Category Archives: South Africa

From coast to coast

I’ll start this post by mentioning a little from our time in Mozambique a little under a month ago, if I can remember back that far that is. Well, here goes… Our main reason for going to Tofo beach was so that I could get a bit of diving in as this is one of the world’s top dive sites and I was definitely not disappointed. Discovering the world that lies beneath the ocean waves has been one of the major highlights of my travels and the diving off Tofo beach was the highlight of that particular highlight. I dived with Tofo Scuba who I can recommend as an excellent dive charter, but enough about them and onto the diving… In a word it was amazing – most of the sites are deep going down to about 30 metres and the main draw is the the manta rays that drift gracefully into cleaning stations to get parasites and other rubbish removed by lots of smaller cleaner fish. It was quite a sight when I saw my first cleaning station, these two huge (3m across or so) manta rays circling around with a trail of little yellow fish in their wake, it was really beautiful. On a later dive a manta passed right over my head, within about 2 metres, with me just suspended in water agog as this giant creature that was so nonchalantly and gracefully drifting within such close proximity to me. And as if that was great enough most of the dives were also accompanied to the melodies of passing whales singing to one another. This was definitely the first time that I have dived and become so wholly immersed (no pun intended) in the experience. As well as the mantas I also saw many lion fish up close – they’re a personal favourite of mine, the first octopus that I’ve ever seen, a giant whiptail ray, a loggerhead turtle and quite a few massive potato bass and so much more that I shan’t even begin to bore you with. It was such an fantastic place to dive.

From Mozambique we travelled to Johannesburg to stay with my cousin Martin, his wife Joanne and their son Michael. We were so warmly welcomed and had a wonderfully restful week that even managed to encompass seeing lots of lions and a couple of giraffes at a rather lavish and somewhat surreal kids birthday party where the only type of food on the menu for the children was sweets of many lurid colours. I wouldn’t envy the parents after that party with sugar-crazed children running amok everywhere.

I think at the time some home comforts and a hassle free week (dealing with the Madagascar embassy excepted) were just what we needed and it was really great to get to know Martin & family properly.

From there we were with renewed energy to tackle the last leg of our travelling proper in Namibia. We hired a car, an old skool MK1 VW golf with a modern interior installed and duly named ‘Steve’, and set off on the long, straight road to Namibia. Along the way we stopped off for the night at a campsite that had emus and springboks running around everywhere. I found the emus rather scary, especially after what that one that Rod Hull had did to him. I just made sure that I didn’t get up on any roofs and resolved that if I did I check that the area was clear of emus first. It did give me a bit of hassle though when I was trying to get to the car from our tent – I kept getting fronted off and had to take an alternative route and hide from it for a bit. Still, when they’re not being scary they’re pretty funny creatures them emus although maybe best left to the Australian outback where there’s a lower roofs per square mile ratio.

From there the road became increasingly straighter, dustier and deserted. As if to emphasise the fact some tumble weed really did blow across the road in the front of the car! Our first stop was at fish river canyon – a pretty damn impressive canyon formed by geological activity and, less surprisingly, the fish river. Next up was the town of Luderitz, a place that looks much like a traditional German town (Namibia is an ex German colony) stuck right on a windy coast at the end of 300km of desert and wilderness. The Diaz peninsula was the real highlight here – a landscape that looked more like the moon than the Earth and that also had an abandoned Norwegian whaling station slowly turning to rusty ruin, great for some decay photographs! One of the really fantastic things about Namibia is that there are so few people so it’s possible to enjoy so many of the country’s great wildness locations as just that – it’s rare that you see another person while out and about.

Just outside Luderitz is the long abandoned diamond mining town of Kolmanskopp. We had a fascinating wander around all these buildings that were slowly being reclaimed by the surrounding sand dunes. I have a real thing for derelict places and was in my element here, snapping away at the decay.

