About Me

My photo
I teach abroad and continue to pursue the life I was given as if it was my last. Many people think it is. In my spare time, I enjoy lapping up ice cream, reading spy novels, and euthanizing manta rays.

Saturday, June 25, 2011

South Africa

Kampala, Tuesday Morning
I woke up at three thirty in the morning to the pulsating ring tone on the cement floor of my bedroom compound.
“You here already?”
“I’m at your gate, sir.”
“What time is it?”
I knew exactly what time it was. I just wanted him to tell me. That’s how my brain works between the hours of one and four.
“Three thirty two, sir. Take your time. I’m waiting at your gate.”
I didn’t. Take my time that is. I should have. I was in no hurry to take an hour ride through the dead of a Ugandan night, past empty pot-holed, tarmac streets, across the capital towards the equator. After dousing myself in lukewarm water, I squirmed into my airtight jeans, nikes, and button down and zipped up my laptop and overnight bag into my carry-on. Never leave packing till the morning of; too little going on upstairs to count on yourself remembering the little things.
A man asked to borrow my pen just before the queue at Immigration. He was way too eager and I was way too cranky. Really? You can’t get one from someone else? Why is it that everyone who borrows my pens takes twice as long to fill out forms as I do? I waited while he scrawled, then crossed out, then took a second form, and filled it out completely before the time got the best of me. “Hey! Are you done yet, man? Let’s go.” He kept his murmured response to himself, ignoring eye contact till the black bic was back in my hand. I gave him a dry smile that said, You ruined my morning by making me interact with another human being .Please disappear.
I simmered down at an overpriced airport café, gurgling steaming caffeine until I felt less homicidal. A South African couple sat beside me at an adjacent table dressed for a Braille reading. Olive and Pink pullover, a crimson face for the man; grey sweats, bum bag around the waist, fat buttocks and white tennies for the wife. Not a cute couple. A black woman asked me to change 100 US Dollars in line at the gate. “No!” I deftly deflected, returning to the view of a German woman’s chest two feet in front of me. You don’t see many fake rack of lambs this side of Las Vegas and the novelty was a little like driving past a train wreck. Which, by the way, she seemed to be. Her husband’s pot belly and track suit aside, all eyes were on her. The half-size too tight brown linen, hugging her bottom, the freckled cleavage with protrusions and gaps the size of canyons, the shady speckle of blond hair that reeked of 1985 West German salon. And how could the two of them speak German so quickly at six fifteen in the morning? I was barely able to walk upright.
The woman in the middle seat was hocking up last night’s dinner for twenty minutes before take-off. Clearing out sinuses never sounded so bad. I kept turning my neck, searching for other aisle seats. Her elbows had full control of both arm rests and she had some sort of sarong/blankie that draped over the recline button on my seatback. I half-heartedly attempted to begin a British crime novel as the jet glissaded past Mozambique cirrus clouds. Very deserty outside. My tail-bone needs a massage, I silently thought, as I asked for my second bottle of water and searched my lap top for DVDs.
The past week in the compound had been less than thrilling. I had come home to embers, flames, and the rancid smell of garbage fumes engulfing my house the night before. I was livid. And drunk. I had three beers at Zone 7, watching Nadal-Federer’s French Open final. In Paris. A rain delay caused me to stay an hour longer, order a third beer and drain all the intrigue out of my Sunday evening. If Federer doesn’t get that break, the match doesn’t go four sets and I’m home before dusk chewing into Cookie Monster, the squatter living and burning refuse thirty meters from my front door. I pounded on Dan’s iron entrance, simultaneously flashing him on the cell phone until he appeared – literally – through the shrouded smoke. “Sir I was in Banda.”
“I’ve got two jerry cans of water. Can you put it out? If not, I will.”
I drifted off to sleep coughing, my inner pulse skyrocketing north of 160 over 90. Cant. Wait. To. Leave.
Two rows in front of me, A Muslim man reads a newspaper in Arabic. A South African woman – the sinus-y one – is flipping through an in-flight magazine catalog in front of me (I moved to one row back from her after breakfast). A German man is deep into his spy novel to my right. He’s got one of those police suspenders with an empty holster and a lime green oversized Swatch on his left wrist. Impressive. A flight attendant just came by with an offer of a mango juice box. The German guy opened his bottle of water, which exploded on his tangerine colored wife. The two glared at one another as he wiped the dribble off her dress. Can’t see a thing out the window now. Low cloud cover. 9:40 AM. We land in 30 minutes and my entire day is predicated on the hope I can get on an earlier flight to Durban (as of now, I’m scheduled to depart at 3:10, putting me in at 4:15). But I’ve still got to get my car rental, sign the forms, learn how to drive on the left side of the road, and find my dive lodge before sundown.
Tambo Airport, Johannesburg, South Africa
Food courts, hand blowers in the men’s room, a men’s room, vitamin water, red bull…what is this, a first world country? I can’t believe how efficient things are here at Tambo Airport. I tried to finagle a ticket on an earlier flight to Durban but the ticket sales agent instructed me it would be an extra 1,063 Rand.
“That sounds like a lot,” I told her. “How much is it in dollars?”
After hitting her ten-key about six hundred times, she answered, “One hundred sixty four American Dollars, sir. So???”
“Thank you,” I said wryly, “I’ll just wait.”
And I have. I’m in hour three of four here at Tambo. Not a bad place to settle in though. Lots of wi-fi hotspots, strong coffee, interesting people watching, a good array of international fatty acids. I’m making due.
Lots of Indians, bleach blond cougars who look like they’ve been sunbathing the past sixteen years, buff white guys, and smartly dressed South African dudes. I’m sitting at an airport wi-fi kiosk charging my phone.  
I was the first through customs (no lines, excess customs agents, a pure delight) then breezed through baggage claim without any luggage to claim. The Algerian soccer team was dressed in white jump suits, looking trendy and short. They got beat by the U.S. in the Group Stage of the 2010 World Cup here last June. I thought about bringing it up to the shortest looking guy but then my bowels spoke to me. In spades.
I spoke with a friend and Peace Corps volunteer on the phone. She’s meeting me in three days after she clears medical and finishes paperwork re: her post the past year here in South Africa. It was nice to hear a friendly voice on the other end of the line.
Fashion is quite evident, even at the airport. Lots of businessmen and women, trendy looking couples, women in tight skirts and dark nylons, well-mottled make-up. I’ve gotten used to plaited hair and Ugandan b.o. but this is a far cry from that. I’m the one looking shoddy and unkempt.
Umkomaas, Tuesday evening

