3, 2, 1, Step
The Moses Madbiba stadium in Durban, where 7 matches were played in the 2010 world cup, is made prominent by its cross-pitch arch, an arch I decided to throw myself off…
Johannesburg a second time round allowed us to slot into the lifestyle a lot more. We’d dumped the multicoloured van and instead picked up a small car. It was white! All the cars on the continent appear to be white. We were definitely fitting in.
Driving round the suburbs, from picnics in the botanical gardens to drinks in front of the sunset, St Patricks day and one final classic night out courtesy of Clayton and the boys, these were the tunes blasting on the radio.
The End Of The Road
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And so, after 9572.9km around South Africa, Namibia and Botswana, the most beautiful road trip of my life is over. We returned to Jo’burg via Pretoria to return the LOVE van and to say our goodbyes to one epic continent. I will be back…
The Guided Tour:
I had thought that the much more glamorous Sophie would be showing us round our home for the past 6 weeks. But apparently she’s a bit camera shy and only willing to be on camera if she didn’t talk. Since a mute presenter is somewhat pointless, you’re stuck with me instead guiding you round our accommodation and transport that has served us well around southern Africa.
Booze Crooze to Stellenbosch:
Given that the Western Cape is famous as a wine region, and we were about to set off on a 6 week road trip, Sophie and I thought it would be a damn good idea to go sample and pick up some fine wine for the trip.
We headed to Stellenbosch, also famous for its university and it was pretty close proximity to Cape Town where we needed to be to pick up our not-quite-ready camper van the next day (don’t get me started). For the time being, as a substitute, we were given a camper van painted like a football!
We arrived in the early evening and could spot the students, with they’re young faces and ‘I’ve had a lot of time to get ready’ outfits and we could also spot the old rich Afrikaans who were using Stellenbosch as their retirement town. Like everywhere I’ve been so far in South Africa, it seemed to have two sides (Jo’burg: black & white, Durban: black & Indian, Jeffrey’s bay: surf bums & old people).
After being bitten alive all night, we headed out to the wine farms to see what we could find. We had a couple of recommendations from one of our Cape Town hosts, Amy, but also knew we could stop off anywhere we wanted.
We didn’t really plan it, but we definitely looked the part of sophisticated wine drinkers. Sophie in a floor length dress with jewellery, me in a stripy shirt. One tour group, who took pictures of our soccer van and played ‘guess who drives that’ at the tasting, admitted that they had never thought it would be us. Get in.
In all we visited 3 wine farms, none of them any less than über-fancy. They were exquisite, very modern, very lavish and very proper (but don’t worry, we fitted right in). Glenelly, owned by an old French lady was our first stop and I learned how to spit out my wine (designated driver), which was a bit odd. Sophie didn’t worry about the spitting, she preferred to just get it down. Takora next, where a really friendly guy guided us through all the wines and olive oils. He was the most knowledgeable and so we learnt loads of him. Takora was more modern, a bit younger, whereas the final visit was to one of the oldest in the region, V… (try pronouncing that one!).
So we loaded up with two bottles from each place, a white for Sophie and a red for me, and felt much more prepared for our Southern Africa road trip. Forget about the sheets, food and water, they can come later.
Scaling Table Mountain:
After rising at 05:30am to see a not very successful sunrise up a steep hill, it would be fair to say that Sophie and I were whacked. But it was our last full day in Cape Town and we were yet to conquer Table Mountain. How could we leave without visiting the top?
On our way down from the dawn-busting hike, we resigned ourselves to getting the cable car up and down. We had a lot to fit in before leaving town and were shattered even before breakfast. We did feel it was a little like cheating, and so to did some of out hosts. (When someone says, “there’s no shame it that, guys,” you know that, actually, there is certainly something to hide your face about). So while we prepared to have a lazy, slow day in proportion to our tiredness, we gradually got talked round into ascending up on foot.
At first it started out as the easy, stairs route. Then it turned into the longer but better looking winding path. By the time we got to the base of the mountain, it was the shady, but horrifically steep ‘Skeleton’s Gorge’. But we were prepared for lazy and slow. Our bags were laden, we didn’t have much useful kit, and the worst part (by far and away) was that I was in blister-making slip ons and Sophie was in flip-flops! What a bunch of idiots. Certainly from the looks we Sophie got on the way up, this is what people were thinking of us. As a handful of people came clambering down through the trees and over rocks, they called us “brave”. Definitely code for “stupid.” One man even asked, “is this some kind of dare?”
But the walk was a classic. While it was cool in the forest of the gorge, Sophie and I still sweated absolute buckets climbing up the steep steps, wooden ladders and crawling up rocks. Sophie was consistently full of beans, and happy to maintain a conversation with herself on the ascent, I could hardly maintain a sentence as my heart seemed to struggle. All the while we were looking up at the ominously tall mountain. But when we got to the top, the views were worth it!
