South Africa


Scenes from the top of Table Mountain
As we drove through South Africa, we met a lot of locals who were eager to hear which parts of their country we’d seen already and which ones we were planning to visit next. Upon hearing our schedule, a lot of them said something along the lines of, “Just wait until you get to Cape Town. You’ll love it.” How right they were.

I loved our time in Cape Town so much that I’m afraid I’ve become a bit evangelical about the place. (If you know me personally (or maybe even if you don’t), be prepared for me to try to convince you to go there as soon as you possibly can.) Why I am such a fan of Cape Town? This short list just scrapes the surface:
Cape Town, viewed from Signal Hill
(1) Its natural wonders are both incredible and incredibly close by. Table Mountain is right in the middle of town, more or less. It serves as both a beautiful addition to the skyline and a fantastic vantage point from which to look out over the city. We rode a cable car to the top of the mountain and spent a happy couple of hours wandering along its well-maintained trails and trying to wrap our minds around the fact that the mountaintop is completely flat. Afterwards, we headed over to Signal Hill to watch the sun setting over the Atlantic Ocean and the city lights slowing turning on. Gorgeous.
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Speaking of gorgeous, less than an hour outside of Cape Town lies the Cape of Good Hope Nature Reserve. We took a very, very windy hike along the rocks above the park’s spectacular coastline and ended up at the Cape of Good Hope itself. Although it’s often given credit as such, the Cape of Good Hope isn’t the southernmost part of Africa (that honor goes to Cape Agulhas, a little bit to the east). The Cape of Good Hope is, however, the southwesternmost point. That phrase may not look as good on a t-shirt, but it’s something…
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On the way to the nature reserve, we stopped at Boulders Beach, which is famous for being home to a colony of 3000 penguins. These penguins were formerly called “jackass penguins,” which is not a reflection on their character, but rather on the donkey-like noise they make. They’ve recently been upgraded to a new name and are now simply called “African penguins.” The walkways along the beach allowed us great views of the penguins, who seemed to be very used to the presence of humans. (We even had the opportunity to swim with the little cuties. Seeing as how it was about 55 degrees, however, we passed.)

(2) It’s an incredibly cosmopolitan city. As such, it has all the gourmet food, excellent shopping and, err, dirty martinis anyone could ever want.
Nelson Mandela's Cell on Robben Island
(3) Its tragic history has been shaped into lessons for future generations. While in Cape Town, we visited Robben Island, home of the prison in which Nelson Mandela spent 18 of his 27 years of imprisonment. (The entire island is now a museum.) Our bus tour–sadly, there’s really no other way to see the island–took us past the lime quarry where Mandela and other prisoners slaved in the heat. We were then led through the prison and to Mandela’s cell by, amazingly enough, a man who was incarcerated on the island for 7 years because of his work with the African National Congress. Our guide had some amazing stories to tell about his time on the island, and he seemed remarkably able to talk about his experiences without getting angry.

We also stopped in at the District Six Museum, a moving museum about a once-vibrant, diverse neighborhood that was bulldozed during apartheid in an attempt to turn the district into an all-white area. Some 50,000 people were forcibly relocated to what were essentially slums. Many of the people who were evicted from their homes have returned to the museum to mark on a map the location of their former houses and nearby landmarks. Since democracy arrived in South Africa, the government has prioritized the rebuilding of District Six and the return of its land to its former residents, but its progress has been slow.

(4) It’s–finally!–diverse. We have been shocked at how racially divided South Africa is. We were happy to see that, in Cape Town, people of all races seem to mix more easily. It was a really nice change.

If those reasons aren’t enough to convince you to make the trip, I’ve got plenty more…

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Getting in a car with virtually no plan in sight is a luxury in which few of us seem to indulge these days.  With limited vacation time, today’s traveler seems to plan every minute of their trip, making sure they make the best out of every moment.  During our 30 days on the road in South Africa, we’ve felt like we’ve been on a different trip from the prior 9 months.  Having our own wheels has allowed us to avoid the stresses of booking flights, boarding buses and trains and following the schedules of the transportation industry.   It’s been a refreshing change.
Sunset from our balcony in Knysner
The last week has been one of the highlights of our road trip.  After finishing our hike along the Wild Coast, our only future obligation was to catch a flight out of Cape Town 9 days later.  So we hit the road and started heading down the coast.  The South Africa tourism industry has named the 300 or so miles of coastline east of Cape Town the “Garden Route.”  While there is a notable absence of gardens along the route, the scenery is stunning – steep, majestic mountains just a few miles from an endless stretch of empty, white-sand beaches.
Surfers at "Supertubes" in Jeffrey's Bay
Our first stop on our drive was Jeffrey’s Bay, world-famous for its surfing.  Surfers from around the world come to J-Bay to test their skills on the massive waves that consistently pound its shores.  Although neither of us surfs (a fact that pains us both), we wanted to see talented surfers in action.  The next morning, we walked down to “Supertubes,” a particularly famous surfing beach – it’s said to play home to the “perfect wave” – near our hostel.  We’d picked a good time to be there – dozens of surfers were busy putting the guys in Point Break to shame.

