April 2015 — May 2015
TWO WEEKS ON THE WILD SIDE IN SOUTH AFRICA
South Africa has always held special meaning to me. In 2001, I sang at the Canadian citizenship ceremony of Nelson Mandela, an honour I was too young to understand at the time. Fourteen years, a course in African studies, and three trips to the continent later, I think I would go weak at the knees if it were possible to meet Mandela again.
I flew into this country with a sound understanding of its political and cultural climate, but didn’t know what to expect from a two-week road trip down the Garden Route. South Africa is the richest country on the continent, but home to some of the poorest people in the world. It’s constitutionally pluralistic, yet apartheid remains part of its everyday reality. This would be the first touristy trip I had ever done in Africa, and I worried that the knowledge-hungry, perspective-seeking traveller in me wouldn’t get her fill.
I was wrong.
This trip was fulfilling in many ways, but not for reasons I would typically associate with travel in Africa. I didn’t learn a new language or uncover new truths through journalism, but my inner adrenaline junkie found new joy in shark diving, surfing, and trying to ride an upset ostrich. Despite my affinity for getting off the beaten track, I learned that insight doesn’t have to come from experiencing the extremes of poverty and privilege; Africa has more to offer than that. It’s okay to be a tourist every now and then, something I may have forgotten somewhere between Kenya and Sierra Leone.
I spent two weeks on the wild side in South Africa, and if you’re into adventure, I highly recommend this itinerary. This is a monster post but worth the read, especially if you’re planning a trip.
Day One: Nairobi to Johannesburg
When we picked up our bright blue Chevy Spark from the airport in Joburg, I knew it would be a challenging road trip. I rented the vehicle from Nairobi using a cheap but reputable aggregator called Angus Car Hire, not knowing it would barely fit our bodies, let alone our suitcases. South Africa’s roads are well-paved, but she quickly earned the nickname ‘Gutless Wonder,’ or as I liked to call her — GW.
Our first stop on the trip was Fordsburg Square, a bustling flea market with fabulous street food and the heart of Joburg’s Indian community. The bazaar takes up a full city block — a paradise for shoppers in search of knick knacks, Bollywood movies, costume jewellery, clothes, and cookware. We had our first encounter with South Africa’s unofficial parking attendants here, a work force of unauthorized gents in neon vests who hustle drivers into parking spaces and (often aggressively) demand cash for it. Though handy in a crowded lot— and I was happy to tip under such circumstances — I quickly tired of their persistence. They outstretched arms even in empty lots where I where parked myself, demanding payment by virtue of their existence.
We toured downtown Joburg next. I wanted to see the fancy, affluent part of town and compare it with my home-base, Nairobi. Struck by beautiful old architecture, skyscrapers and monuments (which looked fancy enough to me), I failed to realize we were in a dodgy part of town, and the upscale quarter of Joburg was 10 blocks in the other direction. Here, less than three hours after landing, my travel mate and I were mugged.
I don’t endorse resisting a mugging; no matter what your assailants want, it isn’t worth your life. In this particular circumstance however, we made a calculated decision: the thugs were unarmed, uncoordinated, slight in size, and they spooked fairly easily when we resisted. They didn’t seem to be experienced muggers, but rather opportunists. We chased them off a bit bruised, but otherwise unharmed, and with all our belongings intact. We were lucky, and glad we had left our passports and major credit cards locked at our hostel.
After the incursion, several passersby rushed to our aid and promised the thugs would be dealt with accordingly. Unfortunately, in Joburg that meant mob justice, and as one kind stranger assured me with a smile, “Don’t worry, we are beating them for you.” I prayed they wouldn’t kill anybody, but knew better than to get involved.
After taking a few moments to collect ourselves, we went on to explore a variety of bustling indoor markets, stocked sky-high with fruit, sweets and clothing. We took obligatory photos of statues, monuments and public spectacles, and a few hours later, came across a bloodied, barely conscious man on the street — probably one of our attackers. I felt overwhelmed with pity.
MELVILLE ON 7TH
Having had enough action for the day, we retired to Melville where we were staying, and tucked into a patio dinner at Xai Xai, a Mozambican restaurant on 7th Street. Sipping on Namibian beers, we watched the evening party crowd mix and mingle and the nightlife district come to life. Great vibes. Great food. Lots of character.
