Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Namibia & South Africa Redux


First off, our apologies to those of you have been patiently waiting for an update; we've kept you hanging far too long.

Our final night in South Africa was spent right near the border, just outside the Kgalgadi Transfrontier Park, where we planned to stay a few days. Unfortunately, we learned upon arriving that it was completely booked up because the Afrikaaners were on holiday (yet again, it seemed like they were on holiday most of the time we were there). Furthermore, since we weren't staying in the park, they wouldn't let us drive through it to the Namibia border (thru traffic not permitted), so we had to drive a couple hours out of our way to get into the country. Grrrr.

After we crossed the border without incident, we immediately experienced the desolation for which this country is known for. The country is pretty big, slightly more than half the size of Alaska, yet the population is only two million people, and the majority of them live in the far north near the Angolan border. Over the course of our seven hour drive to the capital city, Windhoek, we saw about ten other cars. We spent a couple days in the city, which, like most of the country, had a very large German influence. About ninety percent of the other travellers we met were German. We explored their craft market and had dinner at one of the local game restaurants. Jason tried the game medley, including zebra, which was a bit like beef, but tougher and sweeter.

Our first stop in Namibia was Etosha National Park. We decided to camp outside of the park the first night because camping inside the park was ridiculously expensive ($60 per night). Yes, camping! The park is in the middle of the desert, from the park website:

Etosha, meaning "Great White Place", is dominated by a massive mineral pan. The pan is part of the Kalahari Basin, the floor of which was formed around 1000 million years ago. The Etosha Pan covers around 25% of the National Park. The pan was originally a lake fed by the Kunene River. However the course of the river changed thousands of years ago and the lake dried up. The pan now is a large dusty depression of salt and dusty clay which fills only if the rains are heavy and even then only holds water for a short time.

Within Etosha there are three campsites, all of which have floodlit watering holes that attract animals throughout the day and night. The extreme harshness of the environment, and the resulting stress on the animals, provides for excellent wildlife viewing. Some of the highlights include:

--A field of majestic baobab trees.
--An elephant and rhinoceroussquaring off at the Halali watering hole (the elephant won that showdown).
--Seeing processions of zebras and kudus hundreds long trekking to a watering hole and filling in.
--A pair of male zebras fighting/playing. We weren't sure which one the kudu was rooting for. --Kudus doing the same.

--Three different species sharing the land.
--A pair of coupling lions sitting near a watering hole. Although they were amazing, we felt for the processions of other animals that had trudged all day only to have to turn back around when the realized the hole was occupied.
--And on our final day in the park, we were driving along the main road in the park. There was no one else around of course and as we approached one of themarkers, we saw a pair of cheetahs! We hoped and pleaded with him to jump on top of the marker to get a better lookout, but before we realized, poof, they were gone. The grace and speed with which these animals move can not really be described, but simply amazing!

We'd have loved to stay longer at Etosha but we finally headed west to the less-developed Kunene region of the country. Our plan was to see the rock art at Twyfelfontein. When we arrived at 4:15, the female ticket collector informed us we would have to wait for a guide so to have a look around. After about 15 minutes, she then tells us there will be no more tours today, even though they take 1/2 hour and the place doesn't close until 5. We then saw a sign saying guests were allowed to take the tour on their own, without a guide! So we told her we don't need a guide but she refused to let us in. Since this was our only chance to see the rock art (our campsite was an hour away), Jason persisted. The woman then became extremely rude, at one point accusing people 'like Jason' of defacing the site! It was frustrating to say the least, but there was little we could do except move on. (Jason later contacted them to report the staff unnamed staff person, who refused to give her name because she knew she was over the line). This aggression will not stand, man!

We continued west to the so-called Skeleton Coast, which is a vast stretch of deserted coast that we thought was going to be lined with shipwrecks. We did see a couple, but would not recommend going out of your way to see it.

