Having greatly enjoyed our freedom over the past few days of wandering through Cape Town I was a bit hesitant at having to join a tour group. I was hoping to meet people here I would find as incredible, fun, and tough as those we met during the race in Madagascar. However, I was expecting the worst – a group of American frat boys or sorority girls, the type of people that weren’t okay with getting dirty and would spend the entire trip talking about how unhygienic everything was, or would be drunk and hung over throughout the trip. Though I ultimately did not become as close with our tour group as I was with our friends in Madagascar, I can definitely say that Rich and I got off quite lucky with who we were trapped with – making for a much more enjoyable trip than I had anticipated. This fourth day in Southern Africa marks the beginning of our tour-ventures.
Getting up on our fourth day in Cape Town, Rich and I hastily shoved all of our belongings into our joint duffle bag (we travel very light) and checked out of our beautiful room. I was not happy saying goodbye to it or the B&B’s owners. For those few nights we had had somewhere consistent to call home, instead of being constantly on the move. Taking one last look at what had been a few comfortable nights, we awkwardly began to shuffle along, down the narrow sidewalks of Green Point, holding one strap of the duffle bag each, and over to Sea Point, the next suburb over.
We had scouted out the location of the Drifter’s (the tour company) lodge the day before and thankfully knew where we were heading. The walk was only about a kilometer, but having had to share the weight of a fifteen kilogram duffle bag, the walk felt like an eternity as we had to navigate around cars and poorly placed light poles.
Eventually we did make it to the lodge, where we were greeted by the very kind lodge manager and her extremely well-fed black Labrador. The tour was to begin from the lodge and we had an hour to get settled in our rooms, as we’d be staying here the next two nights. Though comfortable, this room was the beginning of a somewhat miserable existence for me. It would be another twenty-three nights before Rich and I would have a double bed again. Twin beds – it made me feel like I was back to sharing a room with my little brother.
Regardless, before long I had to quit complaining about the bed situation and Rich had to stop trying to find a way to get any strong lighting into the room (we had a table lamp, and an overhead lamp that couldn’t light up a prison cell), go downstairs and meet our group. To my relief there wasn’t an obnoxious looking American frat boy or sorority girl in sight, nor was there anyone who seemed like they would be too devastated at what would at times be a dirty trip. Including ourselves, there were eleven of us on the tour: three fresh out of university Norwegian girls, a quite built Dutch guy a few months older than myself, a forty-something German decked out in safari gear, an athletic looking older British couple, and two very loud and excited Kiwis. The Kiwis in particular seemed quite happy to see Rich, despite the age old rivalry between Kiwis and Aussies. As they put it, having Rich there helped to balance out the numbers against the Europeans. My American-ness was apparently not going to be factored into anyone’s counts.
I have to say that we got really lucky with our guide, CP*. Though she initially appeared a bit no-nonsense – saying things like if we weren’t on time for everything, including getting back to the bus after a quick pee break, she’d leave us behind – she seemed like she’d be reasonably easy to get along with.
As our guide, CP was not going to have an easy deal of it. For the next twenty four days and twenty three nights, she was going to act not only as our guide, but also as our driver, and chef – a tall order. If it ended up that our group didn’t get along, her job would have only been all the rougher. There was no other staff to be of assistance.
After receiving a briefing of what we were to expect on the tour (lots of bush, lots of sand, potentially fewer animals than we’d like to see, lots of hot weather, plenty of cold weather, a fair amount of exercise, long hours in the truck, pitching and taking down our own tents, washing the dishes etc.) we piled into the truck to get the tour started with an easy day around Cape Town.
The truck was quite impressive. Drifters has a fleet of custom built safari trucks. The passenger cabin has sixteen forward facing reclining seats with huge legroom (so much so that I couldn’t reach the footrest). They have massive windows on the sides and the front of the cabin so that we’d always have a view of what was out there. In the back there were three rows of lockers, each one capable of easily fitting our massive duffle bag. Additionally, there was a refrigerator, a cooler, and a large waste bin with cleaning supplies.
Underneath the passenger cabin were a series of fold out cabinets containing an onboard kitchen, 400 liter fresh water tank, dish washing facilities, gas cookers, and a meat freezer. Additionally there were cabinets holding tents, fold-out chairs, and camp beds.
