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.

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.

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 barbeque 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.

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

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

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.

the dance floor at Gugulethu

the dance floor at Gugulethu


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.