But For the Sky

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Best Of Southern and Eastern Africa

Our three and a half months in Africa were extremely varied: we marveled at some beautiful landscapes, had some wonderful wildlife experiences, got to travel with friends, summited a mountain, endured some really rough and uncomfortable overland travel, dealt with some frustrating logisitcal setbacks, and overcame a bit of a "what are our goals here?" phase. Overall, we will remember Africa fondly and cannot wait to get back and explore this humongous continent that we barely scratched the surface of. What follows is a list of some of our favorite places and experiences in South Africa, Mozambique, Malawi, Tanzania, and Uganda.

Best City: It's a tie between stunning and fascinating Cape Town, South Africa and  Stone Town, Zanzibar Island, Tanzania, which maintains a surprisingly genuine feel despite the number of visitors this small city receives.

Cape Town at Sunset

Cape Town at Sunset

Friendliest People: It was unexpected, especially after the famously friendly people of Malawi, but we thought Tanzanians were tops.

Best Accommodation: This one is tough, but we concluded with a tie between Wild Spirit (Nature's Valley, South Africa), where we immediately felt at home with the warm family who runs it, and Lake Shore Lodge and Camping (Lake Tanganyika, Tanzania), where we treated ourselves to a bit of modern luxury and pampering, western Tanzania style!

Best Safari Park: Decisions are tough, so another tie: Serengeti National Park (Nick's pick) because of the cats and Ngorongoro Crater Conservation Area (Claudia's pick) because of the scenery and sheer numbers of animals (both in northern Tanzania).

Giraffes at Ngorongoro Crater, Tanzania

Giraffes at Ngorongoro Crater, Tanzania

Best Sidetrip: Hands down our three-day horseback trip from the Drakensberg Mountains in South Africa into Sehlahatebe National Park in Lesotho.

Best Wildlife Experience: We were enamored with our experience chimp tracking in Gombe Stream National Park, Lake Tanganyika, Tanzania.

Best Diving: Nothing beat the colorful fish,  morays, and huge manta ray in the gorgeous blue water at Giant's Castle, Tofo, Mozambique.

Best Adrenaline Rush: We had a blast Class V White Water Rafting on the Nile River in Bujagali Falls, Uganda.

Best Lake: We couldn't get enough of the beautiful and serene Lake Tanganyika, Tanzania.

Claudia Kayaking on Lake Tanganyika

Claudia Kayaking on Lake Tanganyika

Best Border Crossing: Our horseback crossing from South Africa to Lesotho and back sure beats public transportation!

Best Sunset: Seeing the sun go down over the Nile River near its source (Bujagali Falls, Uganda).

Sunset over the Nile

Sunset over the Nile

Best Live Music Experience: Seeing a reggae band play in Nkhata Bay, Malawi.

Best Beer:Another tie: Castle Milk Stout (Nick's pick), South Africa, and Nile Special (Claudia's Pick), Uganda.

Best Hot Sauce: Nali Hot Sauce, Malawi.

Best Achievement: These two are quite different, but we're proud of both of them for different reasons: Climbing to the top of Mt. Kilimanjaro, Tanzania, and getting overland on buses and boats from Malawi through western Tanzania to Gombe Stream National Park.
On Top of Africa, Mt. Kilimanjaro, Tanzania

On Top of Africa, Mt. Kilimanjaro, Tanzania

Stuck in the Mud in Western Tanzania

Stuck in the Mud in Western Tanzania

Best Meal: Grilled lobster and tons of other delicacies on New Year's Eve at the Karafuu, Michamvi Penninsula, Zanzibar.

Best Cuisine: Cape Malay food, a fusion of Indian, Malaysian, and European influences, in Cape Town, South Africa.

Best Chicken and Chips: We never thought we'd be praising this dish after having to eat it more times than we care to remember, but the perfectly cooked and seasoned fried chicken and chips from a stand in the Mengo neighborhood roadside market (Kampala, Uganda) was a fitting final meal on our last night in Africa.

Best Burger: We still daydream about the burgers we ate at Royale Eatery, Cape Town, South Africa (and the milkshakes were great too!).

Video Dump 3: Argentina, South Africa

Whoops, it's been a little too long since we went back and found all the videos that didn't make their way into a blog post, so this round-up takes us all the way back to the end of our South America leg, and into the beginning of our Africa leg!

First, a huge drum troupe walking through the streets of our Buenos Aires neighborhood, preceded by a gaggle of blissful dancers:

Next, a group of Bolivians showing off a traditional dance at the Mataderos street fair:

Moving over to Africa, here's a quick view of Cape Town's famed Table Mountain being covered by its "tablecloth":

Finally, moments after Claudia and I took our turns riding ostriches, the professionals took over and showed us how it's done:

Yum: Amarula

The Spirit of Africa

The Spirit of Africa

Within a few minutes of leaving the Kruger, we spotted a sign telling us that The Birthplace of Amarula was only a mere 13 km away. For those of you who are not familiar with Amarula, it is the second most popular cream liquor in the world (Bailey's is obviously first, and frankly I can't even think of a third or fourth cream liquor...). I may have had a mild obsession with the stuff a few years ago, and I still use it in baked goods once in a while (Amarula frosting on chocolate cupcakes is tops!).