Stifling dry heat aside, travelling in Namibia is almost as much fun as the places you stop and see. Most of the travelling is done on dirt roads through these amazing desert landscapes past a smattering little mountain/large hill ranges. Before visiting Namibia our impression of the desert was of a vast expanse of shifting sands, what we hadn’t appreciated was how wonderfully diverse and beautiful desert landscapes can be as we travelled through 100s of kilometres of hardy pale desert grassland, desert scrub, karoo and dunes, and all of this without another soul in sight.

From Luderitz we stopped off at the most remote wilderness spot – a farm (Namtib Biosphere Reserve) 30km from the nearest road on a campsite with nobody else on it and 3km from the farm. All around we could see nothing but hills and desert. As night drew we witnessed one of the most amazing sunsets of our travels as the dust turned the horizon a thick red once the sun had ducked out of sight. Gradually as the sunset faded the stars started to come out in force until the sky was overflowing with tiny points of light tightly packed into the expanse of sky all around us. The number of stars that you can see when there is no light pollution is really breath taking – the milky way looks like a grey slash running across the sky, always pointing to the southern cross – an ever-present star formation from our travels, one that you cannot see from the Northern hemisphere.

Next up was my original raison d’etre for wanting to visit Namibia – the shifting red dunes of Sossusvlei. I had wanted to go since seeing some amazing photos of the dunes and wanted to see and capture something similar myself. Well, I wasn’t disappointed as on our first day there we drove out to the dunes just before sunset when the low sun lights the towering dunes from just one side leaving the other side in heavy shadow and accentuating the carefully sweeping form of the dune’s ridge. It was a beautiful and majestic sight. The next morning we up before sunrise to get to the dunes for sunrise. Again, the dunes looked really beautiful in the low light and went on a few walks over and along a few dunes and saw a couple of dried up lakes – now just baked and cracked salt-whitened earth. We were glad of being up early as by 10am the temperatures has become stiflingly hot and we had to retreat back to the (overpriced and shabby) campsite to take refuge in whatever shade we could find.

I should mention now that our diet for the last week had been rather limited due to the scarcity of supermarkets (there are none, except in the big towns which we were a long, long way from). Coupled with the cooking facilities being just a braai (BBQ) at every campsite all we ate was braaied boerwors sausage sandwiches for dinner and cheese sandwiches for lunch. Fortunately the sausage was very nice and readily available at every campsite and I had lots of fun perfecting my fire making technique every night.

Next up we visited the nearby Namib Naukluft national park that had far better camping facilities, friendlier staff and was reasonably priced. We spent a couple of days here and did a couple of pleasant walks totalling about 28kms through dried up river beds, down steep sided gorges and over hills. Back at the campsite I had to chase off the ‘very naughty’ baboon who came marauding through the campsite now again. we didn’t fancy taking a baboon damaged tent to Madagascar with us!

On our way back down to South Africa we stopped off at the ‘Quiver Tree Forest Restcamp‘ in Keetmanshoop to take a look at the quiver tree forest and Giant’s playground – bizarre piles of rocks for miles around. The real highlight of our time here though was the wild meerkats who lived on our campsite and would scamper around digging in the sandy soil here and there looking for grubs. We have both longed to see meerkats since seeing the famous wildlife on one episode “Meerkats United” and was simply awesome to be able to see them in the wild for real, and to have them so close to where we were staying was such a bonus. They were fairly tame as well and a nursery of young meerkats came right up to Viv to investigate her. The bloke who ran the campsite had a menagerie of other animals that had been rescued for various places including three cheetahs, a huge warthog and a week old springbok.

From there we had over 15 hours driving in 2 days to get back to Johannesburg where we are currently back at Martin and Joanne’s house. We both enjoyed Namibia hugely and would love to go back in the future. For pure beauty of landscapes we think that it rivals New Zealand, it really is a spectacular country.

We do have lots of pictures from Namibia but unfortunately there was no decent internet cafe to upload them so for the time being you’ll have to live with the just the words.

Only a couple of days left in South Africa now, we’re flying Madagascar on Thursday for the start of our voluntary work and currently getting very excited by it!

Horny animals with big teeth

Ey up all!