Day Two: Johannesburg
After connecting with other travellers over toast at our hostel, we made our way to the Sterkfontein Caves, part of South Africa’s Cradle of Humankind World Heritage Site.
Roughly an hour outside of Joburg, the caves are famous for the discovery of “Mrs Ples” and “Little Foot,” nearly complete Australopithecus skeletons dating back more than 3 million years. The glittering formations and infinite tunnels were surprisingly impressive, and tours run every half an hour between 9 a.m. and 4 p.m. for R160 per person.
On your way out, don’t forget to rub the metal bust of cave explorer Robert Broom holding the skull of an australopith. Choose between his hands, which offer wisdom, and his nose which offers luck.
Next we moved on to South Africa’s infamous slum, Soweto. The settlement is home to an estimated 1.2 million people and many of its townships rank among the poorest in Johannesburg. Soweto first came under global spotlight in June 1976 during a mass uprising over a government policy to enforce education in Afrikaans rather than English. Police opened fire on 10,000 students marching, whose bravery and sacrifice is now celebrated by International Day of the African Child.
Thirteen-year-old Hector Pieterson was one of the first victims, and the iconic image of his lifeless body (top right) has become a worldwide symbol of resistance to the brutality of the apartheid government. We visited his museum for 20R and caught up on the history of apartheid, the pushback from citizens, and the legacy of atrocity that lives today.
VILAKAZI STREET AND SOWETO STREET FOOD
Within walking distance of the Hector Pieterson Museum is Vilakazi Street, the only street in the world to have housed two Nobel prize winners, Desmond Tutu and Nelson Mandela. The latter’s home is open for public viewing at a price of R60, but we decided to admire it from afar as we strolled through the art stands, memorials, and restaurants. This part of Soweto has become rather touristy, and we stayed close to this safe zone out of respect for the privacy of its residents.
Not to be missedis TNP Fast Food, a gem of a food stand that sits at the bottom of Vilakazi Street.
Here, my friend enjoyed a ‘Vienna Russian French Chips Special,’ a sandwich made from hollowed out bread stuffed with cheese sauce, three kinds of sausage, french fries and hot sauce. A gooey cornucopia for meat-lovers, it’s worth trying for the novelty factor alone, even if you can’t stomach the entire sandwich.
THE APARTHEID MUSEUM
The Apartheid Museum is soul-stirring. We happened to visit on Freedom Day, so our R75 entrance fees were waived as we roamed exhibits on the life and legacy of Nelson Mandela. An activist and politician, Mandela helped crumble apartheid, bringing peace and equality to South Africa. He died a hero in December 2013 and his face now adorns street signs, keychains, mugs and t-shirts all over the country.
The museum enhanced and clarified my memories of meeting the man himself, but if you’re tight on time, I suggest choosing between the Hector Pieterson Museum in Soweto and the Apartheid Museum, as there’s some overlap on content. (Although, it’s pretty tough to say you visited South Africa and didn’t go to the Apartheid Museum).
“To be free is not merely to cast off one’s chains but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others.” — Nelson Mandela.
FREEDOM DAY FESTIVAL
We spent our last night in Joburg back in the downtown core, this time in a safer part of town. On this national holiday, the city put on an outdoor music festival and we enjoyed being among the buzz of the Joburg youth, who celebrated with drinking, dancing and spray painting. Johannesburg has spectacular graffiti culture, and I could make an entire photo album of these public mural photos alone. We watched the festivities from Niki’s Oasis, a dive of a jazz bar, great for grabbing a Soweto Cider or Soweto Gold beer. Here, I learned that a ‘chicken sandwich’ in South Africa is really a heap of cooked mayo in between bread with a small amount of chicken hidden in the white stuff.
Know Before You Go — Joburg
- South Africa is well-documented on Google Maps, and the GPS on your phone will get you around quite easily. No need to pay extra for GPS unit from your car rental service.
- Be prepared to pay three times more for a SIM card, data and airtime at the Joburg airport. If you have a plan ahead of time to get to a mall or mobile booth elsewhere, you’ll save a bundle on your bundle.
- Tipping the ‘unofficial parking attendants’ is not required, but keep in mind these are low-income folks trying to earn a living. Most are happy with any amount of spare change, and if they really do help you find a spot, I encourage you to be considerate (20R is appropriate).
- Drive on the left and don’t bend any traffic rules. Cops are active in South Africa, and frequently armed with radar guns.
