Rwanda – A Beautiful Country, Not a Genocide

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At the Genocide Memorial

At the Genocide Memorial

Our tour only included two and a half days in Rwanda, but it was enough time to convince me that it is my favorite country that I’ve visited in this continent.  Rwanda was surprising and refreshing in many different ways.  From how it’s people have miraculously healed from the horrific genocide they experienced in 1994 to become the happiest and friendliest of people I’d encountered on the trip, to the stunning mountainous scenery, to the biodiversity, to the top-notch, impressive infrastructure that the government has substantially invested in – all this created my impression of Rwanda as the jewel of Africa.

Of course, most tourists’ impressions of the country when they arrive are the same as mine were.  I feared what had happened here only 21 short years ago.  I had seen “Hotel Rwanda” and remembered hearing about the atrocities committed here on the news when I was 18 years old living in England.  That type of ethnic hatred couldn’t possibly have been removed from the national psyche to any measurable extent in such a short period of time?  Surely there would still be palpable tension between people? Surely people wouldn’t be that friendly?

Well, the people I met were incredibly genuine, kind, smiling and caring.  I felt nothing but love, hospitality and a warm welcome.

The capital, Kigali

The capital, Kigali

On arrival at the border, I will never forget seeing signs offering $5,000,000 for information that would lead to the capture and arrest of certain Rwandan citizens who are being sought for inciting the genocide and who have since fled the country and are believed to be residing in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Our first stop on our entering the capital, Kigali, was the Genocide Memorial Museum.  It was a sobering three hour visit – but I have to say that overall, it is one of the best museums I have ever visited.  The displays were vivid, clear, and easy to follow. The most impressive detail, however, was the second floor of the memorial where they had dedicated “rooms” to each of the mass genocides of human history – and compared each to what happened in Rwanda.  I found this to be one of the more fascinating and educational components to the museum.

Partial list of those laid to rest here in the mass graves

Partial list of those laid to rest here in the mass graves

I won’t go into the entire history of the genocide, nor will I recite too much of what I learned.  I will, however, tell you that I discovered I was sorely misinformed prior to my visit, and I had a lot of false assumptions about why the genocide happened in the first place.

What I didn’t realize, for example, was that the ethnic and physical distinctions between the Tutsi, Hutu and Twa people of Rwanda were largely created and propagandized by the Belgian Colonial powers.  They introduced an ID card in 1933 that differentiated people based on these “classifications” but in reality, a Tutsi simply meant a person who herded cattle, and a Hutu was a farmer.  These groups lived in harmony for hundreds of years before the Europeans arrived.

IMG_0964This quote is from Wikipedia and you can read more here:

“Belgian social scientists declared that the Tutsis, who wielded political control in Rwanda, must be descendants of the Hamites, who shared a purported closer blood line to Europeans. The Belgians concluded that the Tutsis and Hutus composed two fundamentally different ethno-racial groups. Thus, the Belgians viewed the Tutsis as more civilized, superior, but most importantly, more European than the Hutus. This perspective justified placing societal control in the hands of the Tutsis at the expense of the Hutus. Moreover, this Belgian affirmation of the Hamitic theory provided a conceptual foundation for Tutsis and Hutus to start identifying themselves as different ethnic groups. The Belgians established a comprehensive race theory that was to dictate Rwandan society until independence: Tutsi racial superiority and Hutu oppression. The institutionalization of Tutsi and Hutu ethnic divergence was accomplished through administrative, political economic, and educational means.”

Skulls

Skulls

Many years later, after colonial powers had left, a Hutu majority took control of the government in the country. This division that was created by the Belgians became a systematic belief system that was propagandized through radio and print – all Hutu people were systematically encouraged to oust, bully, ignore, not employ and generally terrorize Tutsi citizens until they felt compelled to leave the country.

Of course, this culminated in an all-out mass genocide of Tutsis and moderate Hutus on April 6 of 1994.  An estimated 2 million Rwandans were slaughtered.

Incidentally, I remember walking through the museum and kept wondering why 1994 seemed so significant to me.  And then it hit me.  I had just spent a month in South Africa and I realized that Nelson Mandela became the first freely elected president of South Africa on the 27th of April that same year.  It was difficult for me to wrap my head around something so positive occurring simultaneously as something so heinous on the same continent.

The reality of what happened here was extremely disturbing.  I have included a few photos here of some of the more alarming facts I read that truly put the international community to shame for standing by and doing nothing when they had had adequate warning this was going to happen.  A few things that stand out to me:

  • Most killings were vicious and carried out by machetes.  People were forced to rape and kill their own family members and neighbors.
  • The number of troops that were sent to Rwanda to remove foreign nationals to safety would have been adequate to prevent the genocide – had they been allowed to stay.
  • There was simply not enough capacity in the justice system for every crime committed to be prosecuted by a court system in the years following the genocide.  So, a community based “Truth and reconciliation” program was created that allowed neighbors, friends, strangers to face a local sentence if they were honest enough to admit to having killed someone.  Often that sentence was simply labor that would be offered to the offended party, such as a wife who’s husband was murdered by her neighbor.  The neighbor, upon admitting guilt, would be “sentenced” to help support the woman and her children for a number of years in order to be “forgiven”.
Two cyclists "hitching" a ride as we drive out of Kigali into the mountains

Two cyclists “hitching” a ride as we drive out of Kigali into the mountains

  • The number of dead is purely an estimate as no accurate record of who died in the years following the genocide nor how many died in refugee camps of bordering countries has been kept
  • There are startling similarities between the ethnic cleansing propaganda used by Hitler and those used by the Hutu army.

After a very sobering visit, it was refreshing to leave Kigali and head up into the hills towards a mountainous region of the country close to the border with the DRC.  We stayed at Fatima guest house in Ruhengeri, a small town near Lake Kivu.  The following day I joined two of the other passengers on what turned out to be a delightful and quite personal tour of Lake Kivu and the town of Gisenyi.

Me and our delightful guide, Didier

Me and our delightful guide, Didier

Our guide’s name was Didier and he was incredibly personable, funny, and professional.  His English was also outstanding and his enthusiasm for his country and all the region had to offer was infectious.  We headed out of Ruhengeri early in the morning and drove to Gisenyi where our first stop was a lookout over the city that sits on the shores of Lake Kivu.  We also visited the local and international border crossings with the DRC and got to observe the crazy foot traffic of local artisans trading everything from cabbages to dresses with their less-governed neighbor.

I was reminded of Lake Como in northern Italy – this place was stunning.  The beach on the lake was fringed with beautiful palm-like trees, the water was clean and turquoise and there was lots of infrastructure to suggest this was the premier vacation destination for wealthy Africans.  I could easily have stayed for several weeks.

Another shot of Lake Kivu

Another shot of Lake Kivu

We visited “Honeymoon Island” which is self-explanatory and very romantic, a gushing hot spring where a group of village children descended upon Didier who obliged them all (and us!) with chunks of natural sugar cane to suck on.  We had a delicious lunch and a locally brewed Rwandan beer and it was all so lovely that when Didier decided to tell us his experience of living through the genocide – we were all taken quite aback at his authenticity and apparent ease at relating such graphic details.

Didier told us that his father, a Tutsi, was murdered, his mother, a Hutu, and sister fled (and he presumed killed)  He said his life had been very much in extreme danger because he represented one of the most hated groups of persons during the genocide – a child of a mixed marriage.  Somehow, against the odds, at the age of seven, Didier lived a life on the street, scrounging for what food he could find and sleeping wherever he felt safe…for years.  Eventually, a kind family took him in and he went to school and ate one meal of beans once per day for many years.  He says that it was often really hard for him to concentrate on his studies because he was so hungry, but that he was determined to get a good job one day.

Eating Sugar cane

Eating Sugar cane

Ten years after the genocide, when he was 17, the UN performed a census of the refugee camps in the Congo and he found out that his mother and sister were alive!  They had an emotional reunion in Kigali and now see each other regularly.  There was not a dry eye at the table as he recited this happy conclusion to his story.

Didier assured us that the national identity, of being Rwandan, was very real now and that he was happy.  He loved his work in tourism, he was close with his mom and sister, but he also asked, with a great beaming smile, how he could possibly not be  happy when he knew each morning now that “I will eat breakfast, lunch, AND dinner???!!!”

On the beach of Lake Kivu

On the beach of Lake Kivu

There are no words for how it felt to be in the presence of someone telling you such a vivid and personal story.  This was no longer an exhibit at the museum.  This was a small child, who survived against the odds through unimaginable horrors.

After lunch, we decided to visit one of the nice hotels on the lake and go for a swim.  It was so beautiful and relaxing in the water, and after we all treated ourselves to a nice cocktail and shared more stories.

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Man off to sell cabbages loaded onto his bike on the DRC border

Man off to sell cabbages loaded onto his bike on the DRC border

Later that evening, Didier was kind enough to invite us out to hear some live local music.  None of my group wanted to go, but I was game – so I hopped onto a boda boda (motorcycle transport) and met up with him to grab some beers.  We had a memorable evening sharing more stories, and then ended up at a karaoke club where I ran into an American from Seattle!  Small world, eh?  Apparently the karaoke is what Didier had meant by “local music” – and despite having only half a voice because of my horrible cough – I roused the crowd by belting out some Bonnie Tyler and Beyonce.  It was a very fun evening and put the perfect happy ending onto my memorable few days here in Rwanda.