The group of us clamored into the truck’s cabin and were off to our first location, a winery – thankfully not the one that Rich and I had visited just a few days before. Even better, we didn’t have to take another tour. Instead, we got right to the good stuff – the wine tastings. Gathering around a circular bar, the lot of us started receiving mouthfuls of a series of pre-selected wines from a bartender who seemed eager to chat with the Norwegians. Figuring that the pre-selected wines were unlikely to be the best stuff in the vineyards roster, I began harassing the bartender, dragging him away from the girls and picking and choosing what I really wanted from their selection. Tasting what Rich was being given and what I was ordering, I can safely say that being a bit bossy was the right choice. What I got was generally much better than what Rich did.
To be honest though, the wine just couldn’t hold mine and Rich’s interest for long. Not only had we been through the process before, but there was a much more interesting attraction at this stop – a cheese tasting table. While we were living in Hong Kong it is pretty safe to assume that we ate at least 100 grams of cheese each with dinner each night. We were both obsessed, and here there was a counter of several amazing looking types of cheese. They had all the standard types like brie and camembert, and then things I have never tried before like granite cheese (which was amazing). I must have taken three rounds along that counter, taking more and more tastes of each.
Figuring that we were likely going to miss eating lots of yummy cheese during the trip, we bought three two-hundred-gram packs of cheese. This ultimately turned out to be a delicious mistake.
Clamoring back onto the bus, we were on our way to the next stop, the town of Stellenbosch – which was pretty worthless as a tourist attraction. It likely would have been more interesting had we not traveled there on a Sunday when most everything touristy was closed, but I can say with certainty that most of us in the bus were less than enthused to get dropped off in the center of this town. Even CP seemed pretty bored at the idea of going; it was in the itinerary though…
Stellenbosch is the second oldest town in South Africa, a university town, and heavily influenced by Dutch, Georgian, and Victorian architecture. The town was reasonably pretty, with views of Table Mountain, but it looked more worn down than anything, the beautiful European architecture a façade for something that felt slightly more menacing.
Rich and I contented ourselves by spending the hour allocated in Stellenbosch by wandering around one of the local malls. There didn’t seem like there were any other real options. We bought a couple of really cheap shirts for Rich (he only had about three shirts for the entire trip) and decided to try out Hungry Lion. Hungry Lion is a South African fast-food chain similar to Burger King, except that everything is made out of chicken and meals are given names that are meant to conjure imagery of lions, like the “Pride Bucket Feast”, “King Combo” and “Big Bite”. We both got ourselves some burgers and chips and had to throw everything out immediately. It was awful, like taking a bite out of a bony chicken butt – all gristle and sinew. Neither of us like tossing food, but that was just too much bad for a body to handle.
After ditching our burgers, we took a couple laps of the main drive, trying to kill time. Sunday was definitely not the time to be here, and we were very happy to get taken back to the lodge.
The next morning, we awoke quite a bit more excited by the day’s itinerary than that of the day before. We were going to Table Mountain, then heading out to Cape Point and the Cape of Good Hope. Lots of moving around amongst beautiful scenery – just what we craved.
As a group we were going to climb to the top of Table Mountain. From there we could choose either to take the cable car back down to the truck, or climb back down. The cost of taking the cable car down the mountain seemed completely excessive at 100 Rand per person (~USD9), considering it was all of a five minute ride, so Rich and I decided that we’d be walking down along with BJ, the Dutch guy. The three of us were given strict instruction to arrive back at the truck at 12:25, so that CP would have enough time to get from where the truck was parked to where we’d have to pick up the rest of the group at the cable car station, lest we be left behind.
Considering we had three hours and that our physical fitness was quite good at that time (thank you Madagascar!) we figured that we had more than enough time to go up, down, and around.
Rich, BJ, and I made good progress for the first few minutes, pushing our way up the steep slope, and along rocks that would move beneath your feet with each step. More than once we saw those coming down the path slip and slide a few meters down the trail before cautiously getting back up on their feet.
Unfortunately, we hadn’t counted on the heat, and thinking it would be much cooler than it turned out to be I had worn a longer sleeve top that did a very good job of keeping all the heat in. Even after spending four years in Hong Kong, I’ve never been a pro at handling warmer weather and within about ten minutes, I was keeled over a rock and vomiting up breakfast. Of course, the first time since Madagascar that I was out and physically exerting myself, I start puking.
