Friday, December 29

Goodbye, South Africa

And just like that, it's over. I wrote on my arrival to South Africa the mixed feelings I had returning to a place I had found so striking all those years ago, and the fears I had of this trip not quite living up to the nostalgia did, to some extent, come to be pretty justified.

But now that I'm leaving (our final meal having been at Nandos, naturally) I've realised that I was being a little unfair; it's not South Africa's fault that my previous trip was so memorable, and even if it wasn't able to give me that time back I doubt that neither would plenty of other countries. In other words, rather than see this as a return to South Africa, I've begun to see it as a new trip to a country I didn't really explore as much before.

And in that framing it has been quite the trip. Five weeks, four countries, almost 4000km driven, 3300 photos (of which I kept 1190) and nine different beds has made this by far my most ambitious and involved trip ever. I'm still deciding if that was to its detriment or not, but overall I'm glad of the experience (as well as filling in those gaps I had missed on my last visit here). The trip was so long that we were reminiscing about parts of it before the whole thing had even ended.

That said, I did also enjoy the more dossy time I had in Johannesburg and Durban, and it was great to catch up with friends both old and new. And in some ways the pressure is off - if I was ever to visit South Africa again I know I won't have to do much of the tourist trail.

Of course considering how long it took me to go back this time around, whether its a given that I'll visit again is yet to be seen.

Wednesday, December 27

Drakensberg, Day Five: Taking A Dip

As this was our last day, we decided to have another go at visiting the Royal Natal National Park.

It actually did happen to be much less busy than it was on Christmas Day, and so we spent the bulk of the day enjoying the activities it had to offer, including a hike up to a rock pool.

The weather was perfect for kicking off those shoes and taking a dip.

It was nice way to spend our final day up in the mountains - we plan on making our way back early tomorrow to have some decent time in Durban before we leave South Africa altogether.

Tuesday, December 26

Book: Leviathan Wakes, James S. A. Corey Click for more info

The last really decent science fiction I can remember reading is, perhaps unsurprisingly enough, anything that had been written by Asimov. Perhaps it's the rose tinted specs talking (typing?), but any new fangled sci-fi just doesn't seem as science fiction-y as the old school stuff. The trouble is that I'm not entirely sure why.

But using Leviathan Wakes, the first in the series of books that make up The Expanse, as an example it could be because where the classic scifi tomes were unapologetic in their geekiness, modern stuff aims to be a bit more accessible - both in the standard of writing and plot concepts.

That's not to say that Leviathan Wakes was a bad book; no it just didn't manage to give me the scifi fix that I was after. In fact I'd go as far as saying that I quite enjoyed reading it and will certainly consider continuing with the series - I also look forward to watching the television show which I perversely think will be better entertainment.

That doesn't solve the scifi gap I have right now - but after recently finishing the Wheel of Time, perhaps the real answer is to look beyond a genre and seek the fix elsewhere?

Drakensberg, Day Four: Taking A Hike

Deciding that we had had enough of driving, we decided to keep things closer to home today. Our resort had a few hikes available to its guests, and we picked the one most appropriate for the mixed group that we were.

Despite it being one of the more shorter hikes available, it did present some nice paths and decent views and the waterfall at the end of the trail was worth our efforts.

As we were close to home we spent the rest of the afternoon at our chalets, playing boardgames and hanging out. After four days it does feel like our time in Drakensberg is beginning to stretch a little.

Monday, December 25

Drakensberg, Day Three: A Christmas In

For whatever reason, we all thought that Christmas Day would be pretty dead in and around Drakensberg. In turns out that we couldn't have been more wrong - enough so to have us turn from the Royal Natal National Park and head back to our chalets.

On the other hand this did result in a chill out day, with us spending most of the time playing mini golf, bowls and various other activities on the resort.

Sunday, December 24

Drakensberg, Day Two: Exploring The Mountains

A lazy start had us driving north though a bunch of assorted terrain and views. Sterkfontein and its dam was a marvel to to see, but the real sights started as we entered the Golden Gate Highlands National Park. Although we mainly stuck to the main roads, we still managed to catch some great scenery.

