I’ve been home for almost two weeks now, and while I don’t feel like I’ve experienced “reverse” culture shock, it seems as if my time in South Africa almost never happened. It’s almost as if I’ve re-integrated myself back into my summer-at-home life TOO well. Of course plenty of people have been excited to hear about my adventures and I’ve been just as excited to recount them, but there’s no way I can impart to them the full experience. No picture I show will do justice to the beauty of Table Mountain at sunset. No story I tell them will fully capture our wild spring break travels. Oh well, time to stop moping and start saving up money to go back. With that I present a list in no particular order of everything I’ve missed so far about Cape Town and South Africa.
We had some good times, you and I, Cape Town. We’ll meet again someday.
Part 1 ended with Ashley, Caitlin, Laura, Nadia and I passing out at our campsite at Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe, after a long day of nonstop traveling. But there’s no time to lose! After a short nap and some PB & N (peanut butter and nutella) sandwiches for lunch, we head off to see the falls. To preface, I didn’t even know Victoria Falls existed until I got to Cape Town and other Americans started talking about it as a popular Spring Break destination. Even after hearing all the hype, I was feeling kind of indifferent—I was excited to go, but I had seen some pretty fantastic waterfalls in Veracruz. Well, it turns out Victoria Falls was voted one of the natural wonders of the world for good reason. This waterfall is MASSIVE: over 350 feet high and over a mile wide. Its native name is Mosi-oa-Tunya, meaning “Smoke that Thunders”, and it’s easy to see why—so much water falls into the gorge that a giant plume of mist can be seen from miles away. As we walk along most of the length of the waterfall we get soaked just from the spray being thrown up by the force of the falls. On top of that, there are double rainbows everywhere. We couldn’t have chosen a more perfect day to experience Victoria Falls, and as we return to our tent that evening we go to sleep satisfied (albeit slightly cramped).
The next morning we wake up early in order to go on an elephant back safari. We get lucky and have all four elephants to ourselves—Caitlin and Ashley ride the biggest one together, and the rest of us get our own elephant and guide. It’s amazing to be so close to these enormous creatures, and we basically just ride around through the bush for an hour as the sun rises. After feeding and posing for pictures with the elephants, we head back to our campsite for lunch and (another) nap. We then split up for the afternoon: Ashley and Caitlin do the “adrenalin package” which includes a zip line, “flying fox” (like a zip line but on your stomach), and gorge swing; Nadia and Laura do just the zip line, and I go on a lion walk. As much as I love zip lines (and after seeing pictures of Ashley and Caitlin, I really wanted to do the gorge swing), I figured I should take advantage of the fact that there are so many opportunities to encounter wildlife in Africa. The organization that runs the lion walks has a 4-stage process that takes lions bred in captivity and helps them become accustomed to the wild so they can be released without any dependence on humans. The first stage is just to help young lion cubs become used to walking around the bush, so they have tourists and volunteers accompany them. Along with a small group of other tourists, I get to walk around with two 8-month old lion cubs, a brother and sister. They act like any other young kittens, running and playing and fighting, with the small difference that these kittens can eat my face off. It’s almost surreal being able to pet and scratch the bellies of these soon-to-be-kings of the jungle. By the time I’m done playing with African predators, everyone else is on their way back from a sunset cruise on the Zambezi river not too far away from the falls. After swapping stories we again fall asleep relatively early, wishing we could spend more time at Victoria Falls.
Another early morning comes as we pack everything up and grab a taxi back to the Zimbabwe/Botswana border. As we walk across the border, we reach an unexpected roadblock: a troop of baboons and a warthog family are just chilling on the road. The same road we need to cross. Great. As we huddle together and head towards them, they don’t bother us, but they don’t exactly run away either…they just make room for us to walk along the road and stare at us as we go by. A couple baboons follow us from a distance for a moment, but they’re soon out of sight and we proceed to the lodge where we left our car. Never has there been a bigger collective sigh of relief than the moment we walk through the lodge gates and see our beautiful Audi sitting right where we left it (through as we talk to the lodge owner, we discover that an elephant got dangerously close to trampling the car one night and had to be chased away with BB guns). And we’re off!