Full of envy, we loaded up the car and drove west until arrived at a coastal town called Knysna.  With the help of our guidebook and our cell phone, we were able to find an amazing hotel right on the Knysna lagoon for a fantastic low-season price. 1  With an incredible view of the lagoon right from our hotel balcony, we felt very little incentive to stray far from our room.
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After a couple of days doing virtually nothing in Knysna, we continued to head east toward Cape Town.  While we had planned on going to Hermanus for a cage-dive with great white sharks, it was cancelled due to windy weather.  We called an audible (something you can’t really do without your own car) and headed to Franshhoek.  Set in a valley surrounded by mountains, Franshhoek is famous for the superb wine made in the area and shipped around the world.  Again, we consulted or guidebook, negotiated low-season discounts and found ourselves in a top-notch hotel for a very reasonable price.  We spent the next day touring some of the local vineyards and having a couple of meals at world-class restaurants that cost a fraction of what they would back home.  I’m not sure either of us has ever been this relaxed…

  1. For anyone considering a trip to South Africa, we would highly recommend visiting in May or June – the low season here.  The prices are much lower than the rest of the year and you’ll have pretty much everything to yourself; in many cases, we’ve been the only people in hotels and national parks that are completely full during the rest of the year.  The inexplicable part is that we’re not sure why this is the low season – the weather is fantastic (not too hot or cold), there’s no rain, it’s the best time to see wildlife and the most ideal time to scuba dive. []

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Hard-working folks in South Africa’s big cities have plenty of options to turn to when they need a break.  Among the best are the Drakensberg Mountains (just a few hours from Durban) and the Wild Coast (an hour or so from East London).   Given that we’ve been on a break for, err, the last nine months or so, we’re not really in need of much R & R, but we decided to check them out anyway.  (Tough life, I know…)
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The Drakensbergs, or “Dragon Mountains,” are the second-largest in Africa.  They’re broken up into three sections, the Northern, the Central and the Southern.   We chose the first, primarily because of the Amphitheater, its most famous attraction.  A five-mile-long wall of towering rock, the Amphitheater is flanked by two 10,000-foot mountains, and it’s gorgeous.  We spent a day hiking over rolling hills to the rocky gorge at its base and were rewarded with stunning views and a perfect spot for a picnic.
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A few days later, we continued our hike, this time along the Wild Coast.  The Wild Coast stretches for 200 miles along South Africa’s southeastern coast and houses remote coves, endless sandy beaches and some of the most interesting people in the country.  Great swaths of the area are inhabited by the Xhosa, whose name is pronounced with a clicking sound that we are incapable of making.  (The Xhosa language itself contains an amazing 15 different kinds of clicks!)  The Xhosa are some of the most superstitious people around.  Many of them believe in witchcraft, and it’s not uncommon for them to burn women whom they consider to be witches.   Deceased ancestors are a very important part of Xhosa culture; they serve as go-betweens between living Xhosa and the gods.
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This last fact is an important part of the incredible circumstances that led to the near-demise of the Xhosa people in the 1850s.  In 1856, a teenage girl named Nongqawse went down to the banks of a stream (which we walked past on our hike) to help keep birds away from her uncle’s fields.  When she returned, she announced that she had met with the spirits of her dead ancestors, who told her that they had a way to help the Xhosa people recover from the hard times in which they’d recently found themselves.  (At the time, their cattle were dying en masse from European diseases and their chiefs were weary from trying to defend their territory against the land-hungry Boers.)
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As the story went, if the Xhosa people demonstrated their belief in the spirits of their ancestors by slaughtering their cattle and refusing to cultivate their fields, the ancestors would reward them by returning from the dead, doubling the number of their cattle, multiplying their stores of grain and rendering old people young again.  For many people, this was a way to salvation.  Over 100,000 believers slaughtered their cattle and abandoned their fields.  A significant number of nonbelievers, however, refused to.  The ancestors never showed up, and a large percentage of the believers slowly starved to death.  Many were sold into slavery by the British governor of the province.  Today, some Xhosa (including one of our guides along our walk) believe that their ancestors refused to return because of the nonbelievers’ failure to abide by their instructions.

