Valuable Lessons in South Africa

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Our final week on the Western Cape was spend in Kalk Bay, about an hour out of Cape Town and just a few miles down the road from our previous Airbnb in Fish Hoek. This newest AIrbnb was literally in the heart of this popular beach town and we had a birds-eye view of the ebb and flow of tourists - most with ice cream cones in hand. It was certainly a contrast to the week before in Fish Hoek, where we were perched in our quiet hillside home overlooking the sea with a solid mile long walk into town.

Kalk Bay offered galleries, restaurants, curio shops, a fresh-off-the-boat fish market, a lovely book store, a dinner cabaret (which we enjoyed very much). But no bank, and no grocery store. Seriously - the single "grocery store" was like a gas station mini-mart with all the usual snacks and suspect hot food, and a few sad looking vegetables just for show. Most importantly, however they had a "bottle store" where you could actually by wine or whatever else you fancied. So a person needed to Uber or take the local train a little over two miles back to Fish Hoek, the more sensible, working persons town for things like food shopping, a haircut, a hardware store, a pharmacy and a mobile phone store. But no booze. Fish Hoek is a dry town for reasons that go back 100 years. So the locals flit back and forth depending on their needs.

Colorful changing cabins at the saltwater pool on the beach between St. James and Kalk Bay

Colorful changing cabins at the saltwater pool on the beach between St. James and Kalk Bay

I have to give a shout-out to our Kalk Bay hosts, Lance and Debbie. They are both artists and decorated our apartment like a little bohemian outpost. One thing we noticed were the number of finished jigsaw puzzles that were framed and on the walls. We bonded over our common love of puzzles and the very next day Lance delivered a 500 piece beauty for us to work on during our stay. I should have taken a picture of the box so you could feel my pain when I say it was very difficult and sadly, we couldn't get much beyond putting the edge pieces in place.

One afternoon Debbie took us along to a rehearsal of a dance troupe that she and some very talented friends created out of thin air and pure determination for disadvantaged young people living in nearbytownships. They are committed to these kids and the kids are committed right back to their art and their futures. It is called Indoni Dance, Arts & Leadership Academy - a bold project that is making a difference.

The Indoni Dance, Arts and Leadership Academy teaches life skills along with dance moves to youth from Cape Town townships. Many kids travel two hours each way to get to rehearsals.

The Indoni Dance, Arts and Leadership Academy teaches life skills along with dance moves to youth from Cape Town townships. Many kids travel two hours each way to get to rehearsals.

One last highlight was attending a Rugby match between the Stormers and the Cheetahs at the hallowed grounds of Newlands Stadium. I know Michael had a great time and in fact, so did I. The complex rules, non-stop action, men in shorts colliding like bull elephants, and fun words like "scrum" and "hooker"  turned me into a fan. As a follow up Michael and I watched the movie Invictus staring Matt Damon and Morgan Freeman about South Africa winning the 1995 Rugby World Cup. It was even more inspiring this time.

Getting ready for the match. We went straight from here to the Boer sausage stand for pregame eats.

Getting ready for the match. We went straight from here to the Boer sausage stand for pregame eats.

After the match and our visit to the Apartheid museum watching Invictus again was a moving experience.

After the match and our visit to the Apartheid museum watching Invictus again was a moving experience.

After 6 wonderful weeks, we finally left the Western Cape for Johannesburg by train. I've really enjoyed the times we've chosen the train over flying. No need to arrive two hours early, no stressful security checks, there's always plenty of leg room,a table and big windows. And if your luggage gets lost, it's probably your own fault. It was my idea to make this an overnight journey, and even though it was slightly more expensive than flying - we'd never done it before, and I thought it would give us a chance to see more of the African countryside. And I had romantic visions of falling asleep to the clickity-clack, clickety-clack of the railroad tracks.

Nothing "snooty" about the food on our Premiere Classe train ride to Johannesburg. Here's our satisfying comfort food lunch of chicken and three veg, followed by carrot cake for dessert.

Nothing "snooty" about the food on our Premiere Classe train ride to Johannesburg. Here's our satisfying comfort food lunch of chicken and three veg, followed by carrot cake for dessert.

Even with our "barely-scratched-the-surface" knowledge of how things work in Africa, we knew that our "Premier Classe" train experience and the likelihood of arriving in Johannesburg on time were both aspirational. So we kept our expectations of this "Unparalleled luxury" journey in check. In the end I would give it satisfactory marks - we had comfy quarters, decent food, plenty of scenery and we could chalk up a new experience. And we were only two hours late.

The scenery ranged from open wheat fields to vineyards and craggy mountainsides to sprawling townships.

The scenery ranged from open wheat fields to vineyards and craggy mountainsides to sprawling townships.

On a caution scale of 1 to 10 given by our hosts, Uber drivers and new friends on personal safety, with 10 being the most dangerous, we were given around a 6 for Cape Town, an 8 for Johannesburg and surprisingly, a 10+ for Durban. Wow.

We even had one concerned couple drive along side us as we were walking to the bus station in Durban and basically told us we were nuts, and followed us in their car until we were out of what they considered the danger zone. All of this extreme caution pointed to a situation in this country that has obviously gone haywire. And speaking of wire, most every property in all three cities were surrounded by walls with gates and electric wire fencing along with warning signs depicting snarling dogs and guns stating a security company would send an armed respond within minutes if a person even thought about entering without an invitation.