While it was not yet noon, we couldn't resist to take the quick detour. After all, what are the chances we would happen upon the very birthplace in rural South Africa of this lovely cordial? When we arrived, we were greeted with a glass of Amarula on ice, and told that it was not currently production season, so instead of a tour of the processing area, we would be shown a DVD. The DVD took us through the production process, from marula fruits to the final product. We learned that the marula tree cannot be cultivated; the trees grow wild in the area and local villagers collect the fruits and sell them to the company by the kilo. The marula tree is also called 'the elephant tree' because elephants love to eat the fruits. We also learned that Amarula was first produced as a spirit, but it was so strong (over 100 proof) that people were literally dying. Dying! But someone had the bright idea to dilute the stuff with a bit of cream, and the rest is history.

The visit was one of the randomest detours we took on our South African road trip, but it was rewarding: I was happy to learn about the company's investment in and connection with the local community through their method of harvesting and various other projects, and drinking an ice-cold glass of Amarula right from the source reminded me a bit of home in an odd but comforting way.

The Birthplace of Amarula

The Birthplace of Amarula

The Kruger

Our final stop in South Africa was the famous Kruger National Park, world renowned for excellent game viewing. Some people had suggested we spent as long as a week in the park because it is so large and the landscape so varied, but we put aside three days and in the end it was the perfect amount of time for us. The park straddles the Mozambique border for about 350 km (where it is connected to Mozambique's Limpopo National Park) and reaches all the way north to Zimbabwe. Pretty much every South African we met during our travels told us we HAD to go to "The Kruger" and "oh, you will LOVE The Kruger!", and love it we did.

We arrived at the park late in the afternoon on the first day, so we had about an hour to do a quick drive before we had to get to our camp (the gates close at a certain time, usually around 6 pm, so you have to get in by then to avoid a hefty fine). Our eyes were tired from the 8 hours we had driven to get to the park, but we still saw giraffes, white rhinos, and impalas. When we got to our camp, we set up our tent and then headed to the restaurant for some surprisingly reasonably priced gin and tonics, which we drank on the patio while listening to lions roaring in the distance!

Baby Warthogs!

Baby Warthogs!

The next morning we got an early start for the long drive to the next camp. Distances may seem small in these parks, but speed limits are 50 kph on the paved roads and 40 kph on the unpaved roads, plus you'll often stop for 5 minutes or more when spotting wildlife, so covering long distances can be time-consuming. The camp we picked on the second night ended up taking us about 6 hours to drive to, but we were lucky enough along the way to see all of the "big five" (buffalo, lion, leopard, elephant, rhino). White rhinos (not actually white in color) were pretty much everywhere, as were warthogs, baboons, and giraffes. Impala, which look like small deer, were so ubiquitous that we quickly started calling them "snacks" every time we would spot a bunch, since they're popular prey for the predators. Several animals--especially baboons, rhinos, elephants, giraffes, and warthogs--had babies with them, which was pretty adorable.

After a couple hours on the road, we saw a large group of cars stopped ahead in the road and as we got closer we learned that there was a leopard sitting in a tree not too far off. This was one of our favorite sightings; there is something I find so majestic about all the big cats, but seeing a leopard hanging out on a tree limb is a very rare treat, and we relished the opportunity to watch it stalk around the tree's branches and laze away the day. Having binoculars was key, as the cats don't seem to spend time in trees that are very near to the park's roads.

Leopard in Tree

Leopard in Tree

Not too long after the leopard sighting, we again came to a group of cars stopped on a road, this time because four cheetahs were crossing it right in front of us! This was my personal favorite sighting: as I said, I just love the big cats, and I had not been expecting to see a cheetah (there are only an estimated 200 in the entire park), let alone four so close up. The neat thing was that they weren't running away from the cars and into the grass. Once they nonchalantly crossed the road, a few of them hung around on the side of it for a few minutes, and slowly they all made their way deeper into the plain. Later that afternoon, when we were very satisfied with our sightings and the only part of the "big five" we hadn't seen was a lion, I spotted two of them napping in the grass about two meters from the road. It was exciting to actually spot the animals, insead of just slowing down because we saw other cars who had already seen something. A few minutes later, satisfied with the day's success, we pulled into our camp.

That evening, we signed up for a night drive at the camp where we were staying. Since the camp gates close in the early evening, the only way to see animals at night is to go on a safari drive organized through the camp. While many of the animals we saw during this drive just looked like a red pair of eyes in the distance, at one point our jeep was right next to three large male lions who were napping. Our jeep's noise and lights woke them up, and they gazed at us nonchalantly as we stared back for about ten minutes. Being so close to lions can be pretty exhilarating; it seems that all they would need to do is jump up and we'd turn into snacks as well!

Lion on Night Drive

Lion on Night Drive

It was hard to top our first day, so for the next two we took it easy and didn't try to cover too much distance. In the middle part of the day, many of the animals rest, and thus game viewing is fairly difficult. All the camps have restaurants and almost all have swimming pools, so those are two ways to spend these hot hours. The further north we drove, the less varied wildlife we saw and on the third day we almost exclusively only saw elephants.

One question that a lot of people ask is "aren't you scared of camping in the middle of a game park?" The answer is no: the camps are fenced in, so it's not like a lion could come up to your tent and eat you alive. However, some animals such as vervet monkeys do run free in the camps, and one evening, we even saw an African wild cat, which looks mostly like a larger, meaner version of the domestic cats we're used to. One thing that is a little unnerving about the camp situation is that at night hyenas sometimes patrol the fences looking for a handout, even though there are signs everywhere reminding the humans not to feed the wildlife. We camped close to the fence two of the three nights we stayed in the park and both nights we saw (and heard) hyenas walking back and forth mere meters away from us on the other side of the fence!