We eventually ended up at Clarens, a cute little artisan town. It was a nice enough little stop, and a perfect place to spend a couple of hours.

Due to the geography of the land, our fastest way back home was to backtrack down the way we came. Although that meant revisiting what we had already seen, it did make the return drive pass much faster. Oh and we also managed to catch a tremendous sunset, in this instance made all the better due to the cloudline over Sterkfontein dam.

We got back to our chalets in good time, leaving the evening to unwind and relax.

Saturday, December 23

Drakensberg, Day One: Getting There

After the 2000km or so that we had already driven the idea of more hours in the car was less than appealing. On the other hand, Drakensberg promised to be much more of a chill out than the trips we had taken so far - it was to be just the ticket after such a busy vacation so far. The few games of Jenga we played in our cabin today was just the ticket.

Still, I have to admit than I'm feeling more than a little ennui as we enter our last week of our time in South Africa. I do expect to read a lot on this stint.

Friday, December 22

Coming Back to Durban

Our time in Durban, largely by design, was very social, very lazy and very domestic. It was kept so firstly to recover from the intense tourism of the past few weeks but also to leave space for the respective socialising my parents and I wanted to do. That said, it was less of a social whirlwind my previous stint here was (and for the better). In summary:

  • On my first full day here I went to three nikkahs and a Jummah. That's so Durban.
  • I visited the African Art Centre to check out the work of an artist friend (as one does in Durban).
  • North Beach evoked good memories, but new was La Lucia Beach where we had a decent little family chill out.
  • We were able to take a mini tour of a clothing factory (via family friends)
  • We finally got to have some South African prawns, as well as some Bunny Chow (which was more novelty than I remember)
  • At great personal cost I managed to grab a Crystal Steak Sandwich, which for me was the clear winner of this year's South African junk food trail
  • I even managed to get a dive in which gave me sharks, an amazing reef and some excellent visibility.
  • And finally I spent a lot of time (read: eating food and cake) with friends first met in both continents, including a meeting that made skipping ticketed cinema screening look easy.
That last point made me both regret not managing to do the same in Johannesburg and Cape Town, but also even more appreciative that I was able to find it here.

Other comparative observations: Durban seems less tolerant and more segregated than I remember it being, but that could be due to the nature of my trip being more family than friend orientated.

Saturday, December 16

Coming Back to Johannesburg

After we had all agreed that we were done with safari, we decided to make an early run back to Johannesburg in order to make some real time of it there. Johannesburg wasn't originally on our itinerary, so this was a neat little bonus that came out of nowhere. On the other hand, since I hadn't planned on spending any time here I didn't really organise any friends or meetings.

Luckily, as I had previously found, South Africans are the generously social sort and after a few phonecalls and messages I was able to spend the afternoon with an ex-pat friend of mine, and then the evening with more local friends that I hadn't seen for the seven years since my last visit. This included a trip to the Mail and Guardian where we ate an AK-47 and Wonder Why pizza from Akhalwayas (which, for those keeping track, is one of my four must-eats of South Africa).

It was like the essence of Johannesburg good times had been squeezed and distilled into half a day, and a brilliant reflection of good times past. My only regret is that I didn't get to visit Laudium (snigger).

Friday, December 15

Kruger National Park, Day Three: The Big Five

One mark of success for a safari trip is to complete sightings of the "big five". These are, in order of increasing rarity (of sightings):

  • Elephants (~13,000)
  • Buffalo (~40,000)
  • Rhino (number undisclosed)
  • Lions (~1,600)
  • Leopards (~2,000)
The numbers don't necessarily match the covetousness of the sightings since, for example, it's much more difficult to spot a leopard than a lion. Also interesting is the taboo around talking about rhino sightings and numbers, due to the clues such conversations give to poachers.

