sky day, and bloody hot outside. We are slowly creeping toward the more tropical side of South Africa.
We asked the woman at reception two questions this morning. First, what is growing around the hotel in all these fields? The answer: sugar cane. Second, what might that grunting noise we heard on the road last night have come from? She laughed and told us there was a field with horses beside where we were stargazing last night. We were slightly embarrassed, but also relieved.
We did not stay out in the sun too long—we had a lot of ground to cover today. We drove back out through the gorge, just to see what we missed last night.
We will try to get up to St. Lucia today, a small town on the coast near the Mozambique border. Luckily, the N2 road improves today, even becoming four lanes for awhile. The road dives toward the coast at Port Shepstone, then heads to Durban. We bypassed this large city—we didn't hear too many good things about it—and continued up the coasts. Yesterday it was the Sunshine Coast, the Shipwreck Coast, and the Wild Coast. Today, it is the Hibiscus Coast, the Dolphin Coast, and our destination, the Elephant Coast.
We came to St. Lucia to see the Elephant Coast and hook up with our friend Cameron, who attends Columbia University in New York. After the conference, he headed to Durban, but found it menacing. This confirmed what I heard from a man in a Cape Town bar who was from Durban—it's no Cape Town. We planned to be a threesome for the Elephant Coast, and we talked about remaining together in the Drakensberg Mountains too.
We found the place where Cameron was staying: BiB's International Backpackers, a hostel at the end of the main road in St. Lucia. The accommodations were, in a word, crude, and I'm not embarrassed to admit that they challenged my sensibilities. I have no problem with primitive conditions—I love camping under the stars—but if we're gonna have walls and a roof, then why not live up to the expectations that arise from them. Oh, and the water was not potable.
This place was clearly on the hostel side of things. Although Jackie and I were able to get a private room, the place still has that hostel feel, with game rooms, a pool, and towel rental. The only redeemable aspect of our room was the air conditioning. (Up to now, South Africa has been fairly dry and not too hot. However, the farther east one ventures, the more humid the climate is—it's similar to the U.S. in this regard.)
St. Lucia is on the Indian Ocean coast, about 100 miles south of the Mozambique border. We essentially spent the last two days on the road in order to reach this place. Given that, we decided Kruger National Park was out of reach. It's too far north and the shortest route requires a trip through Swaziland. Our next step will take us back in the direction of Cape Town, but for now, we will spend a couple of days in Zululand.
Once Jackie and I sorted out the accommodations and rented our towels, we set out to see the iSimangaliso Wetland Park, an untamed, 200-kilometer long park that begins at the Mozambique border and stretches south to St. Lucia. This unique park is designated a Unesco World Heritage Site and contains five distinct ecosystems, from off-shore reefs to coastal forests. Africa's largest estuary forms the wetlands, where crocodiles and hippos are abundant.
We drove the road to Cape Vidal, and took some of the loop roads along the way. It was about 4 o'clock when we entered the park, and the gates closed at sundown, so we did not have a lot of time—it's the equinox, so the Sun sets around 6 o'clock.
The road spans the land between the coast and the estuary, but standing between us and the beach is a ridge of bush-covered sand dunes.
We made it out to Cape Vidal, where we explored the beach for a few minutes. We were beginning to lose our light, so we did not stay long.
On our way back, we took the long Grassland Loop, which encircled the Mfabeni Swamp. The beginning of the loop road is somewhat intimidating, with warnings of crocodiles, periodic flooding, and a stern notification demanding that we not turn around for 18 kilometers. In other words, once you start, there's no going back. This is because the beginning of the road is merely two, narrow cement strips for each side of the car, with marsh or thicket surrounding the parallel tracks. To the west are the Ezibomvini, or red dunes, where we watched the sunset before racing out of the park. No sign of any hippos or Nile crocodiles.
We made it out of the park by closing, barely, and headed back to the hostel to see if we could track down Cameron. I found him in the reception area and we walked down the street and tried a restaurant called Braza, which boasted a fusion of Portuguese and Mozambican cuisine. We got two Ponta Platters, which consisted of grilled calamari, piri-piri chicken, half ribs, and grilled prawns, along with potatoes and some greenery. Jackie and I shared one along with a couple of beers.
