I Dreamed of South Africa

Another way-back-machine travelogue! This one is from 1998. Be warned, this is pretty terrible. I like to think that my writing, sense of drama, and sense of humor has improved since then.

Dear Constant Readers:
Welcome to another installment of my e-travelogues. This episode: South Africa.

Feb 5, 1998

LB and I departed from Dulles and because it was a weekday, not too many people were traveling. We each got a whole row of four seats to stretch out and sleep on. Sweet! A family friend picked us up in London, fed us, let us sleep, and then took us back to the airport for our second leg of the journey. This time it wasn’t so sweet. Fat man to my right, sis to my left, and no arm rest. After 18 hours of cramped flying, I was exhausted by the time we reached Johannesburg. A diplomat friend of my uncle’s picked us up and just waved his badge at the customs woman. We didn’t even fill out the landing card. For all they knew, we had bags of drugs enough for the whole city. It made me uncomfortable but not enough for me to speak up and demand to be searched and detained.

We drove home and I was astounded at how GREEN South Africa is. I
pictured more of a Cairo, dusty, sandy land, but it was lush green hills
as far as the eye could see, big cloudless skies, and a gorgeous 85 degrees. Napped, showered, and off to Pretoria (the winter capital. Cape Town is the summer capital as it is cooler there since it is closer to the pole).

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We went to the botanical gardens, the Voortrekker’s monument depicting the Dutch tale of their battle with the British and Zulu tribes to claim their “homeland,” and then Church Street where Parliment is held.

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Beautiful flowers and buildings, but shifty eyed lurkers so we didn’t spend much more time there than needed as the sun was setting. Tales of crimes and misdemeanors occupied us on the drive back. Home, dinner, and sweet sweet sleep.

Feb 8: Up early and went to “lion park” where we drove around some rather sedate, well-fed lions and then went to pet the cubs! They were so cute, but had just bathed and so their fur stuck to our hands pretty badly.

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A long drive to Sun City followed: casinos, water park, Palace hotel, basically a posh Disneyland/Las Vegas land. Not worth the two hour drive to get there. Home again, ran around with the cousins, ate and slept.

Feb 9: Up early (will they never let me sleep?), eat, pack and take off for Kruger National Park (400 km). Amazing view of the hills and fields. I was the navigator in the front seat with the maps, but poor LB as the youngest had to sit in the back of the minibus with all the luggage. We got to the Nabana lodge on a banana plantation  and settled in.  We looked around a mini zoo with pygmy monkeys, goats, and exotic birds, ate dinner, and called it a night for the next day…safari.

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Feb 10: Up early (5:00 am) to prepare for a 12 hour safari through Kruger National Park, a wildlife reserve teeming with Africa’s biggest and smallest beasts on an area of land that is equivalent in size to Wales (my place of birth, not the world’s largest mammal). I watched the African sun rise while I got everyone in my clan up and ready. By 6am, we were dressed, loaded up in the minivan and another jeep driven by our guide Kenny and ready to go. Kenny used to be a game warden in Botswana before he came to South Africa and was quite knowledgeable. We drove through some gates, paid our fee, and then got all our camera and binoculars ready.

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We encountered some baboons within a few minutes of our arrival and then came across some impala African antelope or gazelle or something, also known as Roiboks. We were clicking and filming like crazy and our guide told us to relax, we would see plenty before they day was done. We were just so excited to see them running and leaping about. We didn’t realize that by the end of the tour, we would see over a hundred or two of these animals and would get to the point where someone would point them out and everyone would just shrug their shoulders and yawn.

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Elephants sneaked up on us. I was amazed by how such a large animal could be camouflaged so well! They are HUGE but sometimes we would pass them completely up only to have someone yell out that there was a whole herd of them behind some trees. Same with the giraffe. The hippos were pretty easy since they were in the water. They looked like black boulders at first, but then suddenly a splash of water would give them away. We saw kudu, klipspingers, and more impala (all deer) prancing about since the lions were all lounging in the shade. We saw jackals and hyenas. We saw lizards too, but no one seemed to excited about those.