It’s been a few weeks since Viv’s last post and about time for another update from the road…

We didn’t do an awful lot in Durban, just chilled out and spent a bit of time on the internet, got a visa for Mozambique, got lost on a bus and ate a curry in half a loaf of bread. We did manage to get lost on the bus and ended up with a long walk back through a fairly affluent part of Durban where the roads were lined with rather grand houses, each with it’s own security guard outside and the walls topped with electric fences. The streets were almost deserted. Crime really is a big problem here and this is reflected in the seemingly extreme measures that people will go to protect themselves and their property and that walking in city centres is almost taboo – everyone takes the car.

After Durban we headed for Eshowe and a dose of African culture that had been missing from the last couple of weeks. Oh yeah, that and FREE BEER! We arrived at our hostel when we went to have a nosey at the bar we were told that we’d have to wait until the bar opened at 12 till we could start drinking the free beer. “Free beer?!” we said in disbelief, but it was true we could drink as much of the beer that they brewed on the premises as we liked. It was actually very nice and as close as we’ve come to a proper British pint on our travels (still too cold and with too many bubbles for my liking) and it came in a pint glass rather than the poxy ‘continental’ measures you tend to get elsewhere – awesome!

Oh yeah, about the culture. We went to see a Sangoma healing ceremony up at a little Zulu village in the hills above Eshowe. We sat in this little rondavel hut with the assembled villagers and waited for the Sangoma healer to arrive and when she did the roof almost lifted off the place as she started a dance in front of the villages and they reciprocated with drums, shouting and dancing – an awesome spectacle to watch! After that we were plyed with whiskey, beer, a donut, some sweets and an apple. There was a group of blokes who seemed to be there just for the free booze, of which they helped themselves to copious amounts. After that there was much more dancing, chanting and drums during which a trainee sangoma woman went into a trance and seemed like she was possessed, it was a fascinating specacle to watch. The villagers then lined up to be healed or to ask the ancestors for help with court cases, money or blessings in marriage, one last round of drums and chanting and it was over.

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Our time in Eshowe was rounded off the following day with a pleasant walk through the woods where we had to tread carefully to avoid stepping on these huge locusts that were everywhere and looked pretty disgusting. Apparently if you do stand on one they release an awful smell so I’m rather glad that we avoided them! Eshowe is a very pleasant low-key town, it was nice to get a taste of what South Africa is like in a smaller and untouristy town where daily life goes on unfussily around you.

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Next stop was St Lucia where we took an excellent trip out to Hluhluwe/Imfolozi game reserve on an early morning game drive. On wildlife spotting trips we never expect to see half the exciting animals that you’re told live in a particular place but this trip we got very lucky with. It started with an early sighting of a white rhino up close and then loads of zebras including a really cute little foal. I then got my first sighting of the animal that I most wanted to see – a giraffe! Sod the ‘big five’ that everyone seems to go about I wanted giraffes and they were duly delivered! There was then a sighting of some lions who we witnessed prowling around a herd of zebras but eventually having to give up the hunt as the zebras had spotted them and wandered off. We were really lucky to see lions and even luckier to seem them hunting – it was an awesome spectacle. Another great sight was the fantastically quirky 2 foot tall secretary bird (yes, it looks like a secretary) prowling about the bush, eventually spotting a snake or lizard and going in for the kill by stamping on and then eating it. Secretary birds are ace and were one of Viv’s favourite sightings from the trip. We also saw the rarer black rhino, many, many antelopes, buffalos, warthogs, baboons, vultures and, eventually, elephants. We went all day without having seen an elephant despite numerous sightings and then when we had stopped for a toilet break a large bull elephant wandered right past us! On the way out of the park we even saw another two elephants. This day really was one of the highlights of our trip, we’d got so lucky with not only the variety of wildlife we saw but also how up close we got to see so much of it, not to mention the quantity too – it seemed there was an exotic creature around every bend. A truely, utterly awesome day and a far less touristy experience than we would likely have got had we chosen to follow the hoardes to Kruger game reserve.

