Johannesburg and Cape Town, South Africa
I arrived in Johannesburg on Thursday morning after a fantastic and very restful 10 hour overnight flight from Cairo with luggage in tow. (A reminder that American Airlines is STILL the only airline to lose my luggage. Yes I am bitter.)
Anyway, I took the shuttle to the Southern Sun Hotel at the O.R. Tambo Jo’berg airport where mom was staying and met her about 8:30 a.m. I immediately jumped in the shower and cleaned off 2 days of desert dirt, sand and sweat. (I had a shower after swimming in the Dead Sea, but it really wasn’t the same thing.) So after getting cleaned up we had some breakfast as well as a beer in the bar before heading to the train station for our trip from Jo’berg to Capetown.
The drive to the train station was something else. I have been to Jo’berg twice, but never ventured beyond the airport so this was my first time seeing the “sites”. After our drive to the train station, I now remember why I never ventured into the city. There were some highlights… flowers blooming for example, but the lowlights were most evident. Squalor was the order of the day with crumbling buildings and panhandlers everywhere. Now I am certain Jo’berg has some beautiful areas, however, we did not see them. When we arrived at the train station, our driver talked his way past guards at a gate to get us as close to the entrance into the station as possible. And for good reason. This was a rough, rough, rough neighborhood. (South Africa, and Jo’berg in particular, has experienced a huge influx of refugees from Zimbabwe and many of these folks hang around the streets looking for handouts or worse. The refugees were out in full force around the train station and it was no place to be unescorted.)
Our driver wisked us into the terminal and delivered mom and me and our luggage safely to the Premier Train offices. An hour later and we were boarding the train and entering our train compartment 1B. Our compartment contained a sitting area on either side, and each sitting area converted into a twin bed. The funniest challenge was fitting all of our luggage into the compartment. Now mom only has one suitcase and a small carryon; however, I have a monster suitcase, a smaller suitcase (which I purchased in NYC when AA lost my luggage) and a duffle carry-on filled with electronic stuff and all my medicines. I ended up hoisting my carry-on and small suitcase into the crawl space above the door. We then put mom’s suitcase under her sitting area and my monster suitcase was wedged between mom’s sitting area and my sitting area under our sink at the end of our compartment. We then used my suitcase as a footrest for the 25 hours on the train. We were given a brief tour of our train carriage, which had a bathroom at either end and a shower. (Mom was incredulous that the train had only two bathrooms. I had to tell her it was two bathrooms for our carriage not the train … rookie!)
After getting settled, we joined other travelers in the dining compartment for a drink as we watched the train (thankfully) pull away from Jo’berg station. For the next couple hours we watched the South African countryside pass by (and I listened to my mother talk about how different the countryside was from any thing she had seen before). We had a lovely dinner in the dining car (a South African soup, Klipfish, a South African fish, veggies and South African wine) before calling it a night. And was I ever ready for bed. It had been three nights since I had actually slept in a decent bed (Tuesday night was my desert adventure and Wednesday I slept on the plane) and with the swaying of the train (and an eyemask and a good set of earplugs) I slept for almost 9 hours. Mom, however, did not sleep that well. I think it was partly because she found it too noisy and partly because she didn’t want to miss anything on the train trip.
When I finally woke up, Mom couldn’t wait to open the blinds and see the countryside. The sun was just coming up and we were greeted with blue skies and mountainous terrain. As the countryside flew by mom spotted numerous birds, some ostrich and more sheep than we could count. (Quite frankly, if mom had been counting the sheep she might have slept.)
Anyway, we had a lovely breakfast and then went back to our compartment to watch some of the most lovely countryside of the entire trip. We passed by beautiful ranches as well as vineyards and orchards. After another wonderful meal in the early afternoon, it was time to get ready to exit the train.
We reached Capetown around 4:00 p.m., but not before we passed through some of the rough township areas of Capetown. (These are areas that were created during apartheid when blacks were forcibly removed from their land and placed in government controlled housing. To say that these townships remain a blight on South Africa is an understatement. As much as I love South Africa, I continue to remain disgusted by the past apartheid policies and the government’s slow actions to help its people who were victimized by these policies.)