After dinner, I thought I might check in with Mel so I walked all over town searching for a pay phone. There must be one, but I cannot find it anywhere. Finally, I asked some people in a restaurant and they directed me back to the other side of town, where the one phone in town was tucked out of view.
As I was on the phone, I saw a large group of kids walking down the sidewalk toward town. Once I got back to the hostel, I was told the entire hostel went out to a bar, and that made sense. Hostel living means partying. Some people take that to heart, others are more moderate. I don't think for a second that I've come halfway around the world to get soused; I'll have a few drinks with dinner, but I have no desire to party—I can do that at home if I like.
Today Cameron, Jackie, and I will go see the iMfolozi Game Reserve, which is a short drive from St. Lucia. But, first, we need to muster the strength to use our filthy shower. At first, Jackie was adamantly against it, but the stifling humidity here demands it.
Say 'hi' to the lizard, I said.
The car was coated with dust, with a thick, powdery layer caked on all the flat surfaces. We stopped off at the Spar, a South African grocery, to pick up some food for the day. It's probably about an hour to the park, and like other wildlife parks, you're prohibited from leaving your car, so we wanted plenty of food on hand.
iMfolozi Game Reserve has a storied history. It was once a royal hunting ground for the Zulu Kingdom and is where Shaka and his entourage safaried. Established in 1895, it is one of the oldest parks in South Africa and its purpose was to preserve the white rhinoceros, which was then an endangered species. The park boasts a wide variety of game, including lions, elephants, black and white rhinos, leopards, giraffes, buffalos and wild dogs, along with an assortment of antelope and boks.
We stopped in the entrance station, where we talked to the rangers about the park. There is an extensive system of roads over a large area, but the roads are all gravel. The park closes at 6 o'clock—after that you are fenced in with the roaming lions and leopards.
Our first sight, which will be repeated throughout the day, was a mixed herd of impala, zebra, buffalo, and warthog. They seem to like one another's company.
We had the most remarkable experience when we stumbled upon an elephant in the road. As we descended toward the bridge over the Black iMfolozi River, an elephant was in the road eating from the trees. There were steep banks on either side of the road and we quickly pulled over and stopped.
As we watched, the elephant began walking up the road in our direction. Because of the hills on either side, it had no choice but to pass us or go back toward the bridge. As it approached, its huge ears were flapping—something elephants do for intimidation—and it began shaking its head and trunk from side to side. I sensed he wanted to walk by us, but was putting on a show to put us in our place. Of course, this was completely unnecessary, we knew our place with absolute certainty.
I turned the car into the bank slightly, yielding to the giant beast, and he interpreted my intentions positively. He walked by our car, about 10 feet away. Each of us felt great reverence, but I also had a deep sense of uneasiness.
We passed the Mpila Camp, where they have the
I found the zebra to be a surprisingly social creature. We found many couples who were hugging and playing with one another.
Finally, we spotted some giraffes. Still elusive, but with a telephoto lens we can see some necks.
It's almost 4 o'clock, and we are starting to head toward the exit. I think we are all ready to get out of the car. The trouble with these parks is that you are confined to your car, and after some time you just want to get out and walk around.
As we headed toward the exit, we took stock. Giraffes. . . check. Elephants, zebra, and the customary warthog, impala, kudu, and buffalo. . . check. But, we'd not yet spotted a rhinoceros, and I'd be lying if I told you we weren't disappointed. But, as luck would have it, we came upon a group about an hour or two before we left. They are awkward creatures, with huge, barrel-shaped bodies perched atop stubby legs and a face that is... well, peculiar, to say the least.
We stopped off at the Bekapanzi Pan, a small waterhole. There we encountered an aggressive bachelor elephant. He was drinking when he looked over toward us. We were some distance away, but he stopped guzzling and began to walk over toward us. He was also rather aroused, if you get my drift. It was practically dragging on the ground, and we were all dumbstruck.
As the sun grew closer to the horizon, the light began to change. Here are some zebras eating a final meal before nightfall. And, another rhino grazing before bed.
We did a little grazing ourselves.