Cape Town sprawled beneath you, with suburbs and beaches everywhere is a brilliant reward for all the exertion. By the time we got to Maclear’s Beacon, the highest point on the mountain at 1087m, the grim sweaty effort had switched on some achievement-recognising endorphins. No rest for the wicked, we had to get a jog on at the top because the infamous ‘table cloth’ was arriving with some heavy cloud, and we only had a packet of nik-naks each in the case of the worst. But we made it to the top of the cable car after a total 3 hour hike.
We then thoroughly enjoyed feeling smug in the cafe knowing that we had probably earned our muffin, while the fat American kid asking for more sauce probably hadn’t.
We had definitely entered into the tourist traps the last couple of days. But while Robben Island was worth it for the tour guides, Boulders Beach was a little more intense.
The strange collection of penguins, near Simon’s Town down the Cape Peninsula, were so much of a draw that the beach warranted its own entrance fee and information centre, boardwalks around the beach and the customary curio stalls outside. There were certainly a lot of tourists (probably more than penguins) crowding round the colony with their cameras out. (Why do Chinese people contort their shoulders to take pictures of themselves when they’re in a large group of people who could take it for them?). Then again, penguins are always good value to watch as they waddle in and out of the sea, nestle up to each other and act weird.
Sophie had lots of fun bending and curling round the barrier to take pictures. We then moved on to a quiet beach round the corner for a swim in the never-gets-any-warmer ocean, but not before I had a little nap.
1994 hangs in the history of South Africa in much the same way that 1914 does around Europe. It marks a point in the countries history when everything changed forever. Except, 1994 was less than 20 years ago. The social and political issues of the country are still being shaped by events pre-1994. Nelson Mandela and Robben Island were crucial parts of that era.
Having read The Long Walk to Freedom a few years back (and thinking Mandela was a bit modest) a trip to Robben Island while in Cape Town was crucial. Obviously a lot of other people think so too. From the moment we approached the ferry, there was a wash of accents as the old and the young in their holiday gear headed for the prison. It was going to be a classic routine: a ferry ships the gawpers out to the island and buses them round on a brief tour of the island and prison.
So as we plodded onto the coach, I did not maintain high hopes as I recognised the stereotypes. Through out the day a Dutch lady who talked loudly on her phone during the tour for several minutes, the fat German who fell asleep and snored loudly and the squealing baby all made an appearance. But as soon as the bus started the engine, we were brought under the charm of the tour guide.
Our leader for the trip round the island was Yasine Mohammed, a former general secretary of the regional ANC branch and a former political prisoner on Robben Island (a past that unites all the tour guides on the island). He was enchanting with his continuous monologue about the elaborate history of the place. And his inclusion of us, the gawpers, was brilliant. Each nationality of passenger was brought into his story. From the Norwegian who he praised for sharing a nationality with the curer of leprosy to the Australian he wound up about the negative impact of the eucalyptus tree (the English influence on Robben Island was brutally stark throughout).
It felt like we had the best man in the biz. He’d shown round Hillary Clinton, Obama, and Mandela himself (although why he needed a guided tour I’m not quite sure). Everywhere we stopped he said “I could talk for hours about this place.” He was so interesting. We couldn’t tip as handsomely as the rich Americans but we certainly valued him a lot.
We disembarked the bus to take a tour of the prison with another political prisoner. He was Sparks, and it was evident from the way that he spoke of Mandela, round the various points of interest, that he was incredibly fond of him and certainly held him up as a hero. We we shown the courtyard Mandela got used to over 18 years on the island, the corner where he hid the manuscript for The Long Walk to Freedom (the man who smuggled out a copy for the first edition was later made Transport Secretary because he was good at “transporting information”), and Mandela’s cell during incarceration, complete with three blankets and a bucket.
We might have been firmly on the tourist trail, but the whole day was humbling due to how recent it all was and made special by the one-off tour guides.
Cape Town: My Next Home
From my first day in Johannesburg all the way through my trip, everyone has raved about Cape Town. I’d heard so much about the people, the scenery and the vibe that I couldn’t wait to get down to the meeting point of the Indian and Atlantic oceans.
The city is incredible. Over the last week it has progressed higher and higher up the list of cities I would love to live in to the point where I think it might now be on top.
First off, it is absolutely beautiful. The city has 4 million people in it, but since they are hidden round the corners of mountains or stretched out along the beaches, you can never tell. The mountain range, including Table Mountain and the 12 Apostles, dwarf the man-made elements of the city making it feel small and isolated wherever you are.
We’ve been staying with some old friends of Sophie’s on the South Peninsula in Kalk Bay, and the coast line is fantastic. We’ve chilled out on some beaches, driven up to Chapman’s Peak to view the city and woken up to the sea everyday. Cape Town is a wonderful place.
On top of that, the people and the lifestyle are what make Cape Town epic. We’ve been so warmly greeted everywhere, from all the friendly, helpful faces going up Table Mountain to the incredibly hospitable people we’ve been staying with. Even when I arrived at a fully booked hostel on the first night, the girl behind reception booked me into a neighbouring one and gave me her number so I could call her and ask for tips on hiring cars.