Once we exited the train, we took a quick cab to our boutique hotel, An African Villa, in the Tamboerskloof District in Cape Town. We were met by one of the owner’s, Jimmy, and his lovely dachshunds, Taylor (who was a little amorous) and Zip (who needed to lose a little weight). Soooo cute. We were given a lovely room overlooking the garden with a magnificent view to Table Mountain. (Table Mountain is the flat topped mountain that dominates the Capetown skyline sitting 1088 meters high. There is a rotating gondola that takes people to the top giving folks the most fabulous views.) As we stood on our balcony looking out at Table Mountain, we were fortunate to be in the city on a glorious afternoon with an equally fabulous weather forecast facing us for Saturday.
Mom and I ended up walking down the street for dinner at Greens, a lovely little bistro restaurant that was packed on a warm Friday evening. A couple Castle beers and pizzas later and we called it a night since we had to be ready to go by 8:15 a.m. the next day.
Saturday morning mom and I were up early and ready for a long day touring the southern most part of Cape Town. On the agenda was the Cape Peninsula tour including a boat ride around Hout Bay, the penguins at Simon’s Town and visits to Cape Point and Cape of Good Hope. The weather could not have been more perfect with clear skies and zero wind (a very rare occurrence in Cape Town.) Our guide, Rob from Cape Convoy Tours, picked us up right on time and all of the reviews on TripAdvisor about this guy were spot on. The word “character” does not begin to describe Rob. This guy is a human dynamo. His infectious enthusiasm and passion for his country and its history made him one of the best guides I have ever experienced. Rob was able to weave the history of South Africa into a running dialogue throughout the day long tour in a concise and informative manner which is no small feat given the complex history of South Africa. (South African tribes were the only ones who occupied the lands until 1652 when the Dutch settled South Africa. – The Dutch born in South Africa became known as the Africaners. In 1795 the British came to South Africa and essentially pushed the Africaners to the side. Ultimately the British and the Africaners waged a war, which the Brits won. In 1948, the Brits left South Africa and the Africaners took power. It was in 1948 that the Apartheid policy was instituted in part to protect what the Africaners believed was their right to keep anyone, including the native black Africans, from taking their “homeland”. Apartheid was finally beaten and a new democracy created in 1994.)
What I particularly admired about Rob and the tour was the fact that Rob tackled the subject of apartheid head on and provided us with a very clear explanation of what and why it happened. (As Rob noted, there is no sense dancing around the subject as it is part of South Africa’s history.)
There were 9 of us on the tour and it turned out to be a wonderful group. We started out the day with a trip to Hout Bay where we all got on a boat (on unusually calm waters) for a ride through Hout Bay to the point where the sea lion were hanging out. There were hundreds of them and the boat was able to get very close to the rocks where many of the sea lions were sunning themselves in the brilliant early morning sun.
After the boat trip we got back in the van and began the ride along the south coast to Simon’s Town, a quaint town that had been heavily populated by the Brits. As a result, the little seaside town has a decidedly British feeling. In Simon’s Town Rob related the story of “Just Nuisance” a Great Dane that gained favor with the British military in the 1940s and was actually made an honorary “Able Seaman” in the British Navy in order to avoid having the dog put down by the local authorities. The name “Just Nuisance” was coined by the drunk sailors who would stumble over him when they returned to the ship. Terrific story. Anyway, after the story, we wandered around the little town for a bit and stopped for a beer along the water front before we moved on to Boulders Beach to see …. THE PENGUINS.
It is believed the penguins moved into Boulders Beach in 1983 from Dyer Island and now there are over 2500 of the cuties on the beaches around Simon’s Town. The “jackass” or “African” penguins as they are called are protected species and are free to waddle all over the area. (The residents have built fencing to keep the little guys and gals out of the gardens, and the Cape Peninsula National Park is responsible for ensuring that the birds are kept in the protected park area of Boulders Beach. However, that has not stopped these determined creatures from trying to make themselves at home in the gardens and yards around the area.)
So when we reached Boulders Beach some of us in the van were literally skipping down to the beach to see the penguins. And finally oh my God there they were. The cutest little tuxedoed dudes ever! I couldn’t take enough pictures of these adorable little birds. It was so much fun to watch them and watch them watch us. I could have stayed for hours.