With about 20 minutes before the gates closed, we stopped to take some photos of the hazy, blood-red sunset over the rolling bushveld.
We drove back to St. Lucia, which is more difficult at night with all the people walking on the roads. At Mtubatuba, we got some gas, then drove the 26 kilometers to St. Lucia. Apparently, hippos roam the streets in town, and I hoped we didn't encounter one, in the car or on foot.
We made it back to BiB's—depressing BiB's—and walked down the street to find some food and a cold beer. It's still bloody hot and humid, and I still appreciate the air conditioning of our bleak hovel.
We all decided last night to remain a threesome, at least for awhile, in the Drakensberg Mountains. That was our next stop, and Cameron was interested in going there too. He went off to kayak with the crocs this morning, while we slept in and got our stuff together.
We packed the car before taking a morning walk. Jackie was eating some food in the car with all the doors open while I was putting some bags in the trunk. I looked up to see the vervet monkeys assemble in the tree above the car. They could see Jackie bringing hand to mouth and began to descend out of the tree. I told Jackie to quickly shut the car doors and I did the same on the opposite side of the car. Within seconds, we had monkeys on the car playing with the windshield wipers. That was a close call.
Jackie and I walked the short trail at the south end of town, which winds through thick forest and eventually ends at the estuary. From this spot, we are not too far from the point where the tide meets the stream. All the signs warning us of hippos and crocodiles has brought about a touch of concern. What lurks in that brush by the river's edge? Then, we came upon a small monument to a young woman who was killed by a crocodile in the same grassy field where we stood.
We rendezvoused with Cameron and we headed to the Drakensberg Mountains, which have some of the highest peaks in Africa. We're all looking forward to escaping the semitropical environs of the Elephant Coast.
Jackie, Cameron, and I left St. Lucia this afternoon and headed for, what we hope will be, the less hot and humid Drakensberg Mountains. We took the N2 highway south, then turned east on the R74. We called ahead to Graceland Guest House and booked accommodations.
The drive was pleasant, some hills, but flattened out eventually. After a few hours, we began to see the jagged peaks of the mountains on the horizon. These are not sharp, triangular peaks, rather, it's like we're approaching the edge of a plateau, and the land just drops off.
We arrived at Graceland just in time for sunset. We found the gate—everything in South Africa is gated—buzzed ourselves in, and drove down the long driveway, which seemed to go nowhere. This driveway was surrounded by a sprawling field of grass, and the tiny shrubs that meticulously lined the drive seemed ludicrously out of proportion.
We stopped as soon as we drove through the gate and took a bunch of photos of the sunlight spilling over the mountains. It was magnificent.
Having navigated the driveway to the office, we came upon the caretaker, Carol. We talked to her by the office, but our attention was diverted to the sunset and the mesmerizing view. We could not help but snap some photos while we spoke with her. At the end of the driveway sit three houses, which are perched upon mountain's edge. Okay, it's not really a mountain, but it's a hell of a hill.
We unpacked and settled in when the owner of the cottage arrived. He happened to be staying here tonight. In fact, we booted him out of the cottage, so he was relegated to the other house they have up the street, with the less superior view. He approached me straight away and asked me, in Afrikaans, if I spoke Afrikaans. Grasping his question as if I did, I said
no. He regaled us with his story of visiting America. It was 1976 and he was in Montreal viewing the Summer Olympics.
We headed out for food, but the pickings are slim here, particularly at the late hour of 7 o'clock. We tried some country club, but they were under locked gate and it was not trivial getting in. Guards had to radio someone to get permission, plus we didn't even see the menu. After we were given permission to dine here, we decided to move on. Instead, we ended up at the buffet at the Drakensberg Sun, and everyone else in the Champagne Valley was here too.
After we returned to our cottage on the mountaintop, these three astrophysicists looked to the brilliantly clear sky. And the photographers among us got our tripods.
Today we are planning to do some hiking in the mountains. We planned our day while gazing upon this awesome view.
We drove down to the bottom of the hill and stopped off at the shops. No food—the cafe was closed—so it was
bird food for breakfast: raisins, nuts, and fruit from the small grocer.
