After India, arriving in South Africa was almost like coming home too oz. Overtly friendly people, western comfort foods aplenty (meat pies & ginger beer foremost among them), rugby and cricket on TV and fantastic natural settings, all under the familiar gaze of the southern night skies and the Southern Cross. Arriving in Johannesburg from Mumbai, we hung out for a few days and decompressed – Megumi recovering from a bout of Indian belly (her first would you believe, struck down on the last day) and just generally soaked up being in a western country for the first time in 6 months.
Joburg was not the murder capital we were expecting and after India, we found everyone friendly, relaxed & full of smiles, albeit quite expensive, (having to get around in taxi’s because its ‘too dangerous to walk’ takes its toll). After nothing more than shopping, sleeping and eating for a few days, we embarked on our African adventure. First stop, the Apartheid museum (the first museum on our trip so far believe it or not), before doing a tour of the famous Suweto township, home to Desmond Tutu and Nelson Mandela among many others and central in the Apartheid battles and uprisings. Expecting an extreme ghetto, coming from the slums of Mumbai, it was surprisingly an incredibly civilized city (a black population of more than 3 million), home to a fantastic new World Cup stadium there were lots of nice houses balancing the tin shacks, a modern transport infrastructure and remarkably in contrast to Joburg, free of barbed wire and security guards. One gets the sense that this was the frontline in the ‘new South Africa’ World Cup cover story (or cover up depending on your level of cynicism)
From Joburg, we caught the Baz Bus (a convenient minibus service for backpackers that allows you to hop on and hop off at backpacker destinations of your choice across the country), for our first safari adventure in Kruger National Park. Staying at the Funky Monkeybackpacker in Nelspruit, we signed up for a relatively cheap, good value safari adventure. That taken care of, I sank tequila with some locals, endured a late night dip in the pool after losing at cards and suddenly felt like I had settled into travel South African style.
The Kruger safari was a 3 day, 2 night adventure, sleeping in canvas tents within the national park and touring the grounds in the custom built safari jeeps that seem to permeate this part of the world (plus a spotlighting tour at night). For company we had a local guide in his mid forties, having been tracking / guiding for nearly 30 years, 2 Swedes, a German girl and a peculiar Hungarian / Israeli chap who quickly earned the moniker Mr Bean. Kruger is a fantastic park and you are hard pressed not to see plenty of wildlife – we chalked up a dozen lions, hundreds of elephants, impala, rhino’s, hyaena’s, giraffe’s, hippo’s, crocs, eagles and zebra’s amongst everything else. (Actually everything but the leopard & cheetah on Megumi’s hitlist anyway) As with all safari’s in Africa it was not cheap, but stunning and a fantastic way to integrate into the African experience.
Post safari, we decided to ditch the limited confines of the BazBus route and hire a car so that we could forge our own paths over the mountains into Swaziland and Zululand beyond. A 7 hour winding adventure over dodgy, forestry dirt tracks into a sketchy Swaziland border crossing and remote logging villages, all in a tiny Tata sedan ,almost made us re-evaluate the wisdom of this choice, but eventually we found our way through the mountains into Swazilands civilized tourist belt and set ourselves up at Sondeza backpackers, in the middle of Milwane Wildlife Sanctary for more natural immersion. This backpacker has it all – warthogs mowed the lawn, ostriches woke us up tapping the windows at dawn, hippo’s and crocs roamed the pond and the surrounding fields had all manner of impala, antelope and zebra roaming about happily free of carnivores. Breakfast and dinner was cooked on a braa (Afrikaans for BBQ), beef and warthog for me & maize (pap) for Megumi (newly vegetarian and struggling in Africa!) Happy to soak up our new environs, our Swaziland experience was limited to this relaxed point of view; interactions with locals on the sanctuary and the surrounding crafts/ tribalware shops, but we get the feeling we didn’t miss too much.
From there we headed down to Sodwana Bay, back into South Africa and the Elephant Coast for a brief flirt with some of South Africa’s best diving. Unable to compete with a ferocious rip and Megumi seasick from the aggressive beach surf take-offs, we cut our losses and keep heading downwards to the St Lucia estuary via the Hluhluwe Reserve. Hluhluwe is Rhino central and the park effectively brought the black rhino back from extinction. Doing a self drive safari through the national park, we managed to see more than 20 Rhino’s. One mean bastard charged our car from the bushes at dusk and the elusive black rhino (almost impossible to see apparently) happened to walk right up to the restaurant window as we ate lunch! St Lucia was all about hippo’s and crocs, the beautiful estuary, a UNESCO heritage area has some amazing birdlife, fishing and pretty dangerous waters, we took a boat cruise up the estuary to see the sites, but getting somewhat sick of wildlife spotting by now, kept the visit short.
For the final leg of the car trip, we jumped across Zululand to the Drakensburg mountains, where we spent the night in a beautiful backpacker, the Inkosana Lodge, waking up in the awesome shadow of the Dragon Mountains peaks and then exploring ancient bushman cave paintings (approx. 3000 years old) before hiking up into one of the surrounding valleys at Giant’s castle, before heading onto Durban. The Drakensburg mountain range borders the country of Lesotho and is a remarkable extension of sharp peaks and beautiful grass covered valleys. We could have easily spent a week there, hiking trails and exploring the numerous cave paintings, but we had only given ourselves 3 weeks in South Africa and already craved some real, African experiences as opposed to the entirely familiar western experience we were encountering, we decided to move on as quickly as we could.
From Durban we rejoined the BazBus backpacker trail and spent 3 days on the Wild Coast in Coffee Bay, staying at Bomvu Backpackers. Coffee Bay is remote, accessed by a 2 hour incredibly potholed road from the nearest highway and for that reason amongst the most untouched areas remaining in South Africa. The beach, community and remote hill sides Xhosa townships of round, pale blue ‘rondavel’ huts, all create a fascinating backdrop. And Bomvu itself is an institution in the community here, with live drumming sessions at nights around the fire and jazz / drumming / trance festivals held in their own private valley. While we were there, a jazz / drumming festival was being held, largely targeted towards the local community with many local bands, singers and performers. Not really my style of music, but a lot of fun, mostly because it provided the opportunity for a real, local interaction experience, watching the locals dance, party and move is hypnotic in itself and something quite hard to find in a country of segregation and pre-packaged tourist tribal experiences.
From there, we reluctantly made our way down to Port Elizabeth and then Knysna, a pretty settlement on a beautiful lake, before rounding out with the better part of a week in the beautiful city of Capetown. Here, apart from just relaxing from the backpacker crawl of the previous few weeks and exploring the city, we managed to meet all manner of interesting fellow travellers – departing, arriving and planning their own exotic adventures. We did manage to score a clear day and climb Table Mountain to soak up the stunning Capetown views and do some resupplying for the trip ahead, but decided to skip the wine tours, beaches, Cape of Good Hope tour and other sights. In part, we were a little chastened by the high cost of tourist travel in South Africa, but largely were left craving ‘real African experiences’. We had gotten used to living in more edgy places now I think, more used to the real and fascinating reality that travel through the third world seduces you with. The natural beauty of South Africa was stunning and we met some fantastic people, but the rest was a bit too comfortable and westernized to satisfy us for long. Perhaps we will appreciate that more a little bit later of course, but for the moment 3 and 1/2 weeks was enough. We were keen to move on. Next stop the stunning deserts landscapes of Namibia.