Published: July 3rd 2010June 29th 2010
These random fires burn everywhere in Africa
Whew, it's been a little while since the last update. Sorry for the delay, but I'm not wasting much time out here. So we left off when I arrived in Pretoria. The place seemingly looked safe due to the cleanliness and lack of graffiti, but the electric fences outside literally every building was a strong reminder of the realities of South Africa. On top of that, my South African friend Idali -- who was kind enough to pick me up at the airport and drive me into Pretoria -- said that she would never buy a house on the street and would rather live in a complex with a security gate. She also told me a smash-and-grab story when she was driving in Johannesburg once. Hearing things like this makes you keep your guard up more than normal. It's not bad enough to really feel like you're in danger, as long as you're smart and aware at all times. But I don't know if I'd want to live here.
Anyway, my hostel was pretty good. Almost immediately after arriving, I met a good little group of people who I clicked with really for the first time on this trip. There
About midway up the Sani Pass
were some awesome Mexicans, French guys, and a couple American girls who were doing internships and living at the hostel, all of whom became my drinking friends the next couple days.
I made the 15 minute walk with one of the French guys to the stadium for the Uruguay/South Africa match. I was excited to see the home nation, who was getting extraordinary levels of support, both from South Africans and foreigners. We could hear the massive vuvuzela buzz when we were still a kilometer away from the stadium. The atmosphere was electric, even before kickoff. This all came to a screeching halt though in the 2nd half when the South African keeper got sent off before the home team's eventual 3-0 loss. Great goal by Forlan though, probably will go down as one of the best in the tournament.
I was of course loving the World Cup atmosphere, but one of the things I like more than the sport is traveling, so I vowed to get away from it all and see some of the country in its true self. As I inquired about transport options out of the city, I was unanimously referred to the Baz
The top of the Sani Pass
Bus, which I took along the Garden Route out of Cape Town. The Baz Bus is good because it's very easy to meet travelers and it also is a door-to-door service to and from the hostels. But it literally costs more than flying, and of course it wastes a day if you want to do any serious distance. So I went to the Greyhound office and booked a bus down to a town called Harrismith, one of the gateways to the famously renowned Drakensburg Mountains.
This is the way the locals travel, so it's far different than the Baz Bus. As a westerner using local transport in Africa, you always feel like a celebrity. They were quite intrigued to see me there, so I got a lot of attention and questions. Anyway, we were about an hour into the ride and it was like someone hit the cockroach button. They came out of nowhere, and in swarms. I killed about ten myself, and every other passenger near the front did the same. One passenger was infuriated and demanded a new bus. After several phone calls to and from the company, they informed us that the only other bus they
Group shot at the top of the pass
had was in Johannesburg and we would have to wait four hours for it to get there. Some of the passengers wanted the bus to stop right there, and were willing to wait the four hours. The other half of the passengers were strongly opposed to that idea. This turned into a screaming match. I heard quotes such as "tell me what disease you get from a cockroach," and, "we have these in our homes, we have kids to see, we go on from here." Throughout the fiasco, the cockroaches seemed to be all killed off. Eventually the arguments simmered down and we continued.
I actually stayed on the bus past Harrismith and went to a place called Pietermaritzburg at the suggestions of some of the locals sitting near me. They said it would be easier to get into the Drakensburg from there. The bus arrived too late for the shuttle service though, and the taxies wanted to charge me 1,200 rand, which is something like $160. So instead I stayed the night in Pietermaritzburg, which was a lot bigger than I expected. I stayed in a B&B by the way. It was great to have my own room,
my own bed, and my own bathroom. A nice break from the dorms for sure.
There was not much to do there, and I didn't feel safe walking around anyway, so I took a taxi to a rugby club to watch the World Cup matches of the day. It seemed as if I was the first foreigner in there ever. There were four kids no older than 20 running the bar. They had all kinds of questions for me, including why on earth I was in Pietermaritzburg. They gave me free beer the whole time, and even drove me back to my B&B at the end of the night.
The next morning, I had to check out of the B&B at 9:00 am, and the shuttle service I was using to get to my spot in the Drakensburg wasn't going to pick me up until 2:30 pm. My B&B refused to hold my bag for me, so I was in for a long day of hauling around all of my gear. I immediately walked to the Greyhound station where I arrived the night before. I lied and told them I had a Greyhound bus back to Johannesburg later
that day so they would let me keep my bag in the office. Just as I was unloading my bag and packing my day bag, the driver of the shuttle called me and asked if I wanted a ride right then. Of course I accepted and he told me he was outside the Greyhound station. I looked out the window and he was standing right there talking to me. I bought him breakfast and we were on the road five minutes later. I couldn't believe my luck, and figured it would be the best stroke of luck with transport I'd get in anywhere in Africa.
