Noi6 means "the 6 of us" in Romanian.

We are five, you are the sixth one.

We thank you for joining us in our trip around the world...

Friday, August 17, 2012

South Africa again

There are very few options of getting to Africa from Asia, and aiming for the southern part of the continent there is only one major hub: Johannesburg. Especially when considering our trip to Madagascar, this was our only choice. We wanted to go to Cape Town and I envisioned a loop through Botswana, Zambia and Namibia. It was only shortly before our arrival that Ileana Ruxandra asked: "what are we going to do for one month in Africa?" I explained my ideas and Ileana asked another logical question, "if we are in South Africa why don't we see the country?" I didn't know what to answer, after all what is to see in South Africa?
We belong.

We all know a bit about the miserable history of this country, we all know a bit about the current struggles with violence and we rightly assumed that there still must be a lot of racial tension. Why go there? We already had one week, before our trip to Madagascar, we realized that we could manage and we all agreed to spend the remaining of our time here.

With 50 million people and 1.2 million square kilometers it is the 25th country in the world by population, area and GDP (PPP). For a visitor the uniqueness of it is the mixture of first and third world. Nowhere else could someone find the best infrastructure and services and literally a block down the street, just taking one wrong turn, the misery and insecurity of any African third world country. It has one of the most diverse flora and fauna in the world, and a mixture of climates and geographical formations that can be found nowhere else. There are a couple of must see attractions, but we found that it was a complicated matter to decide on an itinerary. The guidebooks we had were good, but they didn't include all the information I wanted about security and weather. Winter, long distances, too many things to see and do, our limited time and the big unknown of the mood of five people getting exhausted in the tenth month of a long trip. The excitement of the girls returning to America, their requirement for time to work on their major project (a camp presentation about our trip, turned into an awesome documentary of 23 minutes). The anxiety of the parents who would be left behind. I reserved apartments for the first eight nights, going through Kruger again, we had to have everything prearranged. (Not that I had much option, I took what I could find.) But after that, we decided not to plan anything and leave it in the air. Overall, in our 27 days we drove 5250 km, spent the night in 17 different places, we went to several national parks, climbed mountains, got stuck in snow (for just five seconds, but still, this is Africa!), froze at night and melted during some days, walked on several beaches thousands of kilometers apart. We saw countless animals and several people. We visited some museums and one cultural show. We reached both Cape Agulhas, the southernmost point and Cape Of Good Hope, the southwesternmost point of the continent. We rode ostriches. We both spent our 45th birthday in this country and it was memorable. We avoided almost all the cities and we don't regret it. We could have easily stayed twice the time, but we didn't have that choice.

One day we got to Lesotho, part of a couple of daytrips from the Amphitheater Backpackers Hostel, trips sponsored by our friend Ileana and described in detail in another post.

We arrived from Madagascar on a Saturday afternoon and after picking up our car we only had one goal, reaching a hotel for the night. The next day we would get close to the southern part of Kruger, at Hazyview. I realized only then that I should have left some time for visits in Johannesburg and Pretoria, especially the World Heritage Site at the Cradle of Humankind. That was not to be missed, on Sunday morning we were up and ready to go early. We could have passed through the center of Johannesburg, but we got lost and arrived by circling the city. We chose to focus on just one site, the Maropeng Visitor Center. We learned about many different species that preceded the humans. Ileana, our daughter, declared it the second best museum in the world (after Ghibli museum in Tokyo). I am not so sure, but it was fun and instructive.
Maropeng Visitor Center - backview

You guys are back???

Late that night we made it to our destination, a guesthouse in the highveld, near Kruger. We wrote about our first visit here, just a month ago (Links: Mihai's Ileana's & Ioan's). This time around we had twice the time, shorter distances to cover and much lower expectations.
We learned that lions don't follow a certain path or schedule. They were not even hungry when we were around...
 It is hard to describe in just a few words what it means to drive around for countless hours, day after day, looking left and right, through the high grass or in the branches of the surrounding trees, skimming over water surfaces or peeking behind bushes. It was an exhausting activity that, surprisingly, we all enjoyed. Despite being together all the time for the past ten months, there are moments when it feels that we don't have enough time to communicate with each other. Being locked in a car for ten hours a day for a week gave us a different and special kind of closeness.

