Operation Cape Town: Complete

23 Mar

Breaking news – I made it to Cape Town.

Wow. In late January, I left Nairobi to travel overland all the way to the Cape. Two months later, here I sit in the Johannesburg airport waiting out an overnight layover for a flight back to Nairobi tomorrow. Time to write a blog post about an unforgettable adventure that took me through ten African countries.

If you’ve been wondering where I’ve been during this time, check out this map.

Let’s start with the cold hard facts. Distance traveled: 9,250 miles, equivalent to driving from Chicago to New York City eleven times. The ten countries I visited (in order): Tanzania, Zambia, Malawi, Mozambique, Zimbabwe, Bostwana, South Africa, Swaziland, Lesotho, and Namibia.

I don’t even believe that I traveled this far or this extensively, but I have a stamp-happy passport to prove it (with 48 new pages I needed to add at the US Embassy in Cape Town!).

The trip is hard to summarize, but let’s just say it included everything from seeing Africa’s southwestern-most tip to partying with South African locals to dining on bunny chow (read on to find out what that is) to two straight nights sleeping on a bus.

I’ll start this blog like any other. Telling a story from the beginning! Well, not really the beginning because I already filled you in on the Tanzanian, Zambian, and Malawian experiences in previous posts.

From Malawi, my American friend Amelia (who joined me in Zambia) & I took a bus to Zimbabwe’s capital, Harare. As we were crossing into Mozambique on the way, a Malawian government official at the border asked everyone to get rid of any Malawian currency they may still have. Since there was no bureau de change there, we were forced to exchange with black marketers. Taking advantage of the situation, they demanded a rate HALF what the market exchange rate was. So, I did the only rational thing – hid the money and got back on the bus! Funny thing is, I still have that Malawian Kwacha – a sizeable amount – on my person. Malawi has a huge foreign exchange and inflation problem, and there are no money exchangers outside of the country that will accept it. Period. Tomorrow morning, I’m going to go to flights departing from this airport to Malawi and do some pleading and begging to passengers for an exchange!

Back to Mozambique. Here is a picture of the  Zambezi crossing through the country.

Mozambique was a colony of Portugal, so building signs were fun to try and figure out their meaning from a limited repertoire of Spanish vocabulary.

We had a bad experience at the Mozambique border. For four hours of transit through the country, their border officials refused to give us a transit visa and instead made us purchase a single-entry tourist visa, priced higher than I’ve ever seen – $68! The border post was horribly inefficient as well – it took over an hour to process the visas, with the passengers in our bus getting angry at us for taking so long. The bus drivers told us that Mozambique border officials in particular are known for being slow, greedy, and downright ornery. By the way, since we had no USD or Mozambique money to pay for the visas, I had to convince the bus drivers to lend us about $200 until we reached Zimbabwe. They did – what a blessing. We were happy to get through the border alive!

Passing into Zimbabwe, we learned that the nation’s main currency is none other than the US Dollar! Ever since the historic hyperinflation that Zimbabwe experienced, the Zimbabwean Dollar has been scrapped. The euro, pound, and South African rand are also accepted! It sure was weird using USD for transactions. While the currency change has made the country’s economy more stable, it hasn’t come without problems. Since the Central Bank doesn’t command printing of its own currency, supply is scarce and the bills get dirty from overuse. Here’s a fresh $20 bill from the ATM alongside a typical-looking $1 bill.

Also, coins are in even lower supply. So, things that shouldn’t cost $1 do. And many times consumers buy 2,3, or 15 of something at the same time because the merchant has no change to give.

I met a Zimbabwean on the bus who was a hoot, and got pretty angry when he bought ‘fake’ Coke by mistake from a hawker outside the bus. A Chinese company collects old plastic bottles and Coke labels, mixes a generic cola concentrate with water, and voila, sells it as the real thing!

Amelia & I decided to truck on through Harare to get to Botswana. In Malawi, due to the fuel shortage and unreliable/infrequent transport, we spent double the time we had planned there. So we trucked on.

This is what most of Botswana looks like:

80% of the country is covered by the Kalahari Desert. The desert is semi-arid and it was the rainy season, so things didn’t look awfully dry.

We traveled to Ghanzi, a western town in Botswana, to try and go on a safari in the Central Kalahari Game Reserve. Trouble was, the safari was going to cost $300 for just one day, per person. Needless to say, we didn’t do that. On the bus ride there, we met a Peace Corps volunteer who put us in touch with another PCV in Ghanzi. We stayed at her house for a few nights and she appreciated the company – it’s a small town with not a whole lot to do, but plenty of stars to gaze at in the night’s sky. Instead of a safari, she and a South African native drove us through the sandy bush to a game lodge to grab some beers. The view from the back of the truck on the way there –

Shannon, the PCV, was taking care of ten, count ’em ten, newborn puppies! She’s giving all but one away to other NGO workers in the area.

