Alright, friends, I’m going to level with you. I was happy to leave South America. Don’t get me wrong, I had an amazing time there and I fully intend to return someday, but I was beyond ready to move on. The countries I visited were all different, but in many ways were so similar and my itchy travel feet were wanting new lands to explore. And so it was that I found myself winging eastward across the South Atlantic for my first visit to the African continent! I know South Africa is kind of Africa-Lite, but I think it was a good place to start.
Cape Town is a really beautiful place, and I felt at home there as soon as I arrived. Part of it was the relief at being back in an English speaking country (though it took quite a while for me to stop expecting everyone to speak Spanish). For our first couple of nights, Malia and I booked a private room in a B&B in the Green Point neighborhood (not to be confused with Greenpoint, Brooklyn). It’s right near the waterfront and the big futbol stadium where many of the 2010 World Cup games were played. There was a big wildfire out on the Cape not too long before our arrival, so the air was still a bit hazy, but otherwise it was blue skies and cool breezes. In a lot of ways, it reminds me of Hawaii, which is maybe why I felt so comfortable from the outset.
My sister Julie was presenting a paper at an academic conference in Japan at the end of March-beginning of April and I had arranged to meet here there, so I was only able to allot 3 weeks for South Africa, which is not even close to enough time. I could have spent the whole 3 weeks in Cape Town alone and not even come close to seeing and doing everything. But 3 weeks is better than no weeks, so I tried to make the best of it.
The first few days were mostly spent exploring on foot, wandering through the carnival-like atmosphere at the V&A Waterfront, the street markets of the city center, and the shops of Kloof and Long Streets. One thing I was not prepared for, however, was the aggressiveness of the beggars. We saw a lot of poverty in South America and there were plenty of people asking for handouts, but the ones in Cape Town are very persistent (and can’t be put off with a “no hablo espanol”). I was approached by a man near a downtown craft market who managed to convince me to come with him to the store and buy him some food. I was feeling OK about it at first, but in the store he started adding things to what he’d originally said he needed and I ended up paying for more groceries than I’d anticipated. It wasn’t a lot of money (the exchange rate is incredibly favorable for the dollar these days), but it grated on me that he (correctly, apparently) saw me as such a soft touch that he could keep pushing for more. After it was done, I handed him the bag of groceries and, as I started to walk away, was immediately approached by another woman with a “please miss lady…” This time, I just said no, put in my earbuds and walked away and around a corner as fast as I could, feeling very conflicted and almost angry about the whole thing. It is always such a tricky business, dealing with panhandlers and the like. On the one hand, my bleeding heart makes me want to help them, but my cynical side is always whispering that I’m being taken advantage of. Plus, no matter what, there is always going to be another person, or 10 or 100 that also need help and I certainly can’t buy a basket of groceries for everyone. So, I decided I had to revert to my NYC rule that I simply have to say no to everyone, it’s the only way to get through.
In this rather troubled frame of mind, I found myself walking by an Irish pub and my eyes caught on a sign in the window, boldly proclaiming “YOU CAN SAY NO TO BEGGARS.” Sensing some serendipity here, I decided to go in for a drink and put the whole business behind me. I ended up making some new friends there, including Motheo, who is a Parliament staffer working for a couple of MPs in the minority party. We got to talking and he offered to get me a pass for the next day to come and watch a legislative session, where the President of South Africa was scheduled to appear and submit to questioning about some sort of misconduct for which he’s currently being investigated. Naturally, when I arrived the next day, the President’s testimony had been postponed and I ended up mostly watching a debate about tax policy, but it was still pretty cool! In his break, Motheo gave me a tour of the Parliament grounds and gave me a good overview of the South African political system. We made a deal that when he becomes the President himself, I will come and work for his administration 😉
When our time in the B&B was up, I moved to a hostel and Malia found a room in an apartment on AirBnB. She is staying in South Africa for 2 months and so wanted to find something a bit more stable, and also where she’d be able to have more privacy and space to get work done. We still met up for fun and adventures, though, including our first South African food mission: taking the local bus to Hout Bay for fish & chips! We couldn’t decide
what to order, so ended up getting everything and having a massive feast. We couldn’t finish it all, so Malia very nicely packed up the leftovers and gave them to the guys hanging out in the parking lot trying to sell trinkets to tourists. On Saturday, we adventured out to the Woodstock neighborhood to check out the Old Biscuit Mill market, a once-a-week event that is packed with stalls from tons of local restaurants, merchants, and produce vendors. It was overwhelmingly awesome, but the incredible variety of food on offer made it really hard to choose what to have. The highlight was probably the salmon-egg-hash thing served by staff from The Test Kitchen (a restaurant we would have loved to visit, but couldn’t really afford, even if we had some how miracled-up a reservation).
