South Africa in 2 Weeks

I’ve been a tour guide in Iceland for nearly 10 years, but I was still a little surprised when a tour company called Farvel asked me to be a tour guide in South Africa for a group of 20 Icelanders. But of course I said yes, with a big grin of confidence, and a few weeks later, I was sent off, all expenses paid (and a salary!) to Cape Town.

Welcome to Cape Town

I’ve been to South Africa 4 or 5 times before, but only as a broke student or cheap backpacker. Now our accommodation and meals were all pre-planned, at plush places like the Cape Town Hollow, Mama Africa, and vineyards in Stellenbosch, with a private truck, driver and local guide always taking us from A to Z. I was more like a tour leader, only making sure everything went according to plan, but I mostly felt guilty about being paid to be on this wonderful vacation.

The view from Table Mountain

In Cape Town, we visited the Waterfront and Table Mountain, took a day trip to Cape Point and Kirstenbosch gardens, and in the vine region we visited Stellenbosch and Franschoek for city tours and wine tasting. I always got a private room, with hot water, electricity, wifi, and even those little soaps and cosmetics I so love collecting and giving away to cute kids.

Riding past some llamas at Rozendal Guest farm, our home in Stellenbosch

After some time in the Cape, we flew to Durban, and the feeling of arriving within the tropics hit us immediately, with hot humidity and thunder showers. From there we had another private car, driver and local guide, and roadtripped from the beach to St. Lucia. We took a day drive to Hluluwe National park, which was nearly everyone else’s first safari. We spent one morning on the iSimangaliso Wetland lake sailing among hippos and crocs, and the birdwatchers couldn’t get enough of the bright yellow weavers, African Fish eagles and Kingfishers.

So many hippos at iSimangaliso

We carried on north thru Swaziland, which Icelanders actually need a visa to travel to (it was an expensive pain in the ass to get in Cape Town since we had to courier our passports with rush applications to their only embassy in Johannesburg), and only stopped for a day.

Our overland truck with Nomads

A lot changes when you pass the border – the road quality deteriorates but the safety increases – but for the most part, it fit right into the feeling of our overland journey. We stayed at some 5 star, former King’s residence, which wasn’t much to write home about, but a walking safari and village visit in Mlilwane Wildlife Sanctuary were the highlight.

Learning how to grind flour on our Swazi village visit

Another long day of driving took us to Kruger, where we stayed just outside the park at Hulala Lodge. It’s a slice of heaven in the middle of nowhere, and high enough up in elevation to enjoy cool nights again. We entered Kruger for a walking safari and a couple of drive safari’s, and were usually split into 3 groups. One of them nearly got trampled by an elephant and another one walked right up to a her of wild buffalo during the walk, and during the game drives, one truck saw all the big 5 (the other two missed seeing a rhinoceros, but we had all already seen one in Hluluwe). We left Kruger with stops at Blyde River Canyon, visiting Bourke’s Luck Potholes and taking in the incredible views at the Three Rondavels and God’s Window.

One last “HUH!” at God’s Window

We ended our journey in Johannesburg, which most people thought would be in an anti-climax, but our accommodation there was again wonderfully cozy, and a SOWETO township day trip became much more meaningful after visitng the country and hearing of Mandela’s struggles to create the South Africa we got to see. Two weeks had passed an we had become one big family, and my role was confusingly just as much a mother as a daughter. We said goodbye at OR Tambo, as I set the group off on their flight back to Keflavik. An hour later I boarded a plane to Dar Es Salaam, and had the wonderful feeling that my journey in Africa was just beginning

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Adventures in South Africa

I kind of ended up accidentally in South Africa. After my 30th birthday in Mauritius, country #201, I had only a few one-way options out. London, Dubai, Johannesburg, or one of the Indian Ocean islands I had already been to. It wasn’t nearly time to go home, so South Africa was an obvious choice, even though I’ve already been there twice.

up close and personal with a Kruger elephant

I flew into Johannesburg, where I had a couchsurfing friend I met 6 years ago in Rwanda to stay with. Thru the wonderful world of facebook, I realized two Latvian friends, who I know from Iceland, had also just arrived in Johannesburg. They had rented a bright yellow VW we nicknamed ‘Lil’ Miss Sunshine’ and spontaneously left for Kruger the very next morning. There we spent 2 days on a self-drive safari, saw 4 of the Big 5, and nearly got trampled by an angry elephant bull three times the size of our Lil Miss Sunshine (I don’t think they like yellow).

me and the Latvians at Berlin Falls

On the way, we stopped in Nelspruit, where we couchsurfed with a woman, all her cats and one Jack Russell Terrier I had to share my couch with. Her boyfriend is part of the band Minanzi Mbira, and we watched one of their rehearsals in a storage garage late at night, joining in for the precussion bits with drums, triangles and shakers.

the orphanage

We roadtripped past waterfalls, swimming holes, the Bourke’s Luck Potholes, and thru the Blyde River Canyon, taking countless selfies from all the panoramic views along the way. Later we went to Durban, visiting the valley of 1000 hills. We visited an orphanage, ate Indian food that tasted even better than food in India, and then went our separate ways, I, to Lesotho.

the chain ladder up to Tugela

Later I roadtripped with my South African host to Golden Gate National Park and the Drakensberg, where we frolicked inbetween and ontop of mountains, with stunning views down to the Irish-green valleys. The chain ladder up to Tugela Falls nearly gave me vertigo, but it was all worth it once we got to the top and went skinny dipping in one of the frigid pools above the falls – the world’s second highest.

