Date of Trip: March 2014
Johannesburg is not really a tourist destination but known more as a connection to the rest of South
Africa and that is exactly what I did. Upon my arrival at the airport from Dubai, I immediately flew
down to Cape Town. Here I stayed at the Atlantic Point Backpackers in Green Point, just a short
walking distance to the Victoria & Alfred Waterfront. The ferry to Robben Island leaves from there
and that was the first place on my agenda to go to as it is a World Heritage Site. Nelson Mandela
served 18 of his 27 years of imprisonment there and his labor in the lime quarry seriously damaged
his eyes. The guide was a former prisoner himself so that made the tour especially meaningful and
it was also March 21 which is Human Right’s Day, now a public holiday in South Africa.
Cape Town sits in a natural bowl with the flat top of Table Mountain as a backdrop. The Cape
Peninsula to the south is a mountainous spine that juts 40km (25 miles) to the point and is named a
World Heritage Site due to it’s plant diversity.
My Baz Bus Tour van picked me up at the backpackers and took our group on a scenic day trip all
around the Cape Peninsula. We drove the harrowing Chapman’s Peak Dr to to a small fishing
harbor at Hout Bay and I browsed several of the crafts markets, then we visited the African Penguin
Colony at Boulders Beach near Simon’s Town. These braying penguins rule this beach and we
heard they can be quite the late night party animals. In Table Mountain National Park we
encountered some cocky baboons along the road and had a picnic lunch. At Cape Point we
climbed up to the lighthouse and then did a challenging hike up over the rocks to the Cape of Good
Hope which is the most SW point of Africa where the Indian Ocean meets the Atlantic Ocean.
There’s lots more I would have loved to do in Cape Town but I next flew off to Durban on the east
coast. The airport bus dropped me right off at Gibela Backpackers where the owner Elmar also
lived. He was kind enough to set up a driver to take me to Underberg very early the next morning.
From there I had another driver from Thaba Tours take me and 2 others up the Sani Pass to
LESOTHO, a landlocked country completely surrounded by South Africa. The Drakensberg
Mountains are the highest in Southern Africa and this area is another World Heritage Site.
It requires a good 4X4 vehicle and an even better driver to take this dangerous drive up a steep
mule track with numerous switchbacks and hairpin bends coming to the border at the 2,874 m
or 9,429 ft level. Lesotho is called the “Kingdom in the Sky” and it is a constitutional monarchy,
but we were only visiting a Basotho Village of stone circular huts with thatched roofs. In this high
treeless landscape seeing the men on horseback with their wool blanket shawls, it’s the way
I would envision Mongolia to look. Our hostess served us fresh baked bread from her hut’s dutch
oven fueled by burning cow dung. I bought a doll she had made and gave her a package of nuts
and a bag of popcorn which she seemed pleased with. We visited the highest pub in Africa for lunch
and I had a Maluti beer. The drive back down was even more harrowing but the views were
Back at Elmar’s after a long day, I relaxed with other travelers out by the pool lounge and we had
some Castle beers. There was a cool zen vibe to this place and I wished I could have stayed
longer. I only had time the next day to buy a Zulu necklace before flying on once more.
Coming into the Kruger Airport at Nelspruit is pure joy as it’s just a small delightful thatched roof
terminal yet flights come in from all over. My driver awaited to take me to Kruger Inn Backpackers,
about 1 hour away in Marloth Park. Allison and Cor are the owners of this small place and
welcomed me to my little thatched roof hut with it’s own bathroom. Marloth Park is a wildlife
sanctuary on the Crocodile River’s south boundary and between the 2 entrance gates of Kruger
National Park. Zebras, giraffe, warthogs and impala roam free here all along the road and even
into the driveway as they are not restricted by fence, but there is a fence further out to keep out
dangerous lions, rhino and buffalo.
Allison arranged my day trip game drive into Kruger and there were only 4 of us in the open safari
Land Rover plus the driver. We almost immediately spotted a leopard walking along the road,
usually that’s the one of the Big Five (Elephant, Rhino, Buffalo, Lion, Leopard) that’s the most
elusive. The size of this park is a staggering 19,633 sq. km or 7,580 sq. miles, but just as
staggering are the number of animals. Over 1 million impala and other types of antelope, 18,000
zebra, 5,000 giraffe, 3,000 hippos, 2,000 leopards, 2,800 lions, 9,500 wildebeest, 2,000 hyena,
3,000 crocs, 11,000 elephants, 27,000 buffalo, 7,000 white rhinos and 350 black rhinos.
