Category Archives: South Africa

Photo- Table Mountain Cable Car, Cape Town, South Africa


Photo of the Day: Leopard in Mala Mala, South Africa

Taken June 15, 2009

Because today is the long-anticipated start date of the 2010 FIFA World Cup in South Africa and the mascot is a leopard, here is a real live one chowing down on the last remnants of a baboon at Mala Mala Game Reserve in South Africa.  Not to be confused with the other time we saw a leopard chowing down at night!

For anyone interested I plan to cheer for Team USA this year- I am usually unpatriotic and cheer for anyone-but-the-US in international sporting on the grounds that we throw so much money at sports it’s a much greater achievement if someone from a small country wins, but this is arguably the one competition where we are the underdog!  Either way best of luck to South Africa in hosting, though I’ve no doubts that one of my favorite countries on the planet is capable of pulling off a spectacular job.

Video: Leopard-Hyena Fight

Also known as my “Discovery Channel moment!”

The following video was shot at Mala Mala Game Reserve in South Africa on nothing more than my trusty digital camera (which was flashing its “out of battery” message the whole time this was taken in case you’re wondering what the fuss is about in the audio).  The leopard had killed the baby zebra earlier in the day but it was much too big for him to drag up into a tree which made him vulnerable to hyenas and, well, watch the video to find out what happens!

Video: Lioness Roaring at Mala Mala

And ye of little faith thought I was done, didn’t you?  Ha!

So don’t ask why now, but believe it or not I have a rather nice set of videos I was taking the whole time I was traveling that I’m only getting around to uploading now.  Order doesn’t seem to matter in particular when the events we’re talking about took place a year ago, so to begin here’s a lioness roaring in Mala Mala Game Reserve, South Africa at dusk- she was apparently looking for her friends!

Turns out these things take a long time to upload, so we’ll see what’s next.  But my channel is here should anyone wish to peruse the full collection before the individual videos get posted here.

Summary of South Africa

After you finish a round the world trip, the most common question you get is “what was your favorite country?”  It goes without saying that this is a bit of an impossible question to ask- I like all the countries I’ve been to in some way or another, and how do you compare Laos to Austria anyway?- but that’s not the sort of answer people want, so I inevitably say South Africa.  This is probably part because it was the last one I visited and thus the most fresh in my mind, but mostly because it is just plain awesome.  There is no other place half as diverse, from rolling beaches to mountains, remote villages to modern cities, a huge variation on cultures… I could have spent a lot more time here, and if (when?) I go on another wander it would be hard to not place South Africa on the list again.


– Mala Mala is an awesome place, but even then it’s just plain impossible to not love going on safari.  Because lives that involve charging elephants and finding leopards lying in the road and lion cubs playing with their mom are just plain more interesting, even if you find yourself quoting The Lion King more than is acceptable in polite society. (“Step lively children!  The sooner we get to the  water hole, the sooner we can leave.”)

– Cape Town just might be the prettiest city in the world, and if not is certainly on the short list (I actually thought it was very similar to Auckland!).  And when you add in the nearby Cape Point and the Stellenbosch wine region, well!

– Moving along, the Garden Route isn’t heard much of out of South Africa as that’s more a place people in-country go on vacation, which is a pity as it’s a lovely stretch with little gems of towns on it where you can do things like ride an ostrich, explore caves, go whale watching, try surfing…

– I like the Wild Coast/ Transkei region a lot better though honestly, particularly Coffee Bay, due to the addition of the colorful X’osha culture tossed into the mix.  If I get back to South Africa I will definitely spend more time here!

– And finally, the spectacular Drakensberg region filled with amazing mountains and the sensible, down-to-earth ranchers you’d expect to find in such a place.  Honestly, it felt like a different breed of the Wild West to get out there!