I passed it before I turned around three kilometers later, full of excitement to reach the diving mecca of South Africa. “It’s a drinking town with a diving problem,” Francois told me over dinner. After spending twelve minutes fumbling with the code and keys to get into Aliwal Dive Centre, I managed to find my dorm room (empty!), take a steaming hot shower (really my first in months) and pop into the seediest dive bar this side of Durban, called Shark Alley. Luckily, I thought better of it and ducked around the corner when a burly man passed his drinking buddy Graham getting back into a piss-yellow Pinto. “Hey you fat f---,” Graham began.
“Already leaving you little pisser,” the burly man replied.
“I had my drink.”
I had been trawling for dinner establishments when the burly guy suggested a place a mile out. “Graham’ll give you a ride, ya?”
“Yaaarr, come on in.”
I got in the left side of the car and buckled up. We skirted along the coastline and within minutes I was sitting down to a pint of Black Label (the South African beer, not the whiskey) awaiting my steak, eggs, and chips as the bar patrons were glued to a rugby match on the telly.
Francois and his mate Dugan mentioned their love of Sprinkbok (the South African rugby side) then went into a nice conversation about Aliwal: the diving, the weather, the town, and its people.  Behind the bar were benches with couples in their fifties sitting down to a relaxing Tuesday dinner with a pint. Umkomaas felt like Olympia, a little Ballard, with a smidge of Nantucket.
Francois was the Hidden Reef’s manager so he took the liberties to ordering me two shots and a third pint before he drove me back to the Dive Lodge. I was just a little drunk as we parked and nearly ran over a spindly green snake curled up by the entrance gate. “That’s a vine snake. One of the most poisonous…”
His voice trailed off. The word ‘poisonous’ was enough to alert my senses to the danger and the morning I had before me. Why do I always manage to get drunk the night before a dive? Or two dives actually.
Aliwal Shoal, 8:30 am, Wednesday
I kitted up at seven with Mark, the dive master, Matthew, a local diver and Vince Vaughn look-a-like (if Vince Vaughn weighed 250 pounds) while Clare sorted me out at the front desk with toast, coffee, and bottled water. Our driver, Birnie, tall, lanky, graying, salt-of-the-earth type, hitched the RIB (rubber inflatable boat) to the truck and we were off down the coast to the launch site.
I didn’t feel that great as we rode in the back cab of the truck towards the launch site. Something about the second shot Francois gave me and the impending doom of lowering myself into a sea full of tiger sharks.
The Unkomaas river runs into the Indian Ocean, where a sandy shoal is protected by a large bridge and passage way for RIBs to enter the ocean, once you get past the breakers that is. We got debriefed on shark etiquette by Mark (“keep your hands close to your body, don’t touch the sharks, don’t tease the sharsk, don’t get within three meters of the sharks, let them come to you…”) and then strapped on life jackets, grabbed two cords of rope and held on while Birnie negotiated getting us past the surf. We spun around in concentric circles, navigating the coming waves for minutes in order to avoid the crashing surf and capsizing. Beautiful to watch…in retrospect. At the time, my stomach was doing triple axels, ruing ever having stepped in the Hidden Reef for dinner.
 About three minutes past the breakers we spotted a baby hammerhead shark gliding past our boat and dropping underwater. I dolphin raced us out to the shoal on the way back, jumping in acrobatic ease as if paid to do so.
My stomach began to do somersaults about 3 km from shore, as land became a hazy mass somewhere behind us and the squalls and white caps kept pummeling our R.I.B. About 7 kilometers from shore we killed the motor, put on our fins, cleaned our masks, got into our BCDs and prepared to go ass over backwards into the shark infested waters.
There were slivers of sun but it was an overcast morning without a doubt. Visibility, however, was remarkably good once we equalized and dropped to 18 meters below the surface. The sea pushed us in and out of coral. It was difficult to get used to the surge of tidal flow and – of course – to swim against the current. Immediately we were in the shoal, surrounded amiably by a dozen or so tiger sharks swimming freely around the reef. It was an awesome spectacle. One swam within a few feet of me, eying me and my dark wet suit and blue fins like someone does a rack of lamb at the deli counter. I was transfixed but strangely calm.
An hour later – up on the surface and safely back in the boat – I was retching my guts out. The image of a chocolate tequila and Francois laughing safely snug in his bed petered into my head as last night’s dinner was heaved into the Indian Ocean. Eyes watery, nose dripping, head spinning, I drank two gulps from my water bottle and tried to regain composure. We were going back down in five minutes and I had to re-assemble my gear, change tanks, and get clarity before I dropped into the abyss of the shark cauldron.
The second dive was much more placid. No sharks, a huge potato-bass fish though, a turtle, a pineapple fish, and amazing cave walls at the bottom of the shoal. I felt marketedly better once I was fifteen meters below the surface.
Umkomaas, noon, Wednesday
Dry land never looked so good. I sank my feet into the soft ecru sand of the river bed and unzipped my five millimeter wet suit as we got back on the back of the truck and drove back to the dive centre. A hot shower, a second coffee, and a bacon sandwich later, I was saying good-bye to Umkomaas and hello to my new home, the N2.
The N2, 1pm
I realized early on that my journey was going to encompass an entire stretch of roadway called the N2. From just north of Durban all the way to Cape Town. Despite my initial love affair with the tarmac, the N2 did have its pitfalls. A lot of it is two lanes, with a third passing lane added for a kilometer going uphill in either direction every few miles. If you get stuck behind a semi or slow truck, you must gauge oncoming traffic, assess the risk-reward ratio, and floor it before another car appears over the horizon.
 Mthatha, 5:30 pm
I finally stopped to relieve myself, get some really bad gas station food (two dogs and a bag of sour cream and onion lays) before setting off on the homestretch of my first full day on the road. Of course, as soon as I had done permanent damage to my arteries with the two sausage franks, the Golden Arches of McDonalds appeared. Damn the timing. Damn the irony. I pressed on. It was dusk and the road became a mine field. A menace. A gruesome test of attrition. My left leg was stiff, my back was sore, and I was growing weary as more and more stretches of tarmac turned into construction sites, detours, and sharp turns, testing my will to the fullest.
Up ahead on the Wild Coast, I could see the storm approaching. Bright blasts of light, like one of those newspaper photographs taken of ballplayers back in the 1930s and 40’s. A crackle of lighting. Then the storm. Rain from every direction. The N2 became a car wash.