Giraffe with Zebra

Giraffe with Zebra

Our experience in the Kruger was definitely rewarding, and I would recommend a visit here to anyone traveling in South Africa. The camps are set up well, the entrance fees are quite affordable compared to game parks in other countries (about $26/day), and it's easy to drive yourself around the park (during the day), obviating the need to pay for guided drives. We're looking forward to our next safari adventure in Tanzania!

General Info: The park can be visited in just a day, but 2-3 is better. You can reserve campsites and other kinds of accommodation online here. Wildlife drives can be booked at the gates and rest camps. For more info on the Wild Card, which gains you entry to all parks in the SAN system, see our Addo post.

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The Amphitheater: “South Africa’s Best Day Hike”

Note: for no particularly good reason, we split the narration up between us. Claudia goes first:

Claudia's Part

After our excursion in Lesotho, we made our way to a lovely backpackers' called Karma in the "Northern Berg". It is the closest to the start of the famous Amphitheatre day hike, which was the main reason we were stopping in the area, besides the fact that it broke up what would be too long a drive between the "Southern Berg" and Kruger National Park. The Amphitheatre is an 8 km-long trail around the back of the dramatic escarpment known as the Amphitheater, an 500m-tall and 5km-long semicircle of sheer rock.

We'd heard from a few other backpackers' owners that Karma's owners are incredibly sweet, and that they'll provide lots of info on nearby hikes and things to do. The other well known hostel in the area, Amphitheater Backpackers, has a reputation for telling their guests that they cannot do the Amphitheatre hike without a guide, and pushing them into paying for one (which costs upwards of $70/person!).

When we woke up, it was a lovely sunny day with a breeze and looked perfect for a hike. I asked Karma's owner, Vera Ann, whether she knew what the weather was supposed to be and her response was, "Well, it looks warm with a bit of wind now, but if you want a prediction you'll have to check the Internet because I'm afraid my weather prediction was terribly wrong last weekend!" Good enough; we didn't think any more about it. We packed some snacks and the maps she lent us and set out on the hour drive to the trailhead. The drive was pretty straighforward until the last 7 km, which was a windy and rocky dirt road. (Sidenote: rental cars go through quite a lot of abuse.) At a few points the rocks were so bad that I actually said, "Well, the good news is that this drive will probably be the toughest part of our day!". I'm hilarious.

The start of the hike was very windy, but in some ways it was a nice relief from the hot sun. The trail was pretty clear and the ascent was gentle. We had views of the mountains and valleys to our right for miles. After the first part of the trail that skirts the back of the escarpment, we knew that there were supposed to be two paths to get to the top of the Amphitheatre escarpment: via the chain ladders or via a scramble up and through a gully; the latter path is supposedly hard to find and follow, and tough to descend because it's essentially a steep rock scramble. Both paths lead up to (and down from) the escarpment, a wide and flat area, and then to the Tugela Waterfall, which tumbles down the Amphitheatre 900 meters.

The Amphitheater

After about two hours of easy hiking we got to the chain ladders: two parallel iron ladders which looked to be at least 75 feet long. As I looked up them, I started to feel apprehensive. I'm not scared of heights in general, but I was scared of climbing such a long way without any kind of safety system, not to mention that the wind had really picked up by this time, and it was adding an eerie sense of danger to the situation. We sat down for a minute to take a quick rest, and then decided to start climbing the righthand ladder before we psyched ourselves out too much. Two other hikers, the only other people we would see all day, appeared and started climbing up the lefthand one. I didn't allow myself to look down, and I kept having to stop because the wind was gusting up to speeds I was sure were going to blow me right off the metal ladder. As I got close to the top, I looked up and saw that there was another ladder above that was not visible from the bottom. Great. I waited for Nick in the small area between the two ladders, and when I saw that he was a bit shaken by the climb too, I realized that it wasn't just me: that shit was scary! The second set of ladders was a bit shorter, but nonetheless frightening. the good news was that there was not a third set waiting for us. Having gotten to the top of the escarpment, I determinedly proclaimed "I am definitely not going down those ladders. We're finding the gully trail and taking that."

Nick's Part

The remainder of the trail was an easy walk alongside a mountain stream, ending in what was supposed to be a view of the waterfall, but because of a severe drought in the region, there was nothing but a trickle falling over the edge. Nonetheless, the point afforded us a postcard view of the impressive rock formation, and the national park below it. After a quick lunch, we turned around and started walking toward where we thought the gully trail should begin. After walking for ten or fifteen minutes, however, we started to see clounds gathering ahead of us, and felt a few drops of rain. We exchanged nervous glances, but kept walking because both descent trails were in roughly the same direction. In the next few minutes the ominous clouds continued to gather, and we agreed that we didn't want to be trying to find a notoriously difficult and difficult-to-find trail in the middle of a spring thunderstorm, even if that meant going back on Claudia's word and descending the scary chain ladders: "the devil you know is better than the devil you don't."

The Amphitheater from the Top

When we got to the top of the chain ladders, we got a view of more of the sky in front of us and were discouraged to see dark clouds as far as the eye could see. The wind was also picking up, but we knew what had to be done, so we gathered our courage and descended quickly and without incident. Glad that we only had a few miles of easy trail ahead of us, and that a serious scenario had perhaps been closely averted, we relaxed a bit, thinking that the worst was over.

