Friday, February 23, 2007

Coast to Coast

I travel round the coast of South Africa reunited with and rejuvenated by my girlfriend Laura. Join us on a journey through time and space as we explore the vineyards of Stellenbosch, stumble across a huge herd of elephants at Addo National Park and get woken up by monkeys in Zululand…

AFTER NEARLY five months I finally see my girlfriend Laura again. She flew out to see me on February 9. Partly it was a holiday for her and a chance to see each other after a long interlude, but I also suspect she was checking up on me to make sure I was behaving myself and not up to any mischief.

Although I’ve been busy whale watching and trekking through canyons and getting sick and eating rodents I’ve really missed Laura. Especially the last few weeks when the date of her arrival approached I was getting really excited, apprehensive and even nervous.

She flew into Cape Town where I had been waiting for two days to meet her, staying at the Ashanti Lodge. I had to wait another two hours for her as the flight was delayed. As it landed I excitedly scanned the disembarking passengers to see her. After waiting a while and not making a visual on her, I made a visit to the toilet and came back to find she was waiting for me. Disaster. I had failed in my boyfriend duties of officially meeting her off the plane. No chance to display my sign that read ‘LAURA BENNETT (the one from Suffolk)’. She wasn’t annoyed however, but tired, and we neded to go back to the hostel so she could have a rest.

It was dismally raining that day in Cape Town and Laura reminded me I had not delivered on my promise of sun in Africa. “But it was, like, 35 degrees yesterday,” I stammered, to no avail.

The next day we hit the Waterfront and went up Table Mountain, although it was only clear to see anything for about 5% of the time we were up there, and that’s a generous figure. Still, what are you to do?


It has been nice to share a romantic meal with someone other than a Swiss army captain. Laura and I ate a lot of prawns and drank cheap Sauvignon Blanc, which tasted really rough, but get what you pay for at three quid a bottle in a restaurant.

From CT (that’s Cape Town, an abbreviation although I realize that by explaining that has taken more time than actually writing it in full) we made the short journey into wine country, staying at the robust Stumble Inn in Stellenbosch. Nice town. Very white. Forgot we were in Africa for a while.

We hopped on a wine tour with some English girls, an Afrikaan couple and a honeymooning American couple from Atlanta, Georgia. The guy worked for CNN and talked a lot.

The tour was cool. Lot’s of wine consumed, of course. We popped up to Fairview Winery in Paarl, a producer that caused a lot of controversy by basing their wine names on French regions with the additional theme of goats (they make goats cheese) e.g. they have wines called ‘Goat Rotie’, ‘Bored Doe’ and ‘Goats Do Roam’ playing on Cote Rotie, Bordeaux and Cotes-du-Rhone. Some French wine makers tried to sue them and lost, merely confirming what many people have long believed - that the French have no sense of humour. Fairview also have a wine called 'The Goatfather’, however I don’t think Francis Ford Coppola has been in touch.

Mr. Good

After the wine tour we went for dinner at a friend from school’s place. Nick and his charming girlfriend Kate are living in Stellenbosch at the moment, working bars and cafes, with the ultimate goal of going to Durban and catching the boat the to India. I think. Contrary to reports from some circles Nick did not perish on a refugee boat from Ghana, this time he flew to Johannesburg, saving him weeks on a boat and days in hospital. This Nick is of course the great Nick Good of Plymstock School, an old chum who was brave/crazy enough to go to Accra, Ghana from England OVERLAND. There aren’t too many tourists or backpackers in Burkina Faso, apparently. Nick got malaria on his trip, and once paid about 30 quid for a five minute phone call but what doesn't kill you... etc. I feel the experience may have been good for him.

The following morning my head felt several sizes too big, to quote Marv from Sin City. I vowed to stay off the wine for at least that morning and afternoon. We hopped onto the Baz Bus and made our way to Plettenburg Bay on the ‘garden route’. The Baz Bus is a famous backpacker minibus service that takes you door to door between hostels. Actually, that sounds kind of breezy. What actually happened is that the Baz Bus were an hour late picking us up, then we were delayed because they had overbooked the service and then we broke down and had to wait in a service station for about four hours for a replacement van from CT (which is Cape Town, remember). We should have taken a mini-bus taxi!

