Monday, May 16, 2011

The Week of Hell

Camping in the rain sucks. Camping in the cold and rain really sucks. Camping in the cold and rain with no escape, no warm, dry home to retreat to, just day after day of wet chill that penetrates discomfort deep into the bone . . . that equals hell.

Me on the edge of Table Mountain, Cape Town
Who knew that South Africa could be this miserable in early fall? I figured it was relatively close to the equator? Cape Town was beautiful and deceiving. If I'd known what was to come, I would have been stocking up on ponchos and rubber boots. But whilst in the comfort of a hostel it was gorgeous and warm outside, of course. I climbed table mountain for the most spectacular view of the city. It was a hard hike, but didn't take more than two hours, and it was by far worth it for the view of the city, ocean, and mountains beyond. The next day I took the hour long train ride out to Simonstown to see the local penguins. The town itself was beautiful, set right on the ocean and made up of old, colonial buildings, but by far the highlight was the beach and the super adorable African Penguins (also known as Jackass Penguins . . . but it sounds too mean to call such a cute little creature that)! I tried out my new and fabulously working camera lens. Although it murdered my budget, I'm extremely happy with my purchase and got some great shots! I really had to pick and choose, otherwise the remainder of this blog would be all penguin pictures!

African Penguin
Penguin contemplating life at sunset

As soon as we went back to the bush the misery started. Day 1, at Oudtshoorn, we went to an ostrich farm and I got to ride an ostrich, which was hilarious and terrifying at the same time. Ostriches are super fast and super dumb thus they are not really trainable - you just have to hold on for dear life while they pretty much run where they want. You get off by falling off. The farm had "ostrich boys" there to catch you when this inevitably happens. I think either I was moving too fast or everyone was laughing too hard because no one got a clear photo of me on the ostrich, unfortunately. That night the rains started, but it was only a hint of what was to come and relative dryness was maintained.

Tsitsikamma National Park
Day 2, Tsitsikamma National Park. We arrived late to a gorgeous sunset at a stunning campsite right on the ocean. Waves thundered majestically into jagged black rocks as the sky lit up with pink and yellow. That night, however, a storm of monumental proportions blew in. It began with the rain. Rain so hard it sounded like a garden hose was being sprayed directly against our tent. Then the wind. Our tent bent and creaked and threatened to blow away with us still inside. And the waves. They grew to such a size they vibrated the ground we were attempting to sleep on with every smash against the rocks. As giant BOOMS radiated across the campsite we sat chattering in our tents hoping they wouldn't breach the shore and wash us all away. Everything got wet. Clothes, sleeping bags, tents, mats, food, camping supplies, everything . . . and the rain never let up. The next morning we were scheduled to jump the world's highest bungee jump and we had to call it off due to the torrential downpour. Although I'm sure my mother is stoked, all of us that planned to do the jump, terrified as were were, drove off extremely disappointed.

That afternoon, day 3, we arrived at Addo Elephant National Park. We did a few game drives but didn't see much as I imagine most of the animals were hiding from the rain. The drama of the storm was over, it was now just a steady drizzle that would stop periodically to give us a glimmer of hope that the rain was done - and then it would start again. Our tents were so wet inside that almost no one slept in them. Instead we jammed ourselves uncomfortably on the bus, which was kind of a no-no, but no one cared, it was at least it was somewhat dry there.

Day 4 and 5 we spent in Hogsback, the place said to inspire J.R.R. Tolkien's Mirkwood Forest in Lord of the Rings. Now that everything was soaking wet the cold set in. Having no way to tell the temperature outside I can only guess, but we did see a few stray snowflakes fall, although they were not sticking. So it was damn cold. I wore every dry article of clothing I had and still laid shivering in my sleeping bag. My nose threatened to freeze off and the wind cut my skin. Extreme discomfort and hating of Tucan Tours for running a trip that was all camping this time of year. We did have time to check out the famous forest and it was very Lord of the Rings. We hiked through the mud and guck and overly flooded trails and got disgustingly dirty . . . which I always enjoy!