The Weather Rolls In

As we descended, the winds continued to increase--I think they must have been at least 50mph, if not more--and the rain started in earnest. As we had both brought adequate rain gear, we knew we would be ok, but things were becoming less fun by the minute. During a particularly strong wave of wind and horizontal rain, Claudia said "I think it's about to hail". I didn't agree, but lo and behold, just seconds later, we were being pelted with balls of ice just smaller than peas. Claudia pulled her hood up and I covered my ears with a hat, we turned our backs toward the wind and kept going.

The next hour was the miserable type of one-foot-in-front-of-the-other hiking, while we negotiated the heavy rain and wind gusts strong enough to put us off balance. But before too long we were back in the safety of our car, thoroughly wet and a bit shaken, but with an immense sense of accomplishment. On the drive back, we joked that of Claudia's three big pronouncements during the day: "The drive in will probably be the worst part"; "I am NOT going down the chain ladders"; and "I think it's about to hail", only the last one came true.

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Pony Trekking in Lesotho

Lesotho is a bit of a geographic anomaly: a country smaller than the state of Maryland, high in the mountains and surrounded on all sides by South Africa. It was founded in the 19th century by the charismatic leader, King Moshoeshoe, who led his people into the mountains and negotiated a peace settlement with the war-prone Zulu leader Shaka Zulu. Since then, it has maintained its independence, as well as its economic and cultural autonomy, as the countries around it have changed significantly. Known as the Kingdom in the Sky, it is home to a proud, peaceful, and hardworking people called the Basotho (note: the names of the country, Lesotho; the people, Basotho; and their language, Sesotho rhyme with the word "tutu").

We learned about the history and culture of the Basotho people by staying in a luxurious lodge, visiting a mountain village, and admiring lots of breathtaking scenery, on a three-day pony trek with our guide, Steve, a longtime lover of Lesotho, and owner of Khotso backpackers and horse trails, as well as our new friend, Julia, who joined us for the trip up from the Wild Coast.

Riding into Lesotho

The trek started by loading the horses into a trailer and driving about an hour to the Lesotho border. Our first horseback border crossing started without incident, as we received our South African exit stamps at the quiet border post and started ascending through the no-mans-land territory preserved as a park between the two countries. After a quick lunch near the top of Bushman's Nek pass, we climbed a bit further until we passed a dilapadated barbed-wire fence, with nothing more left in most places than the vertical posts. Steve turned around and let us know that this "fence" marked the watershed division, and therefore the border to Lesotho! It was certainly our most unique border crossing so far; the only problem being that we don't have a Lesotho stamp in our passports.

For the rest of the day, we walked, trotted, and cantered (Claudia was a bit timid, but you'll be happy to know stayed on her horse for the entire trip) to our destination in the Sehlabathebe National Park. Over the course of the entire day, almost six hours of riding on small paths we only saw four people: two giggling women walking between two villages, and a man walking, closely followed by another man in a red blanket on horseback. Steve greeted both groups with a warm and booming Sesotho hello, and they smiled at all of us and replied in kind. Later, Steve told us that after we had passed the man, he realized--by the quality of the man's horse, the quality of the blanket he wore over his shoulders, and his overall demeanor--that he was likely a village chief and thus he (Steve) should have used a different, more respectful greeting.

Us Under a Rock Arch

Before we go too much further, I should let you know a little about Basotho horses and blankets, probably the two most poignant symbols of Lesotho. Both trace their origins to a single event in the 19th century. At that time, King Moshoeshoe received a gift of a fine woolen blanket and a thoroughbred English stallion from either a nobleman or trader from Europe. Surprisingly, horses were unknown to the Basotho people, but interest increased after the generous gift from the European. Unfortunately the thoroughbred proved too tall and not suited to the steep, rocky terrain of Lesotho, so it was bred with Arabian horses and North African Barbs to create the breed we rode: the small and sure-footed Basotho pony.

The Basotho blanket is an even more interesting cultural artifact. They are square, woolen blankets, like the ones found anywhere else, but also comprise the traditional dress of the Basotho people, draped over both shoulders and pinned at the chest. The blankets all have a black side and a colored side with two stripes on each; men must wear the black side out with the stripes oriented vertically, and the pin (which must not be showing) on their right shoulder (so that their right arm is exposed to hold horse reins or a spear), while women wear the blankets colored-side out with the stripes horizontal, and with the pin (which can be exposed) in the middle, so that they can use both arms to hold children or breastfeed.

All true Basotho blankets are made out of wool from Lesotho (though it is usually spun and woven in either South Africa or England), and bear an official crown insignia. They come in a variety of colors, a wide range of qualities, and numerous different patterns, and by careful observation of these things, you can learn a lot about the person wearing it. We saw blankets pattened in hearts (signifying love, and thus a traditional gift from a man to a woman, or vice-versa); one with whimsical patterns to be worn by kids; and one called "The Badges of the Brave", that Steve favored. Steve's blanket is of the highest quality, known as Siena Morena, or "Honor to the King". After the trip, we so admired the blankets and were so interested by their stories, that we purchased one to take home with us. The brand of ours means "airplane", a name that is of the utmost importance to some remote villages, where airplanes are the primary mode of contact with and transportation to the outside world. It is yellow and black, and it contains imagery of corn, and thus signifies the harvest and is one of the most important Basotho patterns.

