Africa · South Africa · South Africa travel · Travel

South Africa Safari – the Kruger – Part 2

The second and final day of the Kruger trip started off the same way- early rise at 4.30, picked up by Andrew at 5.30, and then into the Kruger at 6, whilst enjoying the rising sun and the early morning sky tapestry. But instead of a lion, we soon came upon a leopard within minutes of driving into the Kruger, right on the road. Andrew stopped when he saw the creature, which was maybe 30 feet ahead of us walking on the road. Suffice it to say, seeing a leopard on the road was a rare sight and was probably our 4th leopard spotting. Overall, we’d make 5 leopard sightings- quite spoiled. On the other hand, we wanted to see a lion, a clear sighting unlike our previous one, and poor Andrew felt a bit hardpressed to find us another lion. The leopard soon wandered off into the surrounding bush but we saw it again as Andrew drove close by. Because we had seen the Big 5 the day before, we had a more leisurely drive, stopping more often for the “lesser” creatures like giraffe, antelopes, baboons and so on. Andrew was a blond, white South African who struck me as an Anglo-South African, but was an Afrikaaner. Reserved and tanned, he was an experienced park guide who was quite affable and obviously took pride in his work. And he definitely had reason to, because he spotted a lot of animals for us, such as far-away leopards and rhinos. Rhinos shouldn’t be hard to see, you might ask, and yes, they usually aren’t, unless they walking or standing still in thick bush and low-lying trees which several times when Andrew spotted them they were. We were all in the back looking everywhere and using binoculars, but Andrew who was driving and taking brief glances now and then, made all these great sightings. Several times, we were the first on the scene and when other cars drove by, the drivers would ask Andrew what was going on and he’d tell them. Andrew also told us the unpalatable, and probably politically incorrect, account of elephants and their toll on nature. He pointed out dead trees, whose bark had been mostly ripped apart, which had been destroyed by elephants. Elephants eat a lot, he said, and sometimes they destroy trees, which doesn’t sound like a big deal, until you factor in the fact that many of these trees took decades (10,15 20 years) to grow. Too many elephants cause wastelands and so, culling was done sometimes. Moving them to other places sounds good, Andrew said, but that’s if people take them, and who’ll take whole herds of elephants? I can think of some environmentalists and animal lovers would be horrified to hear this.The final part of the Kruger trip was an evening drive which was with the Kruger camp itself. We said farewell to Andrew, who had been a really good guide, and waited at a rest camp for the evening drive to start. I was walking with one of my fellow tour members to a gift shop when I looked towards the entrance and saw an elephant outside. I walked close to it, staying on the other side of the fence of course, see below pic. Other people also came, and I had the pleasure of seeing a girl get shocked by the electric fence when she brought her hands close to the fence to take a photo of the elephant. I heard a sizzle and saw her snap back her hand, though to her credit she didn’t scream. Electric fences are ubiquitous in South Africa, and I was really curious on how strong the shock was. I had half a mind to try touching one myself but I didn’t want to end up dying. Still, maybe the Kruger electric fences aren’t as strong since they’re meant to keep away animals.

Anyways for the evening drive, we piled onto a large truck, along with about 20 other guys including many Australians. This was good for my tour members who were all Aussies themselves. The driver was a youngish black guy whose name I forgot but who was quite funny and had a distinctive, charming African accent. The drive would turn out kind of funny too. We were all hoping for lions but the driver had tried to calm us down. “Tell me what do you most want to see?” he asked us all before he started the drive. “Impala!” said a wiseguy (those were the most common creatures in Kruger). “Those are EVERYWHERE!” replied the driver, laughing. “Of course, I know most of yo’all want to see CATS!” he then said. He promised he’d try his best but he couldn’t guarantee anything. One of the first things we saw was a cat and some action, which we hadn’t seen for our 2 days. A leopard, which we saw first, was stalking a warthog, and from a distance, we saw it stupidly (the warthog that is) wander close to the leopard which darted out from a hiding spot and started running it down. Whether it actually got it though was another story because we couldn’t see them anymore and we didn’t hear any shrieks or screaming so maybe, just maybe, the warthog wasn’t so stupid and actually got away. The drive continued and it got darker. Eventually it was almost pitch black and our guide asked two people in the back on either side to use the portable spotlights to search for animals. Anytime they or any of us saw anything, we just had to yell at the guide to stop. This is what we started doing and it got really comical. Every few minutes, it was “Stop! Stop! Reverse a bit!” We saw antelope, giraffe, a jackal and even rabbits/hares. One guy who was operating one spotlight got good at seeing bushbabies, tiny little monkey-like creatures with big round eyes and circular faces, such that he got some ribbing from his pals. Besides the constant yelling to stop whenever we saw animals, there was a bit of banter going on between guys on both sides over how many animals each saw. It was quite surreal (I would experience this several times), driving around in the dark in the midst of the wild in Africa shouting and laughing in a quest for viewing ferocious creatures, but it was pleasant. There were a couple of moments when we thought we’d found big cats, but it turned out to be duds each time. After the night drive ended, we were dropped back to the Kruger rest camp where TJ met us and drove us back to the lodge. That last night at the bush lodge was the third-place game between Germany and Uruguay which we caught part of after dinner. At the restaurant, there was a family there who were relatives of the lodge owners. It was a gathering before emigrating to Italy, a rather attractive brunette girl from the family told us. That night, only Pete and I stayed to watch the game which was exciting. I liked that Germany was in it though I would have preferred them to be in the next day’s game (the final). However, when we got into the last ten minutes, the power went out so we left and walked back to our rooms, wondering whether it was a power cut or scheduled outage.

The next morning, Peter was going back to Joburg so we dropped him off at a nearby lodge to get a ride from another tour truck and said our goodbyes. In fact, he was going to the final in Soccer City (so damn lucky!). He was a nice middle-aged guy and was my roommate for those nights at the lodge. He had driven around South Africa during the World Cup, attending different games before joining the tour. That morning was the first on the tour that we didn’t to wake up before 5.We now headed to Polokwane, formerly called Pietersburg which TJ still referred to it by, the largest city in Limpopo Province. It was a nice drive, passing through mountainous terrain and forested valleys, filled with plots of pine and eucalyptus trees. We got stopped by police in the late morning and TJ got asked a lot of questions, including whether we were workers (No, duhh) and if the car was licensed to carry passengers. Eventually we were cleared to proceed but I wondered if the seemingly longwinded questioning was meant to find a excuse to hit up TJ for a bribe. I remember an idyllic drive, cruising down the highway, listening to Afrikaner folk rock/ country tunes (TJ’s favorite singer apparently) about farming and rugby, and Jacaranda Hit FM, this Joburg station whose DJs spoke in Afrikaner and English, at one point, listening to Enrique Iglesias’ “I like it,” his new song. Approaching Polokwane, there were dusty hills dotted with tall cactus and dozens of homes. TJ pointed out a large local church in the distance, whose congregation size could be determined by the several buses in its parking lot. We passed by Polokwane’s World Cup stadium, which looked nice but would be considered a white elephant. Polokwane isn’t very wealthy and there isn’t enough sporting activity to sustain the stadium. We stopped at a mall (Sahara, I think) that was surprisingly modern, spacious and had the same kind of stores you’d see in a North American mall or those back in Joburg or Durban. The animal viewing part of the tour wasn’t finished yet because the day’s excursion was into the Polokwane Game Reserve. There were no lions, no leopards, no elephants, so basically no predators nor dangerous animals. It sounded a little dull but it had rhinos. TJ drove us around and we spotted giraffe, impala, secretary birds, bushbuck and other antelopes I couldn’t remember. We got out at certain points including a hill, which had a fine view of the sprawling game reserve that was actually right on the outskirts of Polokwane, and bird viewing stations inside what looked like concrete bunkers that you see in WWII movies. Finally, TJ spotted a rhino, while driving and through dense bush, and he led us out into the bush. Walking softly and quietly, he stopped us and pointed to an area about 50 feet away. There was a mother rhino and its baby. It was quite cool and I eagerly took a few steps forward to get a better look, and take pictures. Of course, if the mother rhino had seen us clearly, it would have charged us and I wouldn’t be writing this now.

Giraffe drinking, left, and a baby rhino with its mother, right. Both pictures were taken at the Polokwane Game Reserve, the latter on foot.

Our accommodation for the night was camping at Boma in the Bush, a backpackers with a really fascinating bar. Even more intriguing was that right by our camp grounds lay a ditch with a sign asking people to beware of the python, which was known to sleep inside that ditch. Alright then. Let’s just say if I saw it, I’d be glad but I’d also be fine if I didn’t see it. Because Peter had gone, I got to sleep in my own tent and I am a little abashed to say that that was the first time I had ever slept in a tent. We ate dinner inside the restaurant, which was in the main housing compound. It was a nice setup with dim lighting and a bar that featured stuffed animals and animal heads. The Australian couple in my group got me to pose by the stuffed animals in an extremely embarrassing manner and later on, we discussed apartheid and education with TJ, which he tried to give a defense based on that certain elements were blown out of proportion. A few people may find it repulsive that people can still defend apartheid in some ways, but I don’t think it’s easy to judge without fully understanding everything that went on. As much sympathy I have for blacks and others who were harshly affected, things aren’t as black and white (this isn’t a pun) as you’d think. After dinner, which I forgot exactly what it was but I just remember that is fantastic and I had seconds, we watched the World Cup final in the cozy living room. Looking back now, I remember the owners’ hyperactive little dog and TJ taunting it persistently. The owners were a kind, old Afrikans couple who spoke to TJ in Afrikaans as did the cook at the game lodge we stayed in before. Spain ended up winning the final, which probably disappointed the owners and TJ a bit, TJ having said he supported the Netherlands because of ancestry (he was Afrikaans).

