Turns out Africa is real. It really exists. They weren’t lying to us since we were kids. It is a place, and it is there. I’ve been there, and I loved it. I’m excited to visit Mauritius, but make no mistake, I would have preferred to spend more time in Africa. At least we got two extra days in Cape Town, but the continent is so big and diverse and complex, with so much history (apart from South Africa), that I plan on coming back soon. Real soon. What you are about to read is strictly a (really long) travel log since we did so much, so this might turn into another two or three-parter so I can include some actual thoughts on the place. We’ll see.
I’m really glad there was an announcement about not missing the sunrise over Table Mountain as we arrived in port. People who didn’t wake up for it should receive dock time. Our first surprise: it gets cold in Africa! We got outside to FREEZING winds, and since I didn’t pack appropriately, and my hair was gone, I suffered accordingly. Cape Town is at about the same latitude as Buenos Aires, and this is the point where the cold south Atlantic current meets the warm Indian Ocean current, creating very rough seas and cold temperatures sometimes. It is whale breeding season, so it wasn’t long before we saw the first of many whales we'd see breeching as we approached the port.
Right away, I thought Cape Town was one of the most beautiful cities I have ever seen. It wasn’t until much later in the week that of the few cities I’ve been to, I thought Rio had a slight edge in shear beauty, with San Francisco in a somewhat distant #3 spot.
(For those of you who live in San Francisco and don’t think it is one of the most beautiful cities in the world, I recommend three things: 1) Visit the lookout point just beyond the Golden Gate Bridge on a clear, sunny day. 2) Visit the hookup point on Treasure Island on a clear night, and 3) Talk to any foreigner who has visited San Francisco and ask them what they think the most beautiful cities of the world are. But I digress).
We said our goodbye to the Tutus and I headed off to meet Sara at the Long Street Backpackers hostel. I’ve known Sara since freshman year at Stanford, where we lived in the same dorm. I knew she would be spending a year in South Africa in the city of Durban doing a med school rotation (internship? residency? fellowship? I can never get them straight) and we decided several months ago to meet in Cape Town.
The best thing about having a friend that lives halfway across the world? The fact that you have a travel agent in that country. Sara and I had been in touch by email about what we wanted to do, and, truth be told, she did all the work. I let her know what I wanted to do, and she added a lot of cool stuff to the list. She devoured the Lonely Planet book and set about making reservations and plans about where we were going. I was just along for the ride.
We had a couple hours before our rental car was to be delivered, so we decided to walk to the District 6 museum until then. This wasn’t the best time or place to visit the museum, as Sara and I were still catching up on the last few months, where needless to say, lots has happened to both of us. The museum is packed with information about the District 6 area of Cape Town, which was declared a white-only area during apartheid and 50,000 residents were displaced to the townships, very reminiscent of the way the jews were displaced from their homes in World War II. It really is a sad story, and given the cluttered presentation of the museum, and my intense interest in the subject matter, we didn’t do the place justice in the hour we were there.
But we had a car to pick up. South Africa is one of those “weird” countries where these crazy people think it’s ok to drive on the wrong side of the road. So dangerous! Good thing Sara was there, since I flinched at every corner from the taxi ride from the ship to the hostel, and she is experienced in driving from the passenger side of the car. When the rental car person asked if we wanted to insure a second driver, Sara and I mutually agreed that it was in our safety’s best interest that I didn’t touch the steering wheel. Sara made sure it wasn't going to happen.
(This was made especially clear in the hostel, where I encountered a many in the hallway. I stepped to my right to get out of his way, and he stepped to his left. We stood there starring at each other for five seconds before he decided to move to the right. Whoops.)
Having a car gave us a huge flexibility both to improvise and get away from the hundreds of SAS kids that take over the port cities (they’re not allowed to rent vehicles). We immediately took off for Cape Point, the southwestern-most point in Africa, giving me the opportunity to learn much about South African culture from Sara along the way.
Some of my favorite tidbits (some which were better understood later on the trip):
1. Stop lights are called “robots”. I wish I had take a picture of the street sign that said “robots” because it confused the bejesus out of me. I was waiting for C3PO ahead of us, but he never came.
2. Afrikaaners use “Is it?” like Americans use “Really?” and Canadians use “Eh”. A lot. And the use “AS well” with emphasis on the “AS” when saying “also”.
