15 January 2010

south africa

I'm terribly behind in my travel coverage, so here we go on a whirlwind catch-up post.

It seems wrong to be talking about my backpacking adventures when people are barely recovering from a massive earthquake, but taking a small break from all that suffering is probably healthy, too. So, I hope you'll forgive this report.

South Africa really deserves several individual posts. If I had more time, I would have written more in-depth entries on Cape Town, the overnight trains, Durban, Bloemfontein, Johannesburg, Pretoria and Hoedspruit. But, I don't. So, here's the abbreviated, mostly visual version.

Cape Town: gorgeous, sophisticated in some parts, commercial in some and granola or industrial in others. In other words, a metropolitan city on the coast with beautiful Table Mountain as a backdrop. The best breakfasts I'd had in ages. And as my brother-in-law pointed out, its rolling hills and Victorian architecture reminded me of San Francisco, too.

South African trains were one of our favorite parts of exploring the country. For very reasonable rates, we traveled quite luxuriously in comfortable sleeper cars, had our meals in the nice and inexpensive dining car booths, and covered great distances knowing we'd be safe and arrive pretty much right on time.

Durban was a mixed bag of experiences. I almost got pickpocketed when three kids ambushed me-- but they didn't manage to steal my backpack (which was securely strapped to my waist and chest) or get anything out of my pocket (where my money had been hiding safety-pinned shut in the bottom). It was scary, though, and the experience made us much more cautious about our safety.

On the positive, Durban's aquarium, designed to resemble an old submarine, is one of the best I've ever been to, we visited an awesome artists' workshop, came across a band contest, and we had some amazing bunny chow (curry in a bread bowl).

(This one may look like a boring old blue fish, but it's huge. My partner is standing just to the left of it.)

I liked the silhouettes of the people against the blue.

Bloemfontein (or Bloem, as the locals call it) was a pleasant surprise, as we were more or less forced to stop there because it's smack in the middle of the country. We saw flowers we'd never seen before (appropriate for a city named the fountain of flowers), went to the Oliewenhuis Art Museum and enjoyed both their art collection (free admission with optional donation) and their outdoor sculpture garden and cafe. They have lush, green grounds, a carousel with terrific animals (and not even one horse) and terrific food to boot.

Our hostel was a very cool converted warehouse, but my pack was sifted through when I left it with the staff while my partner and I went out exploring. I didn't have anything worth stealing, so nothing was taken, but it isn't nice to open your bag and see that someone has gone through your stuff. (For the record, we stayed at Naval Hill Backpackers.)

Johannesburg has a reputation for being something like hell on earth, and they have video footage to prove it (see Soweto during the 90s). But the Apartheid Museum is absolutely worth a visit, and many have said going to Soweto is inspiring, too. The downtown looks like a nondescript run-down urban center, and the suburbs surrounding central Joburg are really, really ritzy. It feels like southern California with its temperate weather, huge shopping malls and sprawling freeways, the mansions are gated and patrolled, and the wealthier neighborhoods are very manicured.

Pretoria feels like a large suburb of Joburg, but it is pretty and pleasant (and a bit safer, too).

The highlight of our Pretoria visit was meeting up with my brother-in-law, who happened to be there on business. He treated us to amazing meals and luxurious accommodation (especially after some of the places we'd stayed), and it was nice to be with someone who knew us, understood us and spoke our same culture and language.

While our brother was busy making the world a better place, we went to the Voortrekker Monument, a source of great Afrikaner pride, which boasts the largest marble frieze in the world (twenty-seven carved panels telling the story of the pioneering Voortrekkers' Great Trek) and a panoramic view of both Joburg and Pretoria. Not to mention the animals that were grazing there (we saw zebras and antelopes) and some other neat and unexpected photographic opportunities.

And to top off an incredibly rich and varied visit to South Africa, we went to visit one of my Swiss-German friends (who I hadn't seen in over ten years!) and reconnect over a surprise elephant ride. I think I just may have the coolest friends in the world. Thank you, Simone!

And we saw our first dung beetle, too.

Next up: Lesotho.