Monthly Archives: September 2009

Return to Cape Town

image297If you learn anything about South Africa, it is that you should avoid flying with South African Airways whenever possible.  Why, you ask?  Because three people in my family tried to buy tickets with them, with the following results-

1) My sister tried to buy her Victoria Falls- Johannesburg ticket online with a credit card, but was told the card was flagged and she needed to call them.  In South Africa.  Where she was on hold for about a half hour each time, one of which resulted in learning she had to try later as everyone was out to lunch.  They did things like saying the bank was at fault whereby the bank said “what the hell this should be fine!” and all such issues with the card.  Finally my sister just ended up going to the ticket counter for South African Airways in the Jo’burg airport when we first arrived there, where the ticket was issued with no problem.

2) It turns out South African Airways has a policy that you need to show the credit card you purchased your ticket with.  Fine, no problem, but what if you’re issued a new credit card in between the purchase and the flight?  Happened to my dad so there was some excitement when we tried to check in involving more running around to ticket offices in the Jo’burg airport.

3) At this rate, I’m sure no one is surprised that I got an email whilst in Namibia that SAA had flagged my card for the Jo’burg-Cape Town leg of my journey from Victoria Falls. (I’d decided to go back to Cape Town because the travel worked better that way, and I suspect the ticket out of Vic Falls wasn’t flagged because I bought it via the Zimbabwe office which has little capability to check these things.) Assuming I found an international line I didn’t want to think of how much it would cost to be on hold a half hour only to hear everyone was out for a tea break, so I decided to settle the thing in Johannesburg before my connection.  But by the time I got there it turns out they’d canceled the ticket without telling me and would take me only for three times the original price I’d payed.

To which I said “screw you, let the free market decide!” and started ticket hunting.  It turns out there are three other airlines that fly the popular Johannesburg- Cape Town route, so I proceeded to do the entertaining routine of going up to each desk and saying “I want to fly to Cape Town tonight, what have you got?” (I’ve never done this before of course- my American flight experience made me feel like I’d end up on some terror watch list or something for doing this.)  A subsidiary of British Airways named Kulula would take me that night for ~$10 more than the original price of the South African Airways flight.  And they gave me wine and ice  cream en route, so why would you ever bother flying SAA in light of all that?!

Anyway, a few hours after that excitement I was back in rainy Cape Town nestled in my cozy bed at The Backpack, perhaps the nicest hostel I have ever been in. (They had a bar/restaurant, great travel desk, en suite room with no one else in it, and a complimentary water bottle.  South Africans are big on water bottles, and after a few weeks I can understand why!) After three weeks of camping, I don’t know if I can fully explain my excitement at sleeping in a bed again, indoors, listening to the rain pattering on the roof.  I also had a stack of new books and magazines and candies I’d purchased in a mini-shopping spree at the Jo’burg airport- after Zimbabwe going into a store and actually being able to purchase stuff was a sincere novelty!

That’s the funny thing about me and culture shock by thee way- I’ve noticed that I have relatively little by now going into a 3rd world culture, and have a much more pronounced effect when I come back to modern civilization and realize all that was missing.  Transition from Zimbabwe to Cape Town was by far the biggest shock I experienced- a simple act like buying a magazine in a store is not a universal thing, though you’d never realize it until you go through a period where you can’t.

I spent two weeks going from Cape Town to Johannesburg, filled with interesting stories of the most diverse country I’ve been to, but until I get around to it here’s a picture of a cute seal who was hanging out by the Cape Town waterfront-image293

Summary of Zimbabwe

I don’t think there’s any country I wish well more than Zimbabwe.  It is filled with the kindest people you can find anywhere, yet living in the most desperate conditions one normally delegates to “somewhere else.”  Except when “somewhere else” it makes an impression that guarantees the place will stay with you long after you leave.

Also, if anyone can give me the opportunity to meet Robert Mugabe let me know, I want to sucker-punch him.


Victoria Falls- “wow” doesn’t quite begin to cover it.  So long it takes 20 minutes to walk from end to end, so loud you can hear it day and night in town a mile away, and so wet half the tourists don garbage bags to avoid getting soaked (which begs the question which is the stupider half, the ones who look silly or the ones wet to the bone?).

– Beer was a dollar and really quite tasty.  I can never say anything completely terrible about the dollar beer countries.

– On an arguably similar note, due to a combination of great locals and overlanders you can have a very fun night in Zimbabwe.  Probably bad if you actually plan to catch up on sleep, but on the bright side the murmur of the Falls makes for excellent white noise!

– If you want an adrenaline rush in the middle of Africa, come here.  You can jump off cliffs and whitewater raft down world-class rapids and all sorts of fun stuff that makes you sound more hard-core than you really are.


– Want to see what happens when the fabric of society breaks down?  Zimbabwe is unfortunately the classic case for what it’s like right now, with buzzwords like hyperinflation, rampant poverty, and epidemics you only read about in history books.  I wouldn’t wish such things on my worst enemy frankly.

– Another odd thing I frankly cannot begin to understand- a few of the girls did the one-night stand thing while in Victoria Falls.  Ok, I understand some people indulge in such things, but in sub-Saharan Africa? Where the HIV rate is a scary high number so high the odds are almost on par with flipping a coin?  Geez, people.

