Ketchikau & Chobe National Park

Clare wanted to show us one of her main anthropological research sites, Ketchikau, a rural village she spent a lot of time in. The journey down was over an ill kept dirt road, and the village itself is one of 5 small villages along this road bordering the western side of Chobe National Park. It was a quiet, spread out village with only 1100 people living there, and the only other non-indigenous person in town was a Californian named Tory stationed there as a Peace Corps representative. People rely on agriculture, livestock, fishing and other informal types of employment for a living. There was a mix of brick & concrete houses, mud huts, and tents that people lived in, one elementary school , and the most ridiculous, unnecessary police station that looked like a massive, high profile, Naval base. As far as I understood, there was barely any crime, so I have no idea who actually works as a policeman or what role they have in the community. Tori, the current Peace Corpse volunteer has two projects going on in the village, one supporting the village high school girls soccer team and the other setting up a support group for orphans who have lost their families due to HIV/AIDS. Its definitely a worthwhile cause and her efforts could benefit from more support (see link below).

kids from Ketchikau

kids from Ketchikau

We left Ketchikau the next day to head for Chobe National Park. It is completely unfenced, allowing the free movement and migration of wildlife both around Botswana and in and out of Botswana. The country statistically has more elephants than any other country, but its hard to pinpoint exactly how many migratory elephants there are, and whether or not they belong to neighbouring countries. Eitherway, there’s a lot of elephants, and when we camped overnight at Savuti, one of the camps within the national bark boundary, our campsite came complete with a big, male elephant trying to shake the tree shading our site for fruits. We just had to patiently wait until he was satisfied, watching from the car about a hundred metres back, before we could enter our camp site again.

There aren’t even fences around the camps, which is an interesting thing to deal with if you have any fear of free-roaming lions or elephants stepping on your tent (its gotta have happened to somebody). National parks in the rest of southern Africa are often much more heavily managed, with human safety and comforts taking priority over undisturbed wilderness, so it was refreshing to stay in a national park that had such minimal infrastructure, almost no facilities or buildings except for the toilet and Park Ranger’s hut. I only saw a handful of staff members the three days we spent in the park, most of them controlling park and campground entrances. This sort of minimal management made our Chobe experience much more intimate, and our self-drive game drives through really narrow, 2 track roads in deep sand passable only by 4 wheel drives always kept things exciting since getting stuck probably meant we were stuck for a while; cell phone reception was sparatic, and unless you were on a main road where another car would pass, no park staff checked the roads or enforced the ‘no driving after sunset’ rule.

our elephant friend who just wanted to eat at our campsite

our elephant friend who just wanted to eat at our campsite

We actually had one car problem arise, but luckily enough it was only 2 km out of Ketchikau on the first morning we set out, and cell phone reception was still strong enough for Clare to call a mechanic friend of hers to come rescue us. We sat and waited for almost an hour even though he kept texting that he was on his way and coming ‘now-now-now’ (quicker than now or soon), and when he told us he had already driven 3 km out to try and find us, we were super confused since this sand track road is completely impassable without him driving over our stalled car (there was thick brush on both sides). Kubublanco had just overheated so after a little more waiting we thought itd be ok to drive it back to town and wait for him there. Thirty more minutes passed before he told us he was stuck on the same sand road… but we had just driven it and we certainly didn’t drive over him so got super confused. We had no choice but to believe him so drove back out the same road, and lo and behold, there he was, stuck in the deep sand about 500m ahead of where we had just been waiting. Just to qualify we weren’t totally crazy, the mechanic explained there was another road that joined the one we were on so after saving his car, he spent some time inspecting ours and gave the thumbs up.

There were also fewer tourists and tour operators in Chobe than I expected, but it probably had something to do with the difficult, single car roads. What you did see a lot of, without fail, were South African tourists, and they were identifiable from miles away since they always traveled in excessive luxury: a caravan of maybe 5 vehicles, each carrying only 2 people, dragging a tent-top trailer, and bringing in all their own food, water and supplies they needed for the week from home. Their camp sites were set up with tent awnings, or sometimes a shade tarp with carpet laid, and the men all wore tight, blue jean, short shorts and high socks that showed off their thick, muscly thighs just a bit too much.

lions at first light

lions at first light

The park fee was reasonably cheap, at about $15US, but camping was very expensive at about $45US per person, per night. That’s probably another deterrent, in addition to the fact there are only a handful of campsites available that have to be booked months in advance during peak season. However, it makes sense to have these obstacles since it keeps demand down and individual tourist experiences more intimate. We had a great time, enjoying water holes with drinking elephants to our selves, a herd of giraffe only 50 m away, hundreds of impala in the middle of big clearings, and the highlight probably being a group of lionesses and lion cubs strolling right past our car at dawn.