Botswana has a total population of 2 million, half the population of Nairobi alone. It’s gotten relatively rich off of its abundance of diamonds and other minerals, but many of its people (some of them San Bushmen) are in poverty. But there were no slums in sight, the poverty takes other appearances – malnutrition and AIDS deep in rural areas.

In Botswana, people became much lighter in skin relative to East Africa, I presume because of less solar radiation and maybe mixing with light-skinned South African natives.

Next destination was (the Kingdom of) Swaziland. We traveled into South Africa and spent one night in Johannesburg en route. We didn’t find the city to be nearly as dangerous as any travel guide would tell you. Here’s a picture of sugarcane fields in southeastern Swaziland.

I wanted to visit the Swazi Secrets factory, a fair trade company whose beauty products are sold at Global Village Collection where I worked for two years. I was fortunate enough to set up a private tour with the founder of the company. He was a really cool guy, quite a visionary and an inspiring person. Here’s the factory –

And the product –

The majority of the product line comes from the marula fruit. Over 2,000 women gather the fruits and then 20 in-house employees press the fruit for its oil. From there, the oil is packaged alone for a body oil, coupled with shea butter for body lotion and lip balm, or added to shampoo. 100% of the marula fruit is used in the production process. And most importantly, many women and men are employed at a fair wage.

Here’s the Ezulwini Valley, the tourist hub where back in the day South Africans would flock to because of a gambling ban at home that didn’t exist in Swaziland!

From Swaziland, John, the Swazi Secrets founder, hooked us up with a ride to the southern border. From there, we hitchhiked with a nervous lady who wanted company and drove to Durban on the Indian Ocean’s coastline!

And so the South African part of the trip begins. I found South Africa to be 95% similar to a place I know and (for the most part) love: the United States of America. The roads are perfect – infrastructure is world class. Tap water is safe to drink. A KFC and convenience store is always within reach. There are metered taxis. Prices are high, and people with money live large. The country is so developed and is becoming more so with each passing day. South Africa has been hugely influenced by Western culture and I found it to be nothing like the ‘Africa’ I know at all. It was fun, with plenty of things to do, but at the end I was looking forward to returning back to the developing world.

Anyway, here’s Durban’s city centre –

Durban has a lot of Indian influence and a vibrant Indian community. And, there’s a city specialty called ‘Bunny Chow’ – chicken curry put in a hallowed out half loaf of bread. Soooo good!!

Victoria Market has a wide array of Indian spices, including one called Mother-in-Law – Hell Fire.

We traveled through the city on People Movers, a city bus line. They had air conditioning, a comfortable relief from the humidity coming off the ocean.

Durban has been re-naming city streets to get rid of old names from colonial times to update them to more national names. For the time being, the old are displayed in yellow and the new in white.

As I’m sure you know, South Africa hosted the World Cup in 2010. Here’s Durban’s stadium –

And I took a car up to the top for a breathtaking view of the city and the ocean.

We stayed three days in Durban and then we headed to Lesotho, another small landlocked country like Swaziland. On the ride there, we saw the highest mountain range in all of Southern Africa (the region, not the country), the Drakensberg Mountains.

We took a short day trip to Lesotho (pronounced Leh-sue-too). Here’s a picture snapped on the Maseru Bridge, crossing over the South African border.

Lesotho is the only country in the world to lie 100% above 1000 meters. At night, temps dip below freezing frequently, a rarity of course in Africa!

Now, on to Cape Town! What a fascinating place. One of the top tourist destinations in the world, Cape Town did not disappoint. Stayed about a week and it did not get old for a second. It’s a beautiful city in an area rich in unique flora, fauna, and geography. There is a mix of many different nationalities here as well, it’s an African melting pot of sorts!

On our first day, we took a ferry out to Robben Island, the famous prison used in different points in history for slaves, political prisoners, etc. A former prisoner during the apartheid era (Afrikaans for ‘separate development’, an unfair and cruel separation of South Africans based on color all the way up until the early 1990s) told us all about life in the prison.

Sleep was minimal, work on the island quarry in the hot sun was back-breaking, and meals differed based on the color of your skin.

Nelson Mandela was imprisoned for two decades at Robben Island, some of which was spent in this very cell.

We had a good-humored tour guide who had met Nelson Mandela more than once, as well as Barack Obama. One joke I remember was – ‘Why are Indians bad at football (soccer)? Because everytime they get a corner, they set up a shop!’ That had the whole group bursting with laughter.