He drove me to a town called Underburg, about two hours from Pietermaritzburg. It was a good drive with good scenery, and typical scenes of Africa: Women balancing buckets of fruit and firewood on their head, livestock all over the place including in the road, random fires burning everywhere, small houses/shacks lining the hillsides, outdoor pool tables, and happy Africans drinking in the backs of pickup trucks and hanging out chatting everywhere. They don't have much around here, but they're happier than we materialists seem to ever be.
I transferred in Underburg and was then driven to my place for the next couple nights, the Sani Lodge, which was situated in an incredibly serene spot at the bottom of the Sani Pass, the prime location of the Southern Drakensburg. The lodge was empty because everyone was out doing hikes. I did however almost immediately meet a couple from Alaska. They invited me for a drive in their 4x4 up the pass and into Lesotho, an enclave country completely surrounded by South Africa. Of course I accepted.
The entire pass is officially within South Africa, but they put the border post at the bottom due to convenience. The pass is about 12 km long and it was unbelievable. It winds its way up and around, giving you gradually more amazing views until you get to the top. There were frozen waterfalls and snow capped peaks in most directions, and the valleys were lush green. You could see the smoke from the countless fires burning everywhere below and it made for a strange, almost purple-grayish appearance. It's said that you can see all the way to Durban (about 200 km away) from the top on a clear day and it was probably the best drive I've ever done.
At the top, you cross the Lesotho border post and there is a small village inhabited by the Basotho people. They can be easily recognized by the blankets they wear. It was very cold (18 degrees Fahrenheit) and windy up there but they cope well with the conditions. Their huts are circular with no windows, and the doors face north, the direction of the sun. This design is very efficient and it is quite warm in the huts (much warmer than my hostels have been for sure). Also at the top of the pass is Africa's highest pub. As cheesy as it is, you can't miss taking your picture with a beer in front of the sign. Surprisingly very good food up there, and it's pretty cheap as well.
We made our way back down the pass in time for the US/Slovenia game. It finished 2-2 with a dramatic and controversial finish. Then the surprising 0-0 England/Algeria game followed, and we Americans had a little fun with the grieving English.
The following day, I signed up for a one day tour back up the pass, and into some of the Basotho villiages. I didn't mind driving up the pass again at all. This time, we had a guide -- a very good one -- and he had plenty of stories about cattle thievery and marijuana smuggling. This is big business here, as the mountainous region is so sparsely patrolled.
We met some of the Basotho people, visited some of the homes, tasted some terrible locally brewed beer and some very good freshly baked bread. The kids were playing on a frozen pond and seemingly having the time of their life. It's amazing that the less people have, the happier they seem. One thing pretty notable to me was in stark contrast to such a basic way of life, some of the huts had solar panels with radios attached to them.
On the tour, I met a German-born Australian girl named Joanna. She had a car and was heading to the northern Drakensburg, so I hitched with her. We booked into a place called Ampitheatre Backpackers, near the Ampitheatre section of the Drak.
This place was really nice and had a great vibe, but the owner was exactly how he was described for us: He was very pushy about booking tours through him and even insinuated that we should pay for and eat the dinner at the lodge. We felt pressured and ate our own dinner out of principal.
Due to the inconsistent bus schedules, I didn't have time to do a hike from there. This is a pity because at the Ampitheatre, you can dangle your feet over 3,000 meter cliffs and you also encounter the 2nd largest waterfall in the world. I'll have to keep it on my "to-do" list next time I'm in the country.
Joanna dropped me off in Harrismith the next morning before going on to do the hike. I had no such luck like I did in Pietermaritzburg and I had to wait six hours for my Greyhound. It didn't end up being so bad though. I killed some time in an Internet cafe and met a couple guys from New Jersey. They were strangely basing themselves in the town for the World Cup, and they took me to a pub to watch the matches of the day.