In Plettenburg Bay we stayed at Albergo’s which is very friendly and enthusiastically run. We were there for Valentine's Day and went to the beach, swam, larked about and ate at a lovely place called The Lookout, although we didn’t see any dolphins, which I had promised Laura. I said we’d see them in Coffee Bay later on in the trip. Then we headed to the hostel and lounged in hammocks for a while as we awaited the Baz Bus.

Heffalumps and other animals

Sadly, we hung around in ‘Plett’ for only a night, and were once again at the time-consuming mercy of the Baz Bus. Thankfully we arrived in Port Elizabeth, or PE (as it really is called here) only an hour or so late, at Jikeleza Lodge. It was a whole evening of traveling and we were pretty tired out. The guy who ran the lodge was a guy named Mike. I’m not prejudiced in this area but I’m always a bit on edge when someone says to me, “A marvelous thing happened to me in church today.” It turns out Mike is part of a happy clapping, nay, prog rocking Christian movement in PE which is divided into ‘cells’, which each have a leader. I am not making this up. But Mike was a cool guy, very friendly and helpful.

The next day was one of the highlights of my whole trip. If you’re in Africa you really need to see some wildlife. So we went on a trip to Addo National Park which houses up to 450 elephants. It was very exciting. At first we struggled to see any, but then our guide Peter got a tip-off and we turned around and headed for one of the park’s viewing points. We went through some wire door type thing where we were warned of the possible presence of lions, then walked for a few minutes up to a wooden fence. Upon looking out through the fence we could see an amazing and awesome sight. A massive herd of elephants, maybe more than a hundred, at one of the park’s watering holes. These are wild elephants, they are monitored by the park but not interfered with. It was a great sight to see.

One of the guides said it was ‘as good as Addo gets’, which I can believe. Laura was very excited as she loves ‘heffalumps’ and has quite a few cuddly furry ones at home. I have promised to get her a baby elephant for her birthday. On the way out an elephant ran across the path of the car. Awesome.

In the afternoon we went to Scotchia Private Reserve game park. It was very, very cool. Sitting in one of those open top land rovers we went through the big gates of the Reserve and into another world. Jurassic Park!

We saw beautiful kudu, impala and nyala (types of antelope), warthog, zebra, wildebeest, giraffe, buffalo and rhino. After some light refreshments we headed into the lion enclosure to see if we could spot the five cats they have there. We saw the new lioness and the three sub-adults but not the big daddy lion. He was hiding somewhere. Still, it’s exciting to be a car and not now what you’ll see or where you’ll see it.

So in one day we saw four of The Big Five (rhino, elephant, buffalo, lion and leopard). Not a bad day. On the way back to PE our guide Peter pointed out drug dealers and hiding behind lamp posts we saw prostitutes, Peter describing them as ‘walking AIDS’. It was like we were on safari, albeit a strange city night safari. We gave him a good tip.

After PE and the elephants and Mike’s ‘rocking for God’ organised cells we headed up to Coffee Bay, staying at Bomvu Paradise, a very relaxed place where there is tribal drumming every other night. It was a good experience, although we were molested by strong wind and sand on the beach.

We made traveller small talk so much it hurt my head. The where have you been how long are you travelling where do you go next questions annoy me greatly. Boring, boring, boring! If you're sitting with someone it's polite to chat to them but if you are only going share someone's life for fifteen minutes why not at least make it interesting? Ask them about the death penalty, gay marriage, peadophiles. Something interesting. I'm guilty of this superficial chatting as well, but try to do it as little as possible in any situation in life.

We were at Bomvu for a couple of nights (it could easily have been a week) and bought some of their clothes. On our second and last night we met a guy called Eric who was very drunk and had some kind of shawl over his shoulder. Officially he made drums at the hostel but he told us he was a fortune teller. It is unclear whether he was able to foretell his own unfortunate dismissal the following day for anti-social behaviour. We left Coffee Bay having seen no dolphins, but I promised Laura we would see them at Umzumbe, our next stop.


Umzumbe is on the KwaZulu-Natal coastline and is a lesser known hangout. We stopped for two nights at the Mantis and Moon which is my favourite hostel I’ve ever stayed in. As well as the usual things you hope for such being clean, safe, comfortable, friendly helpful staff, pool table – this place had it all. We slept in a treehouse where in the mornings monkeys would come and eat right outside the door, there was a rock pool, a Jacuzzi and a cool bar with poker playing facilities! Add to that it was all set amongst tropical type plants and the (empty-ish) beach was only a few minutes walk away. It was an awesome time. It doesn’t get much better than sipping beers in a Jacuzzi in Africa on a Monday afternoon in February.