Girafee and antelope at the lodge.

Inside the Kruger.

Polokwane Game Reserve.

Africa · South Africa · South Africa travel · Travel

South African safari- the Kruger

I’ve really taken too long to write this and now that I’ve got a new job, it was really time to put this up. Last summer, I took a not-so-short trip to South Africa that basically ended up in a week-long jaunt on safari and northwards into Zambia. This final leg was with a small overland group to SA’s Kruger Park and Victoria Falls in Zambia (which is right below the “heart” of Africa- Democratic Republic of Congo).  Along the way, there were stops at the Blyde River Canyon (the world’s 2nd or 3rd largest canyon as partially shown in the top photo), a cheetah center, and a rhino reserve, plus a drive through and brief stop at Botswana, which is a country between SA and Zambia in case you didn’t know. There were indeed lots of wild animals seen, in parks and on the side of the highway, and lots of driving, as well as camping in freezing temperatures (Southern Africa in July).  This trip started from Johannesburg and we were off damn early at near 5 am. I almost got on the wrong group because there was a mixup, due to there being another group, from the same company that was going to the same place and with almost the same itinerary and leaving on the same day though at a different time, staying at the backpackers where we set off from.

Anyways after the early morning confusion, everything was settled in time and we drove off toward northeastern South Africa into scenic Mpumalanga province, leaving gritty, metropolitan Johannesburg behind, leaving the highveld for the lowveld, as our guide told us. As we drove further away from Jo’burg, the scenery became more pleasant and there were long stretches of fields on the sides of the highway. We drove through a series of small, rustic, picturesque towns with quaint one-storey brick houses and shops and one main road and charming Afrikaan names like Dullstroom and Ohrigstad. This was a little like rural Ontario, when you get out of Toronto and towards little towns like Lindsay that have one main street and weekly farmers markets and so on. These towns were part of the Highlands Meander, each one offering some kind of attraction like funny themed kitschy stores or outdoor activities like fishing. I really regret not taking any pictures of these places, especially given the thousands I took during the trip. Along the way, we also saw green wheat fields, a change from the vast “prairie” fields on my Drakensberg trips in the Free State. We proceeded along the Highlands Meander to the Panoramic Route.Our first main stop was the Blyde River Canyon, specifically by the Three Rondavels, three large dome-shaped rocks that indeed looked like rondavels, the dome-shaped local African huts that are seen throughout South Africa. The canyon is one of the three largest in the world, behind only the US’ Grand Canyon and Fish Canyon, in Namibia. Looking down onto the canyon and the river zigzagging through it gave me a solemn feeling, amplified by the remoteness of the place. There were few tourists around, though there were souvenir vendors lined up inside the parking lot, with tables full of colorful blankets filled with animal designs, wood carvings and dolls. These items looked nice, but they were also ubiquitous, seemingly no different from souvenirs I’d seen in Cape Town, Durban or Jo’burg, making it likely that they were mass-produced. After the canyon, it was time to move on to Hoedspruit, a town that was larger and more urban than the others we passed through earlier, for lunch. Many towns have Afrikaan names and even Polokwane, the largest city in the region and one of the World Cup host cities, used to be called Pieterville a decade ago.

After lunch, we went to the Hoedspruit Endangered Species Centre, or just the cheetah center. The HESC was a fenced nature preserve that had, you guessed it, cheetahs, as well as other animals like the wild dog. At the entrance, we saw some vultures circling overhead, and our guide took the opportunity to debunk the popular notion that this meant some dead animal was around as just “Hollywood.” He also joked about a vulture buffet. Our guide, TJ was a broad, strapping, and a bit rotund, Afrikaan guy with a loud booming voice for whom English was not his first language, basically your stereotypical notion of a red-blooded Afrikaner male who grew up on a farm in the Free State, the Afrikaaner heartland. Sometimes he resembled a big kid when he had his cheeky grin, especially much later on. Kicks  aside, he was a great guide and knew what he was doing. Throughout the tour, he’d be making sure everything was good for us and buying us beer for nightly talks around fires. Inside the cheetah center, which was largely empty of visitors save for an Indian family that was leaving as we were entering, there was a fine visitor’s building which had a restaurant, some cattle skins, and an AV room which was full of mounted heads and stuffed and filled dead animals. We first had to watch a DVD about the center and cheetahs, specifically the King Cheetah,  that are cheetahs born with enlarged black spots, and not a distinct breed. This abnormality doomed them in the wild because they couldn’t hide and blend in with their surroundings, so making it very difficult to hunt prey. The center houses and cares for King Cheetahs as well as others. Next up was a little open-vehicle (large jeep with an open cab seating  compartment) game drive across the grounds of the center. Passing through a metal fence which one of the center’s rangers jumped out and opened, we entered a grassy area where cheetahs ran wild. We saw them soon, basically sitting and lounging around being very cooperative for us to take pictures of them. After this, we drove into other areas, which were also fenced off, including one with wild dogs. I thought I hated these animals because they always sounded so creepy and seemed so vile and vicious (if you ever watched them on Discovery Channel documentaries chasing down and disemboweling wildebeest and antelope alive you’d know what I mean), but seeing these “dogs” running around us and playing with each other, they seemed kind of friendly. Still I wouldn’t want to get out of the car and walk with them. Needless to say, their enclosure was fenced off from the cheetah’s and the rest of the center. We saw other animals, some which were fenced into small enclosures including a balls-less male lion, made so because of bad former circus owners who thought doing this took away its aggression. We eventually came across an eerie and stink sight, that of a multitude of bleached white bones strewn across a rectangular expanse. It was an animal Field of Terror. These weren’t human bones but animal bones meant for vultures, the ones we had seen circling around outside earlier. We also saw maribou storks and these are as ugly in real as they are in photos. Near the end we came across the center’s lone zebra and then the “mother” that raised it- a sheep.

The stars of the cheetah center, left, lazing around, and the wild dogs, who were so playful and even amiable.

After we left the cheetah center, we went to our accomodation for the next 3 nights, a cabin that was in a game lodge. Driving into the place, we saw a giraffe by the side of the road. Then, right outside our cabin was an alligator enclosure with 4 of them inside (2 adult, 2 small). Anyways this just fuelled my anticipation of the next day- the real safari where we’d be going into Kruger Park. We had dinner at the restaurant, which was in another site 5 minutes from our cabins that required a walk across lightly forested area. It probably doesn’t sound bad, but walking back along the same route in pitch blackness (no lights) save for TJ’s torch whilst wild animals roamed around in the surrounding bush was slightly worrying. The lodge’s cook was a nice guy who TJ knew from before, and before every dinner, he would come up to our table and describe what we were having, including the appetizer, the main course and desert. Every night we had different food and it was good. We would have impala stew on the third night, the first wild meat I’d eat in Africa (farmed ostriches and billtong don’t count). Every night, barring the third, dinner was followed by beer around the outdoor fire, which made for interesting conversation and good laughs, especially with TJ and his tour guide experience.

The lovely sunrise sky, left. A giant herd of elephants cross the road to a waterhole, right.