Nick, Julia, and Steve at the Lunch Spot

At the end of the first day, we arrived at the lodge we would spend the next two nights in; expecting spartan accommodations like the shabby bunks we slept in in the Galapagos, or the tents we called home on the Huaraz trek, we were pleasantly surprised to find the lodge decadently furnished (at least for Lesotho) with plush couches and chairs, a woodfire stove, a full kitchen, gas lights, an extremely comfortable bed with warm blankets, and, perhaps best of all (though we didn't take advantage of them until the second night), luxurious, large gas-heated baths. It was built as a mountain retreat for a former king, but the lodge and the land around it were later converted into a national park. We spent the afternoon talking with Steve about Lesotho and hearing his crazy stories about his other favorite pastime: running very long distances. Steve has run a 100-mile race in Alaska in February, run from Underberg to Cape Town (1400 km, which took him 22 days!), and kayaked from Chicago to New York through the Great Lakes, among many, many other adventures. We never grew tired of hearing these stories.

After a delicious dinner of roasted chicken, mashed potatoes, and peas, a comfortable (if cold) night's sleep, and an early, traditional breakfast of porridge, we set off on our second day. We walked further Northwest, higher into the mountains, and over a ridge which afforded us an incredible view of the valley we would spend most of the day in. We saw a number of small villages and Steve told us stories about the people that lived there, new schools and meeting centers that were being built, and other plans for the future. We slowly descended the ridge down a shallow mountainside path and found ourselves in a remote village, where we saw--on the smallest and remotest scale yet--all the hallmarks of African villages we've come to recognize: round stone or mud houses with thatched roofs, proud and stately women with impossible weights delicately balanced on their heads, and curious children who love to have their pictures taken.

Riding into the Village (Note the Solar Panel outside the Rondavel)

Basotho Kids

After Steve procured some supplies from probably the least-convenient convenience store in the world, we continued along the trail further into the valley. We stopped for lunch near some millenia-old San rock paintings depicting men hunting for Eland, a large antelope-like animal which had previously been plentiful in these highlands, then continued down the valley, passing cows, goats, and wild mountain rhebok, as well as more small villages, finally climbing up through verdant pastures to return to our lodge.

San Rock Art

The last day started early and saw us wandering through more valleys, across many winding rivers, and to a beautiful waterfall falling into a protected pool. We took a different path back to the Bushman's Nek pass, through more beautiful and uninhabited valleys, across another completely dilapidated border fence, and back to the same lunch spot. While the first day had been cold, cloudy, and foggy, preventing us from seeing how amazing the view around us was, the third day was hot and nearly cloudless, and over a huge lunch of fresh-baked bread and leftover steak with South Africa's signature condiment, sweet chili sauce, we gazed many miles into South Africa.

The beginning of the descent was a bit slow as the horses needed to be walked, but once we got to the valley floor, the horses were as excited as we were to get home, and before long we crossed the border post back into South Africa, loaded up the horses, headed back to the ranch to pick up our bags and quickly shower, and were back in the car and on the way to our next destination in the Northern Drakensberg for the famous Amphitheater hike.

The View from Bushman's Nek Pass

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Sehlabathebe

The Wild Coast

Having had our temporary fill of the mountains in Hogsback, we headed yet again for the coast to a backpackers' called Wild Lubanzi. Yes, this is the third place we've stayed whose name starts with the word "wild", but this backpackers is perhaps the only one where the adjective is 100% spot on. It is owned and run by Aidan, the son of the owners of the Wild Spirit in Nature's Valley, and Ola, his sister (the one who gave me a haircut), recommended we stay here if we made it to the Wild Coast. This area of South Africa, also called the Transkei, is the birthplace of Nelson Mandela and is often referred to as the best example of "real" South Africa. Indeed, I would say this description is accurate. As we drove into the Wild Coast from Hogsback (a 5 hour drive), we started to see why. As soon as turned off the N2 (the main highway) toward Coffee Bay, the roads suddenly became an obstacle course: cows, sheep, goats, dogs, and people were all criss-crossing in front of us. Luckily Nick was driving, but I wasn't sure whether to put my co-pilot efforts toward looking out for wandering bulls, children playing too close to the street, or gigantic potholes that made DC's streets look well-kept, so mostly I just held on tight and kept telling myself it's only a rental car anyway, but let's try to avoid hitting any children. When we were able to take a deep breath and actually enjoy the scenery outside the window, we marveled at beautiful green rolling hills dotted with traditional rondavels: the round, colorfully painted, and thatched-roofed houses where Xhosa people live. We parked in a small hospital's parking lot, and Rahel, Aidan's wife, came to pick us up because the 5 km road to their backpackers is unpaved and not suitable for anything but a truck.

View From Wild Lubanzi

View From Wild Lubanzi

Wild Lubanzi is the only backpackers for miles. The closest thing to an address that it has is calling itself "in the Hole In The Wall area" ("Hole In The Wall" being the next "town" north toward Coffee Bay, the main town in this area). It is perched atop a grassy hill next to the ocean, with a gorgeous little bay suitable for swimming directly down the hill. As if the setting wasn't enough, we quickly learned that their two female cats (who are sisters and relatives of the orange cats I was in love with at Wild Spirit) had each had a litter of kittens with in the last few weeks. This meant that NINE ORANGE KITTENS THE SIZE OF MY HAND were on the premises. Swoon.

Kittens!

Kittens!