Another uneventful day and night of driving await us as we set our sights on Kruger National Park…or so we think. Maybe an hour after leaving Kasane, the Botswana border town, just enough time for us to get out into the middle of nowhere, Laura is driving and the rest of us are starting to doze off. This is a pretty pothole-ridden road, and we had been pretty good about avoiding potholes previously, but all of a sudden a giant pothole the width of the lane looms ahead and we hit it head on, going over 70 mi/hr. As we all jolt awake we can instantly tell something is wrong and we pull over. Sure enough, the front tire is popped. This is not good. Ashley takes over, having been the only one of us who has replaced a tire before (making me feel pretty un-masculine). However, the front tire seems to be quite firmly stuck onto the car and is not coming off. We’re not sure if it’s just rusted onto the axle or if we did something wrong removing the bolts, so after we take turns trying to pull the tire off in vain, we flag down a man who has a little hammer he uses to tap the wheel off. Thank you stranger! Ok, so now we have the spare tire on but we need to find somewhere to buy a new tire—there’s no way we can complete our trip on a spare. It would also be nice to get as good a tire as we can so that Hertz doesn’t notice that they gave us an Audi with 4 nice tires and we bring them back an Audi with 3 nice ones and a crappy one. And while the nearest town is back towards Zimbabwe, it’s way too small to have a decent tire shop…our best bet is Francistown, which is over 200 miles away. So at the 50 mi/hr speed limit the spare has…well, it’s going to be a long day.
We thankfully make it to Francistown right before the shops start closing for the evening and get a new tire. With that behind us, we continue our trek through the night. Man were we happy to cross the border back into South Africa—no more potholes, nonfunctioning credit cards, or cows in the middle of the road at night. 26 hours after leaving Victoria Falls, we arrive at the gates to Kruger National Park. Entering the park felt like crossing some kind of magical border: within five minutes of driving though the gate, we see hyenas, giraffes, elephants, impala, and baboons. And they all seem to take no mind that we’re driving through their home—we can practically touch all of these wild animals, they were so close. When we get to our rest camp we have a ton of time to kill before our sunset safari drive. Our rest camp, Skukuza, is one of the largest in Kruger, and the patio outside the restaurant overlooks a river meandering through the bush. It was nice to just relax for a while, take a nap, eat lunch, write down our adventures up to that point, and enjoy the beauty of Kruger. A couple of hours before sunset we get onto a large safari truck with about 15 other people and start driving around looking for wildlife. Over the next couple of hours we see (more) elephants, impala, giraffes, warthogs, snakes, rabbits (they were cute), and a rhino! Although the sunset was beautiful, once it got dark it was hard to find much else. I think our first day at Kruger left a great impression on all of us, and we couldn’t wait for our all-day private safari the next day. Our goal was to see all of the Big 5: elephant, rhino, leopard, lion, and water buffalo, and so we eagerly wake up early the next morning (there was a lot of waking up early on this trip…) to meet our personal safari guide, Vusi. It’s just the five of us in a small safari vehicle, and between 6 in the morning and 4:30 in the afternoon, we see an INCREDIBLE amount of wildlife just driving around southern Kruger. I have to start writing down all the animals we see because there’s no way I’m going to remember all of them: crocodiles, elephants, baboons, impala, cape vultures, kudu, klipspringers, dwarf mongoose, turtles, lions, leopard, water buffalo, vervet monkeys (more on those later), brown snake eagles, goliath herons, zebras, and giraffes. Wow. No wonder Kruger has the reputation that it does.
Just as an aside about these vervet monkeys…they’re pretty sneaky. While we were eating breakfast at a rest stop during our day-long safari, a monkey ran down a tree, grabbed Nadia’s sandwich, and ran back up. It happened so fast we hardly even realized what had happened. It gets better though: at the same rest stop, this time for lunch, a couple more monkeys basically attacked Nadia for no reason. Pretty sure she’s scarred for life now.