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The Greater St Lucia wetlands were also great and provided us with some up-close viewing of hippos chasing off crocodiles and abundant birdlife (there were also loads of exciting birds at Hluhluwe/Imfolozi too). We went snorkelling in the sea here where the water temperature was rather cooler than comfortable but I got to see a cuttlefish swimming around, changing colour and going spiky when I approached it. A little further out to sea we could see dolphins riding the surf and beyond them whales sailing by the coast. Unfortunately we had used up all of our wildlife spotting luck so our St Lucia night drive did not reveal any leopards, genets, hyenas or porcupines but we did get to see, and hold, an endearingly cute little chameleon. I’ve wanted to see a chameleon since I was knee high to a grasshopper after reading The Mixed Up Chameleon so it was fantastic to eventually see one. They’re a lot smaller than I had imagined and have these funny little two footed feet and goggle eyes. Chameleons rule!

From there it was to Swaziland and Mlilwane game reserve where we had a little thatched rondavel all to ourselves set in the most idyllic spot inside the game reserve with fantastic views of over the valley with warthogs, impala and zebra grazing right outside our front door. This is one of, if not the, most peaceful spot that we have yet stayed at, it felt indulgantly relaxing and was so peaceful. It was a pleasure to listen to the light twittering and squabbling of the birds, the grunting and chewing of the warthogs and the wind rustling the leaves on the trees. In the evening we ate barbequed impala around a bonfire and set the world to rights in chats with other travellers, our voices lubricated by cheap red wine in a box. We were even treated to a spectacular electrical storm over the hills, a real favourite of ours.

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We went for a beautiful walk through the park on one day, again surrounding by all this amazing wildlife at close quarters. The real highlight for the walk for us though was the birds as we got to see almost all of the few remaining birds that we had not yet seen in our “Common Birds of Southern Africa” book – the ‘snakebird’ African Darter, a paradise bird and a bittern. There was a forest on top of the hill which had been almost totally flattened by the wind three weeks ago – it was quite a sight all these trees snapped like matchsticks and creating an obstacle course for us to clamber over.

Although we only saw a very little of Swaziland we very much enjoyed it and had such a relaxing time.

From Swaziland we caught a cramped bus to Mozambique and arrived in the capital, Maputo yesterday. Initial impressions are that it is quite a crumbling place, having suffered from a lack of investment for a number of years but that edge of tension on the streets that was palpable in South Africa is not apparent here and the locals seem friendlier. Tomorrow we head up the coast to Tofo beach where I’m planning my third bout of scuba diving for the trip, this time hopefully with whale sharks and manta rays for company.

One last thing to mention is that we have been playing copious games of backgammon, probably more than is actually healthy, after ending our long search for a travel backgammon set after Rightee got us thouroughly addicted to the game in Koh Tao. This infernal game has also brought out the worst bad loser streak in both of us, me after a continued bout of appaling luck resulting in me getting hammered almost every evening for a week and latterly Viv after the luck decided to even itself out resulting in Viv removing herself from the situation after exclaiming “ok, fine! you’ve double, triple, quadruple backgammoned me. I don’t care!”, which she clearly didn’t. It’s all good fun though and we always have a good laugh after one or other of us has thrown a tantrum after losing, at least nobody can accuse us of not playing to win!

And on that note I shall leave you after another rather mammoth post. All semblance of brevity appears to have deserted me of late.

Au revoir!

Floods and roaches

It sounds like something biblical doesn’t it? We’ll it’s not all that bad, quite entertaining when you look back! A lot has happened since we left gorgeous Cape Town.

Our first stop on our way up the coast was Nature’s valley. It absolutely poured it down and we spent most of our time cowering under a duvet reading books. It’s good to get rid of some of them as they don’t half weigh a bit. All of the rain caused a huge landslide which cut the road and our electricity off. John was happy happy happy. It meant he got to play with his brand new head torch all of the time. We also had a nice log fire and lovely home cooked food. We were the lucky ones, 10 people were killed in the flooding when bridges collapsed and lorries spun off the road in the worst rains that South Africa has had in decades.

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When the rain finally stopped the walking trail we wanted to go on was totally destroyed. The kind family we were staying with drove us around the area to see all of the best bits. It was stunningly beautiful.