Basotho women outside her home, Lesotho
On day 6 we entered into the Kingdom of Lesotho, said to be the highest country in the world as the entirety of the land is over 1000m above sea level. Even very mountainous countries like Nepal have valleys and plains that drop well below this. I thought this tiny country, completely surrounded on all sides by South Africa, was going to be exactly like its larger neighbour. It wasn't. It became markedly more rural and 3rd world as soon as we crossed the border. Despite the gloomy grey skies it was beautiful. It was also freezing! Everyone on the tour had had enough. We all used our own money to upgrade to huts. They still didn't have heat or bathrooms, but they did offer some relief from the rain and wind. Each night lightning flashed and the showers would come. The thunder was at times right over us and would bang so loudly it sounded like a bomb was going off. And it rained, and rained, and rained . . .

We did have a stroke of luck, however. On our one free day in Lesotho it stopped raining long enough for us to get out and explore. In the morning a translator/guide took a few of us out into the village. I loved it. This place just seems so untouched and unruined by tourism. The locals were friendly, and to my delight, liked having their picture taken! They didn't beg or harass me to buy anything, they just greeted us with a big smile and would happily show us their home or store or school or whatever else we wanted to take a gander at. The village itself is made up of of traditional round or square stone huts (like the above photo). Although it was basic, it was also very scenic and was more of the Africa I'd anticipated before I came - except for the freezing temperatures.

Me on my pony

In the afternoon we had some fun with the famous Lesotho "ponies". Because the "ponies" are all mixed breeds at this point they are actually horse height and stature. I was relieved for this, I didn't want to flatten some poor little thing. Four of us did a 5 hour trek on horseback through the countryside. It was intense! As an experienced rider I was getting nervous on some of the extremely rough, steep, and uneven terrain we were covering. I think the inexperienced girls were actually frightened. Our guides' English was basic at best and he left me to lead and just barked commands at me that I could barely hear because he trailed at the back of the herd. I got more than a little irritated as I lead a group of shaky riders over sketchy terrain that I didn't know. As we were walking over a large patch of bedrock my friend's horse lost its footing and completely bailed head over tea kettle as she hung on for dear life. In retrospect it's actually fairly hilarious because in the end she and the horse were ok and the amount of curse words that came out of her usually proper mouth in the 30 seconds of panic was impressive. But it looked scary and made us all wonder if we were in capable hands. Shortly after my horse slipped trying to climb up a muddy bank, and as it slid backwards on its knees it almost took out the horse and girl behind me. More profanity. Despite the mishaps and the fairly useless guide, the scenery was gorgeous and we all truly enjoyed ourselves. Being on horseback in the middle of nowhere really made me feel like I had gone back in time. The people we encountered also looked like they came from another era, wrapped in blankets as they herded their cattle through the hills. Lesotho was definitely a highlight of Africa for me.
I stopped to watch the girls and guide cross the river and snapped this photo from the back of my pony

I dreaded going to Johannesburg because it is one of the most dangerous and sketchy cities in the world and as a white girl I have "easy target" written all over me. On the last day of our tour 8 of us white girls and 2 local drivers went into the city to site see. I didn't get murdered, or mugged, or even harassed, but I did almost lose my shit on the most incompetent driver EVER!!!!! He didn't know where he was going, got repetitively lost, was generally impossible to reason with, and didn't want to turn in or stop anywhere because he was unjustifiably terrified of the car getting hijacked. We eventually made it to the famous suburb of Soweto and we had to argue with him to even turn in! After some aimless, lost driving we found Nelson Mandela's former home and did some site seeing. My highlight of the day, surprisingly, was when he dropped us at a mall for lunch. We were completely out of tourist territory and the 8 of us stuck out ridiculously. Baffled, sideways glances at us aside, it was good to see normal Africans doing normal shopping at a normal mall, further abolishing that stereotype of a famined, poverty stricken Africa that seems to be so stuck in everyone's mind. Like everywhere else in the world, there is poverty in Africa, but that's far from ALL that's here. The mall was also a highlight because I finally got to eat my African Mcdonalds meal, clearly a must do :)