That evening we drive to Pretoriuskop rest camp for our final night of camping (spotting a cheetah along the way!). Although it’s not necessary, we wake up early yet again the next morning to try and spot some more wildlife as we leave Kruger, with pleasant results: water buffalo and a family of rhinos alongside the road. From Kruger it’s about a 5 hour drive back to Johannesburg, where we will stay the night before flying back to Cape Town the next morning. The drive itself is beautiful—at times it looks so much like northern and central California that I have a hard time believing we’re still in Africa. Jo’burg, on the other hand, not so pretty. Admittedly, we don’t exactly have time to explore the city, but what we see doesn’t impress us much (except for Ashley’s friend Marc’s high school, which basically looks like Hogwarts). We stay in a backpacker’s hostel pretty close to the airport, in some beds that sag so much they basically force you to sleep in the fetal position—but beds are beds, and after a week of camping we couldn’t help but pass out as soon as we lay our heads down.
The next morning as we prepare for our flight, we’re sad that we will have to go back to school in a few days, but at the same time we are incredibly happy to get back to Cape Town. After a week away, it honestly feels like I’m going home. The only regret is having to return the Audi…it’s been so good to us *tear*. So a couple hours later, the Great African Road Trip ends where it started: at Cape Town International Airport in the pouring rain. Victoria Falls, check. Big 5, check. Successfully drive on the left side of the road, check. Spend less money and have just as much fun as a guided tour, check. Not bad for a week-long road trip.
Again, pictures from The Great African Road Trip can be found here, but I’ll post some of the best ones soon.
Epic, adventurous, and crazy are all good adjectives to describe my one-week-long road trip through several southern African countries.
Spring Break, Fall Break, Whatever-you-want-to-call-it Break, the point is I had a week off from school and I wanted to TRAVEL! I had originally looked at some guided tours that started in Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe (one of the natural wonders of the world) and ended at Kruger National Park in South Africa, with a few sightseeing detours along the way. Unfortunately the costs added up to be way more than I wanted to spend so I started looking for alternative plans. I found a few fellow adventurers who were in the same boat I was, and SHAZAM a road trip was planned. Caitlin, Ashley, Laura, Nadia and I would simply fly to Johannesburg, rent a car, and drive through South Africa, Botswana, and Zimbabwe to get to Victoria Falls, then drive all the way back down to Kruger. Easy!
The day finally came, and we eagerly woke up early one Saturday morning to begin our journey. Admittedly we hadn’t planned every single detail of our itinerary, but that’s what makes road trips fun, right? Right??? We fly from Cape Town to Johannesburg, where right off the bat we’re faced with a frustrating bank lady who won’t let us exchange rand (South African money) to pula (Botswana money) and U.S. dollars (used in Zimbabwe). Whatever. We’ll just deal with that hurdle when we get there. We proceed to pick up our rental car from Hertz, where we are politely but very sternly informed that we cannot take the car into Zimbabwe, only through Botswana—in other words, we have to find some other way to get to Victoria Falls. Whatever. Another minor obstacle to be dealt with later. On the plus side, we got upgraded to an Audi A4 for free. I really don’t know what the heck they were thinking, giving a luxury car to a bunch of young Americans to drive across Africa, but hey, no complaints here.
I start off driving for the first leg of our trip, and while it’s pretty weird driving on the left side of the road, I DON’T CARE BECAUSE I’M DRIVING AN AUDI. We drive for a few hours before stopping in a small town called Polokwane for lunch and to buy food supplies (peanut butter and nutella sandwiches, yum). Caitlin takes the wheel, but unfortunately our GPS takes on a weird detour on some pothole-strewn side roads. A couple hours and one dead-or-at-least-seriously-maimed bird later, we’re back on track and arrive at the South Africa/Botswana border. As we exchange money at the most sketchy-looking shack ever right before the border, little do we realize exactly how little we know about crossing borders.
We drive up, a guard tells us to park and fill out a form, and I fill it out and bring it back to the counter with my passport and vehicle registration. We then proceed to the next point where another guard checks our vehicle. Or tries to check it at least, because we can’t figure out how to pop the hood. Seriously, it took us 10 minutes to figure it out. He then tells us we’re missing a stamp and to go back to the immigration counter to get it. We get the stamp, he waves us through, and we sit waiting for half an hour behind a giant trailer truck before finally crossing through to the Botswana side. As we pass through the Botswana gate, another guard confiscates our bananas and informs us that we also have to go through immigration and customs on the Botswana side. Really? Did you have to take the bananas?