After the market, we took the cableway up to the top of Table Mountain, Cape Town’s most prominent landmark and one of the “7 New Wonders of the World.” The views from the cableway and the top are absolutely incredible and we were lucky to choose a day where the skies were perfectly clear and there was almost no wind.
One thing I really wanted to do while in South Africa was some sort of safari or wildlife encounter. The star of the South African safari scene is Kruger National Park, which is up closer to Johannesburg. I looked into the possibility of getting up there, but ultimately I couldn’t justify the time or the expense, and so I went with my backup option and booked a 7-day tour of the Garden Route, which runs along the southern coast between the Eastern and Western Cape. The company I went with, Hotspots2C (which is a terrible name, but a great company), offered a backpacker option, so while it was still a budget-buster, I was able to make up the difference by keeping costs down during the other days of my trip. The tour had a variety of included activities and optional add-ons and my splurge for the first day was the lion walk.
We got to spend about an hour walking through open fields with a pair of lionesses, stopping now and then for photo ops and to ask questions. We didn’t get to touch the lions, but it was still a thrill to be so close to them with no fences or barriers between us. Later, we did some river canoeing and visited the lookout point in Knysa. We spent the night in Myoli Beach near Sedgefield in a great hostel called AfroVibe. Of our tour group of 11 people, 7 of us opted for the backpacker option, so we were put in a dorm together. In this case, the 7 of us had a 12 bed dorm all to ourselves, which was lovely. The hostel put on a braai (the S’African version of an asado) for us that night and we all ate super well.
The big optional activity for the next day was bungee jumping from the (allegedly) highest bungee bridge in the world. I thought about it for a minute or two, but decided it wasn’t worth $80 to me, so I passed. 4 people from our group opted in and the rest of us went and spent the morning in Tsitsikamma National Park . There is an easy hike there across a network of wooden paths through the forest, ending up at a suspension bridge across the mouth of Storms River. It was a gorgeous day and I was not at all sorry to have skipped the bungee, opting instead for the afternoon add-on, which was ziplining around a canyon over a series of waterfalls. More than enough adrenaline for me. That night, we moved to a new hostel in Jeffreys Bay. J-Bay is South Africa’s big surf town and we were right on the beach, which was awesome.
We had an early morning wake-up the next day, as we had to depart at 3:20 am to get to Addo Elephant National Park in time for our sunrise game drive. It was still full dark when we arrived (around 5:30) and FREEZING. We didn’t see a whole lot during the early drive, the most exciting find was a spotted hyena, which we were really lucky to see, as there are only about 20 in the whole park. After breakfast, we went out for a second drive and this time hit the jackpot. There were tons of zebras and warthogs, kudu, jackals, dung beetles (which are cooler that you’d think!), and buffalo. The real prize, of course, were the elephants, and there we really got lucky. We came up to one of the major watering holes and found a whole herd, from super old elephants to tiny babies (our driver estimated the age of the youngest at about 3 months). It was unbelievably amazing, and then got even better when another huge herd started heading our way, and then another! They were coming from different directions and watching their approach, I thought it looked a lot like a meeting of gangsters or mafia families, each advancing toward the meeting place with their entourages. At one point, there must have been 80+ elephants there, an incredible sight that was probably the highlight of my whole trip.
Over the next few days, we hit a bunch more great spots, touring an ostrich farm in Oudtshoorn before heading over to explore the Cango Caves.