- Leave your valuables (passports, jewellery, keys, credit cards, etc.) locked in your hotel room. Enough said.
Where to Stay
- HomeBase Melville is a charming hostel with friendly staff, wireless Internet, complimentary breakfast, parking and a swimming pool. I would consider this a ‘luxury’ backpackers, and we paid 450R (about $46) for an ensuite room. Two thumbs up compared to the powerless, spider-ridden Kenyan hotel I had stayed in for $6 the previous week.
Day Three: Johannesburg to Semonkong
Upon arrival in South Africa (and permission from our rental service), I decided to drive straight through Lesotho rather than around it, to Durban, as originally planned. This was FANTASTIC last-minute arrangement, and quickly became one of the highlights of the trip.
Click on the Lesotho page to read more.
Day Five: Semonkong to Chintsa
This was easily our longest and most ambitious day of driving, adding up to more than 12 hours in total. From the Makhaleng Bridge in Lesotho, we drove straight to Chintsa, our first point on the Garden Route along the Wild Coast. Our phones were now back online, and we booked our hotel room on the road.
Chintsa is a charming village in the Eastern Cape, located in the heart of traditional Xhosa territory. The area is divided by a river with settlements on both the east and west sides. We checked into the Buccaneer’s Lodge and Backpackers around 7 p.m. and were delighted to be met by a vibrant, friendly hostel full of travellers from all over the world. Our room offered a stunning view of beautiful white sand beaches, and we ended our day on a high note by watching the sunset with an all-you-can-eat burrito buffet.
Day Six: Chintsa
BEACHES, BEERS, AND VOLLEY BALLS
Having arrived too late the evening prior to book any excursions for the morning, we explored Chintsa’s unspoiled beaches and went for a dip in the Indian Ocean. The hostel’s dogs followed us to the water, jumping enthusiastically into the cold salt water waves. We later drove to the west side of the river and found a sign that read, “Xhosa Cultural Village.” I couldn’t help but smile — I had never been to a veritable, traditional village in Africa that formally identified itself as one. We did a quick walk around the area nevertheless, but because we hadn’t paid for a guide, we made sure to support local business by stocking up on water and phone credit at a nearby shop.
We then had a refreshing, affordable lunch at the Emerald Vale Brewery, where local fans avidly watched a rugby match on TV and refilled their glasses after every quarter. Having already enjoyed a tray of beers ourselves, we rushed back to the hostel in time for the evening activity: unlimited wine and volleyball. One thing led to another, and the rest of the day was a magnificent blur of sunset, spikes, and sauvignon.
Know Before You Go — Chintsa
- Depending on the kind of experience you’re looking for, the ‘authenticity’ of activities (think anything that labels itself as “cultural”) may or may not mean much to you. It never hurts to pay for a tour, which stimulates the local economy, but you may find that doing things on your own leads to a more original and genuine experience.
Where to Stay
- The Buccaneer’s Lodge and Backpackers is probably the most popular hostel in Chintsa, and for R480 we scored an ensuite room with a bay view. Make sure to call ahead and check on the availability of tours, and reserve your plate at the restaurant buffet. Parking included, breakfast not included.
Day Seven: Chintsa to Plettenberg Bay
SURFING IN JEFFREY’S BAY
We left Chintsa at the crack of dawn to make an early morning surfing lesson in Jeffrey’s Bay. The four-hour drive felt long after few hours of sleep and a few too many cups of wine, but we arrived in South Africa’s surfing mecca at the prescribed hour of 10:00 a.m.
We pulled into what was by far the funkiest hostel yet, the Island Vibes J-Bay Backpackers, where our surfing instructors were waiting with wetsuits. We carried our boards down the shoreline, passing colourful washed-up coral, a beached purple jellyfish, and a pod of dolphins showing off in the waves. After practicing on the sand for a while, we darted into the freezing water and took quite a pounding for the first 60 minutes. Despite the unusually aggressive waves however, both of us were standing up on the boards half-way through the lesson. Feeling victorious, we paid our R300 each for the two hours, grabbed a quick lunch at the hostel, and made our way to our next destination. Incidentally, not two months after we surfed in Jeffrey’s Bay, a surfer was attacked there by a Great White shark.