I woke up at 4.15 the next morning, in what would be the drill for the next 2 days, in order to be ready to leave at 5.30. TJ met us outside our cabin, led us to the restaurant and gave us our packed breakfast (juice, fruit, sandwiches) in Ziplock bags. Then he waited with us for Andrew, a private Kruger guide, to come pick us up and take us on the half-hour drive to Kruger. The park opens it gates at 6, and we’d be right on time. Again, what seemed like something routine was  a bit more harrowing than you’d expect. When you’re sitting in the open-air back compartment of a pick-up truck speeding along the highway in the dark early morning freezing due to the bitter cold, it’s nice and tortuous. When we finally reached Kruger Park, a national wildlife park that covers over 20,000 square kilometers, making it larger than some countries like Trinidad, and which crosses over into neighboring Mozambique where it joins up with a national park on that side, we were a bit early and had to wait a few minutes along with a few other vehicles. Finally, the Orpen Gate opened and we drove in. As Andrew pulled into a gas station inside, he alerted us to some animals lurking in the bushes on the other side of the road. Hyenas they were and we could barely see their dark outlines in those bushes before skulking off. Our next sighting was the most surprising and disappointing. Driving along the road, we saw several cars ahead on the road stopped. There’s a lion, Andrew told us and we stuck our heads out and frantically tried to take out our cameras. Indeed there was one, right by the side of the road, a young male, it seemed. Within a moment, he got up and disappeared into the tall grass. So yes, it was cool to see a lion almost right as soon as you get into the park, but disappointing it didn’t stick around long enough for a picture. The sky was beautiful, draped in shades of red and orange whilst mostly blanketed in dark purple and gray, as the sun came up. Andrew then drove us all around, and soon we saw giraffes, antelopes and zebras. Because he wanted us to get the Big 5 first, we zoomed by those animals, which was ok because they were numerous and more easily spotted. By late morning, we got our first Big 5 animal- elephant. Then as the day progressed, we spotted rhino, buffalo,  and leopard. We got the Big 5 checked off but we still wanted a proper lion sighting. The Big 5 refer to the lion, leopard, buffalo, elephant and rhinoceros, and it doesn’t refer to their size (otherwise the hippo would have been in there for sure) but to how hard they were to hunt and kill. Nowadays, many people still want to catch them, but only with cameras.I know I probably sound like a really nerdy animal lover, but spotting and checking off animals (literally for some people like my groupmates who bought Kruger books with animal and bird lists) was what most visitors to the park did. We’d meet other tourists and exchange stories of what we’d seen, almost as a sort of bragging rights. It was like, hey we saw lions today. Yeah, we saw leopard 3 times. And so on, but it was all in good fun.  I mean, the main point of going on a safari inside a wildlife park is to ….. see wildlife. Another thing is that seeing wildlife isn’t exactly automatic; this ain’t a zoo where animals are confined in cages or enclosures. Not that you won’t see any animals in Kruger but sometimes you can’t expect to see a lot. Given Kruger’s immense size, visitors need to spend a lot of time, as well as have good guides like we did, if they want to have some goof spotting. This is actually a complaint some people have towards Kruger, that you can go there and end up seeing little, as Ciza, 2Bhappy’s driver did when she drove there with a friend. Drive around we did, from 6 in the morning till 4ish in the afternoon. I’m not exagerrating when I say I felt dead tired around 11am and was half-awake at times (I woke up at 4am!). We stopped for lunch at 12 at one of the restaurant/rest stations for an hour. This was a fenced area with a restaurant, a take-away food place and a large outdoor seating area where you could look out onto the adjacent field and see wildebeest and zebra grazing. Wildlife was also abundant inside this area, as we saw a little owl resting on a tree branch in the parking lot, then a bushbaby on a wooden beam on the ceiling inside the rest station and dozens of dark blue, beautiful small birds. They were quite obnoxious, flying and skipping around for food scraps around restaurant guests, acting no different from pesky seagulls or crows yet much more attractive. After lunch, at around 2 pm, Andrew drove us near a watering hole which was basically a small lake or a large pond. Within minutes, elephants started crossing the road ahead of us towards the watering hole. We saw a few, then several more, adults, young and babies, and they just kept coming as if it was a parade until we had seen over 60. That’s not an exagerration. Over sixty elephants really did cross our path. The herd kept going until they reached the far end of the watering hole and started drinking, with a few younger ones playing around just like how children would be. Meanwhile in contrast, several hippos were on the other side of the watering hole, half submerged but visible, just lying in the water and not doing anything. There were even some buffalo who were in the middle of the watering hole on the far side.I have to explain that Kruger is not the Serengeti. In contrast to the wide, sweeping plains of that famous East African wildlife park where animal herds of thousands can be seen, the Kruger consists of wide, sweeping, lightly forested, bushy terrain which explains why animals can sometimes be hard to see. The park is crisscrossed by roads which people like us drive on, though the hardy or wealthy can camp at designated fenced sites inside the park or go on walking safaris with gun-wielding rangers. You can see animals such as impala, zebra and buffalo roaming in herds, but at most of several dozen as opposed to hundreds or thousands. That said, wildebeest were particularly hard to see on the first day though in animal shows, you always see them in massive herds. And it was ironic that despite how pathetic they seem on tv, always running from and being eaten by lions, hyenas and leopards, I really wanted to see them in real and felt so glad when I finally did.When particularly magnificent animals like say, leopards or lions, are spotted, traffic jams can occur as cars cluster around a spot on the road while occupants crane their necks or break out their binoculars. We were fortunate to have no less than 4 leopard sightings and on this first day we had a good one with a leopard resting up on a tree in the mid-afternoon. It was near enough for me to see it clearly but far enough for my camera to only be able to take hazy photos. By the time we got back to our lodge at 5, our wildlife sighting good fortune continued as we saw a giraffe near one of the cabins and then a small family of warthogs on the path back to our cabins. In the night, it was a bit spooky to hear hyenas howling outside whose tracks we’d see in the morning. TJ also mentioned that leopard also came into the grounds from time to time, which I don’t doubt.

The cheetah center’s vulture restaurant, left, and one of the center’s King Cheetahs, right, whose abnormally black spots make it unable to survive in the wild.

Never knew hyenas could look even remotely decent until I saw these, left. This was often the scene on our drives – random magnificent creatures wandering around in twos or threes or a handful.

Even the pesky birds are beautiful. The blue birds were very plentiful in the restaurant while the little horn bill is common around the Kruger.

This is at full zoom.

Africa · South Africa · South Africa travel · Travel

Joburg recap- the final part

Read part 1 and part 2 as well.

Signs point to the famous places on Soweto’s Vilikazi Street, left; a colorful array of South African domestic airline planes at OR Tambo Airport.

It felt a little weird to be coming back to a city that I had left basically just a week ago for the third time on this trip, not to mention it would be the third time I was entering South Africa. I had a smooth flight from Livingstone, Zambia, to Johannesburg, having completed an overland tour from said Johannesburg (to be referred to as Joburg from this point) to Victoria Falls, Zambia. This constant traveling out of and into their country caused me trouble with the South African authorities, specifically immigration, as soon as I tried to go through customs. “The World Cup has ended! This visa is invalid,” said the unfriendly, strict, though not entirely rude, black officer to me as he processed my passport. I had a World Cup visa, good for three months until the next month (August) and promising unlimited entry and reentry in the country; but to these good folks; it was completely invalid. The World Cup had ended several days earlier and now it seemed like they, specifically the guy and his colleagues, wanted us tourists to be gone. “What are you doing back here? Why were you in Zambia?” were what I was asked. I told them about my travel details, how I was leaving for good in a week’s time, but first I needed to go back to Durban. I was inwardly mortified because it occurred to me if they forced me to leave the country, my stuff was all in Durban and two, I realized what an idiot I was to have left my return ticket back in Durban. So I, and another girl, was made to go into a room where I had to sit in a waiting room, while several immigration officers conferred in another room in an adjoining corridor. I sat quietly looking at a few other guys there, feeling like I had done some kind of illicit activity like trying to enter the country illegally or smuggling contraband. The minutes passed and eventually the officers came to me and the girl, a Kenyan who had the same problem as me, having just returned from Livingstone on a World Cup visa. “Eish, we seem to have a problem,” said one lady officer to the Kenyan. Apparently her visa was invalid and she had no choice but to leave the country. Fortunately for her, she was leaving that night anyways though she still had to solve the problem of getting her luggage from a hostel in Joburg. It was better news for me as I was able to get a new regular visa (thank you Hong Kong!). Thankfully all this didn’t take me too long and I got picked up by my backpacker’s driver. She also had 2 Dutch backpackers to pick up at around the same time. The girls were about to set off on a trip to Namibia, via a bus trip that would take over 15 hours, the next day from Joburg’s Park Station. They had also recently gone into Kruger Park as well but had driven themselves in a rented car. How my own travel experiences paled in comparison.
This time, I was staying at another backpackers, one with a much more reasonable rate. However it wasn’t in a nice well-to-do northern Joburg suburb, but in a neighborhood close to the city center. It was Yeoville, of which my saying its name had scared my Joburg city tour guide a week ago when I told him. Yeoville’s genteel sounding name belies the fact it’s one of the more poorer and unsafe Joburg neighborhoods, with a large population of Africans which many locals, meaning South Africans, were wary of. The backpacker itself was good. I had checked it out on the Internet and the rates were good, which I now knew why, and it seemed like a legit and proper place. 2Bhappy was its name and it was a one-story house surrounded by a brick wall and guarded by a 3-legged but fierce dog. On the way to 2Bhappy, I was able to see some of the neighborhood. It wasn’t a slum but it seemed a little rough. I can’t remember exactly what it was, but between the buildings and guys hanging around, it didn’t seem like the place to go walking around. Indeed, I could go out and walk to the nearby supermarket if I wanted, but just don’t carry my bag else I could be recognized as a tourist and be robbed, said the receptionist. That didn’t seem like a very positive description of the area so I just stayed my ass inside for the day and a half I was there. It was also cold like hell. I slept with 2 long pants and my jacket on and I was still cold. My hands had been chafed in Kruger and Botswana and now, the chafed parts were cracking open. It sounds petty but it was quite painful.
Anyways, the next day was a visit to Soweto and the Apartheid Museum. Soweto is famous for its resistance against the apartheid regime. It’s also considered dangerous in some places. Soweto is actually a collection of townships but it’s also a part of Joburg. The word township brings to mind a poor place and in some parts of Soweto, it is indeed poor, but there are middle-class and even upper-middle-class areas too. On this trip, arranged with 2Bhappy, I had a guide Ben, and a driver. As with my previous Joburg day tour, I was the only passenger. As we drove into Soweto, Soccer City was one of my first sights and Ben acceded to my request to stop close to the stadium. It was large and brownish, rather than gold like it looked on tv, and I was a little disappointed by it. The World Cup having ended a few days ago, the stadium was still and deserted. We also drove past Orlando Stadium, where the World Cup concert had been held the night before the World Cup.

Soccer City, on the left; one of several large plaques on Soweto’s Vilikazi Street that explain the history of the area.