Links: If you are interested in making a donation, please feel free to contact Tori ( or you can contribute directly to this project by doing the following: The easiest way to donate is visit and search by the project number, 637-082.

Welcome to Botswana

One the drive back to Kasane from Zimbabwe, I saw even more wildlife from the road: a herd of giraffe, impala and lots more elephants. It quickly started becoming apparent to me why sub-Saharan Africa has so much safari-tourism and nature-based travel appeal. The diversity of landscapes and vegetation and abundance of birds and animals far exceeds other parts of Africa, and there’s something very special about wildlife areas not completely overrun by people or development. Unless you are traveling to a big city in South Africa, a lot of Southern Africa is full of wildlife, both in and outside National Parks/Conservation areas, and because it’s much more sparsely populated than the rest of Africa, the infrastructure for travel (ie. Roads, Public transportation) and other forms of tourism is limited. Overland jeeps, big bus safari’s and self-drive 4×4’s are probably the most popular ways of seeing Botswana, and the most common accommodation type are these multi-functional ‘rest camps’ that are actually a tenting area, RV park, hostel beds and hotel rooms all in one.

The first night in Botswana we stayed at Water Lily Lodge in Kasane, a slight upgrade from these camps since it only offered (twelve) hotel-type rooms for accommodation options. It was designed to look like a traditional round hut with a thatched roof, and was beautifully located on the bank of the Chobe River. I found out later Steve made it to Botswana by flying through Windhoek, but since that flight was delayed, got stuck in Maun overnight. The next morning he somehow convinced a charter flight company (well, an office of very nice Motswana ladies) to sell him a pilot-staff priced ticket for a private, 2 hr, stop-and-go plane ride over the Okavango Delta into Kasane – way more impressive than my free car ride to Vic Falls.

We were meeting up with Chris and Clare, both Berkeley Phd’s in the same department I studied at, and, coincidentally, Steve’s best friends, and Clare was our gracious host and official tour guide since she has spent 4 years in and out of Botswana doing research. She had all the local knowledge we would need, spoke Setswana, and had a reliable 4×4 for all our transportation needs which Chris affectionately named ‘Kubublanco,’ a.k.a. white hippo (a little bit of Spanish in the mix).

a breeding herd of elephant drinking

a breeding herd of elephant drinking

Our first touristy matter of business was a sunset cruise on the Chobe river, sighting all sorts of wildlife on the banks of Chobe National Park. Most memorable where the huge kudu males with spiraly horns, a flock of brightly coloured bee-eater birds, cruising right past an underwater herd of big scary hippos and not so scary tiny baby hippos, seeing an entire elephant herd come to drink at the same time, and crocodiles sunbathing with their mouths rested open, jagged teeth shining threateningly. We also saw impala, big lizard things called water-monitors, beached hippos, and one lone male elephant chomping on a tree, literally.

a bunch of hippos hiding underwater

a bunch of hippos hiding underwater

The sunset was spectacular over the river, but brought on the inevitable buzz of potential Malaria carrying mosquitoes. Having to take malarone daily is always annoying, since I almost always forget it at least one or two times (which may or may not render the entire dose ineffective) and it gives me these psychedelic dreams about crazy things like riding horses backwards over the moon. This specific prescription of malarone was also quite expensive, but my moms only words of advice for traveling in Africa was to be careful with malaria, and Clare, who’s had a bout with Malaria, convinced me quite easily that its safer to air on the side of caution.

Victoria Falls, Zimbabwean Style

Even though it only took 2 flights to get from Iceland at the top of the world to the very bottom of Africa, it still took 3 flights to get from Cape Town to Botswana, and then another hour drive to get to my actual destination, Victoria Falls on the Zimbabwean side. I flew with Mango Air from Cape Town to Johannesburg, then Air Botswana from Joburg to Kasane, connecting in Maun, in very tiny 40 passenger planes. Mango Air was your typical budget airline, but Air Botswana was a delight – their idea of an airplane lunch snack was biltong (dried meat similar to beef jerky) and beer, even though the flight was only 45 minutes long at 11 in the morning. Now that’s my idea of airplane hospitality in a world of increasingly stingy airlines – Icelandair doesn’t even feed you peanuts on the 5 hr flights to North America anymore.