Many Xhosa live in an area of the Wild Coast known as the Transkei, which is an apartheid-era “homeland” to which black people were forced to relocate during the sad decades leading up to the 1991 liberation.  Nelson Mandela, a Xhosa himself, was born and raised here.
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Today, both the Transkei and the Wild Coast’s beaches are largely uninhabited.  We hiked along the beach for almost three days and encountered very few people, other than our guide and the staff who ran the guesthouses in which we stayed every night.  What we did see were dolphins gliding through the waves (it seems they like to “surf”), cows using the shoreline as a salt lick, a shipwreck with a funny story behind it (watch the video for more details) and even, lucky for us, a whale.  There are few things in the world that I like more than walking on the beach, and I’m happy to say that, after days of doing nothing but, I may have had my fill–at least for a little while…

Drakensberg:

Wild Coast:

Google Video

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After an article was written about us and our trip in The Tennessean, the local paper in Nashville, we received hundreds of comments and e-mails from readers encouraging us as we traveled and providing recommendations for things we should see and do on our journey.  None have proved as valuable as one we received from a Nashville reader who sits on the Board of Directors of an orphanage in South Africa.  When she saw South Africa on our itinerary, she suggested that we visit the orphanage if we were in the area.  Ten months later, we arrived at the Sihawukelwe Lauren Children’s Home (SLCH) in Umzinyathi, a small, rural town in the Zulu area of eastern South Africa.
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SLCH was started a few years ago to help address an increasing problem in South Africa – children orphaned due to the death of their parents from AIDS.  South Africa plays home to more people with AIDS (many of whom have kids) than does any other country.  A report we heard on local radio in South Africa (and later confirmed online) stated that there are more than 1,200,000 AIDS orphans here.  This fact is particularly difficult for Westerners to understand.  While the risks of AIDS are still very real in the West, education and various social programs have proved fairly effective in preventing the widespread dissemination of the disease.  Unfortunately, this is not so in many parts of Africa.
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While government education programs to reduce the risk of AIDS exist in Africa, many of these programs have failed to make a significant dent in the problem.  Multiple factors have collided to cause this failure, including illiteracy, strong cultural dynamics and massive misinformation.  The president of South Africa himself has suggested that AIDS is caused by “poverty.”  South Africa’s health minister advocates a diet of garlic, olive oil and lemon to cure AIDS.  (Despite calls by scientists for her resignation, she remains in her post today.) Finally, according to people we’ve met during our time here, some Africans (hopefully only a few) believe that AIDS was brought to Africa by the West in order to kill off all Africans.  So, in short, there are a lot of obstacles to effectively combating this deadly, widespread disease.

SLCH was opened after a group of Nashvillians learned of some of these problems and of the incredible toll they were taking on the Umzinyathi community.  They reached out to the community in a big way, providing funding for a new Children’s Home that currently houses 18 children (with room to accept more children in the future), most of whom have lost their parents to AIDS.
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We were fortunate to spend two days and nights at the home.  During our time, we helped the SLCH staff purchase winter clothes for the children (remember that, because South Africa is in the Southern Hemisphere, it’s almost winter here now!), some needed items for the home and art supplies and soccer balls for the kids.  After we discovered that over a hundred books had been donated by the Nashville community but were locked away in a separate building inaccessible to the children, Shanna, a voracious reader, made it her mission to create a library in an empty room in the home.  It was a unique feeling to flip through books in a small Zulu village that had once been read by children back in Nashville.

The greatest joy of our time at the home was talking and playing with the kids.  We were shocked at how disciplined, mature and inquisitive they seemed to be (and, as you’ll see in the video, what amazing dancers they are!).  It was easy to forget the tragic losses that the children have all recently endured, losses that have amazingly been eased by the generous contributions and dedication of a small group of Tennesseans thousands of miles away.

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I left India’s Andaman Islands last December convinced that I had just experienced the best scuba diving in the world.  At that point, I’d only been certified for a few months, but I’d been diving enough to recognize what was just ok and what was stunning.  Three dives in South Africa’s Sodwana Bay redefined for me just what “stunning” meant.

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Our lack of a waterproof camera case means that I don’t have photographic evidence of our time under the sea, but I’ll sum it up like this: it was like swimming in a huge, pristine aquarium.  During our second dive, the water was so clear that our vision was virtually unlimited–that almost never happens.  And so we fell in love with Sodwana Bay’s underwater world.