We were going to the Hector Pietersen Museum first. Located in the Orlando West area of Soweto, it was very close to renowned Vilikazi Street, home to the nation’s two most famous Nobel Peace Prize laureates, also lay.
The museum is spacious and modern, having been opened in 2002. There were exhibits, posters, and videos of the Soweto Uprising of 1976 during which 12-year-old Hector Pietersen was shot dead by the police, as well as apartheid policies that led up to that turbulent time. Education is one of the most important aspects of society, but for the apartheid regime, it was one of the most important ways to control blacks, through policies like preventing them from learning maths and science. Also, little funding was given to black schools as most of the education budget was allocated for white students in white schools. However, in the mid 1970s, when the regime decided to enforce teaching in Afrikaans, the language of white Afrikaners, for all blacks, this was too much for the students of Soweto. They launched a series of protests, refusing to go to school, and ultimately went into the streets for a mass rally on June 16. Chaos erupted when police confronted the marchers, which turned into violence and the deaths of hundreds, including most vividly Hector Pietersen in a famous photo. That photo shows Pietersen’s dead body being carried by a youth, with Pietersen’s crying sister alongside.

Inside the Hector Pietersen museum, left, and the memorial just outside the museum. Hector is in the photos shown, and sadly he is the dead boy who is being carried by another guy.

Apartheid seems unimaginable to most of us, so places like this museum serve well to remind us how real it was. Outside the museum, there is an open space which has a memorial to Pietersen. From the memorial, I walked, guided by a marked line on the sidewalk, to the spot where Pietersen was killed, just a few blocks away and near Vilikazi Street. Vilikazi Street goes along a gently descending slope and the Orlando Towers, 2 deactivated cooling towers that have been painted up as a tourist attraction, are visible in thehorizon. A little further down the street, Nelson Mandela’s former home is located. A simple one-storey brick home, the inside has several photos, mementos and objects that belonged to Mandela and his then-wife Winnie. What really caught my eye was a wooden oriental chest lying in the corner of a room because it resembled wooden chests that my grandmother owned that was bought from Hong Kong. The house guide told me the chest was a gift from Mongolia. While the cover price may be a little expensive, it is a unique experience to be literally standing in the footsteps of a great man of our times.

Nelson Mandela’s things, left, including memorabilia, desk and honors from various universities and nations are inside his former home, (as well as his ex-wife Winnie) now a tourist attraction. It’s a simple, one-story red-brick house as you can see from the outside.

I would be lying if I didn’t admit that this place seemed a bit touristy, from the vendors selling African crafts and cloths outside the museum to the restaurants and the open  atmosphere that was unlike what you’d normally associate with being in the middle of a township. On the other hand, I got glares from some schoolchildren in a high school on that street and a friendly wave from a driver.
The last Soweto stop was at an informal settlement, Motsoaledi, the closest to a slum I would experience here. We pulled up to a dusty car park outside the settlement, and Ben turned me over to Mandla, a settlement resident who would be my temporary guide. Mandla, a Zulu who spoke in a slow, dignified manner, came from a place near Durban but had been in Soweto for over 10 years. We walked into the informal settlement on the main “lane” which extended straight down the settlement, with shacks and shanties ringing both sides. People trudged past us and nobody really paid much attention to me, a stranger from the other side of the world. Mandla and I walked for a short while, then turned into a yard surrounded by several homes. We went into a resident’s home, which was a small shack with a bedroom and a small kitchen. A single woman lived here with her 2 small children. I felt a little bad, being in such a bleak living space and not being able to help or do anything substantial. I exchanged a few words with the lady, while nervously eying the many mosquitos flying around. At the very least, I didn’t say any frivolous thing but I honestly couldn’t think of anything meaningful to say. I gave the lady a small “donation” and after walking out of her home and back to the entrance, I also gave Mandla a small contribution. This was a little uncomforable because one, I really didn’t have much cash to spare, having had to pay for the tour and the museum entry for the day, and two, I wasn’t too keen on being asked to give to both the community and Mandla. Just before I reentered Ben’s car, several vendors approached me, showing their crafts incuding woodcarved animals. I pretended to feign interest as I had no absolutely no intention of buying, but this just made things worse. “You like this hippo? 40 rand. No? 35 rand. Or how about this giraffe, it’s good too.” Finally I had to walk away, though I felt a little twinge of guilt. Not because I hadn’t bought anything but because of how desperate the guy was. He was pushy and insistent but not in a rude way. I told my guide that I felt a little bad about not buying anything but “I just wasn’t interested,” and he gave me a cryptic reply: “well like the saying goes, you can take the dog to the water but you can’t make him drink.” His use of “dog” instead of “horse” in this common saying had me thinking a little about whether it was just a mistake or a deliberate slight. Anyways we drove out of Soweto, my last sights being two men pushing carts filled with garbage on the side of a road, the outside of Chris Baragwanath Hani Hospital, said to be the largest hospital in the world, and a line of narrow, one-storey brick buildings, which used to be the hostels for migrants from all over the nation.

The Orlando Towers, left, deactivated cooling towers in Soweto that have been nicely done up by local artists; the entrance into the Apartheid Museum. Intended to mimic reality during apartheid, though it’s your ticket stub that determines which one you enter through.

The famous Apartheid Museum was the final stop. Built to serve as a vivid lesson and warning to people about the horror of apartheid, the museum was rather new and well laid-out inside, despite an unassuming exterior. You get a taste of apartheid as soon as you enter, because your ticket is randomly marked with a white or non-white designation which forces you to enter through the white or non-white entrance. If this seems a little blatant, just remember this was reality for apartheid, and also in the US before the 1960s.  The exhibits were divided in 16 parts in more or less chronlogical order and they were laid out so each followed accordingly. What really struck me was how detailed and inrusive apartheid was. Not only did it classify blacks, but other races such as Indians and East Asians who while not as badly treated as blacks were still discirminated against. Mixed people or Coloureds also fit into the middle of this racial hierarchy topped by Afrikaner whites. Obviously this was to divide and rule non-whites; by giving some races/ethnicities limited and differing privileges, this caused resentment and hindered cooperation. Reminiscent of Belgian racial policies in 20th-century Rwanda, some South Africans had their noses measured and hair run through with a comb to determine if they were to be black or coloured. Sometimes, siblings were classified as different races, which would cause rifts within families.
The museum made good use of multimedia displays, especially with vivid videos of turbulent events including violence that happened after apartheid ended and before the 1994 elections. Civil war was a frightening possibility as there were white-black clashes with white racist militant groups invading black territories, and black-on-black violence between the ANC and the Inkatha-Zulu party (the Zulus being the tribe predominant in the province of KwaZulu-Natal and which President Zuma belongs to). There was also a Kaspir, a giant sinister armored vehicle which police used to roll into Soweto to patrol and reak up riots. Kaspirs were used in the movie District 9.
The last exhibit was an artistic arrangement with some stones that had a hopeful theme on the future. This optimism is something that I heard from many tour guides but I’m doubtful it’s as popular among many of the population. Outside the museum was a small sloping hill with some schulptures, where you could view the skyscrapers of the city center in the distance, as well as rides in the Gold Reef City amusement park next door. If there is one place to vist in Joburg, let it be the Apartheid Museum.

The front of the Apartheid Museum with the ticket counters on the right; artwork on an outside field within the museum.

My last night in Yeoville, and Johannesburg, was a little harrowing. I couldn’t sleep so I read through the Lonely Planet Southern Africa (9 countries!) and Frommer SA guides until 3 am or so. I’d heard music playing during the evening, probably from bars and restaurants nearby, but hearing people shouting and car alarms going off late at night wasn’t so cool. I managed to wake up at 4.30am for my early flight. I was driven to the airport by Ciza, 2Bhappy’s driver who had picked me up from the airport when I came back to Joburg. Ciza was a young woman from Soweto who was now living in Yeoville and her English was fast and fluent. I point that out because in South Africa, almost every local I met, no matter what race, spoke English in a different way. We had a good talk, surprisingly even about Yeoville after I told her how bad my night had been. Soweto was safer, she said, as she didn’t need to worry about her kids being outside and all that. We also passed an area with a number of Chinese restaurants and firms, which was Cyrildene. I would have wanted to visit here if I had some time. I didn’t notice much Chinese during my entire stay except briefly in Durban in Gateway mall. For some reason, there aren’t much Chinese – less than 100,000. However in Durban, I’d been told by my relatives and other people from Taiwan that many Taiwanese had left but more mainlanders were coming in. Of course, to a lot of people in Taiwan and China, South Africa might as well be the Wild West. Hell, to people in Taiwan, all of mainland China, except Shanghai, is the Wild West.
My flight back to Durban passed without incident and I would be back in Joburg again once more soon, albeit very briefly. Joburg seemed both gritty and significant. It wasn’t beautiful, sunny or touristy like Cape Town nor laidback like Durban. Instead it had a hustle and bustle and a size and reputation that really made it seem like a giant metropolis, which it is, not just of a nation but a continent. It is a place where multitudes converge to make a living, not to visit or to pass through. I hope I could go back again in future, but at that point, I was ready to go back to Durban.

A last look at Joburg’s city center. I think that’s Robinho on the Nike-ad that’s plastered on one of the towers.

Africa · South Africa · South Africa travel · Travel

Joburg recap- part 2

Read part 1 here.

View of the city center from the Carlton Center observatory.

