Thursday, March 15, 2018

Final Stop, Cape Town

My trip to Africa began and ended in Cape Town. The Intrepid tour met up in Cape Town, but I was there less than a day at the start, so I planned several days back there at the end of my journey to see the city.

As soon as you fly into Cape Town, there are posters and notices everywhere altering people to the drought conditions, and to be very careful with water use. As I write this, the conservation efforts have been successful enough (with a 50 liter a day limit per person) that their "Day Zero" has been pushed back to August. After that point, officials are counting on regular seasonal rains to divert them from having to shut off water to residences and businesses. But this is not the first year it's come close. Climate change and population growth have brought clean water shortages to many major cities around the globe.

After leaving behind the wonderful tour group I'd spent over three weeks with, in Cape Town I'd booked a B&B for a little luxury (after weeks sleeping in a tent). It was kind of strange to be in a large room with a huge bed, my own bathroom, a balcony, a TV, a mini-fridge, all to myself.

It was also very quiet. After weeks with a group of people around all the time, when you are alone, the silence is amplified. But with just three days in Cape Town, I had to plan my time and see everything on my list.

The first full day, I looked into the tour buses, and I walked from my place in Sea Point up the coast to the V&A Waterfront. The waves crashing up to the shore and the sea wall were wild, spraying up and onto the boardwalk. 

Along the way, I passed interesting public art, an outdoor gym, and a large off-leash dog park.

To see this rhino, you have to stand at a specific spot so that all of the pieces, which are spaced out across the grass, line up.

The giant glasses were inspired by Nelson Mandela’s Ray-Bans, and are apparently very controversial.

The Victoria and Alfred Waterfront felt like I had left Africa and stepped into an alternate Santa Monica. There is a huge mall (I got lost, it’s enormous), a Ferris wheel, and lots of waterfront restaurants. The story behind the name (I learned on a tour bus later) is that while Victoria was married to Albert, Alfred was her son who accompanied her to Cape Town, so the two of them are the namesakes.

I wandered through some shopping stalls, because I have a terrible habit of putting off buying souvenirs until the end of a trip (I always think there will be more time, other places to look). On the way back toward my B&B, I passed Somerset Hospital, which looks like a palace.

Green Point Urban Park is a pretty, grassy area to walk through (though a lot of grass was a little worse for the drought, but I appreciate them not wasting water it). The jungle gym was pretty cool with its literal interpretation.

Wandering out in the sun for hours completely zapped my energy, so I had to take a quick nap before heading back out to climb Lion’s Head for sunset. Everyone from my tour who had gotten to Cape Town a few days early told me how great the view is from up at the top, and that I had to add this hike to my shortlist. So somewhat dehydrated, I packed a bottle of water and my camera, and went out to catch the MyCiti bus.

I’ve found the best ways to get to know a city are by walking through it and using its public transportation system. I went to a nearby bus stop in Sea Point, and had to switch buses in Camps Bay to get as close as I could to the trail head. The buses are not air conditioned and the afternoon was hot, so everyone on board tried to angle themselves into a shady spot. I broke into my water before even getting to the trail.

Up a steep road from the bus stop, I found the actual trail head to officially start my trek. I didn’t realize it until later, but you can start up in either direction, and the one I chose may have been rockier and a little steeper.

Lion’s Head is just north of Table Mountain, with a sort of domed peak you can climb all the way to the top.  With over an hour before sunset, I began my hike, around the back side of the mountain, wondering why I didn't see more people (see above re: easier trail in other direction). As I came around toward the front, the shadows were gone and I was back in bright, hot, sunlight.
There are a few places on the trail where it seems to branch in two. I think the branches that take you vertical rather than winding around were actually created by other energized hikers eager to get to the top, but I took a few of these, and can tell you while faster, it's definitely more work to go up that way. 

By this point, I was getting a dehydration headache, and I stopped to drink water, now realizing how small a bottle I'd brought with me. This isn't a very long or intense hike, about an hour up and moderate difficulty (or a little more on the vertical non-trails), but after spending all day in the sun, much like the city, I was suffering a drought.
I pushed on, coming around the back again into the shade. Near the top, there are some ladders you have to climb. The first small one was easy; the second chain one had a line of people waiting to go up it, and rather than wait, I chose to take the longer way around. It wasn't much further after that to the top, and I made it with plenty of time to spare. Despite first impressions at the bottom, there was a crowd at the top, all ready to watch the sun dip into the sea.