The original plan was for me, Steve and 2 other friends from Berkeley to meet in Kasane, but we weren’t meant to meet until the following afternoon, so when I made it all the way to Kasane (the north eastern-most park of Botswana) and Steve didn’t (he flew threw Windhoek and had flight delays), I made an opportunistic plan to somehow make it to the Botswana-Zimbabwe border, only 15 km away, and onward to Victoria Falls for my spare 24 hrs. Luckily there were 2 Americans on the plane who had befriended a British/Zimbabwean tour guide, and when they also befriended me, explained that the tour guide was driving straight to Victoria Falls and I took the generous offer to catch a lift. On our one hour drive we saw warthog, monkeys, baboons, kudu and elephant all from the road. He escorted me through both borders (you have to exit Botswana in one building and 50m away enter Zimbabwe in another building), and drove me straight to the doorstep of the main backpackers in town. It’s called Shoestrings, a super cozy, inexpensive ($11US/night/bed) hostel/camp ground, with a pool, hammocks, 2 resident Great Dane/Irish Wolf hound crosses (BIG dogs), and it’s all open-air except the bedrooms.

Likey and his leaf brrom, with the waterfall spray soaking our path

Likey and his leaf broom, with the waterfall spray soaking our path

I was really looking forward to paying billions for everything, but just in the last year Zimbabwe’s official currency has been changed over to the US dollar. The economic transition seems ongoing, and I get the feeling US dollar bills are still few and far between, hard to get your hands on, so when you do get an actual bill in your hand, they’re often well-used, tattered, dirty pieces of paper. Even though Shoestrings wasn’t nearly at capacity, later that evening an overland safari tour bus full of drunken Aussies, Americans, Canadians and Brits showed up and completely emptied the $1.50/beer bar. The last thing I was expecting on my impromptu trip to Zimbabwe was to party with a whole bunch of young westerners, but I can’t say I didn’t have fun. I also met one local white guy, a middle aged Trophy Hunter guide, so if that didn’t make him seem odd enough, he took to expressing his feet fetish to me by sniffing and biting the ends of my toes to ‘inspect how well-traveled I was.’ Even though I wasn’t supposed to go to Zimbabwe on this trip, or at least I hadn’t planned on it, I really wanted to see Victoria Falls since I’ve had somewhat of a waterfall theme going on in my travels as of late. I made it to Iguazu Falls in Argentina in January and Niagra Falls in March and had been daydreaming about Vic Falls (and Angel Falls in Venezuela) ever since. The next morning I finally fulfilled that curiosity, and spent all morning at the water fall. I walked in shortly after sunrise with just enough money to pay the slightly expensive $30US park fee and my waterproof camera, and all the staff and street sellers tried to convince me to get an umbrella or poncho.

the bridge to Zambia

the bridge to Zambia

I decided even if I got wet, it was hot enough to air dry in minutes, but after walking around for a few hours, I literally got rained on from all directions, with waterfall spray hitting you from below, sideways, and above, in big heavy raindrops. One of the ground keepers found it amusing and decided to follow me around the park, pretending to sweep the path with his broom made from tree branches full of leaves. For every leaf he swept off the path, he put another 2 on the path, so Im not sure if that was really his job or if it was, that his job was actually productive, but I let him walk me around anyway. He told me all about his family, the falls, the resident butterflies, the impala that we saw in the forest, and a beautiful piece of bee hive that had fallen to the ground. He explained that you could eat it, and after putting a piece of perfectly symmetrical hexagons into his mouth, admitted it just tasted like wax, not honey. His name was Likey, and if you’re in Vic Falls anytime soon, look for the teenager spreading leaves all over the walkways and ask him to show you around. He definitely gave the best tour of the park, and for sure costs less than the hired tour guides who won’t give you that type of one-on-one attention.

