Andy and I began our adventures in South Africa way back on June 26, when we flew into Johannesburg from Madagascar. Because it was the thick of the World Cup--and since we had no match tickets and hostel prices had quadrupled--we only stayed for three days before escaping to Zimbabwe, Botswana, and Namibia until the Cup had ended.
Johannesburg, which is in the northeast of South Africa, has a bit of an unenviable reputation for crime. But Andy and I had a great time there and no problems at all. We even went downtown (!) by public transit (!!) and somehow managed to not be killed or robbed even once. Look, I'm not saying that you don't need to be careful, of course, but a bit of common city sense also goes a long way.
We were lucky enough to couchsurf in the Jo'burg suburb of Randburg with Abe, our excellent host who not only picked us up at the airport, but gave us a driving tour of some points of interest around the city the next day.
We started off in Soweto, the huge and famous township that borders Jo'burg. This is where Nelson Mandela, Bishop Tutu, and many other luminaries of the fight against apartheid lived (now, when you walk down the street where they used to live, there are tour bus parks and souvenir vendors and their homes have been turned into expensive museums).
Soweto stands in the shadow of two huge, brightly painted water towers. I believe that you can bungee jump off these towers.
The most informative thing we did in Soweto was visit the Hector Pietersen Museum, where we learned all about the 1976 Soweto uprising, in which police opened fire on schoolchildren marching to protest having to learn the Afrikaans language. Hector was a 12-year old boy who was killed--this photograph of another boy and Hector's sister carrying the dying boy became an icon of the anti-apartheid movement.
It was a very informative museum, about the Soweto uprising specifically and apartheid in general. Sadly, Andy and I didn't make it to the Apartheid Museum in Jo'burg, which we hear is fantastic, but we can highly recommend the Hector Pietersen one as well.
Abe also drove us by Soccer City, one of Jo'burg's two World Cup venues, and where the final was played. It was designed in the shape of a calabash. Sadly, this is the closest we got to seeing a live game, but we watched plenty on TV and it was fun to see fans from around the world visiting the city.
The other terrific "touristy" thing we did in Jo'burg was visit Constitution Hill, which is downtown. It's now the constitutional court, but was built on the site of the former Old Fort Prison, where political prisoners such as Nelson and Winnie Mandela and Ghandi all spent some time.
(Ghandi, you ask? Yes--if you're clueless like we were, you may not know that he spent a substantial chunk of his life in South Africa. He practiced as an attorney and and fought against passbook requirements for Asians and other racial injustices before returning to India to fight colonial rule there. Anyway, they arrested him in South Africa for his troubles and sent him to prison here.)
The tour of the old prison facilities was incredibly eye-opening. You saw how the prisoners would be packed into filthy rooms like sardines, sleeping head to foot as in this picture (but surely with fewer blankets). White prisoners actually got rationed more blankets, better food, and all sorts of other better amenities than "colored" (Asian and mixed-race) and black prisoners.
Here's the interior of the new courthouse. It has a lot of windows (for literal and metaphorical "transparency"), and anyone can come watch proceedings...
...which take place in all 11 official languages of South Africa.
A landmark in Jo'burg is the Hillbrow Tower, which got a soccer ball added to it for World Cup festiveness. I approve.
That seems to be it for Jo'burg pictures. We didn't bring our camera when we went out to a very fancy mall with Abe to watch a match outdoors on a huge screen they had set up. They also had some very bad live go-go-type dancers who attempted to entertain the crowd when the feed temporarily went out. It was chilly out and Brazil won by a lot (I can't actually remember who they were playing.)
We also paid a quick visit to my friend Megan's aunt in another Jo'burg suburb, who very kindly let my mom mail her a whole lot of antimalarial medication and held it for us for a couple of months so that we could restock when we got there. Thank you, Adrienne! Adrienne also had the best manicure I've ever seen--each nail meticulously painted with the flag of a different world cup participant. Wish I had a picture of that.
So, we took off on the night bus for Zimbabwe, and nearly a month later, our triumphant return to South Africa on the other side of the country, on a 20-hour bus from Windhoek, Namibia, to Cape Town.
Unlike Jo'burg, Cape Town has the reputation of being the city everyone wants to go to. Everyone we met who had been raved about it, so we were worried about having our expectations set too high...but Cape Town really delivered. It has a beautiful setting, on the ocean in the shadow of the Table Mountains, is easy to walk around, and is full of tasty ethnic restaurants. I wish we'd had more time to spend there, but it was a great two and a half days.
OK, our first destination was the highly recommended Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens. They are set on the side of Table Mountain and feature only plants from South Africa, which we thought was pretty cool.
We enjoyed these bird-of-paradise flowers.
There is also a fun sculpture garden, where Andy got up close and personal with the abstract-ish art.
