Friday, October 23, 2009

Cape Town: We Made It!

(Jay and Tyler standing atop Table Mountain, Cape Town)

Nearly four months after leaving Addis Ababa, Ethiopia we have arrived in Cape Town, South Africa, our final destination before heading home to the States. Along with college friend and new traveling partner Kevin, we departed on what would be our final leg of the journey, from Durban to Cape Town, nearly three weeks ago with the intention of seeing and doing as much as we could in South Africa. The country surely did not disappoint.

To begin with, transportation was the easiest it has been the entire trip; by a long shot. Most trips were made on luxurious buses (with a few others in the back of pick-up trucks), many double-decker and all with reclining seats. We also were able to do all of our own grocery shopping and cooking, and hold conversations in English. Small things to be sure, but incredibly refreshing considering the rest of the trip.

Our first destination after Durban was the world-renown surfing town of Jefferey's Bay. Home to Supertubes, apparently one of the best waves in the world (neither of us are surfers), and plenty of surfer "brus" (South African lingo for bro), "Jay Bay" offered all the amenities, and parties, of a town catering to the x-games crowd.

From there we headed back inland to the small town of Storms River. This tiny community hidden away in the forests that lay beneath jagged mountains is almost entirely made up of backpacker accommodations. It was strange to be in a place where almost everyone was a tourist as opposed to the rest of the Africa where outsiders were few and far between. It rained almost everyday we were there but we were able to venture into, and up the mountains which held amazing views of Storms River and the ocean alike.

(Storms River, South Africa)

It was a quick ride from Storms River to the Bloukrans Bride, the highest bridge in Africa and one equipped with the world's highest bungy jump. Kevin and I made the leap which was amazing but, I must admit, the adrenaline rush paled in comparison to almost all of our bus trips outside of South Africa.

Onward to Plettenberg Bay, a place we had initially planned on using as a place to find transport but turned into another awe-inspiring experience. With time to kill we hiked out onto the Robberg Peninsula. There, from the top of hundred foot cliffs, we watched whales and seals swimming in the Indian Ocean. We never did see the Great White shark attack on a seal as we were told we might, but the land-based whale-watching was well worth the long and hot hike.

(Tyler, Kevin and Jay on Robberg Peninsula)

From "Plett" we took an all night bus to the university and wine town of Stellenbosch, just 30 miles outside of Cape Town. After glimpsing Table Mountain in the distance, the icon that towers over and whose image defines Cape Town, we arrived in perhaps the most beautiful town of the entire journey. Stellenbosch is the second oldest city in South Africa and the place where Afrikaans, the creole Dutch that is widely spoken throughout the country, was codified. Today Stellenbosch still smacks of its colonial past with Cape Dutch architecture and old oak trees making up the majority of the town. It is also situated in the middle of wine country. Vineyards crawl up the side of the massive rocky peaks that surround the town. While in Stellenbosch we figured we should experience what it is most famous for today and took a wine tasting tour of the region. Quite the eye-opening and cultural experience for three beer drinkers without an ounce of knowledge about the delicacy.

Whenever Jay and I have fallen into rough patches during this trip the conversation has turned to what it would be like to enter Cape Town, our final destination. We left Stellenbosch aboard a train that would take us this final step and watched as Table Mountain got closer and closer. Finally, we pulled into Cape Town's train station 110 days after departing Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. While it may not have hit us immediately that we had made it, excitement quickly overtook disbelief. But Cape Town itself held much for us to do and see. Over the past few days we have hiked Table Mountain, visited the first sites of Dutch colonization (the garden and castle built to supply ships heading to and from the far east and Europe) and enjoyed the world class beaches.

All of this may sound quite luxurious, and to be sure, South Africa is a holiday paradise. But in all of our travels here images of a troubled past and crime-riddled present were omnipresent. Outside of every city we stayed in were townships, legacies of Apartheid and home to people as poor as in any other country we have visited. As one white South African told us, "it is a first world country with third world problems." I think that some of those living in the townships may see it as a third world country with first world opulence. South Africa is home to a bizarre duality of the super wealthy and the incredibly poor and this all-too obvious juxtaposition makes it apparent why the country has one of the highest crime rates in the world.