The saga with the driver continued. Although we had clearly agreed that we had his services from 9-5 that day for the predetermined price that we had already paid him, he began demanding more money if we wanted to continue. Once we refused, he would not take us to any more sites, spouting off excuses that it was "too dangerous" or "he didn't know where it was". It was like pulling teeth trying to communicate with the man and we all sat squabbling in the car as we drove around, directionless. Several hours of argument later he drove me to the area of the hostel I'd planned on staying that night. As everyone else had already been dropped off I was alone with him and I was legitimately scared he might just dump me where ever to fend off the thieves and rapists on my own. He was so useless he couldn't find the place, and every time he had to use his cell phone to call for directions he would charge me $1.50. Finally the guys from the hostel had to come get me on the side of the road in their personal car after he failed to follow their directions. I had to take a long, hot shower after to calm my frazzled nerves! A lovely ending to the week of hell!

Buenos Aires, Argentina
Early the next morning I caught my flight to South America. I am now in Buenos Aires, Argentina for a one day stop over before I head off to Peru to meet Hayley and Jess! This is the part of my journey I have been the most excited for because I get to share it with friends.

So what did I learn in Africa? Almost all the visions and expectations I had about the place were wrong. I also learned that it is a continent with so much depth and complexity there is no way that I could sum it up here. My one month stint is in no way long enough to understand the under layers and tensions that ripple beneath the surface. Being on a tour had its definite drawbacks and advantages. On the one hand it's nearly impossible to get from A-B in Africa without a car. But staying in campsites in remote areas largely isolates us from the local population, leaving cultural interaction somewhat low. Not to mention camping in bad weather blows!

In more prosperous areas modern Africans dress and eat and live much like we do. In more remote or poorer areas they make do with what they have, thus differences tend to arise. There is some distinct tribal dress, but in my experience you rarely see that unless it's put on for tourists. I find it interesting how much of the media focuses on the tribes and the poor and leaves out the rest. Maybe because it's a little boring to be just like us, I know my eyes started to glaze over in South Africa a bit. But just when I was starting to think that everything I'd seen and read was clearly a lie, we'd drive by a shanty town the size of Whistler. I found myself startled that in such a modern nation, this can still exist. It's scary to me that not that long ago apartheid was a reality. You can still see the ripple effects, I don't think there are any white people living in these shanty towns. The fact that a lot of the limited wealth is still in the hands of the white, well . . . It's not fair, but how do you change it? People can still be racist here. As a white person in Africa you will be looked at as wealthy, no matter what your actual financial status. Random people, like school children, have approached me and blatantly just asked for money, like it's ok, like I should just give it to them so they can buy a sweet they don't even need because I'm just that rich. It's a strange sensation for someone who came from a very average home in a very average neighbourhood.

Best shot of a lion, 300mm focal length
Finally, there are not wild animals running around everywhere. You actually have to look pretty hard to find them! I am so disappointed that I only ever saw lions from quite far away, so that even with my zoom lens they were little more than a tiny dot. For that very reason, I definitely am coming back to Africa! It was just after the rainy season at the time I was there, which is not really the best time to see wildlife as water is plentiful and the animals are able to spread out. During the dry season they congregate around water holes, thus this is the best time. Anyone want to start planning a trip with me?