The sunset did not disappoint, it was a mostly clear day with just enough clouds to reflect colors as the sun descended.
I started walking back down just before the sun hit the sea, not wanting to climb the steepest parts in the dark. I had my trusty headlamp for the flatter trails (like the one that wound around the front of the mountain toward the base, that it seemed everyone else used), but the ladders and the scrambling places near the top I wanted light for. I've heard with a full moon, you can descend at night with no problem.

A cab ride back to the B&B ended my first full day in Cape Town. I had already booked my Cape Point & Penguins bus tour for the second day. Without a car, the bus tours (yes bus, not truck) are easy ways to see far flung points of the city.

I caught my tour bus at a stop in Sea Point, close to my B&B. We had an on board Emcee of sorts to tell us about the things we passed and answer questions. I would have appreciated this more if he didn't say the word "literally" in literally every other sentence.
Some interesting factoids I picked up on the drive down to Boulders Beach to see the Penguins were: the first successful heart transplant was done in Cape Town; District 6 is a sad part of apartheid history, in which people were forcibly removed and their homes demolished, to establish a "whites-only area," but some residents resisted, standing by their long time homes. Today, it's a mostly vacant area, a memorial of remembrance.

Boulders Beach and the penguins was our first stop, which I mentioned in my earlier post about the African wildlife. After an hour there checking out the cute, feathered inhabitants, we headed down to Cape Point.

At the southwestern tip of Africa, there are two adjacent points, Cape Point and the Cape of Good Hope, both of which we saw. It turns out however that neither of these is the point where the Indian and Atlantic Oceans meet -that happens a little further east at Cape Agulhas. But there is plenty of rough water and waves crashing at these capes as well.

Off the coast in the haze, you can make out Robben Island, where Nelson Mandela was imprisoned for 18 years. 

At the top of Cape Point, there is a light house, and a signpost showing the distance to various cities around the globe.

The whole bus group walked the boardwalk path to the rocky cliffs of the Cape of Good Hope. Far below was a beautiful white sand beach you could get down to by steep stairs, if you had the time. We made our way slowly out to the edge to take our pictures from the east side of the Atlantic Ocean, then down a rocky path to the far side. All I could think was how much easier of a descent it was than the one in Victoria Falls to the Zambezi for rafting, or the one the night before from the top of Lion's Head. 

At the bottom, everyone stopped to take their pictures by the iconic sign. At least this cape can make the claim of being the most south-western point of the continent. Off the coast, seals lazed on rocks while waves crashed around them. 

From there, the bus drove us back to the V&A Waterfront, passing the very hazy 12 Apostles cliff faces of Table Mountain. I was glad I'd done my sunset hike the night before, as this one proved to be mostly overcast (though no more than a few drops of rain fell throughout the night). 

That night in my room it was far too quiet. For a month I hadn't even thought about TV, but I finally turned it on just for the voices. South Africa's Lip Sync Battle is pretty amusing. There are also a lot of old American shows and movies starring black actors that play there regularly, things I'd forgotten ever existed like Malcolm and Eddie with Malcolm-Jamal Warner (off the air since 2000), and classics like Waiting to Exhale. I appreciated the departure from US media norms. 

For my last full day in Cape Town, I got a ticket for the hop on/ hop off open-top bus. You can ride around the city all day on different routes, making whatever stops you want, while a prerecorded audio tour tells you about the places around you. I rode out to see Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens at the foot of Table Mountain, because I like walking through trails of exotic flowers. 

They have one area with plants that have been around since prehistoric times, brought to life by dinosaur statues scattered around. On so many of our safaris, I'd had the feeling of being in Jurassic Park, so the lurking beasts seemed very fitting. 