Into the Ugandan Highlands – Gorillas, Pygmies, and a Tragedy

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The indomitable Silverback

The indomitable Silverback

After my emotional day in Kampala we had a long drive to the town of Kabale located near the Rwandan border and the Bwindi Impenetrable National Park where we were going to trek deep into the jungle in search of the mountain gorillas.

I have been slightly obsessed with gorillas ever since childhood when I first saw “Gorillas in the Mist” with one of my hero actresses Sigourney Weaver, as the passionate conservationist Dian Fossey. She spent the majority of her life in this part of the world documenting the Gorilla’s behavior and was instrumental in creating the national parks and the facilities therein that would give them at least some chance of survival.

One of the unfortunate ramifications of the creation of these national parks was that the Batwa Pygmies, an ethnic tribe who had resided in these forests for hundreds of years, were forced to leave their homes and their lifestyles with nowhere else to go. I need to do some further reading on this topic as I’m unsure to what degree these people could be blamed for the poaching and subsequent diminishing numbers of gorillas in these mountains. Having said that, fewer than 800 are now recorded to be living in these thankfully protected areas (the gorillas that is, not the Pygmies!)

Heading into Bwindi

Heading into Bwindi

That isn’t to say that visiting the gorillas is absent of any ethical considerations. It’s more of a catch-22 situation. We visited the Ugandan park in May when the permits are discounted by 40%, but typically it costs about $700 USD for a day permit to visit these creatures. Without this revenue, the parks wouldn’t be able to hire the kind of manpower that it takes to protect these magnificent animals from poachers. On the other hand, selling these permits means that each of the family groups’ of gorillas gets visited by eight people + guides per day – which has lead to the gorillas being completely habituated. On top of that, I do believe that my visit to the group of gorillas we saw absolutely did cause them stress. Not that it was just our presence – but the guides were extremely aggressive in pursuing the members of the group, often hacking at vegetation with machetes to allow our group better viewing and photo opportunities.
So, as I recall this amazing experience, it is with mixed feelings of both awe at having seen them in the wild, together with regret that they can’t be kept safe from both poachers and from being hassled by daily visits.

Still coughing from my cold, I was a little worried about the arduous day of hiking in the heat and humidity that was before me. I kept my inhaler with me and managed to keep the cough under control most of the day. We were picked up around 5am from our campsite in Kabale and driven into Bwindi where we had an initial orientation and were then split up into two groups of 8 (together with some non-Oasis travelers.) We headed out up a rather steep trail and I felt myself echoing the steps of Dian Fossey as we began to penetrate the impentetrable forests of Bwindi.

Bwindi Impenetrable National Park

Bwindi Impenetrable National Park

The views were extraordinary with thick blankets of fog covering the lush green slopes. The sweat was already pouring off of us by 10am and the temperature beginning to soar. It was a little over 3 hours into the trek when we were informed that a group of approximately 11 adults and a few babies had been spotted.

Me and a Gorilla in the background

Me and a Gorilla in the background

Our group in the early morning mist

Our group in the early morning mist

The next hour was filled with incredible moments. From the very first glimpse of the silverback sitting and chewing grass not more than 15 feet from where I stood, to then being charged, twice, when he sensed our group had overstepped his privacy threshold. At one point, a mother gorilla with a few months’ old baby clinging to her back rushed out of the bush and practically ran into the middle of where we were standing. I couldn’t believe how close these creatures were to us.

The highlight for me, however, was observing the group as they ascended and later descended from the high treetops. I managed to capture a lot of the action on a video sequence that I will happily share with you here.

Baby Gorilla

Baby Gorilla

On our return to the jeep, the heavens opened and we experienced a downpour which was accompanied by thunder and lightning. It really added to the memorable nature of the day for me, such an atmospheric element to our descent. When we got back to Kabale, the other group hadn’t returned yet, so we set about making dinner as they were obviously going to be very hungry and tired by the time they got back. A little before they arrived, however, our drive, Pete, informed us that one of our group members, Greg, had tragically died of a suspected heart attack only an hour into their trek.

That evening and the next few days were very hard for us, and there was a lot of emotion shared – the group grew closer together for support. It was such an unexpected and shocking turn of events. Later in the trip, I was very moved when we learned that his family had requested that half of Greg’s ashes be taken to Cape Town and released in the ocean so that he could “finish the journey he had started”.

I will never forget him.

Lake Bunyoni

Lake Bunyoni

The day after our emotional sojourn to see the Gorillas, we traveled as a group to Lake Bunyoni to spend a day with a Pygmy village. This village was funded and created by a group of Ugandans who wanted to help a select group of displaced individuals who’d lost their home and their land when they were ousted from the national park system in 1994.

It was a rather strange day for me. While I really enjoyed the scenery of the lake and the surrounding countryside, and watching the amazing performances put on by the people and their children, it all felt a little bit like a “Human Safari” to me. I kept asking the group leader about what the community’s long-term plans were? Were they going to be able to secure land that they could farm for their sustenance? How were they going to survive?

Well, it turns out that they were entirely dependent upon charity and the proceeds from tours such as the one we were on. That made me slightly uncomfortable. Our leader explained that the schools that they had built would serve to provide the offspring of the people an education, so that hopefully, the kids would be able to graduate and go off and get work and then help support their families in turn. I found that to be a little optimistic, but I didn’t want to judge at the same time.

Pygmy father and his baby

Pygmy father and his baby

Th entire time I was there, I couldn’t help but think one thought – how BAD do things have to really get before people stop reproducing so much?!!! I know, I know: in Africa, one’s “success” in life is very often measured by the size of one’s family…and yet – I couldn’t help but wonder – WHY? when you have little food, and your family is hungry, and the babies you already have are malnourised, AND your women are so malnourished that they can’t produce enough milk for those babies, AND you have no means of supporting yourselves….WHY not practice birth control? At least…the withdrawal method? (if there are no condoms available) These were the reactions that I couldn’t help having.

I wanted to provide condoms for these people, not food.

Does that make me a bad, judgmental person?  What do you think?

I hope you enjoy the video I took of the children dancing for us. There is one fact that cannot be denied: these people have the most incredible innate rhythm and sense of music. It warms my heart!

Kampala – My Life Changing Experience in the Bwaise Slum

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IMG_0704After a couple of long days driving on the truck, I was beginning to feel better and had purchased an inhaler to help with my hacking cough that was now a month old. We made a nice stop in Nakuru at a lovely campsite that had a nice pool to lounge next to as well as an annoying and aggressive flock of geese.

I had no plans specifically when we arrived in Kampala, but I decided to do the “Slum Tour” as I was interested in seeing how many poor Ugandans living in the capital dwell.

This day took me completely by surprise and has become the absolute highlight of the entire trip.  Salim Semambo Mukasa was the director of the Slum Tour company and came to the campsite in the morning to collect myself and Emily to go visit Bwaise – the slum that he himself grew up in. I was immediately impressed by his English, his passion for creating this eye-opening experience for tourists and his selfless attitude that was demonstrated when he explained that every cent of the proceeds from the tour goes directly to the everyday needs of 25 orphans that live in an orphanage his volunteer organization established.

IMG_0714I was so disheartened that he’d been unable to come to the Red Chilli Hideaway backpackers the night before in order to explain this to our entire group – I’m sure more of them would have come if they’d known that $20 was going to directly feed kids and not to a “for profit” business.

In any case, we took public transport to Bwaise and the experience really began there. I asked Salim how he’d come to start giving these slum tours and how he helps tourists overcome their fear of it being a “human safari” experience. He explained that he knew all of the residents of the slum – it was the slum where he grew up – and that the people are always happy to see Mzungus coming to see where they live, experiencing it, and coming away with a fresh perspective. Salim’s father had died when he was young, and it was due to a neighbor’s generosity that Salim was able to get an education through “Primary 7” which I believe is until you’ve reached 12 years of age. The neighbor had started the volunteer organization “Volunteers for Sustainable Development” and when he died, Salim felt it was important to continue in the work that his benefactor had begun. He now runs these Slum Tours for people visiting Kampala together with several other volunteer friends he knows from living and working in Bwaise.

At the orphanage

At the orphanage

Salim was right about our welcome, and how the residents would perceive our visit. Everywhere we walked, people smiled and waved and were extremely welcoming. The children followed us in droves as if we were celebrities, unable to wipe the wide grins from their faces.

Of course, it was difficult to see the conditions that people have all but grown accustomed to contending with. Many of the residents’ dwellings were made from temporary or poorly constructed materials, trash floated on the waterways that ran through the slum, children ran in bare feet and tattered, dirty clothes, and some people sat in doorways looking visibly sick and hungry. It was tough to see, and yet, this is the daily reality for so many people – I felt a responsibility to see it for myself. This was the real side of Africa.  The one that hasn’t been artificially sterilized and designed only for tourists.