One night myself, Laura and a couple, Dean and Jo, played some Texas Hold ‘em. At home I played almost everyday on t'internet, but out here I've only played a few times, once using tree leaves as poker chips. I was relishing the chance to get back amongst the cards. Well, after three hands Laura and Jo were both out and Dean and I played heads-up for the next hour. I thought I had him with a full house, tens and eights, but when we flipped over our cards Dean had exactly the same hand, forcing a split pot! I ended up short stacked and went all-in pre-flop with 7-4 of spades and wasn't surprised to lose to a pair of sixes. That lousy Dean! Afterwards Laura and I played. I won of course, but she has developed a skill at deception that I must remember to be wary of in future.

The only downpoint to the Matis and Moon, apart from leaving, was that I got savagely sunburnt. I creamed up, but must have missed a few spots. The sun here in summer is like when Schwarzenegger was up against the alien in Predator and has to cover his body with mud so the creature can’t see him. If some of it comes off, he’s dead. So I have random burns all over. Nasty. Laura didn’t fare well with the mozzies here either. She got some bad bites and they bruised and blistered and got all swollen up. It looked awesome but she wouldn’t let me take a picture.

The heat is on

From Umzumbe we moved onto Durban where I assured Laura we would finally see some dolphins.

We were in town for only one night but the temperature had moved up to nearly 40 degrees and Laura wasn’t coping well with the heat. After a spectacular meal at the Ocean Basket earlier in the evening she was sick. A lot. I was briefly panicked thinking it was the seafood, but it turned out it was just the heat and the prawns were as good as they tasted. It was a pity Laura only rented her food. The Sauvignon Blanc was still rough but again, for three quid... etc.

And so before we knew it the time to leave was upon us. We caught the SA Roadlink bus up to Jo’burg. Having seen no dolphins in Durban even I was skeptical of seeing any in Johannesburg.

Over here buses and plane flights between cities are incredibly cheap but taxis are ridiculously expensive. It cost us 100 Rand each (about seven quid) to bus from Durban to Jo’burg, a journey of seven hours, yet here in Jo’burg a ten minute shuttle to the mall costs the same amount. Madness. It’s because the different bus and domestic plane companies are in competition with each other, driving down prices. I said it cost R100 to bus from Durban to Jo’burg, well it only costs R219 to fly with Mango airways. Incredible.

So Laura flew home yesterday and suddenly I am very alone. After spending so much time with someone and then having them leave is a big shock. The leg of the journey with Laura is over. Was a bit quick, but that’s all the time we had. Another two weeks would have been perfect. Still, really enjoyed it.

On our trip we met some people who were travelling on round-the-world type tickets like myself, but were doing the whole south-east Asia thing, then Australia, New Zealand, LA and home. Again, for me this route is a little boring. Wouldn't you like to go somewhere where you tell people where you're going and they raise their eyebrows and look at you like you're a bit strange and ask 'isn't it dangerous?' The further out of the way you get (I'm thinking cramped bus rides in Lesotho and Bolivia here) the more interesting travellers you meet, I think. You don't have to go overland through Burkina Faso, but somewhere a bit more intersting than New Zealand. It's just like the Lake District in Cumbria, you know. And it's got some bad places. Mordor is pretty rough. The coast of South Africa is lovely but very safe, especially if you are travelling on the Baz Bus, I think that's why you get more girls than guys travelling that area.

Wow, where did that rambling come from? Ok, I'm off my soapbox now. Asia is undoubtedly beautiful. Go there!

I am staying at the Purple Palms lodge in Jo’burg, just hanging out, plotting my next move. I have no money left really so I need to maybe bring my flight forward a little. It’s scheduled for March 14 but that is about three weeks away. Don’t know if I need to be out that much longer. Not sad about that, I‘ve lived the life and now after almost six months I feel too tired out of doing ‘excursions and actities’ but just hanging out makes me feel like I’m drifting, not doing anything constructive. Also it’s quite tiring this traveling lark, I need a holiday. How do people do this for a year or longer? I don’t know. However, I’ve learnt in this game you never know what’s around the corner. So the trip might have a little more steam left in it.

