Departing from a third world airport is always an experience; semi-organized chaos where signs are wrong or missing, schedules are mere suggestions, immigration officials expect you to know their procedures (how could we not – it all makes so much sense…) and seemingly random people wander in and out of restricted areas. All you can do is surrender yourself to the madness and trust it will all work out… which it did, with us successfully making our way from Zanzibar to Johannesburg, South Africa.
Our hostel in Johannesburg, or Jozi as it’s referred to by locals, was wonderful! It had all the creature comforts of a tiny resort…neatly encased in 10 foot concrete walls topped with an electric fence and CCTV cameras. The stories about crime in Jozi are true – you just don’t go out and wander around. Even the locals, when they leave their fortified homes, tend to limit leisure activities to well secured restaurants and shopping malls. So… in effect we became sort of prisoners, albeit the white-collar CEO kind of prisoners, forced to sip cocktails by the pool in the sunshine as we recovered from the previous travel day and laid out our plans for South Africa.
The next day we jumped the Baz Bus, an open-ticket shuttle of sorts that mainly runs along the coastal edge of SA. We spent 10 hours on the bus - a long day but one filled with stunning scenery that included enormous mesas thrust up out of the landscape, rolling golden fields and forested hillsides. We passed a number of townships that brought into stark focus the poverty that continues to undermine much of what South Africa has achieved over the past 20 years, and is the fuel for the crime that is of epidemic proportions in some cities. Approaching our first destination, the rolling landscape became noticeably lusher, more tropical and more suburban. If we hadn’t known better (and if not for the palm trees), we would have sworn we were on the I-5, driving past Queen Anne on the approach to downtown Seattle. However, once downtown, any similarities to Seattle vanished - we had arrived in Durban.
Durban has that somewhat worn, tired look of all tropical cities, a result of its gorgeous location on the edge of the Indian Ocean, lined as far as the eye can see by golden sand and crashing waves. Surfing is big here – as it is all along the coast. So are the sharks – the entire bay is encased by a shark net that is inspected on a weekly basis. Durban also has a significant crime element that limits the aimless wandering down backstreets and alleys that we love to do. However, there are some areas that are considered safe to go without a guide (essentially a guard) and we made the most of it, exploring the beach promenade along the edge of the city, enjoying cappuccinos as the surfers ripped it up just off shore. We also visited uShaka Marine World that happened to be located just a few minutes’ walk from our hostel. uShaka hosts the largest aquarium in the southern hemisphere. While we thought we might blow off an hour or two, we ended up staying for hours - sometimes sitting at a single massive tank and watching for ½ hour or more (especially the Leatherback Turtles). The displays are fantastic as is the setting. The entire aquarium has been designed – inside and out – as if you are wandering through a shipwrecked1920’s cargo vessel. A little Disney for sure, but so well done and so much fun, we would recommend to anyone.
A mere 90 minutes down the coast, urban life was left far behind as we arrived at our hostel in Umzumbe, where we were welcomed by 5 dogs (including two puppies – Lee-Ann was thrilled), 5 parrots (now Warren was thrilled), 4 budgies and 2 cats. We spent a couple of days here beachcombing, walking for hours in both directions along the endless sandy beach and passing a grand total of just one other person, a local Xhosa gentleman collecting shellfish along the shore. Evenings were spent in the Jungle Bar, next to (and under) our ensuite tree house, where we shared a Potjie dinner with some visiting South Africans while the Vervet monkeys swung through the trees overhead (we were warned to keep our windows closed or risk having our belongings pilfered by these charming bandits).
We carried on south from Umzumbe to our next stop at Coffee Bay, so named because it is said that many, many moons ago a ship carrying a load of coffee beans was lost offshore, with the beans washing up on the beach and giving root to a number of now long vanished coffee trees. Fact or fiction, the name stuck.