It has certainly been a long, oftentimes hair raising, but overall incredibly rewarding journey. We leave today back for the US and both agree that while it will be nice to have a consistent bed to sleep in we will miss our torn up tent and bulky bags.

Our trip is nearly over but stay tuned as we will finish this blog with one more post with our final thoughts about the journey.

Monday, October 5, 2009

On to South Africa... and Development

As we have traveled further and further south in Africa we have noticed a steady improvement in the quality of infrastructure (with just a few exceptions). This change has been especially true when it comes to transportation. We left Mozambique, a place where load limits (and showers) were optional, in a double-decker coach bus. We each had our own seat, no chickens were allowed on board, and there was a restroom on board so stopping in open fields for bathroom breaks was unnecessary.

Our trip to the South African border took less than 2 hours and the crossing was quick, efficient and no attempt was made at extortion. From there we moved past the famed Kruger National Park towards Johannesburg, a place we swore off even before the trip but had to pass through if we hoped to make it to our next destination, Durban. After a surrealy comfortable ride we arrived in what is widely considered the most dangerous city in the world, at 5am. Fortunately the bus station was more like an airport and we were not forced onto the streets for our six hour layover. Whenever we have met a South African during our travels we have asked if there are any redeeming qualities that would make a longer stay in Johannesburg worth while. No one gave us a positive response including a friendly gentlemen in the bus station who told us quite explicitly to stay inside. So we did.

(Early morning arrival in Johannesburg, South Africa)

Six eventless hours later and we were back on a double-decker coach heading out of Jo-burg on our way to the coastal city of Durban.

The scenery along the way helped to confirm that South Africa truly does have incredibly beautiful and diverse terrain. The trip started in flat, but green, farmland. Cattle mixed with antelope and even ostrich on many ranches. Flat-topped peaks reminiscent of the American southwest broke the landscape intermittently.

After a stop at a rest area replete with all the amenities (including a KFC) we dropped off a high plateau into the foothills of the Drankensberg Mountains. It was quite pleasant descending a mountain road that, for once, was not littered with the wreckage of the poorly equipped and inadequately manned vehicles we saw too frequently in East Africa. As the sun began to set we entered coastal rain forests and soon, the city of Durban.

We have now spent five days in Durban, a city that is incalculably more developed than any other place we have visited in Africa. In fact, it took us this long to find an internet cafe because as in the States, most people here have access to internet in their homes and offices.

The city is also incredibly diverse with a large percentage of its population of Indian descent. The juxtaposition of African, European and Asian culture makes Durban a colorful city. However, an incredibly obvious gap between the wealthy and the poor (most of which remains along racial lines) make it a very divided city. The area where our hostel is located could probably pass as a posh southern Californian suburb. The population around the hostel is almost uniformly white. Just a few minutes walk away though, is a dangerous "red zone" known for violence.

Our time here has been relaxing but considerably less exciting than the rest of our trip. It is just far too easy to get a simple ride across town, find drinkable water (tap water is safe!), or even wash our clothes. Staying in a family-style backpackers hostel completes an illusion that makes this part of South Africa feel far closer to the U.S. than the rest of Africa we have experienced.

The highlight of our stay in Durban, to this point, was attending a professional South African rugby game. The tailgating started early with traditional South African boerwors (beef sausage), and tossing a rugby ball around with a young fan who thought we talked funny. The game itself was incredibly entertaining as our general admission tickets put us right on the sideline as massive men mashed each other just a few feet away.

(Pretty decent seats at a Durban pro rugby match)

From here we head south along the coast with our final destination, Cape Town, just days away!

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Mozambique: The Long Way

I wrote in our last post that we thought we may end up spending more time than expected in Mozambique. Oh how true that has proved. What was supposed to be a thirty hour bus ride turned into a ten day adventure and we have only just arrived here in Maputo, the southerly capital of Mozambique.