Early tomorrow I am off to Peru! Today I will try to enjoy Argentina the best I can with only one day and myself to hang out with! My next blog will be from somewhere in Peru or Bolivia.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011


Lonely tree, Namibia
Namibia is vast and sparse and beautiful. The land stretches so far towards the horizon that I can imagine the ends of the earth are just beyond my view. I love feeling like a tiny speck in an infinite landscape, like the whole world is empty and all of this laid out in front of me is mine. It's so different from home where I'm constantly surrounded by trees, mountains, and water. This place carries a different and quieter type of beauty.
Etosha means "big white space" and Etosha National Park is just that: a giant, parched salt pan surrounded by endless yellowing grassland and the odd patch of shrubby forest. Except this year they've had a lot of rain so the salt pan is now a massive lake and there's more blue around than white. Because it's so open I've got some of my best pictures yet, especially of giraffes, which seem to be in abundance here. I am a huge fan of these creatures with their disproportionate limbs, dopey expression, and orange checkered coat. I also visited a cheetah sanctuary where they rescue injured and problem cheetahs. They've had some since they were tiny cubs so they are very tame, like giant house cats, and can be petted. The difference is if a cheetah gets a little pissy and decides to swat at you it can tear an arm off. So I pet with caution, but I soon had the giant kitty purring in my hands. Other cheetahs at the sanctuary are semi wild and I had a chance to watch them feed, but I stayed safely in the jeep for that. I would rather watch lunch than BE lunch!
You would think as one of the more rich countries in Africa there would be some money around to invest in things like roads. In Namibia, all roads are all some combination of dirt, rock, and sand and bumpy at best. Maybe because there are next to no people here (2.5/kmand most of those are in the capital of Windhoek) the government has decided it's not worth it. Our poor truck has bumped and rattled it's way across this country and of course, we got stuck. Now, when you're in the middle of the Namib Desert you can't just call a tow truck to come rescue you, you are basically on your own and you can hope whatever few strangers happen to drive by will stop to help. Never in the cool of the morning or evening do these events happen, no, no. They happen in the heat of the afternoon on the biggest hangover day of the entire trip. Almost everyone in the group had closed the campsite bar the night before doing an excessive amount of $2 shots. We stumbled into our tents at 3:30am and were up at 5:30am again to pack up camp in a dazed, half asleep, half still drunk stupor. So you can imagine how stoked we were when our bus came to a grinding halt into a sand bank in one of the hottest, driest regions of the world at the warmest time of day. We piled out cursing the cheap booze from the night before and begrudgingly helped dig or push or collect rocks or whatever needed doing. Some passersby stopped to help but even the tug of a 4x4 and a dozen people pushing wasn't able to free us. I was just beginning to contemplate if we would have to pitch our tents for the evening when a travel bus similar to our own drove by and offered us a tow. The crowd that had accumulated over the hours burst into applause when our truck was FINALLY was pulled  from the sand.

Above: Dune 45     Below: Sand boarding
You eventually reach a place in Namibia where even the grass struggles to survive. Giant, red sand dunes the size of mountains rise into a perfect blue sky, their sandy limbs snaking and slithering into the valley floor. I got up at 4:00am to hike famous dune #45 for sunrise. I also did some sand boarding. On my first run down the dune I discovered that it wasn't far off from snowboarding, except maybe a little harder to turn. The other difference was I had to walk back up to the top in the hot sun. As I am accustomed to chair lifts and cool temperatures, I personally thought this part was super lame for 20 seconds worth of carving. While it may seem less extreme, sand sledding is really where it's at. They wax up this thin little piece of fibreboard and send you down the hill head first where you reach speeds of up to 80kph (yes, they even clock you with a speed gun). Now THAT is worth walking back up the hill for!

I am now in South Africa. We pretty much B-lined it for Cape Town and I am here catching up on errands and pondering over a new camera lens that I can't really afford....Although a recent donation from a very generous couple will most likely make it possible. Cape Town is a completely modern city and it feels more like home than Africa. I'm sure there are bad neighbourhoods but the place we are staying is a short walk from the waterfront and seems completely safe. I'm pretty sure there are more Mercedes and BMWs around here than murderers or muggers! Why does everyone say it's so dangerous? I don't get it! My next post will hopefully be from Johannesburg before I fly out to South America. 'Til then!