Cintsa West, 8:57pm
 So glad I am in a car and not a bike or motorcycle. My rain jacket and wool sweater soon came out of nine months dormancy and were put to use. The off-road to Buccaneers was littered with pot holes full of water. My wipers could not move fast enough for the storm overhead. I was delirious with trepidation upon reaching the backpackers hut. Would they have dinner for me? Would there be random, annoying people in my dorm room, would the accept credit cards, would they have electricity?
The place couldn’t have been better. An African woman in her late twenties, curled up watching a soap on the couch, sprung from her seat to greet me as I trudged in fleeced in rain drops and wetness from head to toe. There was nary a soul in my dorm room. I had the choice of seven beds. She ran to the kitchen and brought me a plate of salad, fries, and a sesame seed bun with a cheese burger inside. “you can heat it up in the microwave if you like,” she reported. A bustling bar downstairs was raging with the Foo Fighters as I swallowed my last bite of sumptuous hamburger meat. The rain continued to slash across the night sky and beach head in the distance. I was dead tired but needed a nightcap to spin my day complete.
Cintsa, Thursday, 7:14 am
I was fully awake at a quarter to six. The sky outside my window was a combination of purples, oranges, and charcoals. The sun peeked through a desperate cloud color, relentless all night but suddenly vulnerable to the orange ball rising over the Indian Ocean. Within minutes, I was sitting on my private deck, watching the sunrise over Cintsa beach, with a glass of juice and the excitement of waking up in a new stretch of the earth.
I took the path from my dorm down to the beach, past the gate, across the marsh, and onto the sandy expanse going from north to south. Modern beach houses and an expensive lodge draped the hills to the north but the rest of the land was naked, exposed to the elements. I walked past rocky outcrops along the south side of Cintsa, crossing channels of boulders, rivulets in the soft sand, past ice plant and over swollen dunes until it was breakfast time. It was a glorious hour to be outdoors. Just a few locals were walking on the shore. Other than that, I had the sand to myself.
When I got back to Buccaneers, I placed my breakfast order and looked out over the beach again from atop the hillside. An amazing place to spend a night and a morning. But after bacon, two fried eggs, toast, beans, a fried tomato, and two cups of coffee, it was time to hit the road.
The N2 part 2
The rain started as I was filling up on unleaded for the Wild Coast. Meanwhile, I got some sundries from Spar, the South African Safeway. There was a national park, fenced in to protect the animals. The rest of this area looked more farmland than national treasure. A remote outpost really. Not much here. The rain picked up speed, whipping me from side to side as I walked back to my Hyundai Getz. I passed East London at 10:30 am, found a good radio station, downed a Red Bull and got in my groove. By noon, I was flying. The roads were much better and safer than the evening before and I was making much better time behind fewer semis and SMVs (slow moving vehicles). I passed Grahamstown, I passed Port Elizabeth, I passed Jeffrey’s Bay, and I kept motoring. I stopped once for nature and once to buy sandwiches for the evening. Beyond that, I was zoned in. By 3 pm, I was in Tsitsikamma National Park. I entered Storms River Mouth gate, got my key, and dropped down into the rocky surf of Storms River Rest Camp.
Storms River Mouth Rest Camp