After a few extra days in the quiet and friendly city of Quilemene, we met up with some South African expats who were heading south. We were excited about a free and comfortable ride but had no idea just how fortuitous this encounter was.

The highlight of our first day of travel was crossing the brand new, massive bridge that spans the famed Zambezi River. At the insistence of the South Africans we stopped to get a closer look at the crocodile-filled river but only got within a few feet before a large rustling in the grass turned us back to the safety of the "bucky" (South African slang for pick-up tuck). A few hills and distant ridges were all there was for scenery for the rest of the day as Mozambique is a ratherflat country. The thick jungle next to the road did cause thoughts of what could be lurking within them, however. At one point we got a taste, literally. Stopping at the side of the road where men ran to the truck with long pieces of meet we sampled a piece of mystery
game. It was delicious but we still had no idea what it was. Stopping a few minutes later we met another meat-hawker who spoke some English. He was selling gazelle but informed us as to what we had tasted earlier. Monkey.

In choosing to travel with these new friends we had put a bit of our fate in their hands. That night we had no idea where we would end up staying. As the sun turned brilliantly red at dusk we pulled into the Gorongosa National Park where we met up with a few other South Africans who were there to build a safari lodge. We ended up camping out and braaiing (a braai is a traditional South African barbeque) in the game park, one of the more incredible places we have camped. After a great night of sleep, uninterrupted by either lions or elephants, we were brought to a natural education center that was also being constructed within the park. An American tycoon who fell in love with Mozambique and its wildlife donated $40 million to protect the park. The education center is meant as a training center for both school children and locals to learn how to conserve the impressive natural diversity that surrounds them.

Traveling with South Africans and it being Saturday, rugby day, we did not rush on to Maputo but headed to Mozambique's second-city, Beira. There we met even more of the extended South African expat community and settled into a bar located on an Indian Ocean
beach to watch rugby. Unfortunately, the start of the rainy season in this part of the world brings with it huge winds and on this day they were wreaking havoc on the television’s reception. No way were South African’s going to miss out on their rugby, though. The palms blocking the front of the satellite dish were quickly chopped down and the party went on.

We spent the weekend in Beira and were treated to unbelievable hospitality. The first night we were invited to a birthday party and the next day, after a few hours at the local motocross club, another braai was held. Beira itself turned out to be not much to speak of, but with incredible food and amazing people we had a great time!

Moving on from Beira we all decided that it was not worth the hassle of pushing straight through to Maputo as it could take close to 20 hours on terrible roads. Instead, we traveled down the coast to the town of Maxixe (ma-sheesh) where Jay and I spent the night in an old camper. Having been told by every South African that we had met that we should not be too hasty with our time in Mozambique, it was here that we departed with our friends. They left for home in Maputo and we hopped a ferry across the Bay of Inhambane to the city of Inhambane.

Inhambane is a quiet and quite beautiful little town. Unlike Beira, Quilemene or Maputo the traditional Portuguese architecture does not have to compete with massive Soviet-style block apartments. Instead small cafes and aging churches lend a Mediterranean feel to the town. The florescent blue water of the bay certainly does not detract from the illusion.

From Inhambane we started our trek out to Praia da Tofo on the other side of the peninsula and on the Indian Ocean. After a good 5km walk we hopped on a local bus and soon arrived in Tofo, another incredibly beautiful bay. We camped on the beach for a night and spent another in a very neat, beachside hut all the while treated to incredible ocean views. The bay which Tofo is situated on is known as one of the best places in the world for diving. Manta rays, whale sharks and humpback whales all call these waters home. Although our budget did not allow for an ocean safari we could see whales breaching just a few hundred meters from shore.

After a few days on the beach we turned back to Inhambane and set our sites, finally, on Maputo. We spent another night in Inhambane and then boarded an early morning bus to Maputo. The ride was exactly what we expected and we could have asked for nothing more of our last leg before South Africa. An overcrowded bus and a couple hundred stops (including a few for the bus driver - who had honked his horn impatiently at a little girl as she tried to drag her bag off the bus - to smoke a cigarette) made for a long, 10 hour drive.