I hopped back on board to visit the wineries. The bus stops at 3 wineries, but somehow I only made it to the first one. At Groot Constantia, I visited their restaurant and finally had the cheese I'd been missing for weeks! There is cheese in Africa, but without a refrigerator, I couldn't really buy it from a store, and most of our meals were made by our tour's cook, so aside from cellophane wrapped cheese slices, I had been pretty bereft. 

That's where the winery saved the day, with a cheese plate to compliment my new affection for Chenin Blanc. I stayed there for a while, so that when I re-boarded the bus, I was ready to ride straight back to my B&B. 

I hate to tell you, but my last night in Africa, I didn't do anything. I went out to walk around by the coast again, just to say goodbye, I packed everything up, visited the nearby ice cream parlor for a milkshake, and watched more old movies on TV. 

It wasn't quite the end of my trip though. The way scheduling worked out, I had a 9 hour layover in Johannesburg before flying back to New York. Coincidentally, one of the girls from my tour group had an overlapping long layover. There was a torrential downpour in Joberg while I sat in a cafe in the international terminal awaiting my friend's arrival, so different from Cape Town.

Once my friend found me, we had hours to kill and Rand to spend, so we explored all the terminal had to offer: duty free shopping (I bought Amarula to bring home), a sushi restaurant, a spa with chair and feet massages, a Haagen Dazs, an electronics store, and other fun places to wander. Eventually the hours ticked away until I had to get to my gate. It was sad to saw goodbye again, but had been a really nice reunion. 

Off I flew back to the cold, grey winter of New York. I'm still not ready to be back, and it's been a month. There is so much more of Africa to explore, this taste made me hungry for more and more. So while this is my last blog about this trip, there are sure to be more trips to come soon, my wanderlust is strong. Where in the world will I travel next? Stay tuned!

Wednesday, February 28, 2018

Africa: The Adventures and Excursions

No organized tour is complete without inclusions and add-ons, extra activities to make it memorable. The game drives I talked about in my last post were incredible included activities that made for an amazing African experience. But seeing the wildlife was only a piece of our adventure. Some of these extras were nature-lover excursions and some were adrenaline-junky thrills, and all were highly enjoyable.

The first camping night we spent at a winery, where, naturally, there was a wine tasting we all joined (and began to form our group bond). With seven different varieties on offer, we both learned how tasty South African wine is, and how funny we all were. We tried to obey the rule of only filling our glasses to a specific line as we passed around the bottle, but that can be tricky, especially the more bottles that circulate. I began my appreciation of Chenin Blanc that night.

We crossed the Orange River from South Africa into Namibia and stayed on it's banks for a night. The next morning, six of us went for a canoe ride down a few miles of the river, with guides to help row and point out birds and monkeys in the trees. They told us we probably wouldn't encounter any crocodiles in this stretch of river, and encouraged us to get out and swim, which we did. The water was fairly warm yet refreshing, the bottom a mix of rocks and sand.
The guides told us we should look for diamonds along the bottom, but I'm still not sure if they were just teasing. I somehow kept splashing myself when I brought the paddle up to switch sides, more so than anyone else. I was soaked before going for a swim. It's a good thing I had one of the guides in my boat since my technique seems to need work.

From there we drove to Fish River Canyon, one of the largest canyons in the world. We spent the evening walking around the rim to see the views, and then having sundowner wine while watching for the rocks to change color as the sun set.
It was especially windy that evening, so we were struggling to keep our hats from blowing away as we walked around, and then trying to keep our plastic cups from spilling or getting lost as we drank our wine. The easiest strategy was to keep the cups filled, and somehow our bottles were quickly emptied.

Our wonderful cook made us a big pot of popcorn, which was much more difficult to keep from flying away. We placed a large rock on top of the pot, and very carefully took handfuls, maybe able to eat half of them. The birds were well fed that night. While having such fun, we nearly missed the moment the sun set!

One of the highlights of the trip came in the Namib Desert, were we woke up in the dark and drove out to Dune 45 to hike to the top and watch the sun come up. Hiking up sand dunes is one of the most physically difficult things to do, as you slip back a little with every step you take, making it a Sisyphean task, but we endured. The top of the dune is about 170 meters high (around 560 feet). As we climbed, we watched the sky slowly lighten, clouds reflecting the golden light below. From the top of the dune, saw the bright orb of the sun peak out from behind other dunes and announce the day.