After my first experience of Johannesburg as a brief stopover where I got conned by a porter, my proper Johannesburg experience started near the end of my trip in July. I left for Jo’burg from Durban on the day of the semifinal between Germany and Spain, which incidentally was taking place in Durban. By that time, I had already booked my overland tour so I had to get to Johannesburg by that day, plus the only remaining game tickets were US$200 (these being the cheapest for foreigners). I left Durban on a 1Time (one of several domestic airlines, each with funky designs on their planes) flight in the morning and within an hour’s time, I was in Jo’burg back at OR Tambo. I used my hostel pickup service and their driver came for me soon. The hostel was located outside of Johannesburg proper in the northern suburbs so it was about half an hour’s drive from the airport. During the drive, I asked my driver about the World Cup. By this time, South Africa had crashed out in what seemed ages ago, ignominously as the first host to never advance to the second round. He didn’t care too much, saying he was busy working and that the tickets were too expensive anyways. The fact that he, as a South African with a fulltime job, was eligible to buy the local tickets, priced around US$10, and still thought they were expensive  speaks volumes about the harsh economic situation for many locals, especially blacks. I heard and read this same sentiment expressed by other people and in the news. While I said this was an uneventful drive, there was a small incident along the way which was a perfect example of male chauvinism, except instead of being black or African, it was universal. We were blocked on the road by 2 cars which were waiting to turn right and when one was too slow to move on, the driver honked furiously which made that person finally turn. As we drove past, the driver looked at that driver, a black woman, and cursed. “Women are stupid drivers!” he spat, something I’ve heard before though in a more restrained manner and which I don’t agree with. I’m a little embarrassed to say that I didn’t say anything and just murmured a neutral response.

That afternoon, I did a half-day “city tour” arranged by my hostel. I was going to Constitution Hill, the Carlton Center (Africa’s tallest building), the Museum Africa and the Mandela bridge. My guide was Matt, a tall serious-looking black guy who was talkative as all tour guides should be and also didn’t seem too thrilled at first. This wasn’t surprising because I was the only tourist on his van and it made me feel a little like I was on a private tour. He wasn’t shy about telling me this, saying how much it cost to run his van with the insurance and all that, and that few tourists meant it wasn’t really worth it. Business wasn’t doing well, he told me, and given that he had been in it for several years, it seemed like he wasn’t too keen on staying. But, despite all that, Matt was cool and he took me to everywhere I was supposed to go and made sure everything was alright. We even finished our tour debating politics and him wondering why a form of social democracy couldn’t exist in South Africa. Anyways about the actual sights. Johannesburg is an interesting city. It has this dark, ominous reputation, a kind of real-life Gotham City where murder, rape, street car hijackings and muggings occur frequently and everywhere. On the other hand, it is the nation’s economic and cultural powerhouse, especially with the famous and massive Soweto township next to it. Some would even say it is Africa’s economic powerhouse and it attracts people from all African nations, from refugees to middle-class professionals to gangsters. The downtown or city center is supposedly the most dangerous place and usually people won’t go there unless they work there. In Durban, a similar situation exists where the city center is said to be dangerous and the middle and upper classes live in suburbs right outside of the city center or in towns away from the city. There are several really upscale suburbs to the north of the city center in Johannesburg including Sandton, which are filled with houses and malls and office buildings that give the appearance of a wealthy Western country. The further you go into the city center, the more rundown and grimy buildings you see, but there are also impressive historic colonial-era buildings and many skyscrapers, more than in Taipei. There are wide roads and works of art such as giant antelope statues that show off the local creativity. In time for the World Cup, the city opened a new bus line, the Reo Vaya, which had fancy-looking bus stops.Constitution Hill was the first place on the tour. It’s where the Constitution Court, the nation’s highest court for constitutional matters, is located, having been moved here in 2004. The court is part of a complex which consists of former prisons where such worthies as Mahatma Gandhi and Nelson Mandela were locked up in while waiting trial. The court building itself is nice, with the name written in all 11 official languages on its front and with parts of the prison it was built upon still intact. We were able to go into the actual court chamber, which was empty and the judges’ table made for an interesting sight as it was swathes in cow hides.

The Constitution Court building, with the name written in all 11 official languages.

The Constitution Court itself.

The next stop was the Carlton Center, located directly in the city center. It’s the nation’s tallest tower as well as the continent’s. It’s not too impressive visually, having been built in the 1970s and being plain. There’s a mall at the ground level and the top floor is the observatory. It provides a 360 degree view of the city extending all the way to Soweto in the southwest and the suburbs in the north. There weren’t many visitors, this being a weekday, and I got the impression that despite the ongoing World Cup, there weren’t many tourists in Johannesburg. The observatory had a few vendors selling from stalls but there was a lot of empty space. The pale green walls also gave the place an oldish aura. I was helped by a friendly security guard who pointed out places like Soccer City and Gandhi Square. He also knew a little about Taiwan (computers and high-tech industry) which impressed me because many people there didn’t.When we walked back to the van, I wanted to take a picture or two but shamefully, the fear of being robbed, even with Matt next to me, prevented me. This was Johannesburg’s reputation taking ahold of my mind, preventing me from snapping pictures on the street in the city center. Of course, I also exercised similar restraint while walking around in Cape Town and Durban, but not to the same level. Downtown Johannesburg was bustling, being where the country’s financial center, and it had a big-city atmosphere that downtown Durban, itself a city of 3 million, didn’t. There were even double-decker buses, decked out in colorful ads, and we drove by the SAB World of Beer and even onto a diagonal street.

Double decker decorated with Ke Nako FCB World Cup ad, left; looking at Johannesburg’s famous Ellis Park stadium from the Carlton Center. The 1995 Rugby World Cup final was held here.

After this, it was off to the Newtown District, well-known as an art district, and Museum Africa. Located inside the historic Market Precinct, where there were historic “rail sidings and potato sheds” and the Market Theatre playhouse, this museum had a mix of displays and exhibits, from geological rocks to multimedia artworks and even a collection of antique cameras. One of the most interesting displays was a fullscale mockup of a township slum home. There were also some archaelogical artifacts but it wasn’t much; a Gandhi exhibit that was mostly photos of him in Johannesburg; and a set of displays telling the stories of local gays. The museum’s exterior didn’t match the newness of the interior and looked like a warehouse.  In fact the building used to be a market (its official name is the Newtown Market Building), and was built in 1913 while the museum was housed in it from 1994. Next to the museum was a large courtyard with a concert screen. A large figure with hands upraised made out of red Coke cases loomed at one end and in the near distance, Cristiano Ronaldo loomed on the side of a skyscraper that was swathed in a Nike “Write the Future” ad. There were many stalls and some guys playing music, giving off a really touristy atmospere, which it was intended to. As with the Carlton Center and Constitution Hill, there weren’t many tourists arounds.
The museum was the last stop of my “private” tour, but not the last sight. The driver drove over the Nelson Mandela suspension bridge, Southern Africa’s longest such bridge, and also past Nelson Mandela’s residence in Houghton, an upscale suburb north of Johannesburg. I couldn’t really see much because the walls are high and we didn’t linger, but it was striking to me that it was possible to drive past his home just like that.
After I got back to my hostel, I had just enough time before my tour group meeting to walk to a nearby mall (my first and only bit of walking I did in Johannesburg), which strangely enough had no entrance above ground. To get in, you had to walk into the underground garage and go through the doors there. It was a nice mall with all kinds of fancy stores, chain outlets, and cafes and lots of solid middle-class and higher types, as well as the odd lowly single tourist like myself. I would come back and make the meeting on time, but it would turn out to be a fateful night, and I’m not referring to Germany’s loss to Spain, tragic as that was.

The Market Theatre, left, in Newtown’s Market Precinct. Museum Africa was just around the corner. This giant Coca Cola robot loomed large at an outdoor plaza next to Museum Africa.


Africa · South Africa · South Africa travel

Joburg recap- part 1

It’s been such a long time since South Africa but I feel I owe an entry for Johannesburg and maybe, for Kruger and Victoria Falls. With all the recent World Cup news about the hosts for 2018 and 2022 and the tourism spending in this year’s tournament, I was brought back to my trip to SA in the summer. I’ve got to write this piece on Johannesburg now or I might never get around to do it.
Johannesburg was my first and last stop, being where my flight from Hong Kong stopped at before I transferred to my Durban flight, and vice versa, where I transferred to take my flight to HK coming back. In between, I was in Jo’burg, as locals commonly call it, twice because in between I went on an overland trip for a Kruger “safari” and to Zambia. But despite being there 4 times, my grand total of time spent there was probably 4 days.

Johannesburg has such a big reputation. It’s not the capital of SA, but the biggest city where all the major mining and financial corporations and stock exchange are based. It’s also the business capital of Africa, the “New York” of Africa if you will, being one of the largest cities on the continent. Unfortunately it’s also got a fearsome reputation for crime and shadiness, so much so that not only is it known internationally for this but also many locals fear to venture there. I’m not exaggerating at all as quite a number of people from Durban told me they never go there or if they do, never dare to go into the city proper, preferring to stay in the more upscale suburbs. In fact, even a guy in Johannesburg (and he wasn’t white or Asian), as opposed to someone from Durban or elsewhere in SA, actually warned me about the place where my backpackers (hostel) was, Yeoville, saying “I wouldn’t even go there” and that if he drove there, he’d get his windows smashed or something. This actually put a good bit of fear into me as well and the only thing that prevented me from canceling my reservation was that I’d already given them my credit card.