Nonetheless, we are here in Maputo and the worst of African public transportation is behind us (knock on wood). We were promised by the South Africans we met that we would be treated to air conditioned coach buses with capacity limits from here to Cape Town!

Thursday, September 17, 2009

The White Guys of Quilemene

Another week and another border crossing. After spending plenty enough time to become very familiar with the small city of Blantyre, Malawi we decided to move on to Mozambique. Feeling that the typical backpacker's route through the city of Tete was overused and not quite interesting enough we headed for the Milanje border hoping to find transport south. The ride there proved eventful.

We left Blantyre early in the morning and actually had an easy enough time finding a friendly driver heading for the border. Soon his minivan filled with 25+ people and we were firmly implanted between several people who have clearly had less access to a shower than we have over the past few months. There have been some interesting smells in Africa, but this ride certainly tops them. We also left figuring we could get water along the way as we have in every other location. However, after buying and immediately tossing a bottle that had clearly been tampered with (the top and the bottle didn't even match) we arrived at the border with no water.

Along the way we were treated to some of Malawi's most beautiful countryside. Massive tea plantations rolled through the foothills to Mount Milanje. A 10,000 foot peak that is supposedly guarded by spirits; although apparently paying for a guide to help you up the mountain takes care of that problem.

We crossed the border without issue. On the Mozambique side we were able to grab a ride in a pickup to the bus stand where a truck was leaving for the town of Mocuba. Mocuba was south so we hopped on. This van also did not have a capacity limit and we were crushed into a row with two other people (one of which was an old woman who was horrified to be sitting next to white people) and our massive packs. The temperature rose as the trip went on and still we had no water.

This part of the trip had little scenery and turned into one of our longest short trips so far. It took 4 hours to reach Mocuba on dusty, potholed, dirt roads. Once in Mocuba, relieved that our legs that had been cramping of most of the morning still worked, we were happy to give the local grocery store plenty of business.

One of the first things we noticed about Mozambique was the massive Portuguese influence. Portugal ruled Mozambique for over 400 years. Today, Portuguese is the official national language and Iberian culture pervades everything from architecture to cuisine (much to our liking).

From Mocuba we caught another bus, this one bigger but incredibly, even more packed with people, livestock and produce, to Quilemene. This ride was a bit shorter than the last and on paved roads, but an angry man yelling in our ears the entire time and the 5 or 6 people crushed into each row made it seem just a bit longer.

We arrived in Quilemene planning to catch a bus straight to the capital of Maputo. We inquired with the one guy at the bus station who spoke English and he told us it was a thirty, yes thirty, hour trip in similar conditions. Needless to say we decided to spend the night and reevaluate our options.

After a great meal at one of Quilemene's Portugese-style cafes we checked into the Pensao Quilemene, a hotel that will surely live on as one of the most infamous of our trip. Stained sheets and curious packaging under our beds made our sleeping bags absolutely necessary but the extreme heat made them useless. It would have been fine to sleep on them except for the swarm of mosquitoes that invade the room every night.

Although the hotel in Quilemene was a bit rough and transportation has been nearly as bad as Ethiopia (at least they open windows here) we have both loved our time in Mozambique so far. Quilemene is a smaller city located on a river 25km from the Indian Ocean. The unique mix of Portuguese and Soviet architecture is intriguing, the people are incredibly friendly and hospitable (although no one speaks English), the food is fantastic, and between our combined but incredibly limited knowledge of French and Spanish we have very quickly picked up a working knowledge of Portuguese. We are also the only foreigners in town and it appears that we are the first outsiders to arrive for some time. People here are more curious and ready to lend a hand than interested in our wallets.

We hope to head South to Maputo today or tomorrow, and hopefully in a rented car instead of a bus. While South Africa is just a few travel days away, it looks like we may end up spending a bit longer than expected in Mozambique.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Fish:The Good and the Bad

Malawi has continued to hold true to its claim of being "the warm heart of Africa" as we continued on from Lilongwe over the past few days. From the capital we traveled east to the town of Monkey Bay situated on the shores of Lake Malawi. Although we were told it was called Monkey Bay because there were actually a lot of monkeys, we never saw any. From there we hopped a Malawian taxi, or an overflowing flatbed truck, for the additional 15 bumpy miles to Cape Maclear.

