Monday, 19 September 2016

Africa - Part 2 - Cape Town and Johannesburg

On arrival in Cape Town, the weather was not doing us any favours and was almost identical to the rough winter we had left behind in Adelaide. This is not entirely surprising given that Cape Town and Adelaide are on almost the exact same latitude. We managed to console ourselves about the torrential rain, leaden skies and gale force winds by repatriating to a Belgian beer place called Den Anker on the V&A Wharf and proceeding to watch the carnage of people battling not to lose their umbrellas while we sat in a warm and dry place with good tapas.

The V&A Wharf, Cape Town, with Table Mountain behind

The V&A Wharf is a pretty swanky and clearly touristy area of Cape Town which was about a 30 minute walk away from our hostel. Aside from doing Table Mountain and Robben Island, it is one of the main areas you will visit on a trip to Cape Town. I found Cape Town a very manageable city, it is not too big and sprawling and it felt pretty safe to us. We were staying at Once in Cape Town which is an interesting choice for G Adventures to start a Classic tour from due to its predominantly #YOLO demographic of guests…we had arrived at around 9am in the morning but of course our room was not ready until 2pm which was why we had ventured out into the city despite the atrocious weather.

On checking in much later, I asked for the wifi password and had a highly frustrating exchange with the front desk man whilst I tried to figure out what was being said, I think this was just a combination of jetlag and unfamiliar accents because I kid you not it went like this:

Him: The password is paraglide
Me: Boramide?
Him: No, paraglide
Me: Parrot hide?
Me: Barramundi? Patagonia? Paragon?

And so on. Until at some point he gave up and wrote it on a piece of paper and I shuffled away feeling highly stupid and hoping I did not come across as in any way racist. It was a slightly clumsy start.

The next day (after 13 straight hours of sleep I might add - #winning) Stu and I had booked a day long tour to Cape Point and this truly was an eye opener into the beauty of South Africa in a very vivid way. Much to my surprise we saw our first wildlife down on the Cape – zebras, ostrich, baboon and various boks were spotted and many variety of birds. The road down through Simon’s Town is absolutely stunning and put me in mind of the Great Ocean Road in Australia or the Pacific Coast Highway in California which are similarly stunning and coastal. We also went to Kirstenbosch gardens which are impressive and offered great vistas back over the city, here are some photos from our first full day in SA….

The tour officially started on that second evening after we returned from our tour of the Cape, and we duly sat in the bar downstairs for an hour or two awaiting start time and any sign of our guide or other group members. Around half an hour before kick off a group of folks entered YOLO Central (the bar – actually called ‘Yours Truly’) and I called it immediately that they were part of our group. They were indeed – this was Sam, Merri, Harriet and Tegan. It is strange looking back on our first impressions of four strangers who within two weeks would come to feel like family (they were good first impressions!)

At 6pm we gravitated to the fire pit area out the back and the tables started filling – this would be our ‘Africa Family’ for the next few weeks.

What can I tell you about this motley group of folk? That humanity never ceases to amaze me, would be the primary take away. Also, that Stu and I found huge inspiration from the older contingent in particular and hope we have figured out the older us that we want to be. A common element when looking at both of our G Adventures groups seems to be that the people who take these kind of tours are broadly similar in a few critical ways – generally educated, well-travelled and sociable people. This seems to enable quick bonding, a sense of team and an ability to see humour in all situations – and these are major assets on an organised tour such as this. Basically, the ability to not be a dick is hugely beneficial when you are in close quarters with the same set of folk, day in, day out in a foreign environment.

Throughout our tour I was proud of the sense of altruism shown by all – sharing resources, carrying bags, making sure we all took turns in the most shonky seats in the minibus, general camaraderie which added a warmth to every scenario. I would gladly welcome any of them into my house any day of the week. Our tour guide Hardy was also an absolute gem – incredibly knowledgeable and easy going, funny and able to deal with the frequent TIA moments with aplomb, the tour would not have been the same without him.

After our welcome meeting we headed over the road to Arnold’s restaurant for our first group meal – I had a very tasty Ostrich steak – and to acquaint ourselves. Stu and I were sat with Kass from Germany, Niki from the UK/USA and Al and Heather, a couple the same age as us from the UK. First impressions were great and the conversation (and the wine) flowed.

Next day was a free day in Cape Town and Stu and I climbed the awesome Table Mountain – by chance, we ran into Kass and Niki at the top - surely a good omen! The views from up there are incredible, and we were very lucky to do it on a very clear day. Despite not being a great fan of heights I actually enjoyed the cable car ride up there and the cafĂ© at the top does remarkably good coffee (#winning again!).