The caves were discovered about 200 years ago and have become a popular attraction. There has, sadly, been a lot of damage to some of the limestone formations inside due to human interference, but better stewardship and stricter visitor controls in recent years have made things better. I opted in for the “adventure tour,” which took us to the furthest part of the caves and required squeezing through some really tight spots, including one called “The Post Box,” where you have to crawl through on your belly and which is only 24 cm wide in one spot. Definitely not for the claustrophobic!
The most awesome activity, by far, was the elephant feed and ride, where we got to — you guessed it — feed and ride elephants. The feeding was really fun, in exchange for giving a bit of food, the elephant will reward you with a trunk hug! They are such amazing creatures and clearly super smart. I’m not totally un-conflicted about the whole notion of raising and keeping elephants in captivity for our amusement, but the elephants themselves seemed pretty happy and well cared for. Their life expectancy in captivity is also quite a bit longer than in the wild, as they don’t face nearly as many dangers. So, I decided to be OK with it.
After visiting a “Wildlife Ranch” (essentially a zoo), we set out on Route 62 through the winelands back towards Cape Town. This was the end of the trip for all my van-mates, but I’d booked an extra 2 day add-on, so I was dropped off in Stellenbosch to join up with a new group. We started out the morning with a walking tour of one of the townships, which honestly made me pretty uncomfortable. I think that the residents do get some compensation for permitting the tour groups to come through, but it still felt a bit icky to be gawking at other people’s poverty. I didn’t end up taking any pictures there for that reason. One really nice aspect was getting to interact with lots of local kids, who seemed really excited to see us (and called everyone “Teacha,” as I guess the only white people they are used to seeing are the volunteers who come to teach in the schools.
Leaving the township, it was on to the purely indulgent part of the program! We visited 4 wineries in Stellenbosch and Franghoek, sampling all manner of delicious wines and trying out pairings with cheese and chocolate. Thoroughly, we headed down to Cape Agulhas, the southernmost spot in Africa and the spot where the Indian and Atlantic oceans meet.
The final day of the tour, most of the group opted in for shark cage diving, another activity in which I have zero interest, so I went with the rest of the sane people and had a lovely day in Hermanus. Sadly, we were a bit too early for whale-spotting, but it was a lovely day all the same. Last stop before heading “home” to Ashanti was Betty’s Bay, where I was able to add to my penguin collection, visiting the colonies of the rare and endangered African penguin. Nothing could compare to my day with the penguins at Volunteer Point, but it was still fun to watch these little guys wandering around.
And then all of the sudden, I was almost out of time in South Africa. With only 3 days left before I had to leave on my next adventure, Malia and I packed in all the sightseeing we could manage, visiting Robben Island (site of Nelson Mandela’s imprisonment), SkyDining aboard the Cape Wheel, and exploring the stunning Kirstenbosch Gardens with our new blogger friend, Samantha, and her dad (a former professional tennis player who has so many amazing stories, it’s hard to imagine they could all fit into one lifetime).
I managed to squeeze in dinner and drinks with my good friend Jonathan G (yes, I know, ANOTHER Jonathan), who’s vacation in South Africa serendipitously overlapped with mine. On my last full day, Malia and I visited the District 6 Museum, which is a sobering look at the impacts of apartheid on a once vibrant and multicultural neighborhood. It’s hard to believe that it is only recently that such backward and divisive policies were done away with. To cheer ourselves up after the museum, we went to the colorful Bo-Kapp neighborhood for some Cape Malay cuisine, and then rounded out the day with some excellent cocktails at Orphanage. This is the end of the line for my co-travels with Malia (at least for now) as I’m off to explore Southeast Asia and she is soon headed up to Istanbul. I’m sad to be splitting up, but I have no doubt that our shared wanderlust will find us hitting the road together again someday!
And just like that, my time was up. I never could have imagined in my former life that spending three weeks in a country would feel like no time at all, but my perspective has been shifted so much by my months on the road. I don’t know how I’m going to manage going back to “real life” after all of this, working an American job with a miserly vacation policy. How can you see anything in 2 weeks, and even worse, how can you go to work every day for the other 50? But again, I can’t get hung up worrying about an uncertain future when there is so much to see and do in the now. And so I sadly bid farewell to Cape Town and vow to return to Africa for a proper visit someday.
Next stop: Tokyo!
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