Cape Maclear is a small, hot, dusty town; not much different from many other African villages we have visited. However, once you make your way through the fish market you arrive at the source of its existence, Lake Malawi. Cape Maclear's shores give way to impossibly clear water and islands that bear a resemblance to the West Indies.

We camped on the beach here for two days and were talked into snorkeling with a new Scottish friend. After a quick kayak out to one of the nearby islands we plunged into incredibly serene waters packed with what is said to be the highest diversity of fish anywhere in the world. Thousands of brightly colored fish, and the occasional crab, painted a picture more resembling the Great Barrier Reef than central Africa. We were rewarded for our challenging day on the water with an incredible sunset and an evening watching the Scottish soccer team with one of their world famous fans.

We reluctantly pulled ourselves away from Cape Maclear the next day and hopped another flatbed to Monkey Bay and another from there to Mangochi. Mangochi was not exactly representative of the Malawi we had come to know. Drunken men everywhere berated us with incredibly colorful American slang before ripping their shirts off and getting into an amusing slap-fight with each other. Fortunately we made it out of Mangochi without getting slapped ourselves and headed for Blantyre. The unfortunate part was the two massive bags of fish that were crammed into our van. We were nauseated but were redeemed when even the Malawians we were riding with couldn't stand the stench.

We arrived in Blantyre last evening and found our way to a popular bar/restaurant/campground. Blantyre is the financial capital of Malawi but you would never know how important the city is by simply walking the streets. They are absent of any sort of street vendors and almost eerily quiet, even during midday. Much to our liking we immediately stumbled upon an Ethiopian restaurant where we have already become favorite regulars.

The next step in our journey will be a bit more complicated than Malawi has been. We will be moving on to Maputo, Mozambique via a transportation system that we were warned is nearly nonexistent.

Although Malawi has been amazing, we are excited to get back to the coast!

Monday, September 7, 2009

Malawi - Africa's Friendly Heart

It is truly amazing the effect a border crossing can have on a person. The excitement of leaving one country for another is always mixed with a bit of trepidation of the unknown, but in the end, there is little more rewarding than having a fresh stamp punched in your passport. This was certainly the case for us as we passed from Tanzania into Malawi a few days ago.

We spent an unexpectedly grueling day - our supposed 10 hour bus trip turned into a 16 1/2 hour marathon - traveling through southern Tanzania. The scenery was again, quite beautiful and we even saw a few elephants as we climbed into the highlands before descending back to the hills around the northern tip of Lake Malawi. Other than the length of the trip it was actually quite uneventful and proved to us once again that Tanzania, more than any other country we had visited, truly is on the right track. The roads (other than some construction) are perfect, bus parks are relatively hassle free, and beautiful schools with covered walkways from building to building, line the roadside. Of course, we have no allusions that Tanzania is a rich or problem free country, but it was nice to see the early stages of effective development.

After a very brief rest in a hotel in the small town of Kyela, Tanzania we woke early to make it to the border and hopefully catch a bus. In fact, we were too early, but after a breakfast in no-man's-land (there was a decent stretch between the two border posts) we walked into Malawi. Kudos to Malawi on good first impressions. We payed no visa fee after paying $100 each to enter Tanzania.

The friendliness of Malawi was evident immediately upon entering the country. We were sent in the right direction by some police officers and rode with an ever-laughing cab driver to a nearby town. From there we caught a bus for Mzuzu, about half way to our destination of Lilongwe. The trip followed the shore of Lake Malawi for most of the way before climbing into the arid mountains that line the coast. The landscape was nice, definitely not as spectacular as some of the places we had seen in East Africa, but the people more than made up for it. Our first observation was that it seemed everyone was smiling or laughing. And whats more, not one person tried to rip us off!