For smarter people, this is generally the time that one would think that they weren’t cut out for running up a hill, turn around, walk down and enjoy a nice cold beverage or two. I have never really learned when it was time to quit though, and trying to reassure Rich that I was quite alright to continue, pushed on at a staggeringly slow pace for the two of us, BJ continuing forward without us.
As we climbed higher and higher up the mountain, the heat rose and the sun scorched my skin (my hair is still recovering – much of my dark brown hair has developed blonde highlights). Though the conditions grew worse for me and my now empty stomach, the view became absolutely spectacular. I had no doubts that I had made the right decision in pressing onwards. The landscape that spread out before us was intensely green and rocky, hills and cliff faces protruding up all around us. In the distance we could see the city and the sea.
After about an hour and a half we reached the summit, and found ourselves on the not-so-flat top of Table Mountain. Rather, the terrain was undulating, rocky, and covered in dense bush. We spent plenty of time exploring the summit, peering over the ledges and viewing the distant coastlines and undulating hills of the Cape of Good Hope and Cape Point, and tried to get as close as possible to the adorable rock hyraces that made their home on the mountain side.
We spent so much time trying to get the best pictures of the scenery possible that Rich and I nearly forgot that we had to get ourselves back down the mountain. Still refusing to take the cable car down, we had about forty-five minutes to climb back down to the bus. I’ve never been good with heights and struggle going quickly down steep slopes in the best of times, but on a bad stomach and on crumbling slopes, things were precarious. Nevertheless, Rich careened down the hill, and I did my best to keep up with him.
Ultimately, we were two minutes late to catch CP and the truck before it headed off to pick up those that took the cable car down. We waited around awkwardly for a good few minutes before deciding that our best option was to run after the truck and hope that they didn’t actually leave us behind, as CP had threatened the day before (and had done to folks on previous tours who had dawdled on Table Mountain). Happily, CP had decided to take mercy on us and came back.
After departing from Table Mountain, and a quick lunch stop, we headed off for Cape Point and Cape of Good Hope (formerly known as the Cape of Storms, for its fast-changing weather patterns) – the Southwestern most point of Africa. Hilariously, on our way into the national park we encountered an ostrich standing in the middle of the road, propping itself up against various stopped cars. It looked so bemused by the lot of us, with plenty of people hanging out of windows and sunroofs to take pictures of it. Eventually though, the ostrich got bored and ran off into the wilderness, allowing us to make our way down the road.
The two Capes appear to converge into one another, allowing a person to walk from the end of Cape Point to the end of Cape of Good Hope within about half an hour. We were dropped off at a parking lot between the entrances to the two Capes, and told to meet the truck at another parking lot at the end of the Cape of Good Hope. Fending off the masses of other tourists, Rich and I chose to move ahead up to Cape Point, and check out the view by the famous lighthouse. The view likely would have been fabulous had we not arrived there at the same time as a group of over aggressive Italian tourists who seemed to find taking pictures of everyone kissing everyone else very important business. This left us to go and search for solitude amongst the other smaller viewing decks, where I was able to lazily gape at the ocean around us, and Rich was able to take all the pictures of land, ocean, and bird that he could dream of.
From there we made our way down, across the parking lot, and along the thin wooden boardwalk towards the tip of Cape of Good Hope. Climbing up along a small hill, the path was not the best marked, and we had to turn around once or twice to figure out if there was a turn we had missed to get down to where we were to meet the truck. Eventually we realized the that path turned down the side of a hill and we followed it down to where a group of Middle Eastern tourists were eagerly taking pictures of the sign marking the Cape of Good Hope. It was beautiful to say the least, with a group of seals playing out in the ocean, but it really was quite overcrowded.
This day was likely the worst of the trip for me, mostly because of where we ended up spending the night. We left Cape Town early in the morning and drove through most of the day. The scenery unfortunately during September can be quite uninspiring and it felt like we were driving through a mixture of desert and bush the entire day. The truck additionally started to feel like it had not been designed for paved roads, but rather for a more difficult terrain, as it bounced along with each rotation of the tires.