So many elements of this relaxed, beach-vibe city have got me hooked. Sunday lunch was sushi! When people go for swims every morning, they’re talking about the ocean! Getting up to view a sunrise, or chilling out with ‘sundowners’ in the evening are normal occurrences! Everyone exercises and everyone has a favourite beach. When can I move!
Into the Township
Over the last two weeks, the word “township” has basically been code fore “the part of the city where the poor, black people live”. I was warned that they were dangerous places for anyone to go, but as a result of me being pale white (almost transparent) and ginger, I would stick out like a sore thumb and get robbed/hijacked/stabbed in minutes.
These were fair warnings, the crime statistics in South Africa are astronomically high, especially in townships, and being a blatant tourist, I was more attractive to opportunists than anyone. But I couldn’t escape the idea, while visiting sprawled, unemotional urban centres, that there was a glamourous side to townships, one involving community, collectiveness and a damn good vibe, that I wanted to explore and see for myself.
Every hostel I’ve stayed in has offered a ‘Township Tour’. I had done a one of Soweto in Johannesburg. But sitting in a minibus with Canadians khaki-ed to the max, gawping at the poor people wasn’t my idea of a proper experience. The only way I could safely explore one was through a local.
In Jeffrey’s Bay I got my wish. An English guy I met on the Baz Bus had been living and volunteering an hour away for the last 5 months. He knew some local shop owners, Chancy & Charles, who he introduced me to almost as soon as we arrived. They owned an African craft store, and showed us where we could get a £2 fry up and the best biltong in town.
After a day in J’Bay, I earned myself an invite to Charles’ flat for some ‘pap’. Chancy guided me through the township from the shop. It was apparent as soon as you arrived, because the houses where all of a sudden not made of brick, not two storeys and not organised in streets - and the people were staring. But there were also a lot of people in the street, boys playing football in a park and grown ups socialising on corners. Already, the area seemed to have more activity than I had seen in the big cities.
After buying some cheap beer from an old women serving in a caged bar, we arrived at the flat. It was one room. There was a bed, some ripped up Lino on the floor and a massive TV. A fridge, a table and a camping stove completed the furniture line up. It was certainly liveable, but not comfortable.
The community aspect of the area was already prevalent. We had greeted many people on our way in, and Chancy had many conversations with some of Charles’ neighbours. Later, we were joined by 3 school girls from the neighbourhood who just liked to come and visit (they didn’t like me and didn’t really want to talk to me, but Chancy told me later that it was probably to do with the fact that they didn’t go to school often so their English was bad. “They just smoke.”). It was a little disconcerting when one of the girls was introduced to me as Charles’ “girlfriend” because a) she was a school girl and b) this was the third girl to be introduced to me as his “girlfriend”, one of the others being the land lady upstairs.
The food was something I had been looking forward to. Rushing through South Africa by bus, it is hard to avoid the fast food and filling stations as your source of cuisine. Some local food was gratefully received. And it was delicious. ‘Pap’ is ground and boiled maize. If done right, it turns into a dough-like substance. Eaten all over Africa, albeit with varying names, the cutlery is forgotten and your right hand is washed and used to roll pap and feed yourself.
With a pork and salad accompaniment, I was absolutely stuffed to the brim by the end and hadn’t made too much mess. Two of the school girls shared plates with Chancy & Charles. The third one chose not to eat (I told you they didn’t like me). All the while, South African house music was playing from the TV. I went back, knowing that I had had a glimpse off the tourist trail and into the culture of real South Africa.
I have done some surfing before, entirely on family holidays to the Cornwall beaches in the cold seas of the UK. But that was many moons ago, and so I felt a little out of place amongst the roaring beach-vibe of J’Bay. There was blond, shaggy haired boys in board shorts everywhere. Every TV screen had images of pro-surfers catching waves and most main street buildings were covered in surfing montages.
And I didn’t have the money to surf. Having overspent in Durban and Lesotho, I needed a few days for my budget to catch up (well, that was my excuse anyway. I certainly lacked confidence amongst all the die hards as well). So there was no surfing, no sand boarding, not even a boogie board in sight for me. But the view, a good book and some interesting people kept me entertained for a few days.
I felt settled like I was on a beach holiday. It was good. But I certainly can’t get on here and claim that they were the most exciting days of my trip so far. They were lazy. They were laid back. They were on the beach.
A traditional Lisiba player in Lesotho. The instrument is made up of a stick, a feather and a string. That’s it.
Conquering the Drakensberg:
Despite looking and feeling like the hills of England (it was really quite wet sometimes), the Drakensberg mountain range provided more excitement in one walk than my entire 23 years roaming the British isles.
There were caves to crawl under, waterfalls to gawp at, streams to dodge and rivers to cross, cliff faces to climb, forests to weed through and pools to swim in. It might have taken me 6 hours, I might have got truly soaked, but, man, did I have a good time.