The similarity of Vic Falls to Iguazu was astounding since I really felt like I was having déjà vu. In both places you have the river and a massive waterfall accessible by two countries, and a little to the east, another border and a small community trying to be a gateway town to the falls tourism. For Vic Falls there’s Zambia a stone’s throw away to from Zimbabwe, and the Caprivi strip of Namibia nearby, and in the same orientation, Brazil, Argentina and Paraguay all huddling around Iguazu. Both places had similar ecosystems, luscious greenery and thousands of butterflies fluttering around, but I guess they had slightly different feels since Iguazu didn’t have elephants…

Cliff under the 'entering Zambia" sign

Cliff under the ‘entering Zambia” sign

In the afternoon I walked across the bridge to Zambia, just for another view of the falls and to contemplate whether or not I had the guts to bungee jump off the side into the Zambezi River. I didn’t, but I did make another friend called Cliff who again politely asked to walk with me. We were hassled by all his friends trying to sell me copper bracelets or wood craft souvenirs, and one finally struck a deal when he offered to trade a bracelet for my old, dingy scarf. I did really like it and wear it a lot, but I naively thought he must have liked my scarf a lot and wanted to give it to his girlfriend or mom. After sealing the deal, Cliff later explained he was just going to resell it to someone else. If I had known that I might have kept my scarf since it was worth much less than his copper bracelet and I certainly wasn’t trying to rip him off, but I guess I’ll just pretend he did really like it and I did him the favor by trading.


South African Wine Route

I spent some time with my two Antarctica friends, the Rotary guys Fred and Steven, including my visit to the waterfront and Robben Island with Steven. We all hung out one evening at Fred’s house for a braii dinner party. Their home is located on a wine estate called Steenberg Vineyards. It’s still a fully operational winery, boasting a golf course and a few small neighbourhoods of private homes, and is completely fenced in with tight security patrol. Arriving after dark we had to pass through a couple gates and tell our story to a few security guards before we convinced them we were allowed in, and then one of the guards hopped in the back of our car to escort us all the way up to their door step, unlocking another fence along the way with his thumb needed for the finger print scanner. To bring this type of security control into perspective was easy enough since exactly opposite the estate, separated only by a two lane road, was a maximum security prison with fences just as high, barbed wire just as pointy, but still a step below the estate safety standard since the vineyards fences were also lined with surveillance cameras every 20 or 30 meters. It’s strange to think that locking criminals in is just as important a precaution as locking the affluent in, or is it locking everyone else out? Im not sure…

Steve (my Steve, confusing, I know) managed to get well enough into Fred’s good books that he offered him one of his own home-made, personally-labeled bottle of red wine called ‘Pour Mes Amis,’ uncovered from  his underground cellar – witness to Fred’s established status as a wine connoisseur. I of course entrusted him to take me wine tasting the next day, sampling the best of South African wine in the Stellenbosch and Franschhoek regions.

Steenberg Vineyard

Steenberg Vineyard

We started at the Steenberg Vineyards Cellar on the estate early in the a.m. with some bubbly chardonnay for breakfast. From there we drove to Franschhoek and stopped first at Chamonix wine farm where we had samples of white, red and sparkling rosé, and then drove through the French-influenced town.

We had lunch under the vines at Moreson Vineyards and I sampled my first Pinotage. Its an excellent blend of pinot noir and cinsault unique to South Africa, and after drinking more Pinotage throughout the week, I’ve decided its probably my favourite red variety. I love good discoveries like that.

Me, Fred & Mr Stark Conde

Fred & Mr Stark Conde with me

We spent the afternoon in the better-known city of Stellenbosch, very famous for its wine and also the second oldest town in South Africa. We tasted at Starke Condé Winery, and this vineyard had by far the most beautiful setting and landscaping, with the newly built wine tasting room an open-air gazebo over a small lake, surrounded by lush greenery and vineyards, in a valley between two massive mountains, one of which had an old Palace fortress looking down on us. We also stopped by Stellenbosch town, to see the university and feel the young student, Afrikaans vibe of the place. It was very quaint, with Cape Deutsch architecture remnants all around, and heavily vegetated with big Oak trees. We finished off at Middelvlei Wines which is specially known for their Pinotage… yum.

Sunset behind Table Mountain from False Bay

Sunset behind Table Mountain from False Bay

After a day of drinking in the toasty sun, I was definitely in a ‘bright’ mood, and we rounded off our perfect day at an African Themed restaurant called Moyo where you could dine in tree-top tables. We shared a fare-well drink before Fred drove me home, and we took the scenic route along False Bay with the beach to our left and the most beautiful sunset behind Table Mountain straight ahead.

