Countries Visited So Far Click Each For More Info

Entries in South Africa (7)

Oprah For a Day

Before arriving in Johannesburg, South Africa, we had heard many conflicting stories as far as what to expect. Some said the reputation for how dangerous this city is was overrated, others said don’t plan on leaving your hotel without bodyguards. In a nutshell, I think it falls somewhere in the middle, perhaps leaning a little more towards the dangerous side. It is not safe to walk around outside in the vast majority of the city – day or night – particularly the downtown area. However there are some places where it’s ok to go for a short stroll. Provided you are very aware of your surroundings and on guard at all times. I think the Wikipedia advice sums it up well (see bottom of entry under Stay Safe).

IMG_3319.JPGWe decided the best way to see the city would be to hire a driver/guide for the day. Patrick turned out to be an amazing resource for showing us areas we otherwise could not go into, giving us his views on Apartheid since he has lived here his entire life, and giving us a real perspective on life in such a strange place to live. The tour started innocently enough with a trip through the wealthy northern suburbs, including where Nelson Mandela lives. It was then time to “roll ‘em up and lock ‘em” as we went into the center of downtown. We went through some of the pretty bad neighborhoods, riddled with gangs, drugs, and prostitution. And that’s just the stuff we could see. The CBD (central business districts, which is what “downtown” is called everywhere except America) is actually seeing a small revival. All hotels and business had been completely closed down due to excessive violence, however a few are now beginning to move back in and there is even a hotel scheduled to open in a few months.

IMG_3343.JPGNext stop was Soweto, which stands for South Western Townships - perhaps the most interesting part of all of Johannesburg. This is an area where many blacks were displaced to during the beginnings of Apartheid. It is now a mix of somewhat respectable homes and complete and absolute poverty. Patrick took us through areas where there is no running water or electricity. What few places have electricity are stealing it by running a precarious line through dry brush to their shack.

We drove into what looked to be the poorest and scariest part of all when the car was mobbed by children of all sizes and ages. I must admit, I was thinking to myself “Get us the hell out of here fast”. But Patrick had other ideas. He stopped the car, opened the semi-armored doors, and told us to get out. And so, 1047435-879622-thumbnail.jpgI finally felt what it was like to be Oprah. We were literally swarmed by the most adorable and friendly children I have ever seen. We flowed down this river of children into Grandma Elizabeth’s shack, the old lady who makes bread to feed them all. There we got a chance to talk with her a bit (she was very shy) and spend some time with the kids. It was truly one of the most amazing and moving experiences of my life. They say once you go to Africa, a little piece of it will always stay in your heart.

IMG_3384.JPGWe ended the very, very long day with trips to the house Nelson Mandela grew up in, the museum commemorating the Soweto uprising of 1976, and the Apartheid museum. If ever in Johannesburg – and that’s probably a big “if ever” - I highly recommend going to the Apartheid museum. And that’s saying a lot since I generally don’t like museums. It really is extremely well done.

Safari Sabbatical

We'll be roughing it at Arathusa Lodge in the Sabi Sands game reserve for the next 4 days, which means this is the first time on our entire trip we will be completely out of touch.  Expect some exciting animal pictures and safari updates on June 26th!

Sabi Sands Safari Adventure

1047435-887499-thumbnail.jpgWe just returned from our 4 day safari in the Sabi Sands, a game reserve connected to Kruger Park in South Africa. Unsure of what to expect from Arathusa (since we’re not exactly the roughem’ type), we were pleasantly surprised to find a beautiful lodge equivalent to hotel like accommodations (minus televisions and internet). The main difference here was the position of the site perched on the edge of the most amazing waterhole in the middle of the bush, a spot where tons and tons of animals would gather to drink. Often times we’d just be lying in bed relaxing, and look up to see outside our window groups of elephants or impala or hippos gathered around the hole.

Upon arriving to Arathusa, we were immediately ushered out on our first game drive with our fellow lodge goers; this would be our first of the six, three hour game drives throughout our stay. These drives were conducted in open air 10 seater land-rover vehicles, which gave an incredible vantage of all the surroundings. Our driver Jaqcue, was very knowledgeable and enthusiastic about all the animals we’d find, and our tracker Morris, seated on a single seat that jutted out from in front of the vehicle, had eyes like a hawk. He had this incredible ability to trace animals’ tracks, and eventually lead us to groups of them.