Our next destination was quite a way away so we broke the journey up with a day in Port Elizabeth (known as PE locally), it turned out to be rather odd to say the least. We arrived at ‘Backpackers base camp’ to find it was actually just a house full of renting tenants. We were to stay in the landlord’s (Monique’s) bedroom. In there we discovered plastic bats and thigh length platform boots amongst other odds and ends.

Monique appeared to greet us on the first morning by trawling John out of bed to grill him. She talked at him for a good five minutes while he stood freezing in his boxer shorts on the landing. Then it was my turn, she invited herself into the bedroom where I lay naked under the duvet with just my eyes poking out. Monique asks: ‘Do you like motorbikes, I like motorbikes.’ I say ‘..err…not really.’ We are then talked at about motorbikes.

As soon as we were dressed we ended up in the back of her truck being driven around the flood damage with her father. The back is sound proof so her father told us all about Monique’s marital problems. Getting more and more surreal. We were eventually deposited at the snake park in town.

PE itself is surreal too, it has the air of a dilapidated English beach resort in winter except even more dead. The only life was the cheesy eighties music blasting out of the loud speakers of a deserted bar. We looked at snakes and listened to tainted love. Hmm. It was too weird, if John wasn’t there too I’d be convinced I’d dreamt it.

The next day we travelled inland to the magical village of Hogsback, so called because the mountains look just like a wild boar’s back! Cool eh? The weather was good enough for us to hike around with four random dogs following us. We saw enough waterfalls to last anyone an entire lifetime. I’m sure you’ll guess that John took enough waterfall photographs to last several lifetimes, that’s where he’s a hero you see, he’s deleted enough of them to save you all from a waterfall photograph medley so long that it would be likely to slow your pulse to hibernation pace. The dogs certainly raised our pulses though when they all decided to bark a bull into a raging stampede. We climbed a nearby tree.

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At Hogsback we had a free upgrade to a little cottage with a real log fire we could make. John likes making fires, he feels very manly. Luckily the electricity was off again so he had to make the fire wearing his new head torch. Such a happy John!!!!

Hogsback was perfect until a couple of members of the staff started making homophobic comments about the owners of our next destination. They tried to recommend somewhere else but we stubbornly refused to change our plans. What made us even more livid was that when we arrived in Port Edward and met the man they were referring to (Micheal) he was one of the nicest people we’ve met on our travels. Micheal’s guest house was very busy and the town was also lovely with whales and dolphins in the bay and vervet monkeys running tight rope style on the telephone wires.

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We’re almost up to date! Between Port Edward and Durban John did a couple of dives and I’ve been horse riding. I now understand why John Wayne walks funny, I’ve used muscles I didn’t know existed.

Our backpacker at Durban came with last minute warnings from our bus driver. It was too late in the evening to change our plans so we crossed our fingers instead. When we arrived it was situated in an inner city tower block and had the feel of a cross between an old junior school and a prison. The room didn’t look too bad compared to some of the places in Asia. It was only when we turned out the lights we discovered the problem. You could hear them scuttling around in our bags, our food, our dirty clothes and all over the spare bed. Urgh, ginormous cockroaches, lots of them and they didn’t run away when we turned the lights on either.

I must admit that I usually take pride in not being a pathetic girlie with insects, indeed we’ve slept in rooms with the odd one, but they weren’t interested in us or our stuff and just scuttled away. This time I absolutely froze, said nothing and did nothing. John made a fantastic effort and managed to de-roach everything and get us moved into a more sealed room after hunting the buggers down in the new room too. It goes without saying that we hardly slept a wink and moved to a nicer place in the suburbs in the morning.

This weekend we’ve got loads of internet work to do. John and Andy W are preparing some unique photographic pieces to sell in aid of Azafady. The Sheffield Star and Matlock Mercury (no less!) want to speak to us about our aid work tomorrow. We’ll be famous!!!