Our new friend Anne told us what this bird is called, but we have sadly forgotten. The cool thing about it is that, if you watch it for a while, you'll see that every time it darts its pointy beak into the ground, it comes up with a bug or a worm. Such precision!
This is the king protea, biggest of all all proteas. Proteas are flowers that look like artichokes and are common on Table Mountain.
Here is one next to my head for size comparison.
You can climb Table Mountain straight from the gardens, and that's what we did. You have to rock-climb over a quasi-waterfall for part of it, but the rest of it is not too hard and very shaded and scenic--much nicer than the main path up that most people take (we took that down later, so we know).
Here's a view from the top.
I'm going to pretend that we did NOT see this massive striped cockroach at the top of Table Mountain. La la la, roaches don't exist...
I hate hiking, but I will admit that the views do make climbing Table Mountain worth it.
A word of warning, though--if you are planning to take the cable car back down, the route up from the Botanical Gardens does not leave you near the cable car. You have to hike across the top of the mountain for another couple of hours to reach that point.
We didn't realize that when we started our hike and got a little panicked when we did, but we ended up making it across with so much time to spare that we decided to hike down instead of take the car. Here is a view of downtown from the top of that route.
That route was really exhausting, though. Should've taken the cable car. Oh well, next time.
So, that was our first day in Cape Town--actually spent looking down over Cape Town! On our next day we explored downtown some more while arranging the rental car for the rest of our South African adventure. The V&A waterfront is a touristy area with a famous clocktower, seen here.
Julie, this one is for you--biggest beaded elephant ever!
That night, we headed out to the funky nearby suburb of Observatory, where we were invited for an amazing, home-cooked Indian dinner by Adrian, the brother of one of my college professors, and his wife Anne. Stupidly, we took no pictures of the feast they made for us, but trust me, it was delicious. We also got tons of fantastic advice about where to go in South Africa, and ended up seriously reshaping our itinerary to include some of the places Adrian told us about. We are very glad we did. Thank you both for the terrific food and advice!
So the next day, we rolled out of Cape Town (driving on the left, of course!) in our shiny new Chevy Aveo, the cheapest automatic car we could find, which would become our home (literally) for much of the next two weeks. I don't think we have a picture of the car--it's just a boring car--but we did nickname it Nelson Mandela. Hey, everything else in South Africa is named after him, so why shouldn't our car be, too?
So Andy expertly piloted Nellie around the Cape Peninsula for a fantastic scenic drive. If you ever go to Cape Town, do not miss a drive or tour around the Cape itself.
Here you can see the fog (known as "the Tablecloth" when it covers Table Mountain) rolling down over a coastal suburb of Cape Town...
The drive abounded with lovely views of mountain and ocean meeting.
And here you have the famed Cape of Good Hope! Contrary to popular belief, it is not the southernmost point in Africa--that's a couple of hundred kilometers further east. It is billed as the "most southwesterly point in Africa," but as it's neither the most southern nor the most western, we don't know how you measure that.
Anyway, rough seas around the Cape. I wouldn't want to sail it. Especially with 16th-century ship technology...
It was really windy at the Cape and crawling with tourists, and Andy and I didn't want to wait in line to take a souvenir photo with the sign...so just pretend that this Japanese family is us, OK?
The most exciting thing for us at this site was not actually seeing Cape itself, but finally seeing a rock hyrax! Also known as dassies, these critters are the size of a rabbit but are actually the most closely related, genetically, too...well, I'll let you look at a couple of pictures of them and guess and I'll tell you later in the post.
We first learned about hyrax (hyraxes?) at the Bronx Zoo, which has a few, and ever since we have craved to see one in the wild. They live in holes in rocky areas and scurry around grazing and are so cute. But no one else--not even the Japanese tourists--seemed to go as gaga for the dassies as we did...
Also hanging out near the cape were some wild ostriches. Chaaaarge!
There is a colony of African (hilariously, also known as Jackass) penguins further up the Cape, but it's expensive to visit. Luckily, our friends Cammy and Dave gave us the great advice to visit a much cheaper one at Betty's Bay, where we saw tons (pics to come). But we did like this warning sign near the colony on the Cape.
The drive toward Betty's Bay offered these crazy views of fog blanketing the distant mountains, across the sea.
And, a rainbow right over the highway. Damn, isn't South Africa beautiful?
Penguin time! We have never seen so many penguins in one place in the wild, and it only cost $1.50. Thanks, C&D, for the great tip!
This jackass is ready for his closeup.
OK, it's a little blurry, but...penguins plus hyrax! PENGUINS PLUS HYRAX! Brain overloading with the cuteness.
And that brings us to the arbitrarily decided end of my post about South Africa. Andy will pick things up from here. A very good beginning, and much more fun to come.
Oh, and you wanted to know who are the dassies' closest genetic relatives? Drumroll, please...
Elephants! Believe it or not, it's the honest truth! Just put a trunk one one of them and squint and you can sort of imagine...