Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Johannesburg, South Africa

We got in to Johannesburg in the afternoon and I promptly collapsed in bed until dinner. Unfortunately I had developed some stomach issues in Nelspruit and they followed me to Johannesburg then back to the United States. We wanted to see two things before going home and I had just enough energy to do that but not much else, including taking pictures.

Our first stop was the Apartheid Museum (official website, Wikipedia). Visitors are randomly assigned a race and then segregated for the first part of the museum. The remaining museum displays print, audio and video materials from anti apartheid groups in chronological order. The most interesting part is the later full color videos of brutal police responses to protests.

Our next stop was Soweto, an abbreviation of South West Townships, one of the most controversial areas in South Africa. In 1948 when the National Party gained power and began to implement Apartheid, forcing many black Africans from their homes to the townships in Soweto. During Apartheid Soweto was home to some of the most famous resistance movements and leaders like Desmond Tutu and Nelson Mandela. Since Apartheid has ended there has been a great deal of development within certain parts of Soweto such that there are now large houses with well manicured lawns. In other areas the original, state built, one room houses remain and homeowners rent closet sized, zinc shacks in their yards to newly arrived residents or temporary workers.

One sign of progress in Soweto was electrical wires strung between houses. Unfortunately the state power company, Eskom, was not prepared for the increased demand from Soweto and other former townships and has introduced rolling blackouts to ease the strains on the system. When we were in Johannesburg the blackouts were scheduled from 8:00PM to 12:00PM - which meant very dark dinners and no activities afterwards.

We came back to the hostel from Soweto and ran a few errands before packing our backpacks one last time. The routine of packing and heading to the airport was so familiar by now that neither Ellie or I could believe we were actually heading home. The 19 hour flight from JoBurg to Washington, Dulles didn't even seem to be out of the ordinary. Both Ellie and I stopped to chuckle for a moment when our response to "Countries visited prior to entering the US" was longer than the space provided on the immigration form.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Kruger National Park, Nelspruit, South Africa

We left Durban and parted ways with Suzanne - Nathan continued with Ellie and I for the rest of the trip. Our next stop was Nelspruit, the capital of the Mpumalangma province, which is mostly known to tourists as the jumping off point for Kruger National Park.

Ellie, Nathan and I had one not particularly notable rest day in Nelspruit before heading out on our final grand adventure. Kruger National Park is South Africa's largest, and probably the world's most famous game reserve. Our safari experience there was ultimately very rewarding although quite different from our previous safari in Botswana.

We left our hotel before sunrise and made it to Kruger just before 6:00AM when the park gates open. Within half an hour we had seen a few antelopes and birds but were shocked to see a leopard so soon. The cat walked along the road, within feet of our car before disappearing into some nearby brush. The experience highlighted three main difference between the two safari experiences: we had been driving on a paved road, we could not follow the leopard after it walked away from the road, and there were other cars stopped nearby to watch the cat.

We saw a few other familiar animals that day like Gnu or Wildebeeste.

Crocodiles and Hippos (not pictured but just outside this photo)


and Zebras.

Additionally, we saw a few new animals like hyenas, white rhinos, and water buffalo. The latter two were unfortunately too far away for a good picture.

On the way to lunch, we saw a second leopard hunting two zebras. Eventually the zebras saw the leopard before it could attack and chased it away. Unfortunately this was also too far away for a good picture.

We stopped in one of the many camps inside Kruger for lunch and visited a museum along the way. The most fascinating thing we learned at the museum was the story of Harry Wolhuter, a former park ranger who fought off two lions by hand and won.

There was a beautiful sunset that evening as we headed out for a night drive. We saw a few elephants and innumerable impalas in the first two hours and had pretty much given up hope of seeing anything else, when on the ride back we spotted a third leopard.

We stopped halfway through the night drive to stretch our legs. The rangers mandated armed escorts for those answering nature's call.

We slept at one of the camps inside Kruger that evening and were up before sunrise again the next morning. Nathan, Ellie and I could not believe our luck when within the first hour we spotted three lions and, unbelievably, a fourth leopard.

The three lions, two females and one male, were hunting together. The female, pictured above, walked within feet of our car while the other two stayed further away.

On the way out we saw a number of baboons and monkeys.

On the way back to Nelspruit, we stopped off at a few other points of interest in the area, first a waterfall.

Next we stopped at Bourke's Potholes, a canyon in the Blyde river where swirling dirt and pebbles have bored cylindrical holes deep into the surrounding canyon walls.