Photographing a fly attacking a Klipspringer 

And we had time to enjoy birds...

We left Kruger through the most eastern point, Komatiepoort, just 30 minutes from the Mozambican border. We had to take the longer road to our next destination, avoiding Swaziland. It seems to be a fantastic country, but stupidly they require Romanians to obtain a prior visa. Their consulate in Pretoria did not answer my inquiry, shame to them. The aberration of the visa system is one of the most frustrating aspects of international travel. Their loss. We rode fast and beat our expectations so we ended that travel day 650 km away, on the beach of the Indian Ocean, in Santa Lucia. I heard about it as a child, it is famous for the World Heritage Site of iSimangaliso Wetland Park. It is one beautiful touristic village, the hippos still roam on the main street at night. We rested most of the time there. The beautiful beach was too cold and windy for more than a short visit. The drive through the park was for just a few hours on the last afternoon, but it was nice.

Baby rhino in our garden
People generally assume that blacks covered all of Africa some time ago. That is not quite like that, there were not too many people when the Dutch settled the Cape in 1652. But they moved East, and encountered the Xhosa and had some wars. Later the English pushed the former Dutch (now called Africaans) and so on, but what seems to have been the worst part was the growth of the Zulu under their legendary king Shaka. He is regarded as an African Napoleon, maybe appropriately as I have nothing good to say about that French buffoon. As Shaka conquered some surrounding tribes he forced the displacement of many populations and from there we had at least a hundred years of various wars. Even to this day some tribal matters are still unsolved. I have nothing good to say about the English colonialists or the Africaans either, but that's another matter. We decided to go and visit Shakaland and have an "authentic" Zulu experience. There was a successful movie made in the eighties about Shaka and they kept the movie sets to make it a sort of Disneyland. Apparently some people visit South Africa just for this place. There is no other chance around to learn anything about traditional African culture, we had to try. It was almost comical at times, amateurish and absurdly expensive, but we learned a few things, tasted their beer, admired the dancers, enjoyed the traditional "African" food and tried without success to imitate the clicking sounds of the Zulu language.

Shakaland is a couple of hours away from the ocean, in the hilly scrubland that makes most of South Africa. We were already on our way to the mountains. The Drakensbergs range goes through at least 1000 km of South Africa and has some of the highest peaks on the continent. We spent three nights at Amphiteater Backpackers. We spent two days doing a couple of extraordinary trips in the uKhahlamba / Drakensberg Park a World Heritage Site, described in detail in Ileana Ruxandra's post. On August 6 we went for a short trip to Royal Natal National Park (technically considered part of the uKhahlamba / Drakensberg Park) and ended the day at Golden Gate Highland National Park. It was a beautiful celebration of Ileana's birthday, watching the sunset on a high plateau among colorful rocks.

Next morning we saw the first snow in Africa. Just a couple of inches, the roads were covered, the car had problems. We had to drive for 720 km, we altered the itinerary to avoid the mountains, for a few hours we had no idea if we will make it or not. But the sun came out, the temperature got positive, the roads got better. We arrived at Mountain Zebra National park, a smaller, newer park that has a unique species of zebra and several other interesting animals. Unfortunately, the only heating in our bungalow was the fireplace, we burned three loads trying to get the temperature to 10 degrees C.

Our bungalow in Graaff-Reinet
After one day touring the park, like we did in Kruger we left continuing West with an unknown destination. We stopped soon to visit a private "Cat Conservation Center" where Marion taught us about four rare species of African cats. The scheduled one hour tour lasted three, we were exhausted. We decided to stop in Graaff-Reinet, the fourth oldest town of South Africa, the most beautiful, with about 200 national monuments, old colonial buildings. It was right before their busiest weekend of the year, some school sport competitions, we were lucky to find a place that night, but we couldn't stay longer, everything was booked. Just a little tour on their streets and next morning we went nearby, to the Cambedoo National Park and the Valley of Desolation.

We then drove west and south toward Oudtshoorn. We moved fast and at 2 pm I stopped: "we can get to our next hotel in half an hour or in two and a half hours. Which one?" I don't know what the children said, but their mother chose the longer version and she drove away, north through the Mieringspoort pass crossing the Groot Swartberge mountain range. It was a beautiful and short ride, it didn't prepare us for what was to come. We crossed into another part of Karoo, the bush land that makes most of this country, rode through a couple plantations of olive trees and turned south again to cross the same mountains.