One of the best things about this backpackers is that it is adjacent to a spread-out Xhosa village, as well as being deeply connected to the local community, so as far as the eye can see are pink, yellow, and green rondavels on the green hills. Aidan and Rahel are friends with a young man who lives in the village, Prince, who offers vilage tours, which we took part in on our first morning there. We spent the morning walking around the area and visiting with villagers in their houses while Prince explained Xhosa culture to us. Before we set off, I was afraid the tour would perhaps be a bit touristy or forced, but I was happily surprised that it wasn't at all.

Woman Carrying Water in Xhosa Village

Woman Carrying Water in Xhosa Village

As we walked around the spread-out and loosely-defined village, we were welcomed into several houses where Prince explained how his people live. Without exception, the people were warm, friendly, and welcoming, and seemed genuinely interested in us, and happy that we were interested in learning more about them. When we communicated (through Prince) to an older woman that we had flown to South Africa by airplane her eyes lit up and she mimicked the path of a plane through the sky. We realized that her experience with flight was so limited, planes might as well be spaceships: she was awed. Later on, we dropped in on another house where a party was taking place to celebrate the end of the host's one-year mourning period for her husband's death. We sat on the floor and observed the mirthful atmosphere, and were offered some of the celebratory meat they were eating. While we were honored by the extremely generous gesture, our Western palates did not take kindly to the spoiled-smelling bits of offal on the plate. We each took a bite to be polite, and hopefully didn't offend anyone by putting the rest back; thankfully Prince ate up all the pieces we couldn't. Hopefully we earned back some points when a few of the women asked us to help them put together some furniture that the widow had been given in honor of the one-year mark. We were able to at least tell them how the pieces fit together, but they didn't have any screws handy so we couldn't finish the job for them!

Xhosa Mother and Child

Xhosa Mother and Child

Our last stop was at the village's shebeen, a sort of neighborhood pub where Prince emphasized that it was important to act honorably and respectfully. While here, we got to sample the drink of choice, a fermented sorghum beer served in the quart-sized cardboard containers we use for milk. We took swigs all around and found it sour and tasting a bit like a curdled milk and cider vinegar shake. It wasn't repulsive, but we couldn't finish it, and we're not going to give up our regular beer any time soon. Maybe it's just an acquired taste.

Don't Drink and Walk on the Road!

Don't Drink and Walk on the Road!

We learned a few other interesting tidbits during our visit as well. For instance, owls are considered bad luck, and therefore you'll never see a tall tree in a Xhosa village because it could attract an owl. Regarding marriage, men must pay ten cows to a woman's family if they'd like to marry her; nine of the cows are to sort of guarantee that the woman will bear three children (three cows per child) and one extra "for negotiation" (however, Prince told us that if the woman does not end up having at least three children she doesn't hae to pay any cows back, and chances are she'll have way more than three). Boys, at the age of 16, undergo a circumcision ceremony to during which they must not show or express any pain; otherwise they are not considered ready for manhood. Prince told us how painful the ordeal was, but that it was also incredibly special as well: during the multi-day affair the teenagers were celebrated and spent time with many of the elder men in the village who tell stories and experiences of manhood. One especially excrusciating tidbit he shared with us is that after the circumcision, their wounds are wrapped up with a thorny plant that is supposed to help the healing process, but the thorns are also very painful. Ouch!

Xhosa Children

Xhosa Children

Back at the backpackers', we found ourselves with two much-needed rest days, which happened to coincide with Aidan's birthday celebration. A few dozen of the owners' closest friends showed up, and we found ourselves in the middle of the biggest party we've probably attended thus far on the trip. The extended party reminded us of the holiday weekends we spend with our friends back home: waking up late, playing cards or going for walks during the day, then making big communal dinners and drinking, talking, and listening to music into the wee hours. Even though we're halfway around the world, it was great to spend this time with such open, welcoming people; we really found a small sense of home here on the road.

Rahel, Julia, Katie and Aidan Post-Birthday Celebrations

Rahel, Julia, Katie and Aidan Post-Birthday Celebrations

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Hogsback: Living Off The Grid in the Amathole Mountains

Horses and Party Animals (?)

Horses and Party Animals (?)

We came here on the suggestion of Ola, the daughter of the owner of Wild Spirit Backpackers' (the same lovely lady who gave me an awesome haircut during our stay there). As usual, our Lonely Planet book was brief on the Amathole Mountains, but one interesting tidbit we did learn was that Hogsback was a holiday retreat for a young JRR Tolkien, and supposedly contributed inspiration for The Lord of the Rings trilogy. It's a small mountain town, with a fierce fairy influence, a touch of new age, and a lot of beautiful forests, waterfalls, and mountains begging you to hike through them. One of the other reasons we decided to stop here was because one of the two main backpackers' in Hogsback is a place called Terra Khaya, and several people told us we had to go there and experience the sustainable, completely made-of-recycled-materials, off-the-grid, and running-on-renewable-energy spot the owner Shane has built from the ground up. When we arrived, Shane was out for the day, but one of his employees was there and told us to go ahead and set up camp. Then we walked around the property. The 4 or 5 buildings are all made from scraps of material: traffic signs, tin sheets, old furniture. Almost all waste is re-used: either turned into a new product, burned in the furnace for cooking or for heat, composted, or used to make art. Shane told us he has yet to take anything to the dump. The toilet creates compost, and the shower is outdoor and must have the best view of any showers anywhere. Shane has dogs, cats, horses, chickens, geese, pigs, and cows. He has a vegetable garden, which he hopes will fully supply all the food needed at Terra Khaya, and he recently planted a "food forest", which is a bit like an orchard, but instead of one type of tree in neat rows, he hopes to plant an entire ecosystem: groundcover, grasses, shrubs, short trees, tall trees resulting in a self-sustaining garden which will bear fruit and other food with minimal need for upkeep, fertilizers, or pest control. When Shane needs wood, he cuts down an invasive tree from his property and always plants an indigenous one in its place. Big dinners are cooked for all the guests every night, and because all of his food is either grown on his land or bought in bulk, there is less waste than if each of us cooked our own meal with supermarket products.