– Also, it should be noted that on the whole Afrikaans gents are the most kind and chivalrous ones you will ever meet- funny because Dutch guys are often on the lower end of that scale!  What do you expect from such a proud and courteous people I suppose?  Lucky for me American Midwesterners are probably second on the list of guys knowing how to treat a lady scale, though, so hopefully I won’t have a hell of a commute in my future. *wink*


– Johannesburg is a bit of a “meh” city to be honest- big and sprawling and not much unique about it, and not even a place I’d want to live because of the crime rate.  I don’t think I ever met anyone who wanted to live in Jo’burg now that I think about it, including other South Africans, and usually you’ll find someone defending their town’s honor!

– While on the topic, crime in South Africa is an obvious detriment- honestly if it wasn’t for this I’d consider living here (as opposed to how I’ve met countless South Africans who moved abroad who love their country but are happy to escape the crime), but anyplace more dangerous than the USA doesn’t appeal much to me in the long term.  The interesting thing about South Africa though is how this was also the only country I’d been to where I didn’t get a key to the hostel room and reception laughed a little when I asked for one as crime was so nonexistent in their Middle of Nowhere location (like rural America where people leave doors unlocked even while going on vacation).  So the take-home message is crime is constrained more to the urban areas in South Africa, though to be clear when it gets bad it gets really bad.

– To carry on, an awful lot of crime in South Africa ties into the desperate poverty in an otherwise modern and wealthy nation- frankly I’ve never seen such a big disparity of haves vs have-nots as in South Africa.  Put it this way, East Cleveland where I go to uni has the highest poverty rate in the country and your house is deemed “substandard” by the city if it only has one bathroom, in South Africa living in a shack with no electricity or water and being unable to send your children to secondary school doesn’t bat an eye.  So when people land in better conditions in prison (such as three square meals a day) you inevitably get tragic results.

– Moving away from sociological issues, I don’t think I was ever as terrified in my life as I was on the world’s tallest bungy jump.  Because I thought I was about to die.  So guess I’m not doing that again anytime soon.

– And finally, it probably would’ve been nice to travel around more towards the peak season in South Africa instead of winter because some places were certainly not as interesting because of a lack of people.  Buccaneer’s Backpackers in Chintsa, for example, is world-famous for its vibe and I certainly liked it but the vibe was missing due to there hardly being anyone there!  Not like I’m a fan of crowds and places being booked solid, but there’s definitely a compromise always to be had in such things.

Anyway, South Africa is a wonderful place and I will certainly be watching the World Cup this summer with excitement (that’s what the Cape Town stadium looked like a year prior to the start- hopefully it’s more done now!).  I have no doubt it will be a memorable one.

Johannesburg and Soweto

Johannesburg is the sort of place that freaks the hell out of other South Africans when it comes to crime, so you know when other South Africans are concernd about a place it’s time to pay attention. (“I would never live in Jo’burg- the people act like prisoners in their own homes while the criminals walk free!” is a common sentiment, followed by a favorite crime-riddled anecdote.) So I wasn’t particularly raring to go there but had to as the plane home flew out of Jo’burg, so this city got to be the last destination on my round the world trip and the first with crime statistics worse than Cleveland.

And actually it turns out that if you’re careful in Jo’burg and stay in a hostel in a wealthy suburb it’s just as generic as any other Western suburb you’ve been to, the only major difference being all the locals who wanted to go out to eat would drive to a mall where there was secure parking and the trendy cafes spilled out onto the atrium. Just like anywhere else but indoors! And because I don’t like malls at home so I can’t imagine hanging out in one my last day in Africa, I spent it instead on a trip out to Soweto.

Soweto is an abbreviation for South West Township and really is a city in itself with well over a million people (it used to be, but now counts as a district of Jo’burg). It is the most famous of the South African townships due to its size and the anti-apartheid uprisings that happened here. Nowadays, thank goodness, things are getting a bit more normal and at a faster rate than other townships in the country.

Typical houses in Soweto being built by the government lately by the millions. They’re not entirely inspiring, until you remember what the standard was up until a few years ago and still is in most townships around South Africa-

Everyone thinks of shacks like these when they think of the townships, but believe it or not these are some of the last in a township of 1.3 million people. The goal was to have new houses built for everyone by the World Cup this summer actually, but I’m not sure how that schedule is going…

The iconic power plant in the heart of Soweto (if such a structure can be iconic), which interestingly did not power the district at all during apartheid as most people didn’t have electricity in the first place.