Our next stop was Swakopmund, which is a popular destination for the adventure seekers. We had planned on going skydiving again, but due to budget concerns we held off. Instead we went sandboarding on the massive sand dunes. The woman who owns the company is from Colorado, and we both were taken aback by the condition of her skin from way too much sun exposure. We decided to skip the standing board option because we'd been informed that it's akin to snowboarding, but much slower. As we watched the stand-up boarders in our group slog up the dunes in skiboots and suffer repeated faceplants, we felt good with our decision. The workers had a speed gun and Jason was able to log the fastest time, 75 km/hr (~47 mph), just shy of the record (81 kph). On one of the hills, they had us go down on the same board, sitting up. We started out ok, but after about fifteen meters we started getting off center and eventually got turned around completely so we were heading down backwards. But not for long as we wiped out, hard. Jason felt like he'd dislocated his shoulder (thankfully not) and Priti suffered some scrapes as well. Only after we came back up did they tell us their nickname for the ride, "the marriage breaker." All in all it was good fun, and they even through in a DVD. But cleaning the sand out of our ears for weeks was the true bonus.

We continued south to see the famous red sand dunes of Sossusvlei. Seeing the sun rise over the dunes was spectacular and the patterns created were unique for each dune. Due to the stark contrast with the dunes, the sky was a very intense shade of blue.
Jason decided to hike up dune 45 and got some good shots on his way to the top. Once he got to the top, he decided to keep going and forge his own trail. Perhaps the highlight was deadvlei, which housed dozens of petrified trees that lent to some amazing photographs. These dunes could make anyone feel like a professional photographer.

We continued down the coast to Luderitz, another quaint German influenced town. But the main reason people visit is to see the nearby ghost town of Kolmannskuppe, which sprung up in the desert in 1908 after the discovery of diamonds and just as quickly was abandoned in 1956 after more lucrative diamonds were found further south. The shear volume of diamonds mined in the area is impossible to comprehend, and to this day a large section of the country is privatized diamond mining territory. We were explicitly and repeatedly warned that to cross into these areas was at our own risk and very foolish. But the ghost town itself was a marvel to behold, as most of the buildings were half-submerged under sand dunes. Plus we got to go inside the buildings and explore them on our own.

Our final stop in Namibia was the Fish River Canyon, which bills itself as the second largest canyon in the world after Arizona's Grand Canyon. The canyon itself was spectacular, but once again the authorities did their best to ruin it, as they forbade hikers from descending into the canyon on their own, meaning no day trips down and also expensive guides had to be hired. A completely ridiculous policy and we ended up going about halfway down in just a couple hours. Imagine the outcry if they enacted such a policy in the US.

There are many cool things to see in Namibia, but they are spread on the periphery of the country so there is a LOT of travel time involved. Also, we didn't feel the people were nearly as nice as the Afrikaaners, which was surprising to us because the countries are linked in so many other ways.

South Africa Redux

Thus, we were excited to get back to South Africa. We wished we had more time because the Cedarberg Mountains are lekker! The rocks have eroded to create these amazing formations, and there is also plenty of wildlife, such as the pack of babboons we saw atop these rocks. This area is also well off the beaten track so we pretty much had the hostel to ourselves. We had a great time hanging out with the guy working there, who'd been almost everywhere (including all fifty states), since he had previous worked for an overland tour company. He told us of some the tours offered, including a three-year round-the-world trip! The next day we got to see some really cool rock art, and we didn't have any meanies standing in our way! We also saw this rock that reminded us of an optical illusion. Tell us, what do you see, a face or a duck? South Africa is world famous for its great wine, and our next destination was the wine region. There are three towns in the area and we decided to stay in Stellenbosch, a university town. The shear number of wineries in the area is overwhelming and true wine lovers could spend literally years exploring them. With only two days, we set out early and hit about five wineries. At the second winery, we ended up befriending an older foursome, two Canadians and two Afrikaaners. They were incredibly nice and we ended up having lunch with them in Franschoek, another winery town nearby. After lunch, we hit another winery and befriended yet another group of locals, this time university students who were celebrating their upcoming graduation. One of the guys demonstrated a neat party trick where he took a sword and slashed off the top of a champagne bottle. Apparently it's pretty easy due to the pressure within the bottle. After hanging out for awhile, the college kids invited us back to their place for a full-on brai (Afrikaaner for BBQ). Now, I know some folks in the US know about BBQ-ing, but it pales in comparison to the immense pride Afrikaaners take in their brai skills, as this picture attests. The brai pit is actually built right into the wall. The food (ostrich and beef) was superb, and the only flaw of the night was one girl getting so intoxicated she passed out in her own vomit. Oh, those crazy college kids!