An amazing spot. The surf just pounds the rocky coastline. A suspension bridge, tons of hiking trails, log cabins nearly empty, and a private little piece of heaven to relax in for the night. So of course my first inkling was to squeeze two hikes into the remaining two hours of daylight before I went back to my hut.
The suspension bridges were deserted by the time I landed on them at a quarter to five. A fantastic view. Just a remarkable spot to be. I counted my lucky stars to be so fortunate to be in a place such as this. I traversed the wooden steps, rocky crags, protruding bridges, and crossed back to the parking area just in time to do the Lurie trail, a benign one kilometer hike up through the forest. Except that it was flooded, and my shoes, socks, and jeans were soon soaked in boggy dampness. And it was getting dark. And it was poorly marked. And the route dead ended at a waterfall that I couldn’t cross. And the alternate route dead ended at a steep cliff that I couldn’t descend. So I turned back before it was too late, reached my car much dirtier and sweatier than I left it forty five minutes before, screamed back to the store to buy three beers and a protein bar, and spent the remaining daylight outside my hut’s cul de sac, on the rocky cliffs, drinking cold South African beer, squinting my eyes to spot a humpback whale or dolphin.
The Garden Route, Friday morning
I woke before dawn, put my shoes on (flip flops actually), packed and was driving up and down the Storms River Mouth until the sun came up above the Tsitsikamma mountains. I drove out of the park (bittersweet) and turned left on the N2, skirting past Bloukrans Pass, the longest bungee jump in the world, massive bridges with spectacular views, and country towns with quaint names like Nature Valley and Wilderness. There was nobody on the road. A glorious sunny day to be driving.
I stopped in Knysna (pronounced NAISS-NUH) for some breakfast and a much needed bladder purge. After driving across a scenic bridge with large sea gulls along a pretty cove I came across a promising row of modern shops and restaurants next to a landing a promenade. The breakfast joint was packed, festive and had a nice buffet going. Everybody stared at me as I walked to the bar, sat down and peered timidly around me.
Nametags, powerpoint, microphone, bleached and weathered women chain smoking in cliques...what was this??

A real estate convention.
“I’m Jasmine and this is Geraldine,” stated a young blond holding a sharpie and Century 21 folder against her chest.
“Matt. I…I’m not here for the show.”
The two women looked at each other.
The staff let me sit at the bar and listen the chauvinistic male tell jokes about selling a house to a couple in Somerset. “You see a woman’s toosh squeeze tight when she first walks in the front door, you’ve got her.”
Canned laughter from the females. Nervous laughter from my contemporaries. Uproarious laughter from men over fifty. They were eating this guy up. In the span of ten minutes, I ate my meal of bacon, toast, and eggs with black coffee, defiled the men’s room, and flew back on the N2.
I can’t tell you how much it pleases me to be making good time. It’s really a great thing, making good time. On Friday morning, after breakfast, I made good time. I flew from Knysna down the coast, into the western cape, past Wilderness and the turn-off for Cape Agulhas, Hermanus, over a plateau, and then descended towards Cape Town. What I envisioned as an eight hour drive became six. I coasted into town on fumes, picked up my friend at the bus station, and spun back along the M6 towards Sea Point and my home for the next seven nights: Room 106.
Cape Town, Friday afternoon
The best way I can describe Cape Town to an American is this: picture San Diego’s coastline and downtown with the Grand Canyon and the Sierra Nevadas pushed right up its spine. Cape Town’s skyline and city bowl are dramatic. With Table Mountain and the less heralded but equally stunning Lion’s Head behind it, you really cannot compete. It is as spectacular of a city as I have ever seen. And I entered its city limits in the dead of winter.
Another stunning thing is how much there is to do in the area. The city itself is not imposing or suffocating. It’s small and manageable. Again, think San Diego. Driving a 5-speed rental car, on the left side of the road, I worried Cape Town might be the most vexing driving of the trip. But in truth, driving in the city was a joy.
You can have any kind of vacation you want in this city. Golfing? Check. Surfing? Check. Sightseeing and museums? Check, check. Hiking, biking, and climbing? Check Czech Check. You can go wine tasting, whale-watching, shark diving, scuba diving, body surfing, sun bathing, shopping, dining, hiking, mountain climbing, sailing…all within an hour. A week wasn’t nearly enough time to soak in everything. I don’t think a month would have been. But it did give me a great taste of the Cape, its flavors, the spirit, and the people that live there.
Cape Point
When you drive from Sea Point to Cape Point you are seeing what might be the most scenic stretch of tarmac in the world. It certainly was for me. Mile after mile of coastal highway, carved canyon, rugged rock, sloping mountains, blue sea, white seafoam, and – on this day – blue sky. I couldn’t get over how beautiful the drive really was. We passed white, stucco buildings in quaint coastal towns – Camps Pay, Hout Bay, Chapman’s Peak, before pulling into the naval town of Simonstown, replete with antique shops, ice cream parlors, free parking, penguins, coastline, aquarium, and a host of other niceties.

The next morning I departed before dawn, eschewing the big city once again for the N2, back the way I came two days before, this time headed for Gansbaii, the shark cage diving capital of South Africa.
The morning was so amazing I stopped in Hermanus, the whale watching capital of South Africa, for coffee and a morning stroll along the picturesque promenade. I tried conversing with a determined speed-walking male in his sixties as to the whereabouts of Moby Dick, but he was brusque and untoward. “Ehhh.,.not here. Too early…ehhhh.” He never broke stride. I scanned as best I could but, alas, there was nothing but waves and seagulls. I turned around, got back in the car and drove toward Gansbaii. My tee-time with Jaws was just a couple hours away.

