Getting Ready to Enter the Danger Zone!

“So you’re going to South Africa? Aren’t you scared? People get shot there every day!”

“Did you hear about the plane that crashed in Libya? It came from South Africa!”

“I heard of a guy who went swimming in South Africa, and almost died from a parasite infestation!”

Yes, I’ve heard all that. Every single day. In fact, of anything anyone says to me about travelling to South and West Africa, 98% is warnings. I shrug it off, people are always scared of what they don’t know.

But then it hit me – what if I’m being overly confident? What if I’m one of those persons who hide their head in the sand and refuse to see the dangers? Maybe. But I don’t think so. I guess only time will tell.

As I said to Eduardo, I’m not really scared of getting sick or being mugged. I hope it doesn’t happen, but it won’t be the end of the world. It won’t stop me from eating street foods, travelling to remote locations or interacting with the locals. Getting kidnapped is another story, however, so the thought of going to Northern Mali and crossing the border into Algeria through the operating grounds of the Al Qaida does raise a red flag.

Then again, when we’re there, curiosity might overpower the sense of fear.

I’m not promising nothing. And I’m not scared.

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Cape Town – in which country are we, again?

Cape Town is like a parallel Universe. It looks like Anytown; Auckland, Amsterdam, Zurich, and Boston. The city is clean, organized and modern – it doesn’t even have a unique smell . But beyond the brilliant surface it really is South Africa, the Rainbow Nation.

Our trip started two days ago with a 20-hour flight from New York to Cape Town via Johannesburg. Arriving in Cape Town, Eduardo’s first comment was “It doesn’t look interesting.” And it doesn’t. The personality is more British/Dutch than African, with its terraced Victorian houses, boxy gray office buildings and glass-walled high-rises. They even have a Waterfront shopping center that looks like a larger New York South Street Seaport.We could just as well be in New England, and all the Africans on the streets could be immigrants.
On the way from the airport, we passed by a shantytown with thousands of plywood huts with corrugated tin roofs, which sadly is more what we expected South Africa to look like. But downtown Cape Town, cowering beneath the impressive flat-topped Table mountain, looks more like a brand new doll house.

I’m not sure if it’s because I grew up reading white South African writer Andre Brink’s books about (and against) the apartheid era, but it’s hard not to notice the divide between the rich, mostly white people who own businesses and the poor, mostly blacks and coloreds (an accepted name for the rest). It just seems unfair. With only 20 years since the dissolution of apartheid, large steps have been made, and there’s a definite respect between the different groups. But I guess I just wish the power would lie with the original countrymen.

Thank heavens for the World Cup! Because with the World Cup all South Africans seem to come together in their support for Bafana Bafana! Go South Africa!

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World Cup Fever!

Since first landing in Johannesburg, one thing is clear – this country is ablaze with World Cup fever! Everywhere you go businesses are promoting the World Cup. All advertising has a flavor of football, shop windows display South African flags with digital countdowns of days and hours until kickoff. People on the street are wearing their yellow Bafana Bafana t-shirts in support of the South African national team. All pubs, restaurants and shops show football matches on their flat screen TVs.

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In Cape Town, street signs are pointing towards the stadium and the locations for the free public screenings of the matches. In the ticket sales hub, long lines of folks were camping out for two days in wait for releases of new tickets for the Cape Town matches where most of the South Africa matches will take place. The food stores even have free tastings of foods from all the 32 participating countries, one country per day – today Swiss cheese fondue, tomorrow Slovakian potato cakes.

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Even the newspapers are full of World Cup stories, for example that the sangomas, healers, were brought to the Johannesburg stadium, Soccer City, to bless the venue and the World Cup, and make sure that everything goes well and stays secure.

Two days ago, we spent a whole day in line with a bunch of South Africans, waiting to buy more tickets. Although the wait was long, this was one of the highlights of the trip so far. The South Africans are good people. They are friendly, calm, patient, and generous. As they say, they don’t expect any terrorist acts during the World Cup because they don’t have any bones to pick with any other countries. They just get along with everyone.

We’re getting increasingly caught up in the excitement. Thirteen more days until the games start. And we just picked up our tickets two days ago. Sheer joy y muchos goles!!

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Arriving by Police Escort in Nelspruit

Nelspruit may not be on everybody’s must-see lists when traveling, not even those traveling in South Africa. But besides the non-existent scene, this town sits on the threshold to Kruger National Park, and hosts four matches of the 2010 World Cup, so it is on the map, and yes people do come here.

Eduardo and I ended up in Nelspruit after driving (sometimes in circles) from Johannesburg through dense fog, heavy rain and through a rainbow arch. Reaching the town well after dark, and not seeing a single sign pointing towards the town center, we decided to ask for the way at a gas station.

“Sorry, no, I don’t know Van Wijk Street, but I’ll take you to the police station, and you can find out there.”

Incredibly typical for South Africa – everyone’s nice. Everyone’s beyond helpful. So this South African gentleman drives has BMW ahead of us to the Nelspruit police station and asks the policemen to assist us. I’m not sure if there’s no crime in Nelspruit or the policemen were just bored, but they actually escorted us through the town to Van Wijk Street (Van Wyck, for us New Yorkers).

And we arrived at our hostel by police escort…

The Dragon Mountains – Drakensberg Escarpment

After reading descriptions like “South Africa’s most striking landscape” [Lonely Planet] and “This is gob-smacking, lip-licking, eye-boggling, bewitching territory” [Coast to Coast], we were expecting jaw-dropping views. But driving into the Drakensberg Escarpment, we just saw “nice” panoramic views, “cute” waterfalls, and really nothing to write a blog about.