Free Dinner for Pulling Wattle

Free Dinner for Pulling Wattle

Contrary to what you might think, Shane is not a preachy, out-there, "my-way-is-better-than-everyone-else's-way" kind of guy. He is down to earth, and as he put it, he is still learning about this stuff each day, and wants others to be able to learn from what he's done. The place he's built is impressive and beautiful, and I do believe he's doing a fine job of showing his guests and the community that living simply, without waste, is attainable and does not require sacrificing comfort or aesthetics. Part of the reason he turned his property into a backpackers' (aside from financial), was so that others could experience this way of life and learn something from their stay with him.

Shane and One of His Dogs, Diesel

Shane and One of His Dogs, Diesel

Our stay here was short, but we did take a horseback ride into the forest and to a pretty outlook with a wide view of the surrounding mountains. Shane rode barefoot without a saddle or reins; he's trained his horses to understand voice commands, pointing, and weight placement. I was amazed to see his horse do exactly what he wanted with just a quick word or point of his finger. Nick and I rode our horses with saddles and simple bridles without bits, which is much gentler for the horses. Unfortunately, my horse, Baron, got a little too excited about cantering, and I got tossed off. Fortunately, I was wearing a helmet and walked away (slowly) with only bruises and a very sore tailbone. However, it was nothing an afternoon of lounging with the cats and reading with the mountains in the background couldn't take care of.

Horseback in Hogsback

Horseback in Hogsback

That evening, we enjoyed Shane's delicious "warthog stew" and homemade bread with the other guests by candlelight, followed by a dessert of homeopathic concoctions Shane prescribed to me out of his medicine toolbox. Due to my soreness and bruising, we treated ourselves to a night in beds instead of camping, and we slept in the loft section of his dorm house, reachable only by climbing a tree (which I miraculously did not fall while doing). While our search for hobbits in the forest and my attempt at horsemanship proved fruitless, we're still thankful we checked out Terra Khaya and can't wait to check up on Shane's progress in the future!

Dreamcatchin'

Dreamcatchin'

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Addo Elephant National Park

In the 19th century, due to sport hunting, expansion of local farms, and a growing brickmaking industry, the population of elephants in and around Addo, South Africa dwindled from a peak in the many thousands to just a few hundred, and lions and rhinos were killed off completely. Under the pressure of agricultural interests, in 1919, the South African government hired a hunter to exterminate the remaining elephant "pests". He killed 114 of the animals in a little over a year, leaving only 16, which took refuge on a sympathetic farmer's land. Due to popular pressure, the hunt was called off and Addo Elephant National Park was created. In the rest of the 20th century, the herd regained much of its former size, and lions and rhinos were even reintroduced.

If you've never been on a safari, and you're from the US, the idea of going to a park to see what we think of as 'exotic' animals can be a bit mystifying. I had no idea what to expect from one of these parks. The thought of elephants, lions, leopards, buffalo, rhino, zebra, and countless other mammals just roaming around a park and humans driving through it to see them was incredibly foreign to me. It's one of those things that doesn't really make sense until you experience it for the first time.

Kudu

On the way to Addo, we witnessed two baboons fornicating on the side of the highway; I suppose that was a little introduction for us. (Sidenote: baboons are everywhere in South Africa: they are like deer in the US, but much more common. You can see them from the road, in parks, in people's backyards, etc. It still makes me giggle every time I see them.) We got to the park in mid-afternoon and only had three hours until the gates closed, so we grabbed a map and started driving around. Less than one kilometer into the park, a zebra dashed across the street in front of our car, and I just started laughing. Okay, so I guess you really do just drive around and spot animals (and try not to hit them!). Then we went to a watering hole where the elephants often are, but we ended up finding them a bit further up--and far away from--the road. We quickly learned two things: 1) with a regular car, the only areas where you have a chance of spotting wildlife are the areas with shorter and less dense grass (Jeeps and trucks are higher up and therefore you're able to look down into the bushes and short trees and see any animals lurking in there); 2) spotting wildlife can be mostly luck. Yes, certain animals live in certain areas of the park, and are likely to be spotted in certain places depending on the time of day, but partly it is just pure right-place-right-time luck. We often found ourselves driving through loops where the vegetation made it impossible for us to see anything. However, in the plains we spotted tons of grass-feeding quadrupeds: kudu, duiker, eland, and zebra, some of which we recognized from the "game kebab" Nick ate at a nice restaurant we patronized in Cape Town.

Dung Beetles Have Right of Way

After our afternoon warm-up "safari", we had an early night at the nearby Orange Elephant backpackers, where the owner told us where he thought some of the animals can generally be seen, so we returned the next morning, feeling a bit more confident with our plan to drive in ceratin places. We were almost immediately rewarded: when we arrived to the elephant watering hole, about a dozen elephants were drinking out of the water. Over the next 15 minutes, dozens more joined them, and at one point we counted about 50 total, a mix of males, females, and babies (so cute!). They seemed unphased by the cars parked merely 25 to 50 feet away from them.