 Shark Diving, Kansbaii, Sunday
Everyone at registration was pensive but friendly. I sat down to lunch with Rob, Rob, and Rob. Three friends from England who had – like me – driven down the cape and penned this as a mandatory excursion of the highest degree. They were giddy and jumpy at the thought of diving into 55 degree water inches away from great whites. They were also extremely hungover.

 There was an Indian family of four, five friends from Brooklyn, an Irish couple, and Japanese group of three. Eighteen of us in all would be making the trip from boat launch to Shark Alley, 25 minutes from safety to peril, in the hopes of coming as close as humanly possible to the man-eating beasts of the sea.
In reality, once I was in the water, I felt safe. Sure, human nature tells us to freak out at the prospect of diving in a cage in shark-infested waters. But the truth is, these businesses would not stay in business if they didn’t know what they were doing. They did. And we were fine.
That being said, the ride out and subsequent wet suit issuing, shark baiting, and cage entering were a complete fiasco. Our group had three very sick older women who never even put on their suits. Vomit and hurls were seemingly coming at us more than the sharks, who were snapping up tuna heads like they were popcorn at a double-feature. It didn’t take us long before great whites were breaching, swimming and feeding on all sides of our boat. Luckily, I was prepared, got into my 5 mm wetsuit and hood, put on my footies, attached my mask and snorkel and was the first one into the cage. Freaked out? Hell yes. But more excited and thrilled to have an opportunity inside the cage all alone. And once underwater, adrenaline kept my body temperature normal. I held on to the yellow bars across the outside of the cage, attached my mouth to the boat-fed oxygen regulator and went under.
Within seconds a great white appeared to my left, from under the boat’s port, within an arms length of me and the cage and flew by the tuna without grabbing it. They followed one after another. Within minutes, I had seen at least a dozen, zooming from left to right, right to left, across my periphery. When the second, third, fourth and fifth members finally got their acts together and were in the cage with me, I had nearly ten minutes alone with the sharks.
They shut off the tank after twenty minutes, we got out, and another group of five entered the cage.
When every group had finished, the dive master hooked his finger at me and told me to get back down. I obeyed, relishing my second chance in the cage, this time at the right end. Fifteen minutes later, as I was getting out, he smiled at me. “You’re very lucky.”
Why, I wondered.
Then I saw Rob cubed. “We’re going back. Too windy.”
“Whaaaaat?” I asked. I was just getting warmed up. But I felt worse for the three of them. Once in, once out, and they hadn’t even been able to get underwater with their new camera yet. Lesson to be learned: savor the moment. You never know when you’re time is up.
Mexican food, the Naked Mexican
I was giddy driving back to Cape Town. Even though the drive and dives should have exhausted me, I was more than happy to meet on Long Street for Mexican food, beers, and convo at 8 pm. I relived the events to Sara, our waiter, and pretty much every other patron within earshot. How often do you have a day like this? I had to share it with everyone.
Stellenbosch, Monday

I woke up bright and early to sun mixed with thick fog. I got on my shoes and socks, shorts and t-shirt, and went out for a morning run along the Sea Point Promenade. This was a great way to be part of the community, wave at the other joggers, pet the dogs, smile at the old women walking and listen to “how’z it my bru” as men swiftly passed me in their spandex and lycra up and down the promenade. I ran to the Candy-striped lighthouse near Cape Town Stadium and then limped back. The momentum and views kept me going much further than I should have gone but  knew I wasn’t going to be running again so I wanted to get the full promenade experience. I can only imagine how busy the area gets in the summer, when the weather reaches 80 before breakfast.
After breakfast on the balcony, we got in the car and drove out of town again, this time on the N1 bound for Stellenbosch.
Lion's Head and Table Mtn., Tuesday morning
As coffee brewed and I stepped out on the balcony, I felt an unseasonably warm Indian summer morning befall the coast. If it was to be the last sun I’d see in Cape Town, I’d planned perfectly. Climb Lion’s Head, up the Table Mountain cable car, explore, climb down, back for a late lunch. Sunshine. Camera. Walking shoes. Coffee. Out the door.