I ate fish and calamari at the pub, and then boarded the Greyhound. And almost immediately after boarding, I got very sick. I'm sure it was the calamari. So add to my resume of health problems in South Africa and get a terrible four hour bus ride back to Johannesburg. Some of the locals on the bus were very helpful though and I couldn't thank them enough. Out of about nine or ten combined months of traveling, I've only been sick three times: once in Ukraine, and now twice in South Africa. And when I'm not sick, I usually have a cold or an earache. I don't know why this place has it out for me. I transferred into Pretoria and the same hostel owner picked me up at the bus station. I told him about what happened and he whipped up some home remedies full of electrolytes and whatever else. I don't know what it was but in the morning I felt 100%. It was the shortest time I've ever been sick.
The next day I caught a shuttle to notorious Rustenburg for the Uruguay/Mexico match. This place is notorious because it's difficult to get to, and it has a bad crime rate. But the shuttle service was actually pretty flawless and we had no problems to the stadium or the way back. It was a good match and the Mexican fans -- despite their loss -- were incredible. Definitely some of the best fans I've ever seen.
The following day was the USA/Algeria match, the final match of the group, and a very important one for the US. I didn't have a ticket but I teamed up with some people from the hostel and went to the match anyway. I secured a category 1 ticket for only about $60, which was less than half the face value. Our seats were incredible, about 10 rows back between midfield and the penalty area. The US scored a dramatic 92 minute winner and we partied the night away in a place called Hatfield Square. Due to recent violent clashes with the Egyptians, I wasn't sure what to expect from the Algerian fans. But in typical Arab style, they were as respectful and friendly as possible. And they definitely appreciated when I dropped some Arabic words on them. We shared hookahs and beers and partied through the German game and it was one of my favorite nights yet.
And the following day, Idali scored some tickets to the Italy/Slovakia game and invited me, so it was three matches in three days for me. She drove us to a car park and we took a shuttle to Ellis Park, a rugby stadium in the middle of Johannesburg. Again, our seats were amazing. This time we were five rows back from the Slovakia bench, close enough for very good views and pics of some of the superstar Italian names on the pitch. Despite all the fanfare though, they shockingly lost the match 3-2. For me though, it was the best match I saw to that point.
That night, Idali and I went out for some traditional African food. The first place we stumbled across was a little too traditional though. It was a buffet of chicken feet and tripe, which is random goo made out of intestines. We found another more appeasing place and I got some warthog steak, which was delicious. So many people wince at the idea of eating something named warthog, but it's steak people. You're seriously missing out if you refuse. And it's so irrational if you'll eat a cow anyway. The place I stayed that night in Johannesburg was an okay place. But my dorm room was essentially in a shack off the main building and I slept in my winter coat that night. I woke up at one point and could see my breath.
Johannesburg itself, I don't like. It's a crummy looking city with rampant crime so you can't really walk around after sundown. I'm going to use Pretoria as my base in the area from here on out.
The following day, I spent only 200 Rand (about $30 US) for a 20 hour train down to Port Elizabeth for my next match. The train, the Shosholoza Meyl, gets extremely mixed reviews. Many South Africans tell you to avoid it at all cost, as it is not safe. But all of the reviews online state otherwise, so I attributed the bad reviews to sensationalism and the alarming racist mentalities in South Africa (racism in America pales in comparison to this country).
I met a Dutch guy in the train station and teamed up with him for our epic journey. We were the only foreigners on the whole train, and two of about only ten white people. I'm not quite sure how to properly word what happened during that ride -- which ended up being four hours delayed, so 24 hours in total. First off, everyone drank the entire time. People were literally screaming at each other at times. We waited for fights to break out, but then they would start laughing with each other. People broke out in songs at excessive volumes. The screaming, singing and drumming went until about 4 am. Some people sang, some people screamed, and some people just slept through it. One guy poured whiskey all over what I think was his ex girlfriend and he got arrested. And later, a guy tried to steal a purse, and the lady's husband hit him. He too got arrested and was dragged onto the platform, where security kicked him in the head multiple times. We had to wait at the station for an hour until the police arrived.
So 24 hours after leaving Jo'Burg, we arrived in Port Elizabeth. We disembarked the craziest transport experience of my life with our heads spinning. I was baffled as to how much activity actually happened that whole time, and even more baffled that the passengers who weren't involved in any of it didn't even seem remotely fazed by it. Just another day in the world of Africa.
Oh and by the way, Shosholoza Meyl's (the train company) tagline is "A Pleasant Experience."
