Published: January 18th 2009January 18th 2009
Scary dried baboon carcass
one of HUNDREDS of dried animal parts at the shop, for use in traditional medicine
After exploring the shopping malls and seedy underbelly of Bangkok for a few nights, we said goodbye to Lauren (we miss u!) and boarded a public bus for the airport. After a comfy 4-hr flight, we arrived at the chaotic Mumbai airport for our stopover to Johannesberg. As we approached the airport, we could see shacks covering the entire city, extending right up to the edge of the runway. It looked like we were flying just a few feet over their roofs... an interesting first impression of India.
Unlike most airports, Mumbai has developed a unique system for transfers where an airport employee meets you at arrival, takes you to a small, dirty room in the bowels of the airport for "processing", and tells you to wait there for 2 hours until the the ticket desk opens at midnight. It was 10PM, we were starving and had to use the toilet... so our handler took pity on us and let us go through security to the main terminal, where the bathrooms are located. However, when we tried to go back to the transfer room, the security guards had no idea what we were talking about and we had to stand
outside the gate for 25 minutes until we convinced another airport employee to convince the security guards to let us back inside. Then our handler told us we had to personally identify our luggage for transfer to the new plane, so Jake got a first-hand look at the inner workings of the airport as he went down to the baggage dock on the runway to confirm our luggage. He also witnessed some harsh words exchanged between the handler and the baggage people, who seem unfamiliar with this luggage-checking system. The whole process was totally, laughably disorganized. After 7 months of backpacking, we're glad we skipped ·India-- it's best left for a later date when our energy levels are totally restored! ;) Maybe part II of the world trip...
We arrived at Johannesberg exhausted, at 8AM, with no hostel or transfer booked. We called Pretoria Backpackers and they picked us up for $10 each and shuttled us to the very-suburban looking city of Pretoria, where all the houses are surrounded by 6-foot concrete walls topped with electric fencing. We keep hearing how dangerous Joburg, and generally South Africa, is and how we should not walk or drive at night, drive
Mumbai Airport's Transfer room
.. don't think Tom Hanks would want to spend much time in limbo here...
with the windows down, display any valuables, or speak loudly with our foreign accents, in order to avoid being crime targets. Despite the military-compound look of the homes, Pretoria seemed super safe, although when we walked 10 minutes into the shopping area of town we noticed no other white people walking on the street, they seem to shuttle straight from their gated houses to the secure parking lots of malls and businesses. Very strange. Even downtown Joburg, which is supposed to be a crime-addled, tourist no-go zone, looked perfectly fine when we stopped there on our minivan tour of the city (notably, we didn't get out of the car except for 2 pre-planned touristy stops, and the guide warned us never to take the Metro and said the streets clear out at night). So we're left wondering how much of this is hype or paranoia and how much is justified. Better safe than sorry we guess...
The minivan tour we booked through Pretoria Backpackers was really interesting and worth the steep $40 pp charge. The guide was a friendly local who is hoping to make it big in show business and meet Oprah (a beloved cult figure in SA
In Mumbai Transfer Room Hell
...hoping we get out in time for our 1:50AM flight ;)
as well as the US! Her magazine actually has an edition here, and she's always in the news). We stopped at the Apartheid museum, which was fascinating, and in Soweto township, where Nobel preace prize winners Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu lived on the same street, and then we were shown around a small, make-shift community of squatters with no electricty and only one water tap per block. We felt weird staring at everyone from our tourist minivan like they were in a fishbowl... it reminded us of European tourists riding around New York City in one of those red double decker tourist buses we despise (especially since NYC is super safe, and you can walk/take the subway anywhere). Since the Joburg "violence" is so hyped up, it seemed like the tour was the best way to see those areas, and overall it was a good experience.
We decided to get out of the city and head to the Drakensberg mountains, home of the 2nd highest waterfall in the world. We rented a car last-minute from Thrifty, and were happy with the cute little Toyota until we were stuck in Joburg traffic and realized it had no AC and
Joburg's "Museum of Man and Science"
a traditional-healing store in the city center
the radio was broken! Ugh!!! By then we didn't want to waste time going back, since we were racing the sun to get to Drakensberg before the vampires descended (or whatever happens during the much-feared nighttime drive). We booked the Amphitheatre Backpacker Lodge, which is an oasis in the middle of nowhere.... it literally popped out at us after we were driving through endless fields. The staff was super friendly, the restaurant was good and cheap (good thing since there is NO other food for miles) and they even have a spa/sauna/pool (we didn't use them, but there did seem to be some Real World-style action going on come nightfall). The first day we hiked on our own to the Rainbow Gorge. On the car ride there, we passed rural villages with straw covered huts, and women in frilly dresses carrying babies on their backs, and little kids staring at us and waving hello. A woman and her kids were bathing nude in a creek right by the road. It was like a flashback to Laos! It was great getting out of the city and into the relaxed countryside. The 4-hour hike turned out to be super strenuous and involved
scrambling up boulders and wading in freezing cold water. The mandatory sign-in desk had a notice about a 73 year old British man lost after starting the hike last February... we were half expecting to find his mummified remains on the trail.
The second day we signed up for an organized trek to the summit of the Amphitheater, which took us to the famed waterfall. We weren't sure what to expect, but it was really amazing. After a bumpy 2 hour van ride to the mountain (the street was literally covered with rocks and boulders, and there was no shoulder, just a steep drop... scary!), we started a 3 hour hike to the summit. The trail started off paved but quickly became a rough, rock strewn path that went dangerously close to the cliff edge. At times we had to scramble across wet boulders and climb on our hands and knees up a near vertical rock face. The only way down was a series of 2 metal ladders attached to a cliff face... seriously frightening! Meanwhile our 2 guides were practically running down the trail effortlessly, and stopping for cigarette breaks as we panted. It was a cool trip
Legacy of apartheid
...which ended just 15 years ago!
and we'd highly recommend it! If you go, make sure to wear sneakers. One girl did the trip in flip flops and it did not look pleasant.
After a few days, we got back in our horrific rental car and made our way to Durban, a coastal city known for its large Indian population and its beaches. Unfortunately, about halfway there we heard a loud "pop" and discovered our left rear tire was flat. We checked the trunk and realized Thrifty gave us a spare tire but no jack. WTF?!?! We half-heartedly tried to flag down some passing motorists, but no one stopped (we wouldn't either, so we can't blame them). After driving a little bit longer on the flat, it literally exploded chunks of rubber so we had to stop. Jake walked about 1 km to a repair shop and got help, while Leslie sat in the hot car fearful of roaming, depraved street bandits. It all worked out, and we got the tire changed for $20. We're looking forward to being pedestrians again and are ready to give up cars for the near future.
Tomorrow we are meeting up with Jake's family in Capetown. More to
Winnie Mandela's home in Soweto
One of the finest in the neighborhood (but not nearly as nice as Nelson's! She must not have gotten a lot in the divorce)
There are more photos below