One of the highlights to the tour was learning how Salim also works with donations by providing micro loans to women in the community to start small businesses. With just $50 or $100, we met with several women who between them had started a sewing business to make school backpacks, and another who had built and was running a small food stall. It was heartening to see these women being industrious and taking pride in providing for themselves and their families. Salim explained that it is always the women who show such a spirit of enterprise as all too often, a loan given to a man will be squandered on selfish temporary pleasures such as alcohol or sex.

Salim with his friends, the orphans

Salim with his friends, the orphans

Salim also took us to the sex trade area of the slum which was a real eye-opener. A customer can buy sexual favors here for as little as 50c, and of course, HIV infection is a real problem. As we were walking through, a woman started talking to Salim in an agitated voice, and I learned later that she had been complaining about how he hadn’t come around in a while with fresh condoms for them. I was amazed at the amount of impact and assistance this one very industrious young man was able to provide.

(Salim, you are amazing!)

IMG_0705We visited the home of a woman who was sadly dying from AIDS. I learned something which up until this point I was very ignorant of. Despite the fact that the Ugandan government does supply its’ HIV+ people with free anti-retro viral drugs, these drugs are not always readily available for a person to continue their prescribed course without interruption. The drugs themselves are very hard on the body, and having balanced and quality nutrition in one’s diet is vital to their being effective in suppressing the virus and boosting the immune system. So, what ends up happening is that these drugs are being taken by people who can barely afford to stem their own hunger with maize and beans. The consumption of fresh greens and fruits just isn’t a possibility. Therefore, when a person goes to pick up their week or month’s supply of drugs and they’re perhaps out of stock and they are told to return in a few days time, this person’s body reacts violently and sometimes they can deteriorate very rapidly, even dying while waiting.

The Gadaffi Mosque

The Gadaffi Mosque

This lady whom we met had been infected by her cheating husband, who had since died himself leaving her with their three children. She was upset because she’d spent her last 3000 shillings (about $1) going to the medical clinic the day before to get her prescription of anti retro virals re-filled and was told they’d ran out and to come back on Monday. I held her hand and gave her 3000 shillings from my purse so that she could go back again, and I hoped that she would have the strength to do so.

Salim explained that her biggest fear is what would happen to her children if she were to die. I asked him what would happen, and he just shook his head and shrugged his shoulders as if to suggest children becoming orphaned because of HIV was just another reality of slum life that he had grown accustomed to, though not unaffected by.

We visited one of the slum schools and I was surprised to see that the kids were learning on a Saturday – out of choice, because they loved going to school.  I was quite impressed at what the children were studying – one of the 7/8 year old classrooms were learning about the process of cell division through meiosis and mitosis  (which I don’t think I studied until college!)  We sang some nursery songs with the kids in the kindergarten aged classrooms and thanked their energetic and lovely school teacher profusely for introducing us.

walking around Bwaise

walking around Bwaise

At the end of the tour, we were going to visit the orphanage, and both Emily and I wanted to first go to a store and buy some food supplies to give to the kids. We bought several kilos each of rice, beans and sugar and then hand delivered them. The children immediately swarmed around Salim as he sat down and tried to wrap his arms around as many of them as he could. While many of the kids were clearly smiling and happy to see him, you could also see in some of their faces the knowledge that they’d been abandoned and that they were unwanted. That is what broke my heart – not seeing them poorly fed or poorly clothed – but knowing that they were wanting of affection, hugs, and emotional security.

Salim explained that some of the kids were found abandoned in a toilet nearby, or perhaps the parent had just left them wandering the streets a few blocks from the orphanage. Without additional funding, he really can’t afford to accept any more children into the orphanage because it is already full…so the fate of additional orphans is hard to imagine.

Getting fitted for my visit of the Mosque

Getting fitted for my visit of the Mosque

At this point, I was very moved to help Salim and his orphanage. I was interested in learning more, so at the end of our tour, I invited him to lunch so that I could ask more questions about how he managed his organization. I also just wanted to buy him a really good meal because it looked like he could use it – if only to bring him some good cheer.

We ate chicken curry and I had some beer. Salim seemed to be enjoying himself so I asked if he’d be willing to show me around Kampala after lunch? It turns out he didn’t have plans, so we ended up spending the rest of the afternoon together.

After lunch we visited the main market in Kampala and it was just a see of craziness and activity. Just crossing the streets of this incredibly busy city was exciting and lucky for me, Salim was there to help me navigate the crowds. After having walked in chaotic surroundings for most of the day, I was relieved and happy to find myself in the tranquil buildings of the Gadaffi Mosque. I had to rent a ha jib head covering for the occasion but actually found the garment to be most comfortable to wear.

One of Salim’s friends was also a tour guide at the mosque and his name was Ashiraf. Ashiraf has a real character and regaled me with the history of the mosque and even sang some islamic songs for me in its blissfully empty and serene interior.

I was having the most wonderful time.

Being silly with Ashiraf

Being silly with Ashiraf

We climbed the tower for a lovely view over this city that is named Kampala because it was where the British would camp with the Impala. It was a fantastic vista and again, I found myself laughing hysterically at Ashiraf as he demonstrated how warriors would welcome Uganda’s king at the palace.

Feeling a little tired, but very content with my day with Salim, I asked him what he would do, if he could do anything. “Get some ice-cream?” – was his reply. I heartily agreed that this was a fantastic idea as I am always up for ice cream…and cake if that was also a possibility?!

We found a delightful coffee bar called Javas that also served the most amazing ice cream and cakes. I ordered a white forest gateau and he had praline and vanilla ice cream. We sat, eating in silence for some minutes- both with huge grins on our faces.

I really enjoyed meeting you, Salim. You have changed my perspective for a day – and for the rest of my life. I will always be appreciative to you for that.

PLEASE consider making a donation to Salim’s organization.  You can contact him on Facebook at Volunteers for Sustainable Development.

The Gorilla Loop Part I – Lake Naivasha

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Me on Lake Naivasha

Me on Lake Naivasha

I was sad to leave South Africa. This country had really gotten under my skin and I wished I had a little more time there. The two days of high level activity had left me very drained and also very sick, so I literally took the Baz Bus to Johannesburg and had them drop me off directly at an airport hostel.  I ate dinner at a posher hotel across the street (I ordered Malva pudding and hot custard for dinner…come on, I was sick, yar?) and then promptly went to sleep coughing and sneezing up a storm.

The following day saw me take a flight from Johannesburg back to Nairobi to begin the Gorilla Loop overland truck tour with the same company I did my 56 day Coast to Coast odyssey with, Oasis Overland.  I even had the same tour leader and driver as before. The day was arduous as my virus was now full blown and it ended up taking longer to drive to Karen Camp from Nairobi Kenyatta’s airport than the four hours flying time it took from Johannesburg. Apparently, torrential rains had caused some major flooding and road damage, so Smiley explained that the traffic had just been utterly horrendous. It was good to see Smiley again – he was the first person I met when I arrived here nearly 3 months ago and it was good to catch up. Since we were literally parked for much of the only 15 mile or so journey, we played good old rock ballads on the radio and I attempted to croak along in between coughing fits.

New crew on the bus including the wonderful Greg

New crew on the bus including the wonderful Greg

I briefly met my tour group before heading straight for the shower and after to find Pete and Tabby to get back in the truck and collect the things I’d had them drive back up to Nairobi with. I then re-organized my entire backpack for just what I’d need on this trip through Kenya, Uganda, and Rwanda and put the rest into storage at the camp.

Our first stop on this journey was Lake Naivasha and on arrival at our campsite we were welcomed by a rare sighting of the mighty black and white Colubus monkey playing in the grass looking out over the lake and its mighty hippos that were honking behind the security fence.

That afternoon’s activities seemed mellow enough that I decided to haul my sorry sick ass along to them. They consisted of an hour’s boat ride on the lake where we saw lots of lovely colorful birds and some crazy men who were fishing not twenty meters from where five or six hippos were cavorting in the shallow water. It was a lovely sunny afternoon and I was looking forward to the afternoon tea I was promised at the former home of the late Joy Adamson, author of the “Born Free” series of books about her life in Africa raising wild cats domestically that she then later tried to let back into the wild.

Well, it was a bit disappointing on both counts. First of all, the tea was not a high tea, it consisted of “get your own tea” and ginger cake and cookies. Which is all fine, I wasn’t that hungry as I was snivelling everywhere. After wandering around the house and it’s attached museum we were ushered into a viewing room where we watched the documentary on Joy Adamson’s life.

Crazy fishermen busy working not more than twenty meters from the hippos

Crazy fishermen busy working not more than twenty meters from the hippos

Well, I’ll have to do a little bit of my own research, but frankly, I was quite horrified by this woman. Firstly, she kept getting married and then falling in love with a second and subsequently third man, each time divorcing the poor bastard she’d married before “till I love someone else more than you.” Then, she got to live this charmed existence in Kenya, financially supported by whichever husband she happened to be with at the time, and spent her days painting flowers while World War II was raging back in Europe. Finally, after her husband shot a lion during a safari, they decided to bring the cubs home and raise them at their house as pets. This led to her lifelong passion for wild cats, studying them and learning how to rehabilitate them back in the wild, which she then, of course, monopolized on financially by writing books about it all.