On top of Lion’s Head, with Table Mountain in the background

I spent a week in Cape Town, including a day of wine tasting in Stellenbosch. I stayed in SeaPoint, and one of the roomates there had a horse we could giddyup. We spent our days beaching, or hiking at Newlands Forest and Kirstenbosch Garden. There was a swing dance festival kicking off my last night there, and lots of great coffee, wine, and food everyday.

My base for all these adventures was Johannesburg, which I had never really thought of as more than just a base. Its reputation for being a big, sprawling, dangerous city really changed when I got to spend a few weekends tieh locals, exploring the restaurant and nightlife scene. Neighbourgoods Market was a major highlight, a Saturday food and beverage festival where an old fried from UBC randomly sat across the picnic table from me. After giving eachother long, awkward glances (neither of use could remember eachothers names or just where exactly we knew eachother from – or if we were just doppelgangers), I finally asked where he was from, and answered ‘Vancouver’ in a perfect Canadian accent. Then our worlds collided as we remembered all the stories, friends, and parties from Totem, our residence dorm, 10 years ago. Small world, eh?

South Africa

Until now, Ive only ever been to southern Africa and Egypt, and while people miscorrectly refer to Africa or African as an entity, each corner of it is worlds apart from the next. Southern and northern Africa are completely different from western, central and Eastern, and even those broad generalizations of regions of Africa refer to 5 or 10 totally different countries. Then within each country, you’ve often got 10 to 50 local languages, a complicated history of colonization and independence, and dramatically different landscapes and climates.

Chapmans Peak Drive around Cape Point

When someone asks me “what’s Africa like?” I have a feeling of what they’re picturing: something between poverty, danger, disease, black faces, hot climates, dense jungle, and poor infrastructure, and its certainly not a question I can answer having only been to a few places in Africa. So far, Ive learned there is civil unrest, political instability, impenetrable wilderness, poor and sick people and a very hot sun, but only in a fraction of the continent. There’s also a lot of the opposite, and places the size of Iceland with not a singe person living or traveling through them.

Cape Point, in all its glory

There’s unbelievable wealth in South Africa, especially in Cape Town, and neighbourhoods that make me believe Im in Brisbane or Sydney, Australia. Cape Town is also cold; its only been hovering around 11 degrees celsius since I got here, with periods of torrential rainfall worse than Vancouver and windstorms that compete with the fierceness of Iceland’s climate.

Today was the first day of sun since I arrived, and I felt like a blossoming flower gravitating towards its rays for warmth, and very catlike as I curled up in the sunlight on the only edge of my bed being lit.. It also felt like a rarity since the days are only 10 hours here, from 7:30am til 5:30 pm, a big change from the 22 hr sunlight in Reykjavik I left. All the bad weather was great for my writing, since I wrote my first complete childrens story and also started brainstorming for my first book.

a 5:30 sunset from Camps Bay

I managed to have quite a few bubble baths, since Capetonians are not used to the cold and built their houses with zero insulation. You may as well wake up outside, when you crawl out of bed to a 10 degree apartment, so a hot bath is one way of warming me up, and another way to reconcile my longing for an Icelandic hotpot.

I love that Cape Town is on the sea, and on 2 seas at that – both the Atlantic and Indian Oceans battle  violently at the bottom of Cape Point, and suicidal kite surfers take advantage of the huge winds to ride waves like the adventure-seeking extremists that they are. Surfers tempt fate as they enjoy the consequential great waves, in some of the most infested Great White Shark waters in the world.

I took a tour to Seal Island, a colony of thousands of seals that hopefully keep those sharks satisfied enough not to take my leg when I surf. The thick 5mm wetsuit I wear while surfing kind of makes me feel like a flailing seal, so thats worrying. But so far, so good.

Enjoying the waves from the sandy beach shore is much more assuring, and I did that in the most amazing way possible. I went with a local guy on two, HUGE, retired racehorses to Noordhoek beach, and we virtually had the entire thing alone for us to race fullspeed and frolick in the wake of the shallow waves. My legs are certainly suffering now, but it was well worth it.

kite surfers at Scarborough Beach

The thing I love about travel is Im always experiencing new places, new faces, and making new memories, and trying to absorb, digest, and make sense of them all is exhausting. So it doesnt help when you get trashed around by morning waves on a surfboad and your ass kicked by a monstrous horse, since mind and body recuperation simultaneously seems to happen slower.  Although, as confused as I may get, I cant even remember the names of the 11 official languages in South Africa, let alone speak any of them except english, so Im constantly refreshed by the people I meet here to keep pushing for more unfamiliarity, more novelty, and just take things in stride.

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 monopolized 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 realized 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 as well. 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 behavior meant a very positive tourist experience.