Anyway, it turns out when you go to Soweto as a white person you do a couple things, like visit a fish and chip shop, look at the largest hospital in the world, and walk down the street where two Nobel Laureates lived (Desmond Tutu and Nelson Mandela), but invariably someone inquires about going to a sheeben (bar) so that’s where we headed-

Complete with heart and liver on the menu that we didn’t try, but giant Castle beers which we did!And last but not least, the giant football stadium on the edge of Soweto which will host both the opening and final match of the World Cup this summer!  And believe you me everyone is beyond excited to show the world what an amazing country South Africa is. Which reminds me, I still need to pick a team…

And that’s a good note to end on because above all things Soweto struck me as a place in flux more than anything- yes it has a history of struggle and desperation, but things are changing quick and I guarantee I will not recognize it in a few years.  And all in all, that struck me as a marvelous thing.

And so things ended, and I went to catch my flight out of Africa.

The Drakensberg

Trivia fact of the day- whenever people think of Lord of the Rings they think of New Zealand’s mountains, but those are not the ones that inspired Tolkein. Rather, it turns out he was born in South Africa and lived in the Drakensberg Mountains for several years as a child, so when he envisioned Middle Earth he was actually thinking of here. So how could one not visit a place with such stellar literary commendation?

There are so many lovely spots in the region that they become commonplace- this waterfall was just next to where I was waiting for the bus in a town called Pietermaritzburg. Some bus stop!

A lovely sunset view from the hostel I was staying at. Most of the people around here are ranchers of various capacity, so the sunset was particularly spectacular due to smoke from controlled burns in the area just before the dry season.

A word about the backpackers I stayed at by the way because it was yet another neat place in South Africa I wished I had more time to spend at, called Khotso Backpackers. It was de facto a working family ranch that let rooms to travelers, complete with a sheepdog to guard the livestock against leopard attacks and the family crowding around their Ham radio every night to talk to those away on a several day horse trek. Sort of Wild West meets Africa I suppose.

Um, ok. On this trip I met several animals who had cases of mistaken identity like the dog that thought it was a cheetah or the giraffe that thought it was a person, but this is the first time I met a horse that thought it was a dog. No joke this is Simon the horse, who spent most of his time trying to get into the house where all his friends were hanging out and, yep, I once spotted in the kitchen when someone didn’t close the door quickly.

When not actively trying to sneak into the house Simon is always looking forlornly at it in hopes that someone will come hang out with him in a very non-horse way. And I’ve gotta say it’s somewhat disconcerting after awhile- can you imagine opening the curtain sleepy-eyed in the morning only to jump back, wide awake now, because there is a horse staring at you on just the other side of the glass?! I’ve seen far less creepy scary movies started under much more dubious circumstances, let me say that much!

Anyway, these are some of the more sane and cuddly inhabitants of the ranch- baby lambs! Specifically these are the ones whose mothers rejected them upon birth for whatever reason, so they get to spend the night sleeping in the shed as well as getting bottle-fed until they get bigger. Me holding the sheep I bottle-fed. Excuse the milk on his head, it turns out lambs are plenty cute but also plenty dumb.

More on the Drakensberg later because the scenery is just amazing. Plus I got to go to my last new country of the trip while exploring it…

Dinner at the Village

One night the Coffee Shack hostel organized supper at a local Xhosa village a few miles away from town.  Sounded like a great way to kick off the evening, so off I went.

First thing’s first, gotta distribute the beer to the guests!  This stuff is very obviously homebrew and made from corn, a dead giveaway because the main taste was a very corny, yeasty one.  One of those things that you’ll generously try a few sips of the first time the bucket is passed around, but smaller and smaller sips as it keeps coming around… Also, it turns out traditional African beer is very non-alcoholic in content and the locals are more into it because they’ve developed a taste for it/ in places where you can’t guarantee water quality it’s best to drink fermented stuff.

A bunch of kids in the village who were demanding I take pictures of them while posing for the camera so they could see themselves on the view screen afterwards.   So I indulged.