Frankly, she was very lucky to be doing what she was doing at that time, because nowadays she’d be arrested for what she pulled. “Born Free?” Yeah – they were, until your husband shot their mother and then they had to live with you pawing at them and pulling their tails (which you can witness on the video multiple times) and becoming rich as a result. I found her to be a most disagreeable woman and found her legitimizing the domestication of these wild lions and leopards to be quite disgusting.

It is probably a reflection of how times have changed, and I’m sure her foundation has actually done a lot of good in terms of protecting the cats here in National Park. That being said, “ugh” – what a horrible woman.

Fish Eagle above Lake Naivasha

Fish Eagle above Lake Naivasha

The following day I was well and truly in need of some solid rest and so reluctantly turned down the opportunity to go to Hell’s Gate National Park and partake in the only biking safari in Africa, for the chance to try and get healthy again.
I was sad to miss out on that experience, especially since it sounded like a great workout too.

Instead, I had a lovely afternoon talking to Greg, one of the passengers on our truck, who at 75, was mightily impressive in all he had done in his life and all the vitality and energy he still showed for his continued adventures. I write this recollection with sadness, as Greg tragically died of a heart attack a few days later during our Gorilla trek in Bwinde Impenetrable National Forest.

Hippo strolling through camp

Hippo strolling through camp

He made quite a distinct impression on me, and in the short week or so our group knew him, he became well liked and a team favorite. He had the most amazing stories that would start off, giving just one example, like “Well, you know…I was working in Papua New Guinea when Saigon fell….” – and you’d just shake your head and marvel at him.
I was very saddened by his death, as we all were, and my heart goes out to his family.

Nothing else really exciting happened at Naivasha other than me feeling utterly sorry for myself, having a good cry and getting nicely drunk with two of the girls in the bar next door who kindly listened to my stories about how this trip was supposed to be mending my broken heart.

Which it wasn’t, but by now, has definitely started to.

Reflections on Race – Conversations from South Africa

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Apartheid-era bench

Apartheid-era bench

Whenever you travel somewhere, you tend to pick up on the social norms/mores of the people and the extent to which you do, of course, has to do with the amount of time you’ve spent there and the quantity and quality of the time you’ve spent with the local people.

South Africa is a confounding country, and I wanted to write this post merely as a way for me to catalogue the impressions that bore upon me of this land and its very complex treatment of race. The history of this land is multi-layered and contentious, you can sense that from any conversation with a South African that pertains to the stories of this land essentially made up entirely of migrants – the Dutch and English from Europe and the Bantu African tribes from the north. The only people indigenous to South Africa were the San and the Koi – and most of them were killed as the other settlers moved in ( I mentioned in a previous post that it was legal to shoot a Bushman until 1920 in South Africa).

So I make no judgment, no analysis of moral superiority or inferiority with these observations, as that is all they are. I am sure that if I could have stayed in South Africa longer than three weeks as I did, my impressions would change, adapt and deepen. However, I believe there is validity in anyone’s initial impressions of a country they are visiting and as such, I hope you will take what is written here as such.

Square in Cape Town with a monument to the slaves who built and helped populate South Africa

Square in Cape Town with a monument to the slaves who built and helped populate South Africa

The first thing I noticed when I arrived in South Africa was simply how open and willing people were to talk about race and racial issues. They don’t have reservations to express themselves and their opinions, even if those opinions might be interpreted as overtly racist. This fact was interesting to me, in and of itself. Without even asking, the topic just seems to pop up in conversation. This is probably also due to the fact that I do have an inquiring nature, and I do tend to ask people about their lives, their work, their personal experience of their home, so that could also account for some of it.

When asking what it had been like to be in South Africa since it’s first free elections in 1994, a colored female taxi driver told me “Well, back then I wasn’t white enough. Now, I’m not black enough.”

Menu at Robben Island prison for different races

Menu at Robben Island prison for different races

In an attempt to undo some of the harm inflicted by apartheid, the South African government has implemented some very rigid affirmative action laws that essentially dictate a quota for the number of blacks that must be hired by any given public or private organization, often resulting in an emminently more qualified and experienced white person being overlooked for a job in favor of a less educated, less experienced black person. A number of whites I talked with expressed extreme frustration with this situation and spoke of friends who’d already left the country because they couldn’t find work. Some even suggested that it was like a softer version of reversed apartheid.

“If you’re a disabled, black, woman…you could literally be handed any job, anywhere. Hands down without questions. That is the trifecta.”

The group that appears to have been left out in the cold both during the apartheid years and during the current newly attitude-reforming rainbow state is the colored person. The whole definition of a colored person in and of itself took some adjusting to as we simply don’t have this “third” distinction of race back in the United States. In South Africa, a formerly 11-race apartheid system has now broken down into a socially acceptable 4 race classification of “Black”, “White” “Colored” and “Asian”. Anyone, with a mix of white/black/asian in their blood is labeled “Colored”.

“It cracks me up that you Americans think you have a black president! Obama’s not black, mate, he’s colored!” – I heard this observation on more than one occasion when stating my place of abode.

“A Zulu would never mess with a colored person. He knows he would get messed up.”

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Monument to the tribes that lived and migrated to South Africa

Monument to the tribes that lived and migrated to South Africa

My colored Baz Bus driver helped fill in the picture for me of what it’s like to be a colored person living in South Africa. His above quote spoke to the toughness that all races in this country attribute to the colored people. His father was a South African born Indian man, and his mother was half white and half black. Here is something else he shared with me:

“I’ve been married twice before and both times my wives were white. My first daughter with my first wife turned out to be rather dark skinned like me – and she used to go around saying “No, daddy, I’m white! I’m white!” It was pretty hilarious – I’d just laugh at her, then set her straight…she won’t be popular in school talking like that. Now, I have two sons with my second wife – and they both turned out looking as white as you can get. It is so funny when I go out with my sons now and I’m in the supermarket and they’re running around giving all the white people a fright because they think they’ve lost their parents. The look on their faces when they realize that I am their father…oh man! It’s priceless.”

Xhosa boys I met who were fishing on the Wild Coast

Xhosa boys I met who were fishing on the Wild Coast

He explained to me that a colored person identified with the issues of the colored person. He couldn’t understand when I explained to him that an American who was born with any amount of black blood was considered black. It really left me wondering which environment was better (not that any society that affords different treatment based on skin color is ever good) for a person of color? To automatically be socialized and cultured as “black” because of a trace of black blood, or to be able to identify with an entirely separate third group that has its own unique sense of community and brotherhood that doesn’t ascribe to the ideals of either “white” or “black”?

What do you think?

This four race system and the automatic stereotyping that goes along with it is further complicated with the additional sub divisions of people based on their tribe or the language they speak. No matter what, people in South Africa willingly or unknowingly constantly ascribe reasons and motivations for people’s behavior based on their color and/or their tribe. For instance:

“A zulu was, is and always will be a violent person. They are warriors, it’s in their blood.”

“Blacks are just lazy, that’s all there is to it. All they (the Zulu in Kwazulu-natal) want is a free handout.”

“No white person will ever move back to the Transkei. They’ve all left. That is over. That is Xhosa land, its tribal land now.”

“Even when he (a Zulu musician who was performing) is being nice to you…he’s not really being nice. He’s playing you…for your money. That’s what they do.”

“Any racism that exists between whites and blacks cannot even begin to compare, in terms of hostility, to the violent racism that exists between different black tribes. They’ve been killing each other for generations.”

The most emphatic comments I heard, however, concerned the overwhelming hostility that can exist between white Afrikaans speaking South Africans and White English speaking South Africans.

“Yar. No-one can let go of the bloody past, Bru. That’s the problem. No-one can let go. They won’t ever forget the war with the English, and they think everyone should speak Afrikaans.”

Balcony where Mandela made his first speech after his release from prison, calling for forgiveness and unity among all races

Balcony where Mandela made his first speech after his release from prison, calling for forgiveness and unity among all races

“Nelson Mandela was a great president. He did a great job of bringing the people together. What people don’t seem to remember is that he killed people too. And of course, things have gone downhill since he died. The ANC will automatically win every election from here on out.”

“There isn’t a white person in this area who hasn’t had violence directed at them by a black. Many of my friends have left. I know people who’ve had their homes taken from them, or who have been shot at.”

This was said to me by a girl from Johannesburg at a bar in the Drakensburg. I asked her whether she shared the fear that had been expressed to me – that the situation would escalate into a mass land-grab like what happened in Zimbabwe?

Sign capturing historic facts concerning Apartheid in Cape Town

Sign capturing historic facts concerning Apartheid in Cape Town

“Oh – its already happening, man. Even these tribal land claims that are currently being processed by the courts…Many of them are fraudulent. And then the white farmers are given rock bottom dollar for their land and told to leave – and then once the blacks get it, they have no interest in continuing the practice of commercial farming – they don’t have the skills for it. If the government is going to turn over these white farms, who is going to ensure that the farms keep operating?”

Finally, one of the more recent racial phenemenom that is happening in South Africa concerns Xenophobia. This is a racial hatred that is being expressed with outbreaks of violence that is directed towards non-south african born blacks, who have been pouring into the economic promised land for years from Zimbabwe, Malawi, Mozambique and so on… Here are some of the comments are heard about this issue:

“I would always hire a black non-south African over a black South African. They will work harder, with less trouble, for less money. ”

“They’ve got to increase security at the borders. They have got to stop letting (the black non-south Africans) them into South Africa. They are taking our jobs. It’s hard enough for South Africans to find work, yar? Problem is too, they come here and set up businesses or shops, and then they arrange to have all their family and friends move down to be with them – and they’re allowed in!”