I had been on safari in Kenya several years ago so this was a total different experience for me
driving through Kruger National Park and spotting these animals on just a single day trip for
only $75. ( I think it costs about that much to go to Disneyland and see make believe stuff).
There was a good viewing area set up to watch the hippos in the river. Hippos are Africa’s most
dangerous animals and they killed 1500 people last year (that are known of anyway). In spite of
how they look, they can move fast and their big powerful mouth can bite a person in half, they won’t
eat you, just kill you and leave you for the crocs to eat. This time of year the grass was too tall for
us to have spotted any lions, but we were successful in seeing many elephants, a couple of rhinos,
cape buffalo, wildebeest and our leopard plus many giraffes and zebras which are my favorites.
On another day trip I went to MOZAMBIQUE with 2 other people from a lodge close by. At the
border I was required to get a Visa and it was costly at $82. The area we drove through was
incredibly flat and not particularly scenic, the rural areas are very poor and lots of the children do
not go to school. Mozambique was colonized by Portugal in 1505 and after 4 centuries of
Portuguese rule they gained their independence in 1975. Two years later the country was in a civil
war lasting from 1977 – 1992. The official language is still Portuguese with little or no English
spoken. The capital city of Maputo has over 1 million people and the city infrastructure is incapable
of handling so much traffic or parking. We visited the historic train station and the big local market.
I watched a girl holding plastic bags of cashews over a candle to seal them. The whole city just
seemed kind of tired, sad and grubby to me with so much litter everywhere and I kept thinking that
it had so much potential to be beautiful because of the beaches. Just a good cleanup and some
paint would make a world of difference. But I was told the country’s economy, industry and tourism
is growing and the future is hinging on several major foreign investment projects, but, as with so
many of these countries, there’s strong hints of corruption in the government. There is a huge gap
between the very rich and the very poor with almost no middle class at all. I also was told just north
of the city the beaches are very beautiful and that the Chinese built a brand new airport there.
Mozambique was a place of contradictions for me. I did enjoy a wonderful seafood lunch with a
Laurentino beer at a beachside restaurant before we headed back.
The next day trip for me was to SWAZILAND with another guy from a nearby backpackers. Our
driver Nick was so much fun and he loves going to Swaziland instead of Mozambique for the day.
It’s a kingdom and one of the smallest countries in Africa at just 200×130 km or 120×81 miles –
about the size of Wales or the state of New Jersey. We visited a small Swazi Village of beehive
huts and these traditional homesteads are polygamous but each wife has her own hut. We enjoyed
their singing performance and danced with them. The official language is Bantu but English is
spoken. It was a British protectorate and gained independence in 1968. There was a variety of
landscapes from mountains with deep canyons to plantations of sugar cane, bananas & pineapple.
There is a big crafts industry here and many of the women earn money with their master weaving of
baskets and textiles, really beautiful work. There was a big candle shop with candles made into all
kinds of African animals and a recycled glass factory that made hand blown glass items. The shops
also had many wood and stone carvings and artwork. I just bought a small wooden African piece
and had a Sibebe beer with my lunch. We passed over a huge dam with a really impressive design
on our way back. The people here just seemed so happy and everything was so clean and litter
free. But…their HIV/AIDS level is the highest in the world, they say almost 40% of all adults are HIV
positive and the life expectancy is about 37 years of age so there are many orphans. Such sad
statistics for a beautiful country.
Back at my backpackers hut, Allison invited me to go on her group bush walk the next day as she is
one of the rangers at Marloth Park and the talk centered on plants and some really skanky spiders
in their webs. I also went on a long walk down the road myself that day and ran into a tribe of
cheeky monkeys. That night we had several more backpackers staying so they cooked on the grill
and we sat out and drank beers until late in the night. This 5 night stay was a good one with all the
ground I covered while here.
I got my transport back to the Kruger Airport and flew into Johannesburg or as it’s called Jo-burg.
