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?

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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.

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.