We made our way from the bright warm beach into the cool green forests of Storms River. A kind of mysteriousness seemed to hang in the air as we drove through ark grey mountains, whose peaks were shrouded by thick white fog. We breathed their wet mist as we peered over the famous Paul Sauer Bridge which arches over the river, providing rather intimidating views of the rock formations and depths below. Not wanting to stare too long, we snapped our photos and moved on to the village, where much more light-hearted, and less Stephen King-like activities awaited.
MARYLIN’S 60’S DINER
Storms River Village seems like a small, sleepy community until you get to Marylin’s 60’s Diner. Violent pink and home to an impressive collection of antique cars, motorcycles, and pop culture memorabilia, this groovy cafe is worth a visit just for the photos, if not the milkshakes. We had a blast trying on costumes, posing next to Elvis and Marilyn, and staring dreamily at the old choppers. There’s a great artisan souvenir shop across the road as well, which makes this a great little part of town to browse, eat, and have a few laughs.
SEGWAYS THROUGH TSITSIKAMMA FOREST
After making fools of ourselves at the diner, we made even bigger fools of ourselves on segways in Tsitsikamma National Park.
We had a quick driving lesson before zooming off on these goofy, battery-powered scooters to see a 1,000-year-old tree in the heart of the forest. We whizzed along the dirt path for while, then turned around for a quick tour of the Tsitsikamma township. We passed a beautiful mountain view, a few local homes, and were chased by their dogs back to the shop.
We paid R300 each for the one-hour adventure with Segway Tours, and while the forest itself was a bit unremarkable (forgive my spoiled Canadian soul for saying so), the novelty of the scooters made up for it.
One hour later we were back at the beach, this time in Plettenberg Bay, which is famous for Cape Fur seals, Great White sharks, and three or four species of whales and dolphins. We were now in South Africa’s Western Cape Province, marking a new leg on our journey. It was evening at this point, and all the fun beachside hostels were full, so we checked into a very plain and simple backpacker called Amakaya. We took a walk through the lively town centre, and stopped for dinner at the first place with flashing lights: Ghillies Grill at Peroni Café. The seafood was decent and reasonably priced; make sure you order freshly caught hake, but pass if offered a Flying Fish beer.
We wrapped up the night with a walk on the beach, where tiny translucent snails were actively hunting for food on the sand. Feeling sick after watching a group of them collectively impale a wriggling fish, we called it a night and went to bed.
Day Eight: Plettenberg Bay to Knysna
I woke up tired once again. Rooms at the Amakaya are close together, which meant we were privy to the riot kicked up by our neighbours watching a boxing match on TV till 4 a.m. After toast and coffee, we hit the beach for our ocean safari, booked through Ocean Blue Adventures for R450 each. We were hoping to see humpbacks, wright whales and dolphins, but only caught a glimpse of the latter from rather afar. We did get close to the Cape Fur seals though, and learned that there are more than 2,000 of them on the Robberg Peninsula alone, which makes good bait for the Great White sharks.
After the boat ride, we returned to shore for lunch at the Plettenberg Bay Ski-boat Club, before getting back in the water on a Sea-Doo. This was a last-minute decision, and we simply asked around the docks if anyone had one they could rent for the morning. We ended up paying R450 for an hour or so (a bit steep if you ask me), but had a great time throttling out over the powerful waves of the Indian Ocean. We hit one straight on by accident and nearly flipped ourselves six feet in the air. Satisfied and completely soaked, we went back to the beach to browse craft stands, and sand castle art before hitting the road to Knysna.
Less than 40 minutes later, we pulled into another Island Vibe Backpackers, this time to spend the night. The Knysna edition wasn’t quite as funky as the hostel in Jeffrey’s Bay, but it was two steps up from the Amakaya, and we were thrilled.
Knysna is the “Pearl of the Garden Route,” the luxurious kind of town one hopes to retire in if one has money. We drove around admiring the piers, scenery and sunset, having given up on finding the Judah Square Rastafarian Village just south of the main town (but we did find this amusing sexual ed ad on the way).
Our day wrapped up with dinner at the sparkling Knysna Waterfront Quays, a series of fancy boutiques and chic restaurants that light up at night over the water. Thinking seafood was an appropriate choice, we chose to eat at the Ocean Basket, but ended up regretting not trying the zebra fillet at JJs Restaurant next door.
Know Before You Go — Storms, Plett & Knysna
- If you stay in one Island Vibe Backpackers, you get a 10 per cent discount at its sister locations in Knysna and Port Elizabeth.