“What do I think of Xenophobia? I think we need more Xen and less phobia”.

"Apartheid Squirrel"

“Apartheid Squirrel”

Many of the conversations I had left me confused and saddened, most often with more questions for every answer I received. I can’t help also draw the conclusion that much of the division between races nowadays has less to do with skin color, and far more to do with socio-economic distinctions.  It is becoming a country of class rather than color. Predominantly, the wealth is still with the white population and impoverished areas and townships are invariably black.  It is beginning to change, but I can’t see how things are going to improve significantly until the wealth gap narrows – but the same can be said of the United States as of South Africa.

Education is the key.  No child is ever born racist.  It is a learned behavior and equality of all people can only be achieved through love, tolerance, and opportunity/education for all South Africans.

If there is one universal sentiment that I heard expressed from everyone I met- be they white, black, colored or Asian, it was a deep and abiding love of their country. Despite how shockingly deep racial tensions get, despite the outbreaks of violence, despite the threat of civil war that many believe is coming – people speak of their “Rainbow Nation” with great pride, passion, and attachment.

It’s Africa, the land is beautiful, it gets under your skin and seeps into your soul, forever staying with you.

I was there three short weeks, but surely felt the same pull.

The Drakensburg Mountains: Visiting The Amphitheater and The Kingdom of Lesotho

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At the Amphitheater Escarpment

At the Amphitheater Escarpment

I was well and truly ready for a day of rest on the bus as my body was spent from two days of hill climbing and I was well and truly hacking up a storm. We headed back up in the shuttle to Mthata where we managed to scramble a quick lunch before piling on the Baz Bus for my penultimate stop in South Africa – The Amphitheater Lodge in the Northern Drakensburg mountains.

Drakensburg literally means “Mountains of Dragons” and they are one of the oldest mountain ranges in the world. As we arrived at The Amphitheater Lodge, we couldn’t help but be impressed by the stunning “Amphitheater” of mountains that formed the backdrop to one of the nicest looking lodges I’ve stayed at on this trip.

The Grain Silo Dorms of Amphitheater Lodge

The Grain Silo Dorms of Amphitheater Lodge

That’s not to say that the hotel stay itself was great – the staff were some of the rudest, strange people I’ve ever come across while traveling. For example – we bought a bottle of white wine on our arrival (the four Baz Bus peeps – Lea, Yarrick, and Amy were together again and I was glad of it because the place was kinda empty) and asked if we could keep it in the fridge behind the bar to keep it cold. Returning a half hour later to get a refill, one of the owners behind the bar bluntly told us “Yar, I don’t know where your wine is – you’ll have to go find the bartender” – despite the fact that she was behind the bar, we didn’t know where the bartender was, and she didn’t even make a single effort to look in any of the fridges! The food in the restaurant is a three course “set menu” and when we asked if we could please just buy some dessert we were told “No, you can’t.” ?!!! This is just a few examples of many I could share that would explain some of the Trip Advisor comments we’d read. So, if you go here, know this: the place is stunningly beautiful, but the service is horrendous.

The four of us enjoyed a relaxing afternoon and elected to make our own dinners that night before retiring in our converted-grain-silo dorm room. The following day, we had elected to go on the famed Amphitheater hike to the 2nd highest waterfall in the world – Tugela Falls.

Starting out on our hike to Amphitheater Escarpment

Starting out on our hike to Amphitheater Escarpment

As it turned out, the waterfall was most definitely not the main attraction of the trip. In fact the waterfall was running almost dry at this time of year, and even at full flow, the hike gets you to a vantage point at the top of the falls, so you can’t really appreciate seeing it cascading down the mountain as I’d been expecting to. In fact, I wasn’t paying attention at the moment when our guide, Adrian, was pointing out the top of the falls, so I didn’t even get a picture of it – the others pointed it out to me later during our descent when I asked “when are we gonna get to see this damn waterfall?”

Silly me.

Trying to be Superman

Trying to be Superman

The hike was really quite stunning and I can see how it is regarded as one of the best day hikes in the world. Despite it being an almost two hour drive from the lodge to the trailhead, you ascend quite a lot in terms of altitude, meaning that you start the hike in an alpine environment to start out at 2500 meters or 8,200 feet, ascending to 3100 meters or 10,000 feet at the top of the Drakensburg escarpment. The last section of the trail is a bit of a scramble up a steep grassy/rocky scree slope, but the view as you emerge is well worth the effort.

Overall it was extremely enjoyable all except for the wind which beat on us with such ferocity that it gave my lungs an additional beating alongside my cough that was already wreaking damage on me. On our return to the lodge, I was so happy that we’d elected to pay the somewhat extravagant price to get the 3 course meal – and since it included rump steak and malva pudding with ….wait for it!…HOT CUSTARD for dessert, I was well and truly in bliss.

At the top of the falls with my Baz Bus "Family"

At the top of the falls with my Baz Bus “Family”

Sadly my three friends all left me the following day, but I was luckily joined by two Germans on my day trip to the mountainous kingdom of Lesotho (pronounded Le-Su-Tu). Lesotho is its own independent country and always has been since it was granted independece from the British Crown in 1966. We wouldn’t, unfortunately, be venturing too far into the country – on a day trip from the lodge, the roads in Lesotho alone would prohibit any such journey since they are almost all unpaved in this mountainous small country that is hailed as having the highest “low point” of any country in the world.

On the "ladders" for the descent

On the “ladders” for the descent

Even so, I got a wonderful day-long glimpse into the rural culture of this magnificent place and its people. Adrian, our guide from the hike was in even rarer form on this tour and you could tell how much he loved sharing his passion for the community that we visited. In fact, what will probably stay with me the longest is the memory of his enthusiastic and loud greeting of every villager we met and his admirable attempts at the Sesotho which is the language spoken by the people of Lesotho, the Basotho. He even greeted the children with a ton of energy to which they responded, sometimes even dancing and shaking their little hips together with him and slapping his hands mid-air.

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Overlook into Lesotho

Overlook into Lesotho

The people in the village we visited just over the border from South Africa live a rural subsistence life and are very poor, in fact, most don’t even have cash and use foodstuffs, hay, livestock, and locally brewed beer in trade for most goods. They live in traditional round homes that were reminiscent of the ones I’d seen on the Wild Coast build by the Xhosa people.

Basotho wearing traditional dress

Basotho wearing traditional dress

IMG_0632The style of dress that the locals wear is extremely unique – characterized by hats worn barely atop of the head and a large blanket that is wrapped around the shoulders like a coat. Everyone we met was extremely friendly and seemed very happy that we were there to see their village. We were shown around the school (that Amphitheater Lodge helps support) and were given the chance to buy some jewellry with proceeds going towards school supplies. I bought a lovely wooden bracelet.

Adrian dancing with the local kids

Adrian dancing with the local kids

Adrian took us on a hike to view some ancient San rock art and we sat and ate lunch looking out over the stunning Lesotho mountains. A really nice custom they have in the village is that of erecting a white flag at one’s home if one has brewed beer available to sell. Not wanting to pass up on such a rich cultural experience, we visited with a family and tried the (rather putrid tasting) beer from a giant plastic bucket and took a bunch of photos. We also visited with a local shaman and learned a little about how this tiny and beautifully frail little woman was “chosen” to be a healer through a dream sent to her by her ancestors.

Drinking beer with the locals

Drinking beer with the locals

The whole experience will stay with me for some time to come and I was very moved, emotionally, by the warmth and hospitality we encountered from everyone we met. I also am very grateful to Adrian for his passion and enthusiasm for Basotho culture in this visit to the 3rd poorest country in the world.

IMG_0606And the cultural experiences didn’t end there. On our return to The Amphitheater, I was thrilled to learn that we were going to be getting some live music performed by a local Zulu musician that evening. I cannot even begin to describe the incredible rhythm this man displayed. Only a YouTube of his performance will do it justice, and I promise I will most definitely upload it to my site’s facebook page as soon as I have internet powerful enough to allow me. He literally played a guitar while simultaneously singing, using his feet as drums, and doing a traditional zulu dance which sometimes requried acrobatic feats of high leg kicks and backward rolls while continuing to play with the guitar wrapped upside down around his head.

I am not joking.

I had so enjoyed my time in South Africa and was sad to be leaving for the airport in Johanessburg the next day. This country is so complex with a lot of confounding racial issues – and that will be the topic of my next post, which I hope you will find enlightening and challenging, but not offensive.

From Bulungula to Coffee Bay – Hiking South Africa’s Wild Coast

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The Wild Coast

The Wild Coast

It took most of the next day to get to my destination of Bulungula on the Wild Coast. Happily I wasn’t alone either – Jake was planning on spending a few night’s at the same community-ran, 100% solar powered traditional hostel as well.