Here’s a view of Cape Town and its backdrop, Table Mountain, from Robben Island.

Next day, we went on a tour of the Cape Peninsula. This was my favorite experience of the entire Nairobi – Cape Town trip, behind Victoria Falls of course. It was a tour through Baz Bus, a company catering exclusively to low-budget backpackers like myself.

We did so much that day. First, we took a boat out to Seal Island on Hout Bay to see some, well, seals of course!

At Boulder’s beach, we saw African penguins! Don’t think of penguins as an African safari animal, huh?

Pictured here is Cape Point, the point that explorers like Bartolomeu Dias navigated around over 500 years ago.

The headland in this background is what Dias called the Cape of Storms. But after the area was better understood and easier to sail around, it got a new name – the Cape of Good Hope! Always good to look on the bright side of life, with the glass half full. I like the new name!

Here’s another picture of it after we biked down to the headland itself.

What you’re looking at is, as the sign states, the most southwestern point of Africa. The most southern point is often confused as being this point, but that is actually Cape Agulhas, about 200 kilometers to the southeast.

It was a cool, rainy, Cape kinda day. It felt rewarding and surreal to make it this far south in Africa. What a distance I had come!

Onto the next day trip – that’s Table Mountain, Cape Town’s gorgeous backdrop.

I climbed it! We took the most direct route, which was very steep – much steeper and shorter than the Kilimanjaro climb.

In about 2 hours, we reached the top. The reward? A bird’s eye view of Cape Town.

Here’s me atop Maclear’s Beacon, Table Mountain’s highest point. CONQUERED. Ha.

We heard a bunch of laughter coming from one end of the mountain top, and were happy to find a wedding ceremony going on. What a way to say ‘I do’!

We took the cable car down, a welcome comfort after the hard climb up.

Later in the week, all of a sudden, we realized it was St Patty’s Day! My tripmate studied abroad in Ireland, so we partied the night away at the Dubliner, an irish pub on Long Street complete with bagpipes! Craic lekker! Only bad part – Guiness was $4 a pop.

Next, we headed to the winelands to go on a wine tasting tour! South Africa has a sophisticated wine culture, the only African country to have one. I’m one that can only tell the difference between wine and beer but not different wines, so I tried to learn a bit! I like the cigar-box tasting ones and the way I decided which wines to taste was on account of whichever the most expensive ones were!

French countryside or South Africa? You be the judge.

And it wouldn’t be a complete wine tour without a barrel pic!

We had a very sociable crowd on the wine tour and met a quartet of Germans who we had a lot of great conversation with.

OK, I have a random South African pic left. I saw a truck that was from Hilliard, Ohio! Small world, eh?

Cape Town was an amazing place to do pretty much anything. I recommend anyone to visit, and make sure you take the Cape Peninsula Tour! I will miss braai (roasted meat), the Waterfront, and CT’s multicultural people very much.

After the looooong journey down from Nairobi, I decided to treat myself and fly back. The cheapest flight I found was from Windhoek, Namibia. We took a 24-hour bus ride up there and spent a day there. Heavy German influence as it is a former colony – there are VW Beetles and diamond jewelers everywhere. Here’s what Namibia looks like along the road heading to Windhoek, similar to the Kalahari Desert –

And that marks the end of the trip. Here’s the plane I took from tiny one-airstrip Windhoek airport to Jo-burg. I leave for the final leg of the flight to Nairobi tomorrow morning.

I’ve experienced so many different cultures and am so grateful to have had this experience. Southern Africa’s people for the most part are warm, inviting, and trusting people. I’ll continue to process all I took in over my travel time in the coming days, weeks, and months. I hope to return to all of the countries I visited in the future to learn and experience even more, and I’m open to start a career in almost all of them!

Well, back to work on Monday. I think I’ve had enough vacation to be ready! Until next time.

4 Responses to “Operation Cape Town: Complete”

  1. cefa2012 March 23, 2012 at 8:30 am #

    Woah!!! Its an experience and a whole not a half.

    OMG!!

    • Ben March 29, 2012 at 2:50 pm #

      Haha, I’ll show you my route if you’d like to follow it yourself someday!

  2. Dave Fisher April 13, 2012 at 5:23 am #

    Ben, I just found the time this evening to read your blog. Boy, It sure it nice of you to take the photos for folks like us who will never get to see the sights you have. Take Care and God Bless
    Dave

    • Ben April 20, 2012 at 11:05 am #

      Dave, I’m happy to share my experience and photos with you. You still have time to vacation to Kenya though, eh? It’s a good place to train for marathons!

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