Our final stop on our southern Africa tour was Capetown, which is one of the most beautiful cities in the world. We decided to couchsurf again and so we stayed with Martin, a wonderful host who we hope to see again. We would walk out his front door and see mountain climbers heading up a nearby slope...lekker!We drove out to Cape Point, which was spectacular. Along the drive we marvelled at the huge nets that had been erected to catch falling rocks. We took a short hike around the cliffs and saw whales down below. Another day we hiked up table mountain, which was pretty steep. Due to a late start, we actually ended up coming down after dark, and it was also a bit slick from some showers. Luckily, Martin had headlamps for us to use and we made it down without incident.

When it was finally time to leave ZA, we were pretty sad, and we definitely plan to return. It has a bit of everything for everyone and the people are some of the nicest in the world. Given their tumultuous history, we can only hope things improve by the time we go back.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

South Africa, part 1

On the plane to South Africa (ZA), we both had mixed feelings. On the one hand, we were excited to be seeing a new country (not to mention leaving Madagascar), but on the other hand we were apprehensive about the high levels of violence that so many fellow travelers had warned us about. In light of that, we decided to skip Johannesburg, which is renown for being extremely violent, and head straight to Pretoria. We were quite bemused when they showed us our rental: a like-new VW Citi model that hasn't been produced in the States in about 25 years, yet it remains one of the most popular cars in ZA due to its low cost. The rental company inexplicably had no maps for us so we got completely lost but managed to eventually get to Pretoria. As we drove around the 'posh' suburb of Hatfield looking for a hostel, we were struck by a few things. There was not a single car parked on the street and all of these nice looking houses were surrounded by gnarly security fences. As we would soon find out, cars were hidden away for good reason. When we tried to leave our car outside the fence for just a few minutes as put our things away, we learned that our particular model was the most frequently stolen car in the country and good thieves could steal it in as little as fifteen seconds. Speaking of the hostel, it was the first of a long line of wonderful places at which we stayed in ZA. Our bedroom was decorated with designer furniture and we enjoyed some wonderful breakfasts.

We met some cool people at the hostel, including one local who kept saying a word we'd never heard before, lekker, which sounds like 'blackened' and is Afrikaans for 'awesome'. We also met a German guy who was doing his Ph.D. on the history of HIV Health Policy in ZA, which is very bizarre. Apparently the health minister was some sort of quack and convinced the president that the threat AIDS has been completely overblown and that traditional cures like lemon and garlic are just as effective as anti-retroviral drugs. These attitudes have completely derailed prevention efforts and ZA has one of the highest rates of HIV infection in the world. We hit the town that night and found ourselves surrounded by college students, as Pretoria is a big university town. Although we had a good time, we were struck by the blatant segregation; all the workers were Black while nearly all the revelers were White, and none of the groups were mixed. We speculated that this was how America must hav felt in the 50s.

We spent one day shopping at several malls to buy a replacement camera and binoculars. With our new toys in tow, we headed to the nearby Lion Park, where we got to feed ostriches and giraffes and even pet some lion cubs. Despite being fairly young, we were repeatly warned to be careful and to protect our feet, as the cubs like to gnaw on shoes and even toes. Although we only had about five minutes with them, it was a great experience. We also went on a game drive through an area where about 80 lions roam wild. As we were creeping along, one of the massive males came right up next to our car, scaring us half to death. He leisurely walked by us and then plopped down right behind our car in the middle of the road. Unfortunately, we listened to the electronics salesman who said we didn't need an extra lithium battery, and so didn't have a replacement when our battery ran out just as he approached the car...doh! We had of course grown accustomed to losing pictures but we made sure to return the next day to get another battery.

We headed north and took an unanticipated detour to the Sudwala caves, home to some fascinating rock formations including oned that looked like a giant claw and a horse's profile. Our guide brought us to an area called the 'Amphitheatre' because it has great acoustics, and then turned off the lights. We found it disorienting to be in total darkness where we couldn't even detect the movement of our hands right in front of our faces. After the caves we coasted in to Sabie, which is known for its adventure sports. One day we went tubing down a river, which was like rafting except we had individual tubes. Our guide was great and we had a blast getting tipped over in the rapids and going down a natural waterslide sans tubes. The following day we tried abseiling (basically the opposite of rock climbing) down a canyon next to a waterfall. That first step backwards over the cliff was one of the scariest things we've ever done. At the end of the rope, we dropped into a freezing cold river. Jason went first and was mesmerized by the view of Priti abseiling, so decided to go again so we could take picture. But alas, by the time we got back to the top, the guide had dismantled the equipment. That night we hung out with a local who took us to one of the local bars, where, in between harassments from the locals, he told us how he was a contestant in some sort of survivor-type game in which he had to bike 10K kms for 2 million Rand ($250K). In retrospect, he was probably pulling a fast one (we bought a couple of his homemade sculptures), but were satisfied because at least we finally learned the rules of cricket and rugby. A more genuine companion we met in Sabie was Isis, the hostel manager's Boer Bull, who kept climbing into our beds. This means our two favorite dogs in the world share the same name. Also, Priti decided that she has t have one and fortunately there are breeders in the States.