Our Baz Bus driver that day proved to be an absolutel legend. As we entered the province of the “Transkei” (a formerly independent part of South Africa that white people mostly fled after apartheid ended, populated predominantly by the Xhosa people, and birthplace of Nelson Mandela), he gave us lots of historical background and information on the region. He said that here we would see the real South Africa. A land mainly untouched by commercial development, it’s community based farmland with people living under a tribal system.  For instance, village elders make the community decisions for the (hopefully) benefit of all. People live in traditional round-houses, many with equipped with a government subsidized solar panels for power. The land is very green and there are beautiful rolling green hills that give way to a very rugged and stunning coastline.

 

Nelson Mandela's home where he lived his final years

Nelson Mandela’s home where he lived his final years

On our long drive through the Transkei, Johnny, our driver, created a lovely social atmosphere and insisted that we stop at a local market and get some alcohol to have a little party as we drove. As I got out of the truck, I immediately noticed the absence of any other white face and felt like I was back in the ‘Africa’ that had preceded this country on my trip.

Feeling very merry, we happily took snaps when we arrived at Nelson Mandela’s birthplace and also the compound where he passed away – interestingly, it is an exact replica of the house he lived in after being released from Robben Island when he was imprisoned solely on house arrest.

Arriving at the Baz Bus stop of Mthata, my driver from Bulungula guest lodge was there ready to take Jake and I down the very bumpy, unpaved road for the two hours it would take to our destination. On arrival, I was glad I had Jake with me as the lodge was pretty empty save a lovely family from Finland who we dined with – having an incredible local Xhosa dish of minced beef with maize and vegetables. We were the only two in our dorm which consisted of a traditional rondela and basic furnishings. Though started by a Mizungu from Germany, this lodge has over the years been passed over to the local community to run for profit, and provides jobs to over 26 locals.

 

Local Xhosa woman carrying her baby

Local Xhosa woman carrying her baby

The location was pretty stunning and I told the staff of my plan to walk, by myself to Wild Lubanzi, and then on to Coffee Bay. Despite their protestations that it was “too far” or “very difficult” and “maybe you should take a guide” …I decided that it would be an adventure and I was up for it.
How hard could it be to hike up and down along a coastline till you found the next town?
Well, as it turned out…it was VERY hard! The path ended up not being very clearly marked and I kept having to guess whether I should walk along the beach or rocks (not also really knowing about tides) or whether I needed to go up and walk along the top of the hills before descending to the next valley. Overall, the trial and error approach took a lot of time and was utterly exhausting – even though I was carrying a very pared down version of my luggage (the hostel was kindly transporting the rest of my bags to Coffee Bay to meet me there in 2 days).

Setting off from Bulungula

Setting off from Bulungula

I was coming to the end of the first day’s trail and the map indicated that Wild Lubanzi, my hostel, should be easily approached via the west side of a lake and easily up on a hill directly in front of it. This turned out to be a lot more complicated than I had anticipated as there was no clear path after the lake. There were some sand dunes that I attempted to climb in 3 separate locations, each time coming to the edge of a forest that was so thick as to be impenetrable via walking.
Growing frustrated and very tired/hungry – I tried to go around the lake to see if there might be any sign of a trail behind it. There was a vague looking one which I started then to climb. I heard the sound of wood being chopped and I was overjoyed at the prospect of seeing another human being who might be able to direct me. Sure enough, the man smiled and gesticulated that I keep going up and up and then turn right when I hit the road.

Wild Lubanzi Hostel - so glad to finally arrive

Wild Lubanzi Hostel – so glad to finally arrive

It was a right at the road, but then also a left, another hill, and then another right. When I finally arrived at the hostel, I didn’t even have the strength to go in the front entrance and made my way in through the kitchen and made my presence known. The staff were welcoming in a way, though they immediately launched into a diatribe about how impossible it is to get lost, and how on earth I could have had difficulty navigating my way from the lake. This really pissed me off, but once I’d had a “rocket shower” (shower powered with liquid paraffin) and had a large beer in my hand, I was much happier.
Even better, I was reunited with Ashley who had driven up from Coffee Bay for the night and she was joined by a nice young Dutch guy who’d hiked in from Coffee Bay that morning. His tales of how arduous the trail was did not exacty fill me with positive feelings for my next day’s sojourn, but I was adamant to give it a go.

 

Small Xhosa kids in the villages I passed

Small Xhosa kids in the villages I passed

Unfortunately, my cough had also worsened and I was hacking like a smoking witch. In the morning, I even considered ditching my plan and driving to Coffee Bay, or even heading up to my next destination in the Drakensburg a day early and take some time to recover. But not being one to give up – ever – I decided to push on.

Inquiring about the trail itself, I was warned that low tide wasn’t until 4pm and that it would make the river virtually impassable earlier in the day. I would be forced to walk a ways up river till I find a place shallow enough to cross, and that could add another few miles to my journey that day.

Gulp.

As it turned out – I had quite a funny time crossing that damn river. I got to the water’s edge right by the famous “hole in the wall” rock formation that was really stunning to view. The waves were rolling in and it looked very deep indeed. However, there were some locals working on the beach on the other side of the river crossing who waved to me and pointed at a spot that seemed to indicate was the best place for me to try and cross.

IMG_0452Already tired and really not wanting to add more mileage to my day, I decided that I’d give it a go anyways…it couldn’t hurt getting a little wet, right?

Well. I got a lot wet. As I approached the middle of the 50 meter or so wide river…waves starting hiting me almost at neck level and I felt with dismay, my backpack getting heavier as it took on water together with its contents! My boots strung around my neck were also victim to the deep sea water that at some points lifted me entirely off my feet forcing me to swim. After what seemed like an eternity, I could feel the sand get closer to my feet and I struggled out of the river on the other side. The men were all laughing at me as I sat on the rocks and assessed the damage to my bag’s contents.
Luckily, the camera was fine as I’d stashed it in a plastic ziploc (thank god, I’d already destroyed one camera on this trip with water damage) and about one t-shirt was still slightly dry…everything else had to be wrung out and my boots simply squelched with salt water for the rest of the 16km hike.
I was, however, very fortunate with the weather and the shining sun helped to keep me warm despite my sopping clothes and bag. TWELVE times I counted having to ascend 4-800 vertical feet to navigate around a headland where the beach/coastline was impassable. Each hill I came to, I thought, Coffee Bay has GOT to be around the next corner…and each time my heart sunk.

Coffee Bay

Coffee Bay

When I finally arrived, hacking away, I was truly bedraggled and exhausted – but elated. I felt such a sense of accomplishment, especially since all the black people I ran into expressed shock that I was walking so far, and all the white people I ran into expressed shock that I was walking so far, and by myself. “You really should be careful, you know?” – they would say…and I would think “well, short of deciding NOT to hike this trail alone – how else do you expect me to be careful?”
I really hadn’t felt in the least bit threatened by any of the locals I came across – most of them smiled and waved or looked at me, aghast at my crazy decision to walk so far, alone. The greatest danger I found myself in was most definitely in the form of the six or so dogs that decided I was an intruder on their owner’s land and proceeded to run after me gnarling fiercely to the point where my heart almost stopped. None of them bit, thank god, and I made it to Coffee Bay in one piece…mostly.

I immediately enquired as to whether I might be able to procure a massage for my aching body – and was told to go ask after Carl at the other backpackers in town – Bomvu. I walked across the road to Bomvu and what I found in no way resembled a hostel. It was more like a movie set of the next slasher movie “Hostel Part 3 – South African ­­Bloodbath”. Half of the place had clearly been in a fire, the place was deserted and there was no sign of Carl or a massage therapy office (which I’d been told was separate to the hostel) It had major creepy factor. I felt sorry for any hapless tourist who’d been allowed to make a reservation here and turned up to this. Giving up, I came back to Coffee Shack for dinner and ran into Carl who was dining there. Happy to give me a massage at 10am the next day, I was thrilled until he told me I should meet him at Bomvu.

Yeah. Like hell I would!!

No, thanks. I’d like to live to see another day.

The Garden Route Part II: The Crags

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Heading out on the Salt River Hike

Heading out on the Salt River Hike

My next stop along the Garden Route was to be at a place called The Crags – close to Knysna, Storms River, and other small towns along The Garden Route and close to Tsitsikamma National Park. The hostel had been recommended to me because of its beautiful location – though I was warned that it was slightly “hippy” in atmosphere.

Sure enough, there were drumming circles, copious instructions on composting/recycling, dreadlocked folk strumming guitars, yoga/meditation classes, and lots of cats and dogs roaming freely amongst the chilled out backpackers who all regaled their story of coming to Wild Spirit for two nights – and staying for seven. I was planning on staying for two nights and stuck to my plan.

Not that I didn’t enjoy the place – on the contrary, I made a nice little circle of friends, and the home cooked food was otherworldly. The whole lodge is set against a backdrop of lush forest that peters out towards the ocean. The bar area was built literally around a giant tree that was covered with fairy lights creating a lovely atmosphere in the albeit very chilly evenings. In the main lounge, folks fought for a space on one of the giant sofas with the gigantic dogs who seemed to own the most coveted spots around the open fireplace. It was very cozy indeed.