Cape Town

Apologies all for the length of time it has taken us to get round to writing a post, we’ve just been in a lot of places where the internet is either non-existant or prohibitevely expensive, couple that with needing to prioritise sorting out fundraising for our voluntary work (still time to donate!) has resulted in minimal blog action.

We arrived in Cape Town on a crisp winter’s morning with the magnificent sight through the aeroplane’s window of table mountain rising above the city as we approached the runway. A great day for climbing table mountain as there’s a cold front on the way, we were told by the taxi driver who took us to our accommodation in the centre of Cape Town. We were too tired that day after after the long flight from Bangkok and in the day’s ahead the weather did indeed take a turn for the worse, not that it bothered us too much as we just wanted a few easy days to adjust to South Africa without much of an agenda.

Those first few days were spent relieving ourselves of the guidebook-induced paranoia and slowly becoming a little bolder and venturing further from our base. In those first few days we went to the theatre to see an excellent play, Sizwe Banzi is Dead, set in apartheid South Africa which proved a good introduction to that era in South Africa’s history. After also seeing a strange French film where there was wine served beforehand we were feeling very cultured, if only I’d remembered to pack that black polo-neck and cravat.

Just as we were about to start getting down to some serious sight seeing Viv was alerted to a little passenger that she had brought her all the way from Thailand. His name was Amoebic Dysentry and after a visit to the condescending and rude doctor, some sickness inducing pills and a diet of bananas and soup, Viv had at last seen the back of her unwelcome passenger.

Our first post-illness trip out was to Boulder beach where there are hoardes of African penguins waddling up the beach and nesting beneath the bushes. When you get close to their nest they waggle their heads at you in an inquisitive fashion, I waggled my head back at a few of them and felt that we had something of a rapport going. I stopped short of inviting them down the pub for a pint for fear that penguins, not being used to the drink, would end up spilling beer all over their feathers and I didn’t want to be the one responsible for what a pint of porter could do to a penguin’s plumage. Unfortunately the day was rather soured when we got mugged in Cape Town on the way back and this was at a time and place that the tourist office had told us would be safe. Fortunately the muggers didn’t get much, about a tenner in cash, and we were unharmed if a little shaken. We now don’t venture out at any time approaching dark and not at all in city centres. We’re really dissapointed to have to live like this but for the sake of our safety this is what we’ve chosen to do.

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We have also been on an excellent tour around the Cape Flats townships. The tour really highlighted the stark difference between the haves and the have nots – families living three in one room, one family to one single bed and seas of tin shack housing. Despite this the communities had a really buzzing vibe about them and the residents who we saw appeared to be happy and looking forward to a brighter future as the Government’s wheels slowly turn on the project of getting everyone out of temporary housing and improving their welfare. I would hazard to say that they are all thankful that such an abhorrent regime as apartheid is over for good and that their lot in lifemust surely be greater now.

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Our time in Cape Town was concluded with a fabulous walk up the stunning table mountain to see the other-worldly rock formations on top and equally as alien plants. The fynbos vegetation, unique in the world to this part of South Africa, is so striking when you see it in its natural habitat. The plant-o-rama was rounded off with a day at the vast Kirstenbosch botanical gardens, surely one of the biggest in the world and a superb guided walk to Cape point where we saw wild ostriches, lots of interesting birds, a whale that turned out to be a clump of sea weed and even more fynbos. As is traditional for this trip we also got piss wet through on the walk when the heavens opened, and then dried off nicely in the wind before getting piss wet through once again. The problem with getting wet in a South African winter is that because its warm almost year round nobody has heating so it you get wet, and it’s cold, you stay wet. A few extra blankets on the bed soon saw us warm up though.

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The final thing to add was the unexpected pleasure of getting to meet up with James, my housemate from University days, and his wife Sam on their honeymoon. I’ve little doubt that the highlight of their South African honeymoon will have been the night spent with Viv and I in a restaurant!

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We are quite a way up the coast from Cape Town now but that story will have to wait for another day for a feel that quite enough rambling has been done for the time being.

Thanks for the emails that we’ve received in the last few weeks, but failed to reply to thus far, rest assured a reply for each and every one is in the pile marked ‘to do’.