Like Sly Stallone said to me, (well he didn’t say it to me as such, it was in Rocky 6) - “it ain’t over till it’s over!

Thursday, February 08, 2007

Cape Town

I AM in Cape Town awaiting the arrival of my girlfriend Laura, who flies in tomorrow from London Town. Exciting stuff.

But not as exciting as the fact that today, for the first time ever, I used a razor to shave rather than my electric shaver, which is officially lost as I hinted at in my last blog.

The feel of cold blades pressed against my neck was odd and I had a palpable sensation of anxiety. Very palpable. So much PALP I was almost ABLE to touch it. It's funny when you break down words isn't it?

Anyway, shaving with a razor made me feel like a man. I could have gone straight out and killed a chicken, or at the very least purchased one from the local rotisserie.

I can now add this shaving experience to the new sensations of altitude sickness and jet-lag which I have experienced on this trip.

Yes, I know, it's not exactly Booker-prize winning coming of age/quarter life crisis stuff is it? I should be more interesting. I'm trying. I'm reading classics at the moment. I read The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald, and now I'm onto Dicken's Great Expectations which, if the South Park adaptation is to be believed, climaxes with Miss Havisham fending off Pip and co with robotic monkeys. I can't wait.

Actually, I didn't think Gatsby was that great. But The Mediocre Gatsby would be a bit of a hard sell, wouldn't it? Good God, with puns like that I could start work on the Daily Mirror tommorrow.

After Great Expectations I move onto Crime and Punishment by the boy Doyvesto-, you know, that Russian bloke. Apparently it's 400-odd sheets of compelling Dan Brown-esque page turning plot perfection.

When Laura gets here we'll be in Cape Town for a few days then moving on to Stellenbosch, to hit some wineries and maybe meet up with my friend Nick from Plymouth. And meet his girlfriend.

He said she might be too good for him.

Monday, February 05, 2007

Back in South Africa

I return to SA and head south to Cape Town. Along the way I decide to pop into Lesotho, the Kingdom in the Sky...

AFTER FIVE years I'm back in the Republic of South Africa. Was a 13 hour flight from Sydney and I watched toooooooooo many in-flight movies including The Queen, The Last King Of Scotland and Scoop. I even got to watch Snakes On A Plane...on a plane! The addition of watching that film in context made it even more super-gripping than ever!

So I flew into Johannesburg and it's still dangerous but once again nothing bad happened to me - Andy 1 Law Of Averages 0. I stayed at Eastgate Backpackers, which is not the place to stay in Joburg. But it's only five minutes walk from Eastgate Mall, which I have now been to more then any other shopping centre in the world, and that's a fact you can take to the bank, shopping fans. I've even been there more than Meadowhall in Sheffield, and I lived in Sheffield for three years! Incredible.

After wondering for a while about where on earth I was going to go now I was back in South Africa, inspiration (from the Lonely Planet) hit me and I was soon on a bus to Bloemfontein, which has only one hostel in town. In fact I'm there now. In fact I've been here before. But I haven't stayed here all this time, I've been in the magical Kingdom of Lesotho, one of Africa's smallest countries. Interestingly it is actually landlocked entirely by one country, in this case South Africa, making it a bit like the Vatican City (except probably less corrupt - is that libelous? I wouldn't know, I get my religious knowledge and history from Dan Brown these days.)

We didn't go to Lesotho last time we were here. I forgot my passport which people tell me is actually the number one thing you need when crossing an international border.

Lesotho is home to the Basotho people, and the foundations of the nation were laid by King Moshoeshoe The Great. And he was great, folks, just so you know. He fought the Boers and the Zulus, just like Michael Caine, although history scholars are divided over his quip-ability.

They speak Southern Sotho in Lesotho. Sample phrases include 'dumella' (hello), 'la kae' (how are you?), 'kea leboha' (thank you) and 'sala hantle' (stay well!)

So I am fluent in the native language. Practically a local, really. In lesotho transport isn't a double-decker cruise liner with meals and movies, it's a cramped minibus which is NEVER full. Why, just yesterday I was the only white person squeezed in with all these Africans, sweating away, 'listening' to house music blaring out the windows and all with some woman's child on my lap. It's the proper African experience! There's a romanticism to it all but a few hours is all I can take I think. Couldn't do a 12 hour stint in one of those.

