Wednesday, October 31, 2007

South Africa: Capping Off Our African Adventure in Cape Town

At long last, we reach the holy grail: Cape Town! Since we landed in Cairo on July 17, it has been the one assured spot of final destination (since we had airline tickets from here) and a city that everyone raves about. But as the milestone that would mark the end of our African adventure, it was simultaneously a place that we looked forward to but never really wanted to reach. But reach it we did, and loved it, too.
Like some strange amalgam of San Francisco and New Orleans, it made us a little homesick and yet felt like home. Cape Town offered up sunny happy hours in stunning colonial style buildings, fancy cuisine, stylish cafes and gorgeous waterfront scenery. We particularly liked the brightly colored homes of the historic Bo-Kaap neighborhood, where the city`s Muslim community rubs shoulders with local street artists.

Stunning geography meant fantastic sunsets after hiking up Lion`s head with a bottle of wine and some cheese to watch the magic of the city`s lights begin to twinkle from below. And the wildflowers and views from Table Mountain were incredible. And made all the more special by being shared with some friends from home (who have now relocated to South Africa). It was such a treat to see familiar faces after three months.

But as with all things South Africa, there was pondering as well. On all of our glorious hikes, we never saw anyone of color. And a tour of the townships (which stretch for miles) brought to life some of the city`s not-so-distant past. We had mixed feelings about doing a township tour (as it felt like a bit of a human zoo experience or a poverty tour), but we wanted to learn more about South Africa`s history, and they came highly recommended. One stop was at a township shebeen (a quasi-legal drinking establishment where they make their own corn based beer). Not above trying every different beer he can find, Eric quickly took a hold of the bucket. Of particular interest on our tour was the District Six museum, which detailed forced removal of black citizens from town to the townships in the 1960s and 1970s. Despite repeated attempts, we were never able to secure reservations to see Robben Island, Cape Town`s Alcatraz, where Nelson Mandela was imprisoned. We`ll have to see that next time. On a positive note, friends who had been to Cape Town throughout the past decade spoke optimistically about how much more diverse the town center is and that progress was being made daily to integrate various communities.

And finally, we were able to seek out some African music. This was something we`d hoped to find all over Africa, but was less accessible than we`d hoped. Live music venues were few and far between, and many of them were playing American hits anyway. All of the young Africans we met professed their love for Tupak and 50 cent. Perhaps West Africa is the place to hit for the more African music experience.

We spent a day tooling around the Cape of Good Hope, which was beautiful. Cappuccino and florentines in Kalk Bay, penguin viewing (and impersonating) at Boulder Beach, and miles and miles of gorgeous coastline. A highlight was on a crazily windy (we can`t believe they don`t have more tourists blown off the trail) hike from the point, when we turned a corner and practically tripped over a mama ostrich protecting her eggs. And she had a LOT of eggs. She started hissing at us, and we backed away, not entirely sure what sort of damage an angry ostrich could inflict, but not wanting to find out. We capped off the day with sundowners at Camp`s Bay. No matter how many times we see an African sunset, we can`t stop snapping photos. At least we`re getting a tad more creative at times...

Our final days in Africa were spent in completely ridiculous splendor thanks to some wonderful friends from home. We enjoyed a truly dreamy place with views of table mountain, roses in the room, and champagne in the courtyard. Oh la la. The only thing that would have made the whole thing better would to have been to have had our friends whooping it up in Cape Town with us!

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

South Africa: The Wine Country

After all the excitement of last week, we could really use a drink. So off to the wine country we headed. We first made our way to Franschoek, a little corner of French culture in South Africa. A woman who ran one of the backpackers in the Drakensberg gave us a great tip on nightlife in quiet Franschoek in the form of a supperclub night. Le Quartier Francais (the famed and expensive and critically-acclaimed restaurant in town), also has a more casual and less pricey bistro where you can enjoy a great meal and then retire to their private screening room for a movie. This sounded divine, as we hadn´t seen a movie in ages. As it turned out, it was a truly private screening, since we were the only folks there. We sat on comfy red couches and enjoyed a French film La Tourneuse (the page turner) on the big screen with our feet up and our bellies full. We highly recommend this to anyone passing through town.

The next day, we awoke to find out that the power was turned off for the whole town due to some sort of electricity shortage. It is still Africa, after all. No worries, who needs a hot shower or eggs when a croissant and a new hairdo will do. We opted for our own walking wine tour of Franschoek, where we literally crossed the street from our Backpacker`s inn called Otter`s Bend and walked right up to the tasting room of a beautiful winery. We wanted to really love their wines, as they are one of the few wineries owned by a black African, but unfortunately we didn`t. So we kept on walking. And tasting. And walking. And tasting. And in the afternoon, the rain set in. But by this time, we had tasted quite a bit. Perhaps too much. So we simply pottered about in the drizzle, and Kathleen adopted what Eric called her `beekeeper` look to protect herself from the rain.