I was egging Eduardo on –“Look how pretty!”, but he was expressively as unimpressed as I was feeling. It seemed crazy that we had planned a whole day’s driving based on this tourist-trap with names like “God’s Window” and “Wonderview”, each charging a hefty $1 entrance fee.

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The most impressive thing on the way seemed to be the state of the roads – they are as well kept as any good European or US roads. It has been very hard to really understand that we are in Africa, not to mention in a so-called “third world country”.

Once we reached Blyde River Canyon Nature Reserve, both of us agreed that it would be a waste of time and money to visit, so we drove on.

Minutes later, a true God’s window opened up before us, with sky-high chiseled cliffs protruding in blue, across from a (free) viewing platform.

There are very few places in the world that have truly taken my breath away, that are so painfully beautiful they bring tears to my eyes. This was one of them.

Blyde River Valley is worth the drive. Definitely. Even though Eduardo was still (expressively, not truly) unimpressed.

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Elephant Poop Safari – Kruger National Park

If you think a safari means leisurely driving around, taking pictures of lions and zebras who are posing for your pictures, think again. On a safari you spend hours gazing into bushes, up trees and along wide-stretched savannas in hope of catching a glimpse of an animal. Or anything that breathes. And more often than not you end up seeing nothing. At the same time, it is a wonderful adventure, and a memory that will last a lifetime.

We spent four days driving up and down dirt roads through Kruger National Park, entering in the middle of the park and moving a bit further south every day. At first, Eduardo was unimpressed. “What, we’re going to spend four days here?” he muttered the first day. We had just entered the park that morning, and had already seen our fair share of elephant poop and dry grass. But then we spotted our first impala. Cool. When a large group of baboons surrounded our car, it started to get interesting.

“Where are the lions?” Eduardo asked. “Somewhere, anywhere. They move,” I explained. For the first-timer it can be incomprehensible that the animals are actually wild – and free. They go wherever they want, do whatever they want, and you have to be lucky to actually catch a glimpse of them. When we saw a family of elephants crossing the road right in front of us, it sealed the deal. This was going to be a good safari.

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Our first night, we saw some giraffes munching on thorn tree branches, and moments later heard a cheetah attack a baboon.

Zebras are everywhere, but they’re extremely shy, so we had to approach very slowly or they would run away. But when watching them close up, the way their patterns play together is hypnotizing.

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Nearby the Lower Sabie restcamp we spotted maybe 30 elephants who had just taken a bath in the Sabie river.

We only saw one hippo out of water (sleeping). They usually spend their days in the water, with only their eyes peeking out. They only get out of the water at night to feed. You can also call them fricking lazy!

One of my favorites were the warthogs, extremely shy and almost blind, they take one look at you, then quickly run away with their tails up in the air.

And I adored the ugly wildebeests. The poor males sometimes spend weeks alone under a tree, protecting their territory, and hoping to meet a girl.

Early one morning we caught a glimpse of two spotted hyenas, stealing away along the road, then disappearing into the bush.

We almost were attacked by buffaloes that thought we got too close. The leader of a large herd suddenly pushed the others back, scraped his hoof, and got ready to charge. I quickly rolled up the window and screamed to Eduardo: “Go, go, go”. The photo below is taken just before it charged.

Buffalo

Our last night we spotted three rhinos that for once didn’t run away. They are simply, unbelievably huge and wonderful!

But the lions were the most difficult to discover. Our first lions, a female with two cubs, were sleeping under a tree, stomachs full with a fresh impala-dinner. We would never have seen them if someone hadn’t pointed them out to us. The next day, we found our own lions, sleeping in the high grass.

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After spending long days staring across bushes, we spent the nights in basic restcamp bungalows, where we dined on tuna, avocados, bread and wine. Without plates, and with toilet paper for napkins. Classy!

And, yes, of course Eduardo absolutely loved the safari.

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The Life of a Swazi (Is it!)

On the road from Kruger to Manzini, just after crossing the border at Mananga, and after taking a wrong turn at Sikkhoya, we picked up a passenger.

Now, we all know that you’re not supposed to pick up hitchhikers, but sometimes it just happens. And so far on this trip it has been good decisions.

Musa, our new friend, spoke in capital letters. In every sentence, one word was emphasized. He spoke of the Swazi king, who closed ALL the mines, and therefore there was NO money for the Swazis. In Swaziland there were several RICH mines, for gold, metals, diamonds, but the king closed them down to preserve the riches for FUTURE generations. But there is a mine where they left a BIG, BIG hole, that you can still go and see. And each reply was either a questioning “Is it?”, or a confirming “Is it!”

Musa was great. He had just taken a bus to South Africa to give more money to his 18-year old wife, because she had decided to stay there a bit longer with her 10-month baby. He, himself, was 38. When asked about polygamy which is common in Swaziland, he was strongly opposed to it. Because you can only love one person (you gotta love this guy, right?)

Because he had taken the wrong bus and ended up in Sikkhoya by mistake, he offered to pay us the 40 Emalangeni the ticket would have cost. Eduardo said the fare is 70 Emalangeni, that the extra is for making him laugh. It took a minute for Musa to get the joke.

However, the most interesting thing about him was that in the three years he had been married, he had only had sex with his wife three times. When asked why, he said “because we love each other”. Eduardo and I weren’t sure if it was because he is religious (goes to church every Sunday, likes gospel music, doesn’t drink), or because he might be HIV positive, like 30% of the Swazi population.

But, as Eduardo said, you’ve got to respect that.

The Musa offered us to stay in his house for free (which we politely declined), and said he will never forget us.

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