Coffee Bay is on the “Wild Coast” in the Transkei, the most rural of South Africa’s coastal regions and one of the poorest areas in South Africa. The Transkei’s current social-economic fabric is due in part to a 10 year period (‘84 – ‘94) when the Transkei was “set aside” as an independent republic, demonstrating the past government’s “commitment” to recognizing and supporting the indigenous population. The unfortunate reality is that it was used as a vehicle to relocate many of the Xhosa who were defined as being “not of economic use”. Driving through the region, the Transkei is noticeably light on trees compared to other areas. The land has been given over to small herds of sheep, goat and cattle working the overgrazed pastures. The landscape is littered with small square homes and rondavels, most without electricity or running water. As in Tanzania, we saw many people of all ages carrying large pails of the day’s water back from a small river or local well.
While we passed through a couple of very active towns in the Transkei, there was a conspicuous absence of villages, market centers or any sign of industry outside of these towns. We’re sure that there must have been some industry somewhere within the hundreds of square miles of rural living we passed through, but we saw no evidence. This may in part explain the unemployment situation in Transkei. While South Africa as a whole struggles with an unofficial unemployment rate of 40% (the official number is 21% as the government, like most countries, excludes the “chronically” unemployed from its figures), Transkei unemployment is upwards of 60%. Tourism does play a small part in helping the economy and, while staying at Coffee Bay, we chose a hostel that not only employed 40 locals but was 30% owned by the community. While chowing down on a steak “braai” (bbq) with our fellow travelers, we enjoyed some traditional dance, drumming and singing performed by girls from one of the local schools that the hostel supports. Even so, in the small bay where the hostel was located, reached by one of only two paved roads to the coast, it was painfully apparent that there were many – too many – in the community with absolutely nothing to do. But these struggles did not stop them from making us feel welcome. As we explored the riverbank and climbed among the goats and donkeys to the top of the knoll above the scattering of humble homes, everyone we encountered greeted us with warm smiles and hellos.
From Coffee Bay, we travelled through the remainder of Transkei, crossing the old “national” border with South Africa – the Kei River – and noting the immediate reappearance of dense, lush vegetation, and made our way to Chintsa. One morning, we were driven out into the country side and dropped off with a fellow traveller from Brazil, our guide and his little dog, Rory. Our 12km hike back to the hostel led us through the small Xhosa village of Bola, along a ridge overlooking a deep unspoilt river valley, through a coastal forest and down onto the sand dunes, where we stepped out onto what was probably the largest beach we have ever seen (and we have seen a lot of beaches!). Along the way, we were instructed to keep an eye out for the Black Adder, a short, blackish brown snake that likes to lay out on trails (including, as we later learned, at our hostel) and will generally not flee from humans. It is the fastest striking snake in the world (it can bite a balloon twice before the balloon pops). The good news is that while extremely painful, its bite is not lethal…that is, provided you receive medical attention within 24 hours. Needless to say, we let our guide (and admittedly Rory) go first. We also spent a dreamlike morning canoeing inland up a beautiful winding river where many of the overhanging trees were decorated by the skillfully constructed nests of the Weaver bird; a wonderful way to slow things down if only for a few hours and really take in the natural beauty of South Africa.
We carried on heading south through the Eastern Cape, stopping for a couple of nights in Jeffreys Bay – the surf capital of South Africa. While we didn’t hit the surf ourselves (spoiled after months in the ridiculously warm waters in Southeast Asia, we found the water too cold), we walked the beach from our surf-centric hostel to Supertubes to watch the action. Supertubes is known as one of the top 3 surf breaks in the world - word has it that when conditions align, you can ride it for a mile. The beach was also a beachcomber’s delight, with millions of seashells of all shapes, sizes and colours strewn along the shore. J-Bay is a small, quiet surf town with a small Main Street strip lined with Billabong, Ripcurl and Quiksilver surf shops. We enjoyed the short 10 minute walk from our hostel located in a nice ocean-side residential neighbourhood to browse through the stores and have some lunch in town (Mexican food!). In many ways, it had a Southern California feel too it, similar to places like Pismo Beach. We were probably influenced somewhat by the bartender at our hostel, a young guy from San Diego who landed in J-Bay for a week to surf and never left. His philosophy was simple: “As long as I have some kind of roof over my head, food in my belly and a chance to surf, I’m loving life”. Despite all of this, there were again constant reminders that the lifestyle in South Africa is a little different from home… coded entries and electric fencing around the hostel; taxis only at night as it was not safe to walk – even just 10 minutes into town; when heading to the beach in front of our hostel, warned “never-ever walk south, only north”… Once again we felt great appreciation for the freedom and safety that we enjoy and often take for granted at home.