- If I could do the trip again, I would book a swimming with seals tour rather than the ocean safari, which was a bit expensive, and a bit boring.
Where to Stay
- The Amakaya Backpackers in Plett is a clean, friendly hostel where R400, gets you a private room with a double bed, complimentary breakfast, parking and WiFi. There are no ensuite bathrooms however, space is tight, and it lacks the feel-good vibes of some of the other hostels. I recommend the Backpackers Beach House, which is much nicer and only R90 more per person.
- The Island Vibe Backpackers in Knysna has a great scene, a good bar, and down-to-earth staff. We paid R450 for a double bed with an ensuite bathroom, TV, and parking. Breakfast not included.
Day Nine: Knysna to Oudtshoorn
SHARK DIVING IN MOSSEL BAY
I didn’t know it was possible to have so many feelings at once: Fear, anxiety, excitement, curiosity, panic, hysteria. My brain felt detached from my body, which sat oddly still on the drive to Mossel Bay where we would cage dive with fiercest fish known to mankind. Apart from a sharp intake of breath every now and than, I showed no evidence of the shit storm within.
I’ve been afraid of fish since I was little — dolphins, tuna, minnows, lake trout — even my pet goldfish scared me. I’ve always loved swimming, but hated open water for fear of touching something that swims. Surfing in Jeffrey’s Bay was terrifying enough, yet here I was on a boat in a wetsuit ready to jump in with Jaws. The crew dropped seal oil into the water, drawing the beasts close to the custom-built, 11-metre motor cat. I slid into the cage with the first round of divers only to find two-inch bite marks covering the bars.
Within minutes, four massive Great White sharks were circling the barge, which now looked more like a glorified tugboat. Each was three to four metres in length, and taking turns following the bait. ‘Divers down!’ shouted the captain, and we dunked our heads below the surface to catch a glimpse of the steel-grey killers. They snapped at the buoys attached to the cage, and locked their teeth on the bars. I was hooked (pun intended), and after a good half-hour in the water, I asked to go in again when everyone else had taken their turn. The adrenaline of being next to the sharks was addictive, unlike the intense fear I felt for the foot-long catfish that swam through our cage in search of scraps.
To say the entire experience was thrilling would be an understatement. White Shark Africa, the spectacular company we went with, has a 100-per-cent safety record, and does an incredible amount of work to study and preserve these incredible animals. We paid R1,350 each for our half-day tour, which included breakfast, lunch and snacks.
Needless to say the rest of our day was rather anticlimactic; we moseyed around Mossel Bay, did a short hike, and grabbed a quick sandwich at Karen’s in George before making our way to Oudtshoorn. The evening was spent acclimatizing to the dry weather of the Klein Karoo, a semi-desert region of South Africa famous for farming large Somali ostriches. We wandered around town until we found a place that served these large birds, and ended up ordering an ostrich meat stir fry. It was almost identical to beef in appearance and taste, but a much leaner, and quite pleasant.
Day 10: Oudtshoorn to Swellendam
It was the perfect morning to ride an ostrich. Having conquered Great Whites yesterday, I was looking forward earning my chops on the biggest, fastest bird in the world.
CANGO OSTRICH FARM
Our day began at the Cango Ostrich Show Farm, where we learned about the life cycle and care of domestic ostriches, and met the great birds in person. For R85 each, we fed them, viewed the eggs and incubators, and eventually stepped into the ring to ride them. For the comfort of the ostriches, the farm imposed a 75kg weight limit, and pulled everyone off after about 30 seconds on the sand. It was a bumpy, awkward riding experience, but fun in a goofy sort of way. It’s one of those things you know is unenjoyable for the animal, but difficult to resist trying just once.
After the farm, we drove to the Cango Caves for an underground tour of the limestone ridge that runs parallel to the Swartberg Mountains. We opted out of the tunnel-crawling adventure tour to save time, and joined the R85, 1-hour heritage tour instead. Remembering the Sterfonktein Caves fondly, we descended a well-lit staircase into the dripstone caverns. We were disappointed.
The geological formations, though marvellous, seemed too well-manicured with switches, pot lights and fake artifacts. Curators had all but laid down a red carpet for tourists to walk on, and it appeared as the formations themselves had even been touched up somehow. Craving a more raw experience, we decided to make better use of our hour despite have already paid. We told the tour guide we felt sick, and skipped forward to the exit. Turns out we wouldn’t have missed much.