However, soon it was time to move on to the end of Africa… Cape Point and Cape of Good Hope. As we walked back to the van, we were serenaded by a group of fellows singing South African folk songs and dancing. We stopped to watch for a bit and they were terrific.
Once we were back in the van, we followed a hair pin road that rivaled the drive on Highway 1 between San Francisco and LA. Wow! Simply spectacular views of the ocean below. (Although it was a little unnerving to pass the steel support cages that enveloped the rock mountain we were driving around – obviously used to protect the drivers from falling rocks. According to Rob, the cages were installed after a couple of German tourists were “squished”!)
The views remained stunning as we drove for about 45 minutes along the coast. Rob finally pulled over the van, we got out and he pointed in the direction of a triangular point. “That’s it” he told us. “The end of Africa.” The weather remained perfect so it was going to be a very rare opportunity for all of us to see the Cape in sun drenched glory.
After the requisite pictures, we piled back in the van and headed into the Cape Point National Park. As we drove into the park, Rob warned us that we may see baboons and to be especially careful about having any kind of food or drink in the park. He recommended if we were going to eat to do it inside. As Rob parked the van we immediately spotted a mother and baby baboon by a railing near the cars. (I have been to South Africa before and learned that baboons can be an absolute pain in the ass. You see them everywhere. Mom had not seen them before and was amazed and astonished to see them so close. I told her by the end of our safari she will be sick of the food mongers.)
Anyway, Mom and I stopped for a bite to eat and did as we were told and ate inside. (One of the girls in our van ignored Rob’s warning about the baboons, went outside to eat and had her lunch stolen by one of the hairy thieves.) After lunch, Mom and I decided to take the funicular ( a little tram that runs up the side of the mountain) to the top to see the light house and to view Cape Point from the highest spot in the park. After walking around the lighthouse for a few minutes among the throngs, I decided to hike the ½ mile down to the point (which Rob had recommended we all do). Mom was a rather reluctant companion since it was all up hill on the way back; however, she decided she would give it a go.
The hike down was absolutely indescribable. The Indian Ocean was on one side of the path and the Atlantic on the other side. The cliffs were rugged and magnificent and you could see the waves crashing together in the distance. After about 15 minutes, we made it to the lookout at the end of the path … and there it was … the end of Africa. We stood and just stared for a few minutes and watched the two oceans meet. With little wind and sunny skies, the setting could not have been more brilliant. An absolutely unforgettable view.
So after more pictures, Mom began her walk back and I hung around for a bit to take in the view. Finally, I figured it was time to head back. The hike up was hot to say the least, but seemed to go by incredibly fast. I don’t think I wanted my stroll to the end of Africa to end.
Once back at the funicular, we took the tram down and met up with the rest of the group. Next stop was the Cape of Good Hope (so named because it was the point when sailors traveling on the west coast of Africa began to travel east instead of south, which offered hope of finding a sea route to India). As we drove towards the Cape of Good Hope we passed a number of wild male and female ostrich. (We had seen ostrich from our train window as we moved through South Africa, but those ostrich were farm bred and these were wild.)
We jumped out of the van, took pictures with the Cape of Good Hope sign and wandered the beach. There was an occasional big wave slamming against the rocks around us, but in comparison to what it could have been like, the seas were relatively calm. The area was absolutely magnificent and a lovely way to end our trip on the peninsula.
Once back in the van, we retraced our route back to Cape Town along the coastal highway. Along the way, one of the gals in the van spotted a whale spout so Rob pulled over. After a minute or so we all saw a whale surface. Fantastic! It was a Southern Right Whale migrating to Antarctica. We watched it surface a couple times and then spotted a second whale. Our day could not have been more perfect.
Mom and I got back to our hotel around 8 and were done for the day. We grabbed a few snacks from the kitchen downstairs and opted to go to bed early so that we would be ready to go for our township tour in the morning.
Sunday morning saw entirely different weather conditions for Capetown. The winds were blowing over the Cape and the temperature had dropped into the mid teens (approximately 60 degrees fahrenheit). Yuck. Fortunately, we were going on a tour of Langa Township and had not planed to be on or near the water.