It is shameful to admit, but in Franschoek, what many consider the culinary capital of South Africa, we went back to the Otter`s Bend and made spaghetti and veggies in their beautiful self-service kitchen. Oh the shame and the joy.

Our next stop in the wine country was Stellenbosch, where we joined a boozy wine tour with two hilarious Canadian playboy pilots living in Dubai. A highlight of the tour was the Fairview winery, where owners have given part of their land to their employees to make their own wine (Fair Valley) that they sell in their winery. All profits go back to the employees and their families. Nice! Also nice were the copious amounts of cheese set out for tasting. The best moment of the tour, however, came at the last winery, when one of the high roller pilots whipped out 500 Rand and laid it on the table. He leaned in and asked the winery guy in a low voice to close the windows and doors and pour us something really interesting. We were somewhat embarassed by this theatrical maneuver, but we also sort of hoped that velvet curtains would part and we`d be led into the exclusive back-room for free massages and chocolate-covered strawberries. As it turns out, 500 Rand is only about $70 US Dollars, which I guess doesn`t get you that far in the wine world. We did, however, get to try a really tasty 2001 cabernet.

Saturday, October 20, 2007

South Africa: Extreme Week on the Garden Route

Cultural ponderings shelved, this week was all about action and adrenaline, like some sort of Red Bull-fueled obstacle course.

To be honest, extreme week started in Coffee Bay, where a local backpackers´ lodge offered cliff jumping as an excursion. We hiked over hill and dale and then up a cliff face to dare the devil´s jacuzzi (who comes up with these names?). You had to time your jump to coincide with the tide, so that you could jump, land in water, swim to the edge, and scramble out before another wave pushed you into a craggy mass of barnacle-laden rocks. Fun, no? Eric wisely opted out of this one, but Kathleen was egged on by another girl and her ego got the best of her. Aiiiiyyyyyyeeee! All went well for Kathleen, but the girl who followed her had a harder time swimming and came out with quite a few barnacle souvenirs. Ouch.

Undettered, we next braved Bloukran´s Bridge with a bungy cord strapped to our ankles to earn bragging rights about braving the Guinness World Record´s longest bungy jump at 216 meters (708 feet). We can´t really say why we did this, but we just had to. Kind of like when you hike to an icy cold lake in the mountains. It might not be the most enjoyable thing to dive in, but you have no choice. We felt the same way being faced with the bungy. The contemplation made us queasy (and gave Kathleen nightmares), but we just couldn´t not do it. Five, Four, Three, Two, One, Bungeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee.....

It´s a crazy, unreal feeling to simply jump off a bridge with a strap around your ankles. You free fall for a full five seconds (enough time to say to yourself, "wow, I am still falling...and falling...and falling") until you reach the end of the cord, then swing back around and bounce, floating weightlessly up. Eric swears the view was amazing, while Kathleen contemplated the back of her tightly screwed eyelids. Then you hang and twist in the wind until the spiderman lowers himself down and winches you back up. Wow.

Still high on adrenaline, we figured we might as well slip into a steel cage to meet the Earth´s most fearsome predator (or something like that). This one was a big decision for us, and we contemplated the environmental impact of chumming the water (vis a vis shark habits, surfer´s reports, etc.) and how we felt about shark-viewing being a "sport." We did a bunch of internet research and ultimately decided that we felt okay about it. So off we went with a hilarious cast of characters including an older long-haired hippy with plenty of tattoos and piercings but no pants, a mysterious Russian woman in a belted jacket and high heels who never got in the water, and two screaming kids who ate all the food on the boat and loudly misidentified all the animals. Not exactly a National Geographic film crew, but Eric looked a tad like Jacques Cousteau nonetheless, no?