On the road outside the parking lot were a group of five boys who performed a little synchronized dance number in hopes of earning some rand. A look of severe disappointment washed over them when we drove by.
We examined the maps and trails at the Monk's Cowl office and decided to hike to Blind Man's Corner. It's about a six-hour hike round trip according to the rangers.
The bulk of the elevation occurs in the first part of the hike, while the second part is mainly along a flat, grassy mountaintop. Along the way we saw the Sphinx, a rock outcrop; Crystal Falls; and a small stream from which we filled our bottles.
We reached Blind Man's Corner at about 2:30, after two hours of hiking. It was warm, but not hot, and the air was comfortable. After some lunch, Cameron and Jackie decided to take a little side trip up the mountain a little further. I decided to take the opportunity to sit and admire my surroundings while I wrote in my journal.
While I sat beside the trail, I began to hear voices in the distance. Blind Man's Corner is situated such that we can see the just-hiked trail for quite a distance. And, there are no trees here, only grass, so there's nothing to obscure the view. I heard the voice for awhile before I could see where it was coming from. At first, it was a blur, moving in the distance, too far to discern. As they approached, they were still talking loudly, messing up my
out in nature mojo. While I sat meditating on this wonderful scene, I was thinking to myself,
Who are these people? Don't they respect the solace of the outdoors at all? How rude!
As they came close enough for acknowledgement, I realized they were soldiers, and they were carrying some mighty big guns. We are near the Lesotho border, where there is a lot of smuggling apparently, so I guess its customary to see patrols here. The soldiers were jolly and we talked for a moment before they continued over the mountains and on to the border.
We got back to the car at about 5:30, an hour before the park closes. I pitched the idea of cooking at our luxurious house, but Jackie and Cameron didn't seem moved by that idea, so we went into Winterton in search of food instead.
We ended up at The Bridge Lodge, a pub of sorts. Food was okay, and, more importantly, the Hansa beer was cold.
This morning we will leave our beloved Graceland. Why is it called Graceland? Grace of God, of course. Hearing that took the shine off a bit, but the view is still spectacular.
Today the band is splitting up. Cameron is off to do an overnight hike into the mountains before heading to Jo'burg for his flight back to New York, while Jackie and I have several more days before flying out of Cape Town.
Tonight, our destination is farther north in the Drakensberg Mountains near the Royal Natal National Park. On our way, we drove to Cathedral Peak. Cameron took to the trail here, and Jackie and I hiked a short trail into the Rainbow Gorge.
Rainbow Gorge is in the Cathedral Peak district. It's a relatively flat trail along the Ndumeni River that promises to get gorgey toward the end. Along the way, we transitioned from grassy meadows into the narrow strip of forest that lines the river.
We came upon an access point to the river and we left the trail to wade in the water. We had so much fun here, we stayed for about an hour and did not make it any further into the gorge. It was a refreshing break.
We made it back to the car around 3 o'clock and got an ice cream before we ventured north to Royal Natal. Along the way, we passed through a few towns, coped with a long gravel road, and navigated our way to the deluxe cottage waiting for us.
We made it just in the nick of time—the office was about to close. We settled in and asked them about food. We had to venture out of the park, so we needed an exit pass in order to get back in. Once we returned from dinner, we took some shots of the night sky with the Amphitheater as our background. We took in this beautiful scene as we sipped some wine from our porch. At one point, two large animals ran right by our cottage and off into the grassy fields in front of us. I could hear them take a U-shaped path and run off into the distance. We were not as freaked about this as one might expect, but I still wonder what that was.
The following morning we woke up with the Sun, determined to get some photos of this spectacular scene. The Thendele Camp is perfectly situated for viewing the morning sun on the Amphitheater. Jackie was outside and I stumbled out in my underwear and began snapping photos. Our only company was a flock of guineafowl and, later, a baboon.
We took a short hike this morning, but we needed to get on the road fairly early today since we had some ground to cover. Including today, we have four days until our flights from Cape Town. On our way, Jackie took some shots from the road.
By tonight, we're planning to get to Graaff-Reinet. Before then, we will leave the mountains behind, drive across the plains, and head into the Karoo, the semidesert region.