To recap, we still needed to see a rhino and something other than a lion's bum to complete our big five. Quite frankly it was a miracle that we even had a leopard down on our list.

Our morning safari was a bit of a bust, although we did get some great views of giraffe. Jummah then killed 3-4 hours safari time, and to be honest by that point we had given up on any let alone one of the remaining sightings we wanted to see.

Based on a tip, we decided to spend another 1.5 hours on returning from Jummah to enter the park via the more southern Malelane gate. The payoff was immediate with rhinos aplenty, with a neat little bonus being a couple of wild hyena. We didn't get to see any cheetah though, despite the sighting having been reported.

This only left the lion. Everyone we asked in passing said that they were also struggling with the big cat, and at some point we got so desperate that we considered counting the ones we saw in Botswana as qualified sightings.

At around 5:40pm (where the camp gate shut at 6:30pm) we took a detour down a gravel path on a wild roll of the dice... and finally found our quarry. Two lions. And a rhino to boot (we even had a herd of elephants, but they had become pretty passe by this point). Three out of the big five right there in our last five minutes of safari.

We were going to go for a 4:40am safari tomorrow (before heading off to Johannesburg for 6am)... but we've all agreed that we've had our fill of driving around looking for animals by then.

Thursday, December 14

Kruger National Park, Day Two: The Early Bird

It what can only be described as the biggest miscalculation of our time in Africa so far, we decided to book our places on the Sunrise Tour, the idea being that for a little pain we'd be rewarded with some amazing sights of the African wildlife waking to a busy day - indeed it was always the early morning that was said to offer the best experience on safari, and since the tour was able to leave before general guests could, booking the tour would be the only way we could do it.

Well I'm here to tell you that it's all a bunch of codswallop. The most exotic animal we saw on this tour was a snail. And that isn't even a joke.

After recovering (from both the lack of sleep and the massive disappointment), we set off for our own six hour tour in the afternoon. Sightings were still sparse, but this safari was much more successful - we managed to see buffalo, lots of fun (and in one instance, scary) elephants, the rear of a lion (which didn't really count as a sighting per se) and the crown jewel of most African safaris, a leopard.

The lesson here was obvious. Since going on an organised tour doesn't appear to increase the likelihood of sightings, safari seems altogether pointless without access to your own car. The freedom of movement along with sighting boards and more recently smartphone apps make it a much more enjoyable experience doing it yourself.

Wednesday, December 13

Kruger National Park, Day One: Getting There

It's fair to say that the drive to Kruger from Johannesburg was a long one. We arrived later than we wanted to and strict park timings meant that we only had 90 minutes or so for our first safari.

We did however see an elephant in those 90 minutes.

Otherwise safari was pretty much what I expected it to be - including cabin living. I was left hoping that the bugs didn't literally bite.

Tuesday, December 12

Book: A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms, George R.R. Martin Click for more info

No, this doesn't quite scratch the year-plus itch we've all had waiting for the next installment in ASOIAF (we have the TV show for that), but AKOTSK is a wonderful return to a more unadulterated and less polluted Westeros. You have the same confusing bloodlines, the politics that you don't quite understand and of course the pure fun and entertainment that we all know and love.

Written in the same accessible way of the main books, AKOTSK is well worth a read if you're a fan of the Seven Kingdoms. As always however, it's just a damned shame there isn't more of it waiting afterward.

The Garden Route, Day Seven: Ending the Route

What was initially only expected to be an airport run turned out to be one of the more fun days on our Garden Route tour - mainly because of how ad-hoc the itinerary turned out. Our first stop was at Nature's Valley, a intimate little resort tucked away west of Plett. It was the kind of place you'd expect a family drama to be set.

Other stops before we flew off included that to watch the bungee fun on Bloukrans River Bridge as well as a pretty thrilling (yet free!) walk across the Storms River Bridge.

Lunch was at St Francis Cape, another idyllic spot in this part of town - it's almost as if the locals knew those on the tourist trail would skip the bits at the tail end.