We made up for the caves with a hike to the Rust-en-Vrede waterfall, hidden at the foot of the Swartberg Mountain 18 kilometres north of Oudtshoorn. We walked a short distance through ferns and undergrowth to the base of these falls, which stem from a spring on top of the mountain. We considered going for a swim, but the pool’s freezing temperature forced us to reconsider. After snapping a few photos, we hiked our way back to the R328 and made our way to the Cango Wildlife Ranch.
CANGO WILDLIFE RANCH
Despite having lots of exposure to African animals, I was pleasantly surprised with what this colourful zoo had to offer. We paid R140 each for entrance and spent a few hours in six different exhibits full of bizarre and exotic creatures. Highlights included rare white lions, the strangest pig I have ever seen, an albino porcupine, and a group of very bold parrots. We wanted to pay extra to cage dive with crocodiles, but decided against waking them up from their nap on the ledge of their swimming pool.
RONNIE’S SEX SHOP IN BARRYDALE
We drove through desert, mountain, and forest on our way to Ronnie’s Sex Shop, a popular pit stop for tourists in Barrydale located off of the R62. The story goes that its owner, Ronnie, wanted to sell fruits and vegetables, and painted the words ‘Ronnie’s Shop’ on his cottage. One night, his friends played a prank on him by adding in the word ‘sex,’ thinking it would attract more customers to the veggie stand inside. It worked, and eventually Ronnie converted his shop into a bar, which is now covered in bras and panties from female fans all over the world. We stopped for a quick chat with Ronnie, downed a lime green ‘Springbok’ shot at the bar and carried on our way to Swellendam.
Our day ended with a fabulous meal at Mattsens Grill, a charming steakhouse in Swellendam decorated with antique dishes, picture frames and ceramic vases. The entire town experienced a blackout that evening, so we enjoyed our food under the glow of oil lamps.
Know Before You Go — Oudtshoorn
- If you’ve seen the Sterkfontein Caves in Joburg, you may want to skip the Cango Caves in Oudtshoorn. Similarly, you could give the Rust-en-Vrede a miss if you plan on hiking in Swellendam, where the waterfalls are much more impressive.
Where to Stay
- The Backpackers Paradise and Joyrides is an older hostel in Oudtshoorn with a vintage vibe, a communal kitchen, free WiFi in the lounge, and parking. Ask the staff to draw you a map of the town’s attractions, which will help you plan your day efficiently. R480 gets you a double bed with an ensuite bathroom and creaky floorboards. Breakfast not included.
- We enjoyed our stay at the Swellendam Backpackers Adventure Lodge, a charming inn run by a local family, their retired greyhounds and grumpy cat. Make sure you check out the hiking guide in the kitchen, which tells you everything you need to know about the length, difficulty, and scenery of each of the hikes in the area. Double ensuites start at R410, breakfast not included. Sometimes the power goes out, bring a flashlight.
Day 11: Swellendam to Stellenbosch
MARLOTH NATURE RESERVE
We spent our morning exploring the depths of the Marloth Nature Reserve —14,123 hectares of stunning flora and fauna tucked inside the Swellendam Mountains. We bought an R40 day permit, and started with a two-hour hike to the sparkling, three-tiered Duiwelsbos Waterfall. This was a much more challenging climb than our hike in Oudtshoorn, and accordingly, the scenery was twice as beautiful. We saw a small, dark antelope dart through the forest, an animal that to this day I haven’t been able to identify with online research. Unfortunately, it was too quick to get a picture, but from what I recall it resembled a lesser kudu, which is indigenous to East Africa.
WINE COUNTRY AND GORDON’S BAY
We were finally starting to feel comfortable in the Gutless Wonder as we drove through the warm yellow vineyards of South African wine country. We had lunch and beer at the Birkenhead Brewery, which offers a stunning view of the Klein Rivier Mountains, in addition to a top-notch homemade lager.
Next we stopped in Gordon’s Bay, a picturesque little harbour town where visitors are welcome to walk the shoreline, watch the fishermen, and catch a whiff of the ocean breeze (more accurately, get soaked if you’re standing anywhere near the docks).
COCKTAILS ON CAMPUS
If you’ve ever wanted to relive your college years, Stellenbosch is the place to do it. Apart from our clear lack of fashionable attire, we managed to blend in fairly well with a crowd of dressy university students drinking the bars dry on a Wednesday night. We had dinner at Cubaña, a vibrant latin restaurant where hookah was served with not one, but six bar rail shots for the cool price of R70, and hopped around to a few different pubs, admiring the blazers, pointed shoes and overpriced beers on tap.