Six hours later we arrived in Mzuzu and immediately boarded another bus for Lilongwe. Like Tanzania the roads were great and the towns seemed even neater and more orderly. The only thing that struck us as negative about our first day in Malawi was the massive amounts of deforestation we passed along the way from Mzuzu to Lilongwe. Once we left the lake shore small, beautiful forests gave way to massive swaths of downed timber. As Malawi is a very poor country the scene certainly posed the question of how to go about balanced, controlled and responsible development; a question that all African nations are struggling with. The devastation went on for hours but our attention was soon robbed as the bus driver switched the radio station to the Malawi World Cup qualifying game against Guinea. The people listened intently to the rabid announcer as he switched from English to the local language and back again as he became more and more excited. In the end Malawi won 2-1 and the bus celebrated with smiles and polite clapping.

We finally arrived in Lilongwe, Malawi's administrative capital, just as it became dark and had little time or energy left to do anything but put up our tent. Having not seen much of the town we spent all of yesterday wandering the streets. A guidebook we glanced at in Tanzania had called Lilongwe "the most mundane of African capitals," and we would probably agree. It is quiet, the streets are clean, and the typical hawkers and street vendors are almost entirely absent. So, a suggestion to the guidebook writers: change the entry for Lilongwe to, "wonderfully mundane." We were able to walk around town, largely ignored, eat a great meal and even go grocery shopping at an "American-style" shop; a true luxury at this point and something that we could not have imagined even a few days ago. Today we wandered through the wood carvings market (there are some incredible pieces that we wish we had the bag space to bring with us) and were not pestered more than being invited to look at each person's stall.

We will camp in Lilongwe again tonight, probably lulled to sleep by the laughing of the hyena's that wander right into town, before heading back toward Lake Malawi tomorrow morning. We plan on spending a day or two before heading southwards towards Mozambique. Happy Labor Day to everyone and best wishes to all of you starting a new school year!

Thursday, September 3, 2009

The Tanzanian Coast

For most people a week on a quiet, palm-shaded, white sand beach sounds like heaven. However, for Jay and I our "vacation" did not turn out to be the relaxed pit-stop we had envisioned. Instead, after two days camping on a beautiful beach in Pangani we were ready to move on. Unfortunately, our goal of reaching Zanzibar turned out to be far too expensive to justify and we turned our eyes South instead of to the islands. Nonetheless, in the most fortunate turn of events since the start of our trip we met the "Roving Bonkers" at our waterside campsite and were treated to far and away the most comfortable leg of our trip.

The Roving Bonkers are Graham and Rosie Everett, an incredible couple from England and Ireland (respectively) who have spent much of the past decade traveling the world (check out their site and their car, They have done much of this traveling in a converted Land Cruiser that was initially designed as a rocket launcher for the British Army. Jay and I were incredibly lucky to be able to hop a ride with the Everett's from Pangani to a great campsite 7 hours further south where we camped on even whiter sands next to even more turquoise waters. It was also great to talk soccer with Graham and amazing to eat some of Rosie's home cooking! We can not thank them enough! Yet, once again, we had a harder time relaxing by the water than being squished in a public bus or hassled on crowded streets.

Thus, we moved on again today, back up north a few miles to Tanzania's largest city (not the capital, that would be Dodoma) Dar es Salaam. Dar has definitely thrown us back into our acquired comfort zone of heat, stench and inconvenience. Just to give you a taste, we inquired with a "travel agent" about a bus ticket to Malawi. He told us $90 each. Feeling that we were being quoted with "muzungu" or white tourist prices we went to a more reputable travel agency. The real price? $25.

Dar appears to be a great city, however, with beautiful colonial architecture "africanized" with vibrant, pastel paints. The streets are calmer than the other large cities we have visited and the taxi drivers far less aggressive. Whether it is the nearby water, or perhaps just the stifling heat, Dar is a nice change of pace from places like Nairobi and Juba.

Tomorrow we will leave by bus (for $25) for Kyela, Tanzania which lies on the northernmost tip of Lake Malawi. From there we will move on to the country of Malawi, a place we are excited to visit as it is known as perhaps the most friendly African country.

More updates from Malawi!