Me on top of Table Mountain

That evening we headed out on our first group activity which was to head to a local township for dinner with a family. I was absolutely floored by the effort that our amazing hosts (Sheila and Stephen) had put into the meal which was (Mandela’s favourite) of Sweet Chicken, pap (maize porridge), various vegetables and homemade ginger beer. It was delicious and so awesome to be invited into their home, the dining table they had set up for our group of 18 literally took up the whole length of their living room. After dinner Stephen played the trombone for us – he is a critically acclaimed South African musician and this was a real treat.

Sweet chicken, pap and veg

After dinner entertainment!

The next day we were getting up super early to fly to Johannesburg for the next leg of our tour, I was pleasantly surprised that everyone was ready on time – this is no mean feat in a group of 18 but it set the scene for the rest of the tour, on some occasions Hardy was pretty surprised to find the whole group assembled and ready to go some 20 minutes or so before the designated time. 

Man, we were an impressively punctual group. So, we headed to the airport where on check in I discovered that although they had spelt Stu’s name correctly, my surname was spelt Olilivie. This proved a continuous theme with every place we checked in and every flight we took having an incorrect variation on “Ogilvie” but only for me. I almost wondered if my travel agent husband had set this up deliberately….

Despite the fact my boarding pass did not match my passport, I was able to board the flight to Joburg along with the rest of the group. Little did I know the TIA mindfuck that was awaiting me in the hellhole that is O R Tambo International Airport.

The thing is, you see, I had not bought any physical US dollars with me for the Zimbabwe leg of our tour which was some 5 days away at this point. I had figured I would get some rand exchanged at some point before entering Zimbabwe as I really did not want to be carrying wads of cash in a country renowned for petty crime and muggings. Hardy told us as we got to Joburg that in fact this would probably be our last chance to get hold of US$ before the border so a handful of us duly went to the American Express bureau de change to get our cash sorted.

The very helpful and highly positive (not) clerk at the cash desk told me to go away because I did not have an “onward ticket” to show I was leaving South Africa. Baffled, I explained that I was not leaving SA until 4/5 days later. “Oh”, she said, “then you can’t have any dollars.” I trotted off to get Hardy and came back with him and watched him TEAR A STRIP OFF the lady behind the desk. It turned out this was a brand new rule and reflected the SA government concern over the value of the Rand. Basically, as of now, you cannot buy other currencies without showing you are about to leave SA.

Thanks to Hardy being very ‘assertive’ they finally agreed to sell me the dollars but only after they had photocopied all my travel documents, Hardy’s entire itinerary folder for the tour (!) and after I had done an interpretative dance to Hakuna Matata (I jest – but it felt like that might plausibly be on their batshit list of requirements) I had my cash in hand. This had taken around 90 minutes while the rest of the tour group waited patiently in arrivals. TIA in action.

Once everyone who needed them had their dollars secured, we met our driver for the next week or so, Jan, and were introduced to the minivan we would be spending a LOT of time in. Jan drove us to Soweto for a tour of the Township - some of the group did this on bikes, though I bailed because, well, have you SEEN me on a bike?! 

Me, on a bike, in Adelaide (not Soweto)

I knew I had made the right decision on this when around an hour later the cycling group met us at Mandela's House with tales of no brakes, crazy gears and pedals/seats falling off. I have enough trouble on a bike with none of these issues....anyway. A very cool experience for those that chose to do it, but not for me.

Mandela's House was very interesting and full of pieces of historical significance, if you are ever in Joburg, do make the effort to visit. 

For dinner, we were taken to Emperors Palace Casino which had clearly been based on Ceasar's Palace in Las Vegas. This was a great idea as it felt relatively safe and had a huge selection of restaurants to choose from. Weeks later I would learn that actually, it had been stormed by armed robbers on a number of occasions but by Joburg standards was indeed considered "safe". 

We had a very good Indian buffet meal at the Casino and broke bread with Heather and Al, learning that we had quite a bit in common with regards to travel and lifestyle. Coming from Australia, where good Indian food can be hard to find, we were very pleased to have had a very good one on this trip. 

That night we stayed at Airport Game Lodge which was lovely - free wifi, good showers and comfy beds so no complaints from us. A good night's kip was definitely in order as the next morning we would be setting off on our journey up towards Kruger and safari shenanigans aplenty....

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