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We took a break and had lunch in the park and then took off again. After a total of twelve hours of driving and stopping, we saw some more impala, lions, storks, more impala, turtles, warthogs, monkeys, vultures, wildebeasts, and ended the day catching sight of the shiest of all cats: the leopard. Our guide was very excited about that. All in all, a very good trip. By the end of the day, we were exhausted. We drove back to the plantation, ate dinner, celebrated my uncle’s birthday, mapped out the course for the next day and hit the hay.

Feb 11: I used my new toothbrush. That might not sound exciting but it was a special toothbrush that I bought in Kruger Park since I forgot my real toothbrush in London a few days back and had to use the pathetic puny airplane toothbrush (hard bristles and as big as my palm) the whole time. I was sick of it and thrilled to use something else but my new safari toothbrush must have been made out of warthog bristles or something cause that sucked too.

Kenny came by with some breakfast baskets for us and saw us off as we piled in (poor LB crammed in the back again) and took off. We drove to a place called ‘God’s window’ so named because apparently, the view is amazing and you can see the entire valley and then you notice you are above the clouds, viewing what God would view. Unfortunately for us, God had his blinds down. It was so foggy, we couldn’t see a thing.

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We just walked around, enjoyed the cool air, the pretty flowers, and then went to Pilgrim’s Rest which is an old town featuring an abandoned gold mine. It was quaint enough, but I could have seen all that in Pennsylvania or Virgina.

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We ate our breakfast at an inn and basked in the now present sun (recall, it was San-Francisco-foggy before). We drove the remaining hundreds of kilometers back to Jo’berg, unpacked our dirty clothes, repacked our bags with warmer, clean clothes, hopped back into the minivan, and drove to the airport to take South African Airlines to Cape Town.

Once finally on the plane (leave it to my father, uncle, and aunt to be the last ones on the plane as the gate is closing), we settled in for the two hour flight. LB and I wrote our postcards then, which many of you should be receiving today or tomorrow! However, for some reason, and this is true, South Africa does not stamp post cards from South Africa. Instead, they send it to New York, post it there, and then send it out. So, upyernoz, sorry, but no African stamps or “airmail” language for you.

We arrived in Cape Town at night and since we had no checked in luggage (we were good travelers, only carrying light luggage), we zipped into our new minivan (exactly the same one as the one we had in Jo’burg but this time white instead of red), and drove to Best Western. Yep, Best Western. We had two apartments and split up the families. After washing up a bit, my uncle called up a friend of his who lived there and before we knew it, they were there to take us to Victoria Waterfront. The friend saw me and told me that they not only had a
Planet Hollywood there, but that they also had a Hard Rock Cafe. I found out later that the friend thought I was in high school and wanted to find something that he thought would interest me. He apologized when he found out how old I am and what I do. I got a big kick out of it myself. The waterfront was pretty much exactly like the one in Baltimore…harbor, malls, tourist shops, and water. Nothing much to see and it was well nigh around 11:30 by this time, so we said our goodbyes and ended the day.

Feb 12: After a good night’s sleep, we got up, met for breakfast at the hotel’s breakfast bar (where every person replied to “thank you” with a lilting “pleasure”), and made our way out of town. Because it was so cloudy/foggy, we opted to go to Table Mountain another day and instead drove south south south until we hit the ocean. Make that two oceans: Indian (warm, blue, calm) and Atlantic (icy, angry, mean).

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We stopped by Simon’s Point where the locals are proud of a story about this big dog who, after “hounding” (pun intended) the British Navy by following them everywhere including on trains, became an honorary seadog of the British Navy.

One of the most thrilling parts of our visit was hanging out with African penguins. We ran around with them in the surf and seaweed, saw them peering at us from their nests as we peered at them from under our raingear (it was really misty and rainy by this time), and acted really silly running after them in herds and at the same time, protecting our cameras from the moisture. By the time we got back in the minivan, everyone had huge tangled hair leaping from their noggins and salty mist all over their faces.