Sodwana Bay is part of South Africa’s St. Lucia Wetland Park.  As it turns out, St. Lucia has a lot to offer out of the water as well.  A Unesco World Heritage Site, the park protects five different ecosystems, from coral reefs and beaches to lakes, wetlands, woodlands and coastal forests.

We spent some time in St. Lucia Estuary exploring a few of the ecosystems.  Drifting down the estuary (an estuary is like a river, only it has brackish, rather than fresh, water), we explored St. Lucia’s wetlands and the crocodile and hippo families they contained.  A note about hippos–did you know that they’re the deadliest animals on earth?!?  60% of all people who are killed by animals are killed by hippos.  And the thing I can’t figure out is this–hippos are vegetarians!  They don’t even eat the humans they crush with their gigantic teeth.  As the woman who ran our B&B in St. Lucia put it, “I guess they’re just really cranky!”
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Walking among the sand dunes the next day, we reveled in the fact that we had miles of gorgeous beachfront all to ourselves.  (The beach was so clean and the sand so hard-packed that the clouds were actually reflected on the shoreline–amazing!)  To get to the beach, we had to drive through a wildlife reserve where, once again, we were able to see zebras and warthogs in their natural environment.  Later that day, we stopped in at the Crocodile Center.  We were able to see all kinds of crocs close up, if not exactly in their natural habitats.  We’ve been getting so spoiled by South Africa’s incredible outdoors that it’s going to be really hard for us to leave this amazing place!

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Officially opened to the public in 1927, South Africa’s Kruger National Park is the oldest and largest game reserve in the world.  Its 6.2 million acres play home to more than 500 species of birds and 147 kinds of mammals, among them 31,000 wildebeests, 23,000 zebras and 7,000 giraffes.  The park also has large numbers of what’s known in game reserves as the “Big Five”: black rhinos, cape buffalo, elephants, leopards and lions.
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On our trip to Kruger, we saw two of the Big Five, the elephants and the buffalo, but the only cat we saw was one with a capital C–Catherine, one of my best friends from law school.  Cat’s now a student at the South Africa Wildlife College, which is located right outside Kruger’s Orpen Gate.  (Definitely not a bad way to take a break from the law for a little while…)

Cat, Derek and I took a night drive through the park one evening.  After we climbed aboard a huge jeep that was decked out with high-powered spotlights, our guide drove us around the park at a speed slow enough for us to spot animals that are often nowhere to be seen during the daylight hours.  One of our favorite sightings was a baby hyena, who was so deceptively cuddly-looking that I wanted to give him a squeeze.
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Derek and I also took a self-guided daytime drive through the park.  Over the course of seven amazing hours (all of which were spent in the safety of the VW Polo–to get out of your car outside of the designated safe areas in Kruger is to risk your life), we saw everything from hippos lazing in the mud to a parade of elephants bound for a watering hole to warthogs who looked almost too ridiculous to be real.
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One of my favorite moments, however, came early in our drive.  Maybe 30 feet in the distance, we spotted a pair of giraffes grazing on the treetops.  They were the first giraffes I’d ever seen outside of the confines of the zoo, and I have to say, it was almost a religious experience.  I’m completely amazed that creatures like them and creatures like us can inhabit the same earth.

Our quest for the big cats will continue.  In a way, though, it’s almost a good thing that we haven’t seen them yet.  Three weeks from now, we’re going on a Tanzanian safari with some of our best friends from Nashville, and I’m sure we’ll see lions, leopards and cheetahs aplenty.  For now, though, the anticipation is half the fun.

 

Pictures taken along our drive in Blyde River Canyon
Few things say “adventure” like the idea of a road trip.  Grabbing a map and favorite travel companion, hopping into the car and setting off into the Great Unknown for a few days–there’s nothing better.  Except for road tripping not for just a few days, but instead for 31.  That’s better.
First day with our VW Polo
And that’s exactly what we’re doing.  Over the course of the next 35 days, we’ll be driving through South Africa, from Johannesburg to Cape Town.  Along the way, we’ll stop, well, pretty much wherever we want to.  (That’s the beauty of having our own wheels–in this case in the form of a bright blue VW Polo.)
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Of course, we’re sure we’ll hit some potholes–both literal and figurative–along the way.  The first is that, here in South Africa, they drive on the left side of the road, and the only cars available for rent are stick shifts.  Those who know me well are aware that I can barely drive an automatic on the right side of the road.  So stay tuned…it may get interesting.  (Or, more likely, Derek will drive the whole way and spare us both the trouble of fearing for our lives.)