A cute little Dassie in Storms River

A cute little Dassie in Storms River

Unfortunately, I had come down with a bad cough after my bike ride in Outsdhoorn so I wanted to take it a little easy on my first day. I had made a new friend in Ashley – a girl whom on first appearance I was sure I wouldn’t get along with and who subsequently surprised me with her genuine, fun spirit. She was a total self-professed hippie, with giant purple and turquoise dreads, lots of piercings and tattoos adorning large swaths of flesh. She also had an extremely interesting career producing fetish videos – which led to lots of very interesting conversations. On the first day, I was disappointed to discover that Untouched Adventures (a company offering a kayak and “lilo” experience up the channel in Storms River) was too far away to send a shuttle for me to participate in their tour. I was delighted therefore to meet up with a lovely English couple, who’d just gotten engaged(!) named John and XXXX who over breakfast, informed me of their plan to do the afternoon kayak tour and offered to take me with them in their rental car.

Glad to have a little rest to blog in the morning, I happily joined them – and since she’d gotten back from having completed the world’s highest bungee jump that am, Ashley came along too. On arrival at Tsitsikamma National Park, we found that Jake (from Outsdhoorn and the bus) had also signed up for the afternoon adventure…making us a happy little group of 5. Still not feeling great, I opted to rent a full wetsuit in case I worsened my symptoms paddling upstream on a lilo in frigid brackish water.

Storms River

Storms River

On our "Lilos" in Storms River Gorge

On our “Lilos” in Storms River Gorge

The landscape was really beautiful and verdant – and we walked along the coastline for about a half mile before coming to the mouth of the river where we were to put in our kayaks to paddle up the Storms River Gorge. The gorge itself was stunning and reminded me a little of both The Narrows in Zion National Park, and Wadi Mujib in Jordan…I love places where you can be in the water with towering rock walls jutting up alongside you enclosing you in the magic that lies between them. All told, the kayaking was very short indeed which was a little disappointing, though I was looking forward to the “lilo” section as I can honestly say I have never ever paddled myself upstream on a river laying on one. This was one of those “firsts” that get rarer with age and the amount of travel that I am lucky enough to do. This was when I was truly grateful to have rented the wetsuit as we laid belly down and swiftly used our hands to continue our way up the gorge. Again, we didn’t go very far, but we enjoyed the experience and the setting nonetheless. A few bold cliff jumps into the water completed the excursion before it was time to kayak back to our starting point.

After, our newly founded little group got wine and seafood at the café and heard the story of how John had proposed. It was a very memorable day made all the more special by the live music that awaited us at the hostel upon our return home.

The Wild Spirit Backpackers at The Crags

The Wild Spirit Backpackers at The Crags

The bus was going to be picking both me and Ashley up the next day in the evening to take us to Port Elizabeth where we would be forced to spend the night in order to catch the next vehicle heading to our next destination – the Wild Coast. I was super excited to have made an alteration to my planned itinerary upon learning that it was possible to do a 3 night/2 day hike along the coast (think up hills, down hills, along beaches, up and inland, across inland, rinse and repeat for a very long time) and had booked nights at Bulungula Inn for my first night, Wild Lubanzi for my second, and ending my trip in Coffee Bay (where I had originally intended on staying for two nights.)

Determined not to let a silly cold/cough hold me back, Ashley and a few others opted to do the famed Salt River hike that day which is supposed to give you a snapshot feel for all that the Garden Route is famous for – Fynbos, trees, rivers, beaches, and beautiful scenery. This trail would lead us to the ending point of the famed Otter Trail – a five day hike that gets booked years in advance. Though feeling a little rough, I managed to keep up with the girls as we set out on our intended loop – aiming to be back to the hostel in time to shower, change and hop on the bus to Port Elizabeth.

The map that our hostel owner had given us lent itself to extreme frustration as none of the markings were accurate or helped us orient ourselves. We eventually had to just rely on our sight and logic and made our way along the beach to the restaurant at the end of the Otter trail where we ordered a lovely lunch. Since I wasn’t feeling great, we opted to take the slightly shorter route back up to the starting point, where we got picked up.

Ashley and me

Ashley and me

Ashley and I had a lovely day and discovered that we actually have a lot in common and eerily similar backgrounds in terms of our religious childhoods. It was a lovely day, and we were glad to have some down time before having to re-join the bus (where Lea and Jake also joined us) as we headed to PE for the night.

The Garden Route Part I: Wine and Ostrich Country

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Heading out on our bike tour of Stellenbosch

Heading out on our bike tour of Stellenbosch

My lovely tent mate, Maud, and I headed out from Cape Town and met up in Stellenbosch for some girl time with wine. I had purchased a Baz Bus ticket that allowed me 14 days of unlimited hop on and off transport between Cape Town and Johannesburg. I had a rough itinerary already planned out ( I know, you’re shocked by that!) but was open and willing to make changes along the way should the mood strike or I received a significant personal recommendation.

I knew I wanted to have at least one day in Stellenbosch as a good starting point for my embarking on independent travel. And I was thrilled that Maud was up to meet me there, and go on a biking wine tour.

We were super lucky in that we were the only two people booked on the tour and it was a beautiful sunny day. We met with our guide and started the tour with a cycle around the main town of Stellenbosch and campus of the large university the town is also famous for. The town is framed by the most stunning countryside and mountains and I was thoroughly enjoying being out of the big city, breathing in the fresh air, and enjoying the exercise.

We visited two wineries, both of which were in stunning settings. The first had such an incredible backdrop of lake and mountains that the photos we shot during our tasting looked artificially superimposed. See for yourself!

Lake and mountain view at the vineyard

Lake and mountain view at the vineyard

Right?

Feeling quite tipsy and thoroughly happy after our ride, Maud and I enjoyed a lovely coffee and Belgian waffle on a trendy café-lined street before both going to get haircuts. Unfortunately, my hairdresser decided to cut an extra inch off the right side of my head vs. the left side, and I only noticed upon our return to our hostel…which ended up being an adventure in and of it!

Thoroughly looking forward to a home-made tuna salad, we asked around as to where we might find a cab to drive us to our hostel. No-one seemed to know where we might be able to locate one and we started to grow slightly nervous. We walked to several in-city hostels and we were told that cabs stopped operating at 5pm! What?!!

Don't I look super-imposed onto a green screen in this picture??!

Don’t I look super-imposed onto a green screen in this picture??!

Eventually, a kind hotel shuttle driver offered to drop us off, and we were saved from our complacent “I’m used to being in Cape Town” attitudes.

We enjoyed a lovely evening’s company with our dorm mates who were Peace Corps volunteers from the States working in Zambia. They told us some fascinating stories about the challenging projects they’d been occupied with in the rural center of that country. One of the more memorable, was the locals’ preference for “dry sex”. What on earth is “dry sex”, I hear you ask.

Maud and I chatting with the Peace Corps Volunteers

Maud and I chatting with the Peace Corps Volunteers

Well, I was fascinated to learn as well. Dry sex is sex where there is no internal lubrication in the woman. In fact, along with ensuring (of course) that the woman is not aroused before intercourse, young women in some Zambian villages are literally taught how to dry out their vaginas using certain leaves/herbs in order to please their husbands – who’s preference is for the sex to be nice and rough…ergo “Dry”. The reason the volunteers even got involved in this discussion is because in their health care education efforts, it is important for locals not to engage in this practice as the resulting abrasions vastly increase the chances of spreading the HIV virus which is rampant in Zambia.

Asking them how their efforts at condom education fared – their response was equally disheartening. They told us that locals would say “Well, when I bake a nice juicy chicken, I don’t put it in a plastic bag before I enjoy eating it…!”

Yeah…it’s like that.

From Stellenbosch I said my farewell to Maud and boarded my Baz Bus to my first stop on the famed Garden Route – Outsdhoorn – world capital of the ostrich!

Ostriches in the Ostrich capital of the world

Ostriches in the Ostrich capital of the world

I stayed at Backpacker’s Paradise and it really was one of the nicest hostels I’ve ever stayed at. And it was a paradise for me when I found out on arrival that one of the manager’s was also a masseuse and was willing to give me a massage that evening. It was not only the best massage I’ve had on this trip so far, it was the best massage of my life!

Dinner that night was ostrich meat, roast potatoes and salad.   I ate with a highly immature group of five English girls who giggled hysterically in between their ceaseless chatter about boys they’d hooked up with at last year’s Glastonbury festival. Ahhhh….hostels! Yet again, I discover that I’ve been traveling and staying in hostels since I was 17 alongside the other 18-25 year olds. The only problem is – I’m now 39, but the other backpackers have stayed the same age! What is nice, however, is that with age comes the ability to fend off peer pressure and truly do what one feels is in one’s best interest. For me, it was having my dinner and heading straight to sleep.

Outsdhoorn proved to offer quite an adventurous, strenuous day trip which consisted of being driven to the top of Swartberg Pass (1568 M) and then dropped off with a mountain bike for a 56km (about half downhill) adventure. The weather at the top of the pass was drastically different due to the elevation, and I was glad that I had brought lots of warm layers and my wooly hat! The ride literally started off in the clouds, but it wasn’t too long before I descended below the cloud line and found myself whizzing past green pastures full of ostriches, and rolling hills. It was just lovely.

 

Biking down from Swartberg Pass

Biking down from Swartberg Pass

 

The other main attraction in the area is the Cango Caves. Having visited lots of caves during my trip in South America last summer, I wasn’t too enthused about going – but I decided to at least go check out the visitor center and decide if I wanted to do the full tour or not.