The bulk of this day will be spent in the car. We started out this morning in Royal Natal National Park and did some hiking, but we weren't out too long since we had a long drive ahead of us today.
We headed north to pick up the N5 road and, as we did, the terrain became more flat and prairie-like. We'll leave KwaZulu-Natal today and enter the Free State, formerly known as the Orange Free State—the state borders on the Orange River, and Orange reflects the Dutch who settled here in the 19th century.
Not long after we found the N5, we ended up in a long traffic jam outside Kestell. We sat for about 40 minutes with no motion, engines off. Finally, a woman drove up the road on the wrong side to see what was happening. She was gone for awhile, out of sight over the distant hills, but she returned and told us that there's a major smash-up and it won't be cleared up for at least 5 hours. I've never heard of such a thing... Five hours!
We decided to return to a road we just passed and drive around this mess. We took two roads that essentially bypassed the accident, leading us through Bethlehem and toward the N1. The N1 is flat and featureless—like Kansas.
If one considers the frequency of car crashes, the N1 is the most dangerous road in South Africa—we would see two other accidents today. As we drove southwest, the horizon opened up and we could see out to quite a distance. We could also see rain showers moving across the planes.
Around 6 o'clock, the sun began to sink beneath the horizon. All the rain and clouds awarded us with a magnificent sunset.
We've lined up a place tonight in Graaff-Reinet, a small town in the heart of the Karoo. But, we need to get there by 9 o'clock tonight. With all this construction, that was going to be difficult. We made our way down the N1, past Bloemfontein, the state capital, and picked up the N9, which leads to Graaff-Reinet.
We arrived just in the nick of time, at about 9:15. The woman from our hotel called our cell phone when we were just a couple blocks away. We got checked in—our room was not warm and inviting, but it was luxe compared to our previous night's accommodations—and then ventured out to quell those stomach pangs. It turns out, everything closes in this town at 9 o'clock. Not one restaurant was open. We had to settle for a convenience store on the edge of town which sold some cooked food. My mouth was watering at the prospect of fried chicken, but, alas, they were out of chicken. We settled for grilled cheese with tomato. One of the more pathetic dinners we'd had, but it was food.
The next morning I was looking forward to a hearty breakfast, but given the state of the room I didn't expect too much. There was a bug problem in the kitchen and the room was well worn. To my surprise, breakfast was delivered to our patio table and it was great. It was so delicious, I wanted to personally thank the kitchen staff.
I have to say, Graaff-Reinet did not live up to our expectations. I thought it would be a quaint town in the middle of the desert. Instead, it was rather spread out and there was hardly anyone on the streets. We did not feel free to walk around town at night, there were just not enough people.
Today, we will see the nearby Camdeboo National Park, which surrounds the town. First, we will drive up one of the nearby mountains to get a bird's eye view of the town.
On the other side of this mountain is the Valley of Desolation, a small rift in the side of the mountain. We ventured to the edge of the cliff and, even though Jackie has a fear of heights she pushed herself.
The mountain view of the arid Karoo was beautiful, it reminds me a lot of the southwestern U.S. The other section of the park was the wildlife area. We were hoping to see the rare mountain zebra. Instead, we saw springboks, a few buffalo, and some birds.
After the park, we headed for our next destination. We will revisit the Garden Route for a night, creeping ever closer to the Cape Town airport, where we have a flight to catch in a few days.
We stayed south on the N9, which ends up hugging the northern side of the coastal range, dividing wet from dry. Only small towns exist in this baked landscape. One of the towns along the way is Uniondale which, like every town, has a white area and a surrounding black township. The stark contrast between these areas is tough to comprehend, and the feelings conjured up are difficult to put into words.
Once again, green awaits us over these mountains—the clouds flowing over the mountaintops indicate there is moisture over them hills. Tonight we will stay in the coastal town of Wilderness along the Garden Route. But first, we must get over those mountains.
We left Graaff-Reinet earlier this afternoon and now we're on the verge of breaking out of the arid Karoo and into the lush Garden Route. First, we must traverse the Outeniqua Mountains on a road that is forced to conform to the rugged landscape as we drive over the 2,600-foot pass.