From there, we went on to Sossuvlei, switched into 4x4 vehicles, and had the option to either hike up Big Daddy dune or walk the salt flats. Six of us chose to take on Big Daddy, despite having just learned how hard scaling sand dunes is. I'd like to say we lived up to our Intrepid reputation and climbed the 325 meters to the top. The truth is, with the sun beating down and the sand slipping under our feet, two of us (me included) only made it to an early plateau before deciding to run down the steep side. Just 1 of our group made it all the way to the top. Either way, the scenery out there was gorgeous, red-orange sands contrasting perfectly with the blue sky, twisted trees that had tried and failed to flourish in the desert, the stark contrast of light and shadow on the sides of the dunes.

We stayed a few days in Swakomund, a city on the coast of Namibia. There are a lot of activities available nearby, from sandboarding to sky diving and beyond. The two that I signed up for were quad biking through the dunes and sandboarding.
Quad biking was first, and the majority of our group went along. This may have been more people than should be taken out in a single group, but we tended to stick together. We had a guide on the lead bike and a guide in the rear, with 10 of us in between, of varying skill levels. It didn't take me long to learn that like most things, the faster you go, the more fun it is, including up and down hills. It's not necessarily easy to go fast when you are in the middle of a long single file line of bikes, but I took my opportunities when they came.

Sandboarding is snowboarding on sand dunes. Five of us signed up for boarding, and two more for what's basically sand sledding. Of the boarders, two were experienced snowboarders, and just had to figure out the differences with friction and probably other aspects I don't know enough about to comment on. I was in the group of newbies (I ski, which is not a transferable skill), who had to learn about waxing the boards and how to stand up once strapped in. So standing, weight toward my toes, I tried to go just a little ways, then fell forward onto my knees as the easiest way to slow down. The instructors told me I should really try going more than a few meters, so I got up and actually did okay for a little while before feeling like I was losing control and falling down again. That's pretty much how I went down the dune the first two times, and then had to hike back up the dune carrying the board between runs (the hardest part). After the second run, we all tried the sand sledding. They had big pieces of plywood that we lay down on, head first on our stomachs, aimed down hill, and flew down as fast as we could (there was someone at the bottom with a radar gun marking our speed). It's incredibly fun. Back at the top of the dune, I had one final run to do on my board. The instructor suggested I try some turns, and I thought, why not? He explained to me a little about shifting your weight back and forth, and in theory, it made sense. So I started down and tried to turn, and wiped out fantastically, sand down my shirt and coating my suntan-lotioned arms. Okay, no big deal, I got myself back up and headed downhill, feeling good, and since it was the last run, I gave turning one more try. This time I fully flipped myself, rolled down most of the rest of the dune, I had sand everywhere, my mouth, my ears, inside my clothes, in my hair, everywhere, and what's more, it kind of hurt. I had a bad crick in my neck for just about the whole rest of the trip (but at least I didn't get it from laying on the couch watching Netflix at a bad angle all day). Thankfully, we had a pretty good shower where we were staying, to wash most of the sand away. It's hard to get all the sand off when you've thoroughly rolled yourself in it.
As for the two who had experience, they did better than us newbies, but had some pretty terrific wipe outs as well, one that was deemed the most impressive of the day.

We made a brief stop at a seal colony on the shores of Cape Cross. Tens of thousands of fur seals call Cape Cross home, and we visited just a month after most of the babies are born. While they are fun to watch and the babies are adorable, the fishy smell is somewhat overwhelming, not something you soon forget (in part because it clings to your hair and clothes).

Outside of Grootfontein, we visited the San bushmen. The San are the oldest ethnic group in Namibia, and also occupy parts of South Africa and Botswana. They have adopted modern ways now, but for visitors, they show the old ways of their people, donning traditional outfits and showing how they would make fire, hunt with bow and arrow, and use indigenous plant life for medicine, food, or to poison their arrows.
The woman performed a traditional dance, and we bought jewelry they had made from natural materials. The people were all very kind and welcoming, inviting us to take pictures and join in their dancing. Later at our camp, some of the men tried to use the technique we'd learned to start a fire, but the most they got was a tendril of smoke.