The sight of such a huge group of elephants calmly drinking water and playing around so close to us was somewhat magical. Everyone sat completely silently in their cars and just took in the moment. I've always thought elephants are not so exotic to us Americans, perhaps thanks to the Barnum & Bailey circus, or the annual "elephant walk" through downtown DC, so admittedly, I wasn't as excited to see them as I was to see a lion or rhino. However, I was completely humbled by the experience. Throughout our morning drive in the park, we saw several more elephants, usually lone males eating on the side of the road. Several times we even had to turn around and go the other way to avoid driving past an elephant three times the size of our car and less than ten feet away!

Elephant!

Elephant!

We didn't end up seeing a lion or rhino, but we still left completely satisfied with our elephant experience, and excited for future wildlife park visits: Kruger and Serengeti!

Elephant Butts

Park info: Addo Elephant Park, Addo, South Africa. Entrance fees: 140R/person. Gate hours vary by season but are generally 6 am to 6 pm. There are several lodging options within the park as well as backpackers' down the road. Guided drives available a few times per day for 220R/person, or you can hire a guide who will join you in your car for two hours for 150R.

SAN Parks Wild Card: If you're planning on visiting several national parks while in South Africa, you may want to invest in the Wild Card, which allows you to enter any National Park for one year. The cards are available for one person, for a couple, or for a family. Do the math first and figure out whether it makes sense for you: park entry fees range from about 40R to 180R (Kruger). I highly recommend buying it online because not all parks sell them. If you buy online, parks will just ask to see a print out of the receipt or the card number.

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The Garden Route

The Garden Route, a coastal drive that spans roughly from Mossel Bay (a few hours' drive east from Cape Town) to Port Elizabeth, about 250 km further east, is one of South Africa's most popular and most hyped tourist areas. While we found some of the bigger cities overly developed and overrun by tourists seeking "adrenalin" activities such as paragliding and bungee jumping, the drive's scenery was impressive, and we found plenty of friendly and mellow spots to spend our time.

Our first stop was Wilderness, a small town near the beginning of the route, where we stayed at the Wild Farm. We took a lovely walk through the Wilderness National Park, along a river and to a sun-drenched waterfall, then on the way back stopped for a view of the long beach and the "Map of Africa": an oxbow in a river which creates an outcropping that looks something like the continent. But the highlight was at the backpackers' itself, where they have a large organic garden from which they encourage guests to help themselves. We made two wonderful meals with the freshest possible onions, peppers, celery, carrots, beets, strawberries, a leafy green they call spinach here, but looks to us more like swiss chard, and various herbs. As sometimes-vegetarians and wanna-be locavores, we were thrilled to be able to partake in such fresh, locally-grown produce.

Wilderness Beach

Wilderness Beach

On the way to our next stop, we took a break in Knysna (NYES-na) for a quick, fresh oyster lunch, then moved on to Plettenburg Bay, where we stopped for a hike around a National Park on Robberg Peninsula. It was a great coastal walk with lots of interesting things to see: three geologic layers neatly stacked and exposed, pristine beach, sweeping rocky coast, caves with signs of habitation tens of thousands of years ago, and plentiful wildlife: seals, sharks, and large rodents called dassies. Much to our dismay, we didn't see the elusive Blue Duiker: a member of the antelope family standing only about a foot high!

Robberg Peninsula

Robberg Peninsula

From there, it was a short drive to Nature's Valley, where we stayed at Wild Spirit, a small, family-run backpackers' which is destined to be one of our very favorite places we stay during the whole year. One thing that we've learned by now is that often what makes a stay in a certain area is not necessarily the activities or food on offer, but the backpackers' you choose to stay in. And South Africa has no shortage of amazing places to stay. The family and all the other employees at Wild Spirit are some of the most outgoing and helpful people we've ever met, and every interaction takes place with a smile. One small example is that when Claudia asked the owners' daughter where to get a haircut nearby, her face lit up and she told us that she cuts hair, and in fact had just been thinking of advertising her services on the central blackboard. With little delay, Claudia was sitting in a plastic chair overlooking the splendid valley of Tsitsikamma National Park and receiving a professional-quality cut.

Camping at Wild Spirit

Camping at Wild Spirit

During our stay here we went canoeing, where we saw baboons in the cliffs above the river, and we also went on a hike through the National Park that took us through all the ecosystems of the Western Cape, including forests, meadows of fynbos, beach, and rocky cliffs leading to a lagoon where the river meets the ocean, where we took a chilly but refreshing dip.

Swimming in Salt River Lagoon

Swimming in Salt River Lagoon

We also happened to be at the backpackers' on a Saturday night, which was drum circle and potjie night. Potjie is a traditional South African stew, which is cooked over a fire in what looks like a witches' cauldron and it is full of flavor. We had a vegetarian version as well as a lamb version, both delicious. We also learned how to drum that night on djembe drums from Ghana. One of us had quite a bit of rhythm, and the other had to try really hard to keep up with simple beats. We'll let you guess which one is which!

We met two other couples at the Wild Spirit who had intended to stay only two or three nights, and had thus far stayed over a week, and heard stories of past and present staff who stayed months or years at a time. While we certainly understand the magnetic nature of the place, and had pangs of "maybe we could just stay here indefinitely and see what happens", we pried ourselves away in order to keep on track and see the rest of what South Africa has to offer...

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