I was on the trail by 8:30, running into two park rangers at their bungalow just below the trail head. “Hour and a half up, you’ll see chains and ladders, just take it easy. Should be a gorgeous morning. Have fun.”
I was off, snaking around the periphery of the mountain, winding directly above Sea Point, with sweeping vistas of the coastline, The Twelve Apostles, and the road to Cape Point. I could see Robben Island, the City Bowl, Table Mountain. The views got better as I battled on.
“Don’t fall. We’re watching,” came a voice from above. As I grabbed the metal hand rails bolted into the side of Lion’s Head I saw three youths waiting to climb back down the same way. “Thanks, if I die I guess it won’t matter that I fell.” Even as I said, I knew it didn’t make any sense. Fatigue.
“Where are you from?”
“Seattle,” I replied. A girl in pig-tails was hunched over, stretching in front of her two friends. “Good coffee there. What are you doing here?”
I gave her the low-down, slapped some high-fives upon reaching their perch and let them descend. “You do this hike a lot?” I asked, finally catching my breath.
“She does it almost every day,” the boy replied.
I looked around. What a view.
The summit was a climb of fifteen minutes up a path of boulders to a flat, stone apex with a gorgeous 360 degree of the entire area. The wind was intense but so was the relief and ecstasy of having reached the top. I was alone, looking down on quiet morning, scanning the panorama for a moment of clarity. Once achieved, I bounded back the same way I came, thoroughly engrossed in my own deep thoughts that only a fruitful hike can produce.
Table Mountain
I drove across Kloof’s Nek to the lower parking area next to the cable car entrance at Table Mountain. Hundreds of uniformed school children were assembling next to the ticket window. I parked quickly and moved in front of their mass so I wouldn’t have to wait long to ride to the top.
The ride was no more than five minutes. My ears popped about halfway up. We ascended well above Lion’s Head. The city was now far, far below. Standing atop Table Mountain was truly an awesome spectacle.
I ran into a red-headed American man eating an apple halfway thru my scamper to the true summit. “Amazing view, huh?” he said as I snapped a photo. “That’s the Pacific Ocean to the left right?”
“Uh, Indian,” I replied. “And Atlantic to the west.”
“Oh yeah.”
Descending Table Mountain was about the worst idea I had all week. I nearly sprained both ankles. Very nearly fell multiple times, slipped dozens of time, strained muscles, grew tired, warm, exhausted, and then frustrated. The trail never ended. Switchback after switchback. Even when I saw the parking lot and funicular below me, I was still 55 minutes from my car. Descending boulder after boulder, my toes and arches ached, my concentration relaxed, my despondence set in. It was all I could do to make it back to the Getz without slugging someone, thoroughly beat and worn from the baking sun, hikes, and dehydration.
Bantry Bay and Room 106
Waterfront, Wednesday
The weather finally caught up to me on Wednesday. Sheets of rain pelted the Hyundai Getz as I drove through Cape Town’s center, District Six, and the waterfront. The wind was so strong it forced the cancellation of boat tours to Robben Island for the day. No boats the next day either. I didn’t make it to see Mandela’s prison cell for 27 years. Always a reason to return.  
Long Street, Wed. night
My last night in Cape Town. Thursday was Youth Day in South Africa so every Tom, Dick, and Harry were out on Long Street, years shy of their first shaves and Freshman-15, the stoners, the hippies, the dweebs, the geeks, the nerds, the jocks, the rocks…all of the cliques strolling up and down Long looking for the hottest club of the night. I mistakenly went into a sports bar and found it was Karaoke night. Dinner, two beers, the bill, home. Uneventful. But then again I had a long day of driving to sleep for.
Thursday morning, the N1
I woke up with a decision. Stay another rainy day in Cape Town, enjoying the comforts of a hotel on the Atlantic ocean, or head north for a chance to hike the Drakensburg Mountains on Friday.
The tunnel and the wind
I have never experienced wind gusts on a highway like the N1 south of Beaumont West. A three-mile tunnel two hours north of Cape Town provided a little cavernous shelter from the elements. That is, until I came out the other side and nearly was blown off the highway. I could literally feel the metal getting tossed from left to right into shoulders and semi-trucks. Two hands on the wheel, eyes focused straight ahead, shaking off the adjustment to sunlight, I was firmly engrossed in a drive to stay straight ahead.
Beaumont West – Ghetto – Oklahoma city feel
On the map, this town looked like the closest thing to happening until I got to Bloemfontain, some 380 miles away. In reality, the place was a backwater, ghetto with street urchins on the lookout, empty shelves in the supermarkets, and leers from the women lurching out of their boyfriend’s big rigs. You know a place isn’t happening when the coolest place to be is the Shell Station. And it was. I gassed up, got a 3-leg combo at KFC, a red bull, a large coke, a bottle of water, and bolted right back on the N1.
The Karoo
The Karoo. Lonely Planet calls it “The Magical Karoo.” Maybe somewhere. I didn’t find any magic but did spot several lucid rainbows, dripping with pots of grain at either end. The Karoo was not boring but lacked the certain oomph of the coastal route. I did enjoy the drive though. Lovely plains, rivers, cool temperatures, and small mountains sprang up all over the trip from Beaumont West to Bloemfontain. I got to see a stunning sunset, two wild ostriches, plenty of rain, and an array of bugs splattered on my front windshield.
Bloemfontain to Kestell
I gassed up the Getz a little past eight and called the nearest hostel to the next morning’s hike. The voice on the other end sounded surprised to hear from me. Sounded surprised to hear the phone ring at all, actually. “You’re coming…tonight?”
I sighed “Hmm…probably about 10:30. Is that okay?”
“Yeah…sure. Call us when you get here.”
Minus three construction detours, I managed to fly all the way to Kestell, at the doorstep to Drakensberg Mountain range. The wind was howling and the temperature couldn’t have been much over freezing. Gone were the 75 degree days of Cape Town, the smells of the ocean, and the coastline of the east. It finally did feel like winter here.  
The Hot Water bottles in bed
There was little time for chit-chat. I was ready for bed before I saw my room. The hostel was this woman’s house. Three rooms, four beds to a room, two fluffy cats, and an older woman with peppered hair and splotchy red skin. She couldn’t have been nicer. “I’ll show you maps in the morning, yaahh?”
As I unzipped my pack and got out my jammies, I felt two bulges underneath my bed. Hot water bladders, already boiled and inserted to keep me warm. What a touch! I slept soundly despite the bone-chilling wind, the creaking of the bathroom door opening and closing, and the distant purring of the two tabbies outside my door.
Premonitions of Death, The Ladders and the Amphitheatre