Market Square
Affectionately called Jo’burg or Jozi by its residents, Johannesburg, South Africa is one of the most interesting cities in today’s world.  A huge, sprawling city with over 6 million people, it is the heart and soul of South Africa and a remarkable study in contrasts.  In the suburbs to the north of the city, glitzy shopping malls abut world-class restaurants and million-dollar homes.  Elsewhere in the city, you will find poor townships filled with countless shanty houses built with scrap found on the roadside.
Scenes from Soweto
The city came to being when gold – a LOT of gold – was discovered here in 1886 by a white prospector. The rush was on, and it was massive.  The gold operations were founded by the white settlers in South Africa and hundreds of thousands of black men from all around the country came to Jo’burg seeking employment in the mines.  The tensions between the black majority in South Africa and the white minority started to flare.  Eventually, this tension led to the white minority instituting one of the most infamous and horrific sets of laws in history – apartheid, which means “apartness” in the Africaans language.  Effectively, apartheid stripped virtually all legal rights away from blacks and ensured that whites would be isolated from blacks.  After decades of resistance from thousands of freedom fighters, including Nelson Mandela, apartheid was finally abolished in 1990 and led to free elections in 1994, whereby Nelson Mandela was elected president.

When we arrived, we didn’t know what to expect.  We’d heard of the infamous crime in Jo’burg with some visitors to South Africa choosing to skip the city altogether in order to play it safe.  As we drove to our bed and breakfast in Sandton (a northern suburb), we felt right at home as we passed chain restaurants and corporate offices.  We knew we were far from home when we arrived at our bed and breakfast and found that it was protected by 10-feet walls, a security gate and a security system that the White House would envy.
Dinner at Moyo Restaurant with Gert and Johandie Wahl
During our first day in the city, we stuck mainly to the northern suburbs, completing a few errands and having dinner with a lovely couple who lived in Knoxville, Tennessee for eight years before moving back home to South Africa. 1  On our second day, we ventured out in our rental car to walk around downtown Jo’burg and visit a local museum.  We were slightly nervous while driving because we had been warned of “smash and grabs,” where criminals will break your car window and grab anything you have in the car.  We locked everything in the trunk as we drove and only received smiles from everyone we encountered.
Scenes from Kliptown, poor district of Soweto
On our final day in the city, we took a tour of Soweto, which stands for South Western Township due to its location a few miles south and west of Jo’burg. Almost as large as Jo’Burg, it was here that the blacks living in white areas of Jo’burg were forced to move when apartheid made it illegal for blacks to live near whites.  This was also the area that became the center of the freedom struggle for blacks.  Nelson Mandela and other freedom fighters made their homes here and used the area as a base for waging protests.
Scenes from Kliptown, poor district of Soweto
During our tour, we walked the streets of the township (where we were welcomed by hellos and waves from the friendly residents), attended a vibrant church service and visited the Hector Pieterson Memorial.2  The highlight and most difficult part of the tour was our visit to Kliptown, one of the poorest areas of Soweto.  With no electricity, infrequent garbage pick-up and a limited water supply, it’s hard to believe that these living conditions exist just a few miles away from the wealthy suburbs to the north.  Fortunately, some private organizations, including the NBA (evidently, Marcus Camby and Ditembe Mutombo visited a few years ago), have given funding to non-profit organizations working in Kliptown, and certain meals and enrichment programs are provided free-of-charge to the thousands of children living here.  Before we left Kliptown, we went to a community center where we happened upon an impromptu drum and dance performance by some local children – an amazing performance neither of us will ever forget.
Drum and Dance Performance in Kliptown
As we left Soweto and headed back to our comfortable lodging in the northern suburbs populated almost exclusively with whites, it became clear to us that, while apartheid is no longer the law in South Africa, the wounds inflicted by it will remain for years.  Being in Jo’burg when we were – after apartheid but before its nasty traces are fully erased – gave us the sense that we were there in a very historic time.  Generations from now, people will surely remember these years as a time of transition for the city.  We can only hope the scars of its past don’t run too deep.

Google Video

  1. The couple – Gert and Johandie – was introduced to us by our friend, Rebeccah, who used to work with Gert in Knoxville.  Thanks, Rebeccah!!! []
  2. Hector Pieterson, a 13-year old boy, was made famous when a picture was taken of his dead body being carried through the streets of Soweto by another boy after Hector was shot by a policeman during a 1976 gathering where students were protesting a new requirement that school be taught in Africaans – the language of the white people of Africa but barely spoken by most of the black students.  The expressions on the face of the boy carrying Hector and on the face of Hector’s sister running next to him are haunting. This picture was widely circulated throughout the world and helped spark worldwide protests against apartheid. []