South Africa

September 16th 2013, 12:02:00 am

So while in South Africa I managed to see the two main places people go, Johannesburg and Cape Town, which are pretty much at opposite ends of any spectrum you can imagine. Safety, things to do, how pretty the city is... Johannesburg ranks very low and Cape Town generally ranks pretty well.

My time in Johannesburg was pretty whirlwind-ish. I'd already decided that I didn't really want to spend much time there and would rather get to Cape Town, but I wanted to see the Apartheid Museum and I needed to reconfirm that I was actually eligible for my Tanzanian Visa on arrival, otherwise I'd need to make the 100KM trip to Pretoria to visit their consulate.

The visa thing ended up being a pretty simple phone call. They urged me to apply before hand, I explained that I wasn't in Pretoria, they confirmed that I could get it on arrival. Booyah!

I asked quite a few locals about safety in Johannesburg and if the whole danger thing was as big of an issue as people make out and was told I'd be fine as long as I stuck to safe areas. So none of the aimless exploring that makes travelling fun; just stick to the touristy spots and you'll be fine... and feel like a tourist.

I decided the most cost effective way to get to the Apartheid Museum was to get on the city site-seeing bus which stopped there, and would also let me see a few other sites. The tour gave some interesting trivia, but felt like they were really stretching for content in a lot of places where they'd point out pretty but unimportant building X, and boarded up building Y.

The Apartheid Museum was great, and I got very lucky with my timing as they had a special exhibit about Nelson Mandela on too. For those as ignorant as I was, the South African Apartheid was a system of segregation enforced by the government, dividing up the whites, the blacks and the coloured people, not allowing the groups to mix or mingle and giving a load of preferential treatment to the whites while treating the black people like shit. Oh, and this was happening right up into the early 90s; It's shocking to think that if I'd been born a South African I actually would have lived 1/3rd of my life under such a system. It made me wonder a lot about the white South Africans I was coming into contact with and wondering how they'd felt about the whole thing while it was privileging them. And about the black South Africans I met, and how I couldn't fault them for being extremely bitter about the whole thing, still so fresh but being told to get over it.

On my other day in Joburg I undertook the cultural experience of catching one of the local minibus' to East Gate shops in search of needed camp gear for my upcoming overland tour.

These are basically your standard white minivan that you flag down and they'll give you a lift where they're going for less than $1. I was the only white guy on the minibus in both directions and it felt like having a white guy in there was a bit of a novelty. Someone from the bus actually came up and said hello to me in the shopping centre later, only adding to the feeling that white people don't really catch the minibus' often.

I met a friendly American named Erin at my Johannesburg hostel, who was heading to Cape Town a day earlier than me. She sent me a message after she arrived saying how great Cape Town was and how I should definitely spend my time there instead of Joburg. So I booked my flight for early the next morning and that was that!

When I arrived at my Cape Town hostel and walked in the door, I was nearly right away greeted by Phoebe and Victoria from my previous tour up to Victoria Falls. What a lovely coincidence!

They were just about to head up Table Mountain, so I quickly chucked my stuff in a locker and joined them to share the taxi. It was an absolutely perfect day for it, clear skys and sunny; pretty much still air. The wind up there often gets in excess of 100 Km/h and they close it down, so to have such a nice still day in the middle of winter was fantastic. The terrain was visually very interesting, and we saw some strange little animals called a rock hyrax, a strange and unexpected relative to elephants.

That evening they had a braai at the hostel, the South African take on BBQs, which was crazy delicious. I dunno what they do to their potatos but they're addictive, and those long boerewors sausages are great. Erin dropped around from her hostel around the corner and we hung out drinking beers for a while before I had to retire reasonably early for my shark cage diving the next morning.

I got picked up at 5am and hopped into a minibus which I promptly fell asleep on and woke up a few hours later when we were arriving. They gave us a full english breakfast before fitting us with life jackets and getting us onto the boat and heading out to the site. The water around Cape Town in the middle of winter is hovering around 9-10ºC, so well-worn 7mm wetsuits were given out to us, which annoyingly meant that moving your arms too much would flush in new cold water into the suit.

They attract the sharks to swim by the cage by chumming the water with rotting fish guts and fish oil, and then lure them closer still with a fish head on a rope that they chuck in the water buy yank out of the sharks reach as it approaches. There's actually a movement against this kind of shark cage diving, which claims there are alternate methods of attracting them using "audio sound vibration". I don't know if the science checks out, but I do admit it felt "not quite right" attracting the sharks by teasing them, but it was still an unforgettable experience.

Diving is probably the wrong word for how this actually works. They have a cage hanging off the side of the boat in which 8 people hop in, and then drop down in the cage and breath-hold to see the sharks. I was in the first group in the water and we were pretty stoked to see quite a number of 2.5-3 metre Great Whites pass by and under the cage at close range. After about 45 minutes in the freezing water, we hopped out and let 8 more people jump in for a turn.

There were some volunteers up on the top deck of the boat who were trying to identify the sharks to track how many unique sharks there were, and how they behaved (ie. if they were just passing by, attacking the bait, returned attempts etc). From their count, we saw 9 different Great whites that day.