I had nightmares about falling to my death as I lay asleep, alone in that guesthouse. I awoke early, cold, stiff, and disheveled.
With no electricity, all Eva could make for me was a coffee. I stocked up on food at a nearby petrol station, and drove south on the 57, towards Lesotho and Sentinel Peak. By ten, I had parked the Getz, unpacked everything out of my pack, re-packed it with food, water, and maps, and set off inside the Spartan hut to register before heading out on the windy zigzags up towards the snow line.
Sentinel Peak, the wind
I had three layers of clothing inside of windbreaker. It was bitterly cold. I had no hat, no gloves, and no hiking boots. Was I equipped for this hike? Watching a couple in front of me, dressed in an REI catalog, I wondered. Would I be vulnerable to the elements?
Luckily, the wind relented on the east face of the mountain. I took off a layer, drank some water, and continued on, inching closer and closer to the two figures directly above me.
Paul and Estelle
 Paul and Estelle headed towards the Amphitheatre
We met just below the chain ladders. They were resting and eating, I was sweating and heaving. “This way, yeah?” I asked.
“I think there’s only one way,” Paul replied.
The three of us joined up for the reminder of the climb, stopping intermittently to join hands on icy patches, exposed crags, and windy viewpoints. “Estelle got blown off the mountain last year over there,” Paul said, pointing towards the southwest and another popular day hike.
We passed a father and son just below the ladders, stopped to ask a couple of generic questions about time and safety, then pressed on. It was fairly calm at the base of the first ladder, a 30 meter wall with rusty metal bars rising over the edge of a massive face on the mountain. There were two ladders running parallel going up. I grabbed the first, climbed gingerly up the rungs, making sure my chapped hands and raw fingers were firmly gripped to each bar before ascending further. I didn’t bother to look down. I knew the danger that belied the beauty surrounding us.
The famed Chain Ladders
The three of us made in unscathed a few minutes past noon. Suddenly we were on snow and ice, traversing above 3,000 meters, heavily fatigued, but insistent on walking across the white expanse toward Thukela Falls and the Amphitheatre’s Gully.
I spent a good two hours looking down at those views. Watching an eagle soar some 500 meters below me, as I unpeeled a tangerine, ate a Snickers bar, and basked in the glow of being the only sole in view. Paul and Estelle had turned around at one, leaving me to go it alone for the remainder. Cautiously I continued, knowing full well, with my gear, with my knowledge, with my luck, I needed to make sure there were no hiccups before I turned back towards the ladders.
Of course, within ten minutes, I had slipped on black ice, nearly tearing my left knee into hamburger, cut my hand, and managed to eat my entire supply of cereal bars.
Luckily, the trip down was more benign. No close calls. No weather. Just a long slog back to the car and civilization.
Little Switzerland, running on fumes, The Amphitheatre Backpackers Lodge
At 5:35 I saw relief. Little Switzerland and a brown sign post for petrol. I was saved. Except I wasn’t.
“We are closed, sir.”
“I’m on empty. I need just a little bit. You don’t have a can anywhere?.” I scanned the area.
“No, sir. We closed at 5:30.”
I checked my phone. 5:37. Double farts!