Bob of Bob’s Bunkhouse was to come fetch me at the airport but when I called he was in Port Alfred
so he had me call his son, Darin who came over in his “bakkie” to get me. I took a walk with a gal
from Houston who had been working on a Habitat for Humanity build down near Cape Town and
another gal from Brazil and we got some food to bring back.
Bob and Joan’s place was just delightful and son Darin and his wife Maura were lots of fun so we
had a great time sitting around the bar and getting to know each other. The coke vending machine
was set up to spit out Hansa beers.
I booked a 7 day camping trip to Victoria Falls and back through Baz Bus and was emailed a pickup
time of 5AM the next morning, but they called Darin and told him I would be picked up at 6:15AM
instead. So when Bob and Joan returned that evening we decided to have some more beers with
them and stayed up quite late. I had repacked for this trip and decided to leave things behind at
Bob’s Bunkhouse because I would be back there after the camping trip. At 5AM the next morning
Bob woke me and said the van was outside to pick me up so I had to make a mad dash out the
door. The driver, David said it was not my fault and of course everyone else he was picking up also
was not ready so it was a long slow process. And, it wasn’t Baz Bus at all as they had outsourced
it to Selous Tours.
Needless to say we had a long drive ahead of us and a border crossing into BOTSWANA where we were to camp out in Khama Rhino Sanctuary.
Instead of arriving about 4PM, we were coming in at 9PM and weren’t even suppose to be driving into this place after dark.
We were bush camping and drove about 3km in and hit a big bump in the road and the camping
trailer hitch broke and it came off the van. Another van was behind us as these trips do caravan in
case of problems. So we had to set up tents in the dark and it was not a great start to this trip.
The next morning was spent ding-donging around with breakfast and dealing with the broken hitch
and we got off to another late start. We were moving along to Elephant Sands Campsites in
Botswana and were to be in by 4PM and got there at 6:30PM, just at sunset so we hurried to set up
tents. This was a great campsite near the watering hole for elephants and we did see several.
Also it had a bar and restaurant – things are looking better! At 11PM the generators are cut and do
not come back on again until 6AM. David decided we would leave very early so we had to break
down our tents and pack things up at 4:30AM in the dark.
We had a long wait to get our Visa’s for $10 at the border and were now crossing into
ZIMBABWE where we would be at a rest camp right in the town of Victoria Falls and it was a good
one with a poolside bar and restaurant. Just entering the town you see the “smoke that thunders”
which is the mist coming off these impressive over a mile wide waterfalls. It’s known as one of the
Seven Natural Wonders of the World and it is also a World Heritage Site. It’s not the highest or the
widest but the largest sheet of falling water in the world. After camp set up we went to see the falls
and walk all along them. Later we went on a beautiful sunset cruise on the Zambezi River.
The next whole day was free to do whatever we wanted. After walking through the African Markets
with their impressive stone and wood carvings, I walked out across the Victoria Falls Bridge where
I met a young Zambian man who escorted me to the ZAMBIA side and took me to the place where
the bungee jumps and zip lining could be arranged. No, I was not going to jump off a bridge
but I did decide I would zip line from Zambia to Zimbabwe. So for $35 I was launched off a cliff in
Zambia and zipped across the river and came out on a platform under the bridge on the Zimbabwe
side. (I dubbed it the ZIM-ZAM-ZIP) But first they put a “tatoo” on my arm with a green marker.
I jokingly referred to it as a form of identification for when they pulled my body from the river,
(if the crocs didn’t get me first). It was a nice smooth zip and after I made my way back across the
bridge to return the harness, I spent time with others at the bar overlooking the bridge drinking Mosi
beers as we watched the bungee jumpers. Later I decided to walk to the 1904 historic & charming
Victoria Falls Hotel where I had hoped to have high tea, but it was only set up for two people for
$30. So my second choice was to sit on the veranda overlooking the bridge and the mist of the falls
sipping Pimm’s and lemonade and in spite of my deet smelling, sweat stained camping clothes, I
felt like one of the elite. After a shower back at the camp site and another layer of deet, I enjoyed
some Zambezi beers at the bar.