Now about Langa Township: it was created after blacks were displaced from their lands during apartheid. (In the U.S., the area would likely be called the “projects”, however, the townships are much more complex and are more like towns within towns having their own schools, community centers, churches and housing). Unfortunately, the apartheid policies of the past South African government left a horrible legacy for many of the blacks living in these areas. During apartheid, residents of the townships were unable to own land, move about freely or obtain a good education. As a result of the hateful policies of the past, the present residents of the townships remain severely disadvantaged with high unemployment, marginal educational opportunities and poor health care. I had traveled to South African once and had not visited a township. I was determined this time to make sure I saw the other side of South Africa and had arranged a township tour for me and my mother. Our guide arrived at 9 and off we went to see part of Capetown’s darker history. (Langa Township welcomes visitors and views it as an opportunity to (1) educate tourists about the history of the townships and the present difficulties facing its residents; and (2) solicit donations for the many projects that are being developed.)
Because it was Sunday, our first stop in Langa would be the Langa Baptist Church. (South Africa is a very religious country and ground zero for the religious base is the townships so Sunday church is a big part of township life.) When we arrived, the church was swearing in a number of new officers and elders in the Church. Each ceremony was preceded by singing and prayer. It was moving and entertaining all at the same time. (I could have listed to the South African gospel music all day… fabulous, but some of the sermons inducting the officers was a little … uh dry.)
After putting money in the donation basket, Mom and I moved on to the Cultural Center where we watched some young boys who made up the Guga S’Thebe Marimba and Dance Group perform two songs for us. (The Cultural Center is a “safe” location for children to come to after school where they can learn music and arts.) We learned a little bit about the Center, bought some art and then met our walking guide, Patricia, also a resident of Langa, who was to take us on a walk around the township. Patricia gave us a brief history of Langa (which we already knew) and then began to take us around the area in what was rapidly becoming a very stormy day. We passed the detention center where blacks were held if they were caught walking around without their Pass (a card that had to be carried with blacks wherever they went to ensure that they remained in their “designated” township) and the former white controlled police station.
Then it was on to a series of apartment homes where dozens of families live in homes designed only for one family. (South Africa is trying to construct homes for each family but the process is slow and many have been on a waiting list for years.) I cannot begin to describe the dismal state of these homes. Decrepit only begins to tell the story. We were taken into one three bedroom apartment home where 64 people were living. (No you read that right… 64 PEOPLE.) The kitchen was like a closet with a single stained sink. There were hot plates everywhere as each family cooked on their own hot plat. Some men sat around a bare wood table on chairs with peeling paint. The three bedrooms contained bunk beds where 3 families stayed in each bedroom. The children had mats to sleep on the floor in the kitchen. There was one bathroom for the everyone and lineups were the norm. The linoleum floor of the home sloped to the right and was gouged and peeling in spots. The windows were cracked and there were wires everywhere as each family had their own electrical meter. It was gut wrenching to look at and if you didn’t want to sob your heart out as you looked at this place you have no humanity. (I have seen some pretty shocking living conditions in my travels, but this ranked right up there.)
We continued our walk through Langa walking past beauty shops and corner churches. Everywhere we went, children grabbed our hands and hung on to our coats. The wind by now was whipping through the area (a storm was coming in) and we were getting set to end the tour when our guide took us to one other home. This was by far the worst we had seen. Plastic garbage bags for a roof, no bathroom or running water and only three small rooms. Across the street from the house was a row of porta potties, which the families in this area used for bathrooms. Whenever water was needed the residents had to go down the road to the tap for their water needs. It was nothing short of appalling and gut wrenching all at the same time.
We trudged back to the van in silence. It had been a stark and shocking dose of reality for all of us, but something that everyone should see not only to appreciate what you have, but to better understand the consequences of evil policies.
We were returned to our hotel just as the rains started and when the skies opened up it turned into a torrential storm. Winds whipped the trees around our hotel, Table Mountain was shrouded in clouds and rain beat on the roof of our room. It was a stark contrast to the magnificent weather conditions we had the day before and Mom and I couldn’t help but think about the people we had just visited in the townships. How did they manage in these storms?
The storm finally eased around 4:00 p.m. so Mom and I decided to make a dash for it down the street to Greens for an early dinner. We made it to the restaurant in a trickle of rain, sat through more torrential conditions and made a dash for it around 6:30 when there was a break in the action.