Anyways my first moment in Johannesburg, as soon I stepped onto South African soil, started with a bad experience, because basically I got conned by an airport porter and foolishly gave him a “tip” that was way more than he deserved. I had to transfer to my flight to Durban, and in order to do so, you need to step outside the customs and baggage area into the open airport area (in Hong Kong’s airport, you transfer inside and never need to step outside) and walk to the domestic gates. Right as soon as I passed through the door, a whole swarm of porters were in front of me and one of them quickly approached me, offering to take me to the domestic gate. I followed him and foolishly, I let him push my cart. By the time we got the gate, which wasn’t hard to find, he asked me for 100 rand (US$13). Because I was tired, having just gotten off a 13-hour flight and wasn’t thinking too clearly and I didn’ t want to start off my trip by getting into an argument with an airport employee (and because I was plain stupid), I gave it to him and he shook my hand and went off. This wasn’t the last time I was to be hassled for money but it was the last time I was played for such a fool.

Actually my impression of the country was quite good at that point. I flew on South African Airways from HK to Johannesburg, and the service and entertainment was top-notch. I watched Invictus, a film about the South African rugby team winning the 1995 World Cup on home soil while the country emerged from Nelson Mandela’s momentous election win, which put me in the right mood for appreciating the country. Flying over Johannesburg toward the airport, the ground below was filled with neatly-arranged rows of houses with yards that looked like I was flying over Toronto instead of South Africa and later on, industrial offices. The airport (OR Tambo international, named after the former ANC head) was impressive, though we had to get off the plane onto the tarmac and take a bus to the terminal, and it looked just as sophisticated and modern, even more so, than Taiwan’s. While lining up to get onto the flight in Hong Kong, I noticed it was a multicultural bunch of passengers, including whites, blacks, Chinese and even Japanese. I could tell the World Cup mood was strong when I entered the huge customs area and saw it full of visitors and World Cup displays. The walls were decorated with World Cup ads and signs welcoming visitors, the lines were separated by steel rails, with lines for World Cup visitors, officials and locals. I was a little taken aback by how filled with people it was, this being about a week and a half before the World Cup started. I cleared customs with ease and had to get my luggage then check into my domestic transfer to Durban. After this, I had to step outside to walk to the domestic gate, when my fateful encounter above occurred. The airport has a lot of stores and kiosks, both outside and inside the gates. There were many World Cup vendors selling colorful shirts, flags, ornaments and of course, vuvuzelas on kiosks, even at the boarding gate to my Durban flight. My flight to Durban was uneventful except for brief conversation with the guy next to me, a white Durban guy who was coming home on holidays from school in the US. I asked him about Durban and I even gushed over how some middle-class  and upper-class neighborhoods, seen when flying into Johannesburg, looked like it could have been Canada or the US. He didn’t react in any way, but thinking back, I could see how much of an ignorant tourist I must have seemed (Oh look, you’ve got houses that look like they could be in Canada!).

Left, flying over a middle-class suburb on the way to OR Tambo. Right, we board an airport bus. These are some of the Chinese passengers, some of whom were journalists and media professionals.

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Durban recap

After all those posts on Cape Town a while back, Durban deserves at least one more post of its own, given the good times I had there. I wrote about Durban while there, including a World Cup protest during the tournament and a visit to the Ohlange historic region in Phoenix township north of Durban, plus visiting Tzu Chi’s rural project in Umbumbulu, south of Durban. This time, let me just wrap up and reiterate what’s so nice about the laidback coastal city.

Durban is on the other side of South Africa (in the East) from Cape Town, facing the Indian Ocean. Before I went there in June, the only thing I knew about it was that it was mentioned in the classic King Solomon’s Mines. Now, I know it as a bustling port city with great weather and a fine beachfront right on its doorstep, elegant Victorian buildings in the city center, and the bunny chow, its famous dish composed of not rabbits, but curry meat, beans and potatoes tucked into a half-loaf of bread. Its most famous landmark may very well be its newest, the Moses Mabhida Stadium, newly built for the World Cup, and which I took countless pictures of. The structure itself is attractive, with its brilliant white exterior and arch that soars across from one end to the other, but people can also take a ride to the top of the arch, or walk, and enjoy a sweeping view of the city and the coastline. This is according to what people told me though, because I didn’t do it but I did enjoy many views of the stadium including from the inside during 2 World Cup matches.

The beach or Golden Mile, it should be obvious why it’s called that, is nice to walk along. Besides swimming, surfing or enjoying the sights, there are crafts vendors, bars and an aquarium and marine park near the harbor, which is the largest in Africa.
The city centre has a reputation for being a bit shoddy and even dangerous. While nothing untoward ever happened to me there, parts of it are kind of rundown, with abandoned storefronts and old facades, and caution should always be taken. But parts of it are splendid as well, with the City Hall and the area around it that boasts fine Victorian structures that exemplify the city’s British colonial heritage. City Hall itself has two museums inside as well as a music hall with one of the world’s largest organs, which I got to see thanks to some kind staff members who let us in even though it was closed.
Durban is also home to one of, if not the largest Indian populations outside of India (about 1 million) so it doesn’t come as a surprise that curry dishes, rotis, and samosas are popular, easy to find and great to taste (really miss the 3 rand (.40US$) samosas at Spar).
One of the city’s most well-known attractions is the Victoria Street Indian Market. I thought it was a street market, but it’s actually a mall with lots of curry vendors and African crafts stores. And yes, some of these crafts stores are run by Indians. Nearby is a fish market but there’re also vendors selling “smileys” – goat’s heads that have a slight trace of a smile on their dead faces – that brave souls, not me, can try a bite of. Near the market is the Juma Masjid, which is said to be the largest mosque in the Southern Hemisphere. It didn’t seem that impressive though, because it was smack in the middle of a shopping district and itself had many stores along the first floor of its exterior facing the street.

Durban may not have the beauty of Cape Town or the hustle and bustle of Johannesburg (which is actually a good thing), but it is a great place to relax and to enjoy cultural diversity different from the rest of South Africa. It’s also a good point to set off towards the Drakensbergs or St. Lucia Wetland Park, both World Heritage Sites, as well as the Zulu lands in the Land of a Thousand Hills. Beaches run both north and south from Durban, with the north being more upscale. The new airport (King Shaka Zulu, just opened May 2010) is also up north and flying into it gives you a good view of some of these really upscale beachfront homes.

City Hall.

Durban beachfront, looking towards the city center.

Vervet monkeys running wild in the neighborhood, with the 2 on the right being kind enough to tolerate me taking their picture.

Seems like no matter where you look at the city from, the World Cup Stadium stands out, and in a good way.

A band performs at Burn, a Durban rock mainstay that’s seen better days but is still a decent place to hang out, especially the rooftop lounge. Still, the pitifully short free-drinks period on “free drinks” night (another night) was pathetic.

uShaka (yes, that’s how it’s spelled) aquarium.

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Drakensberg photo roundup

This is a photo roundup of the Drakensberg Sentinel Peak hike and the lodge. The photo above shows part of the trail on the way back when the conditions were still overcast.

Spot the other hikers and the trail leading to the car park, also visible, which was our end point. The weather had cleared up and we got some good views.

Sentinel Peak stands out in the distance, from the Sentinel Peak car park, our starting and ending point.

The car park is just a speck on the trail winding on the hills in the background of this great view. We walked all the way towards that car park from here. Meanwhile, for some reason there was this barbed wire fence here. No way, it could be a barrier to catch people falling off, maybe it’s for animals.

Climbing up a ravine on our way up, left, and the Tugela “Falls” as they were. This is winter and during the rest of the year, they flow off this point as the world’s second-highest waterfall.

This is one of the chain ladders we had to climb down during our descent. And at right, this is back at the lodge of course, is a herd of stampeding cows. This was caused not by me, but by the lodge dog who can be seen as the little brown round object at right. I’ve never seen cows run so fast, in fact I’ve never seen cows run at all. The dog took off like it was possessed as soon as we came upon the cows.

This is the fancy bar of the lodge Amphitheatre Backpackers I stayed at, all decked out for the World Cup though of course, much of the decor is permanent. It’s really African in terms of the roof and the masks and shields on the wall, but it’s also got some original flavor of its own. At night, it looks even more impressive and is a really nice place to relax.

This is where I, and dozens of people, watched Japan play (and lose to) Paraguay the first night I was here.

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A brief sojourn in the mighty Drakensberg

In the province of KwaZulu-Natal lies a vast mountainous area that stretches for over 1,000 kilometers and has some of the most magnificent scenery in South Africa, Africa and probably the world. Unfortunately I almost didn’t get to see any of this scenery when I went there on a too-short stay in late June. The mighty Drakensberg (it means Dragon’s Back in Afrikaans, and is called uKhahlamba -barrier of spears- by the Zulus) has a multitude of peaks over 3,000m and stretches for about 1,000 km and over towards Lesotho, which itself is the highest nation in the world, being virtually completely mountainous. Naturally it was one of the places I most wanted to go for my South Africa trip.

First I had to do some planning as it wasn’t easy to get there. Even though it is in the same province as Durban, and is only a few hours’ drive, buses don’t go there directly and I didn’t have a private ride. Searching around for any kind of tours to the Drakensberg, I found a few but they were very pricey and involved a lot of logistical back and forth. I then found out about the Baz Bus, a kind of shared inter-city taxi service for backpackers, and as it went directly to a lodge in the Drakensberg, chose it. It was kind of pricy and that morning, it came almost 50 minutes after it was supposed to, keeping me waiting for over an hour. Foolish me – since when should you come early for anything in Africa.

The Drakensberg is a World Heritage Site and boasts a series of peaks over 3,000m, San cave paintings and forests that are just great for hiking and exploring. For me, it was all about the Amphitheatre, a 5-km long escarpment regarded as one of the world’s most impressive cliff faces.