So early the next day we broke camp and headed back across the border into Botswana to the
Thebe Lodge Campsite in Kasane along the Chobe River. This was another good place with a
poolside bar. Most of the group went out on a game drive but I was able to take a 3 hour river
safari instead which is something I had never done before. The animals come down to drink and
being on a boat we could get so close. The elephant families were such a joy to watch as they
played and rolled in the water and washed their babies. We drifted through grassy areas to sneak
up on crocs and we even crossed over to the NAMIBIA side of the river for a sunset cruise back
while drinking Namibian Windhoek beers. The next day we had another long drive to Palapye where we got into a really fun campsite for our
last night. The bar was very lively and some of the group played pool and darts, but I met an Irish
guy who had a hacky sack football game going and we were passing it around the room in a crazy
drinking game that involved everyone. Botswana has a beer called St Louis and there was lots of it
drank that night. I also got some cool bumper stickers for my “bakkie” and one says “What
Happens in Botswana, Stays in Botswana” and another “Botswana is Not for Sissies”.
Our last day driving back to Jo-burg was long but in spite of the rough start, the trip turned out
good. I wouldn’t recommend Selous Tours though as I think it would be better to just fly to Victoria
Falls. The second van that was following us was made up of several married couples and they did
decide to fly back from Victoria Falls and so left the caravan half-way through. It just meant half of
those in our van then moved to the other one and we all had more room for the long drive back.
So back at Bob’s Bunkhouse I was welcomed home by the family as we gathered once again
around the bar. The next day Cynthia (one of the “girls” aka the domestic help) washed all my
clothes and I hung them out in the sunshine. Joan then made arrangements for me to go see
Jo-burg and Soweto with a driver the next day.
I was taken downtown to Africa’s highest building and up to the 50th floor called the “Roof of Africa”
to get a look at the city in all directions. In 1886 the discovery of gold took the population of
Jo-burg from 3,000 to 100,000. Today the city has about 7 million and 73% are black. During the
Apartheid, blacks were separated from the whites and evicted from their homes and taken to
Soweto (SOuth WEstern TOwnships) outside the city. Due to a shortage of housing, many of them
ended up building shantytowns which still exist today. I did a walk through Shantytown with my
guide but I was very aware of these kind of places due to my work with Habitat for Humanity so
probably wasn’t as shocked as some would be. Soweto today is a mix of upper, middle and lower
class. We went to 8115 Vilakuzi St Orlando West in Soweto which was Nelson Mandela’s former
house and now a museum. This is where the man who changed the world returned upon his
release from prison. I also visited the Hector Pieterson Museum in this area named after the 12
year old student who was shot by police in the Soweto Uprising in 1976, then it was back to Jo-burg
and the Apartheid Museum. This was a dark time in South Africa’s history and so much of it has
been preserved in these museums. It reminded me of the fight for Civil Right’s that played out in
our South during Martin Luther King’s life.
As I readied to leave South Africa and it’s borders I reflected on visiting all these places. I had
traced some of the steps of Mandela’s Long Walk to Freedom. I saw animals that most people only
see in a zoo. I visited cultural villages and diverse landscapes from bush to beach to mountains.
I drank each countries beer and ate bunny chow (curry in a bread bowl), biltong (jerky), boerewors
(sausage) pap (cornmeal), bredie (stew), sosatie (kebab on a stick) ostrich pate and crocodile.
I learned that a pickup truck is called a “bakkie” (buckee) and a form of greeting is “Howzit”.
I learned one should never drive over elephant dung as it has thorns in it that cause flat tires.
Botswana has the largest concentration of game in Africa with over 200,000 elephants that do cross
the highway, but it’s the crazy cows (or as I dubbed them “Kamikaze Kows”) on the highway that
turn driving into an extreme sport.
Various currencies: a 10 South African Rand bill = US$1. The Swaziland Lilangeni and Botswana
Pula were pretty much the same rate while Mozambique’s Metical was 30 to a US$1.
Zimbabwe’s currency became worthless due to inflation and was abandoned in 2009. Hawkers on
the street try to sell old $100 trillion Zimbabwean paper bills as souvenirs. US$ are now used.
Malaria is present in Vic Falls, Kruger and Mozambique areas and I took Doxycycline tablets.
By hanging out with locals I got a better perspective about the country’s progress and heard their
concerns about the high level of crime and about anti-poaching operations. And in spite of the rise
of middle class blacks, racial inequality still exists and I saw that most whites still have black
servants. Travel should be a eye opening experience.
South Africa has some of the most friendly, warm and welcoming people I have ever met and this
was one of the best trips I have ever taken