This shot of downtown Johannesburg could just as easily been taken in Durban. In both cities a fifteen minute drive from the city center took you to a different world.. In Johannesburg we had dinner at a Jamie Oliver restaurant in a glittering mall, and in Durban we found grand historic hotels and beach resorts.

This shot of downtown Johannesburg could just as easily been taken in Durban. In both cities a fifteen minute drive from the city center took you to a different world.. In Johannesburg we had dinner at a Jamie Oliver restaurant in a glittering mall, and in Durban we found grand historic hotels and beach resorts.

We had just four days in Jo'burg or "Josie" if you're really cool, and as usual we stayed in the city center (also considered an absolutely crazy idea). On each of those days we left anything of value in our very secure Airbnb in our very secure building. This new diligence around keeping our valuables safe was affirmed when we took the free walking tour of the the city. Our guide strongly suggested we hand over our purses, phones, cameras and anything else we'd rather not give up at knife point and she would lock them in a safe at the tour office until we returned. Wow, again.

Under these circumstances we began to behave differently, including foregoing some places we'd hope to see and avoiding being out after dark. I have to say we were very disheartened because during our Senior Nomad travels try our best to be aware of our surroundings and keep our valuables tucked away, but we never felt we might come to bodily harm until now. 

In the end, we found Johannesburg to be worth the visit - especially for the chance to visit the Apartheid Museum where we were confronted with a dark time in history that seemed hard to fathom from comfortable Seattle. Afterwards we took a tour of the infamous Soweto township with a knowledgeable guide. That and our time on Robben Island really helped us to understand South Africa's complicated history, both then and now.

Outside the Apartheid Museum entrance. We could have spent a day there.

Outside the Apartheid Museum entrance. We could have spent a day there.

Just one of a thousand incomprehensible facts we learned at the museum.

Just one of a thousand incomprehensible facts we learned at the museum.

From there we flew to Durban - here was a city we knew nothing about and had no idea where to stay. After Johannesburg we decided not to use our go-to Airbnb search criteria - that being to use the address of the free walking tour meeting place, which we use because they always start in the center of the city and therefore must be near the best sights. If we'd done that in Johannesburg I might not be writing this blog. Same for Durban.

So we ended up in a lovely Airbnb in a nearby neighborhood. Our garden apartment around the corner from a Woolworths grocery store (if you read Cape Town Capers you know I am a card-carrying member of this fine establishment). However, we did venture into downtown Durban for said walking tour. Maybe we were lulled into a feeling of security by our new neighborhood, but we soon found out why this area was high on the safety warning scale. This walking tour of "Oriental Durban" was a paid tour and there were just three of us. The guide did not seem particularly interested in our personal safety - or much of anything else. By the time we were deep in the local market we felt like holding our belongings close to our chest and chanting "Lions and tigers and bears, Oh My!" from the Wizard of Oz.

Upscale malls and pristine suburbs were in sharp contrast to the city centers and sprawling townships of the three major cities we visited.

Upscale malls and pristine suburbs were in sharp contrast to the city centers and sprawling townships of the three major cities we visited.

We didn't venture into the center of Durban again but we did have two wonderful days at different waterfront promenades. One was a stroll along "the golden mile". It was near to downtown, but an entirely different experience. We passed tourist attractions and crowded beaches and ended up on the grounds of a posh casino where I finally got my fill of cavorting Vervet monkeys - including a dozen youngsters that looked like they were playing rugby with an empty green soda bottle.

The next day we took a half an hour's drive north to the exclusive beach side town of Umshlanga Rocks. Let's just say we were now an entire world away from Durban. We started our explorations meandering through the exclusive Oyster Box Hotel, as if we were VIPs. It felt like a scene from Out of Africa.

Poolside at the stunning Oyster Box hotel in Umhlanga Rocks near Durban.

Poolside at the stunning Oyster Box hotel in Umhlanga Rocks near Durban.

From there we strolled along the beach where I ventured knee-deep into the warm water of the Indian Ocean. We finished up our visit with a lunch of Bunny Chow. I could leave that to your imagination but quickly, it has nothing to do with bunnies. It is delicious and complex curry hot enough to cause a sweat --- served in half a hollowed-out loaf of white bread. It was created well over a hundred years ago, by Indian migrants as a meal that could be eaten quickly in the sugar cane fields.

Bunny Chow! I would have eaten anything with that moniker - just to try it. Fortunately it turns out to be delicious, fiery hot curries served in a hollow white bread box.

Bunny Chow! I would have eaten anything with that moniker - just to try it. Fortunately it turns out to be delicious, fiery hot curries served in a hollow white bread box.

From Durban we moved north to Richards Bay by Greyhound bus to begin a week long safari. We had front row seats on the top level of a very comfortable double-decker that offered coffee service and had a loo on-board. Three hours went by quickly and we arrived to meet our African Photo Safari guide Mike who would be driving us two hours further north to the Manyoni Game Reserve for our week-long safari.

I hope I haven't discouraged anyone reading this blog from visiting South Africa's major cities. With all their challenges, they are a votal part of what makes this vibrant country full of natural wonder a complete experience. 

Meanwhile, we've moved on and have finished a fabulour week of Safari that I will cover next. I've posted our travel schedule through early June on our Senior Nomads Facebook page if you are interested.

Thanks for following along!

Debbie and Michael

The Senior Nomads