Next, we stopped further up the river to see the Blyde River Canyon, apparently the largest growing canyon in the world and by some measures the third largest canyon overall.

Along the way back we stopped by God's Window which has a great view on clear days but is distinctly unimpressive on cloudy days like when we visited.

We spent that evening in Nelspruit and headed out to Johannesburg the next morning.

Nathan's photos from our travels in South Africa are available at: TheNateUpdate listed under April 2008 - Thanks Nate!

Monday, May 12, 2008

Durban, the Drakensberg, Lesotho

We flew from Capetown to Durban, on South Africa's east coast. The town is the third largest in South Africa, the capital of the KwaZulu-Natal Province, and home to Africa's busiest port. The port got a lot of attention shortly after we left for refusing to unload a cargo ship carrying weapons from China to Zimbabwe.

Durban was originally founded by British settlers and accordingly the town evinces a distinctly British feeling as opposed to the Dutch/Afrikaans influence elsewhere. This influence can be seen in the architecture (see the photo of Durban's city hall above) and heard in the locals accents. The British also brought in many Indians as indentured servants in the 1860s and many of their descends still live in the area.

Ellie had been giddy about getting to Durban since Zambia because two of her friends from Peace Corps, Jamaica were in the area. We met up with Nathan, Justin and a few of Justin's friends and enjoyed a weekend checking out Durban's beach and nightlife. We did manage to see a few sights other than the beach, namely City Hall (see the first photo), and the Botanical Gardens (pictured below).

From Durban, Ellie, Nathan, Suzanne, and I hopped on a minibus headed to Underberg, a small town in the Drakensberg mountains. Although Underberg is not the best place to see the Drakensberg it is the best place to get into Lesotho, the small country entirely inside South Africa and that was our priority. Still, we enjoyed a day hike through the Drakensberg and stopped for lunch at a freezing cold swimming hole.

The next morning Nathan, Ellie and I woke up early to start a two day trip into Lesotho. Unfortunately Suzanne forgot her passport and couldn't come.

Lesotho (pronounced le-soo-too) is known as the Mountain Kingdom and is geographically notable for three reasons:
  • It is the only country to lie entirely above 1,000 meters
  • It has the highest "lowest elevation" of any country
  • It is an enclave, a country lying wholly within the boundaries of another country

We left Underberg in a car and climbed nearly 2,000 meters up the notoriously bad Sani Pass to the border between South Africa and Lesotho. My first impression of Lesotho was that it is charmingly anachronistic, much like Tibet. Most of the Basotho (people from Lesotho) are subsistence farmers or tend to sheep, goats or cows and live in rondavels (traditional African huts, pictured below).

We climbed up and up the pass and the road leveled off at the border. Where most passes go up on one side and down on the other, this one is up on one side and flat on the other. Lesotho is seemingly a plateau or butte perched high above South Africa.

The five hour drive from our hotel in Underberg to Lesotho gave us a great opportunity to chat with the three Brits, Tom, Sophie, and Tamsyn, who were on the same tour. We stopped off at a rondavel where we dropped off our bags before heading out to explore the town on foot.

Our first stop was a traditional healer who channeled my ancestors and read my future using an empty soda bottle and a candle. Next we stopped off in another rondavel to watch a traditional song and dance act before heading back for dinner. The stars that evening were spectacular, between the elevation and distance from electric lights, I don't think I've ever seen the night sky so clearly.

The next morning we walked to a nearby school where there were too many children and not nearly enough teachers or space. Fortunately they all seemed happy and were excited to pose for a picture.

The day before we had arranged to go horseback riding and our guide brought horses to the school. I named my horse Panther, hoping for a lightning quick steed. About halfway through the ride I renamed him Piggy since he seemed more intent on eating than moving.

After a few hours we galloped confidently back to camp where we ate lunch with the host family.

On the way out we stopped for a drink at the Sani Pass, home to the highest pub in Africa.

One of Lesotho's main exports is mohair, the wool from Angora goats. We stopped at a small building where people sheer goats - of course I had to try.

Finally, the last goat photo opp:

In case you can't tell, we're boxing.
Photo credit: Nathan Muzos

Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Cape Town, South Africa

We spent the first full day in Capetown at Robben Island. Located 12km offshore, the island has been used as a place for banishment and isolation for years - most recently it was a maximum security prison for political prisoners under the apartheid government. The island became internationally infamous between 1964 and 1982 when Nelson Mandela served part of his prison term there.