The Amphitheatre is located in the Northern Drakensberg where my lodge was also situated. The lodge was even named after the Amphitheatre, and the backyard provided a great view of the Amphitheatre in the distance, as it joined up with other peaks to form a long flat, imposing mountainous wall, see the above pic, that ran to the Central Drakensberg. To give you a sense of how long it was, I thought that the whole cliff wall was the Amphitheatre, until the lodge staff Adrian told me it was just a section at the right-most wall.
The lodge was off the side of a highway and the only nearby settlements were farms and fields. Coming to the lodge was like a trip into the Prairies in the US, not that I’ve ever been there but the scenery was reminiscent of what I’d seen in TV or magazines. Cattle, maize fields filled with a golden-yellowish hue and lonely flat-topped hills were what filled the surrounding scenery as we drove towards the Amphitheatre Lodge.

The lodge was a 4-star hostel (which they call backpackers) and it certainly lived up to that billing, with the exception of the showers. There was a main building covered with a thatch roof, as many traditional huts are, a funky bar area, and a pool in the back, while all the rooms were in several separate structures, some also thatch-roofed.
The entire backyard was a grassy field that opened up into a bushy area with some towering grass, traversed by a flat riverbed and several trails that ended at the barbed wire fences of the adjoining farms. The wide open surroundings and high grass gave me the feeling of being in an African plain, like the Serengeti.

The lodge, seen from the back as we were coming back from a walk. The silos are actually dorms.

The “Serengeti” and a flat-topped hill, left, and part of the Drakensberg.

The lodge ran day trips to the Northern Drakensberg and Lesotho, as well as a 3/4-day Drakensberg hike.
I did the Lesotho trip on the first full day, but I really looked forward to the hike up to the Tugela Falls, the world’s 2nd highest waterfall, which was in the Drakensberg.
Ominously the day started off with the skies very overcast, threatening to rain. When we drove up into the Sentinel car park, the mist was thick enough that we could barely see outside. Here, I have to explain that we weren’t actually hiking from the ground up, instead we were taking a “shortcut,” as the Tugela Falls was about 2 hours from the Sentinel car park. This didn’t mean it was a walk in the park because the trail was rocky, a little steep at parts, and I struggled a little at times, with the cold air and the altitude possible being factors (not surprising given my relative lack of fitness and high altitude experience). The air was cold and the mist thick, and there was even “clumps” of frozen snow along the trail. It was a notable sight not because I’d never seen snow (I’ve seen enough to last a lifetime in Toronto), but I just didn’t expect to see it in Africa.

The ascent consisted of a long walk, then a climb up a boulder-filled ravine Kloof Gully which took us to the top. Some more walking brought us to the falls, which given the ice, and the mist, gave me a surreal feeling of not being in Africa but somewhere in North America. I have to point out  that by this time, though I had realized how diverse South Africa’s landscapes and climate were, I still couldn’t help contrasting this with my previous notions of how Africa and South Africa would be.  On the day I arrived in SA, the temperature in Johannesburg was 7 degrees, colder than any day I’ve experienced in Taipei but absolutely normal in Toronto during autumn. At this point during the hike, I had to put on my thick Taiwan jacket which meant I was wearing 2 shirts, a fleece and a jacket. Four layers, which I’d never put on, even in the coldest days in Toronto. I also had on gloves, which I kept taking off from time to time to take pictures. Yet even wearing all this, I still felt chilly. I was even told I had frost on my hair, which was confirmed when looking through my pictures later.

It was a massive disappointment to not be able to see clearly, because the highlight was supposed to be the view from on top, not so much the waterfall which was frozen, and was just a trickle, this being winter. “This is what we came here for- to see snow in Africa!” was my weak attempt at humor, but it got a few laughs. Moving on, we walked past a meadow and crossed a stream bed, until reaching the first set of steel chain ladders. These were to be our means of descent and it was a little nerve-wracking, as the ladders weren’t bolted onto the rock face so each step down resulted in some shaking. It must be mentioned that there was a Mexican family in our group (2 parents, 2 kids), and each parent climbed together with one kid each. They did this with each parent straddled over one child while both held onto the ladder and climbing slowly but steadily in sync. They did well. It was over 20 feet, maybe more like 30 feet, and at the bottom was a ledge from which another pair of ladders awaited.

After the ladders, it was a climb down a boulder-strewn ravine, and a clear walk on a narrow trail back to the car park that took maybe an hour. I felt quite disappointed because really, the sight was amazing in normal, clear weather as evidenced by looking through the Internet.
While I walked at the rear, busy taking a few pics of the cloudy, obscured surroundings, one of a pair of English guys who’d hiked up behind us and were now walking back with us, suddenly pointed out that the weather seemed to be clearing up a little.
Indeed, the weather did clear up, and gradually, the mist dissipated, revealing reddish vegetation-filled bur treeless slopes alternating with charred blackness, a distinctive conical hilltop that extended downward and outward from part of the trail, and a vast valley floor with a lake in the near distance. The sky was still overcast but the greyness of the skies added to the color of the scenery. I did wish we were back on top but I was still immensely grateful for this.

The thick mist lifted as we walked towards the car park after descending from the top. It continued to clear up as we continued, and I couldn’t help thinking, why couldn’t this have happened while we were on top?

The walk back from this point was quite nice, and at several vantage points, there were great scenic views, including the looming flat-topped quadrilateral-shaped Sentinel Peak and a valley on the other side of our hill where clouds actually floated below. For some reason, there was barbed wire strewn across below a part of the trail. It certainly couldn’t be a barrier to catch people who fell off the trail, could it? I took a lot of pictures and I suppose this made me seem either obsessed or somebody who never gets out too much, or both. But I was determined to get as much as I could out of this trip, which in this case means taking a lot of pictures.

The drive back was relatively uneventful but still remarkably scenic. We did pass a raging fire that was engulfing a side of a slope along the side of the mountain road coming back, as well as passed a troop of baboons milling on the road and on a high rock wall overlooking us.

The next day was the last day. In the morning I took a walk through the back again with one of my lodge buddies and the lodge dog. When we came across a herd of cows, numbering about 15, the previously friendly dog took off like a psycho and ran right up to the bovines, placidly chewing grass and watching us, all barking mad. Well I never realized cows could be so cowardly because the entire herd just took off and literally stampeded, luckily not in our direction but in the other direction. I then saw that the 15 cows had multiplied to more than twice the number, because there were other cows who were hidden by the tall grass and on lower ground.
The cows stopped at what they deemed a safe distance from us, and looked at us warily while we just moved on. We crossed a dried stream, climbed up the other side, and went right up to the outer boundary of the lodge’s field, which was marked by barbed wire.
After the walk, we said goodbye to our other friend who was going to Jo’burg and back to Singapore, and I went on another short walk out on the side of the highway.
I walked to the neighboring farm and took more pictures; as cars and pickup trucks (bakkies) drove by I felt more and more like a hitchhiker at the side of a desert highway, as you’d see in movies or tv shows.

I had come by the Baz Bus and I left by the Baz Bus. Along the way, we listened to the Brazil-Netherlands quarterfinal match on the radio and by the time we arrived in Durban 3 hours later, it finished with Brazil, somewhat shockingly, beaten by the Dutch in a comeback. Good for Brazil, I thought. They’ve won enough World Cups so getting knocked out early, and by a worthy European opponent with its own strong, albeit underachieving footballing pedigree, was good.
Of course, this was before the final when the Dutch decided to get dirty and play like thugs.

So, Drakensberg mountains, I will be back whether it takes 5 or 50 years from now.

Africa · South Africa · South Africa travel · Travel

Cape Town- the end in pictures

These are a few pictures showing Cape Town in all its splendor. This should be my last post on Cape Town regarding my stay there, but you never know.

Table Mountain viewed from the V&A Waterfront.

These signs showed testimony from the Truth and Reconciliation hearings that were chaired by Desmond Tutu during the 90s to promote reconciliation. This was part of an exhibit inside the Mandela Robben Island ferry pier.

The words on the wall at left  read: “While we will not forget the brutality of apartheid, we will not want Robben Island to be a monument of our hardship and suffering. We would want it to be a triumph of the human spirit against the forces of evil, a triumph of wisdom and largeness of spirit against small minds and pettiness. A triumph of courage and determination over human frailty and weakness.” Wise words indeed. At right is the sleek catamaran that was our ferry.

At left is the limestone quarry or “Robben Island University” where Mandela and many other prisoners taught and learnt from each other. According to the guide, the limestone posed health risks especially to prisoners’ lungs. Mandela got off lightly, because the main health problem he got was damage to his eyes and tear ducts, preventing him from shedding tears when crying. At right is a sign near the entrance to the maximum security prison.

At left is the outside of the maximum security prison. Meanwhile once we got inside, “Sparks” started off the tour by giving us a talk in a cell where 60 prisoners were kept at a time. The charts showed the specific dietary allocations for prisoners of different races. Needless to say, blacks got less than the others.

At left is Nelson Mandela’s cell, small, nondescript and toilet-less. At right is a guard tower seen from outside the compound.

It’s impossible to leave out Table Mountain when talking about Cape Town, but I almost didn’t get to go there. It rained on the day I had scheduled a hike up there and it got canceled. However, on the morning of my last day, the weather cleared up and I hastily (without any reservation whatsoever) decided to go up there. I only spent less than an hour on top and I had to rush back to meet my airport pickup (who ended up waiting 10 minutes) but it was worth it.