Host City for FIFA 2010 World Cup

Of course the influence of the 2010 World Cup deserves some mention, since it felt like the Vancouver 2010 Winter Olympics all over again. Visa and Coca Cola sponsorships monopolised almost all advertising space in the shops, restaurants, billboards, cereal boxes, and tv commercials. Hype of the incoming influx of tourists was affecting all businesses, and the concern for crime and safety spurred officials to come up with all sorts of public announcements and positive messages to create that perfect, FIFA-host city image. Ironically enough, I never really felt threatened or concerned for my safety, and Im not sure if it was just luck or being in the right places or with the right people, but in general I found South Africans to be super friendly and smiley, always greeting you, making eye contact, and asking how I was. Their willingness to converse definitely contradicted any learnt presumptions to feel guarded, and even when unconvincing car guards in ‘official’ reflective vests offered to watch your car, I still felt like they were just trying to make a living, not threatening to break into your car if you didn’t tip them – something I’ve felt in more tame places like San Francisco.

The most telling incident of how laid back some South Africans really are was in Johannesburg Airport; the airport security woman who was directing people from the line to the next security screening station was doing so by dancing her way to the left and to the right, humming a small tune and smiling at you if you didn’t respond with a chuckle. Then the man at the x-ray machine who then told me to take my shoes and belt off next asked me why I was so cross, and I realised they actually disliked passengers who took the security checkpoint too seriously. If only it was like that in American airports!

The FIFA explosion in Cape Town also meant the sound of a vuvuzela was never far off, and almost every car had either a South African flag pegged up in the window, or both the rearview mirrors of the car wore these sock-like covers that displayed the South African flag on both sides when looking head on. As much as the World Cup inspired national pride, excitement, and arguably some form of unity within the Nation, it was still just another international event that cost a lot of money to run and created hidden incentives for all sorts of people and corporations to try and maximize personal gain from the games. You really couldn’t get away from Coke, Visa or Soccer in any corner of the city, and with many over-promised, under-delivered benefits and opportunities of the games to the local community just meant building frustration and anti-FIFA sentiments in much of the community. For those thousands who were interested in somehow participating in the events or supporting their country, the costs and limited availability of both tickets, accommodation and transportation to the games still meant many loyal fans were excluded.

While both praise and criticisms are endless for FIFA, the short- and long-term effects of having the World Cup hosted for the first time on African Soil are still uncertain. They at least have a big, brand new stadium in the center of town, an iconic building for their changed city-scape, and personally, I thought the suspenseful buzz of Cape Town and everyone’s concern to have the city on its best behaviour meant a very positive tourist experience.

Townships on the Cape Flats

Even though apartheid is over and proof of democratic progress can be seen in much of Cape Town, racism and segregation definitely exists in many respects. The vast expanses of townships extending out from Cape Town proper and covering much of the Cape Flats are probably just far enough away for the average visitor to miss, but ironically enough the trip in from the International Airport to downtown drives past many township edges. Townships are basically squatted land, with thousands of people living in shacks, and majority (if not all) are coloured or black. One initiative by the local government to improve their public image that was explained to me was to ameliorate these township outskirts by either improving the appearance of all the visible shacks, or build newer, higher fences to limit what you can actually see from the highways. These types of stories are disappointing and extremely frustrating to hear because the last thing townships need are to be hidden away or fix the walls of a few, arbitrarily selected homes.

our feast of meat, with Andy on the left, the Gugulethu regular

our feast of meat, with Andy on the left, the Gugulethu regular

One day a group of 5 of us (all ‘whites’) visited Gugulethu township  with the guidance of Andy, an eccentric English-born South African who insisted we go to a famous barbecue held there every weekend. He insisted we take public transportation, and demanded we ride third class on the train. All that meant was we were in the crowded carts in the back half of the train, different from first class (there is no second class) where very few (usually white) passengers pay twice the price to take the same journey. Then we squished into a taxi bus all the way to Guguluthu, which was basically a butcher shop, a smokey, brick braii room, and a big roofed area outside full of drunk people sitting around limited tables listening to a dj play techno music over a semi-blown sound system. The basic point was to bring as much of your own beer as you could drink, go to the butcher and order as man kilograms of fresh cut meat as you wanted, then tip the braii guys in the smoky room to cook it to taste and smother it with salt and sauce, and then messily eat it with your hands out of the big, steel bucket that they served it to you in. Genius.

the dance floor at Gugulethu

the dance floor at Gugulethu

It also happened to be the day South Africa played Denmark in one of the preliminary games, so some promotional trailer had driven up and parked on one side of the covered patio with a tv showing the game. We ended up stuffing our tummies full of cheap meat and luke-warm beer with a bunch of other township locals, tourists, and soccer fans, and then when South Africa won, we all had a reason to keep on drinking and dancing until the sun went down.