Finally we’re through! It’s getting dark, but we decide to just drive through the night to make it to northern Botswana and the Zimbabwe border first thing in the morning. Our next obstacle: cows and donkeys, sleeping and awake, standing and strolling across the road in the dark. Thanks to Ashley’s terrific driving skills, we manage to avoid any accidents; however I’m pretty sure our hearts stopped every time a ghostly cow suddenly appeared in front of us. As we pass through Francistown and gas up the car around 10:30 at night, we brace ourselves: almost 200 miles of road lie between us and our destination, with basically zero civilization along the way. It’s going to be a long night. Although we see signs at various points warning us to watch for elephants and crocodiles, the only animal we encounter during that late night stretch is a baby deer of some sort. Which we promptly run over. (Accidentally, I swear!) Oh and we also saw what was either a Patronus charm or a kudu, freakishly ghostified by our headlights. I’m still leaning towards Patronus. It’s a long drive through the night, and we finally reach Chobe National Park early in the morning.
Our first surprise of the day as the sun is rising over the Botswana forests is ELEPHANTS! You know, nonchalantly crossing the road in front of us. No big deal. As tired as we all are, everyone starts to wake up as literally every 10 minutes we slow down to let elephants cross the road. Giraffes, baboons, warthogs, and vultures are added to the list as we drive around the small border towns of Kasane and Kazungula, looking for a safe place to keep the car while we cross into Zimbabwe to Victoria Falls for a couple of days. After trying the border station and the local police station, we finally find a small gated motel-like lodge that promises to keep the car safe. We wave goodbye to our Audi and WALK across the Botswana/Zimbabwe border, catching a taxi on the other side that takes us directly to Victoria Falls, where we check in to our rest camp and promptly take a nap at 9 in the morning, having travelled basically nonstop for over 24 hours.
Since this is getting a little long, I’ll stop here and post part 2 a little later. Pictures from The Great African Road Trip can be found here.
*Note: these facts were conveniently learned the day after nonchalantly walking through said sketchy African border through a pack of wild baboons and warthog mothers and babies.
DRUMS. That will forever be one of my memories of Orientation Week, or O-Week, at the University of Cape Town (it was actually more like O-weeks, but whatever). The very first activity UCT put on for us Semester Study Abroad students was a drum workshop. These guys were good enough to somehow get almost 600 students with drums to actually sound like we knew what we were doing.
The other fun part of O-Week was the few days that all the student clubs (called societies here). Like most universities, UCT has a diverse range of social, religious, sporty, cultural, and political clubs, ranging from the Wine and Cultural Society to the Cape Legion of Adventurers and War Gamers to a Capoeira club. The best part is that UCT pays the subscription fees for up to three societies for study abroad students, so I’m going to join Engineers Without Borders, the Ballroom and Latin Dancing Society, and fencing.
Unfortunately, O-Week is also when everyone registers for classes, and several factors combine to make registration a frustratingly painful process. First, the entire process is not electronic—it is all paper registration, meaning you have to get a form, get it signed by the right people, take it to another person to get another form which you will then have to take somewhere else, etc., etc. While this has the useful side effect of familiarizing students with UCT’s campus, it seems like a pretty inefficient system to a lot of us who are coming from schools where everything is done online. The second frustration involved specifically with the Faculty (or department) of Engineering is that they don’t publish the timetables of the classes until a couple days before our registration date. The resulting chaos that ensued after I found out that 3 of the 5 classes I had originally planned on taking were at the same time was not pretty to say the least. I finally got everything sorted out though, and am taking Mechanics of Solids, Dynamics, an introductory astronomy class, and Xhosa (an African language, more on that in the future).
As much fun as it was to have a 3-week-long vacation in Cape Town, I have to say I’m actually excited for school! I’m ready to finally do what I came here to do—learn! My engineering classes will definitely not be easy (especially with the finals counting for 60-75% of my final grade…) but with astronomy and Xhosa I think everything will balance out. TEACH ME, UCT.