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Drive to Cape Point and the Cape of Good Hope…almost, but not quite the southern most part of the continent. We took a trolly to the top of a lighthouse and the wind was so strong that my eyelids were flapping. But with my trusty video camera, I managed to see everything without blinking (of course, it was all black and white, but still). Supposedly, one can see a line where the Indian and Atlantic oceans meet, but I saw no such line. I did see lots of thick juicy clouds though and as the sky began to clear up, it became a very beautiful day.

My sister and I walked down the path instead of taking the trolly back and we were almost accosted by a hyrax! A hyrax, for those of you who don’t know, i.e. all of you, is a small rodent like creature almost as big as a groundhog/beaver/hedgehog with sharp little teeth and no tail. For those of you who don’t know what a  groundhog/beaver/hedgehog is, too bad.

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We hung out by the beach area, saw some attempts at windsurfing, and then headed back up the coast to Cape Town. We drove along a treacherous mountainside, but the view was incredible. Piercing blue skies, multicolored oceans, clean beaches, and green green mountains. Amazing. We were practically at the edge of the world. We were all just trying to soak it in and burn the images into our brains. Very cool.

Stopped off for some bargaining at a roadside market place (so easy to haggle after Egypt), went to an ostrich farm and gawked at the ostriches for a while, had lunch at Hout Bay’s marina wharf, had line fish (fresh fish caught on the line…very imaginative name), and drove back to the city, finishing our circle. Half of us were exhausted and took naps back at the hotel and half went shopping. Can you get which half I was part of? After we woke up, we cleaned up and went to a friend of my uncle’s for a “braai” which is basically an African BBQ. Party going on and the food was HOT (peri peri sauce on the chicken I found out later) but very good. We had mealie which is basically a corn dish very much like grits. And of course, the traditional curry dishes we desis eat no matter which country we are in.

Feb 13: The next morning was a clear, sunny day so we drove to Table Mountain
which was practically in our backyard. We took a sky tram up to the top and  since it revolved, we all got a chance to look out the window down onto Cape Town. The top was incredible. We were in the clouds. We could see a cloud  creeping up and over a hill top, come towards us, engulf us, and then spill down the edge of the mountain behind us only to disappear when it hit the different temperature of the ocean air rather than the mountain air.

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The hyrax were leaping about, even little baby ones with their sharp tiny teeth, everywhere. From that vantage point we could see Robben Island where Nelson Mandela was imprisoned from 1964 – 1982. We finally headed back down after just staring for such a long time at the little town nestled in the mountains and so close to the ocean.

We gathered our belongings at the hotel and took off for the vineyards
of Stellenbosch, wine country. Yeah, I know, what were a bunch of
Muslims doing going to wine country, but it is a sight to see and so there you have it. We got to the town, saw a mosque that was a hundred years old, and ate at Nando’s, a South African/Portuguese chicken joint with mild peri peri, or hot peri peri which is pretty much the same…HOT. We saw a vineyard and then  decided to call it a day by driving to the airport, loitering there for two hours, and then flying back to Jo’berg. When we got back, my aunt had her own braai going on and we ate an impala or springbok that my uncle had hunted a few days back.

Feb 14: Sleep, wake, breakfast, lunch at KFC where they sell rounders and  zingers, and then Gold Reef City. It used to be an active gold mine and although  they allegedly still mine gold, its just a big tourist trap with all the fixings: guys wandering around in cowboy duds, banjo players in the “town square”, a tour of the underground mine shaft, and a presentation of a gold pour (where the liquid gold was so hot it was blistering just to open the oven and to look at it was  similar to looking at the sun). My uncle, cousin, LB and I had a tour of it all and ended the day with watching a Zulu native dance (so touted) which was pretty  cool.

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Home, pack, airport, diplomatic preference enough to get to the front of the line, but not enough to fly first class, on the plane in the middle seat again, arrive in London where for a pound I got a towel and could shower the stink of airplane air off me, and finally fly back to the States and live happily ever after the end.

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