Our next stop was Knysna, a small town located on a beautiful, protected lagoon. It was refreshing to learn that we could wander freely around town, both day and night! Although Knysna has the typical poverty induced segregation we had unfortunately seen consistently along our route (a sprawling tin and clapboard black township on the outskirts, giving way to lovely homes in the white suburbs near the water), the town didn’t suffer from the same safety concerns as the others, clearly evidenced by the lack of walls and electrified fences around the homes. Even the owner of our hostel wasn’t sure why this is the case but felt that the physical environment – the rolling hills and the rugged headlands surrounding the still waters of the lagoon - had a kind of calming effect over the entire population (with the township having the most spectacular views in the area). We took advantage of the freedom, wandering throughout the town, hitting the area around the bus depot (guaranteed to always be full of characters, commerce and a bit of craziness). We also used our nighttime freedom to hit some restaurants and indulge in some terrific South African cuisine (Bobotie – a savoury SA meatloaf) and the fabulous, cheap South African wines. We took a short trip out to “The Heads” – the two soaring cliffs at the narrow mouth of the treacherous channel which leads from the ocean into the lagoon. In the last 120 years, 43 known shipwrecks have occurred in this channel. Although large vessels no longer enter the lagoon through the channel (with the exception of the Navy during the July oyster festival), large sharks do (including Great White, Tiger and Ragged-Tooth sharks). Again, we decided it was too cold to go swimming. Did we mention the sharks?
This was the first time in our 9+ months of travelling where we stayed consistently in hostels. With names like “Buccaneers Backpackers” and “Island Vibe”, each containing a funky tiki or surf shack bar, we knew the hostels would be fun places to stay. We certainly enjoyed our evenings spent with other travellers from all over the world, sharing communal dinners and showing the young ‘uns a thing or two about having a good time. However, we also discovered that the hostels here in South Africa are a bit like isolated hives, separate and apart from the “real” communities in which they are located. It made us really appreciate that throughout our travels, the bulk of our accommodations had been located away from the typical tourist areas, allowing us unlimited opportunities to immerse ourselves into local life. That being said, our journey from Jozi to Durban and along the eastern coast was nothing short of remarkable. We bid farewell to this part of the country as we jump back on the Baz Bus and make the 8 hour journey overland to the west coast where we hope to idle away a few days sampling some more delicious wines, watching for whales and getting up-close and personal with Jaws.
Well, we had fully intended to post the first part of this blog several days ago. However, as we were reminded many times with regard to internet connectivity (and bus schedules and ATMs and restaurants hours…) “it may be South Africa, but it’s still Africa”.
Our first destination after leaving the Eastern Cape was Hermanus, a quaint seaside town geared towards the whale watching crowd. No need for heading off shore to view the whales that come here to calve each (SA) spring; the Southern Right and Humpback whales play and lounge in the waters just 50 meters offshore. We enjoyed a sunny day strolling along the 7km seaside trail, stopping often along the way to watch two pairs of Southern Right Whales in the waters below. Whale-watching, however, was not our primary purpose for visiting Hermanus. It was the nearby town of Gansbaai – the shark cage diving mecca of South Africa – which drew us. We were determined to get in the water and see these ominous creatures face to face. And see them we did!! Upwards of 8 Great Whites showed up to “visit” our shark boat anchored in “shark alley” off of the seal feeding grounds of Dyer Island. It was quite the experience to have a 3.5 meter Great White Shark swim past our shark cage, black eye staring at us while its fin scraped along the bars. On his second dive, Warren even had one stick its snout through the cage, then bash it into the boat as it turned and slammed its body against the cage. We lucked out as the weather had been quite cold and windy prior to our arrival, and we had a bright sunny day on the water, although the swells were 8-10 feet and turned a few of the passengers green. After our invigorating and successful day with the sharks, we returned to the hostel for a very lively braai with a bunch of locals.