Link to Gugulethu:

Cape Town Touristic Highlights

My younger sister Ruth went on a trip to southern Africa a few years ago with her classmates on a charitable/missionary-work trip, and when I mentioned South Africa to her once, she insisted there was no such country and it only referred to a region of Africa. But, after a small argument ensued, we established she was wrong, and I can now assure her of its existence as I started my own trip to Africa in (The Republic of) South Africa.

My first week in South Africa was amazing, full of all the sights and activities a good tourist should do in Cape Town. I flew directly from London to Cape Town on a very luxurious, entertainment-filled, all-you-can-drink, 12 hr, overnight flight with British Airways. I arrived at 8 am to an airport that was surprisingly small for an international airport to what I would consider one of the major African airport hubs, but it was a delightful surprise to clear baggage and customs within 15 minutes.

Muizenberg, the sleepy beach town I called home

Muizenberg, the sleepy beach town I called home

There’s only a 1 hr time difference between Reykjavik and Cape Town so jet-lag dismissed we made the most of our glorious, sunny Sunday by doing all the most stereotypical tourist things one should do in a day in Cape Town. Steve, who I met a few months ago at UC Berkeley and was staying 3 weeks in Cape Town for an Applied Mathematics/Public Health workshop – he can explain to you very well how they’re related but I won’t try – picked me up in our $17/day Suzuki rental. In South Africa you drive on the left side of the road in the right side of the car and it took some adjusting, but now I’m not sure I even register the difference since its quite easy just to follow the car in front of you and not even think about which side you’re supposed to be on… although parking lots are tricky.

Hyrax enjoying the view of Camps Bay from table Mountain

Hyrax – considered the closest living relative to the elephant – enjoying the view of Camps Bay from table Mountain

First we visited Table Mountain; we took the cable car up and walked around the plateau with a free guided tour led by a presumably retired old lady who could barely talk faster than she walked. After losing patience with her, we wandered around with the most beautiful view of Cape Town on one side and Camps Bay to the north, and were super amused by all the little hyrax’s sitting on cliff ledges, also enjoying the view. On the way down, we saw a (slightly suicidal) rock climber ascending the sheer cliff face without any safety ropes and decided we were glad we didn’t walk down.

The cliff-top entrance for Table Mountain Cable Cars, and the death defying rock face you can see a ropeless rockclimber ascending

The cliff-top entrance for Table Mountain Cable Cars, and on the death defying rock face you can see a ropeless rockclimber ascending

We took lunch on Long Street, the main drag in town, at a delicious café called Pickwicks, and carried on to drive Chapmans Peak to Cape Point Vineyards for a little wine tasting. That ocean view drive is definitely one of the most beautiful roads you can imagine – and an amazing representation of road engineering genius.  We ended the day at Simon’s Town and went to visit the penguin colony there. What a sight to see hundreds of little grumbling penguins swimming in on the waves, avoiding all the boulders on the appropriately named Boulders Beach, and then scurrying up into the bushes and low lying forest all around  where they’ve hidden their nests and young ones. They were extremely habituated to human presence, barely even noticing your foot inches away from them and thus, allowing for some great, up-close encounters.

Friendly Penguins

Friendly Penguins

The weather all week was glorious, rare for mid-winter days, and the sun kept the temperature above 20`C almost every day. I made it to Robben Island and the Waterfront with a fellow traveler from Antarctica, also considered must-do Cape Town tourist stops, and was very impressed by the Pier 39/Fishermans Wharf inspired boardwalk offering an endless selection of shopping and dining. On the way home we also drove through the University of Cape Town main campus, the nearby Rhodes Memorial (he endowed all the land to the state where the university is currently located), and the Botanical Gardens.