The pictures at the ticket booth were pretty impressive so I signed up for the 90 minutes “adventure” tour – touted as being as close to splunking minus equipment that a person can get.

The cave tour actually far surpassed my expectations – the main caverns were enormous and were beautifully lit to highlight the wonderful stalagmite and stalactite formations. As the guided group continued deeper into the cave, the passages got narrower and trickier to get through. Our guide, Theo (a Xhosa) was hilarious telling us stories of fat tourists who’d gotten themselves stuck in some of the passageways and had to get extricated using copious amounts of grease lubricant. Some of the passageways were rather panic-inducing, but I was proud of myself for getting through it.   Unlike many cave systems I’ve been in, this one has no oxygen supply save for the initial opening, so you could really feel the air getting thinner the further you progressed into the cave.

The wonderful stalagmite and stalactite formations

The wonderful stalagmite and stalactite formations

At the turnaround point, there was a section that you had to slide down, head first on your tummy in order to squeeze your way through. A few of the larger men in the group had to turn around and come back a different way. It was challenging, but I managed to squeeze through feeling like I was re-enacting my entry to this world through the birth canal. We were all reminded of this when someone commented that the tunnel “opening” looked like a woman giving birth, and as the last tourist slid on out, Theo announced “And it’s a boy!” – and we all had a good laugh.

The rest of the ride back to town was actually quite arduous and I was glad for all the water I’d brought. I was eager to get to the farmhouse that had been recommended to us as having wonderful cakes and tea as I was getting hungry – only to discover that they were closed! The last six kilometers back to the hostel were the longest I’d ever ridden and I walked back into the lobby absolutely famished.

I ordered a piece of carrot cake and a coffee and sat relishing both as I rested my weary muscles.

My "French" evening in Outsdhoorn

My “French” evening in Outsdhoorn

That evening turned out to be rather “French”. I had met a French-Canadian on the bus named Lea (who I continually re-met at various stops along the Baz Bus route as the trip continued) and an American named Jake who was rather fluent in French having just lived in La Reunion these past six months.   Then, two guys from Lyon showed up complete in their V-neck sweaters and matching scarves – and we all went out for a meal which turned out to be dominated with French conversation. Despite struggling a little to keep up and understand – I was decidedly happier with the conversation.

 

My Return to Cape Town – 14 years later

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Gorgeous Cape Town's Skyline

Gorgeous Cape Town’s Skyline

I visited Cape Town in the December of 2001 with Semester at Sea.  It had made quite the impression on me then and I had counted it in the top three cities in the world, for me.  I was so looking forward to returning and doing the activities that I hadn’t had the time to on my visit fourteen years prior!

Entering the city on our rented bus, I was sorry to hear Pete (who’d come instead of Tabby because she can’t get a SA visa with a Kenyan passport) tell us to be really careful in Cape Town because it’s the most dangerous place the tour goes.  I was looking forward to walking around by myself, but I realized that I was still going to have to be cautious, especially in the evening, and take cabs/carry little etc.

On arrival at our hostel, The Ashanti Gardens, I was very happy to see beautiful Table Mountain right from the deck.  The air was cool and a welcome 15 degrees celcius.  That evening I enjoyed the best meal of the trip so far when I ordered “The Game Platter” which consisted of Ostrich, Springbok, Gemsbok, and Wilderbeest Ribs.  Damn.  So good.

Bench outside city magistrates court

Bench outside city magistrates court

On my first day in the big city – I ventured downtown to take the Free Walking Tour – these guides rely entirely on tips, so the quality of tour usually is reflected.  I wasn’t disappointed – it was a great introduction to the main commercial/political city centre; we even had the opportunity to observe a protest march passing right by the main town hall where Nelson Mandela made his first speech after being released from prison.

On a more sombre note, we visited the main city courtroom where people had to go during the Apartheid regime to get classified into a “race category”, of which there were five to start, eventually the government deciding on eleven categories, which, hysterically, included “honorary white” – to enable Japanese or Chinese dignataries/athletes/journalists etc. to be allowed to visit South Africa and be afforded the same privileges of movement as white people.  People would first have to pass what they called the “Pencil Test”.  If a pencil fell out of their hair, they were classified as white.  If it stayed, then they had to proceed to the court hearing to be classified.

Square with the slaves' memorial

Square with the slaves’ memorial

Our guide told us a few horror stories of families being physically separated after individuals who were related to one another were deemed to belong to different races because of having perhaps lighter or darker skin.  Couples, siblings, even parents and children could be separated and forced to live in different sections of the city.

Of the categories that were created, a few have survived and are used in everyday speech – White, Black, Colored, and Asian.  The use of the word “colored” has been the most interesting to me as it refers to people of mixed race, and has made me realize how strange it is that back home, we refer to those of mixed race, such as President Obama, as black.  Slightly black = black in the States.  This has been fascinating to ask locals about and I will dedicate an entire post to my thoughts on this topic later on.

V & A Waterfront

V & A Waterfront

Our guide also showed us where the slaves that were brought to the Cape were housed upon first arrival.  The Dutch settled the cape in the 1800’s but had to bring in slaves because they needed a workforce to build the city, and they were also in need of women to help populate the area.  Every Saturday, female slaves – from Madagascar, Malawi, Mozambique, Malaysia (to name a few countries) would be rounded up outside in the square for the men to take pleasure with.  He said that it is estimated, now, that every “white” South African can actually attribute at least 8% of their DNA to this initial slave gene pool.

Which means, if correct, that the very men who wrote Apartheid into the constitution, were part black themselves.  An idea, which meets with tremendous resistance among some nationals here (as attested to my bringing it up in some conversations over the last few weeks, as a data gathering experiment).

In the park, we were shown a fully albino squirrel and were told that he’d been nicknamed “Apartheid Squirrel” and has his very own twitter feed… Funny.

#ApartheidSquirrel

#ApartheidSquirrel

Later that evening I met up with my friend Martin Slabber.  Martin and I were on a tour together in Chile back in 2008 and it was delightful to catch up.  He and his wife and his new baby Max picked me up in their car (well, the baby had little to do with it) and drove me to their home in beautiful Hout Bay where they live.  It’s about a half hour drive from Cape Town and it has quite a stunning beach setting with dramatic hills that rise up out of the ocean in jagged spectacle.  We picked up pizza take out and shared life’s stories over a lovely bottle of red wine.

It was so good to spend an evening in a person’s home after so long on the road.  Thank you Martin!

My visit with "Ice Bru" and Bob Vela!!

My visit with “Ice Bru” and Bob Vela!!

I hadn’t gone to Robben Island back in 2001, and nowadays, the visit to the infamous prison is one of the top visitor attractions, and most tours sell out days in advance.  I got my ticket online and visited one afternoon.  Though the boat service/tour was poorly organized, I was really glad that I went to experience the place for myself.  I really got a sense of what it must have been like for prisoners like Mandela, to be taunted daily with such a beautiful view of Cape Town’s Table Mountain, always out of reach.  We visited the rock quarry where prisoners were made to perform hard labor, often which was pointless and therefore soul-destroying, such as moving large rocks from one area to another, only to be forced to move them back the next day.

On Robben Island, the quarry where prisoners' worked

On Robben Island, the quarry where prisoners’ worked

The most disturbing thing I learned at the prison is best summarized by the attached photo.  During apartheid, a person’s skin color could literally determine where they were “allowed” to live, whether they could move freely in a city, and whether they had to carry a pass, or face being beaten or thrown in jail.  Here on Robben Island, it was taken a step further and the food that the prisoners were fed was different for coloreds vs. Blacks (that they deprecatingly referred to as Bantu) Of course, at Robben Island, there was no meal plan for whites because a white prisoner would never be sent there.

Menu at the prison for different races

Menu at the prison for different races

My final day in Cape Town, I got to do something I’d been waiting 14 years to do.  Great White Shark cage diving.  I was supposed to go back in 2001 but the trip got canceled due to bad weather.  While the activity is somewhat controversial, our company did a decent job of sharing their efforts in Shark conservation and explaining that they don’t feed the animals, they only attract them to the vessel and use the opportunity to study their behavior at the same time.

Mandela's cell

Mandela’s cell

Unfortunately, as excited as I was, not even the seasickness medication I took ahead of time was adequate in preparing me for the rolling waves that we had to sit through for over three hours on the open water.  Spotting the first shark was thrilling, and I made my best efforts to try and capture the moments on my camera, but after 15 minutes or so I began to feel queasy.

Me trying to keep food down in the shark cage

Me trying to keep food down in the shark cage

I spent most of the rest of the trip laying down at the front of the boat just trying to keep my breakfast down – and failing to:-(  I did, however, go into the cage – as the marine biologists on board assured me that the nausea would be alleviated somewhat.

It didn’t really help, especially since the girl to my right was still puking right into the surf as we clung together to the metal bars of the cage.  There was definitely a few very memorable moments when the sharks swam straight towards our faces, but with the sea as rough as it was, it was very difficult to remain steady underwater while holding one’s breath at the same time.

I’m still glad that I did it, but it certainly wasn’t what I’d been expecting.