After all the customers had a turn in the cage they let staff & volunteers have a turn, and there were two extra spots so I jumped back in for another round. It turned out to be a fantastic decision on my part, as I while I was in the cage the second time a shark charged at the bait directly towards the cage and was too slow to turn after the bait was yoinked and it rammed right into the cage. Directly in front of me. It was fucking nuts, and the level of excitement in the cage was through the roof! Probably just as well it was mostly volunteers as I think some of the other people on the boat might have freaked the fuck out.

I didn't take my camera, but this is pretty much exactly what I saw
I didn't take my camera, but this is pretty much exactly what I saw

Aside from the antics I witnessed from inside the cage, I was also privileged enough to see not one, but two sharks attacking seals on the surface (not sure if they got away, we didn't see much after the initial splash) and we had a whale come up 15 Metres from the boat (with a whale watching boat following it :P).

On the way back to shore we went through a channel called "Shark Alley". We didn't see any sharks, but the rocks along the side were covered in literally 1000's of seals! Everywhere you looked there was blubber flapping around. I can imagine it's like a buffet for the sharks!

Seals in Shark Alley - Another shamelessly stolen image
Seals in Shark Alley - Another shamelessly stolen image

That evening I met up with Erin again for gelati, an odd choice for the middle of winter but it was her last night in Cape Town and it was a delicious choice.

The next day I looked at a map and decided to walk to a strip of beach I heard was nice called Camps Bay. I walked for what must have been 2-3 hours along the coast line, and while it was a nice walk I was getting tired so I gave in and got a minibus for what turned out to be the second, much hillier half of the walk. Sort of wish I'd just gotten the minibus the whole way, but it really did look like a short walk on the map. When I got there I practiced juggling and poi in the shade for a while, and then headed back by minibus to Cape Town.

I also went on a tour of Langa township, one of the townships that they forced the non-whites to live in during the apartheid years. To be honest I didn't really feel comfortable there; the whole thing was a bit voyeuristic and I really didn't feel comfortable going into peoples homes to have a look, even when they insisted. It just felt completely different to the villages we visited in India, or even the slums; I just got the feeling that if I was one of these people I wouldn't want people coming to look at how shitty my living circumstances were. It was pretty heart breaking to see the poverty that these people are still living in; we saw one room of a "hostel" that was probably 3M x 3M, that was the home of three separate families.

That afternoon I made it out to Robben island, where they kept Nelson Mandela and a lot of other political prisoners. The most interesting part out there was a talk given to us by an actual political prisoner. It was interesting to hear that amongst the prisoners they referred to the prison as "the university", since it was full of all the people the government didn't really want talking to one another, but the prisoners had sneaky ways of doing so anyway.

I met a pleasant Italian lady named Paola who was also travelling alone, and we decided to get the City Site-Seeing bus together to see some of the more distance sites of cape town. We made stops in at the botanical gardens for a walk about, at a winery for a tour and tasting, and at a bay called Houts bay, a surreal bay that feels like there's mountains surrounding you on all sides where we saw some seals frolicking in shallow water.

That evening we meet some friendly Germans who'd just arrived at our hostel, Anne and Sophie, who we have a few drinks at the hotel bar and convince to come on the other line of the site-seeing bus with us the next day.

We stopped off for a bit of a walk through the CBD and were a bit surprised by just how quite it was, hopped back on and drove through District 6 (The mixed-race surburb that was completely demolished, but then never rebuilt because of the backlash from the international community), then stopped at table mountain which was this time sadly blanketed in clouds. Sophie and Anne were keen to go up and hope for the best, Paola wasn't so keen, and I'd already been up, so Paola and I continued on around the loop, which turned out didn't actually have many more noteworthy stops before getting back to the waterfront considering the distance it covered.

We had lunch at a nice brewery pub called Mitchell's Brewery, with a great range of their own beers. I got a sampler "paddle" of there beers and they had a few really great ones; I wish I'd found the place sooner, instead of on my last day there.

After lunch I sorted my bags into a flight ready state and headed to the airport to fly to Johannesburg Airport, where I spent the night which saved me a little money and meant I didn't need to stress about getting there crazy early in the morning for my international flight to Dar Es Salaam the next morning. I set up camp near a group of English backpackers (safety in numbers ;)); I blew up my air mattress and rolled out my sleeping bag and tried to sleep, but being an airport meant incredibly bright lighting all night (which eye-shades dealt with fine) and loud music and regular "don't leave you bag unattended announcements" (which ear plugs failed to help much with) so I didn't actually sleep all that much.

I noticed that one of the other English backpackers just plain refused to even try to sleep, and spent pretty much the whole night on his feet, drinking beers (that he couldn't take through cause of liquid restrictions) and quietly reading a book. What a lout! :P

The next morning, or rather later that night when I gave up trying to sleep, I was able to check in quite early (like 5 hours before the flight) and get through to the air-side of the airport and do my obligatory duty free booze buying and wait for my flight to Tanzania for my next adventure.