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 generalisations 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 colonisation and independence, and dramatically different landscapes and climates.

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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.

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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 surfboard 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.

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: http://www.PeaceandLoveInternational.com