1047435-887498-thumbnail.jpgMy first impression of a safari was that there would be animals running around all over the place, never quite understanding quite the expedition we’d have to go on to find the little creatures. The discoveries were definitely worth the wait though, as our adrenaline would mount the second we happened upon a sighting.

You don’t realize how scary it is to be so up close and personal with wild animals, sometimes just several feet in front of you. The elephant sightings were especially intense, since often times we’d find them in large groups, snapping trees left and right, directly in front of us – they could easily have tipped over our vehicle. By far the most exciting spotting was the male lion that had blood smeared on his face and leg, probably from a recent kill he made. I was scared he’d mistake me for a fellow lion, since my fake fur hood definitely was mane-like.

1047435-887497-thumbnail.jpgThe big hype in the safari scene is spotting the Big 5 -- these are the animals classified as the most difficult and dangerous to hunt by foot. They include elephants, water buffalo, leopards, rhinoceros and lions. AND, we were lucky enough to spot them all!!!! Although spotting the animals was always a thrill, just being on the game drives was an adventure in itself, and also really gave us time to be in our thoughts.

1047435-887496-thumbnail.jpgOn top of the amazing animals and surroundings, we met some really neat people at our lodge. Sharing meals, our long game drives, and relaxing moments gave us time to connect with others in the most amazing environment, something I was so sad to leave.

Although I thought that going to a zoo to see animals mights be similar to a safari, these experiences aren't even in the same league -- no bars, no windows, and no protection from the wild animals, which makes the safari such a thrill.  I am definitely turned on to the whole safari experience, and am already trying to figure out a way to do one more before we leave Africa.

Great Success!

One of the ways we entertain ourselves while away is to have little missions. Yesterday, one of our longest missions finally came to its triumphant conclusion. I have a bit of foot trouble and there’s only one shoe I’ve ever found that feels good and doesn’t cause it to act up. The Asics Gel Evolution II. I also was cursed with freakishly wide feet, and normal tennis shoes just don’t fit right. And no, it’s not true what they say.

IMG_3626.JPGThe thing about Asics is outside of the US they can be relatively hard to find. I was able to pick up a new pair in Australia with relative ease, but hadn’t seen them since. Around Malaysia I started to get pretty desperate, since we’re not exactly traveling with a closet full of shoes. Any time we were out and about, we always had our eye out for sporting goods stores where maybe I would get lucky and find them. A few times we came oh-so-close, actually finding the exact shoe. But alas, the size US 11 eluded us each time. Foreigners apparently have much smaller feet. Eight countries and over a month later we finally found them at a Foot Locker in Cape Town, South Africa. The highlight of the experience was the shoe salesman saying “I don’t mean to toot our own horn, but we have the best Asics selection around”, and then beaming like a proud father for the rest of our time with him. I’ve since been in a post-coital mission success bliss and can’t stop looking across the room at them.

Discovering Robben Island

1047435-894680-thumbnail.jpgWe were informed that during slow season in Cape Town, we’d have no problem walking up and getting on a tour to Robben Island. But, when we arrived at 9am to the ticket office we were told we could only get on the 1pm. The only good thing about this is we had time to wander around the Victoria and Alfred Waterfront; this is the very “touristy” area, equivalent to Fisherman’s Wharf in SF. We did however manage to find Jason’s Asic’s shoes he’s been on the hunt for, so it was a blessing in disguise we had to wait.

1047435-894679-thumbnail.jpgAt 1pm, we boarded the “Sea Princess” ferry and set sail on the 30 minute ride to Robben Island. The views of Cape Town were magnificent from the back of the boat. I wasn’t really sure what to expect from the visit, since the whole ferry process was quite hectic and unorganized, not to mention we were informed that the main attraction of Nelson Mandela’s prison cell was under retrofit and we would not be able to enter it.

1047435-894677-thumbnail.jpgThe main attraction to Robben Island is similar to that of Alcatraz, as it served as a prison primarily to political prisoners during apartheid. It only closed as recently as 1995, and now is a popular destination. We began our tour of the island on a bus, guided by a very knowledgeable Yolanda. She showed us the limestone quarry where Nelson Mandela served 18 long years doing hard labor, prison cells, some of the incredible wild life that occupies the island, as well the amazing views looking onto the Cape.