After Sabie, we ventured to Kruger National Park for five days of safaris. The accomodations were excellent and we saw tons of wildlife. For those who have not been on safaris, there is an almost rabid fascination with seeing the 'Big 5', which is the buffalo, elephant, black rhinoceros, leopard, and lion. On the first few days, we saw dozens of buffalos and elephants. We saw several black rhinos as well but hadn't seen any cats. For some reason, our first two campsites did not offer night drives, but fortunately our third camp did. On the night drive we spotted a cat in the distance and the guide said it was likely a leopard due to its size. As we approached closer, it turned out to be a lion cub that had been separated from its mother and was emitting distress calls. Our guide explained how in all likelihood this cub sadly would get eaten by hyenas because it had been abandoned. But, lo and behold, further along the road we found the mother, emitting her own distress calls, along with two other lionesses and three other cubs, meaning there would be a happy reunion that night. Unfortunately, despite awaking at dawn five day in a row (no kidding), we missed the elusive leopard, which wasn't too surprising since they are rare and spend most of their time up in trees. Besides the Big 5, we saw tons of other animals including hyenas, hippos, eagles, zebras, wildebeasts, monkeys, baboons, warthogs, springboks, kudus, giraffes, ostriches, wild bucks, genets, and kingfishers to name some. Overall, it was an amazing experience and what is nice about Kruger is that it is relatively affordable and it is all self-drive, with the option for guided drives as well.

We headed back to Sabie, stopping along the way to see the Blyde River Canyon, which is the third largest canyon in the world (after the Grand Canyon and Fish River Canyon in Namibia). Some of the great sites along the panorama route of the canyon included Bourke's Luck Potholes, which is an impressive expanse of rock pool formations. Another spot was called the 'Three Rondavels' due to its similarity to the conical huts found in the local villages. Finally, we stopped at a place called 'God's Window' which, with a name like that, we expected to be much more impressive. That night, after reuniting with Isis, we went to a restaurant where Jason got to continue his culinary adventures by trying warthog casserole, which was ok.

Our next stop was a town almost no one has heard of called Kestell, which is nestled along the Lestotho border and the Northern Drakensburg mountain range. The town itself is just a blip but the place we stayed, Karma Backpackrs, was magnificent, essentially a B&B at a backpacker price. FYI, for anyone traveling to ZA, they have these local budget accommodation guides that we used exclusively to find hostels, although some of them were also listed in our LP guidebook. The owner Vera Ann, was like the cool grandmother everyone wishes they had. For breakfast each morning, we could try any of her dozens homemade jams (Watermelon & Rosewater and Brandy, Plum & Walnut were our favorites). She also had some great pets, including a cat named 'dog.' During the days, we went on some hikes. First, we attempted to hike along the famous Amphtitheater but were thwarted by the weather, so we didn't get to climb the rope ladder which was needed to reach the summit. Despite the weather, we were treated to some spectacular views. We spent the evenings chatting with Vera Ann and her husband, and learned more about the precarious political situation in ZA and how many people are trying to get away due to the increasing violence. They also speculated that the 2010 World Cup will have to be moved to the back-up site (Australia) because they are so behind schedule. On our way out of Kestell, we stopped for another day of hiking at Royal Natal NP.