The trip took all day though with planning it can be done in just a few hours. Unfortunately when we arrived all the ferry tickets were sold out for weeks and we had to wait around in hopes of cancellations. Fortunately this gave us time to peruse a collection of posters and signs from various protests in the struggle for independence.

The photo below is a picture of Capetown and the iconic Table Mountain from Robben Island.

Our guide, a former political prisoner at Robben Island, wore sunglasses all the time, having been nearly blinded by too many bright days spent in the lime quarry below. The prison, ironically, served as a place of education for many. Older prisoners taught uneducated prisoners reading, writing and more advanced topics, often in the small, carved shelter in the quarry, pictured below.

The island is quite a contradiction though and its abominable history obscures what is otherwise a beautiful place. Whether its the classic view of Capetown, the picturesque lighthouse or the wildlife (penguins, rabbits, antelope, birds) meandering by, a maximum security prison seems like an injudicious use of such a pleasant place.

The next morning we woke up early to climb Table Mountain, the flat topped mountain in the first photo and Capetown's most iconic landmark. We chose the Platteklip Gorge route (pictured below) as it was the best marked and some other routes can get treacherous.

The route starts at the lower cable car station, roughly 300 meters above sea level and continues to the top, roughly 1,000 meters above sea level. The photo below is Capetown's City Bowl, or main downtown area, as seen from halfway up the Platteklip Gorge route. Robben Island is just barely visible as the dark speck in the water on the left side of the photo. The climb up took nearly two hours but the descent took only four minutes - we took the cable car. Afterwards we headed to the Green Point Market, which is teeming with vendors selling carvings, paintings, jewelry and a variety of other trinkets and picked up a continent's worth of souvenirs in one spot.

The next morning we were up and early again but this time for something less physically demanding, a tasting tour through Cape Town's nearby wine region.

We had a great time exploring four different vineyards but my favorite, by far was Fairview Vineyards. The makers of Goats do Roam (the number one selling African wine in the US) won me over with generous cheese tasting options and, of course, a goat photo opportunity. We spent that evening taking care of chores and having dinner on Long Street.

We took a bus tour of the cape the next morning. Our first stop was Hout Bay, originally a logging town it is now a fishing town and great photo opportunity.

The drive from Hout Bay to the southern peninsula follows Chapmans Peak Drive, one of the most scenic drives in the world. The drive wraps around Chapman's Peak, following the coastline, along sheer cliffs and offers breathtaking views of sandy beaches and rocky shorelines.

The next stop was Boulders Beach, near Simon's Town.

Although Boulder's beach is an aesthetic pleasing town with a great swimming beach, most tourists only stop by to see the colony of African Penguins.

The African Penguins are also known as Jackass Penguins, so called for their donkey like hee-haw call.

Boulder's Beach is probably one of the few places in the world where you can find this road sign.

Our second to last stop was the Cape of Good Hope National Park. Our guide dropped us off near the gate and we bicycled six kilometers in to the visitors center. We saw an antelope and a great deal of apparently very rare shrubbery but the most interesting sighting was a few wild ostriches.

The photo above is of Cape Point, taken from the nearby lighthouse. The Cape is not the most southern point in Africa nor is it the point where the Indian and Atlantic oceans meet, as commonly believed - it is, however, the most South-Western point of the African continent.

The next day we walked around Cape Town, exploring some of the older buildings in particular, the Castle of Good Hope. Originally built in 1666 by the Dutch East India Company, the Castle is the oldest building in Africa.

There are no longer any soldiers in the Castle but it is home to the Castle Military Museum and an excellent collection of antique furniture and paintings. The cannon below is part of that collection - note the A VOC logo denoting the Amsterdam chapter of the Dutch East India Company.

We spent that afternoon indoors, escaping from afternoon rain showers. The sky cleared up shortly before sunset and we decided to explore two of Capetown's western suburbs, Camps Bay and Clifton Beach.

The three sunset photos were all taken in Clifton, although the beach visible in the second photo (below) is Camps Bay.

We mistakenly asked to be dropped off at Clifton, believing it to be the one with more restaurants. Unfortunately we found ourselves among high end housing without a restaurant in site but with some help from friendly locals, we were able to enjoy a great sundowner.

The next morning we were up early and excited to be heading to Durban to meet up with Ellie's friends, Justin and Nathan!

We did a lot in Cape Town but that was only possible because we had help - a lot of it. Thank you, Meri for your seemingly endless supply of street level knowledge about Cape Town and basically planning my week there.