Swartberg pass is phenomenal. Scary yes, long, too long, but phenomenal. We drove on some beautiful roads during our trip and I read countless blog posts about the most fantastic rides in the world, but nothing comes close to this, I am surprised that it is not mentioned anywhere. It is an amazing engineering achievement, especially for the end of the 19th century. Pictures cannot capture the whole picture.

Some Jewish guys moved to South Africa in the end of the 19th century and started to grow ostriches. They fueled somehow the Europe fashion of wearing ostrich feathers, and in the process they became very rich. They still make a ton of money from their farms, but visitors now account for a big percentage of their profit. It's all in Oudtshoorn; we spent a night here and the kids rode the huge birds.

With time running out we started to count our days and hours. I wanted to come to South Africa to swim with the great white sharks, it would have been a nice way to spend my birthday. As we were getting closer I realized that I don't really want to do it. The companies that run these tours were accused for increasing the rate of shark attacks on humans, complicated and debatable story, but we decided that we didn't have four hours for this, we could spend $750 on better things, and I wanted something else for my birthday.

We went to Knysna, got a taste of the Garden Route and on my birthday we headed west again. We stopped in Mossel Bay, the place were the first European landed in South Africa. They have a nice museum, named after the explorer, Bartholomeu Diaz. They had a full size replica of the original caravel, but the children got lost in an exhibition about school segregation in America. It was instructive and made parallels with the educational system in South Africa during the apartheid regime. It is surprising to me, how, over and over, people have to fight hard to achieve some rights that the following generations would consider just normal. The opponents usually call themselves conservatives and use some stupid arguments about God. Don't they have any common sense? Don't they have any understanding of history? Why do they make it so complicated, fighting a lost battle? Can stupidity and fear explain their behavior or is it a little bit more complicated than that?

Anyhow, we did our museum tour and left Mossel Bay for one tough drive, 280 km through the hills and mountains to get to the end of the world before sunset. It was a beautiful spring day, yellow flowers covering the hills, mountains in the background. Yes, I will remember my 45th birthday:

Cape Agulhas, really at the end of the world

Five days to go, we will spend the last four nights in Cape Town. On our way there we stopped in Hermanus, a little town by the ocean. From there, if you're lucky you can see whales in the gulfs at certain times of the year. Like now. It is a special feeling to sit on rocks and watch some little forms between the waves, bits and parts of huge whales raising occasionally above the water. I could have stayed there for ages, the pictures cannot show too much but with the binoculars we had a great view.

July and August are the months when someone should not go to Cape Town, the weather is miserable and we knew it. But I took advantage of that, negotiated a great discount, and we stayed in probably the best place we ever had, a huge four star apartment with two levels and all possible amenities. Too nice to leave, rainy outside, we could never get to the two main attractions, the Table Mountain and the Robben Island. The ferry reservations were taken days ahead, but somehow I got a break and found some tickets. Next morning, before getting up we got an email that all the boats were cancelled and we'll get the money back. We did take a couple of rides out, saw some amazing scenery and checked out both the Cape Point and the Cape of Good Hope.

The same cape and the same sign from up the hill

Cape Point a few minutes to the East

Cape Point, overlooking Cape of Good Hope

Birds also come in fives

Down the street from our apartment the famous Cape Mountain

The girls finished their documentary and got ready for America. We had private talks, instructions and hugs. With that, there was no time to get melancholic about leaving Africa behind or concerned about the next destinations. We had ten months on the road already, getting a little tired, less excitable and more selective.

At 35 days, South Africa comes right after India and Australia as the longest stay. The accommodation here was more expensive than our usual, we wanted heat and safety. We had kitchens almost everywhere and we cooked our own food. We hardly ate out, but when we did, we had KFC or McDonalds and that was better and cheaper than expected. Overall, at $5 per person per day, our food expense was 60% of what we had in Madagascar! We all enjoyed the ubiquitous rusks:

In Kruger I saw one of the big trucks I thought we would have to use and I was glad that we had our little Toyota Corola. It was an acceptable option for our one month tour and much better than the pitiful VW Polo we had for the first week. But this truck would make for a nice office:

Maybe next time...

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