Know Before You Go — Stellenbosch
- Call ahead for a free tour of the Birkenhead Brewery; our request was too last-minute and we missed out.
Where to Stay
- The Ikhaya Backpackers Stellenbosch is right in the heart of town within walking distance to all of the shops, restaurants and bars. You pay a little extra for the location here, and because we booked last-minute, got caught with a whole studio ensuite apartment at R590 per night. Needless to say we had lots of space, free WiFi, and a protected parking spot.
Day 12: Stellenbosch to Cape Town
After an expensive and disappointing gourmet waffle breakfast at Time Out in Stellenbosch, we hit the road for Cape Town, the final destination of our road trip. We arrived around 11 a.m. and checked into the most terrifying hostel I have ever seen. The Lenox Guesthouse, whose walls are covered in butterfly stickers, paper flowers and cracked mirrors, looked like the set of a horror film about murder in a boarding school. Paint peeled off of walls in the hallway (probably a hasty attempt to cover blood stains), and lights flickered along the dark path to the leaking bathrooms. And it wasn’t even night yet.
Eager to get out of the haunted hostel, we spent the rest of our day wandering central Cape Town, enjoying the hubbub of ‘The Mother City.’ Cape Town is the legislative capital of South Africa, the third most populated urban area, and famous for its harbour along Table Bay. We could have spent our whole afternoon touring (and paying lofty entrance fees) for the city’s historical attractions (think House of Parliament, Slave Lodge and Castle of Good Hope), but chose to admire them from the outside instead, and read about them as we passed.
The City Bowl of Cape Town is so vibrant and alive, we didn’t want to miss a beat while locked up in museums all day.
Take your time walking up and down Long Street, a world famous bohemian frenzy of coffee bars, exotic restaurants, book stores, backpackers, craft markets and old Victorian architecture.
It’s the heartbeat of Cape Town culture during daylight hours, and the heartbeat of the party scene at night. The entire stretch is 3.8 kilometres, and delightfully rowdy from start to finish.
TWO OCEANS AQUARIUM
After browsing Long Street for an hour or two, we visited the Two Oceans Aquarium (the one attraction we did pay for that day, R118 each) to touch slimy things, see penguins, ragged tooth sharks, and hundreds of other species of fish indigenous to South Africa. This was mostly at my insistence — despite being afraid of fish, I find them irresistible and fascinating when there’s a glass barrier separating us.
The aquarium was a quick stop, and we arrived at the Victoria and Alfred Waterfront just in time to catch the sunset. The waterfront is home to more than 80 different eateries, 450 stores, a food market and a diamond museum, which makes it a great place to relax, have a drink and watch people walk by.
We visited the bronze sculptures of South Africa’s Nobel Peace Prize laureates in Nobel Square, peered through the bars of a life-size model of Nelson Mandela’s Robben Island prison cell, enjoyed the absurdity of the street performers, and watched the iconic Cape Wheel light up at night.
We settled on dinner at Mitchell’s Waterfront Brewery, and watched the harbour boats bob up and down in a truly sweeping view of the Atlantic Ocean. Believe it or not, we even managed a good night’s sleep in the eerie Lenox Guesthouse.
Day 13: Cape Town
Thrilled to wake and find ourselves alive and well (as opposed to stabbed or possessed by whatever haunted the hostel), we made our way to Boulders Beach, a protected marine area in Table Mountain National Park.
The beach is home to a breeding colony of more than 2,000 endangered African penguins, and has featured in several documentaries about Great White sharks in addition to these adorable, little flightless birds. We splashed around on a beautiful walk through the granite boulders and rock pools, and soon found ourselves face-to-face with a group of tiny tuxedoed penguins.
We took a few photos, and then heard voices coming from above the rocks. We quickly realized there was a designated boardwalk for visitors, and by complete accident, we had used the wrong entrance and trespassed into the protected zone. We did feel guilty, but couldn’t quite bring ourselves to regret it: The mistake got us into the beach for free, and a miraculous private penguin encounter.
SURFING IN MUIZENBERG
We had so much fun in Jeffrey’s Bay that we decided to surf again at a quiet beach in Muizenberg, also known as the ‘Birthplace of Surfing in South Africa.’ Muizenberg is roughly 30 minutes outside of Cape Town, where the shore of the Cape Peninsula curves to the east on the False Bay coast.