I peeled out and coasted down the graded tarmac, eighteen miles from Amphitheatre Backpackers, praying, hoping that I would get there. After a six hour hike, wet socks, sprained knee, and stiff joints, I needed that Jacuzzi. I needed that shower. Get me there, Lord. Oh, please get me there…
Heidi & Pierre Yves Robert
Josh at the front desk set me off. Everything I needed he didn’t have. No credit card machine. No spare gasoline cans. No key. No towel. No smile. No nothing.
He led me through a festive, well-lit bar showing slides of past excursions on a giant projection screen, out towards the deck, pool, and braii area. “We have 37 hectares so feel free to explore,” Josh said boastfully. What the hell’s a hectar. I wondered. “Drive your car over to the twin towers, park there, and take this slide, stick it on the bed you want when you get into your room.”  Then Josh disappeared.
Pierre was showered and laying on the bed. Heidi was next to him, surfing for something deep within her rucksack. I mistakenly assumed they were together. They weren’t. Above me I could hear a couple giggling in German.  A loft presumably. Who cared? I was tired, cranky, and in need of a serious shower. Luckily, I had three semi-cold cans of beer in my bag and the shower was free. Within minutes of cracking my first, having cleaned up, changed, and put on my swimming trunks, life was infinitely better. I was in one of those moods where conversation and greetings flowed naturally. I was personable, funny even. Convivial. Lively. Heidi and Pierre were interested. The three of us were having a conversation. Staying in a dorm was cool again.
I ate quickly with Heidi in the large dining hall, a few feet away from the bar, in an adjacent room fit for the Knights of Columbus. Our server brought three courses out within five minutes of each other. Salad. Chicken and mashed potatoes, then dessert: a white Russian. We sat at the bar, me in my sweater and swimsuit, Heidi in jacket and jeans, curdling through our liquid dessert. There were backpackers all around. Mostly German. A few Americans. A fire cackled behind us. Locals surrounded it, eying us with curiosity as the projector continued to stream photos and loud rock music blared from behind the bar. Josh appeared and re-appeared, drink always in tow, loud and foreboding, talking to no one and everyone like he owned the place. Maybe he did. Or maybe the owner was in Argentina and had no idea Josh walked around, drank, and caroused like he owned the place.
Pierre joined us for a pint around ten p.m. I had spent thirty minutes in the Jacuzzi with the German couple giggling in the loft above us. They were quite good company as well. Young but friendly. Boy in dreads, girl blonde and short. They were volunteering in Cape Town for the year. We exchanged anecdotes about the Cape and what we were all doing in Africa. When I got pruny, I shivered back to the room, only to find it locked. Josh hadn’t given me a key. I wasn’t aware I needed a key. Nobody was in. I traipsed back in the freezing night air into the bar, looking for Josh.
I am always amazed how the Euros do it. How do they travel endlessly without ever spending money? It’s wondrous. How long are you traveling for, I asked Heidi over beers. “Only six more weeks. I’ve been here since February.
Only six?” I’ve got thirty-six hours left.
Pierre was French-Canadian and had been traveling for six months. “My goal is to travel to every continent this year. I just got here from Buenos Aires. I want to see Africa then go do the Silk Road and then Australia.”
He’d bought a one-way ticket to Johannesburg for $500. He budgeted one beer per night on his trip. He had already spend five months in South America and was now on leg two of his journey.  I envied them, at least a decade younger than I, freer than I, unaccompanied, adventurous, and unafraid. Sure, they’d ben spending a year in dorm rooms like the one in Drakensberg, but that was their sacrifice for the length of time and distance they wanted to cover. “I met a guy in Bolivia who had been traveling in South America for five years. Five years!” Pierre repeated. “He was living on six euro a day.
I just shook my head, took my last swig of beer, and went back to my bed to crash for the night. What an amazing day.
Saturday Morning, Gassing up, driving to Durban
The Getz somehow made it all the way to Bergsville, where I filled it up with 95-Unleaded and drove it straight back to the lodge.Back at the hostel, I ordered breakfast, paid my bill, and savored the last few moments so close to the mountains that had been my home the past two days.
At the front desk, Josh was handling a complaint from three South African girls who had been kept up all night by the obnoxiously loud stereo system from the bar.
“Did you call to complain?” Josh asked indignantly. I could tell he was extremely hungover. He was in no mood to deal with issues, but was forced into one right out of the gate. He couldn’t have handled it more poorly.
He called the bartender, a black male of about 19, into the lobby. “Howz it bro? Were you playing music till 4 in the morning?”
“No sir, we shut the music down…”
“These girls called at 3 am and they said that someone turned the music up after that. Louder bro? F---ing louder! F--- you!!!! F---- you, bro.”
Six of us stood frozen, watching this white boy verbally abuse this black man three feet away from all of us. Stoned silence. It was – in a word – stunning. The very act of telling someone what Josh told this man is insulting enough. But throw an audience, a workplace, and the racial history of the country into the mix, and it couldn’t have been any uglier to witness. I tried to engage the girls in small talk as we waited for the two of them to part and our bills to be settled.
I drove to Durban in just under three hours. Was at the airport, returned the car, through security, and waiting at my gate for the flight all by 1:30 p.m.
Four hours later I found myself in the heart of Soweto, the sight of the brutal riots 35 years before, which was in fact the reason I was visiting in the first place.
Tears at dinner
King’s driver, Sello, arrived at Tambo Airport in a beige Volvo. Dance music blared, Sello sped ahead. We drove through Jo-burg and into Soweto as the sun disappeared and a hazy dusk ensued. 
Soweto by Night

King’s gate opened a dark, thin figure in Adidas cap greeted me outside the front door. “Matt?”
I shook his firm hand and followed him through the enormously long garage back into a cement courtyard and into the front door of the house. “This is the boss,” He said as we entered. I was staring at his wife, Phillis, cooking assiduously in the kitchen as sounds of children rang from behind the walls. “Let me show you your room,” King said tersely. He was animated, to the point, and a little OCD. Very sharp.
A large queen-sized bed, with bedside table, lamp and a floor space heater immediately warmed me as I set my bag down and joined the five children and King on the living room settee.

They were neither shy nor reserved when it came to talking about their struggle, their lives, their hopes. Within half an hour I was in tears, listening to King and Phillis's account of voting for the first time in 1994, recounting their joy and pride in the election of Nelson Mandela. Some people just make you cry I guess. King's wife, full of happiness, joy, and warmth, was one of those people.
A quick morning tour, Freedom Square, The Musical Tour Guide
King drove me past the World Cup stadium near Soweto and on to the airport. I gave him a book and jewelry, some cash, and a handshake good-bye. I would have missed something had I bypassed the chance to stay with a family in Soweto for the evening. I felt their lives, their struggle, and their culture in the evening and morning spent together. I cried real tears listening to their fight against Apartheid, the personal triumph of man and wife voting for the first time together in 1994, their pride in the rise of the community of Soweto, black South Africa, and the leadership spearheaded by Nelson Mandela. His aura was evident in their words, in their home, in their confidence.

 Soccer City, host to 2010’s World Cup Final
I had high expectations of South Africa and they were all surpassed. Each region, each excursion, each day was better than I had hoped. The richness of the land, it’s topography, the people, their food, their language, their history. All of it was breathtaking. Twelve days is never enough. But I was content with that short amount of time, aware of the fortune I have to visit such a place with the short time and amount of money it took to make it happen.

No comments:

Post a Comment