This is how Table Mountain looks on a good day from the area I stayed at, left, while the right-side picture shows Table Mountain from the cable car station.

People abseil (scale down a cliffside) on the side of Table Mountain facing the Atlantic. The city centre is on the other of Lion Rock, the peak in the middle.

The city centre, with Lion Rock and Signal Hill on the left, and the city’s World Cup stadium, Green Point, the bowl structure in the background middle. There is too much glare otherwise the photo would have been much better but it couldn’t be helped.

South Africa · South Africa travel · Travel

Cape Town- Robben Island, ubuntu, a farsical near-mugging and last thoughts

Alright, so after several posts, this is set to be my last one on my travels in Cape Town. Or maybe not because I still got some photos to put up.

Robben Island is one of the most famous of Cape Town’s myriad attractions, being where Nelson Mandela was jailed for 18 years. It’s a tiny dot of an island just half an hour from Cape Town by ferry, but it has history stretching back over 350 years when it was used to imprison African chiefs and other high-ranking rebellious figures. It’s also a World Heritage Site.

I went to Robben Island in the afternoon after visiting townships earlier in the day, and it seemed like a good fit, in terms of the somber attributes of the places. It turned out well as I got to enjoy a spirited narrative by our Robben bus guide, slightly marred by some jackass/ rascally Argentines who probably weren’t sure why they were there, a great boat ride from and to Cape Town, and two great acts of kindness from English and South African folks I had met that day.

Going to Robben Island entails first booking online or buying a ticket that covers the ferry ride to and from the island, a bus tour and a walking tour of the maximum security prison and the very cell where Mandela was jailed. The ferry pier is at the V&A Waterfront from where you get a great view of Table Mountain. The scene of the mountain framing the yachts and elegant waterfront buildings seems so Mediterranean, though I’ve never been to that region.

After disembarking at Robben Island, we get called onto the tour buses which take us past the lepers’ graveyard, an Anglican church, the limestone quarry or “University of Robben Island” where Mandela and so many prisoners exchanged a lot of ideas, and the house where Robert Sobukwe was kept in isolation away from the other political prisoners. Sobukwe was a staunch opponent of apartheid and the leader of the Pan-Africanist Congress, a party that broke away from the ANC, so he wasn’t exactly chums with Mandela.
We stopped for a while at a place directly overlooking Cape Town, a magnificent view of the city with Table Mountain and Lion Rock forming the backdrop, while the sky took on a nice hue as the day came closer to evening. What a torment for the prisoners on this little piece of rock, to be able to gaze at such a fine scene every day and be so close. Some daring, or rather desperate, souls have tried to swim and escape, but only a handful ever made it across to land; the rest having fallen victim to sharks or the cold waters.

During the whole tour, our guide Craig gave us a superb, running commentary on all the sights. At the end, we were treated to a speech about the island, and “Mr. Mandela” and the
hopes for his country which still faces numerous problems in this day, including the effects of apartheid. The only thing that was problematic was the presence of a group of Argentine football fans who kept interrupting with their loud talking while Craig was doing his thing.

The last part of the tour was the maximum security prison, where we got off the bus, said our goodbyes to Craig, and walked inside, passing the empty guard towers and signs showing happy pictures of joyful ex-prisoners, leaving the prison for good, and then coming back to the jail for a reunion. Inside, our new guide was there and ushered us into a long cell room which was quite roomy. Of course, it had to be because it held 60 prisoners. Sparks was the name of our ex-prisoner guide, having served 7 years in Robben for being involved in the ANC militant wing. Ex-inmates always lead this part of the tour. It seems weird that they’d want to work in the very place they were locked up. I’m sure for some leading these tours serves as a form of pride or solace, to help turn their former prison into a place to educate tourists and visitors. Or maybe it was because they had been conditioned or worn down too much by their prison experience to want to go back into the outside world, said M, a black Englishwoman who I had actually met earlier on the township tour and who had strong views on much of what she saw.
I can’t deny that the touristy aspect of the tour didn’t take away from fully appreciating the historical significance of the prison. The Argentine football clowns were a big reason initially, but by the time we got to the maximum security prison, things seemed maybe a little too ordinary. We finally saw the cell Mandela was kept, which was nondescript, small (about 2.5 metres wide), and had no toilet. Bleak it was, but not really too harsh, I think.

After the ferry took us back onto shore, I was invited by M along with a young black couple from Johannesburg and their little daughter to dinner. After M’s friend joined us, we went into Spur, a local BBQ chain that has an American Wild West theme, which is really strange given we’re in Africa. To highlight this theme, every 20 minutes or so, the waiters and waitresses performed line dances to the same corny Western song. I also couldn’t help noticing that most of the patrons were white and the waiters were all black. (It’s not always a good thing to mention race but in SA it’s really relevant.) Suffice it to say that the people I was with didn’t seem too amused. I was actually the only person who wasn’t black or Africa at the table and to some of the patrons and staff it must have seemed weird, but it was all cool. M’s friend, who herself was from Zambia, came with a friend who was from the Rep. of Congo (as opposed to the Democratic Republic of Congo which is much larger and well-known, though more for its immense humanitarian tragedy) but had been living in SA for a while. This Congolese guy was friendly but didn’t have the best English plus he had a strong accent. He asked me a bunch of questions about Taiwan and China, hoping that I would have some expertise in doing business in China and could shed some light, but he was asking the wrong guy.
After dinner ended, I was planning to take a taxi home, but the guy from Johannesburg offered me
a ride. We were at the waterfront and their hotel was very close but they chose to drive me to my hotel half an hour across town in the opposite direction. African hospitality at its best, as I was experiencing ubuntu, the spirit of unity and helping others out, as the guy himself said when I asked him if he was sure it was no trouble. Ubuntu is a much-bandied about word in Africa used by black Africans to explain their sense of values, and sometimes it is mocked such as when bad things happen and non-blacks say “where’s the ubuntu?” In this case, I experienced a genuine case of ubuntu. We had an interesting conversation in the car when the guy talked about his experience working with Chinese (he’s an engineer) and how he was a little fazed and bewildered by differences. I wasn’t too surprised as it’s true Chinese and Africans/blacks have a lot of  cultural differences and I tried to tell him this but not in an overbearing way. The weirdest example he gave was about going to a restaurant in Gaborone, Botswana’s capital, where he was on a business trip, with a Chinese colleague when he met another Chinese person. After talking to this second Chinese, he found out the guy was from the same hometown as his colleague so he introduced them to each other, but apparently they didn’t say much. “You’re halfway around the world deep in Africa and you meet somebody from your hometown and you don’t even talk?” said my benefactor. I couldn’t explain it but maybe there was some business rivalry or something to keep your privacy, even from somebody from your hometown?

It was pity I only spent 4 days in Cape Town but I experienced a lot. The city was spectacular but it’s not immune from problems. For instance, the previous day while walking back from the waterfront to the city centre, I was accosted by a guy (not black) who introduced himself to me politely, then proceeded to ask me to give him a few rand …. or else. I walked off and he followed me, escalating his threats and pulling on my jacket. It was almost surreal as the guy and I traded comments – “just give me a few rand, sir” “I don’t have” “don’t f*cking lie” “don’t curse me, leave me along” “you better give me a few rand or I’ll stab you and take all your money” “I don’t have any money, why do you think I’m walking in this rain” (it really was raining though I did have some money) – while walking, looking like we were two guys  having a normal conversation though it was like an attempted mugging by intimidation. We went on like this over a walkover, then crossed one street while passing some people until we reached a point where seemingly there was nobody. I panicked internally, then looked to the side, saw a car dealership in an office building, and walked into it. The jackass, by now it really had descended into a farce though at that exact moment as events were unfolding it seemed much, much worse, threatened to walk in with me but as soon as I opened the door, he pulled on my jacket and said something like “don’t leave me, please!” That was the last I saw or heard him because I walked up to the receptionist in the lobby, told her what happened and basically pleaded for her to call a taxi. She told me there was one just up the road and I basically went nuts because after all, I just came in from that same road to get away from a potential mugger. “It’s only right up the road” she said. “I was just being harassed on that road and you’re telling me to go outside again” was what I said. In the end, the taxi was literally right up the road and I took it to my hotel. Writing about it now, it seems kind of ludicrous but when it was happening it was quite scary. I couldn’t help thinking, is this really happening to me, and any minute I expected him to pull out a knife or something.

Nothing else bad really happened, other than passing a crime scene downtown where I saw a body lying on the ground surrounded by police (the guy was part of a gang who robbed a store and fired on the cops who fired back) and on my first evening, walking back from a nearby restaurant to my hotel and passing several guys standing in the middle of the road begging. This is a relatively upscale area and it shocked me because during the day it seemed really safe (it was). It was unnerving to see it take on a much different “ambience” in the evening (about 7 which is not late at all) with the beggars standing around.

Ironically, it’d seem like I had so many negative experiences in Cape Town whereas I didn’t have a single similar problem in Durban or Johannesburg, but this is only because in Cape Town, I did a lot of walking around by myself. If I had done the same in those other 2 cities, who knows what bad things might have happened to me. Don’t take this to mean South Africa is fearfully dangerous. It’s not. It does have high levels of crime so you do have to be alert at all times. But it’s not as terrible as some media reports may make it out to be and once you get past the apparent and high levels of security measures and worries, and take necessary precautions, you’ll be ok.