We paid R260 each for full-day rentals from Surfstore Africa, and hit the waves with confidence gained in our first lesson in Jeffrey’s Bay. Once again, we found ourselves able to stand up on the boards, and on occasion, rode them all the way to the shoreline. Further up the Atlantic, this water was considerably colder than any we had experienced, and we tapped out within a few hours, with the taste of salt water still in our mouths.
It was nearly 5 p.m. by the time we got back to Cape Town, and we rushed through traffic to Table Mountain to reach the peak before dusk. We paid a lofty R225 for a roundtrip cablecar ticket, wishing we had planned ahead of time to hike the mountain at least one way.
Table Mountain is perhaps the most iconic landmark of South Africa: 1,086 metres above sea level, it’s home to more than 1,000 floral species found nowhere else in the world. The view was breathtaking under the yellow glow of sunset, and though expensive, this attraction is not to be missed. We took some daring photos at the edge of the cliffs, made friends with a mountain hyrax, and savoured the last few hours of our incredible two-week road trip.
LONG STREET AT NIGHT
Our final night in South Africa ended as any vacation should. We had dinner at the Beerhouse, a bustling bar on Long Street equipped with 25 taps, and 99 of the best local and international brews. We were thrilled to find bunny chow on the menu, a local dish we had been meaning to try for the last two weeks made from a hollowed-out loaf of bread stuffed with bubbling yellow curry.
Long Street is the beating heart of Cape Town’s nightlife; a veritable smorgasbord of lights, music, people, and pubs. We spent the rest of time hopping back and forth between it all before turning in at the Carnival Court Backpackers. This hostel, located in the centre of the action on Long Street, is rated among the top 20 party hostels in the entire world, and our room was directly above the backpacker’s bumping electronic music bar, which didn’t stop pounding until 5 or 6 a.m. We stayed there for the experience, and not because we expected to get a wink of sleep.
Know Before You Go — Cape Town
- I managed to book this entire trip virtually on the fly, calling a anywhere from two days ahead to only a few hours ahead to book hotel rooms, tours and excursions. Not having anything set in stone gave us flexibility in our itinerary (to do last-minute destinations like Lesotho and Stellenbosch), and meant we could incorporate tips from other travellers we met along the way. Keep in mind whether you’re travelling during high or low season, which will affect availability.
Where to Stay
- The Lenox Guesthouse was probably the least comfortable hostel we stayed in, but it’s not unhygienic and the location is good. If all you need is bed and a bathroom, and you’re okay with old and creepy, this will suit you fine. R400 for a double bed, a home-cooked breakfast, and parking.
- Carnival Court Backpackers is right in the heart of Long Street nightlife, and probably worth staying in for the experience alone. The building is old, the bedrooms are small, there’s no ensuite bathroom, and you won’t sleep a wink, but you’ll be able to tell all you’re friends you stayed there. R450 for a double, no parking or breakfast.
Day 14: Cape Town to Nairobi
I had now touched all four corners of Africa: Morocco to the north, Kenya to the east, Sierra Leone to the west, and finally, South Africa. The 17-year-old version of me, eyes desperately glued to a map of the globe during world issues class in high school, never would have believed it possible.
As we pulled into Cape Town International Airport airport, our last ride in the faithful Gutless Wonder, I once again found myself buried in reflection on how remarkable my life has been. The recipe to my journey is simple however: Two parts privilege, one part personality.
I was born in a developed country with every resource available to me — all I’ve ever had to do is reach out and take advantage of it. I would never belittle the ambition, hard work, courage, and persistence I’ve put into my career so far (I worked four part-time jobs to pay for university), but I recognize that I owe a lot to privilege awarded to me by circumstance.
In fact, this privilege slapped me in the face when we landed in Nairobi as a gang of illicit airport cabbies sped off with our bags in the trunk of their car. How fitting that this road trip should start and end with robbery, but lucky for us, security witnessed the whole event and arrested the co-ordinator of the attack. Our items were returned to us, but I hate to imagine what happened to the perps, now undoubtedly behind bars in a Kenyan jail cell. I’ve had too much experience with Kenyan police to believe he was let out with a fine and a warning. Fourteen days, 30 hours of driving, and one hell of an adventure.