But that really was the final stop on our Garden Route tour. Now that it's over I have to say that as wonderful as some of the things were on the 3000 km or so that we drove, as an experience the Route wasn't as impacting as I expected (or maybe that should be wasn't as impacting as it was sold). It seems like a very situational place; one that requires a certain age or company, and as a local first get away I can see some appeal.

But as an travel experience? It just didn't do it for me.

Monday, December 11

The Garden Route, Day Six: Robberg

As appears to be par for the course, we enjoyed a lazy start this morning before heading to the Robberg Nature Reserve for some views and a couple of hikes. We went for the 5.5km Witsand trail, a trail that was deceptively short while taking us through woods, bush, sand and stone. The geography was pretty terrific and given more time I would have loved to have trekked to The Point, but at 9.2km that was a bit more than we would have been able to handle today.

While on The Island we came across some pretty aggressive seagulls protecting their colony, Hitchcock style. The difference being that instead of being pecked to death I was defecated upon. But hey! Experience!

The afternoon was spent in about out of the apartment, in pursuit of becoming more familiar with the small town.

I discovered that Plett is yet another place on the Garden Route in which to chill rather than anything more. No bad thing given an appropriate context.

Sunday, December 10

The Garden Route, Day Five: Animals and Nature

We decided to head east today, toward our final destination of Port Elizabeth. The idea was that we should check it out now, lest we find that we don't have time to check out any of the activities in that direction when we next head that way. The morning was spent on the nature triple of Jukani, Monkeyland and Birds of Eden.

I had mixed feelings about Jukani. It was certainly educational, and I guess like the other two sites I got a warm and fuzzy feeling in supporting "animal sanctuaries" (quotes placed by my cynicism only)... but Jukani ultimately was just a big cat zoo. Still, we did see some majestic animals, the tigers ironically amongst the most impressive.

Next up was Monkeyland. This was fun; walking around with a tour seeing various primates up to no good. Again it was pretty educational, if only because in learning exactly how grumpy monkeys can get while eating.

The last of the three was Birds of Eden. We spend the longest time here, partly because of the size of the place but mainly because we were self guided. Again I saw some wonderful animals but I suppose by that time I really had had my fill of the animal kingdom.

In short, all three were well above average but not quite unmissable.

After lunch we continued east to the mouth of Storms River. This offered us some pretty exciting views, a suspension bridge, and a really good (albeit deceptively short) hike up to a lookout point. It was totally worth it but, you really should budget a couple of hours if you want to check it out yourself.

Geographically, this pretty much marks the eastern most point of our Garden Route experience. My fear that it's quite a bit over-marketed has yet to be allayed, and I don't see it getting anywhere near the top ten of trails or road trips that I've been on.

Still, I have a couple of days left so who knows? Maybe the best is yet to come.

Saturday, December 9

The Garden Route, Day Four: Plettenberg Bay

The early start we made to had to Plettenburg Bay was unwarranted. At thirty minutes or so apart it, you could even say our stay in Knysna was a little redundant; it could easily have been reached via a backtrack. Still, the early start did allow us to check out The Garden of Eden which was a decent enough stop.

After lunch we decided to keep it local and explore the beaches. Standard fare here, possibly unfairly dampened by some overcast weather.

Speaking of the weather, between it and the activities experienced so far, I can't say that The Garden Route ranks high on the road trips I've taken so far. What's clear is that it's definitely a place that requires less planning and more nose-following, (for various reasons that wasn't the nature of this trip), but I would say all road trips are like that.

Perhaps I'm just spoiled but as an experience The Garden Route falls short a little.

Friday, December 8

The Garden Route, Day Three: Knysna

Having written off Mossel Bay, we decided to head straight out to Knysna. In the most part this was because it was Friday, and we still needed to find a place where we would be able to offer Jummah, something that was sure to be a bit of a time sink.

On the way to Knysna we stopped off at Dolphin's Point, a picturesque little bay (albeit with no dolphins).

