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!