The capital of Lesotho is Maseru, fact fans. It's half the size of Plymouth and feels like a small provincial town. I travelled with a Canadian woman called Marcy and somehow we made it to Malealea where they have a famous lodge that's really set up for touring groups and costs double what I usually pay but they have a few backpacker shacks and they let me stay (I now look very scruffy - my hair is even longer and I have a beard growing. I can' find my shaver. It's in my bag somewhere but my bag has started to smell. To solve the problem I have avoided opening my bag.)

Anyway in Malealea I found peace. The local villagers are friendly and funny. One kid wanted to exchange a pound sterling some tourist had left as a present. So much for sentimentality! I gave him ten Maloti for it (the currency in Lesotho) which is actually much lower than the official exchange of 14.6 Maloti to Gordon's pound but he got it for free (the kid I mean, not Gordon) so we're all happy campers. I now have SIX English pounds in my wallet awaiting spending back in Blighty. Here that's a slap up meal and some beers, back home I suspect I will be lucky to get a coffee and a copy of Empire.

Yes. Peace. In Malealea. Surrounded by mountains (not like the ones in Bolivia) it's really quite a postcard setting. As I mentioned earlier the Malealea lodge caters to an older crowd, the average age must have been 45 or even 50. So it was a different crowd than I usually hang out with, but I'm no ageist! It was still an enriching experience.

And every night the local choir performed (see below) and the Malealea Band performed. They are both very good.

You can do hikes and pony treks from the lodge. I paid a kid to take me to the Botsoela waterfall (below) which was a nice scenic walk and a good four hour return trip, but apart from that I did nothing. I sat in the shade drinking Savanna ciders, I played pool in the village with some local kids, I read Dickens under a willow tree in the garden. It was all very quaint and charming. I felt happy and peacefull and relaxed for four days. Then it was back into a packed minibus and back to Maseru and then Bloemfontein.

Oh, in Maseru I stayed at the Anglican Church Training Centre (I told you Lesotho wasn't set up for backpackers). I met a nice Korean guy called Lee (below). I thought I should mention him because we both discovered Hunter's cider together. It makes Gaymers and Magners taste like Swamp Donkey.

It was a nice experience to be in Lesotho. It's a bit off the beaten backpacker track. No hostels, just lodges. Hardly any whiteys, people staring at you in the street or while you're in a minibus. Silly white man, what's he doing here?

Courtesys and greetings are very important here. 'Hello's' and 'how are you's' aren't just confined to the sticks. A ten minute walk through Maseru as a stranger can elicit twenty or thirty greetings. Some people even want to stop and chat. I might try it in London.

Lesotho is quite poor and AIDS, as in most of southern Africa, is quite a pickle. Many kids you speak to have lost at least one parent, and although you don't pry, it's quite likely due to AIDS. It affect all kinds of people even across different social groups. I don't know what the answer is, but I'm pretty sure it isn't the Teenage Chastity Ban as was inforced by King Mswati III of Swaziland recently. Despite that foolish policy Mswati is one of only three absolute monarchs left in Africa. He answers to no one, wears funk colours AND he has 13 wives! I can't be sure but I'm certain he's a big James Brown fan. You rock King M!

So I am back in Bloem' and tomorrow I get a (hopefully comfortable) bus to Cape Town. There I kick my heels for a couple of days and then Laura is flying in! Very exciting. Our plan is to travel up the coast and see monkeys and whales and live in treehouses. The treehouses I feel are very important. I can't strees the importance enough of such a house. In a tree. Brilliant!

I apologise if you feel the blog is boring with not enough pictures. I will remedy this tomorrow hopefully. Bloem must have a photo shop type place to make cd thingys. It's certain, I'm sure.

I feel very relaxed and happy at the moment. South Africa feels foreign yet familiar at the same time. I don't know if I will properly look up people from the old gap year teaching days or go back to St. Marks College in the Limpopo province. Maybe we should let memories be? Then again, maybe not.

Fingers crossed, then, for a safe trip to the Western Cape.

Oh, and that was a joke about the Vatican by the way, I don't want one of Pope Benny's assasins after me! Not that they exist. Or do they? Over to Mr. Brown...