3. Afrikaans is a awful sounding language. As Sara put it, it is “a poor-man’s Dutch”.
4. Zulu and Xhosa, however, are the coolest sounding languages in the world. Not only to they have rich, deep, melodic syllables, but clicking is an integral part of the language! I thought I misheard things first time I heard it, but no, they have very different clicking noises that happens in conjunction with another sound, like some weird sort of ventriloquism. For example, “Ndegeochello” (as in Michelle, the singer) would have a click on the “N”. I vow to learn how to do this. Really. I’m not even kidding.
5. Black, Coloured, and Whites races are still officially recognized as such by the government. It is impossible to separate South Africa and racial issues – and is an issue that kept coming up over and over.
W e stopped along the way at Boulder’s beach to see the many penguins, the coolest birds ever. They are some mean mofos, though. Don’t get close to them. You can’t help but laugh watching them stagger around the rocks, because clearly their bodies weren’t made for rock climbing. But that doesn’t stop them.
(By the way, South Africa has the best traffic signs. This is one of my favorites, for two reasons. First, the morbid picture of a dying penguin, and second, because it has a picture of a bra. We found out later is the picture of a springbok, some form of antelope and the symbol of their national park, and delicious when barbequed… yummm.)
( This one also cracks me up. Poo.)
We found some students trying to make their way south, but alas, they had no car and we found ourselves away from SAS peeps at the point. The point, BTdubs, is beautiful. This is the Cape of Good Hope, the chaotic meeting of the Atlantic and Indian Oceans where so many ships have sunk over the years. The weather was perfect, and we took a long time to simply stroll around, go down to the beach where a southern right whale and her pup where breaching just yards from the shore. And I was fascinated by what Sara knew about South Africa (thank god she’s a history major), HIV, and waiting tables in Martha’s Vineyard.
A few extra pictures:
Cape Point View
We made our way back after all the strolling, encountering baboons on the way out (who really have nasty bums which explain why their tales are up in the air… but I digress), and made our way to a big game restaurant to meet with some of the SAS staff members and people we had met up at the hostel. If you’ve never had big game meat before, such as springbok, kudu, ostrich, crocodile, or shark (I guess that counts), and you’re not a vegetarian, you should try it. It really is delicious. Made me want a bb gun every time we saw a springbok… tasty… yummm….
The cost of these exotic animals on your plate? For an amazing meal that included bottles of wine, I believe we estimated less than $35 per person.
We woke up to rain in Cape Town, and since we had a 2pm ticket for Robben Island, we decided against hiking Table Mountain and headed for the Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens instead, which was such a pleasant surprise. As Sara described in her blog entry, it was a Garden of Eden and it really was one of the most beautiful, serene places we’d ever seen, especially when the sun came out. There was a little of everything, including these mystery Fynbos plants everywhere (I’ll let you guys figure out what they are because I’m still not sure we ever truly figured it out). Our (my) favorite part was a the fragrance garden, where we rubbed and smelled… the plants. We just looked funny doing it.
Amidst all the frolicking we ran out of time and had to get back to the wharf in time for the ferry that would take us to Robben Island, the prison where Nelson Mandela lived for 18 of his 27 years in jail. Since much of the ANC leadership was also jailed there at the time, this became a place for discourse, and, in essence, the birthplace of South African democracy, which is why our tour left something to be desired. The country will still be talking about Robben Island 500 years from now, much like we do the constitutional convention, and it doesn’t deserve the short, crowded tour we were given. It doesn’t do the place justice.
Luckily, I had my personal historian Sara next to me. She’s poured through three or four SA history books in her short time there, including Mandela’s “A Long Road to Freedom” (which she finished on this trip), and gave me a much more better account than the tour gave us. I wanted to linger and ask questions, but there weren’t enough guides and we were rushed to the gift shop on the way out. I can only imagine the tour will get better someday. It has to get better.
The ferry ride back was a lot of fun… we managed to sit right in the splash zone of the boat, and the unfashionably white raincoat that I stole from the Ranch on my wait out proved not to be a raincoat but just a piece of cloth like any other. But boy, was it fun.
We headed back to the Kirstenbosch Gardens again for sunset before heading out to the quaint town of Hout Bay for dinner, which was amazing despite the fact that our uncomfortable waiter looked like an overgrown boy in his striped sailor outfit. But Sara (or her friends) did manage to get the best restaurants in South Africa, and this was one of them.
The next morning we set out to hike Table Mountain, something I’ve been wanting to do for a really long time. The mountain seems to have its own weather system – always cloudy when the weather at the bottom was gorgeous. We were running out of time, so we took a gamble and hoped the clouds would have cleared by the time we got to the top.