Ok, time to get into a hut for dinner!  And yep here’s what most villagers eat day in and day out in this part of the world, boiled cornmeal with varying types of spices  on top.  Exciting?  Can’t pretend my plate was finished because I wasn’t a real fan, but it did make me sympathetic to people who have no choice but to eat such a non-varied diet every day!

There was also a second course, which was mealie-meal with a mashed potato-type quality, some brown sauce, and some boiled greens on the side.  Meat is only for special holidays in this part of the world.

Food’s done, time to dance! This first one was done by the boys and basically consisted of walking around with a stick in hand.  It should be noted that there were virtually no men older than my age in the village- due to economic necessity most families live here while the father works in Johannesburg, with the father spending maybe a month at home during the year while the wife may visit him in Johannesburg once or twice as well depending on the family’s situation.

Sort of related, I also got into an interesting conversation with an older woman about Xhosa bride-prices: in this part of the world the potential groom’s family has to pay a certain amount of cattle to the bride’s family in order to marry her, depending on how hardworking and  how much income the woman can bring to her new family in the future (traditionally marriages are arranged, but nowadays most guys will tell his family of his girlfriend so the marriage can be arranged).  If you have a reputation for laziness you’re not going to bring much of a price, maybe only seven cattle, but a woman who has a nursing certificate or some such can fetch twice as much (the highest bride price I heard of was a man who worked several years to get 23 cattle to wed the beautiful daughter of the chief who was also a teacher).

“So how much would I get?” I asked, and was subjected to a look of frank appraisal.

“You’re beautiful and probably well brought up and undoubtedly educated so you could bring in income,” she  began, “but you probably don’t know the first thing about pounding mealie meal or how to build a rondavel so that would count against you. ” She then concluded that my father should not accept any offers on my behalf that were less than 15 cattle as a starting point, and he  should do it soon because I was about five years past the average Xhosa marrying age.  Good to know!Last but not least the girls  danced, a lot better than the guys I should note, and turns out I could hold my own with the Xhosa gals.  Maybe we can up that bride-price to sixteen cows in light of that information?

As a final note, the night was a lot of fun but my favorite part was when the traditional music was pierced by the jingle of someone’s cell phone.  Before I could cringe that one of my fellow backpackers was being so disrespectful one of the white-skirted girls jumped out of her seat and ran outside with her phone to answer it.  Mind this village has no electricity so I was surprised that a pre-teen had a cell phone- hell I didn’t have a cell phone then!- but the villagers looked at me like I was an idiot when I asked how the phones got charged.

“At the store,” I was told matter-of-factly, as it turns out some area entrepreneurs will charge a phone for a few Rand each time.  Lack of electricity doesn’t stand in the way of progress!

Anyway, to finish the story after a few moments the girl came back with her phone which obviously had a text on it, and immediately had a pow-wow with her friends over the meaning of her latest social development like girls do the world over.  People are more alike the world over then we acknowledge, and don’t let anyone tell you differently.

A Walk on the Wild Coast

One morning in Coffee Bay I woke up to learn that a bunch of people were planning on a hike to a site called Hole in the Wall, about 10km to the west along the coast. And because the region is so lovely that it’s just begging to be explored, I joined up.

Hiking around here along the coast isn’t just a stroll along the beach but rather a series of ups and downs, but it is absolutely lovely isn’t it?

A view down from one of the steeper parts towards a little hole in the wall. Just lovely.

One thing I love about this part of Africa is you have all this great plant life growing all around- to the left is part of a cacti forest consisting of a type my mom has a sizable specimen of at home, which is absolutely dwarfed by these cacti that “escaped from their pots” as my mom likes to describe plants in nature.

Somehow at long last we found a beach and not just a cliffside to walk along. This was about three hours into the walk and we’re just about there, the hole in the wall is just beyond that little hill in the picture.

The final hiking destination, the Hole in the Wall, not to be confused with Hole in the Rock in New Zealand. This one’s actually much smaller- hard to get scale because the tide was up and the water was cold but someone could swim through it but not more than that.