Adrenaline Rush

I realize I am terribly behind by now in this trip blog.  Please address all complaints about the matter to the Case Western Reserve University Physics Department Graduate Program.

Before anyone gets too confused, yes, this post is categorized under “Zambia” as well as just “Zimbabwe.”  Why?  Because most of the adrenaline activities in Victoria Falls center around the narrow gorge the Zambezi River fills after the falls- about 100m high, filled with whitewater, and having Zimbabwe on one side and Zambia on the other.  The dividing line is of course in the middle of the river so we technically have been to Zambia when we did whitewater rafting.  We have just never set foot on Zambian soil!

So we had a multi-national gorge as our playground, what crazy things did we do first?  Jump off into the gorge a few times-

This picture is more to show the scale of the gorge than the jump- if you look carefully you can spot me in the middle of a flying fox leap.  Flying fox is when you’re attached on your back and run down a platform and fly like Superman- really fun, naturally, but I realized it got me in the precarious position of getting a too-good view of the gorge for the later jumps.  It’s one thing to have bravado to jump off a cliff when you’ve only looked at the thing from the edge, quite another when you had a good thorough look and plan to jump again

And jump we did- #2, the zipline!  Had a bunch of experience with these in Laos and it was the only jump we could do together so we decided to, on the grounds that you go a lot further on a zipline if you have more mass.  No guts required in jumping here as you’re sort of left to dangle and they do the letting go and hey, it was fun to have a sister to scream with as we flew above the gorge!

Finally, the gorge swing.  It should be noted that Linda is a much more awesome gorge swing jumper than I am because by this point the only other guy who had jumped before us screamed like a girl so I was thoroughly rattled- jumping off a platform is always a lot easier when you’ve seen a few people enjoy it in my opinion.  Anyway, a gorge swing is basically like a bungy jump but instead of bounces at the end you go into a huge parabolic arc after a 70m freefall in this case, which is actually more freefall than the bungy jump in Victoria Falls has! (Bungy jumps always just measure the distance to the ground from the platform but you obviously don’t actually want to fall that far, so the ~110m Vic Falls jump is considerably less than that.) And it was fun, really, except my neck was a little sore later from some whiplash when the swinging kicked in- the stuff we put up with for adrenaline!

Death-defying jumps under our belts it was time for some whitewater rafting in the infamous Zambezi River, Class 5 rapids considered to be some of the best in the world, all with wonderful names like “The Overland Truck Eater,” “Corporate Suicide,” and “Oblivion.”  Call me weird but I was much more nervous about this than I ever was about jumping off a gorge, and by nervous I mean this was the first time in my trip I was actually scared about what I was doing because I really don’t like getting thrown into water not on my own terms.  Funny that…

It should be noted that we did the course just at the beginning of high water season, when they only start from Rapid #11.  In low season you start at the beginning of the course I really don’t think I’d enjoy that from what I hear- as YouTube can attest there are a lot of rapids where it’s a miniature waterfall, or your boat can get stuck as the rapid flows up, or a myriad of other things you wonder why people fork over good money to do.


Before getting to raft, though,  you need to climb down to the river!  The gorge is about 90m deep and I for one was happy I had my Teva sandals and didn’t have to do it in flip-flops like many others, as some parts were quite slippery.

(Before anyone asks, the whitewater rafting pictures are funny as they were illicitly taken during the viewing of the rafting DVD they tried to get us to buy.  The girl climbing down this crazy wooden ladder was a British girl in our boat.) image278

So here’s our raft, practicing our paddling skills before the first rapid.  I am the second person on the right side of the boat (behind a girl who spent a summer guiding whitewater rafts in Canada) and Linda was on the left.

The surreal thing about calm stretches like these in the Zambezi is you are warned in advance not to fall in on them.  Why?  Because this being Africa there are crocodiles- we saw one sunning himself on a rock at some point- and while they avoid whitewater sections for the same reasons sane people do it’s probably best to not go for a swim in a calm patch just in case. image279And here is the part where we almost died.  Kidding!  No really, this was us on a Class 5 rapid called “The Washing Machine” which is quickly followed by the equally lethal Terminators I and II.  Having so many hard rapids without a break made it the toughest stretch of the river by far- half the rafts in our group capsized, but ours emerged victorious!  Hooray!  And by emerging victorious I mean at some point the front half of our boat was completely underwater, we were crouched down and the water was over my head, so I suspect we were a lot closer to a proper capsizing than we dared consider.

I confess though that after this I was left with a feeling of “that was it?” as far as my fears were placed- having done more whitewater kayaking than rafting in my life I suppose I was pre-biased towards the suicide that particular sport entails, and thanks to luck and general raft awesomeness we didn’t even capsize once!

Last bit of adrenaline relished and numb from being tired, we then had to climb up the gorge again (all the while sending forlorn stares at the cable car the Zambian side is equipped with).  But hey, we survived the part I was scared about!  I guess it’s always important to face your fears, even when something like “crocodile-infested Class 5 whitewater African river rafting” is one of them.