The view started out magnificent. We were told that the short route would take us between 1.5-2 hours to make it to the top, yet we were there in a little over an hour. As were the clouds. It was like entering the set of Lord of the Rings (Sara’s line), covering us with mist and looking just like Scotland. Not that I know what Scotland looks like. Anyway, it was really cool (and freezing) hanging out up there in there, but our view was less than stellar. The hike was nice, but I’m really glad I made it back on the last day in Cape Town. Sara, make sure you get up there on a clear day.
We took off for a coastal drive on the way to Hermanus, going through township after township after township., which is no different from a Brazilian favela or a Venezuela slum. Poverty is poverty anywhere in the world (though so many people in South Africa were systematically placed in the townships, but that’s another issue). I was really surprised by how many we see and how it there. This is where I made full use of my HIV researcher guide/driver, because as Sara put it, South Africa is AIDS right now. Africa has 16 of the 45 million AIDS cases in the world, and in places like Botswana, 47 percent of the population is infected with HIV and the life expectancy has dropped to 27 years (I’m 26 right now). The promiscuous culture and the stigma associated with the disease in South Africa makes it even more difficult to deal with the problem there, and it really hit it home when she said that one out of every three people we were looking at were infected, especially since we were looking at a lot of people. I’ll come back to this subject.
We made our way down the beautiful coast to Hermanus, about two hours west of Cape Town. If Noronha had the Bay of Dolphins, this was the Bay of Whales. During whale breeding season (September), as many as 70 whales come do whale things there, like breeding, breeching, and attracting tourists. They come very close to shore, and within a couple minutes of getting there, we had already identified seven. (by the way, Cape Agulhas, the true southernmost point in Africa, is visible in that picture). These southern right whales massive creatures, about the size of eight or so elephants, and but they look so calm and graceful bobbing up and down so close to shore.
We picked on one of the cliffs overlooking the bay, away from everybody else, and stayed there reading, and journaling (diarying? That sounds bad.), just watching a whale that wasn’t going anywhere, for about an hour or so. This was one of my favorite moments this entire trip, and I’m printing the full size version of my view from that spot when I get home:
(Can you find the whale in this picture?)
Hermanus is a such a nice little town, a place you wish your grandparents lived at, and is very quiet at night. We went to bed early and woke up very early since I wanted to watch the sunrise and Sara wanted to go out for her jog – part of her hardcore marathon training regimen. I went back to the same bay from the previous day where the sunrise was beautiful, made even better by the fact that five whales were bobbing less than fifty yards away. It was hard to leave that spot.
We set out through the mountains to the beautiful wine town off Franschhoek, where we tasted wine, bought cheese and chocolates, and enjoyed ostrich in a two-hour lunch at the best restaurant in South Africa, La Petit Ferme.. I could have stayed there all day.
The next stop was the town of Stellenbosch, an Afrikaaner college town famous for its wine. We enjoyed some Zanzibarian music in the Stellenbosch music festival (something I would never have thought of doing – thank you, Sara), which included, of all things, a woman whose butt did things butts were not supposed to do. Seriously. I think there was a Chinese dragon under her dress. I expected her behind to crawl up around her chest and up her neck at any point. It was as impressive as anything I’ve seen so far.
There were hundreds of SAS students in town, many of them in our hostel, so I spent most of the night chatting with them, until 3am or so. We had to return the car in Cape Town the next day, so we headed back (stopping in Spier) and took another walking tour of the city which included a stop at the Slave Lodge where an exhibit put together by the Desmond Tutu Peace Centre and highly recommended by the SAS students in Stellenbosch asked many influential people the question, slightly paraphrased, “If you had only one piece of wisdom to leave humanity, what would it be?” This is a traveling exhibit that should be in the US soon, so please go visit it when it comes to town. It is well-worth it, well-presented, and thought-provoking. Just neat.
After the tour, we kicked it at the hostel, hanging out with other fellow travelers (I love the atmosphere of hostels in South Africa – Cape Town is a great backpacker’s city), playing gin, drinking South African beer, and waiting for a live band that never showed up. I had a great week with my tour guide/driver/historian Sara, and we said our goodbyes. Maybe she’ll be there next time I come to Cape Town. Because I am coming back.
I left the hostel and met up with some SAS girls who were being badgered by a local man and they asked me to pretend to be a boyfriend so he would go away. I did, and he didn’t go away until I caught him with his hand in my pocket trying to pull out my camera and wallet. We left the bar, piled 12 of us inside a cab, drove to another part of the city where we danced until the wee hours of the morning.
I had two extra days that were unplanned for, so I had to improvise. I’ll continue the travel log of the last two days tomorrow. Here's a preview.