Victoria Falls, the last stop of the tour, had the most activities to offer, particularly of the heart-pumping, adrenaline-rushing kind. On the day we arrived, we booked our chosen activities and then toured the falls.
Victoria Falls is unquestionably amazing, its breadth and power stunning to behold. I could only take pictures for part of the walk because the mists coming off the falls are so heavy, it's like rain, and I didn't want to get my camera wet. I made the brilliant decision to ignore all the advice I'd heard about rain coats and ponchos, and go along with tour leader Patrick's (likely joke) assertion that the mist would feel refreshing after a hot day's drive. So I was completely soaked.

Not that those with raincoats looked much more dry by the time we reached the far end of the path. 
Now I didn't personally take the helicopter ride to see the falls from above, but I'm including a shot from someone who did (thanks Sally!), because it better captures just how massive they are than can be seen from the ground.

As to the heart-pounding activities, I chose white water rafting (with category 4 and 5 rapids -these are very large) and the gorge swing. A couple of others did the bungee jump off the bridge that spans the Zambezi river near the falls.
We were visiting in the wet season, so the water was higher than at other times of the year, and this determines which of the rapids (out of 23 total) are on the route. But first, we had to climb the steep way down to the river and the starting point. Just before we reached the bottom, one of our group twisted her ankle. The tour guys did the best they could to wrap it (with instruction from the patient, who happened to be a nurse), and helped her into the raft, since she would be sitting, and it made as much sense as trying to get back to the top at that end.

With that early drama on hold for the moment, we were packed into our rafts (one of our group was added to a different raft that had an uneven number of people), and learned what terms the guides' used for different situations, and how to react. Our boat had some trouble rowing in rhythm together from the start. Also a little confusion with right and left. That may have contributed to us flipping over on the second rapid we hit (a cat. 4).

 I've watched the video, so I know a wave hit us at just the right angle to send us over. I got separated from the raft and had to swim back to them. That was easy compared to the woman who got trapped underneath and for a few panicked moments couldn't find her way to an air pocket. I'm very grateful that wasn't me, but the poor woman was pretty shaken up when we finally flipped the raft and got back in.
Fortunately we didn't flip again, we got that out of the way early. Only one raft with us did not flip at all, the one with our separated group member. There was plenty of splashing all around though, and part of the way down the river, I took up counting off to keep us all rowing together, which did seem to help. 
When we made it past the last rapid and landed the raft on shore, the problem of our injured group member resurfaced. The climb back up to the truck was even steeper than the climb down had been, 275 meters (about 3 football fields) up a cliff, with makeshift ladders in places consisting of branches tied together. Eight young men strapped our friend tightly to a spine board and managed to carry her the whole way up (she kept her face covered, not needing to see how this happened, but is aware she was sometimes turned sideways and sometimes vertical).

While we were rafting, two of our group were bungee jumping from the bridge pictured below, and love the experience.

A little further down river from the bridge was the spot where zip lining and gorge swinging launch. I watched a few other people jump before going myself, and was glad to get a sense of it first. Even so, standing on the platform above the roaring Zambezi River, I was terrified.

My harnesses were all attached, and a man was unhooking the anchor cord, telling me to jump. I wavered on the edge above an imminent 70 meter free fall, thinking the man was crazy, or I was for signing up for this.
I thought, 'No, push me,' but I don't think any words came out as I inched closer to the edge, and with a breath, jumped.

I tried to scream, but I had no air in my lungs as I plummeted down. Friends watching nearby said I kicked my legs the whole time like I was trying to climb back up through the air (I don't really remember). Finally, I reached the bottom of the cord and swung out across the water, now able to shout and laugh. This is what they mean by death-defying. After swinging for a minute, they reeled me back up, like a fish, my heart still pounding.

Intrepid kept me busy, and loving every minute of it. I recommend this tour and this company to anyone who wants to see what the world has to offer, but doesn't want to do it alone. I could go on and on about my amazing group and how much they contributed to the trip being so enjoyable, but it was also how well the tour was set up, the incredible places we visited, and the friendly and efficient crew.

In the next installment, I'll talk more about going solo in Cape Town.