Robben Island prison cell, similar to Nelson Mandela's

Robben Island prison cell, similar to Nelson Mandela’s

I stayed south of Cape Town in a suburb called Muizenberg, right on the beach with a corner store a block away that sold the most delicious, cheap eats. I was already impressed enough that you could find good meat pie and ginger beer, a luxury I haven’t indulged in since living in Brisbane years ago, but even more excited about their banana bacon burger (don’t knock it til you try it) and calamari bun – a burger filled with huge, deep-fried squid. The town is famous for some of the best surf in the world which apparently holds the Guinness World record for most surfers on one wave (circa 100+). Even though the water was almost too cold, I wanted to be cool and tried surfing in a full wet-suit, and not until I was in the water trying to catch my first few waves did Steve tell me these were some of the most shark infested waters around. To make matters worse, the day after, a small, badly bruised pigmy sperm whale washed up on shore, and after hours of failed attempts by some 20-odd surfers to push it back out repeatedly (it kept getting drawn back in with the waves since it could barely swim), shark spotters set of a siren to alarm everyone sharks were on their way in, probably from the scent of its blood.

struggling to help the beached pigmy whale before sharks got to it

struggling to help the beached pigmy whale before sharks got to it

I also spent some time visiting my good friend Yashar, a fellow UBC alumni who is on a rotary scholarship to complete his masters in international relations at the University of Cape Town.  With proper Persian hospitality, we enjoyed hookah and drinks on his balcony with an amazing view of Table Mountain, and also made it to Cape Point National Park later in the week to have some intimate encounters with baboons and ostriches. Ironically enough, after I left Yashar, I attended a Rotary Club meeting, and two friends of mine, retired South African men who sailed to Antarctica on the same cruise as me, were Rotary Members of that same club and they made the connection that only 2 degrees of separation existed between them – it really is a small world.

an ostrich strolling along in Cape Point National Park

an ostrich strolling along in Cape Point National Park

Links: For more information on Yashar’s Charity, the beneficiary of his hard work and Rotary Club’s generous scholarship – Peace and Love:

Have You Ever been to Africa?

Anyone that knows me might agree I’m slightly neurotic about travel, and even though I end up spending my last pennies on a trip I shouldn’t be able to afford, I still decided going to Antarctica at the start of this year was a great idea. I justified the trip to be able to say I’d visited all the continents, but then this question ‘Have you ever been to Africa?’ somehow made me feel as though I was cheating. Before this summer, I had only ever been to Egypt, and although it’s on the African Continent, culturally and historically it ties much closer to the Mediterranean and Middle Eastern cultures nearby, so technically I had never really experienced African tourism… until now.

No matter how cultured or well-travelled you are, it seems like Africa should be somewhat predictable from all the stereotypes and generalizations one draws from movies, media, documentaries, and especially development fund campaigns (we’ve all seen World Vision Advertisements). Yes there was poverty, underdevelopment and a lot of little black faces, but there was also blatant affluence, globalization and a lot of white faces. People still wear brand names, buy their internationally imported foods at big supermarkets, goods are all labeled ‘Made in China’, and Alicia Keys & Jay Z’s New York song could be heard almost anywhere. But, as soon as you got out of town into the wilderness, the Disney movie Lion King came alive with Timone, Pumba, Simba, and Wazoo all visible in a day’s game drive.

While this holds true for a lot of southern Africa, South Africa is in its own country genre, since it often resembles Australia or Europe more than the rest of Africa. It is extremely developed in certain aspects – highways and traffic infrastructure, education systems, debatably health care, – and a vibrant cultural arts scene. However, this type of modernity doesn’t exist in all parts of South Africa, and even though English and Afrikaans are widely used, 11 official languages in one nation gives you some idea of how diverse and complicated different areas of the country are.

I never actually realized that Afrikaans was basically a derivative of Deutsch; I always thought it was some conglomerate contact language the colonials and locals developed to communicate, but really it is no different than any other colonial country in the sense that their language was introduced into the area, into the education system, and slowly evolved to become one of the most widely used and official languages. It sounded really strange to me because I just heard a bunch of tourists speaking some German-like European language, and the locals speaking some sort of Creole or local tongue, but I finally figured out they’re all South Africans just speaking Afrikaans with different accents.

The diversity of faces, languages and general multiculturalism was still more than I expected; Cape Town struck me as a very culturally rich, ethnically diverse place, and the super colourful flag of South Africa is a perfect representation of this socially complex place. I’m not sure if this is too much of a leap, but besides personal safety concerns that I still thought were over-rated, I also thought Cape Town to be one of the most livable cities I’ve ever visited, with good weather and amazing biodiversity edging it ahead of other obvious candidates like Vancouver, Canada.