After settling into our accommodation we went on the hunt for a congregation. Knysna is deceptively under equipped for Muslims - at first glance we thought we would struggle but found no less than three scheduled congregations in the town, one of which was quite central.

The afternoon was spent visiting the Knysna Heads and Coney Glen Beach, a great example of some of the natural beauty this part of South Africa has to offer.

The geography of Knysna is quite unusual; the river mouth before the heads proper have a couple of islands and we spent the remaining hour or so on Thesen, taking in the sunset.

We're only staying here the one night - tomorrow we head to our final destination on the Garden Route to Port Elizabeth.

Thursday, December 7

The Garden Route, Day Two: Caves and Passes

After a lazy start we headed north and inland toward Oudtshoorn and The Cango Caves. This was a bit of a judgement call as it would mean missing out on Mossel Bay proper, but the caves just seemed too compelling to ignore.

Spoiler: I felt it was the right decision. The Adventure Tour especially was great fun, if a little grubby, with some of the crevasses and potholes we were made to pass through were quite challenging.

We took the scenic route back via the recently reopened Watsburg Pass - South Africa has many of these, each offering their own range of spectacular views and thrilling drives. Watsburg didn't fail to deliver - it was by far the most thrilling mountain drive I've been on.

In this case moreso, as the reserve fuel light came on just as we entered the pass. It turns out that steep inclines mess with the fuel reading so we were okay, but the idea of running out of fuel on a gravel road in the middle of nowhere did worry me a little.

As predicted we got back to Mossel Bay quite late and so didn't have a chance to check it out. We might try tomorrow or just write it off - there's plenty to do on the way to our next port of call.

Wednesday, December 6

The Garden Route, Day 1: Vineyards and The End of the World

Of all the things that I felt I missed out the most on during my last trip to South Africa, it was The Garden Route that really piqued my interest. It's not like I knew what was actually on the garden route (I knew it wasn't flowers), but more how it was sold as The Road Trip To End All Road Trips, a rite of passage for those heading into maturity. And so just like with some of the other parts of this trip that were serving to fill in the gaps, I was pretty excited to finally be able to go on the drive between Cape Town and Port Elizabeth.

Although we had an early start we didn't actually leave Cape Town till later in the morning, having made a quick stop off at the Botanical Gardens. As with most of the road trips I've been on, I've found the trick is to balance the leaving of space to follow unbeaten paths, while knowing where to spend that precious time as you find those hidden gems - I knew that there were a fair few miles (or rather kilometres) between here and our first stop in Mossel Bay, so I did hope that we wouldn't miss those few hours spent in the gardens (which wasn't actually that bad either).

Stellenbosch was our first port of call, and we chose the Tokara Vineyard to stop at. Although it's tough to justify the value of visiting a vineyard to a Muslim Family like ours the views were spectacular, and the offer to partake in olive tasting tempting enough. But time was against us anyway so we moved on pretty quickly.

We then had a choice - to go to Ceres for fruit juices or Elgin for some apples. We chose the latter which turned out to be a bit of a bust, even though we found the Appletizer factory and stocked up on some concentrate. A pretty random road trip so far then.

After a bit of driving we stopped at Hermanus, a lovely little seaside town, for some tea and cake. It was a nice place to take a break; it was quiet, cute and intimate, and it was here that I finally started to regret not having as much time today as I would have liked - it would have been nice to have just lounged around town for a bit but we still had a way to go and another stop to make.

That last stop was L'Agulhas, the southernmost tip of South Africa and the place where two oceans met. Unfortunately the weather had deteriorated by this point, and I reckon the place would have given a much better impression of scale and geography had I the time to let it all sink in. But by now the sun had gone down along with our collective energy and so we called it a day and carried on to our hotel in Mossel Bay.

All in all aside from some brilliant views it was a pretty unenthusiastic start to the Garden Route today, although I'm told it only really begins from where we've laid our hat today. I do hope so.