And then, because no one was particularly interested in hiking 10km back to Coffee Bay, we got a ride in the back of a local pickup truck. That’s the African way.

Coffee Bay

Coffee Bay is little town that is one of my favorite places in South Africa- had I not had a flight to catch I probably would have stayed there quite awhile. In short it’s a tiny surfing spot in the middle of traditionally Xhosa territory (the second largest tribe in South Africa, after the Zulu) dominated by hills sloping into the ocean dotted with colorful houses called rondavels all around. Only backpackers really come here and the people get into deep philosophical conversations for reasons I never quite worked out but had surprisingly little to do with the guy selling dagga outside for a couple dollars (lots of Rastas in this part of the world!).

Looking down at Coffee Bay at sunset. A beautiful but very isolated stretch of the Indian Ocean- not completely isolated though because you’d see several tankers out at sea on any given day rounding Africa a la Vasco da Gama.

The bar/restaurant I took the picture from, during a Springboks match against the UK/Ireland. Sorry New Zealand, but South Africans are definitely the biggest supporters of their rugby team I’ve seen! The only TV for miles is the tiny one to the left of the pole in the picture, yet everyone crowded around it.

By the way, I saw Invictus with my family a little while ago sans the last twenty minutes as the film ripped to shreds and the theater couldn’t get it fixed that night (I didn’t know that could still happen!). You know, movie about South Africa during Mandela’s time… I highly recommend it, but one of the things that amused me while watching it was how they showed people in South Africa crowding around little TVs in the sheebens to watch the final match, and hey I’ve done the same! (South Africa won the match for any interested parties.)

So what is there to do in Coffee Bay when not watching the rugby match?  Lots of things I’ll talk more about later, but surfing is very big in this part of the world all along the coast because of the beautiful large waves they get, some of the best and most consistent conditions in the world.

I’ve never gone surfing before but had to try it, so for about twenty bucks I got a board, wetsuit, and a free lesson.  And hey guess what, turns out I’m really bad  at surfing, even compared to others who hadn’t done it before!  Just couldn’t get the nerve to balance correctly on the board before toppling, and swallowing seawater is only fun so many times.  So all in all I spent two hours in the water with a surfboard and most of the first was up before I stood up, then a little more to prove I could before deciding body-boarding was a more fun use of time.  Yeah not as awesome, dude, but when you’ve only got an afternoon it’s more better to have fun rather than keep getting battered by the waves!

Some cows on our beach around lunchtime.  The Xhosa are cattle people and the cattle are actually the centerpoint of one of the weirder stories in history, when a girl in 1856 went to fetch water and came back saying she’d met the spirits of three ancestors who told her the Xhosa needed to kill all their cattle and destroy all their crops.  This would cause their dead ancestors to return to drive the white people away, and in return they would be given healthier cattle than those they had before.  And the scary thing is the Xhosa did it- the chief believed her and ordered all their wealth to be destroyed, and even those who didn’t believe complied because obedience to the chief was unquestionable.  So there was widespread starvation and even cannibalism, finally allowing the British to take over the Xhosa lands, and the moral of all this is don’t listen to teenage girls who claim they saw spirits.

As a final picture, here’s one I took after surfing from outside the rondavel I had to myself at the hostel, called the Coffee Shack.  (By this point in the trip I was upgrading from the bunks in hostels, as I’d rather have a rondavel than a few extra dollars back home!) The reason I show this is because the non-rondavel part of the hostel (ie bar, restaurant, reception, comfy hammocks, etc) are all on the other side of the channel pictured here, which filled with water at high tide.  So you were right next to the hostel when the tide was low, but circumventing the channel was a good fifteen minute walk around during high tide!

So for obvious reasons, while I was at Coffee Bay observing the tide became my obsession.  Luckily it turned out that low tide was around 11when I was there, meaning there was a convenient buffer time to cross after a lie-in in the morning and you could just barely get back at night (for those who don’t know it’s about a 12.5 hour cycle).  Ah Africa, the weird things I never thought I’d worry about like trying to get home before the tide comes in…