Whales and sharks under our belts, we set off for Stellenbosch – the capital of the wine region of South Africa. It was time for some serious wine tasting. We spent a couple of days discovering new and wonderful wines, both in town (we found a great wine bar where we spent the better part of the afternoon playing chalkboard Pictionary) and on a tour of several wineries throughout the region. Wine tasting in SA is a more…generous experience than in North America. For less than $4, 5–6 very generous tastings are served. After our fourth winery (or wine farms as they’re called here), we were very glad we were on a tour that would deliver us back to our hostel door.
After a couple of days of indulging in some delightful wines, we jumped on the train in Stellenbosch for a short one hour journey to “The Mother City” - Cape Town. The oldest city in southern African, Cape Town is regularly heralded as one of the world’s most beautiful. Coming from Vancouver, we found that to be a pretty bold statement. Our first morning’s glimpse of Table Mountain against the bluest of skies went a long way to convincing us the claim wasn’t an exaggeration. Due to CT’s unpredictable weather, we had been told several times to take advantage of the first nice day to ascend Table Mountain as the clouds often cover it, creating a “tablecloth” that obscures the fabulous views. Needless to say, we struck out our first morning and climbed the Plattklip Gorge trail to the summit where the views far exceeded the effort. For our fellow Vancouverites, the Table Mountain climb is much like the Grouse Grind (minus the trees). After months of travel, we were pleased that we were able to make it to the top well under the estimated time. The next few days were spent exploring the different neighbourhoods of Cape Town – from the trend-setting Camps Bay (complete with a lunch of fresh mussels and white wine while watching the Atlantic breakers crash on the gorgeous white sand beach) to the Disneyfied marina of the Victoria & Albert Waterfront (cold beers with a mix of locals and tourists at Mitchell’s Brewery) to the gritty bar and hostel lined Long Street of City Bowl (similar to Vancouver’s Granville Street with a bit more of an edge). While CT is known to have the highest rate of muggings in SA – and mostly tourists at that - we felt quite comfortable wandering the streets, taking in the sights and sounds of the small but vibrant city situated so perfectly between the ocean and mountain.
We spent our last day in SA touring the Cape Peninsula including a stop to visit the penguins at Boulders Beach and a 14km bike ride to the very south western tip of Africa – the Cape of Good Hope. The landscape of the Cape itself is stark, but simultaneously rich with some 8200 species of vegetation, 69% of which are unique to this region. Aside from the raw physical beauty, there is an undeniable sense of history, knowing that the ships that rounded the Cape in centuries past altered the course of world history. Our trip back to CT took us up to a viewpoint where we could gaze back over the Cape Flats. This area says so much about not only Cape Town, but South Africa as a whole. Originally “settled” in the 60s when some 60,000 residents of CT’s District Six were relocated and their homes bulldozed to make way for a whites only city, the Flats is now home to 2.5 million people. As our guide stated, the Flats demonstrates the fundamental struggle of SA – the immense contradiction between the few “haves” and the many “have nots”. Lamborghinis zip past kids who walk 10km to school because there is no transportation; private estates are literally across the road from tin-roofed townships without plumbing; wine filled business lunches take place while unemployed labourers sit across the street hoping for some temporary work… While apartheid officially ended 2 decades ago, there is still a long way to go to undo the damage and bring a sense of equality to the millions still struggling. But the overwhelming belief is that SA will get there. In the words of one local author, “frustration is outweighed by hope”. We share that hope as our adventures here, and the people we have met, will stay with us for the rest of our lives.
Thank you for the memories South Africa. Time to move on as our World Tour clock is ticking down to the final hours. We’re off to London for a few days before we make our way back across the Atlantic. But not home...not quite yet. Seems we are in need of some parrotheads and pirates first…