So we motored out and lured the sharks with a stinky soup of fish blood. Contrary to what we expected, the sharks did not appear from every corner, circling the boat with teeth knashing in an attempt to flip us over. We actually had to wait over an hour for any to appear. There weren´t nearly as many as we expected, nor as interested in the bait as we would have thought. But they were certainly huge, beautiful animals. Magestic, really. When the first big one swam by, we questioned whether we really wanted to get in the water with it. But there was no turning back now. Six people would hop into the cage strapped to the side of the boat, and when the shark was nearby, the boat captain would yell ´down!´and you´d hold your breath, grab onto a bar (we were wearing snorkel masks and diving weights), and plunge under to watch the great white shark swimming by. Pretty cool, we must say. Even Eric thought so, despite feeling a tad queasy on the anchored boat. Or, to be honest, more than a tad. Happily, the sharks didn´t seem too interested in the vomit in the water, although we´re not sure what the other folks in the cage thought. We didn´t ask. Rounding out the day was the Southern Right Whale that circled the boat (while the kids yelled ´humpback!´) and the sea lions (´otter!´) that were frolicking on a nearby rock island. All in all, the experience was not as adrenaline-racing as we´d thought, or as environmentally suspect as we´d feared. Not to say that we´d have wanted the cage to have any larger holes than it already did....

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

South Africa: The Owlhouse and Brewery

For this entry, the pictures pretty much speak for themselves. Kathleen really wanted to visit the Owl House in Nieu Betheseda, a tiny town off a dirt road in the Eastern Karoo, a semidesert area of incredibly natural stark beauty.

However she feared that convincing Eric to drive some 12 hours total out of their way to see an arty house designed by a potentially crazy older lady in the 1940s might be a bit of an uphill battle. Until she read that South Africa´s smallest microbrewery was down the street from the Owl House. Hallelujah!

As it turned out, Eric loved the Owl House as much as Kathleen, and we ate lunch AND dinner at the Two Goats Deli and Sneeuberg Brewery (and would have had breakfast there, too, if they would have let us.)

The Owl House was the labor of love of Helen Martins, who had grown up in the area and returned to it in her 30s to take care of her sick father (whom she didn´t get along with). Following his death, some failed relationships, and her own illness, Helen decided that she wanted to bring more light into her life. So at the age of 48, she began a 30-year transformation of her home into an oasis of color and light. She turned her garden into a statuary of mosaics and other creations. She takes her themes from various religions, fantasy, and her own personal life. The whole affect is beautiful, fascinating, and, at times, eerie. She used cement, colored glass (in mosaic, crushed, and bottle form), and her imagination to create a wonderland to her own liking. In the end, nearing her 80s and partially blind, she took her own life. But not before people discovered her gifts and celebrated her vision as Outsider Art. While she was considered a kook when she was living, now people are drawn to this tiny community to view her work. And many artists have taken up residence in the sleepy, sun-baked town.

And a brewer! Andre at the Sneeuberg Brewery crafts delicious ales that he lets you pull yourself right from the keg-erator. And he also makes his own cheese that he serves up with home baked bread and kudu salami. Deeeeeeelish!

Monday, October 15, 2007

Haircuts Around the World: South Africa

With most of the modern conveniences available to us, South Africa felt like home in many ways. Sadly there were not many interesting barber shops, and only on our second to last day when we visited a township in Cape Town did we find a place that looked right for this edition of -- Haircuts Around The World. But my hair could not wait that long, and we settled for a homegrown cut in our backpacker's hostel in Hogsback.

We shared a place with a great couple from London (Johnny and Juliet) who were traveling around the world but only in their second week at this point. Johnny was sporting a hairstyle similar to mine. He also had a new set of clippers with him. So Kathleen resumed her role of stylist and trimmed my hair on the front porch while it began to rain outside. Ahhh...memories of home. We did not have the proper gear to work on the beard, but once again the top of my head was looking great! For surroundings, comfort, familiarity, and style I would give it a 10 out of 10 (Kathleen reads this too).

Sunday, October 14, 2007

South Africa: Away With The Fairies

Leaving the coast, we headed inland toward Hogsback, which had reached mythic status in our heads as the home of the Away with the Fairies backpacker lodge. Every guidebook raved about the beauty of the region, but we had met few people who had actually gone there.

The region makes big news of the fact that J.R.Tolkien vacationed there with his family, and many believe that it was the inspiration for the natural landscape in the Lord of the Rings. As such, everything is named Hobbit Hollow real estate or Lothlorien pub-n-grub or Middle Earth nursery. And, indeed, the setting absolutely lives up to the hype---it´s beautiful, lush, and resplendent with waterfalls. The only problem is that Tolkien was only three years old when he was on holiday here. Oh well...
Despite all that, we checked into our Hobbit House hut that we shared with some charming Londoners, and head out to enjoy the riches of Hogsback. Gorgeous hiking, the highest and scariest tree-house we´ve ever seen (Kathleen white-knuckled it the whole time), and the Rugby World Cup Semi-Finals (England vs. France). Admittedly, we know nothing about rugby, but it was cool to be in a place where folks were rabid with national pride. Some ex-pat Brits were sporting flags shaved into their heads and God Save the Queen hotpants, while the South Africans were pouring Springbok shots (Amarula and mint liquor) and the French were knashing their jaws.