I booked into the same hostel I stayed at the first time in Port Elizabeth. I met up with some Dutch people who were working down in South Africa for a while. We partied for a couple nights and had a blast. We went to a highly recommended place called Brownies for the USA/Ghana match. I didn't have the greatest of nights, due to USA's poor performance, and also the experience at Brownies itself. It was literally the worst service I've ever had in my life. We ordered food before kickoff and didn't get it until the middle of the 2nd half. It also took ages to get beer, and I didn't get salad dressing or napkins after asking for them twice. And they had the audacity to automatically include the gratuity on the bill. I will get my revenge via online reviews in due time.
I decided to fly to Durban from Port Elizabeth to indulge in its world class diving. This involved eating the return train ticket on the Shosholoza Meyl back to Johannesburg. I didn't have it in me to endure another 20 hours. I also realized an opportunity came up upon arrivng in Durban. My flight was scheduled to arrive at 2:30 and the Holland/Slovakia match started at 4:00. I didn't have a ticket and I needed to leave my bag somewhere, so I knew I'd be cutting it close. I took a bus from the airport towards the city center and soon realized I had no time to make it to my hostel to drop my bags off. I decided to get off at the casino -- which was in the vicinity of the stadium -- in order to try to stash my bag. As soon as I got off the bus, a Colombian guy asked me if I was headed to the stadium and if I needed to stash my bag. He took the lead and I followed him to a cell phone store in the casino, and they kept our bags for us at no cost. Miraculously, he also had an extra ticket, which he sold me at well under the face value. We got to our seats right at kickoff. African luck struck again for me. This was a dream come true for me, as Holland was the team I most wanted to see. Also, Durban Stadium was fantastic. Definitely my favorite stadium in the country and one of my favorite in the world.
The next day, I took an overpriced taxi down to a town called Umkomaas, the gateway to the world renowned Aliwal Shoal. This is a top 10 dive site, and home to one of the best shark diving locations in the world. Most famously is the baited dive, where they chum the water to attract nurse sharks, tiger sharks, reef sharks, and ragged toothed sharks.
However, my lack of luck with diving in the Carribean in January continued. Diving was cancelled for four consecutive days; first for currnets, then for rough surf. I would have stayed in Umkomaas longer, but I wanted to see Durban. I later found out that diving resumed the day after I left but it was too choppy and wasn't really worth it. I also just missed out on diving the Sardine Run, which is arguably the world's largest migration. Hundreds of millions of sardines migrate to lay eggs, and attract all kinds of predators in the process including whales, sharks, and dolphins. They corner the sardines into huge "bait balls" and weave through the prey, eating millions in just a few minutes. This is considered one of the most unique diving experiences in the world. Usually it is very hit-and-miss but they were getting sightings on a daily basis, seeing whale sharks and humpbacks. I was right on the verge of making the four hour trip down there, but it would have costed me an arm and a leg to get there, and nothing would have been guaranteed. I made the right decision in the end, as a cold front and a storm came in and cancelled the Sardine dives the next day. I have had awful luck with diving in the last year and I need to get back on track.
Durban itself was great. I met up with a German born English guy named Sunny who I met on the plane from Cairo to Johannesburg when I first came down here. I also met his Spanish friend Odei. The three of us partied in Durban the next two nights. We also ate at a place called Havana, which was by far the best food I've had down here. I ordered an ostrich appetizer and a venison platter for my main meal, consisting of springbok, kudu, and two other kinds of meat that I can't remember. It was amazing. I also later discovered Durban's most famous food, called a bunny. A bunny is a loaf of bread hollowed out and stuffed with curry; usually prawn curry or chicken curry. Again, so amazing.
The three of us flew back to Johannesburg and slept on the floor in a fully booked hostel in the Observatory area. It was a boring area with nothing around, and added up taxi fares. But we only had to stay one night. We went to Soccer City for the Uruguay/Ghana match. It was a great stadium but didn't live up to Durban in my opinion.
The next day the guys left for Cape Town 12 hours earlier than me. I had a chance to go to the Spain/Paraguay quarterfinal. I didn't have a ticket but I found one for 1/3 of the face value in the parking lot. People were trying to convince me not to even waste my time going to the stadium. My negotiating skills are at an all time high, and I fulfilled another dream by seeing Spain. I'm now hoping for a Holland/Germany final.
I'm now waiting for my flight back to Cape Town for the Holland/Uruguay semi-final. I plan on making up for lack of luck and diving with some great whites, and eating more game. The final is approaching and I'm getting psyched for it, but it also means the end of my trip. By the way, I'm 13 rows right behind the goal for the final. Don't know how I got lucky enough to get that seat, but I'm not complaining.