Coming Back To Cape Town

Of the three places I visited last time Cape Town by far had the most to offer to the tourist. It's why we've scheduled four days here, and alas why we mostly filled it with tourism rather than social activities. That's not to say there wasn't much to remember - retreading some of the old pathways was quite poignant, if only because it reminded me of the people who took me to all the places. In summary:

  • Table Mountain was a washout. Or rather a cloudout. Visibility was terrible and it made me both thankful for the amazing views I got the last time and regretful for those with me for whom this will probably be the only chance to see Cape Town from this height.
  • Robben Island was actually not too bad considering my previous experience. Perhaps it was maturity, perhaps a better tour guide, but it does seem that experiences can vary on such a small island.
  • Fish in the Rocks down in Hout Bay provided more nostalgia, but alas still decent (versus amazing) fish and chips
  • Cape Peninsula is still deceptively small and took the whole day to drive around. Chapman's Peak still offered amazing views, and we also got to see random lighthouses, ostriches and penguins.
  • Cape Point appeared as ordinary as it did last time; furthermore I didn't get to go down to Dias Beach, which was actually one of my favourite spots from my last visit to Cape Town.
  • The drive through Simon's Town was nice, if only to help us realise how immense False Bay was.
  • I got a better chance to see historical Cape Town by going on a walking tour of Parliament, the Company's Gardens and the Grand Parade.
  • The District 6 Museum is still worth going to.
  • The Gatsby is still worth eating.
  • Bo-Kaap is still cute and such a quick win to walk through, particularly while the Adhaan is being called.
  • New for me was the V&A Waterfront, which seems like a wonderful place to just sit at to enjoy live music and good weather.
  • Also new for me was the Botanical Gardens. We visited this on the way out of Cape Town so it's arguable that we didn't give it as much time as we should have... but for me a couple of hours was more than enough (if not too much).

The clear difference between this and my last visit was us being on our own while also having access to a car - the peninsula alone presented a whole different experience because of the driving and map following. I do feel like I now know Cape Town a little more intimately.

Nevertheless, the overriding feeling was of slight disbelief, that I had returned to a place I never thought I would... while all the time acknowledging that it was indeed a very different trip.

Friday, December 1

Coming Back to South Africa

My first trip to South Africa was 7 years or so ago. Technically it wasn't actually my trip per se, I was just graciously allowed to hijack a couple of friends' plan to attend a wedding there. Whatever the context, that trip (which now seems like a lifetime ago) most certainly ranks as one of my best. Perhaps it was the drama of getting there (ash clouds and the like), or how I was just a passenger being taken care of by some wonderful people. Or perhaps it was the total ignoring of the tourist trails in lieu of some first class dossing, bonding and socialising. Whatever the case it was a whole bundle of perfect moments strung together like pearls on a necklace - I know for sure there will never again be a trip like it for me.

It's difficult not to reminisce about that trip during normal times let alone on the day when I've returned - indeed I actually spent most of the time writing this post revisiting what I had written all those years ago. So it wasn't completely surprising how emotional I felt just merely landing at Johannesburg airport to catch my flight to Durban (Ocean Basket! The ex-Mugg and Bean! Even the prayer room!).

And yet I already know that my second time in South Africa will be very different from the first. It's absolutely more of a tourism-themed trip - I'm travelling with family, not friends and so expect a much more independent, isolated and perhaps even clinical trip this time around. We're self-driving a lot of kilometres too, something that is sure to increase my intimacy with the land. I'm both excited at seeing more of a country I had such an amazing time in, but also sad that the context is so different.

We also have much more time here. The total including our stint in Zimbabwe will be five weeks, a time not spent away from home since the heady days of Summer Holidays in Pakistan. That timescale, alongside the aforementioned tourist vibe, almost guarantees homesickness for me. But despite the immense amount of time here Johannesburg itself has become a bit of a casualty, with us using it mainly as a transit hub. That also makes me sad since I do have some pretty important people there I would have loved to have seen again.

But still, I write this in Durban, staying again at the friend's house I randomly found myself in all those years ago. It's almost like I had never left.