After what seemed like an eternity of bouncing and failed attempts at sleep, we arrived at the town of Hondeklip Bay, or Hondeklipbaai, which literally translates to English as “Dog stone bay”. The town was named for a large stone that apparently resembles a large dog’s head (the stone has to be viewed with a great deal of imagination), and was originally settled for use as a harbor town from which to export copper ore from the mines near the city of Springbok. It however was later surpassed by the town of Port Nolloth which had a safer harbor than Hondeklip and access to a railway line. Currently the town is meant to serve as a holiday destination, but in reality it looked like the type of abandoned shanty towns that you’d find in horror movies.
Our hotel for the night was in the center of town, with rooms that were referred to as kennels. The owner of the hotel had moved to Hondeklip Bay to enjoy an extremely peaceful retirement, after having had to endure city life. None of us could understand why he chose to move here of all places. The owner doled out kennels to each of us and noted that dinner would be at seven that evening, giving us time to settle into our kennels and then head down to the beach to enjoy sunset and the “green light”. Supposedly, just after the sunset on Hondeklip Bay each night, you can see a bright flash of green light along the horizon. Sounding like a completely unnatural phenomenon I wasn’t convinced that this was an actual thing, but it appeared that most of the group – though equally as unconvinced as myself – were curious to take a look. Therefore, we all agreed to go down once we were done unpacking for the night.
Walking into the door of our kennel, I was horrified to see what the owners thought of as appropriate decoration. There was little natural light within the room, with the walls and floors made from carved boulders. The beds were mattresses on concrete platforms that appeared to just sprout out of the ground, with lots of lacey white sheets but no blankets. Hanging over the beds were two pictures. One wasn’t so much a picture as it was a framed doll’s or baby’s frilly white baptism dress. The other was an eerie black and white picture of a 19th century farming couple, complete with pitchfork. Even had it not been for the eerie feeling that I was trapped in a dungeon as soon as we closed the door to the outside behind us, I would have been creeped out. I hate dolls. As a kid I once tied up my dolls to the leg of my dresser so that they couldn’t attack me in the middle of the night (I probably watched Chuckie too many times when I was younger). Now, having this floating doll’s dress above my head all night was not going to be okay.
Then there was the rocking chair that had been so carefully placed in the bathroom – right across from the toilet. Nothing weird about that at all. It was as if they were trying to turn the toilet into a piece of performance art – take a seat and watch your partner pee and poop.
Everything about the room/kennel made me feel like I was trapped in a haunting. Within no time I was outside and begging people to switch rooms with us. Of course, as soon as anyone heard about the doll’s dress, it just wasn’t happening. It didn’t even sound like we had the weirdest decorations either. The Kiwi’s apparently had a painting of a girl-on-girl sex scene over their beds… The decorator’s head clearly needs some checking.
I was only too happy then when it was suggested that we start making our way down to the beach to see if we could spot this mysterious green flash.
Unfortunately, being outside didn’t make me feel all that much better. The ocean breeze was icy cold, and the dilapidated buildings created nothing but vicious imagery in my head. I half expected to have ghosts start flying out at us from the various houses, or an axe murderer at the very least.
The beach itself was covered in seaweed, with a small, half torn down lighthouse at one end, and an abandoned motor boat in the center of the bay. Both of these fixtures were covered in dark birds and their droppings. Huddling together for warmth we watched and waited for the sun to disappear below the horizon. And then there was nothing. No flash, nothing even remotely dramatic unless you count a few birds getting into a fight.
Disappointed, cold, and yet unsurprised, we made our way back to the kennels and waited for dinner.
I didn’t sleep that night. All I could feel and see every time that I closed my eyes was that creepy doll’s dress. I kept half expecting to open my eyes and see it floating above me. Constantly waking up Rich to try and get him to calm me down, he eventually just handed over his laptop and his entire movie archive. Desperately needing happy thoughts I probably watched “Ace Ventura: Pet Detective” three times that night.
Man, was I happy for the morning sun to come along…
After waking up on that seventh day of our trip we headed over the Orange River and into Namibia. We’ll talk about some of our experiences in that stunning country in our next post.
Overall, we both loved South Africa. The cities are vibrant, fun, and full of life and adventure – full of things to see and do. However, you would be hard-pressed to get me back into some of these small towns. I’m sure most of them are lovely, but what we saw did not bring up any feelings of joy for me, nor do I have any really positive memories of being out there. If/when we come back I’d really love to spend more time in Cape Town and see what there is to do in places like Durban and East London.
*all names of tour group members have been edited for privacy