On one hike, we ended up under an amazing waterfall, where some locals convinced us we had to swing and scoot behind the waterfall to look through it. This picture of Eric being helped in the process cracks us up, because it looks like an add for a San Francisco bathhouse or something.

On an entirely different note, one thought that came to mind in Hogsback was the notable lack of children compared to our East African adventures. We had become so accustomed to kids (especially under the age of 5) being everywhere we looked, running out to say hi, grabbing our hands, and playing in the streets. Not that this was necessarily a good thing for Eastern Africa, as large families in the face of looming poverty are a recipe for disaster. But it was interesting to note that the face of South Africa seemed so much more like home.

Friday, October 12, 2007

South Africa: The Eastern Cape’s Wild Coast

Leaving the Drakensberg under a cloud of cover, we made our way to the Wild Coast. Many know this area as the Transkei, as it was the largest apartheid-era homeland in the country and thus also the poorest. Even today, the area is still home to the largest concentration of black South Africans, and it felt more like East Africa to us, with rural villages and communities, and lots of un-penned livestock and small farms. In fact, they talk about the Transkei Big Five being goats, cows, pigs, sheep and dogs.

The area is home to the Xhosa (said with a click that we can’t seem to master) and Pondo people. And their simple rondavel (round, mud homes) huts are distinctive for their turquoise color. The color, however, while now both fashionable and traditional, stems from earlier times when families could only afford the discounted, off-color paint that a company tried to unload in the region.

This was also the birthplace of Nelson Mandela, and there’s a great museum in Mthatha that chronicles his childhood, rise to power, imprisonment, and release. It’s quite moving.

The natural scenery is also quite moving, and the new moniker ‘Wild Coast’ seems fitting. Rugged steep hills plunge into the sea, with little development or paved roads to be found. We first lay our head in Port St. Johns, where we had to stop to get our windshield wipers fixed. With help from some locals, Eric sought out the most trusted auto mechanic in town. Evidently he’s the only one who isn’t drunk before breakfast. Driving down a rough dirt road, Eric found a bare-chested, long-haired hippy smoking a morning spliff with his mug full of coffee. His assistant was on his second beer of the day, and another guy was sleeping in the back of a hatchback parked under a mango tree (both looked like Willie Nelson). Classic. And of course he was able to fix the problem in no time, unlike the mechanics in Kokstad at the service station.

The Wild Coast was probably one of the more culturally rich segments of our South African journey. We first ventured to a mud cave, where locals go to cover their skin with Xhosa mud, breathe in the healing properties of a natural sulfur vent, and drink from the restorative natural spring (smelly and salty!). People were amazingly welcoming, considering we were intruding a bit on their traditional rituals, and they seemed to take pleasure in helping us decorate our bodies. One guy, in particular, went to town on Eric. Eric showed his gratitude by doing an interpretive leopard dance that seemed to both impress and frighten everyone (see attached video).

Our Wild Coast adventures also included a stay out at the Kraal in Mpande, a self-sustaining backpackers´ lodge perched on an insanely beautiful stretch of the coast. No electricity meant beautiful candle-lit nights, while lots of rain made for a somewhat wet and slippery walk to the composting toilets in the middle of the night. This was our introduction to mussel cracker, a crazy delicious fish with huge chompers, shipwrecks, and drum circles. We know this latter bit is going to scare some of our indie rocking friends at home. The drumming at the Kraal was made all the more hilariously bohemian by the conversation about conspiracy theories, astral planes, and global consciousness shifts by our fellow dreadlocked drummers. But when in Rome...

Leaving Mpande, we made our way to Coffee Bay for gorgeous hilltop walks, cliff jumping into the ocean (watch the barnacles!), and more drum circles at the Bomvu Backpackers (that endorses its own tribal rhythms band).

The highlight here was local guide, Silas, who led us out to the Hole In the Wall, and kept us laughing with nicknames (Eric=sweetie, Kathleen=funny wife), local knowledge, and a huge warm grin.

When we were out at the Hole In the Wall, a naturally-carved rock that beautifully frames pounding surf, we happened up the initiation of a new sangoma, or traditional healer. You are born into a being a healer, it´s not something you make as a career choice, and it´s usually passed down through families. They are then trained to work with the forces of both the natural and the supernatural, as witchcraft and superstition still play a large role in traditional communities. We watched as the new initiate was baptized in the water, and then celebrated with a freshly-killed goat stew boiled in a huge pot.