1047435-894678-thumbnail.jpgThe next portion of the tour was more interpersonal. We were greeted by an ex-prisoner who led us through some of the barracks, sharing with us his experience serving in the prison as well telling us some of his political views. His passion and commitment to his beliefs and hopes for South Africa were incredibly moving. In fact, I was so moved by his story that I left my hat in the cell he was talking to us in. Amazingly, the girl sitting in front of us on the ferry (out of 150 people) happened to find a hat and low and behold I was reunited with it.

Friends From Home

We’ve managed to meet up with lots of different people on our trip, but so far none of them have been people we’ve known from our lives BTJ (before the journey). Finally, nearly six months in, that has changed. Josh is a friend of mine from my days back at Jack Nadel, and his girlfriend Sarah is shooting a documentary here in Cape Town. Josh and Sarah like to eat and drink, and therefore are close friends that we were very excited to see. Our first dinner was at The Vault, a restaurant in the basement vault of an old bank. It started out innocently enough with a five course tasting menu and wine pairing. The trouble started when the “wine pairing” turned out not to be a sip from the bottle, but the entire bottle. Thus five bottles of wine and several very elaborate shots (see video) later we were pretty toasty. But, as usual, things didn’t end there. We made buddies with the overly verbose chef/owner who then introduced us to a very strange man at the next table over who apparently owned a local winery. Conversation led to more drinks, which led to a round of Cuban cigars upstairs in the smoking lounge, which led to an Apartheid pow wow that ended at 3am.

1047435-895655-thumbnail.jpgLuckily for us we had nothing to do the next day. Unluckily for Josh & Sarah they had an entire day of shooting planned starting with a 9am boat trip on very rough seas out to Robben Island. Sucks for them. Last night we went to Moyo, a rather touristy “authentic African” restaurant in Spier winery that boasts local dance and music. Mostly I felt like I was on a cheap Caribbean cruise, complete with buffet and face painting, but it was fun enough.

Cage Diving With Great White Sharks

1047435-897632-thumbnail.jpgThere are certain activities we do along our trip we know not to tell our parents about until after we’ve experienced them –- cage diving with great white sharks in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean certainly falls into that category.

Our friends Josh and Sarah were gung ho to do this adventure, something that hadn’t really been on our radar mostly because it’s winter here in Cape Town and the oceans are freezing. I can barely handle the temperature of tropical bath water without getting goose bumps, none-the-less the Atlantic Ocean during winter. However, somehow Jason convinced me I should do it!

The ungodly hour of 5 a.m. rolls around and we’re whisked away on our two and a half hour drive to False Bay to begin the adventure; this early hour was set to try and avoid the bad weather that was supposedly rolling in – that’s always a settling thought when you’re about to go out on the high seas to go cage diving with sharks and a storm is impending!

The boat journey was quite choppy, as we barreled over large surges; all four of us required a second dose of Dramamine. It’s at this point, while Jason and I are huddled together for warmth, that Jason looks at me and concedes it’s just way too cold to even think about putting on a wet suit and getting in the water. Gotta love those “I told you so” moments.

1047435-897628-thumbnail.jpgI too was apprehensive as the stinky chumm of anchovies and fish guts was being ladled in the water, the bait was being tossed over, several people were blowing chunks over the railing, and low and behold the great whites were beginning to circle – not the most inviting scene. Then, the cage was dropped in and the first divers made their way into the contraption, the thin bars being the only thing separating them from the powerful snapping shark jaws. All four of us at this point began justifying to each other that being on the boat was just as cool as being in the water, and there was no need to risk catching colds in the frigid waters.

1047435-897630-thumbnail.jpgSomething in us snapped after our little rationalization session, and we decided to put the wetsuits on and just do it. We made the plunge into the freezing water, and immediately my toes went numb from the intense chill. The hardest part in the surging current was ensuring your limbs didn’t slip outside the cage, which we all struggled with as our bodies flailed.

Suddenly we hear “down” yelled and we instantly jumped into action, immersing ourselves in the water to view the sharks directly in front of our eyes. The captain used bait to attract them directly in front of the cage, giving us the most intense, up close image of these powerful creatures. At one point a shark came for the left side of the cage, lodging itself literally inches away from Jason, and even biting off some of the protective foam from the cage (check out the video clip). The last shark of the day just about gave us all a heart attack, categorized as a Beta 2– not exactly sure what that means, except that the experienced captain seemed blown away by its over 14 foot length!

At least we can say we lived to tell the tale . . .