We stopped several times to take in the spectacular view. This road opened in 1951 and took eight years to build. It is a marvel.
Below the pass we drove through George to our destination: Wilderness, a town with an almost magical name. It's a small town on the southern coast of Africa. We checked into the Interlaken Guest House and went into town to explore a little. It's a cloudy day and the sea spray coats everything in the town.
After seeing our magnificent deck, we decided to pick up a bottle or two of wine, then we looked into finding some food for the night. The one drawback was that our hotel was on the outskirts of town, so I would have to drive.
We chose to eat at a slow-food restaurant called Zucchini, where I had the warthog shank. My first warthog. After seeing them in the game reserves, on their knees eating grass, I ate without compunction.
Our stay in Wilderness was wonderful. We had a delightful morning with our hosts at Interlaken, who welcomed us into their home and fed us a warm breakfast with fresh herbs and ingredients while we all talked at the dining table.
We left Wilderness and the Garden Route and headed closer to our departure. We decided to spend our last night in South Africa in the winelands. Instead of Stellenbosch, we chose sleepier Franschhoek. A smaller, country town surrounded by vineyards, the town also takes pride in its culinary offerings.
We settled into town in the mid-afternoon and sat down for a slow lunch. After, we walked to the other side of town to visit the Mont Rochelle vineyard, where we sat down for a taste or two. After our four tastes, which were all very good I must admit, we each got a glass of their 2005 cab and enjoyed the sunset on the rocky mountains.
We walked back to town and, continuing the day-long imbibe-a-thon, we scoped out some places for dinner. We decided on Reuben's, which calls itself a "restaurant and gooney bar." Good food, and perhaps the most upscale restaurant I've visited in South Africa thus far, where we spent R756, which at the time was about $100.
After dinner we strolled around town for awhile, looking for something inspirational for our camera. Nothing presented itself—perhaps after a few weeks of nonstop traveling and photography, it as time to just "be" for awhile. We returned to the hotel—the red balloon—and began to think about packing for the plane. As depressing as that may sound, we were ready to get home.
This morning we head to the airport. We have a short drive to the Cape Town airport but we need to gas up the car and turn it in. Will the caked on mud be a problem? The strata of dead insects on the front bumper?
We arrived at the airport around 11 a.m. and returned the car without a problem. All told, we put 5,343 kilometers (3,340 miles) on the car. It took us from the heavenly climates of the west coast to the humid, subtropical east, and to the roof in the Drakensberg area. Our Chevy Cruze never let us down.
Jackie and I set up shop in the airport and finished up our expenses and wrote in our journal for awhile. My flight to Johannesburg leaves around 3 o'clock, but Jackie's flight does not leave till this evening.
The flight to Jo'burg was uneventful. We arrived just after 5 o'clock and in the rain. I met Carolina on the plane. She's Polish and came to Cape Town to escape her husband and her life in Poland. Cape Town is a destination for many in Africa and Europe.
I didn't have too much time to catch my flight from Jo'burg to JFK in New York. By the time I found the gate, there was already a long line. And, beyond normal airport security, there were several checks on line. A boarding pass check, a passport check, a peek inside my carry-on, another passport scan, the card that we return upon boarding the plane, and a pat-down from someone who initially offered me a full-body massage, then told me my shirt was too tight. Hmmm...
While on line, I began talking to the guy next to me. Turns out he's the pilot's son and is taking a free, first-class ride to New York with his Dad for the weekend. I was astounded that someone would go from Cape Town to New York for the weekend.
Seat 67K awaited.
At 18.5 hours, the flight is brutal. And, this time we need to stop for fuel in Dakar, Senegal—the extreme western tip of Africa. We landed in Dakar around 2 a.m., refueled, endured an in-cabin fumigation, and soon we were off for another eight hours to JFK.
We landed in New York at 7:15 a.m. and it was great to be home and, more importantly, it was great to be off the plane. I flew through baggage and customs and I even caught a cab right at the exit. I know this is not fair, but I don't care, I just want to get home.
Perhaps the most dangerous part of my journey, the cab ride, ended without incident and I was finally home... good to be home.