Unfortunately, the weather conditions while fun to watch were really screwing up our Monday schedule. The wind was still gusting Monday morning when the folks at Cape Convoy Tours called me to say that the ferry to Robben Island (where Nelson Mandela was held for 30 years) was not running and the gondola to Table Mountain was shut for the day. ****! The one thing I really wanted to see in Cape Town was the prison on Robben Island, but there would be no time on Tuesday since the trip takes about 3 hours and our flight to Jo’berg was at 2:30 p.m. We would have to watch the weather in the morning to see if we could get up to Table Mountian.
Mom and I decided to spend a leisurely day at the Waterfront, an area of Capetown filled with shops and restaurants. We wandered around for the better part of 4 hours, bought a few gifts, including a vuvuzela, (Come on… you didn’t think I would come all the way to South Africa without buying one of those obnoxious horns did you?? In fact, rather than calling out to my assistant when I need some help, I may just use the vuvuzela now….)
As Mom and I were walking through a South African craft mall, we wandered past a holistic center where there were massage stations, wellness books and a fellow licensed to do reflexology oot massages. My feet had been killing me for a few days so I thought what the heck. A half hour later I felt like a new woman. Best 200 Rand I have spent.
By now the sun was shining and the winds had calmed down. It was looking good for our trip to Table Mountain in the morning before our flight to Jo’berg. Mom and I had planned to attend “Dinner at Mandelas” on Monday night, but when we got back to the hotel, the folks had called to cancel because they did not have the minimum four reservations. (Dinner at Mandelas is a special dinner put on twice a week featuring African food and music.) This was another disappointment in a rather disappointing day (except for the purchase of the vuvuzela). We decided that we would try to get a reservation at Miller’s Thumb, a highly acclaimed seafood restaurant in our Tamboerskloof neighborhood in Capetown. The folks in our hotel managed to secure a reservation so Mom and I wandered over to the restaurant. As we walked in, who should we run into but Lee and Jack who had been on our Cape Point tour on Saturday. Jack is ex-military and they have traveled extensively so they are fascinating to talk to . Not only that, but they were celebrating their 50th wedding anniversary and told us the story of how they met. (Each had a blind date cancel and they ended up being fixed up for the dance that they were to attend with other people.) It turned into a lovely evening of dinner, drinks and good conversation.
Tuesday morning, I woke up very early and immediately opened the curtains to check the weather. Beautiful blue sky, no wind and a picture perfect view of Table Mountain. Fabulous. I told Mom we needed to get ready pronto so we could grab a cab to Table Mountain to catch the first gondola at 8:00 a.m. Mom was a little peeved that we were running out the door without breakfast or her coffee, but I assured her that this was the way to go and we would be back by 9:30 giving us plenty of time for breakfast. (Table Mountain had been closed since Saturday, and I expected it was going to be teeming with people if we didn’t skedaddle on over to be on the first gondola.)
We arrived at 5 minutes to 8 and joined a very small line of people. Ten minutes later we had tickets in hand and were boarding the gondola. There were only about 20 of us in the first gondola heading up the mountain and all of us could not believe our luck. (The gondolas hold around 65 people). The climb took less than 5 minutes to reach the top, but what a spectacular ride it was. As the gondola rotated, we were able to have a 360 view of Capetown all the way to the top. It was simply amazing.
Once we reached the top (which my mother was immensely proud of achieving since she insisted she was terrified of heights), Mom and I wandered the trails for about a half an hour taking in all of the views. As we wandered, it became evident that more and more people were making it to the top. By 8:45, Mom and I decided to head back down. There were only 3 of us in the gondola heading back down so it was another spacious and fabulous trip. When we reached the bottom, I gave Mom an I told you so look. The lineup to get on the gondola was huge. Timing as they say, is everything.
We got back to the hotel by 9:30, had breakfast and then got ready to head to the airport. Our flight to Jo’berg was at 2:30 p.m., but as luck would have it, a hydraulic fuel leak caused a 2 hour delay. Two beer and one fixed hydraulic leak later, we were on the plane and heading to Jo’berg. We got to our hotel in Jo’berg around 7:00 p.m. and made it an early night. We were headed to Botswana in the a.m. (sans vuvuzela since I was leaving it in my luggage that I was storing at the hotel).