After an uneventful night further south along the Drakensburgs, we headed for the Wild Coast. Our first stop was supposed to be Port St. Johns. However, after hearing another traveler report a recent string of hold-ups at the hostels we were on guard and when we arrived it was so sketchy that we just turned back around. It was so bad that we were afraid to eat lunch in the restaurant for fear our car would be gone before we returned. Thus, after a full day of driving, we had another few hour to get to Coffee Bay, which is known to have a hippy vibe. Generally, we have not liked such spots, but in Coffee Bay it was relaxed and good-natured fun. Jason joined a group on a day hike along the cliffs and to Mapuzzi cave, which was the foullest smelling cave he'd ever been in. He also partook in some cliff jumping into a river since the ocean was too choppy to jump into. Another day we lounged at the beach and played some beach volleyball, and Jason took advantage of some free surf lessons. He even managed to stay on the board...once... for about five seconds. One evening, we reluctantly joined a 'cultural' tour to the local village. The food was not too good and the homemade beer was worse. After dinner, the locals put on a dance show before asking us to join them. It was a bit uncomfortable for us because the females, aged eight to fifteen, all were topless and our guide kept saying "shake that body" in a very dirtbaggish way. And shook their bodies they did, to a rhythm created on makeshift percussion instruments handled by the village elders. After the girls finished, the boys gave their routine, which in contrast was them just shuffling along in a big circle.

Inclement weather arrived on the coast, so we decided to head back inland to Hogsback, which had been recommended by a few other people. It has made a name for mostly due to Tolkien having spent some of his childhood there and thus apparently finding inspiration from the surrounding countryside in creating Middle Earth. Nearly every business in town had some reference to the Hobbitt in its name (our hostel was called Away with the Fairies). As we hiked through the misty mountains past stunning waterfalls, we understood how people could make the connection.

After Hogsback, we went to Addo Elephant NP for an afternoon of game drives, before heading back to the coast to Storms River. Loyal readers of the blog may recall that Jason wanted to do the Nevis bungy jump in NZ but passed it up when he found out there was a taller on in ZA. Well, this was it, all 216 meters of it. As he walked along the bridge, the adrenaline began to build the jump itself was a rush unlike any other. The only disappointment was that the workers did not allow him to soak in the fear by standing on the edge, as they started counting down almost immediately. They claimed that if they didn't then too many people would back out.

Buzzing with adrenaline, we headed to yet another NP, Tsitsikamma, where Jason continued his natural high by going on one of the toughest and most amazing hikes he's ever been on, the Otter Trail. The barely existent trail followed the ragged cliffs and every 200 meters or so the scenery changed. Parts of the trail involved bouldering while other parts he was hunched over going through forest tunnels. He saw only a few other hikers and some wild animals along the way, and at the end there was a spectacular waterfall. Meanwhile, Priti had a relaxing day on the beach enjoying a book while listening to the waves crashing the shore.

We continued down the coast along the Garden Route to Plettenberg Bay, known by the locals as 'Plett.' We found another awesome place to stay, about 6 kms outside of town that had a great deck with a superb view of the city and the bay. In the mornings we could see dozens of dolphins swimming up the coast. For the first time in awhile, we enjoyed the cuisine, including kingclip (a fish we'd never tried) and for the first time during our entire trip, good Mexican food (chicken burritos). We would have never even bothered trying it as we had long ago given up hope of finding good Mexcian food, but the owner of the roadside stall was friends with the hostel owner so we gave him the benefit of the doubt. Plett is pretty touristy so there was plenty to do. We went to a glorified zoo called 'Monkeyland', and we posted some of those pics in the Madagascar entry. We continued our wildlife tour by visiting another wild cat park where we got to pet a cheetah...seeing all these cats reminded Jason of Billy and Simone back in Omaha. We also went on a nice hike along the coast in Robberg NP.

On our way out of town, we decided to buy a tent because it seemed as if Namibia (our next destination) was going to be very expensive. So, we headed north through the Karoo, a vast desolate desert, to a place called Graff-Reinet, a Dutch colonial town which had lots of aesthetically pleasing historical buildings.

Since we didn't have much time to spare, we dropped off our stuff and explored the Valley of Desolation, which reminded us a lot of Arizona with its red rock formations. While we were gone, the owners of the hostel kindly booked us reservations at one of the local game restaurants, and we feasted on kudu and ostrich (our favorite). He also showed us around his members only club and shared some of the history of the town.

Our final stop before crossing over to Namibia was Augrabies NP, near Upington. We stayed at a campsite nearby and hung out with some locals under a mesmerizing sunset. We'd already logged tons of kms over the past few days so we had a pretty quiet evening on Jason's birthday. Although the falls weren't that spectacular because the water was relatively low, the park itself was beautiful. On a hike through the park there were multi-colored lizards on the rocks that were pretty interesting as well as dassies, which look like beavers but their closest genetic relatives are elephants. Stay tuned for the Namibia update along with the rest of ZA (we never did find out why they abbreviate it ZA rather than SA).